Surviving the Harbour at Essaouira

There are squadrons between me and my objective. The chances of making it unscathed seem remote at best. I try not to think about the certain fate that awaits me as I gather my resolve and stride forward into the battle zone.

The contrast between the chilled out vibes of Place Moulay Hassan in Essaouira, Morocco, and the frenzied entrance to the harbour area via a gate in the town wall comes as a bit of a surprise. One second you’re strolling along, contemplating how relaxed the scene is compared to the frenetic Medina in Marrakech and the next you’ve strayed deep into Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds territory with a bit of Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Men’s Chest thrown in for good measure.

On one side, huge gulls patrol the walls, their beady eyes fixed on entrails and fish heads that are about to be discarded by the fishermen squatting on the rocks. Opposite are small Mediterranean-blue fish stalls, their steel trays waiting to be filled by the morning’s booty. In-between them, a posse of  small-dog sized spider crabs are trying to make a getaway; the ground is sodden with who knows what and the smell is not pleasant. I get the feeling that Essaouira harbour will linger with me for some time.

It’s around 11am and there’s a buzz of activity in the harbour through the other side of the gate. But to get there I have to cross the most dangerous section where the air is filled with more seagulls than I’ve ever seen in in one place before. When they get tired there are thousands more on the shores of Ile de Mogador just a hundred metres or so across the water. I’d seen pictures of Essaouira before and there were seagulls in every one. Now I understood why. The route ahead is polka-dotted with their bombs and I can hear splats around me as I put my head down and hope for the best.

Incredibly I make it without even picking up a speck.

Essaouira harbour is a revelation. Despite the late hour, hundreds of fishing boats are still unloading their catch. Fishermen pass colourful plastic crates filled with silver creatures along lines that stretch from the boats all the way to waiting vans, carts and donkeys. Some sardines go straight onto wooden trays resting on bright plastic crates to be immediately haggled over; their owner shovelling handfuls of salt over them to stop them rotting in the searing sun.

In parts of the harbour it’s impossible to see the sea; hundreds of small blue craft are jammed together so tightly that its possible to cross from one side of the harbour to the other using them as a pontoon. Despite the abundance of fish, the seagulls stay a respectful distance.

Fishing harbours are hypnotic places and I could spend hours watching the interaction between sellers and buyers whilst soaking up the smells, sounds and vibrant atmosphere. But I spot a cloud on the horizon and I want a couple of blue sky shots across the harbour and of Ile de Mogador and the Iles Purpuraires.

The best vantage point is from Essaouira’s ramparts between the harbour and the islands. It’s 10 dirhams entrance fee (about €1). Apart from being a tranquil sanctuary so close and yet so far from the bustling harbour, the walls and fort offer a 360 degree view of Essaouira, the harbour and the islands.

I focus on the old fort and prison on the tiny islands across the channel of water, wait patiently until there isn’t a flurry of seagull activity in front of my camera and gently press the button – SPLAT! A white bomb glances off the side of my head and explodes on my right shoulder.

I’d grown complacent. The longer I lingered, the more I was playing too free and easy with the law of averages. It was inevitable. Few are lucky enough to survive Essaouira harbour’s vigilant guardians.

Still, sometimes you’ve got to take one for your art and anyway it’s supposed to be good luck…isn’t it?

Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+




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