The Taghazout Call to Surf

The Berber fishing village of Taghazhout has been transformed by surfing. But, despite a splashy new development on the edge of town, it has held onto its soul

First published in Conde Nast Traveller, October 2019. Photography by Oliver Pilcher, with his beautiful video of Taghazout here

In little Taghazout, on Morocco’s clay-baked west coast, there’s an immutable rhythm to life. Every sunrise, the Call to Prayer rings out across the ragged cluster of fishermen’s houses, which rise from the beach like bad teeth. The low, long, quivering syllables of the mu’addhin wake the stray dogs, who bark in stereo through tight alleyways, where frayed pastel walls are daubed with psychedelic surf murals. The beach camels wake and rise in their oddly robotic way. The fishermen push off in identical blue wooden boats, followed on flat days by young men with rubber rings and flippers, floating into the limpid ocean in sodden tracksuits, spearguns in hand.

Most afternoons, after selling redfish and humpbacked dorado under Coca-Cola parasols, the fishermen play cards beneath the beachfront walkway. In the gloaming, the town’s kids often appear for a game of football on the sand, racing towards tiny goalposts, all shouts and stretched shadows. Goats clamber into the little argan trees in the scrub around town, eating the bitter fruit but unable to digest the nuts. Berber smallholders collect their precious piles of excrement to grind them into oil. Shiny hair, the backbreaking way.

The Call to Prayer also wakes the surfers and yogis, who have become the town’s unexpected lifeblood. Mats are unrolled, the prostrations at the mosque echoed by lissom yoga teachers on roof terraces, lingering on the Cobra Pose, essentially the surf take-off position. ‘Allahu Akbar’. ‘Let it be’. After dawn prayers, the smiling, long-bearded Fahd El Mania will look at the swell forecast and decide if he’s going to shape and fix surfboards that day – always working alone, entranced by the wave-like incantations of The Koran. Or, if he’s going to put a handwritten sign in front of his scrappy workshop and head for Killers, to surf under striated ochre cliffs, above seabed rocks that creak audibly under the ocean-heave. Locals will simply leave broken boards on the rocks for Fahd to pick up when he’s done.

After dawn prayers, the smiling, long-bearded Fahd El Mania will look at the swell forecast and decide if he’s going to shape and fix surfboards that day – always working alone, entranced by the wave-like incantations of The Koran.

The 32 bus, renamed the Surf Bus, arrives from Agadir and disgorges young Moroccan dudes with boards, Sideshow Bob hair and dreams their parents never had. Vans and battered Renaults load up for the drive towards Killers, Donkeys, Draculas or Boilers; Banana Point, Camel Point or Anchor Point. If the swells are pumping along the turmeric coast, business will be good in Taghazout: in the hole-in-wall surf shops selling second hand boards, dusty sex wax and fake Ray-Bans; in oceanfront restaurants that serve speargunned calamari to harem-panted girls on floor cushions, who yawn and nod chill-ly to boombox beats, happy to drink mint tea in a region where alcohol licenses require bureaucratic gymnastics. The fishermen fear the barreling swells the surfers dream of. It is a town dictated by the Moon.

I first came six years ago, and fell for Taghazout’s gentle rhythms; the raw otherness of the dusty landscape, a four-hour flight from London, but feeling so much further away. One orange morning, I surfed at Anchor Point, the most iconic wave in Morocco, by the rocky spit just north of town, graced by two sagging palm trees. A group of Australian surfers strayed here from the Marrakech Express hippie trail some time in the 60s, and found that they could ride the peeling right-hander for more than a kilometre, almost into town. For me, there was one wave, which started innocuously enough that I managed to scramble to my feet on my foam longboard. Then, somehow, it became a little shifting wall of glassy, orange-inflected blue, rising up in front of me, gently ushering me forward, easing and then building again with magic energy. It was barely 15 seconds, but I can still see and almost feel it.

During long, soft-focus afternoons on the blue-tiled terrace at the Panorama restaurant, manager Charif would greet me with a vertical handshake, wearing a ‘Work sucks, go surfing t-shirt’. The mint tea always took a while; one day, as a big swell rolled in, the calamari simply didn’t arrive. Walking the same alleyway on the way back to my spartan room in an old fishermen’s apartment, I’d be led by the same stray dog, and offered kif hashish by the same man in a mosaic doorway.

Coming back this year, the Panorama restaurant is now just dust and tiles. From its abandoned terrace, I look out over Taghazout Bay, a long sandy beach to the south of town which has been given over to foreign-brand hotels and whitewashed apartments. Poking through the palm trees and construction dust, they appear like a faintly absurd mirage from sea-worn Taghazout, where there’s still no ATM. The development has meant a slick new tarmac road through town, though that hasn’t prevented the gormless wanderings of the goats. There are a few more whitewashed, Maroc-styled cafes serving flat whites, and an elegantly curving Cali-retro skate park overlooking town. The best tagine still comes from the hole-in-wall restaurant beside the mosque.

On a spring Friday morning of underwhelming swell, I’m picked up by Yassine Bellqber, widely considered the best surfer in the area, for a cruise up the dry reddish coast – passing the lonely Cap Rhir lighthouse, and perhaps the greatest concentration of right-handed point breaks in the world. At 26, Yassine has a shoulder-length frizz, a model’s pout and a gently laconic air. Faintly rueful at the lack of swell, he starts to tell me his story, which in some ways is the recent story of Taghazout.

Yassine grew up in a self-built house facing Mysteries, a barreling reef break just north of Anchor Point, where surfers – ‘hippies’, as the locals still knew them – would come and park their camper vans. With his Arabic father fishing and working in a now-defunct fish factory, Yassine’s job was to sell his Berber mother’s donuts to the surfers, who knew him as Donut Boy. He learned to swear in at least six languages, and would tell the hippies that his mother’s wares – some banana-filled, others sprinkled with cinnamon – would bring them not just energy, but waves from the lunar gods. ‘If you got a laugh, you might get a sale,’ he recalls.

Yassine’s job was to sell his Berber mother’s donuts to the surfers, who knew him as Donut Boy.

With the lack of shops in Taghazout creating a seller’s market, Yassine also learned the art of the deal. When he was twelve, one Australian broke his surfboard fins during one of those days when Mysteries sucks and slams. Yassine offered him six donuts for the broken board. As the goods were traded, he asked in his kindest voice if he could have the plate back when the man was finished eating.

Yassine learned to surf instinctively, just like he learned donut salesmanship – his first lesson being that you really do need fins. But he was a natural. And, one day, he sold some cinnamon donuts to Ben O’Hara and Ollie Boswell, two friends from Swansea university, who’d first come here to surf in the late 90s, and had become regulars at Mysteries. In 2003, they opened Surf Maroc, Taghazout’s first surf camp, cleaning up a series of decrepit fishermen’s apartments and adding hammocks, Fez pouffes and shisha pipes. As Surf Maroc grew, it spawned imitators, and today there are almost 30 surf camps in town, trading in Omega-rich communal dinners, rooftop yoga and surf lessons from locals. 

Surf Maroc’s fourth property, Amouage, is one of a few recent openings that have smartened the place up. Once a tired guesthouse on the edge of town, it’s now an airy, whitewashed place with a Soho Beach Club vibe. Along with the elegantly eccentric Munga Guesthouse down the road – a fantastical feat of wild carpentry, with a fairylit terrace restaurant and driftwood rooftop bar – it has helped draw a crowd of surfers who grew up. 

As the business grew in the noughties, Ben and Ollie noticed that the chippy kid who had sold them donuts was tearing up the local breaks. They began buying Yassine boards, paying for him to go to surf competitions and giving him a fair wage to teach Surf Maroc’s increasingly upmarket guests. One of them was the granddaughter of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, over from London to surf. She’s now his girlfriend, and they’ve just come back from a ski trip to the Alps. ‘People round here think it’s pretty funny,’ admits Yassine. ‘This kid from Mysteries, learning to ski.’ 

He’s telling me this as we enter the water off the long pebble beach at Tamri, an hour up the road from Taghazout, bookended by cliffs like collapsed sandcastles; a Rothko duotone of blue and orange. It’s exhaustingly choppy, my shoulders aching as I lie splattered on my board. There is no repeat of that magic wave at Anchor Point. Yassine, meanwhile, paddles mostly with one hand, and surfs the chop with the faintly disinterested grace of a Venetian gondolier. When I ask how, he shrugs that he can feel the water. 

Yassine paddles mostly with one hand, and surfs the chop with the faintly disinterested grace of a Venetian gondolier.

Afterwards, salty-haired and ravenous, we eat nutty, argan-fed goat tagine with our hands out the back of a restaurant in the devout little town of Tamri, known for its small, sweet bananas. Sitting at a pink table, as chansons d’amour bleed from a battered radio, my arms are splattered with sticky turmeric-yellow. As we leave the dusty, slow-motion place, Yassine buys a bunch of bananas, which we eat in silence as we pass more little settlements of blocky buildings, like shards of lost citadels, deserted in the name of Allah. With a warm wind rushing through the van, we toss the little peels out the windows, careful not to hit donkeys and dreadlocked hitchhikers.

The little fishing village of Imsouane, an hour north of Taghazout, is said to be the next big thing, with Surf Maroc planning to open a camp here to access the consistent breaks just off the little town, including Cathedral Point and The Bay, where Yassine swears that even hacks like me can plop in at the harbour and surf 800-metre waves. There’s a pastel-pink lighthouse by the harbour, and a plastic-table restaurant where the fishermen plonk their catch by the grill. The rest is rawer, more stoner-slow than Taghazout – fishing nets, graffiti-scrawled abobe, strains of Moroccan reggae.

On the way back, we stop by the roadside to meet one of the groups of women who pick mussels on the rocks with medieval-looking picks, lugging them to the roadside on donkeys and cooking them under burning clumps of shrub, ready to sell to passing drivers. There are around ten women in this group, all from a village near Tamri; wearing headscarves, sea-beaten abaya cloaks and plastic sandals, faces lined with life. One hands me a wizened mussel in charcoaled hands. It’s chewy, smoky, tasting more of land than sea. Yassine translates their Berber: one is called Fatma and another called Fatna, which is amusing even to them. ‘We’ll be rich soon!’ Fatma cackles with cheery irony. We laugh, and chew.

That evening, I’m by the Yves Klein-blue infinity pool at the Amouage, the XX bleeding through the speakers, a bassline to low conversations over mojitos, in French, German, New Jersey. Looking out towards Anchor Point, I see a lonely rubber ring floating back to shore in the half-light. I wonder if he has a squid or an octopus in there, or if nature has eluded him for another day. That night, I’ll will myself to sleep with thoughts of that wave, but will dream of stranger things. At sunrise, the Call to Prayer will ring out. And it will all begin again.

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The new Land Rover lovers

As a new version of the Land Rover Defender is released, a new generation are also rediscovering the boxy older version – an iconic workhorse that changed the face of adventure travel

First published in Conde Nast Traveller, April 2020. Photography by Ricardo Pessoa.

Owners of Land Rover Defenders aren’t like normal car owners. No, the attachment to this boxy, rattling, virtually indestructible machine runs much deeper. Adventurer Bear Grylls describes his Land Rover as a ‘silent, reliable, comforting friend, which seems to smile as the mud hits’. Geordie Mackay-Lewis, the founder of the Pelorus adventure company, says that the Army taught him to look after the vehicles ‘like beloved pets’. Ricardo Pessoa, who does high-end revamps of old Defenders in a Lisbon garage, talks of ‘an emotional attachment to this thing you want to fix, to love.’ People don’t tend to talk this way about their Nissan Micra.  

The Land Rover Defender – known as the Series I, II or III until 1990 – had the same basic outline from the moment it launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948, until it went out of production in 2016, the longest continuous run of any mass-market vehicle. The hundredth machine off the Solihull production line was given to King George VI, and the Queen took delivery of her first Land Rover Series I shortly before her coronation in 1952, becoming an early adopter in a long list of often fanatical owners, including most of the royal family. By the late 50s, Churchill and Fidel Castro were both discovering the Land Rover rattle; Marilyn Monroe posed in her white version, and Steve McQueen was photographed by Life magazine loading his up for a camping trip into California’s Sierra Madre mountains.  

Despite the Series I being designed primarily as an agricultural workhorse, its rugged elegance gained a certain cachet. Ralph Lauren, obsessed by the rugged glamour of safaris and Steve McQueen, made his black Defender a prop in a series of ad campaigns, a trick followed by Hackett, Michael Kors and Louis Vuitton. Ben Fogle has written a book about a vehicle that he is ‘hopelessly, obsessively in love with’, while car obsessive Jodie Kidd has described the Defender as her favourite car. Grylls, whose family car is a 1974 Series III, calls the vehicle ‘the unsung hero of many of my expeditions, this machine that somehow reminds me that everything is going to be okay.’ 

The Land Rover is the unsung hero of many of my expeditions, this machine that somehow reminds me that everything is going to be okay.

The early Land Rovers also changed the face of travel, opening up serious exploration to normal travellers. For an estimated half of the planet’s population, a Land Rover is said to be the first vehicle they ever saw. In the post-War years, it could go where maps and roads didn’t, reaching tribes and species that had never been recorded, becoming the de facto mode of transport for UN Medics, safari guides and Malaysian tea plantation owners. It facilitated the concept of overlanding, widely popularised when six Oxbridge students drove to Singapore in a Land Rover called Oxford in 1955 – a trip that’s now being done in reverse, in the same vehicle and with an eight-strong team including 87-year-old original adventurer Tim Slessor. The battered blue Oxford, restored to its original glory, is typical of the machine’s resilience: of the two million or so vehicles ever made, more than 70 per cent are still on the road, and many owners swear they get better with age. 

A new version has been released this spring, with health and safety having finally caught up with the old Defender, especially in Airbag-mandatory America. But, as excitement has built over the new design, with its onboard computers and brand new silhouette, prices for the iconic old analogue machine have soared. And a new generation have been rediscovering and repurposing the ultimate adventure vehicle, drawn to its heritage and visual appeal as much as its performance.  

Take Ricardo Pessoa, who learned to drive a Defender at seven on family winters in South Africa and Mozambique, and whose Cool N Vintage company now does 12 bespoke restorations a year from a Lisbon garage, often in non-standard colours like mint green or Porsche orange. ‘To me, the Defender is the shape of freedom,’ says Pessoa, who charges between €75-150,000 for the thousand man hours behind his beautiful custom creations. ‘Like a lot of people these days, I first and foremost see a beautiful piece of industrial design; a thing that has everything it needs but nothing more.’

I first and foremost see a beautiful piece of industrial design; a thing that has everything it needs but nothing more.

His customers, though, don’t tend to be the conventional Defender hardcore. ‘When I started doing cars in different colours, and with tweaked designs in 2012, the community wanted me to go to Hell,’ he says. ‘But even the old-school owners love what we do now. Our clients tend to be architects, designers, fashion people, who love the Defender’s simplicity, and want something to take surfing up the coast, or to the family summer house in Comporta. It is a car that can go anywhere, but I love driving it in the summer, without a roof, alive and free.’

In Iceland, photographer Gunnar Freyr doesn’t just drive his white Defender to access wild corners of the volcanic landscape. ‘I’ve taken it up active volcanoes and through deep rivers,’ he says. ‘But it’s also become my muse: it adds scale to the landscape, and the white either pops from the black lava or fades into the snow. No other car that screams adventure like this.’

As Amy Shore, an award-winning 28-year-old automotive photographer and recent Defender owner, says: ‘If you asked a child to draw the outline of a car, it might look like a Defender. But it’s also a very graphic, pleasing outline, which is partly why it’s one of those universally beloved cars, like a classic Mini. To me, the best way of describing it would be as honest. It doesn’t mind a few dents and scratches, and just does what it does. My fiance and I put a canvas roof and bench seats in the back of ours, and we’re planning to drive guests up and down muddy farm tracks on our wedding day.’      

The real love comes less from what the Defender looks like than what it can do. Geordie Mackay-Lewis first drove one on the family farm in Herefordshire, aged eight, but says he truly fell in love when he joined the army. ‘We’d go to Lohatla in South Africa, and drive it over huge rocks and termite mounds all while being shot at by live rounds,’ he says. ‘Pretty much everything else you throw at the Defender, you can repair it and keep going. It took IEDs in the Middle East to destroy it.’

Pretty much everything else you throw at the Defender, you can repair it and keep going. It took IEDs in the Middle East to destroy it.

When Mackay-Lewis organises epic adventures through his Pelorus outfit, he tends to seek out Land Rovers. ‘It just feels more proper somehow,’ he says. ‘There was one trip in Patagonia where the client wanted to tour in Defenders. Because of the difficulty of finding them in South America, they were prepared to pay almost double for the privilege.’

In Africa, the Toyota Land Cruiser may have replaced the Defender as the standard-issue safari vehicle, but Scottish fine art photographer David Yarrow says that the Defender is still the way he accesses the continent’s wilderness for his intense black-and-white wildlife shots: like his epic image of a hulking Kenyan elephant, which sold at auction for $106,250, or his shot of a fierce Cara Delevingne with a snarling lion looking over her shoulder. ‘It just makes sense in places like Kenya and Tanzania,’ he says. ‘Not just the performance, but what it evokes: British colonialism, certainly, but also adventure and romance.’    

Even younger safari guides miss the ubiquity of the Defender – like Mike Kirby, 27, a cheery, broad-shouldered safari guide at Singita’s Lebombo concession on the edge of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. ‘When it comes to rocky terrain, riverbeds and steep climbs, the Defender is still the best,’ he says. ‘The Land Cruiser is so reliable, but it feels like you’re getting into a normal car. The Defender really feels like driving – changing gears is like the bolt of a rifle, this mechanical feel, and the engine is pleasingly easy to work on.’

But what Kirby comes back to, above all, is that soul. ‘Driving a Defender just takes you into a different space,’ he says. ‘It feels like it could be 50 years ago, in a real machine in the real heart of Africa. It’s a vehicle that transports you, in every way possible.’

Shetland: a love letter

Why I adore the peaty bogs, brutal seas and egalitarianism of the Shetland islands

First published in Conde Nast Traveller, April 2020. Photography with this piece by River Thompson 

The lonely Muckle Flugga stack – buffeted by sea-crash, topped by a little lighthouse – is simply there. This is the northernmost point in the British Isles, visible up close only on a little boat or via a two-hour hike across the Hermaness headland – where bleak peat bogs and circling bonxies give way to hulking Middle Earth cliffs; glaikit sheep teetering on precipices, terns springing like boomerangs over waters churning with a steady basso profundo. 

There’s an epic beauty to it all – but try the words ‘Muckle Flugga’ on most Brits, and watch the blank expression. There are no postcards of the lighthouse, no cheery guides in branded fleeces. Just a little laminated sign on a wooden post at the edge of the headland, informing you that beyond the stack there’s nothing but grey sea until the North Pole.

This understatement is typical of Shetland, the North Sea archipelago that includes 16 inhabited islands, which largely sits unadorned, unfertilised, unsold, untouristed. It is a lonely walk across a few muddy fields to the Bergmanesque stacks at Silwick, where vertical cliffs are pocked with nests like an avian Hong Kong. Yell’s white-sand Breckon, probably my favourite beach on the planet, usually sits as empty as a Hollywood dream sequence. Shetland’s appeal is less about seeing anything in particular than simply being and feeling: waiting for ferries and otters, watching the shifting light and bobbing seals; surrounded by a capricious and unknowable sea, curiously at peace.

Shetland’s appeal is less about seeing anything in particular than simply being and feeling: waiting for ferries and otters, watching the shifting light and bobbing seals; surrounded by a capricious and unknowable sea, curiously at peace.

I’ve been coming since I was young. My stepmother has family connections with Cullivoe, a fishing and crofting village on the North Isle of Yell, known for its four-day weddings and terrifyingly liquid Hogmanay, which culminates in a New Year’s Day tug o’ war between the Uppies and the Doonies from either end of the village. Her father, a charismatic man who played flanker for Scotland and painted wild seas, grew up in Hawick but would visit as often as he could with his Cullivoe-born mother, amusing the locals and free-roaming sheep by running up and down the peaty hills. His Shetland blood could be discerned in both his gentle egalitarianism and his bone-crushing handshake. 

We used to come and stay at New House, the but and ben croft house which had been in the family since the 1850s, and which Papa Adam renovated in the 1990s. We’d drive around in Dad’s Saab convertible, listening to Sade, Meat Loaf and Annie Lennox, shouting ‘Basta!’ at the top of our lungs every time we passed the sign for the little voe where famously plump mussels cling to ropes in the face of roaring tides – still a strictly enforced tradition, and a test of nerve for first-time visitors. 

Before Papa Adam died, Dad and Shona’s retirement plan was to move from St Katharine’s Dock to the Languedoc for a life of Grange des Pères, foie gras and watching Narbonne play rugby. But every time my artist stepmother came to clear out New House for sale, something would stop her. On the 90-minute drive back to the airport, she’d find herself weeping. To cut a long story short, they moved in 2010 – leaving Dad staring blankly at his Anderson & Sheppard suits, and Shona wondering if she’d wear her Chanel pumps again. 

Before making the final move, they built an extension to New House, with glassy views across the Bluemull Sound to the cliffs of Unst – a hundred feet high but dwarfed by the fiercest winter swells. A few years later, they opened The Shetland Gallery, Britain’s northernmost art space, showing Shona’s free-machine embroidered seascapes alongside other artists and makers drawn to Shetland’s seas and skies. They bought two beautiful Shetland ponies, Fortnum and Mason, who soon had their own little hut, were cuddled daily but couldn’t be induced to cross their field without treats. Up at the pebbledash village hall, where even the most generous round rarely exceeds a tenner, Peerie Brian the ship captain rechristened them Aldi and Lidl. Dad and Shona did their best to be amused. 

But – aside from Dad’s ill-fated run for a council seat, and a few minor spats conducted via the pages of The Shetland Times – they have been welcomed like family, as have we all. Shona is actually related to half the village, but on one Famously Groused Hogmanay, my sister had a de facto marriage to Lee the bus driver, about which his actual fiancee seemed only faintly unamused. Netta, the late twinkling, mischievously formidable Queen of Cullivoe, became a surrogate granny. The charming, funny Lawson children could very soon remember not just our names, but how we took our gin and tonics, and who was best at the cereal-box game.      

Over time, I’ve become soaked in a place which is really British only in name. Closer to Bergen than Inverness, the islands were Viking-conquered and Norwegian until the 15th-century. Shetlanders have voted Liberal Democrat at every election since 1950, and oil-driven public funds have helped deliver folk and wool festivals, shiny roads and remote leisure centres. It feels more Scandi-socialist than two-party British.  

Place names reflect the Norse mash-up: Cunnister, Wadbister, Huxter, Cuppa Water, Twatt. The local dialect, virtually impossible to imitate, can sound almost Icelandic – long-vowelled, with ‘o’ drifting towards ‘au’ and ‘i’ turning to ‘u’ (‘Dunna chuck bruck’, reads the anti-littering signs). But Shetlanders are no insular separatists. A history of seafaring has fostered an outward-looking perspective, a resourcefulness, a gentle humility and a broad-church tolerance. It’s just that the islands haven’t much needed the rest of the world. Unlike the Western Isles or the more manicured Orkney islands, Shetland’s healthy economy relies much more on fishing and oil than tourism. 

Hence, there are smart stays, but also grotty hotels that were built in the 1970s for oilmen who wanted little beyond a bunk and a Tennent’s tap; a slowly growing number of places to sample Shetland’s wonderful seafood, if not as many as there might be given that more fish is landed here than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Flights remain expensive, though passengers are rewarded with Tunnock’s wafers and tea, and thrilling views as the tiny propeller plane swoops over the lighthouse and Jarlshof Viking settlement at Sumburgh, on the Mainland’s southern tip. 

Adding to the sometime assertion that this is a Marmite destination, Shetland’s rolling, largely treeless interior doesn’t fit some Romantic ideals of beauty. Yet I adore its peaty bleakness – a landscape of sinking bogs, ancient bones and ferocious winds; a great moss-green canvas for the sky. The sense of space leaves room for imagination, which helps explain all the artists and poets; makers of fiddles, fine tweeds, and impossibly delicate lace shawls. Why so many gatherings tend to end with impromptu jams, a tradition that dates beyond Peerie Willie Johnson, the ‘dum chuck’ guitarist who combined wild Django Rheinhardt licks with traditional Shetland folk. 

I adore its peaty bleakness – a landscape of sinking bogs, ancient bones and ferocious winds; a great moss-green canvas for the sky.   

The ultimate creative space is the sea, which is like a god, albeit one you’re never more than four miles from. It crashes and caresses, and shapes everything: the stacks at Eshaness, one of which looks like a giant horse supping the North Sea; or the hourglass-shaped white-sand tombolo leading to St Ninian’s Isle, which disappears with a beautiful whimper at high tide. Up at Hermaness, great Arctic swells rip into the cliffs, before dementedly swirling down the Bluemull Sound. 

The sea also provides Muckle Flugga’s mythology. The story goes that the giants Herma and Saxa fell in love with the same mermaid, hurling rocks at one another, one of which became the stack. Eventually, the mermaid called a truce by offering to marry whichever lovestruck giant could follow her to the North Pole. Neither could swim, so both drowned in pursuit. I often think, too, of the poor young couple who died at Hermaness on New Year’s Day in 1992, caught by a 200mph storm that shattered the lonely bird hide they were sheltering in. Nature at its most ruthless. 

Nothing and no one will tell you these stories as you stand at the northern edge of the British Isles. Hermaness, like much of Shetland, isn’t a place for explanations, let alone soupy endings. It is a place to watch the blues and whites of waves that growl like thunder, or the brief, flickering glide of a gannet before it swoops and kills. It is what it is. A place to wonder.

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The heli-gods of Swedish Lapland

Niehku, a high-end heli-skiing lodge on the edge of Riksgränsen in Swedish Lapland, is the first of its kind in Scandinavia. But more than adventure or luxury, it’s really about the two ski bums behind it all

An edited version of this piece appeared in Conde Nast Traveller’s November 2018 issue. Photographs by Jenny Zarins

In the mountains of Swedish Lapland, more than 130 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a group of four skiers are experiencing perhaps the ultimate first-world problem. We are in a tiny helicopter above a track of sun-specked powder, heading for the summit of the Påssustjåkka mountain, pondering the tracks we might joyously carve into it.

But then the pilot points to something, and I see his helmet shake. Following his arm, I spot a herd of white-and-brown-furred reindeer moving in tight formation up the mountainside. Soon, the helicopter makes a sharp turn, and we watch the reindeer, and those potential turns, recede into the distance.

Jörgen Karström, our craggy-faced, ponytailed mountain guide, turns from the seat next to the pilot and gives us a “What can you do?” shrug. Five minutes later, we’ve been deposited at the top of a mountain across the valley, to ponder yet another wide field of icing-sugar powder, glinting in the April sunlight. “Sorry about that,” says Jörgen, as the roar of the chopper gives way to a low hum. “We can’t land too close to the reindeer herds. It disturbs them, and we might get a phone call from one of the Sami herders.”

If there were only one or two runs to be had here, a beautiful herd of reindeer might—almost—be a problem worthy of an apology. But here, on the western fringes of Europe’s largest wilderness area, the supply of white powder is not an issue. On this Friday, I gorge on it, muttering gleeful swearwords under my breath as each unsighted dip reveals yet another long, wide powder field, ready to be carved with luxuriant abandon. There are 12 runs in the day, and around 8,000 vertical metres. At the end of most, we cruise right up to the helicopter. I can barely stop grinning.   

In this portion of Lapland, there are 60 or so skiable peaks that run south and east of Riksgränsen towards Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain, via the Abisko National Park. The mostly curved, glacial mountains contain more than 5,000 square kilometres of wide open powder fields, couloirs and steeper faces, with runs of up to 1,400 metres, all yours with a tap on the shoulder of a helicopter pilot.

On Thursday morning, I’d been picked up from my Hackney flat at 4am. Not long after lunchtime, having been driven along a bleak, snowy stretch of the E10 road from the mining town of Kiruna, Riksgränsen came into view—a cluster of red-barn buildings, sandwiched between the mountains and the frozen Vassiljaure Lake, with two snowmobiles whizzing across its surface. Before 1903, this wasn’t a place—just somewhere that the indigenous nomadic reindeer herders passed through—but that year they built a train station to service the new line transporting iron ore from the mine at Kiruna to Narvik, 30 miles west on the Norwegian coast.

My final destination was Niehku, a brand new, 14-room lodge on the edge of town, beside the Norwegian border. Clad in Lappish fir, it was built onto the semi-circular wall of the Iron Ore Line’s old roundhouse, which serviced the steam trains until 1928. Heli-skiing lodges have been in vogue over the past few years—think Deplar Farm, which opened on Iceland’s windswept Troll Peninsula in 2016, or Alaska’s implausibly remote new Sheldon Chalet—as has the Arctic region, driven in part by a global re-branding of the Northern Lights.

But Mainland Scandinavia’s first heli-lodge isn’t about trends, or business opportunities. At its core, it’s about the two best friends who run it: Johan “Jossi” Lindblom, one of Sweden’s top mountain guides, and Patrik “Strumpan” Strömsten, a skier and restaurateur who is the only person to have twice been named Sweden’s best sommelier. Niehku means “dream” in the Northern Sami language, and this is their vision: an unfussy, egalitarian place where the food, wine and music are as good as the skiing.

Niehku is also defined by the legacy of the roundhouse. The stone wall cuts straight through the building, and a sense of oily industrialism permeates the design, from Swedish firm Krook & Tjäder, not least in Patrik’s beloved wine cellar, set in the old engine pit, which you can look at through a perspex floor in the communal dining room.    

I get to know Patrik and Jossi in snippets over a long weekend at Niehku, joining three groups of guests, all of them Swedish, most of them male and working in finance, property and construction. Jossi is the more taciturn, with his straggly ginger hair, darting blue eyes and bone-dry humour. Patrik is an elfin, evergreen 50, with straight, shoulder-length blonde hair, and the charisma and ready quips (though none of the creepiness) of a 1970s entertainer.

They’ve been best friends, and regular fixtures in Riksgränsen, since the early 1990s, when both had come from around Kiruna to work at the town’s massive hotel. Patrik was a waiter and Jossi a guide, but it was as a bassist and drummer that they came together, in a band called the National Borderliners, whose brand of rock n roll didn’t quite have the longevity of Patrik and Jossi’s friendship. “We got up to a lot of things that are entirely unprintable,” Patrik tells me one night, over a 2015 Weingut Bründlmayer Grüner Veltliner. “The guitarist used to say that his girlfriend was terrified of us.”

The guitarist in our band used to say that his girlfriend was terrified of us.

Patrik had arrived in 1985, a year after the road to Riksgränsen had been built, to ski and wash dishes. There’d been a chairlift since 1952, but until 1984 visitors had to come on the same train line that brought the iron ore. In the 1960s and 70s, it had been a relatively exclusive retreat, when dinner at the hotel meant smoking jackets and frocks.

Patrik was a promising skier, part of the Swedish junior moguls team, but he’d become fixated on the workings of the hotel’s kitchen and restaurant. In 1988, as a cocky, newly-promoted waiter, he was sent over to the table of a wealthy Swedish industrialist. “He asked me for a sherry,” recalls Patrik. “When I brought out a plate of cherries, the guy just looked straight through me. I remember thinking: This can never happen again. I became the only ski bum in town drinking vintage Bordeaux reds.”

By the time Jossi arrived, the smoking jacket crowd were being outnumbered by a new crowd in baggy pants, as Riksgränsen embraced the snowboarders still frowned-on in the Alps. Soon, punkish videos and magazine spreads showed Scandi snowboard pioneers like Terje Håkonsen and Ingemar Backman carving vast powder fields or flying off monstrous kickers into limpid Arctic skies. As the world latched onto this new, grungy-cool sport, it also asked: Where’s that?  

Word spread that there was a near-mythical place in the Arctic wilderness, where you could ski at midnight in June; where the runs rivalled those in Alaska or Kamchatka, and where the heli-skiing was limited only by fuel, unlike in the strictly-regulated Alps or neighbouring Norway, where it is banned.

“The 90s was when it became the late-season hangout of Europe’s best skiers and snowboarders, which it still is really,” says Patrik. “There were people camping everywhere, and we were swapping gear with [legendary American snowboarder] Craig Kelly, Terje and all those guys.”  

The 90s was when it became the late-season hangout of Europe’s best skiers and snowboarders, which it still is really. 

Things changed, of course. Jossi became a fully qualified mountain guide, taking wealthy, adventurous types on bucket-list adventures to Kamchatka, the Himalayas or the Caucuses—but he kept coming back to Riksgränsen. It was the same with Patrik, who worked in restaurants in southern Sweden and the Alps, where he’d chase powder and grapes with equal vigour.  

Patrik’s most notable project, though, was managing Meteorologen, a more premium, 14-room offshoot of the Riksgränsen Hotel, just next door, which opened in 2006 in what had been the staff quarters (before that it was a customs house, and meteorological office). With good local food and world-class wines, it was a welcome upgrade to the increasingly tired hotel and became the place to stay for discerning heli-skiers.

One of those visitors, in 2012, was Clas Darvik, a Gothenburg-based real estate mogul, who was visiting for the first time. On Sunday, 20th May, heavy snow meant no heli-sking, so he took a walk to the Norwegian border on the edge of town, where he spotted the crumbling wall of the old roundhouse, on an appealing plot of land overlooking the town.      

That night he asked Jossi and Patrik to join him for dinner. As Jossi tells it: “He was all excited. Over a bottle of wine, we told him the history of the roundhouse, and the story of the town. At the end, he just said: I want to build a heli-skiing lodge for you two. We laughed.”

For three years, Clas gathered investors and wrestled with the necessary permits to build around the listed site. But, in 2015, he wrote to Jossi and Patrik, and told them it was a go. “We knew it would mean us both changing our lives,” says Jossi. “But we both agreed, if we were going to do it, we’d have to go all out. We didn’t go to a marketing agency and ask what people wanted—we built our dream lodge, the place we’d want to stay.”

We didn’t go to a marketing agency and ask what people wanted—we built our dream lodge, the place we’d want to stay.

I get to live in Patrik and Jossi’s dream on my four days at Niehku, including a full Friday and Saturday. It’s a place of unfussy simplicity, where the important stuff is done with painstaking quality, and the rest simply isn’t available.

My days begin by rising from my cloud-like Swedish Hästens beds, and dawdling downstairs to breakfast: think quality granola, boiled eggs, fresh-baked sourdough bread, local cheese and salmon. Patrik’s wife, Ulrika—also a sommelier and wine writer, who runs a highly-rated restaurant on the island of Gotland in the summers—promptly serves up excellent coffees.

The helicopters start roaring at 9am, with one helicopter to two groups, each with a guide. Like Jörgen, Jossi’s long-term guide partner, all the Niehku guides are maximally certified and hand-picked by the boss. In summer, they’ll lead hiking, biking, fishing and hunting trips. The scariest part of the trip is on the first night, when we’re trained on how to use our avalanche packs, with giant air bags and transceivers. Getting in and out of the helicopter is done with near-military precision, involving lots of reverential crouching. Lunchtimes feature thermos flasks filled with slow-cooked reindeer stew, or chicken and vegetable broth, served with half a ham and cheese baguette, a wafer and a slice of lemon drizzle.

The rest is pure joy, and I ride more powder in two days than I have in the rest of my life. I’ve heli-skied in the Alps, but never had more than three runs in a day, and only from designated landing sites. This, by contrast, feels like a glorious free-for-all. My fellow heli-skiers are more experienced: these are guys whose dinner-time conversation involves tales of heli-skiing in Kamchatka and Alaska, ski-touring across Svalbard, or racing the Sydney-Hobart yacht race. And they’re as childishly wowed as I am.   

Back at the lodge, usually by 3pm, my afternoons involve asking Fredrik Mosesson, the manager, to recommend one of the 26 bottled beers, all organic and from small Swedish breweries (my favourite is a lager called God from the little Nils Oscar brewery). Then I’ll amble into the blonde wood sauna, where at some point I’ll vacantly watch the iron train snake through town, as it does every two hours, every day, carrying 64 carriage-loads of ore. Some good quality easy listening will be bleeding from the speakers at an unobtrusive volume: think the XX or Nancy Sinatra. If you want a massage, there are just three to choose from, all designed for skiers.   

On the comfy leather sofas of the mezzanine floor, I’ll browse the bookshelf, finding a punk anthology (Patrik’s taste), or Barbarian Days, William Finegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning surf anthology. Downstairs, ski bums from town will be wandering in for a beer, along with other curious locals. They’ll be greeted as warmly as the guest who has a private jet waiting for him at Kiruna Airport.

There’s not much art in this place of grey-scale minimalism, with the interior designed by Swedish firm Stylt—the rooms feature black-and-white shots and architectural drawings of the old roundhouse. But, on the mezzanine, just by a ‘Dream’ Fender guitar designed by Stylt for Patrik and Jossi, there’s a work you might miss, framed in a glass case: a ski pass from May 20th, 2012, the day that Clas Darvik couldn’t go up in a helicopter.    

Like the rest of Niehku, dinner is an exercise in purity. You get a six-course meal of what Patrik calls “skiers food”, prepared by 29-year-old Meteorologen alum Ragnar Martinsson. Ingredients are almost all Swedish, and most of them local: think Narvik skrei or langoustine, Kebnekaise Arctic char or reindeer from the Sami shop near Kiruna. Ragnar describes his food, when pressed, as: “Interesting, Swedish, quality, but nothing… weird.”

On my final Saturday night, I’ve just finished a course of wild duck smoked with hay, with a duck-leg rillette, sprouts and blackcurrant. My adopted group of 30-something Swedish property developers have been joined by two girls staying in a cabin in town, and we’ve had in-depth discussions about Swedish pop production and the recent impact of the Metoo movement. Patrik is dancing round the tables, reeling off anecdotes of irascible winemakers as he pours wine from his oenophilic greatest hits, periodically disappearing down into his cellar.

In one corner, Jossi is having dinner with his girlfriend, visiting from Stockholm. I notice him look around, then back to his girlfriend. For a good few moments, he’s stock-still, seemingly lost for words, and a little glassy-eyed. This no-frills mountain man looks a whole lot like someone who’s just realised he’s living in his own dream—and that it’s a pretty nice place to be.   

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