“My curiosity for this important period in Saint-Exupéry’s life – ‘bird commander’ as the nomad tribes called him – led me to visit this far-away spot, in search of the old Spanish fort. Tarfaya is the closest place in Africa to the Canary Islands, directly east of the archipelago. I left by car from Tangier, another emblematic location in the 1920s due to its international zone status. I travelled, as such, from the green Rif Mountains facing Europe to the golden Sahara, where the dunes pause to look out over the Atlantic waves. On the map, the route traces a slope toward the south that gets steeper from Larache to El Jadida, falls straight down to Mirleft and then drops gently from Tan-Tan toward its destination: Tarfaya, one of the most isolated runways on the planet.
(…) In writing you reach perfection, said the French writer, when there’s nothing left to cut and only the essential remains. As we get closer to the southernmost point of Morocco, this principle is transferred onto the landscape and is evident looking out from the road. After leaving Akhfenir and the bird sanctuary, following the tarmac surface of the N-1, the ground no longer hides its thirst, the silence gets thicker and the sands begin to engulf entire sections of the road, as it is crossed by camels who, with their renowned parsimony, go searching for stalks of green. There are just three coordinate references: ocean, desert and sky.
Tarfaya’s current “ant hill” bears little resemblance to the landscape Saint-Exupéry found there: an isolated Spanish bunker, a small-scale hangar, scattered shops set up by nomadic tribes, etc. Today, the expansion of the port, the construction of Africa’s largest wind farm, or group tours into the desert have breathed life into the area. Its appearance has been distorted. The group of nearly snow-white buildings that used to stand on the seafront became property of Morocco in 1958, and today Tarfaya is a generic city, a motley mass of humble-looking self-built houses dotted across an irregular street map. The European architectural legacy has barely survived, for better or for worse. From the breakwater that stretches out into the water, you can see the tired walls of Casamar: built by a Scottish engineer in 1886 on a bluff in Tarfaya bay (with stones that were transported, they say, by camels from Smara) to house a trading post, the ruins exert a strong attraction due to their unique enclave, in the ocean on the edge of the desert, and they call up a past when Tarfaya was an important center for trade and airmail.”
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