In 2016 I spent 5 days traveling in Morocco – covering ground between Marrakesh to the Sahara and back. It was an incredible experience that I shockingly did not end up blogging about (2016 was a quiet year for my blog). Luckily I had kept a thorough travel journal during the trip and it has given me insights and details to return to for this article. I intend to expand on some of the storytelling elements from the holiday as well in future posts.
The Motivation to Travel
After cancelling a trip with a friend this year due to their new job I found a rather large hole in my travel itinerary for the end of the year. With 8 days of holiday left to spare I began to think about how I might use it. I thought if I could find a group trip for a bargain it would be something to fill the hole and keep me going through the winter months.
Curious Kat’s Adventures is a Meetup.com group I had previously traveled with inside the UK and also to Romania. Their trips are usually focused around hiking or activities but there are a few (such as Romania) that are focused on unique experiences rather than hiking. In looking over their options I found a 5 day trip to Morocco that captured my attention, interest and imagination.
The price was a bargain and flights were dirt cheap – £75 for round trip. I debated the trip for a week before I gave in and booked it.
I’d booked my first trip to Africa – and wasn’t quite sure just then what I was getting myself into. But I knew it would be an adventure and an experience that I would never forget.
Day 1: Marrakech
Despite the times I had opted to take the “recommended” flights with the group; they were only £75 after all. And at the time it seemed like a good and easy decision. But as that alarm went off at 3am on Thursday morning I was not necessarily convinced that the idea of a 7:40am flight from Gatwick was worth the effort. Still I hauled myself out of bed, onto a local bus, through Victoria Station, and onto the Gatwick Express. There were a surprising number of individuals on the train with me for that time in the morning but I was barely awake enough to truly notice.
Around 5am I reached Gatwick Airport and managed a small smile when I saw a sign for “Jamie’s Coffee”; obviously Jamie Oliver and not me but it still was a happy sight early in the morning.
Security was surprisingly busy at that time of the morning, but it seemed that Gatwick had quite a few early morning flights to various destinations. Once I was through I sorted out some purchases needed – water for the flight, sunscreen for Morocco, and a few snacks to have in the bag (since I had no intentions of paying for snacks on board the easyJet flight). After all the “errands” were done I had plenty of time to take myself to the upstair food lounges and purchase a muffin and coffee to tide me over until the gate was announced.
After the gate was announced I made my way down the long corridors to reach it, because of course the cheaper airlines get the inconvenient gates. Once there I took a seat and began to survey those nearby to figure out if they were on our trip or not. Eventually I recognized Ben, our Host, from his photo and went to introduce myself. With him were several others within the group. It gave me a good foundation to know several of the travelers on the plane before we boarded.
The boarding process was painful though, but I usualy expect that from easyJet (and RyanAir). We queued on the gang ramp for almost 20 minutes, past the time we were meant to depart. The flight was uneventful until we entered Moroccan airspace. The views changed after crossing the Mediterranean, and showed an arid ground with a horizon of snow capped mountains – the Atlas Mountains rose to meet the low hanging clouds in the sky. I had my first glimpse of Morocco from an aerial perspective – solar panels, low sitting buildings, and a glimpse of color.
We de-boarded the plane by staircase and crossed the tarmac with a view of the airport. It was a curious building where half was an old traditional concrete airport that was showing it’s age while the other half was an ultra modern structure. The dichotomy of the structures was truly beautiful and spoke to the modernization of Morocco through the upgrade of their airport, Marrakech Menara.
Passport Control was a slightly chaotic but quick experience; the queues were unorganized compared to those we normally see in England and it was a struggle to hold your ground to remain at the front of the queue. There were all types of nationalities queuing to visit and we were all grouped together. The gentleman at Passport Control was swift and asked a few standard questions before stamping my passport and sending me on my way. There was another check before I was admitted to Baggage Claim; this is where I stopped to pick up some currency and use the toilets. Normally I would never buy currency from the airport but since the dirham is a closed currency it cannot be bought outside of Morocco, and I wanted to ensure I had some for the first few days of the trip. Before we exited the baggage area we needed to pass one more security check with bag screening. Due to the queue they were waving people forward with smaller baggage (and carry on baggage) and I was able to walk right through. Despite all those checks I was still in the controlled zone and had to cross through before I exited the airport.
To my surprise and delight the weather was perfect – not too cold and with a mild breeze. I met up with the group and others drifted to join us. Once we had everyone gathered we joined our driver and headed off to find the Minivan that would convey us to the first of our hotels – Riad Africa.
The drive was relatively short but I spent the entirety of it with my face plastered against the window. The UN Climate conference was being hosted during our stay and there were banners everywhere pronouncing it; but in addition to those banners Moroccan flags were hanging everywhere in a manner that reminded me of how the USA treats our flag. Living abroad has taught me that not every country has the same affinity as the US for hanging and waving it’s flag everywhere. Therefore it was unique to see a country exhibiting similar behaviours with their own flag as well.
We were dropped off in an extremely busy square and were met by a gentleman with a push card who collected our luggage and made a path for us down the seemingly pedestrianized streets. Though I quickly learned that any street where a motorbike could fit was fair game for these vehicles. It was pure chaos as we made the short distance walk to the hotel. It was down a set of winding back alleys that hid us from the bustle of the main street which connected the square we were dropped off at with the main square, or “La Place” as it was known in French.
The group was ushered into a lovely sitting room and plied with a variety of coffee, tea or Moroccan mint tea. As we enjoyed the brief break the rooms were readied one by one and we took ourselves off to check-in and put our luggage away. I had one of the early rooms and was escorted, luggage and all, to Zambezi. It was on the Second Floor (or First Floor by American standards) and the door opened to the balcony that overlooked the pool below.
After sorting out all my luggage and quickly refreshing from the flight I went back downstairs to drink more of the delicious Moroccan coffee. By the time everyone had been showed to their rooms we were ready for a wander. So, as a group we left for the souks; easily reached as we were a short walk from the main square, “La Place”. Once there a few of the group needed cash so we hunted down several cash points.
The square was full of energy and life. I noticed a line of push carts, like the one that brought our luggage to the hotel, and inside of them were the owners resting or taking a cat nap. It seemed that they had brought their cart to display in the square to seek work. There were a variety of umbrellas and plastic chairs with people peddling their offerings – ranging from henna tattoos, to pictures with monkeys on leashes (and a fez cap of course), to snakes being charmed by music.
At moments it felt surreal; as if the scene before me was straight from a fairy tale.
Once everyone had cash we crossed the square entirely (past the monkeys, snakes and orange juice carts) and turned down one of the alley ways and into the souks. It was tightly cramped with stalls and shops that spilled into the alleyway itself. The alley was covered – at times with corrugated steel, wood slats, or cloth. The Moroccan flag hung at haphazard intervals the entire way through.
The souks had it all and everyone wanted to sell it to you. Silver lanterns, Moroccan towels, scarfs, painted pottery, and everything else under the “roofs” of the alleys. It was mesmerizing at times with the amount they had on offers. And that was before we got to the sweets stalls where a variety of sweet treats and nuts were on display in tall piles out in the open.
As nearly everyone was starving we passed through the souks without stopping to buy anything. We found a promising cafe on a street side tables and sat down – the entire group of 12 of us.
I put my back to the street which was a bit uncomfortable to begin with, given the way that motorbikes were cruising past us, or being knocked into by people jumping out of their way. Then there were the donkey carts that pushed through the pedestrians.
The worst part was not the fear of being hit or knocked, that didn’t bother me, but the smell of petrol that never dissipated.
After we finished the group split up and I ended up in a group of 4 women who were keen to visit the souks, while we had the chance. This was one of our only opportunities to visit Marrakesh on the trip since we would be heading to more rural locations the next morning.
As we browsed one of the women began asking stall owners the price for their leather poufs. Rather than engage in the bartering game that we were warned would happen she would simply move on if she was quoted a price she didn’t like. Though, to be fair, the first stall quoted her 600 Dirham (£60) but she eventually paid 180 Dirham (£18) at the fourth stall that she asked.
On the other hand, I had a successful bartering exchange with a seller to acquire a Moroccan towel, a light weave and prettily coloured towel (that I admittedly use often as a table cloth). I had my eyes on it to give to a friend as a Christmas gift for our Secret Santa exchange. I only had large bills so we entered a second stage of bartering to sell me a second towel. The initial offer was 60 Dirham (£6) for one towel and I ended up doing two towels for 100 Dirham (£10) which I was very pleased with; this was bartered down from the original price of one towel for 100 Dirham (£10). Bartering is very much a part of the culture here and especially within the souks.
As we wandered through the souk it began to get busier the closer we came to sunset and the streets came to life. Along the way one of the women had a long shop and bartering session with a local stall owner to purchase a small jewelry holder then transformed to a bangle bracelet. And at the end of the street, before we reached La Place, I bought a few bowls for gifts that were of original Moroccan design. I bought a slightly smaller one than I would have wanted as I was conscious of my limited luggage space with the carry-on backpack only (thus why my airfare was so cheap).
There were a dozen other items I had eyed during the shopping excursion but opted to wait until we returned on Monday.
We reached the square and caught a glimpse of the end of the sunset as the sky lit up in various shades of pink and purple. After a few minutes of staring in delight and awe we decided that we would wander in a different direction this time. As we tried to pass through the square we noticed it had gotten even busier and considerably more aggressive. Several vendors tried to peddle their wares and we escaped with little incident until a woman trying to sell her henna tattoos accosted us. We vehemently told her no, that we were not interested, and stepped away to put space between us and the vendor.
Thinking I had done a good job putting her off I turned to walk away and reached to shift my over-the-shoulder handbag from the side of my body to the front, where it would be safer. As I did this the henna-lady grabbed my hand and began drawing, insisting it was a “free gift”.
I already knew that nothing in Morocco was free.
It took a few moments before I could realize what was happening – I am not used to someone drawing on my hand without asking and receiving permission. When I finally found the words I told her it was enough and to stop. She continued. By the time she finished the back of my hand was covered in a hastily (and sloppily) drawn henna tattoo and she was insisting it was worth 600 Dirham (£60). I paid her the equivalent of £5 and told her in a tone that brokered no nonsense that I had not asked for the henna and she would not get any more money.
I had unwittingly discovered one of the schemes used to coax money from the tourists. (Jagsetter released a blog post on Moroccan Scams & How to Avoid Them which is a great reference for anyone planning on visiting; going in eyes wide open is absolutely key in helping to avoid.)
As we walked away, at pace this time, I realized that my necklace, the sign of the Mati from Greece, had broken. I don’t believe in many superstitions but it was clear that the Mati had served it’s purpose in protecting me from the woman’s ire when I refused to pay her price.
We found a new souk alley to wander and this one was much more based in the local economy. Food was being made by women, who did not want their photos taken, and the shops featured local clothing of cheap quality that local people were haggling and bartering over. We did not find anything in this alley that we wished to purchase by the atmosphere was electric.
As we continued on our exploration we took the approach of always turning left to reach La Place again and saw even more of the less touristy souks (compared to where we had been shopping). Once we were in a less crowded street I pulled out my water bottle and began scrubbing off the henna-tattoo; though by this point it was far too late to stop it from setting, but I did manage to limit it to a very light tattoo.
We were surprised as our “turn left” strategy led us back to the place where we had lunch; and then right back into the souks where we had shopped as they started to close. Though we lingered in a few shops there were no further purchases.
This time when we reached the square we opted to sit down for a late night coffee and people watch. We located one of the cafes, sat and ordered a selection of drinks; I settled for a hot chocolate since it was too late for me to be drinking caffeine. There were men playing drums and singing Moroccan songs that we watched for a while. The bathroom at the cafe had an “attendant” who we paid and in exchange for a few coins she gave us the toilet paper to use (as none was available in the stalls).
When the drinks were finished we opted to meander back to Riad Africa for a final night cap in the comfort of our posh hotel. My sense of direction knew exactly where we needed to go but my slow pace had me fall behind. I caught one of the women as she was asking a local man for directions – we’d been warned that doing this would act as an invitation for the local to escort us back to the hotel and then demand payment for his services. I dismissed the man and assured her that I knew where we are going, and had us back to the hotel within five minutes and at no extra cost.
Other group members had ordered coffee and a late night snack at the hotel so we sat down to join them and one by one various members of the group joined us in the common room of the hotel for a final drink. I ordered a hot chocolate and was given a selection of ingredients for a “some assembly required” hot chocolate that was absolutely delicious.
Photographic Highlights from Marrakesh
Day 2: Marrakech to Dades Gorge
I’m always an early riser but my roommate seemed to beat my early mornings unfortunately, by 5:30am no tossing and turning could get me to fall back asleep. Once I had a shower and completed the repack it was still dark out and I thought it might be nice to explore as the sun began to shine upon the greater area of Marrakech. I went up to the roof and took some low light photos of the neighborhood around the hotel. While up there I ran into others from the group and shared in the photography experience with them.
We went downstairs shortly after to order coffee and wait for Breakfast to be prepared. Others stumbled in for breakfast and we ordered a variety of drinks before the buffet was ready. It appeared that Moroccans had a concept of “Moroccan time”, similar to that of the Greeks, and the breakfast was laid out quite late. Breakfast was a cold buffet with an odd variety of bread/pancake style products and fruits. It was enough to get me through the morning. The group had collected our bags and were waiting in the alley outside the hotel.
We traversed the narrow alleys back to the square where we’d originally been dropped off and loaded all the luggage onto the bus, and claimed seats. During the prior trip on the bus I had struggled with the seats as they were all permanently reclined so I took a seat at the very back of the bus with a nice straight back. It also gave me freedom of space to put my handbag and camera on the spare seat next to me as no one was interested in it.
The route of out town gave us some pretty views of early morning Marrakech; we passed La Place, several horse drawn carriages, and a ton of shops. We also had our first glimpse of the city walls that separated the old town from the new town. Outside of the walls there were beautifully kept and manicured gardens with fountains and flowers; an oddity to see in a country that was so heavily arid.
It didn’t take long for the city to fade away and give us glimpses of the countryside. The Atlas Mountains were a constant backdrop that we drove towards, though at times it felt as if we were making no progress in reaching them.
I found the driving to be some of the most fascinating parts of the trip.
Normally on long days of travel (by plane, train, bus or boat) I will take out my Kindle and begin reading. Of course I’ll be aware of my surroundings and look up to see the impressive sights, but my attention is often divided. On a trip of similar length I would expect to finish around 3 books given the amount of driving and travel that was involved.
To put that into perspective – I finished 1 book on the entirety of the trip.
The everyday scenes we were seeing as we drove along the variety of roads (highways, village streets, mountain passes) was captivating. I appreciated the rural views and life were given a glimpse into; a man plowing his fields with the aid of a donkey, a shepherd herding his sheep off of the main road, men waiting for work with their small pickup bikes, and the sales of a variety of goods to tourists and to locals. I was keen to try my hardest to try and capture some of these scenes through photographs, if and when possible. It became a true challenge to capture the laden donkey while driving past it at speed, for example.
At last, after what seemed to be ages, we arrived at the base of the hills that led deeper into the mountains. As we began to climb the hills I found myself leaning across the seats to gaze out the windows on the opposite side of the bus at the spectacular views. Just as I was growing desperate enough to snap a photo from a distance, across another person, and through their dirty window we pulled off the road for a coffee break and a scenic view.
I gravitated to the edge of the road beyond the coffee stop. This was one of the first places where we discovered that the local men hovered by with touristy goods to sell to the visiting tourists. At every single stop, even the most remote and obscure, we ran into men just like him with a variety of goods for sale. The most common good were crystallized rocks that they could open to show off amethyst or other crystals.
The roads began to wind with more frequency and sharper turns. There was a snow capped mountain in the distance that grew larger and larger, marking our progress with its increasing size.
We became caught behind two large shipping trucks and watched as smaller, and more agile, cars overtook us and the trucks in a single go. During the overtaking I noticed that the person doing the over taking would give a friendly honk as they started, in warning, and a friendly wave as they passed. I expect that the honk was also an alert for any potential oncoming traffic as well. Eventually we also overtook the trucks, with a honk and a wave.
I certainly would not have wanted to be the person driving that massive truck on those tiny roads. At times it felt like our small minibus was even too large.
We had entered the Tizi n’Tichka pass which reaches the highest altitude for a road in Morocco.
At the top of one of the winding segments of the Tizi n’Tichka pass we pulled to a scenic overlook and piled out of the bus to get a view of much of the road we had just traversed and had an aerial view of those dizzying turns. There was a gentle breeze as I stood and stared in awe at those very roads.
The bus climbed higher into the Tizi n’Tichka pass and I remained hypnotized by the scenery and the impressive road. There was a tremendous amount of construction as we got deeper into the pass, and it became clear that they were widening the road and blasting through segments to make it straighter and avoid some of the twists and turns. The amount of construction that was going on across the road was quite impressive, and the blast marks were clearly delineated against the hard rock walls as we drove through the newly carved paths. On the edge of the road the former route remained visible but they had blocked it off with dirt and stones to force the traffic to remain on the new road.
There were grazing areas in some parts of the mountain for sheep and goats. We learned that during the summer the flocks were brought up to these areas and as the weather turned they would be herded down into the valleys and out of the mountains.
Just as the guide explained this we were forced to slow down for a stray group of goats hovering at the side of the road. Timing really is everything. A honk from our driver, Mohammed, scattered the goats and sent them bouncing up the side of the hill and away from the dangers the road posed.
Once we were through the pass and out on the other side, heading towards southern Morocco, we stopped at Ouarzazate. The town was best known for its contributions through cinema and the two major movie studios located there. The studios had handled filming for some major blockbuster films; to name a few: Game of Thrones, Gladiator, The Mummy, Kingdom of Heaven, Lawrence of Arabia, Prince of Persia, Queen of the Desert, Spy Game, What a Girl Wants, The Jewel of the Nile, Cleopatra.
We stopped for lunch at a hotel located on the outskirts of Ouarzazate. It had a lovely hotel and gardens that we explored briefly after lunch. Lunch was a standard tajine served on Moroccan time. This time I opted for the kefta tajine, instead of the chicken, and was pleased with what arrived. It was minced meat made into small meatballs and cooked in a beautiful sauce; a fried egg was placed on top of this and served in a traditional tagine.
While we ate a Moroccan man serenaded us on an odd instrument and sang to accompany it. The instrument looked similar to a guitar but with a bow like on a violin, and only had a single string. It was odd but beautiful sounding, and I ensured I gave him a small tip before we left as he was so friendly and played with the warmest smile. He didn’t ask for the tip but accepted it gratefully and continued on playing.
After lunch I went for a walk in the gardens and then with a few of the women continued into the village nearby and crossed down a side street to see an area that was a bit more local than aimed for tourists. We returned to the minibus just in time to collect everyone and head off for the next destination.
As expected the streets were quiet and the buildings a bit ramshackle. It was what we had seen driving through Morocco during the day but this time it was up close. The bottom floor of all the homes had metal doors, though they were often decorated, and when opened appeared to lead to garages or shops. Later we learned that traditionally animals would have been kept on the bottom floor and their body heat would help to keep the house warm in winter.
Once we were back on the road we headed for Dades Gorge – the Valley of Roses.
Despite the name of the area I did not see any roses but could see that the land was a little less arid and could potentially produce the beautiful flowers. We stopped for a coffee break across from a village and a river. Below us young children were playing football/soccer and making good use of the remaining sunlight for the day as it had begun to dip low on the horizon.
Next door to the coffee break was a shop selling Rose based gifts. Rose water was one of the biggest gifts to buy and that they exported. The owner explained how it was distilled, and showed us the copper pot he had on premises. I doubted that any rose water had been distilled from it but it was a nice effect to have for show and tell. I purchased a small bottle, carry-on size, for my mother and learned about the many cosmetic and health related uses for the product.
As the sun began to sink lower in the sky we were off, at speed, towards our hotel for the night. With this being a winter trip daylight hours were tough to come by and the guide and driver were trying their best to make the most use out of them.
For the second time that day we found ourselves in winding mountainous roads as we cut through the Dades Valley to check-in at the hotel. The rock formations were different here and more impacted by erosion than the ones we had seen earlier. They created odd shapes but it was hard to get a good photograph on the way into the Valley due to the fading light.
By the time we reached the hotel the light was gone and we had entered the blue-hour. I had a glimpse of the hotel sign before the bus pulled to the side of the road and we began to unload and stretch our legs. I looked up at the wall of the hotel and realized that it was built into the side of a large hill and stretched on for several levels and to both my left and right side. It was beautiful, almost as beautiful as the hint of wood smoke from the hotel across the street.
After twisting and turning and climbing and descending we appeared at a door. The owner, in broken English, asked for a twin and a single to come forward. Several of us stepped forward and joined him and were granted access into the shared suite.
After settling into the rooms we decided to go for a wander to see the pool and the rest of the hotel, despite it being pitch black outside and the lights being few and far between; luckily we had brought torches/flashlights. We came across others who were doing their own exploring and eventually came upon the pool. It was situated at the highest part of the hotel and would have a spectacular view, were there any daylight.
The group of us crossed the street to visit those who were staying in the overflow hotel. As we entered the foyer I could smell the beautiful wood stoves. Those in our group who were staying in the overflow hotel gleefully told us that their rooms were heated by wood stoves. I caught a glimpse of their rooms and they were utterly charming. Much smaller and less grand than the ones we had but I loved the quaint decor and especially the wood stoves.
As a group we decided to go for a short wander down the road and into town before dinner, as it wouldn’t be ready for nearly forty minutes. We took a twenty minute stroll down the street in the dark – a few in the group used their head lamps to make the infrequent passing car aware of our presence (though there were only two for the entirety of the walk).
We came upon an open shop where a mother and her daughter had just crossed the road to reach.
The mother stopped me with a warm smile and a simple “Bonsoir, ca va?” (Good evening, how are you?). The difference between engaging with this woman and the few I’d seen in Marrakech was like night and day. She was warm, welcoming and not interested in selling me any goods. She was genuinely curious as to why we were visiting her small village. And unlike those in Marrakech she spoke no English and struggled to understand my heavily accented French, but we did speak for a good five minutes before I moved on to catch up with the slow moving group. Throughout the entire exchange I managed to explain we were traveling, and found her village very beautiful. Five minutes to deliver such a simple thought but it was worth it to watch her smile and for the experience alone.
When I caught up with the group (just a few steps onwards) they had paused at a section of road that overlooked the valley below. While we could hear rushing water of a small river there was nothing to see in the heavy darkness. But the group wasn’t looking down towards the river – instead they were looking up at the sky.
The stars were glorious despite the bright light pollution from the moon (just a few days ahead of the supermoon phase).
I was introduced to a phone App called “Sky Map”, which I downloaded once we were connected to WiFi. It certainly proved useful the following evening when we had a better opportunity to stargaze in the desert.
The walk back to the hotel was less sedate and we arrived a few minutes before dinner. While everyone attempted to cram onto seats in the hotel’s waiting room I opted to sit outside under the stars for a bit longer. The cold never bothered me anyways.
We were given our own lengthy table at dinner. The room had a few couples and two American families traveling together. We were, by far, the loudest but given the size differential this wasn’t that surprising. Dinner was a four course meal that was utterly delightful. It was modern takes that were culinary masterpieces. Mini fish pizza bites, cauliflower soup, mushrooms stuffed in a round ball of chicken, and creme brulee for dessert.
After dinner was through the owner and several tour guides from the various groups came together with drums to play and sing local songs. There was a strange instrument that looked like a Moroccan version of castanets, and the entire spectacle was fascinating. It was clear that they were not professional but their enthusiasm made up for any lack of polish they might have possessed. The drum was briefly passed to guests from the various groups but it was the two little American girls that were most entertaining to watch as they tried to play the drums along with the owner and guides.
Everyone was shattered so after dinner, and the impromptu entertainment, we dispersed to our rooms for a long night’s sleep. Back in our suite I repacked everything and realized I had left (or lost) my Camera’s USB charger; and I only had a full battery left after 2/5 of the trip was through. I knew I would have to be more judicious with the use of the camera on the following day, and knew that the key things I wanted to save it for involved the Sahara and camel rides.
Day 3: Dades Gorge to Sahara Desert
It was still pitch black outside when I woke up. We had the wooden shutters on the bottom portion of the windows closed but I could see through the upper portions that it was as dark outside as it was inside our room. A quick glance at my phone let me know that I had awoken a good half hour before I had set my early alarm to go off. After turning off the alarm I stayed under the covers for a bit longer; the heating hadn’t come on in the room and the single space heater was over by my roommate. This didn’t bother me at all while sleeping because the duvet was delightfully heavy and warm. Yet when it came to make a call to go get an early shower I was struggling with throwing off the duvet.
After a few minutes of warring with myself over the matter I finally shed the duvet and braved the cold hallway to reach the bathroom.
It took the shower a few minutes to heat up but once the warm water was flowing it was delightful. The space in the shower was luxuriously large and the water pressure strong; especially considering that we were on the side of a mountain.
Since I had done my packing the night before there wasn’t much for me to do that morning other than dress and sort a few items out for the day. To kill a little bit of time I took my Kindle and Camera and decided to explore the nearby area to our room to see if I could sit and admire the view. And I was also hoping to catch a glimpse of the end of the morning’s sunrise as I’d noticed it had grown considerably more light outside of our room.
I opened the heavy wooden door and stepped from our room into a brisk and chilly morning, my favorite. I noticed the steps that passed over my head to the roof of our portion of the building and climbed them. Once at the top I spotted two sun loungers and a lovely breakfast table. Despite the lingering chill of the night I sat down at the table, opened my Kindle, and spent a good half an hour enjoying the quiet and the view (as I turned pages on the book).
Thanks to my keen sense of direction I made it back to the dining room without a single misstep. It was easier to navigate by the light of day but still full of twists and turns.
I had, naturally, arrived on time for breakfast, to the minute (Dad would have been proud) and sat down next to our host. We sat in companionable silence after I ordered a coffee as we checked our phones. WiFi on the trip was pure luxury and not often acquired so it was not unusual to find us looking at phones at the few stops it would be available. Given that we would be spending the night in the desert it was also a fair assumption that we would not be in possession of WiFi for some time after we left this hotel.
I found that I quite loved the Moroccan coffee; it was extremely strong and well brewed, very similar to the way I make it at home for myself.
Breakfast, as with the previous day, was served in waves of options. First came fruit, followed by yoghurt, a variety of breads and pancakes, and finally the option of omelettes. The yoghurt reminded me of the thick and strained variety I find in Greece, and the honey was beautiful in Morocco as well. Mixed together they were bliss in a small pot. The fruit was incredibly fresh and the pears were some of the best I’d ever tasted. I then reached for the variety of breads and found something that resembled a cross between a French crepe and an American pancake that was positively lovely with a little local honey.
The bus was loaded and we packed into the bus in a relatively quick time before headed back down the road through the village, around the mountains and gorge. It all looked very different in the light of day than it had at twilight the night before, and I found I appreciated it a good deal more.
The first stop was at an odd rock formation I had noticed on the way in, where the water erosion had created an odd pattern in the soft rock. Our guide explained that these were known as the “monkey fingers”, though I could not see the connection.
The drive to Todra Gorge, our next visit for the day, was fairly short and took us through the heart of a beautiful town built within a true Oasis. As we climbed the mountain side that overlooked the valley I was desperately attempting to snap a decent photograph through the van window when I felt us slow and come to a halt at the side of the road.
The view was incredible to see the swath of green cut through the otherwise very brown desert.
Palm trees lined the road for the rest of our drive towards the Gorge and were plentiful. The amount of green was such a change from the arid landscape we had driven through the day before. It was clear that this was a more prosperous area as well compared to many of the villages that we had previously driven through. The difference was very interesting to me.
We stopped short of a group of very tall cliffs. There was a restaurant across the street that let us use their bathrooms if we made a donation to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. I learned early in the trip that it was best to make use of bathrooms when they were available so I paid a small token to Fatima.
Outside I found that a few in the group were carefully watching a section of the cliff’s face just above the tree line. They told me there was a rock climber there and pointed to his anchor and rope. Rashid, our Tour Guide, had explained that the Gorge was a famous and desirable place to rock climb so it was not a surprise to see it in action.
After everyone returned from the use of the facilities we began walking down the road, which led directly into the Gorge. At once I was awestruck by the sheer size of the cliffs and beauty of the Gorge.
There was an odd man made shelf built into various parts of the gorge wall where water collected and created a small waterfall. I’m not precisely sure what the point was but it made a pretty sight. I wandered through the gorge, becoming slightly separated from the larger group by a dozen or so feet.
My “Non, merci” often convinced the peddlers to go away. A few of them tried to ask if I were French, for having responded in French, but after I ignored them they tried a few more times to sell the items before moving on to the next person.
One seller, though, tried a different tactic. “Non, merci” I said in French. His reply was then to offer me the necklace he was trying to see as “free”, if I were to “stay” with him. He repeated this a few times and even went so far as to call me pretty. Eventually he left me alone though. I never felt uncomfortable, he was friendly and not intimidating, but it was a little odd for me to be propositioned in such a way. Though for him it seemed perfectly normal.
Within the middle of the gorge there was a small (tiny, only a few building) village built into the side of the cliff, but across the small river. The entire setting was beautiful picturesque. Other sellers set up makeshift stalls along the side of the cliff and called to us as we walked by to purchase their items; it made for a very interesting visual to behold.
On the other side of the Gorge, after we walked the length of the river through it, the area opened into green pastures. It felt like a scene out of a movie as we crossed to a rock overlooking the greenery, and saw laden donkeys being led about.
The minibus had driven through the gorge to meet us on the other side, just inside the opening of the gorge. We reboarded the bus, with a few stragglers being rushed along, and drove through the Gorge again – the same way we had come in.
The bus dropped us at the side of the road in front of several lush green fields that were a part of the oasis.
Rashid led us off the road and onto a small rise that divided the small field areas. We walked along in the middle of this greenery and were gifted a close up view of the oasis at work. Beyond the palm trees that had now become a common scene for us we could see various crops being grown and other types of trees – including a surprise Birch tree.
We came upon a Mule who was perched on the rise where we were walking. He gave us a grumpy look and Rashid exchanged several words with the couple who sat in the field nearby, his owners we presumed. Rashid translated their response and explained that the Mule was stubborn and liked to kick. Rather than brush passed him we stepped off the rise-path and crossed through the couple’s field. I placed each foot gingerly on bare patches rather than trample their crops.
The entire time the mule watched us with a wary eye.
The paths were well defined until they converged with the small river running alongside us.
Work had been done to shore up the path and embankment but mother nature had won the fight. Despite the new stones and their mesh encasement the river had done a tremendous amount of damage to the path. Based on the conditions, and Rashid’s surprise at discovering them in such a condition, it must have been relatively recent to our visit.
This meant that the gentle walk in the oasis had become a bit more like a trek – as we had to creatively navigate the ruined terrain.
Where the shored up path had broken away from the wire casing we had to perform an interesting maneuver to bypass the break and not snag our clothes on the wire. While one girl ripped her trousers open I managed to escape unscathed, despite a last minute attempt on the wire’s part to catch my flowy shirt – I managed to untangle the shirt before it could rip.
At another point in the path we had to jump across a small divide and then climb over a small wall. Small for people with some height – but for me it was fairly tall and a bit of a challenge that I tackled with gusto. By this point I was thoroughly enjoying the challenges we were facing.
This proved entertaining until we hit the end of the road – literally.
What little path we had completely vanished and we were faced with no crossing at the river and could go no further on our side. There were a collection of rocks that looked as if we could step across them, at least from the distance.
A few crossed without incident to start with, and then one of the girls started. She had taken off her sneakers and socks in case she ended up in the river. She made the jump, but only reached the edge of the larger rock. She caught herself with her hands to keep from falling into the river, but in the process she let go of her sneakers and they started sailing down the river picking up speed. One of the group dashed after them while Rashid foraged for a large palm branch to try and stop them. After a few minutes of watching then float away in horror they were eventually recovered; soggy and worse for wear. By then she had rolled up the legs on her trousers and simply waded across the rest of the river, as it was no deeper than her knees.
The remainder of the group, 11 of us, stood on the opposite shore discussing alternatives. I took one step onto the rocks and tried to gauge the distance – it was far too long for my short legs. I returned to shore, rolled up my jeans, and began wading. There was a small wave of others who followed in my wake (literally), however a few more hung back. Rashid, our guide, ended up giving piggyback rides to at least three within our group, delivering them to dry ground.
Even as I brushed the sand off my wet feet, and dried them with a tissue provided by another in the group, I was glad that I had waded across the small river. The water had been delightfully cold and it was fairly warm as we trekked through the Oasis.
After everyone had managed to get their shoes back on we were on the hunt for the exit from the Oasis. Due to the path being washed away the usual exit was not accessible so we looked for alternatives that Rashid knew of. After backtracking quite a few times we eventually made it out and up a short embankment to the main road into the town.
The bus found us in the new location and we all crowded onto the bus.
The timelines for the day were already tight and given that our foray took longer, due to the river washing away the path, we were on a bit of a time push at lunch. Luckily Rashid had arranged with the restaurant to bring everything out at a quick pace. This lunch had three courses – I started with a Moroccan salad (very similar to a Greek one), then a “chopped steak”, and finally Moroccan cookies. The “chopped steak” ended up being a heavily spiced hamburger with a fried egg on top, and without a bun. It was absolutely delicious and a nice change from the endless tajines I had been indulging in thus far.
Between the main course and dessert I managed to escape to the small store inside to purchase a selection of post cards for the usual suspects.
A short while later we pulled up in front of a pretty standard looking road side shop. It was a bit nicer, and more tourist focused, than many we had seen on the road. Immediately the group was served by an outgoing and friendly local woman who was eager to tie the scarves off into a proper turban. She was an absolutely brilliant saleswoman and extraordinarily friendly. Once she finished with the first turban tie, having shown us how it was done, she issued a trilling cry that had us all smiling and eager to try one on.
While she and another young girl brought out a selection of scarves her husband was in another part of the shop busying himself; and eventually returned with a tray of fresh Moroccan mint tea and wafer cookies.
In the meantime a few of us had tried to barter with the shopkeeper but she set her price and stuck to it; and though it was a little bit higher than I would have preferred to pay I found that I had no difficulty meeting the price. In return I accepted a cup of mint tea (despite not liking tea) and a wafer cookie. She gifted me with a pair of earrings of the Hand of Fatima. In Morocco it provided a similar protection to the Mati in Greece, and as my Mati necklace had broken in Marrakech this seemed like a good solution for the meantime.
The race against time, and the setting sun, was still an issue and our driver was doing his best to get us there as quickly as possible while still driving as safely as possible. We were warned that there would be no time to change clothes and only a few minutes to pack our overnight bags.
This was the first time that they had told us we would need an overnight bag, and that our entire bag would not be joining the trek through the Sahara. It was also the first time I had considered that I would not be changing to sleep and would instead be sleeping in my clothes. Given that knowledge I was already planning on what exactly I would need before we headed into the desert and had a pretty good idea of where it was in my backpack (thanks to my repacking in the morning).
I was quick to grab my backpack once we were off the bus; I cleared out anything not needed from my handbag and shoved the necessities (sweatshirt, socks, water, camera, spare charger) into the handbag. The remainder went back onto the bus and was locked away for the night.
One of the other women was the first to be ready and was quickly assigned a camel. She asked the local men what the name of her camel was – and they replied “Hamu”.
As the second ready I was assigned to the “front camel with the red blanket”, and while descriptive I didn’t think that this was an appropriate name to call the camel during the trek. The mental image of me clinging to the back of this blonde camel and screaming “slow down ‘front camel with the red blanket'” didn’t quite work for me. Therefore I also opted to ask the local men what the name of my camel was – to which they replied “Jimi Hendrix” with a cheeky laugh.
Joke or not I chose to adopt the name for my camel; after all it was less of a mouthful than ‘front camel with the red blanket’. And it could be easily shortened to “Jimi”.
The Berber man took my hand bag, a very impractical object for the desert, and tied it to the pommel of my camel saddle. Though he did not judge the handbag openly I imagined he was not impressed with the shiny purple fabric and faux leather handle. But I’d not been warned that we would need a small overnight bag so had not prepared accordingly; the handbag held everything I needed and that was enough for me.
He explained that I would be the last to get up; as they started with the back of the line of camels and moved forward. Since I would be in the front I would be the last up.
I passed the time by introducing myself to Jimi; I’m not quite sure what he thought of me but the camel seemed to have a tremendous amount of patience with me throughout the trip, and very warm brown eyes, so I figured we had already established a bond in those early moments of our friendship. He tolerated my stroking of his head and nose and being spoken to in a similar soothing tone that I used on my dog growing up.
The first of the three lines of camels rose one by one as the other members of the group got ready to head out. I watched as the group mounted their camels, which were not as tall as I had feared but certainly too tall for my short stature.
I was able to witness the odd motion the camel took when rising from the ground – first the back legs went up, which throws the rider forward, and then the front legs come up, which throws them level. It involves very sharp and jerky movements so it was good to watch someone else do it first before I was expected to have a go.
One by one the line of camels I was in rose up from the rear. Once the camel directly behind me was up, the Berber man motioned for me to mount my camel. I barely managed to get my leg high enough to be able to pull myself up onto the saddle, but I managed it with a little push from the Berber man. He had me settle into the saddle and take hold of the pommel before giving Jimi the command to stand.
The throw forward was exactly what I expected and I held tight to the pommel as both Rashid and the Berber man ensured I didn’t topple off the camel. Another command and the camel’s front legs came up and I was fully sat on a standing camel. The second movement was far easier to manage and control though.
At first I wasn’t particularly comfortable. I was sat directly on the hump, and I can’t imagine Jimi was happy either. I was given quick instructions to shift to the back of the saddle which put the hump just in front of me and was tremendously more comfortable. However this mean that I had to lean forward quite a bit to hold onto the pommel. The first few steps were a little disconcerting since the movement of the camel was not like anything I had felt before. Certainly I’d ridden horses a few times in my life but their gait felt more natural than that of a camel; and it didn’t help that the sand dunes were still soft so you sank into the sand as well as dealing with the awkward stride of the camel.
My mind was quickly distracted from the oddity of the camel’s gait as I began to take my surroundings into consideration.
The views were already stunning as the setting sun began to turn the dunes into pure gold. The sand beneath my feet earlier, and now beneath the camel’s feet, was a much softer color but once highlighted by the setting sun it looked magical. We traveled along the dunes with the setting sun to our right and the rising moon to our left. I had a hard time determining which direction to look in as everything was so unbelievably beautiful.
I focused on taking it all in – from the disappearing view of the distant mountains, to the rise of the dunes in front of us, and the fading sunlight just beyond the dunes. All the while I struggled to find a rhythm with the gait of the camel; each time that I finally felt I could release my hold on the pommel and take a few photos we reached a slight downhill section and I had to grip tightly to the pommel once more.
As the sun set it painted the sky in a variety of oranges, pinks and then finally purples. The ever shifting color was of great fascination as we trekked through the Sahara and towards our tent for the evening.
It was absolutely impossible to get a steady shot with the camera struggling to focus with the low light and the movement of the camel but I managed to snap off a few. Once the sun had set and we’d entered twilight I had to give up on getting any more photos and focused on the sheer beauty of riding a camel in the Sahara desert by moonlight.
The moon was remarkably bright and large in the sky; it was the eve of the coming supermoon so this wasn’t much of a surprise. It was so intensely bright that it cast a shadow of us riding our camels on the sand dunes.
We’d been split into 3 camel trains, two trains of 4 and one train of 5, as we passed through the desert. Each train was led by a Berber man on foot. To those of us unfamiliar with our surroundings it amazed us that the men could find their way across the dunes to this distant point, in the dark and only lit by moonlight. The shadows cast were long and stunning.
The hour and a half spent on the back of the camel flew by and I loved every minute. The groups shared jokes back and forth, and there was a constant shout of “hold on”. Anytime the lead group found an incline they’d alert us with the shout, which we passed on to the last group. There were plenty of jokes in regards to my camel’s name, Jimi, and how great of a camel he was; it brought an endless source of mirth for the entire group.
Eventually we named the camel that one of the women rode behind me as “Marvin Gaye” so Jimi wouldn’t be the lone music star amongst our camels. Given that Marvin was very placid and smooth for her we found it a very appropriate name for the camel.
I was the first to spot the slightest hint of light emanating from a collection of camps at the single oasis. It was incredibly faint but I could see the slightest difference past the moonlit dunes as we came upon a larger dune to crest. It was only by this point that I had found my gait with the camel and no longer had to hold on, other than on downward slopes. As we came down the side of the large dune I held on tight and stared ahead where the camps littered the scenery. Behind them rose a dark shadow, darker than the sky surrounding it, and I presumed that was a very large dune, or even mountain, that it sat beneath.
Jimi, the camel, lowered himself to his knees again in the same jerky motions (in reverse) that it took for him to stand. I clung tight to the pommel and once he was on the ground I managed to dismount. Immediately I could tell that my legs were wobbly and a little tired for the trek, but I managed to stumble towards the tents with my handbag at hand.
Walking on the sand was a struggle, as it usually is, and I was pleased to discover that rugs covered the ground leading into the common area between all the tents. They led a path direct to the center of the area, where a bonfire was already being built, and it was surrounded by at least 10 tents. Each tent could hold 3-4 guests and came equipped with lighting. It was hard to know what to look at first since it was all so magnificent.
Before we could even drop our bags we were being plied with a small snack mix featuring dates and peanuts, a lovely combination. After taking a handful and thanking the turbaned man, I dropped my bag off in a tent that I opted to share with Flory and Yin – though none of us intended to sleep in the tent that night. As I returned to the area around the bonfire I was offered the peanut/dates mix and a freshly brewed cup of Moroccan mint tea.
Tea is not a drink I particularly enjoy, but as it was being offered in welcome to the tent I felt it would have been rude to refuse.
I thought that it would be prudent to make use of the facilities before settling down in front of the fire and getting too cozy. The facilities had been set a distance away from the encampment, and was essentially a single tent with two small “stalls” the featured camper toilets. It was far better than what I had expected, though the conditions would deteriorate rapidly throughout the night, until the point where only one of the two toilets was usable.
On the way back to the tents I took note of how beautiful the night sky was. With the help of the new app I’d downloaded (on Ben’s advise) the night before I found Orion. We had a fun time locating the planets and various constellations for a few minutes before we headed back towards the tents, knowing that the food would soon be ready.
This time we did sit down in front of the fire and was offered another cup of mint tea, as well as the peanut/dates mixture. It wasn’t long until we were ushered to the long table and offered cushions on the floor to sit on at the low table. Once we were all settled the food began to arrive in large tajine pots.
You might assume that, by now, we would be sick of tajine – but that was not the case. Each tajine was prepared in a slightly different manner so they were all unique and different. By far this tajine was the best that we had had (and would have) on the entire trip. The chicken was well flavoured and all the vegetables beautifully cooked to create a true masterpiece of Moroccan cuisine.
Dessert was served as a variety of fruit – which felt indulgent to eat while in the middle of a desert.
After dinner we returned to our places around the bonfire as our guides built it up and fanned the flames. Rashid placed a group of drums around the fire, with the skin facing the flames. This was to heat up the drums and prepare them to be used that evening. We could already hear the drifting sounds of song and drums for our neighboring camps as they moved on to their next stage of celebration within the desert.
The drums warmed next to the fire and once they were warm enough our guides began to play a selection of local songs and sing for us. Some of the younger men in the group were not as proficient in remembering the lyrics but the drums were beautiful to listen to. It was easy to tell that the songs were classic ones known by the Moroccan people as I saw Rashid, our local guide, tapping along and singing quietly.
The drums were offered to the group to try and play, and it was a better attempt than the previous night, but still half hearted in approach and enthusiasm. The guides must have recognized this as well since a short while later they put away the drums and prompted the circle to tell campfire stories or jokes. None of us seemed particularly witty that evening so the guide took charge and the were some odd jokes.
“How do you put an elephant in the refrigerator in 3 steps?”
“Open fridge, put elephant in, close fridge.”
“How do you put a camel in the fridge in 4 steps?”
“Open fridge, remove elephant, put camel in, close fridge.”
“What animal was invited, but didn’t attend, the Monkey’s party?”
“The camel – he’s still in the fridge.”
Eventually we all began to feel extremely tired from the long day and began to set up the beds around the dying campfire; about half the entire group had chosen to sleep outside. Earlier in the afternoon I had feared that I might be the only one but it appeared that the idea had intrigued many in our group and we had to drag extra mattresses from the bedrooms to set up.
I was one of the last to fall asleep as I could not take my eyes off the beautiful sky.
The mattress was hard but we stacked two atop of one another which made it more comfortable. The pillow was also rock solid but I wasn’t bothered even as the heavy Moroccan blankets weighed down on me. I normally sleep on my stomach but had difficulty turning over beneath the weight of the blankets, and also because I refused to stop looking at the beautiful starry sky.
Given that I’m a warm sleeper it was no surprise that I woke up in the middle of the night to shed one of the three blankets I had on; and never bothered to wear my jacket to bed, just a sweatshirt.
Sleeping beneath the stars in the Sahara Desert was one of the most surreal, unique and beautiful experiences I had to date (and since).
Day 4: Desert to Ait Ben Haddou
There was something magical about waking up to a cold morning in the Sahara desert.
The sky had begun to lighten but there was no sign of the sign rising just yet. We were told to expect it to rise in full by 6:30 am, and I’d set an alarm for 6 am. One by one all of us who had slept around the campfire stirred to life. The night before we’d been told that the best vantage point to view the sunrise was from atop of the large mountainous dune that was behind our oasis. One of the group immediately took off to complete the climb up the side of the dune. I was not nearly that ambitious and knowing how difficult it was to walk on sand I didn’t want to test my luck climbing it.
Without coffee and lacking energy I made a beeline for a smaller dune that I had scouted that morning. It was just in front of our encampment and had a nice rise that I thought I could sit upon to enjoy the view. It took a few minutes to trudge across the sand until I reached the dune, but it was worth the effort. I sat down on the edge of the dune and watched as the sky slowly – but surely – began to lighten.
One by one various members of our group joined me on the dune. I pointed out the slight silhouette of the adventurous group member, as he climbed the larger dune, and we watched him make very slow progress. Eventually he stopped, about halfway up the rise to the top of the dune.
The new Star Map application on my phone made another appearance so that we could track the proximity of the sun to us, and how fast it might rise into the sky. Though I had enjoyed looking at the constellations the previous night I found that this feature was particularly useful, perhaps even more so.
The sun touched the large mountainous dune behind us, and we watched as the line made by the sun rising began to creep down the side of the dune. Ben had seen the sunrise first and we were being teased slowly as the line began to crawl across the sand towards us, promising a glimpse of the rising sun at any moment.
In the distance I could see that one of the larger dunes to our left was beginning to see the first signs of the sun that morning. The color of the sand on that dune shifted quite dramatically as the sun illuminated it; as we had seen with the mountainous dune behind us.
At last the sun crested the dune directly in front of us and we were greeted with a truly beautiful sight. It was a bright sun, especially for late autumn, and brought an immediate warmth with it – though I would still need my jacket for the remainder of the morning until the coolness was burned away.
Someone pointed to the mountainous dune – and we watched as two figures ran down the side of the dune heading for us. They had realized, as they watched the sun cross the desert, that if they ran fast enough they could see the sunrise a second time. Given how beautiful it was the first time I could see the desire to watch it rise again. We met his new friend, a traveling Argentinian man, who was warm and friendly as he greeted us.
After posing for a half dozen photos we made our way back to the tents for a brief breakfast. An entire spread had been laid out on the tables for us with a variety of treats. The best, by far, was the very dark and thick local honey. I was pleased simply to spread that on bread and devour it whole. It was incredibly sweet, but not overpowering, and an unusual flavor compared to the honey I am used to at home.
Breakfast ended in a bit of a rush as we were well behind schedule (again) and we were ushered out to our waiting camels. Jimi was waiting patiently for me, and though others in the group had switched camels I was extremely keen to stick with my good friend. I was initially worried I wouldn’t be able to recognize him straight away but I had no difficulty in locating him. And I was further lucky in that no one had tried to take him from me while I packed my bag to leave.
I took my handbag and attached it thoroughly to the saddle by wrapping two sets of straps around the pommel and ensuring it was held tightly in place.
Since Jimi was at the front of a line of camels I needed to wait for each behind him to rise before I could mount his saddle and do the same. With a little assistance (an offered knee of the camel guy) I mounted Jimi, settled onto him comfortable, and then gripped the pommel tightly knowing what would come next.
At night, I had noticed, the herders tie the knee of one of the camel’s front leg, forcing the leg to bend. This ensured that the camels wouldn’t wander off but still allowed them some freedom of movement overnight.
What I didn’t realize is that Jimi’s leg had not been untied.
The camel tried to stand once – thrusting the back legs up (and me forward) and then pushing his front legs up (and me back). Only he couldn’t put down one of his front legs so he went back down to the ground. He attempted a second time before the herder realized he was still tied; and managed to attempt a third time before he heard the command to sit again. Once he heard the command he sat back on the ground, no worse for wear, and the herder untied his knee.
I’ve never tried to ride a bucking bronco, either real or mechanical, but I’m pretty certain that this might have come close to the movement (if not the severity).
Fourth time was the charm – with his leg untied Jimi and I were standing in no time. The palms of my hands ached from the earlier battle with the pommel, but otherwise there were no reported injuries and the camel herder had protected my camera when it had swung from the repeated motions.
The remaining train of camels hefted themselves to their feet and all together we were setting off into the golden dunes of Erg Chebbi.
The hour and a half that morning was passed pleasantly through the desert. The temperature was still chilled from the evening so we were perfectly comfortable in our jackets, rather than being too warm beneath the bright sun. The sky was gorgeously blue and very few clouds in sight. The camels appeared well rested as they placed each overly large foot into the sandy ground. And my train was being entertained by the selfie stick I had managed to squeeze into my small handbag.
I found my seat much more quickly than the night before, but still struggled on the downhill portions of the ride. I found that the palms of my hand had been slightly bruised from the previous evening and were a little tender as I gripped the pommel to hold myself upright. Since they were sore I spent time focusing on getting my core muscles to do the majority of the work in holding myself up rather than leaning into the metal pommel too strongly.
The ride was beautiful by the light of day. There was so much to see.. Including an incredibly sad (and lonely) donkey sitting in the desert. There were a variety of tracks across the sand – some made by a 4-by-4, others by unidentifiable animals, and some by camels as well. The ongoing joke, carried on from the evening before, was around my love for the camel named Jimi. I had made my love for the camel clear, and none had even looked twice at getting on him that morning.
Once we were off the camels the men set up a mini shop upon a blanket where we could purchase goods in lieu of a cash tip. I knew what I had wanted to tip them but spent more. They’d done so much for us over the course of that day and many of the others in the group had walked away from the shop and failed to tip. I bought a few items from them – a small fossilized stone dish to give as a gift, a small stone camel for myself, and a quartz stone. I definitely paid more to him than I might have in Marrakech but felt comfortable doing so; I’d discovered that though I enjoyed bargaining I also enjoyed paying just a little more to those who were helpful and kind during our stay.
As I walked away the Berber man commented softly “no tips?”. One of the other women heard him but carried on her business. As an American I understand the importance of tipping and turned back to offer another small sum of money but he waved me away. “No, you purchased things, I cannot take any more.” He told him with a smile. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty that my fellow traveling companions had not purchased a small item or offered even a small sum in appreciation. We had been told the night before by our Host and Guide that it would be expected. I suppose that’s reflective of the cultural differences between the English and Americans; certainly the men had done a fabulous job leading us through the desert, tending to our camels, helping us on and off them, and entertaining us the night before. It seemed only natural to me to reward this great service.
I gave him an apologetic smile and returned to the hotel to freshen up and wait for the others. As others finished their own routines of getting ready they started to joins us around a small table with chairs and benches with cushions.
The view from my comfortable cushion was quite beautiful. I liked what the hotel had done to capitalize on their placement on the edge of the Sahara desert. Their breakfast tables, set for two, were out on the desert and one on top of a small rise of a dune. The inside of the hotel had a courtyard that was covered in plants and made to look like an oasis; it also helped to provide privacy between the rooms as well.
We left the quaint Auberge du Sud hotel and set off to rejoin the main road. I noticed when we pulled off to the side of the road and prepared to step down for a photo stop – except that the minibus didn’t stop. It continued driving through the desert an unmarked road that only our driver could see. Eventually I did catch glimpse of a marking stone, but they were few and far between. We bounced around the minibus at a slow pace for nearly ten minutes before I saw the main road ahead of us once again. I assume it was some form of short cut, this small off-roading adventure, and it certainly was amusing.
Due to the late start and the trek through the desert our first stop was not at a sight, but for lunch. Once more we waylaid to a local hotel for lunch; they had terrace seating that overlooked a beautiful valley and oasis.
The day had begun to warm up at a fast past and sitting in the sun was blinding and becoming increasingly hot. A few of us stepped inside a room they had off the terrace that was surrounded by windows. We took a seat inside where the sun did not reach us but where we were still afforded the gorgeous view. This restaurant was the first who supplied us with fresh olive oil when we received our bread; this was not a common practice at the other stops on the trip. It was absolutely delicious and between us we devoured an entire basket of bread in record time.
I ordered the couscous, as this was the first time I’d seen it, with lamb. It was absolutely delicious but I was surprised that the couscous was prepared very plainly, and left to soak in the juices of the lambs and vegetables on the dish. The meal was wonderful but I’d become full on the bread and the couscous was heavy, despite it’s tiny pebbly size.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in transit towards Ait Ben Haddou. Due to the fastly fading sun there were concerns that we wouldn’t actually be able to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site. Various scenarios were discussed and options debated. Eventually, as we entered the parking lot near to the site, we decided we would try to see it in the fading light. My preference would have been to wait until the following morning and simply wake up early so that we could have time to explore. If it mean sacrificing a visit to Marrakech I would have been happy with that, even if it meant not being able to purchase gifts.
I pushed on ahead to reach a photo point where I could snap a picture before the sun set in earnest. I barely made it to the bottom when I was stopped by a very dry river. I managed to get a few photos and saw that others had caught up with me. We waited at that point, knowing that we would need the Guide in order to cross the river, for at least ten minutes before we began to question whether they were coming. Even our group didn’t move that slowly.
The group hadn’t come down towards the entrance to Ait Ben Haddou. It had been decided, instead, that we would awake early in the morning and visit then.
I was pleased with this decision since it aligned to my desires anyways. There were some that didn’t seem interested in the visit early in the morning but I was already waking up early each day of the trip so had no concerns about continuing this trend. The minibus had already left so we walked towards the hotel, which happened to be only a few hundred meters down the road. I took note of the entrance to the carpack that led to Ait Ben Haddou because it was not marked and I wanted to ensure I could find my way back in the morning.
The hotel offered us mint tea and had us sit in their main common room which was delightfully done in the Moroccan style that I had come to appreciate.
I spent a few minutes repacking my backpack, knowing that tomorrow was the last day and I would need to be prepared to fly. Afterwards I went for a short exploration of the pretty hotel and eventually wound up back in the common room attempting to connect with the WiFi. A few of the others joined me there and as a group we stepped outside to see the store next door. There wasn’t much to purchase but it was nice to stretch our legs before dinner.
Dinner was another multi course meal featuring a beautiful tajine with chicken, vegetables and potatoes. It was delightful but couldn’t compare to the one from the night before, even if it was our second favorite of the trip.
After dinner we dispersed back to our rooms for an early night, knowing that the group would be waking up early for the tour of Ait Ben Haddou.
Three of us agreed to get up even earlier and head down to see the sunrise near the ancient city. I was hesitant to agree to that at first but I adore sunrises and the supermoon was meant to make an appearance, so I couldn’t deny myself that simple pleasure in exchange for just another 40 minutes of sleep.
Day 5: Ait Ben Haddou to Marrakech
As per our plan I woke up at 5am to go see the sunrise, and the last of the supermoon, with several others from the group. It was no hardship as I’m used to waking up early and since we had gone to bed early I felt well rested. I had woken up earlier than the others with the intent to step outside and get a glimpse of the supermoon.
The supermoon was all over the news, both in Morocco and back home in the UK, so I was keen to get a glimpse of it in the morning. The front door was locked and I had a sense that it would not be possible to get back in once we left, so I headed to the roof, which I had found during my exploration of the hotel the day before.
While on top of the hotel I tried to photograph the supermoon – which ended up looking akin to a mid-day sun. And I used the constellation app to identify what the other bright lights were in the sky. I identified Jupiter and a few other constellations before heading downstairs to meet with the others for our trek out to the UNESCO site. I found one of the women downstairs, but it seemed that the others who had hoped to join us had not made it out of bed that morning. It was both early and quite chilly so I had a little bit of empathy and myself, and the other keen photographer, headed out into the cold morning,.
We attempted to locate the path that we had walked down the previous evening, but it was a struggle in the pitch black. Eventually my sense of direction kicked in and we headed down the right path, exploring the silent streets as we reached the river. Once there we recognized that we would need to cross the river in order to reach the UNESCO site.
After crossing the river we noticed a group of tourists with tripods who were taking this sunrise photography session far more seriously than either of us. It was not long before I was envious of their setup, since I was struggling to take a clear photography of the sunrise and landscape. We started by crossing to the middle of the river, heading back in the direction we had just come from, and pausing there to photograph. There were sandbags that we could use to cross over to the other side, but the river was not very deep. Still, itw as a chilly morning and I didn’t fancy getting my feet wet along the way.
Our light was limited to just the head lamp that my companion had brought, which was limited at best. However the other photographers noticed us struggling and helped to shed some more powerful lights on our progress. Once it was clear that we had settled in to our spot (and out of the photographs of the others) we raised our cameras and waited.
The sun began to paint the sky and rise, shedding light along the still river.
My batteries struggled in the cold of the morning, and not having been charged since I left London. I always carry spare but even they had been pushed to their limits in the Sahara Desert. I found clever ways of warming them up to draw just the last bit of juice from them. It was a stunning sunrise and then we hovered near the main gate of the city, which we thought we had seen in a movie but couldn’t place at the time.
Eventually the group, who had left to join us around 7am, caught up with us at the river. We were led by our guide, Rashid, and entered the city for a quick tour before we headed back to Marrakesh. Aït Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I could immediately see why. It is an 11th century fortified village and an example of Moroccan earthen clay architecture.
We climbed up, and up, and up through the crumbling earthen walls of the city.
Along the way I was baffled at how the earthen walls of this fortified city could have stood the test of time. I looked for signs of craftsmanship, and found plenty that detailed how the earth held together. We spied several workmen carefully and diligently repairing parts of the wall, following the same technique and without the aid of modern tools.
At last we had reached the top, having paused for several stunning views along the way. The building that sat at the very top had historically been used as grain storage for the village, protected at the center and heart of it in case of attack.
On the way down we stumbled upon a local artist using a fascinating technique to bring a painting to life. I paused for some time to watch him work. He held a paper over a heat source, passing it back and forth to warm it up and “cook” the ingredients he had placed on the paper. Using saffron and tea he had painted the beautiful scene of Ait Ben Haddou and used the heat source to darken the areas for contrast. For the sky he had colored the paper with indigo. It was honestly one of the most beautiful things I had seen. I couldn’t figure out how I would get the art back on the plane with my carry-on backpack that was already over-full. It didn’t stop me from buying it, after the appropriate level of haggling, and then intentionally overpaying. We agreed I could photograph him at work in exchange for the extra payment.
It was still very early in Ait Ben Haddou, the tourists had not arrived, but as we began to make our way out of the ancient city we crossed paths with other vendors and artists. No far from our Saffron & Tea artist we found a man painting with watercolor.
As we left the city and headed back for our hotel we picked up a friend – a stray dog who was friendly and seeking some form of food. None of us had any on us but that did not stop the dog from keeping us company for much of the walk back. On our way out of the city we also discovered a convenient pedestrian bridge so we did not have to ford the river again to reach the other side.
It wasn’t long before we were packed back into the bus to return to Marrakech, for an hour or two of exploration before we had our flights to catch. It was a long drive back, and this time we didn’t have as many stops due to the time crunch we were facing. We returned via the Tizi ‘n Tika pass again, but only had a brief stop where we saw a beautiful river bed and the corrosive efforts that the water had taken on the mountainous region before us.
Eventually we made it back to Marrakesh and jumped out of our minibus at a petrol station to go and explore for a few more hours.
The majority of the group opted to stay together and agreed to go shopping in the souk, but one within the group was insistent that we travel to the “modern city”. While it would be interesting to see the difference between the new and old city, and compare it to the rural locations we had traveled to, I was not particularly motivated to visit that part of the city.
While in the souks I sought out the last two things I had decided I wanted to try and stuff into my backpack and take home. I located two beautiful pewter hammered candle holders, the style was one I had eyed up during our first visit to the souks. And I had been keen to find a lantern for my mother as well; and ended up buying a gorgeously colorful star shaped lantern.
After shopping the group reconvened to head over to the modern city. The walk there was absolutely miserable, it was hot and we were in the sun for the entirety of the walk. In the process there was a horse and carriage that stalked us for part of the way, trying to get us to buy a ride with them. We stopped to have a brief lunch before heading back. In the end it hadn’t been worth the hike to get to that part of town, but it was interesting to see a different side of Morocco during our visit. Our timing was exceptional and we didn’t have to wait that long before the van showed up again to take us to the airport.
Luckily there were no issues with our easyJet flight (though some in the group had issues with their RyanAir ones). I did have to get creative when repacking my backpack with the final shopping items in it. Clothing was stuffed into the candle-holders, the lantern, and any other cavernous purchase I had made. The challenge with flying easyJet for a short haul flight is that to keep the cost down you have to book carry-on only, and you’re only allowed a single carry-on.
Once we were all on the plane and taking off I heard a voice from a few rows back comment that there were camels running in the distance. Another from the group must have heard it because they shouted “It must be Jimi, running to find Jamie!”. To which, the only natural response, was for me to cry out “Jimi!”.