Felicity Greenlaw-Weber left behind her native England and started a new life in the colourful environment of Morocco, where she went on to found leading travel firm Desert Majesty. Here, in this interview, the mother of two and grandmother to three, with another on the way, reveals what it’s like living in the Kingdom, its hidden secrets — and what foreign tourists can expect on Moroccan tours.
I think many people are quite ambivalent as this is an Arab, African, Muslim country and prejudices and pre-suppositions can run high. Some people tell us their friends and family think they are crazy, but they come anyway. And then they love it and want to come back to explore it further.
The moment people start researching Morocco and see what you can do and see here, they realise it’s a great place to visit. I don’t think Morocco ever disappoints. And Morocco is the most liberal of Arab countries, apart perhaps from Tunisia. Alcohol is produced in large quantities and often of very high quality, so you don’t have to do without your pint or glass of red. And women don’t have to cover, which helps a lot.
As far as the Arab Spring or terrorism is concerned, Morocco is not a place to worry about. The police are very much on the ball and, as a result, it’s a safe place to visit.
I have never felt unsafe in Morocco and I have been here for 16 years. I travel around on my own a great deal and have no qualms. Nothing awful is going to happen on the train or buses, and generally people are really safe walking around. As in most countries, foreigners attract attention and are often seen as well off. So it’s a good idea to look out for scammers and pickpockets, as in any large town or railway station across the world.
We notice that many people underestimate the size of Morocco as it looks so small compared with other African countries. Look at a map of Africa and Morocco appears tiny, but it isn’t at all. So it can take longer than you think to get from A to B; sometimes the roads are narrow and curvy. But in the last few years, quite a number of roads in the south have been asphalted, which is making it easier and quicker to get around. So I am looking forward to exploring some places I have never been to, when my niece comes soon.
I think it’s best to set priorities: What would you like to see most — the mountains, the coast, the desert, the Imperial cities? Some can be combined, but I think it makes sense not to attempt it all in one trip.
What works well is two or three days in one or two of the Imperial cities, bearing in mind that the largest, Marrakesh and Fes, are a day’s journey apart. And then take a trip out of the cities, to the mountains and or the desert, depending on your preferences, to get an idea of other parts of the country. I think it’s important to see both the Arab west and the Berber south. That way you get a clearer picture of the diversity of Morocco, which is such a mixture of peoples, languages and cultures, as well as landscapes as you have pointed out.
The Sahara Desert is magic and majestic: through the vastness, the silence, the wide panoply of stars so close you feel you can reach out a hand to pull them out of the sky.
It depends on the time of year. The sun is always strong, so a hat and plenty of sunscreen are essential. In summer, loose, light clothes that protect the skin against the sun as much as possible. But remember it’s colder than you might expect for Africa in the winter, so bring enough warm clothes at that time of year. The cold nights can catch people out. In spring and autumn, it’s cool in the shade and hot in the sun. This is a time of year that fits the Moroccan saying, “It is a cold climate with a hot sun”. I love my pashminas, to throw over my shoulders and then take off quickly — easier than cardigans and jackets. And even places in the desert can be found on online weather forecasts, so check them before you pack.
I think the greatest difficulty people may have is any expectation that Morocco can be compared to home, especially the West. Clocks work more slowly and priorities are different. Frustration comes with wanting everything to work in the same way as at home. It’s important to come with a sense of curiosity and adventure, to discover a new world, a different way of life and thought — an open mind. Things can be frustrating otherwise.
The best months are late March, April and May, when the skies are clear and deep blue. The evenings can still be chilly but the days balmy and sunny. September is still quite hot but October is perfect and the first part of November often as well.
Moroccan tours are possible all year round, with the correct clothing. We have lots of people wishing to escape the same old Christmas and New Year celebrations, and the desert is very attractive as a place to celebrate. But be prepared for the cold at night. Why not add a small, hot water bottle to your luggage and get them to fill it at the camp?
Magic and majestic: through the vastness, the silence, the wide panoply of stars so close you feel you can reach out a hand to pull them out of the sky. You are at the mercy of the elements and you understand why the three religions of the book started in deserts, where you are small, insignificant against the aridness; the need for water, which only the nomads know to source; the fact that sandstorms can whip up unexpectedly and bring everything to a standstill. To live here is to give in to greater, more powerful, mysterious, commanding forces.
I have enormous admiration for the nomads who still live here and have survived for centuries. Whenever I talk to people from nomadic families and ask where they would be on Earth if they had the choice, they always, and only, ever reply “the desert”. Even men who have seen a thousand sunsets climb the dunes to watch the sun go down at the end of another day.
The absolute best way to experience the full extent and the uniqueness of the desert is on a trek of several days — although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, in its simplicity and lack of luxury. But even one night can fascinate and is completely unforgettable.
Sadly it’s not an experience I have yet had. It’s too long ago that I was able to get to the desert and stay overnight, though I hope to again quite soon. More and more people stay in the luxury camps and they really are luxurious, not only because you have private bathroom facilities. as in an ensuite hotel room, but the furnishings and bedding are more luxurious, with a very Moroccan feel.
Most of our clients opt for glamping these days, and the camps are beautifully set in the dunes and designed with great beauty. They’re not exactly nomadic anymore, and they don’t give a feel of that aspect of desert life, but they definitely give a comfortable backdrop to having a great time in the dunes. And in the end, nothing can spoil that silence and wonder, and feeling comfortable can just enhance that.
Remember that you are with an experienced camel man who knows his camel well. And he adores them. He will talk to them and kiss them, and their wellbeing is of utmost importance to him. They are not just a source of income but treasured and adored creatures. I remember once how Abdelhadi, my business partner, told me it was raining in the desert. And he said the camels were happy as a result — before he even mentioned the nomads!
The camels all have a metal bar across their backs to hang on to, and the only time that you feel you could fall off — which you don’t do, though — is when they get up or sit down in their unique way. And they like to go really slowly — we see all the camel-racing videos from Saudi, but actually the camels like to take their time, so the pace is secure and if you relax, you will really enjoy the experience and you won’t fall off.
You need to be fit to trek in the High Atlas for longer. Underfoot can be rocky and stony, and it’s often steep. But there are paths that anyone can take, as well as very challenging climbs. The views are magnificent: of other peaks, of green valleys full of walnut and fruit trees, Berber villages perched on the sides, which you often can hardly make out as they’re made of the earth and loam surrounding them.
If you can make it to the top of Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, they say that on a clear day, you can see the Sahara 300 km away. It has snow till April, though, and which might fall again at the end of October. There are other peaks that climbers attempt and are demanding, but there are plenty of places where a good walk is possible to have an idea of the local landscape.
But just driving home over the High Atlas never ceases to be a delight, and for me, feeling truly being back in Morocco. In the hills and mountains away from the main roads, it’s here that you experience the incredible Berber hospitality. Recently I stopped for tea at a little tea house and we came away laden with figs, olive oil and pomegranates as gifts. An Arab friend with me had never had such an experience in Morocco.
I enjoyed the time I lived in Rabat — close to the ocean; wide, open spaces; green; not too busy, though it’s getting more so now; fresh air; modern amenities; wonderful architecture.
Casablanca is sadly a disappointment, after the romance of the film, which of course was not made there. It’s a frenetic, industrial city, polluted, an escape for many in times of drought who have no sense of belonging. I feel it’s a lost city with little soul, and personally I was glad to get away. Once it probably was “the white house”, but no longer, as it’s the industrial capital of the country with the biggest, very active port. The Hassan II mosque is a testimony to Moroccan craftsmanship, but you can see that amazing architecture in more enjoyable towns.
I now live in Ouarzazate, south of the High Atlas mountains to the north and the Sahara beckoning further south. It’s much quieter and cleaner than elsewhere, and a great place to travel from in all directions.
The rock carvings that are mostly in the south and not easy to access. They show how old this country is, with the depictions of ostriches, antelope, rhinos, elephants, for example. And there are just one or two places with evidence of dinosaurs. As you go down south from Ouarzazate, there are footprints of them in the rock, right next to the road.
The south — it’s much more relaxed, the villages still little-changed, the pace of life slower. People have a reputation of being more honest and hospitable. And the variety of landscape in the near vicinity is greater than, say, outside Rabat or Casa. I love walking in the oases, among the fruit and palm trees, the vegetable gardens and lucerne (alfalfa). And I can never wait for May, to be able to count the numbers of nightingales you hear on one walk. And then there’s the desert, which never ceases to charm.
Go down to between a third or half the price asked. Don’t be embarrassed at that — it’s normal.
Stick to your guns, depending how much you really want the item and don’t be fooled by the stories you are bound to be told about xyz.
Once you’ve agreed on a final price, then you have to purchase. Walking away after a bargain has been reached is considered very ill-mannered.