My trip from Sydney to Morocco was a spur of a moment decision and I made no firm arrangements. I only knew that I wanted to experience the High Atlas Mountains and the desert beyond. I looked at hiring a car and driving, however decided against it because a) ”wrong side of the road” and b) heights aversion and hairpin bends.
I contacted several tour agencies to ask what they had on offer for a solo mature female traveller who would arrive in Morocco very soon. I chose Desert Majesty for their prompt and clear responses, transparency of pricing, flexibility and open mind as well as their obvious local knowledge. They came back with a suggestion to join a couple who were happy to have additional passengers in a four wheel vehicle driven by an experienced Moroccan driver. I therefore teamed up with a lovely Scottish couple and an American woman; conversation flowed and friendships were made.
We were in a 4 wheel drive vehicle driven by a great guy called Mohammed. He was personable, attentive, had a great playlist of local and western music and was an exceptional driver – there was not a moment of worry when navigating even the extremes of mountain roads, desert roads or road-making-in-action! He is a champ.
The mountain range was awe inspiring. It runs diagonally across Morocco, from the Atlantic Coast all the way to northern Algeria. The softly named Tizi N’Tchika pass reaches 2260 metres after numerous hairpin bends; as one joker put it “there is only one hair pin bend; it just repeats itself 200 times”. The views were amazing. There are numerous Berber villages, made of earth and seemingly glued to steep barren peaks. This is in contrast to green and well irrigated valleys full of almond trees and alfalfa. We visited various villages including Kasbah Ait-Ben-Haddou which is UNESCO heritage protected and where there are about twenty families living much as they had lived hundreds of years ago; we stopped at the women’s cooperative, were shown the labourious process of using argan nuts for variety of purposes and of course bought the internationally touted argan cooking oils and cosmetics.
We spent nights at various hotels and ate tagines, brochettes and salads with plenty of Moroccan mint tea along the way- no alcoholic drinks in the countryside. The hotels were in keeping with the nominated mid-range budget and included Berber de la Montagne at the end to Dades Gorges, Sahara Garden bivouac at Erg Chebbi dunes/desert and Terrasse des Delices in Fint oasis.
On the way back to Marrakesh, we went from the sublime to the ridiculous and after the majesty of the desert had fun in the “Moroccan Hollywood” at Atlas Studios. We strolled through film sets including a Buddhist monastery from “Kundun”, a Roman palazzo from “Gladiator”, Cleopatra’s tomb and we propped against crouching sphinxes taking care not to dislodge the paper mache-like construction.
Time spent at the Morocco Sahara’s orange-sand Erg Chebbi dunes was the highlight and next time I would stay a minimum of two or three nights. On the way to the bivouac we bought lengths of fabric to be fashioned into turbans- cliché but what fun! I instantly acquired “Berber eyes”.
I was nervous, having never ridden a camel before and having questionable fitness level, but the attendants Rachid and Aziz were great- I was told to “love your camel” and “just follow it, don’t try to control it”; very Zen but it worked beautifully, particularly since I remembered that camels got up from their hind legs- so one should lean backwards and then when the front legs rise- lean forwards. Going downhill was accompanied by cries of “hold on, hold on”. I expected major aches and pains but there were none.
Climbing the dunes to watch the sunset was a challenge for me. When you climb a 150metre dune you slip, slide, sink and become breathless and try using your hands as well. Then the turbaned Berber man, who effortlessly glides along on bare feet says “Relaaax. We have plenty of time. Sit down for a while”. Suddenly the orange sand is like a soft giant sandpit stretching beyond the horizon; all is quiet as the sun gradually sets; all falls in its proper place. Who cares whether you have made it to the very top, half or quarter way up? ; as it is in the sand so it is in life.
Morocco engages all your senses as you are exposed to so many things: stark mountains and green oases, aromatic and colourful food, culturally diverse population with their individual clothing, noisy movement of people, donkey carts, ‘petit taxis’, scooters and the quietude of the desert dunes.
I reflect on so much experienced, so many senses engaged and the mindset challenged. Many moments of my journey are firmly hard wired into my brain. I thank (shukran) Felicity Greenlaw-Weber, Abdelhadi Slimani and Mohammed of Desert Majesty for their contribution to what turned out to be an amazing Moroccan adventure. Will I come back? As the Moroccans say Inshallah!