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The real Morocco

5 March 2019
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Ricci Harbuck takes her family on a 10-day discovery tour of Marrakesh, the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara regions of Morocco.

The cab ride from Marrakesh’s Menara Airport to our riad seemed unremarkable at first. Then, with one right turn through the arches of the ancient medina wall, we began our ride into organised chaos. Donkey carts, delivery trucks, scooters, street vendors and tourists all competed for any open patch of the road.

With eyes seemingly in the back of his head, our driver, Ibrahim, took it all in his stride; weaving through narrow alleyways and finally parking near our Airbnb. He walked us through the ancient and narrow cobblestoned alleys; four left turns and then two rights. Upon arriving, we were greeted by our housekeeper Naima and the aroma of her lamb and apricot tagine.

The next day, wanting to stretch our legs and craving some adventure, we booked a full day’s dune buggy ride with Dunes and Desert through the Agafey Stone Desert and up into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Driving up the steep foothills transformed my partner into a little boy and tested my comfort levels once or twice. Having managed to climb to a high point, we were rewarded with stunning 360-degree views of villages, abandoned ancient casbahs, and shepherds tending flocks of sheep and goats. A lunch of chicken tagine and Moroccan mint tea was served under a Berber tent against the backdrop of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.

Anxious to taste the local specialities, our food tour through Tours by Locals also proved a great way to get familiar with the souks (markets). Over the next three hours, Amie guided us through the busy commercial quarter, filling us up with olives, dates, almond pastries, stories and history. The final bite was of tangia; beef that had been slow-cooked over hot coals inside a clay urn.

The next morning our private driver/guide, Abdul from Marrakech Specialists, arrived in his SUV for the start of our five-day/four-night private tour of the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. We set off into the mountains, stopping to explore the Ait Benhaddou Kasbah (known as the Moroccan Hollywood) and spent the night in Skoura.

A traditional Moroccan breakfast kick-started day two, through which we visited a range of kasbahs and ventured off the beaten path. Memorable was the Kasbah Amridil, rich with history and beautiful architecture, which was all brought to life by our hysterically funny guide. Dades and Todgha Gorges delighted us with views of towering canyon walls, small villages nestled in strips of lush vegetation along the riverbanks and winding, desolate roads.

Then, Abdul changed our itinerary. Heading off-road for an hour, we stopped in the middle of nowhere and found a family of Berber nomads living in two caves with their livestock and 12 children. One little boy shyly gave me his hard, calloused hand and led us into the main cave for a cup of Moroccan tea. In stark contrast, the night’s accommodation was inside a luxury cave at the Auberage du Festival in Tamtatoucht.

Most of our third day was spent driving through to the Merzouga Dunes, just 15km from the Algerian border. Our camels were ready for the hour trek to camp. Abdul had joked that after three hours on a camel one is ready for the hospital and, after barely an hour, we wondered if that was true.

Arriving at camp, we were just in time for a spectacular view of the dunes bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun. Sunlight and shadows created mosaics all around us as we watched the sun set. Red Berber carpets were spread across the camp like ribbons over caramel-covered sand. After dinner the local boy band played drums in front of a roaring bonfire.

The tent did little to shield us from the freezing temperatures that night, but the blankets kept the edge off. We caught the sunrise the following day by hiking up the dunes, fuelling up on breakfast before climbing on our camels to head back to Erg Chebbi.

After returning to Marrakesh, Abdul recommended a traditional hammam – Turkish bath. TripAdvisor highly rated Alphais Spa, so we promptly booked their massage/hammam package in a bid to ease away the last impressions of our camel transportation. We entered the steamy cave-like room and lay down on a marble slab. We were quietly enjoying the zen-like calm, when suddenly, without warning, a large bucket of hot water drenched us. Black henna-soap was applied head to toe before attendants donned a scrubbing mitt and proceeded to scour us – essentially rubbing raw every square inch of our exposed bodies. Another rinse followed and a ghassoul (a clay mask) was applied and allowed to dry. We were rinsed again with bucket after bucket of hot water. The treatment ended with a fragrant rose moisturiser and a shampoo. An authentic Moroccan experience not to be missed.

To celebrate our last evening in Morocco, we made our way through the souks to Jemaa el-Fna Square for dinner at Nomad. The crowds that night were crushing, and we made slow progress moving forward. Dinner on the roof-top terrace gave us a safe bird’s eye view of snake charmers, belly dancers and Berber dancers mixed with juice stands, fake Nike shoes and iPhones.

Morocco is a country where African, Arab and European cultures are intertwined to create a most delightful and unique travel destination. You can ski, mountain bike, surf, or ride camels if you are prepared to travel. You can enjoy luxury resorts, ancient riads, golf courses and spas. But the best part of Morocco, without a doubt, is its gracious people.

Tips

  • Don’t overschedule: allow for some downtime
  • Leave your passport and valuables at the hotel
  • Consider private vs group tours
  • Visit during shoulder season when it’s less crowded
  • Carry small cash for tips and bathrooms
  • Vendors expect to bargain, never pay full price
  • Expect lots of driving to attractions outside of Marrakesh
  • Beware of locals who offer to guide you through the souks
  • Respect local customs and cover legs and shoulders

Ricci Harbuck is Managing Director and Dry Feet Specialist for Wet Feet Dry Feet Travel, a travel design firm in Canterbury. A self-professed travel junkie, you can find her travelling several times a year. Always up for a challenge, she is next off to Fiji to dive with hammerhead sharks.

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