After being away in China for the Royal Wedding in 2011, it felt distinctly unpatriotic to arrange a trip over the Jubilee Weekend last year. But when dates line up and an opportunity presents itself, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. It was this philosophy that saw me trekking through the Moroccan desert in 35-40°C heat in June 2012, while London turned into one giant street party and my friends and family prayed for good weather.
Flying out of London Heathrow in the late evening, we reach Ouarzazate in the early hours of the morning. Even though we arrived under the cover of night, heat still lingered in the air, and I was left with the familiar sensation of being far from home. Jamal, our guide warns us that mosquitoes roam in the air outside, but it’s far too hot even at this late hour to sleep without all the windows flung wide open.
In the haze of heat and excitement, I find it difficult to sleep, but aware we only have time for a few hours in bed, I stare at the ceiling and think about what the next few days will bring. Eventually, I fall asleep.
We rise early the next morning on our first day and enjoy a Moroccan breakfast, complete with traditional mint tea and chirpy little birds flitting about in search of edible scraps. Jamal tells us that Ouarzazate is primarily a Berber town and that its name means ‘without confusion or noise’.
We soon head out and our adventure begins with a visit to the Kasbah Taourirt. This edifice was constructed by the El Glaoui chiefs, who are better known to Westerners as the Lords of the Atlas. The El Glaoui controlled most of North Africa until Morocco gained independence in 1956.
The imposing yet charming palace contains 300 rooms, each with its own unique scattering of ornate ceilings and wall tiles. Most of it has been created from simple clay and straw, the parts that are visible outside have been inspired by the colours of the surrounding Saharan desert.
After a short walk around the winding maze of streets that make up the town, we depart for nearby Aït Benhaddou – a ksar (literally ‘castle’ but more like a handful of houses that make up a closely populated village) between Marrakech and the Sahara that has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987. Just 11 families remain here now as the ksar suffers terrible damage with every rainstorm.
Aït Benhaddou is notable for its connections to the international film industry. Films such as The Mummy, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven were all shot here, and the local families who live close by find work when crews move in to make a new movie. It’s strange to think that most of them will have never actually watched a film.
My travelling companion Rosie (a.k.a. The Londoner) was pretty excited about Russell Crowe having armour on. After our visit to Aït Benhaddou, we drive for hours and hours through uneven terrains. Roads are built into the sides of sandy cliffs and nothing but desert stretches out for miles all around us. When it gets to the point where we have to drive off-road and directly through the sand, our driver turns the air conditioning system off so that all the 4×4’s power travels to the brakes and engine. It was a rocky ride.
After 15-20 minutes, we stop in what seems like the middle of nowhere. I ask Jamal what we’re waiting for, and he replies that we’re waiting for the local guide who knows where the Zagora sand dunes are today. I gaze back at him in confusion. Today? “When there are sandstorms,” he says, “the dunes, they move around.” I nod sheepishly. I should really get my desert knowledge up to scratch.
The local guide arrives and we reach the camp we were aiming for shortly afterwards. I had imagined tiny tents, a real ‘roughing it’ experience, but the tents are more like gazebos with decent beds inside and some very questionable ‘en-suite’ facilities that I won’t go into. The guys running the camp prepare us an enormous meal of olives, cous cous, salted lamb and more. When we’re finally stuffed, somebody starts a bonfire and it’s not long before we’re all sitting around it singing and talking and laughing.
We lay around under the stars relaxing, until finally it’s time for bed. In the middle of the Sahara, I get the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages.
The next morning, we wake up early and eat a big breakfast of dates, olives, flat breads and cheese. We’ve just about finished when a sandstorm begins to whip up around us. The Berber gentlemen who look after the camp wrap their headscarves tight around themselves and carry on about their day. We say goodbye and then hop back into the 4×4 before the storm gets too bad.
We have to be back at the airport later that day, but decide we could do with a bit of a freshen up first. The decision is made and our last expedition in Morocco is visiting The Berber Palace Hotel’s hammam, a traditional kind of spa treatment that most Moroccans indulge in at least once a month – many once a week.
We’re rubbed down with a salty oil scrub, rinsed off with big buckets of water, directed to a rose-infused bath, left to boil in the steam room for a bit and then finally treated to a fantastic massage. It’s the perfect way to recover from time spent in the desert, and a wonderfully authentic way to end my first trip to Morocco.
Originally published on Take on the Road.