Seven Gazelles (as we are called in Morocco) ranging in age from 40 to 80, representing four nationalities, and all living in -or with strong links to- Tarifa, Southen Spain, travelled together yet again for ten days in two four-wheel drive Land Cruisers with two Berber drivers in the south of Morocco.
Our priorities: We may be tourists but we want to feel like travellers; we want to get far away from ‘the madding crowds’ (as in Marrakech); we are totally happy with simple accommodation providing it is clean and with hot (well, at least warm!) water. We all prefer single rooms but when not possible are prepared to share. We are aware that given the size of the country there can be a few days with long hours (always interspersed with walks) in the car, but the scenery is so mind-boggling that there is no possibility of boredom. We definitely all enjoy our food!
Thanks to our two driver/guides who now know us well (it is our third time with them) all of the above priorities were ‘more than’ achieved.
Starting from – and returning to - Marrakech we did a total of 1940 kms. Having indicated in broad lines the route we would like to follow this time, we are able to leave the rest of the organization to our guides who now know only too well the sort of accommodation that appeals. We book some eight months ahead, as accommodation of the sort we like in such remote areas is limited, and being seven we usually occupy the whole auberge (which has definite advantages).
Day One was virtually the only day we did some kms. on a main road to make some headway to get out of Marrakech. Other than this we were off-route all the way and for the whole ten days scarcely saw any other vehicles (other than local heavily loaded transport). We crossed paths on two occasions with the same couple of other 4 x 4’s, escorting mountain bikers .... which immediately led the enthusiastic bikers in our group to make plans for next years’ tour!
In the first auberge near Skoura - where we had been before and where we were greeted as long-lost friends - we stayed two nights which proved an excellent formula ... to be recommended. This gave the group time to relax after the journey , to ‘bond’, to re-sort luggage, to suspect they had brought far too much – although by the end of the tour we had all enjoyed wearing everything we had with us. We always ‘changed’ for supper, even if it were only to wear a different scarf! The temperature on the whole tour (18 – 27 October) was perfect, not a drop of rain, temperatures of up to 34 in daytime in the desert where it was also hot at night, but for the rest around 27 degrees all the way. This was an exceptionally warm October, our guides told us.
The following day was a fabulous drive with an immediate surfeit of spectacular scenery with ever changing rock formations. Day Three took us totally off-route (fasten your seat belts!!) behind the Valley of the Roses where we had the good fortune to meet up with a family of Nomads who had recently arrived in the area with their cattle and few possessions and were installing themselves in a natural cave. We felt privileged that thanks to the easy contact of our Berber guide we were welcome to taste the coucous the mother was preparing over an open fire. Father, daughter, granddaughter, a baby and an obviously mentally handicapped family member all remained in the one, small cave. I feel the need to add that this was not a ‘set-up to attract the tourists’ but an authentic example of a way of life that has not changed over the centuries. There was not another car or person in sight, the view was amazing, the goats roamed freely in the distance, the mules in an enclosure nearby. The sensation of space and peace and timelessness was overwhelming.
And now I must admit to the difficulty of describing every day individually. I all too quickly run out of superlatives to describe the ever-changing scenery, the hairpin bends, the geological wonder of the rock formations formed millions of years ago, the hunt for fossils, the bumpy drive over the stony desert, the superb driving of our guides to lurch us through the sandy desert with a strong wind blowing the sand and obscuring our vision, the wonderful and unique picnic spots our guides found for us every day under the trees or beside a river .....
And then the day we arrive in the village where one of our guides was born( Aitt Wa’hrabi ... or that is how it sounded to me!). In these days of mobile phones the family knew we would be passing through – but even our guide did not know they had prepared a meal for us of delicious kebabs which they grilled over a very simple ‘bbq’ with fresh bread. They had spread out carpets on the ground - the whole was so authentically idyllic that yet again it defies description. The friendliness and total natural-ness of the family (men only) was endearing and with their limited French and our few words of Arabic and Berber there was a lot of laughter.
An experience of similar intensity occurred the next day. When passing through a village our drivers stopped to say hello to an acquaintance, and it transpired that a couple of days before a new baby had been born to the family. We, seven ‘foreign’ women, were invited in to the room where the mother lay on the ground, the infant swaddled in white bandages to restrict its movements. Being mothers (and grandmothers) ourselves, it was an emotional moment. We drank to the health of the family in mint tea and partook of the traditional sort of tapioca offered on such an occasion. They so obviously genuinely appreciated and enjoyed our visit ; it was heart-warming.
An experience of a different dimension was our stay in N-Kob where we had also been before,. I guess seven women returning is not a regular event, so again we were welcomed with a warmth and informality difficult to describe. We had decided to celebrate the birthday of one of our group here. Our guide had rung ahead and a cake had been made (we had taken the candles) which was of course heralded in by music. Give the Berbers the slightest excuse and the instruments come out, the rhythmic clapping begins accompanied by singing, and they (and we) danced on the rooftop, only the stars above. An electric atmosphere – and all that without a drop of alcohol.
Another days’ driving on narrow mountain roads, going up to a height of 2.500 mtrs. The drop to one side was not for those with a fear of heights. Then a complete change of scenery as we traversed the stony desert, navigated through a gorge, and came to our very favourite Riad built only a couple of years previously by a local family, perched high on a hillside ... with nothing else to be seen as far as the eye could see. The rooms were huge, the lighting minimal (electricity of course costs a fortune) and the food was great and there was even the occasional WIFI connection! We stayed two nights. We took breakfasts and dinners at the long table outside and as usual we had the place to ourselves. The staff were the epitome of friendliness and joined us on our next days’ expedition, even providing us with one of the best Berber omelettes ever in one of their homes in a village an hours’ drive away.
Day Seven and one of our cars got stuck in a sand drift. The big advantage of being in two cars with two drivers is that they can always help each other, so with much laughter we were ‘dug out’. At this particular point we were a mere 12 kms. from the Algerian border, a very natural border formed by a long escarpment of rock. The occasional watch tower was visible but they are only on the lookout for drug traffickers – there is no political tension between Algeria and Morocco at the present time.
Lunch was at the home of Mohamed, one of our guides. We so appreciated the invitation in to his home where his wife (who we were not able to meet) had prepared a lovely meal of Moroccan salad followed by a chicken cousous and then fruit. We met the children of both Mohamed and his brother’s family. The onward drive through the desert was such as you see on many a postcard or calendar of Morocco – orange sand dunes extending in to the distance with not a footprint to be seen – spectacular; yet again a photographers’ dream (as was the whole journey).
A couple of nights in the Vallée du Ziz at a roadside auberge that backed on to a vast date plantation were again great. The food (as was the case everywhere we had been) was excellent, the breakfasts with a variety of pastries and pancakes were superb – and of course the dates were sublime. It was the date-harvesting season. A long walk through the date plantation with yet another picnic in an idyllic spot was one of the very many highlights of the journey.
The weather the next day was clement so we were able to take the mountain route in the direction of Afourer which was our last stop before heading back to Marrakech. This was some of the most spectacular scenery of the journey, some clouds rolling in, the poplar trees changing colour, rain threatening (which would quickly have made progress very difficult as we had to cross several river beds).
On our final day we were on a small road not far from the Cascades d’Ouzoud which are written up in many travel guides, so (with due reluctance) we decided we ‘ought’ to see them. The only benefit of this stop where the tourist buses were parked and crowds of vastly overweight tourists were gawping at the sights was to make us realize yet again how totally privileged we had been to have spent nine days in total solitariness in some of the most magnificent scenery you can imagine – again it defies description and all I can say is, do go and see it for yourselves (see our website www.darcilla.com and go to Travel Morocco Africa). It is an unforgettable experience made easy by two such fun-loving and caring guides. The many magical moments will live in my memory for a long time to come and I just hope I shall be privileged to go yet again.
Addendum : The People
I spend approximately two months of every year in Amsterdam where there is a large Moroccan population. The majority is now second or third generation. Many are now Dutch citizens and have Dutch passports while retaining their Moroccan passports.
Many of them do not have work and their consequent boredom has led many of them to form ‘gangs’ in some of the more heavily populated suburbs, giving cause for concern to other residents. In general, they are not popular. – to the extent that I am often asked ‘whatever makes you want to go to Morocco so often, are you not afraid?’ Many who ask this question have only been to Marrakech, or Tangier, and found the slick patter of many an irritating guide in the big cities ‘off-putting’ and the hassle of bargaining in the stores exhausting. On our trips we are not in the big cities, we are not on a tourist route, coaches are not able to access the remote areas we so love, and we are treated with friendly respect and reciprocate similarly. We are a small enough group to be treated as individuals, we take the time to get to know our hosts and they us, and I (author of this blog and oldest in our group) am always respectfully addressed as ‘Madame Zoë’ which I find totally endearing.
Afraid? Far from it. I, and my group of fellow travellers, are addicted to Morocco and have experienced nothing but genuine friendliness and hospitality from all those we have met on our journeys.
To start with – our drivers/guides. It is difficult to imagine you could find better, more professional or more congenial, fun-loving driver-guides than Ibrahim and Moha. They ‘complement’ each other, they are attentive, never intrusive, but totally at ease and totally correct with us all (seven women from a very different culture than their own). By mutual agreement we decided not to drink alcohol in their presence, and not to discuss politics or religion. For us, it goes without saying that we dress discretely, in our own styles (i.e. no headscarves). From Day One they set the relaxed ‘leave-all-your-worries-and-preconceptions-at-home’ tone. It is their territory (as Berbers) and they are happy and proud to take us to their villages, their families and in to their homes where – although we don’t meet their wives – we are offered delicious meals.
Everyone, everywhere, is the epitome of friendly hospitality and no-one asked us for money. As a group, we had a communal purse, and it was easy to ask our guides when it was appropriate to pay something towards the food we had been offered. From the beginning it was made clear we should not give money to children alongside the road – they do not want to create a nation of beggars. Sweets and biscuits and bottles of water are much appreciated.
It is our fervent hope that Morocco will remain a peaceful country and not get caught up in the violence currently decimating other countries in northern Africa/ the Middle East. There is so much positive energy, so many major new projects, (a complete ‘revamping’ of Tangier for example with new harbours recently completed), an excellent infrastructure (new auto routes, and the TGV will be operative soon). I would strongly recommend you go there now, before the country becomes too popular. The Royal Cities route and a tour to the High Atlas are in nearly every tour guide – be different and take an individualized, personalized tour to the fabulous interior of the country and see THE REAL MOROCCO. We are happy to help organize this for our Dar Cilla guests – to whom we are able to describe our experiences in even more detail , and to sense whether they are the sort of fun-loving travellers who will enjoy the simplicity and beauty of the tours we do.
(Recommended reading: Des Bédouins dans le polder by Fouad Laroui: Editions Le Fennec Casablanca ISBN 978-9954-1-6726-7 (September 2010). Only in French!