I believe travel develops an altered state of consciousness and moves us from the alert problem solving one we usually adopt in our everyday lives, as it allows more creativity, imagination and innovation to creep in. This certainly happened to me as I travelled from the the modern city of Casablanca on the coast of Morocco to Berber villages in the high Atlas Mountains, and to the city of Chefchaouen in the Northern most part of the country.
Morocco is a land that inhabits your dreams, if you let it, with its towering mountains, hot Sahara winds, fields of wild scarlet poppies, and ancient mud Kasbahs that rise like strange other planetary dwellings from the blood-red earth they are built of. Its gorges drop dramatically at your feet to clear, fast- running rivers many miles below the bone-white rocky outcrops that frame them. Looking down the steep canyons, one catches glimpses of the numerous green, date palm oases nestled within this otherwise arid landscape.
As one gazes across Morocco’s expansive flat vistas and high mountains that stretch for miles as far as the eye can see, it’s easy to imagine camel trains swaying into the Caravansereis (roadside inns) for a rest stop, as they carry goods they’ve brought with them all the way across the Sahara from the steamy jungles and wild coastal villages of Nigeria, Ghana and Mali.
As we pass the many donkeys and people laden with alfalfa walking on the side of the road or along the river beds, it’s as if we have stepped back many centuries into the past.
The kind Berber who gets me up onto a camel in the Sahara, wears traditional long blue robes and a turban, and it seems as if he too has stepped out of a history book to meet me. His hands are rough as he helps me onto Fatima my camel; his smile in a bronzed face is friendly. He gently leads Fatima and me up and down orange covered dunes until we can see nothing but honey colored, smooth sand all around us.
As I watch Fatima’s careful steps and adjust to her rolling, uncomfortable gate, my guide whispers yallah, yallah in her ear, and she brushes his shoulder in acknowledgement with her large nose. The camel in front turns around and bares his teeth and hisses; for an instant she has stepped too close.
Instead of riding Fatima back to camp on our return journey, my husband and I decide to walk since one of my legs has cramped, and for a moment as the camel train disappears over the horizen, we are completely alone standing together in the Sahara as the sun drops and the first stars come out.
There is silence all around us, the silence of ghosts, the silence of human history. I feel as if everything that has ever happened in this spot is enfolded around us in non-linear time, and is ready to appear like a holograph, if only we had the quantum key which would unlock it and set it free.
We shared our twelve day tour, brilliantly and professionally organized by Intrepid Travel, with an intergenerational, international group of eight, and our Berber guide Abderrahim El Mkadem. We were from Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, and we immediately became fast friends and excellent travelling companions.
As we roamed around Morocco together, it was made clear to us by Abderrahim that the country and its people are a confluence of Arab and Berber, and it was through him and his stories we begun to understand the differences between the two.
Berber history goes back to prehistoric times and the Berbers have been in Northern Africa for more than 4000 years. They have fought against Roman, Arab and French invadors, and despite every effort to colonize them they have preserved their own language and culture. Today most Moroccans are either Berbers, Arabs or Moors (a combination of Berber/Arab decent). Their ancestors are the ones that built the mighty Moorish empire that ruled Spain, Portugal and Northern Africa. The Berbers of Morocco are in fact what we would refer to in the US, as its first peoples.
Initially the Berbers believed in a pantheon of gods. The most recent influence on their religious beliefs however, came from the Arab world during the ninth century when they were converted to Islam. Even today it can be said that some of the traditional, ancient, Berber religious beliefs still exist within their culture and tradition.
Our adventure started at the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca shown below. Completed in 1993, this extraordinary monument was the late king’s most ambitious project and his legacy to the city. Its 200 metre-high minaret is the tallest in the world. Hassan II Mosque can accommodate 25,000 worshippers, and is one of the only religious sites in Morocco open to non-Muslims.
One of our next stops after visiting the Mosque in Casablanca was at the World Heritage site of Volubilis, which was among the Roman empire’s most remote bases. The remains made an undeniably impressive sight on us as they came into our view on the edge of a long, high plateau. While there we saw our first storks nesting on top of pillars with an array of intact Roman mosaics at their feet, and surrounded by fields of colorful wildflowers.
In Chefchaouen, one of our Northern most stops, we stayed in a Riad that was right in the heart of the Medina with its striking blue and whitewashed houses, red-tiled roofs and artistic doorways. Much of it recreated by Andalusian refugees escaping the Reconquistia. The narrow streets were full of cats and kittens since they are thought to bring good luck with them. We saw no dogs of any kind, and we learnt they generally aren’t kept as pets by Moroccans .
After our stay in this beautiful blue city, framed by the towering Rif mountains, we made our way to the Sahara via Fes and Midelt. Near Midelt we took a picturesque late afternoon walk around the edge of a rocky canyon, passing through a Berber village and visiting a local home.
The young twenty seven year old woman who entertained us in her tiny mud house already had six children, and was married at fifteen. Her husband was not there and was out tending their goats and sheep on one of the steep rocky, neighboring hillsides, where we met these entertaining children pictured below.
Moving on from Midelt in our comfortable private bus, driven by Esmail our excellent driver, we arrived at our camp in the Sahara in the late afternoon. It was located in the town of Merzouga close to the Algerian border, with a backdrop of the orange-coloured Erg Chebbi sand dunes, which towered 150 metres above our tents.
A day after our camping adventure on the edges of the Sahara, we started our journey back to Marrakech on a winding road that took us through the Atlas mountains to the El Kelaa M’Goun (Rose Valley), where we stayed at a family-owned gite. Once there, our hosts showered us with Berber hospitality, including teaching us how to make the traditional Moroccan dish of Tajine (stewed ingredients).
Moroccan food is often flavored with Ras el Hanout (top of the shelf) an exotic mix of sweet, savory, and spicy spices. It’s used to season couscous, rice, or other grains. It can also be sprinkled on fish, chicken, or red meat as a dry rub before grilling. I’ve been using it in my spagetti sauce, so a new dish has been created, Moroccan spaghetti!
The male owner of the gite had a tremendous sense of humor and kept telling us in French he had two wives and was looking for a third. It turned out that in fact he only had one wife and four beautiful children.
The following morning after breakfast we enjoyed a hike on winding mud pathways up through a steep valley surrounded by verdant fields of poppies, roses, wheat, alfalfa, and barley. In addition there were walnut trees, date palms and exquisite kitchen gardens surrounded by hand-made irrigation systems where water ran everywhere. The air was fresh, the sky was blue and the light was clear and transparent. Along the way we met barefoot children who begged us for stilos (pens) and paper.
From Rose Valley we drove to the Todra Gorge, a massive trench that rises over 250 metres to form one of the most dramatic and spectacular natural sights in Morocco.
Along the way we stopped at the Kasbah Ameridhl, with its extravagant decorations and mud-brick fortifications.
After our visit to the Todra Gorge, we hiked up to Ait Benhaddou. Perched on a hilltop and almost unchanged since the 11th century, it is one of Morocco’s most iconic sites, and its Kasbah is one of the most beautiful in Morocco offering a fine example of clay architecture.
The markets in Morocco are all located in the Medinas, ancient walled-in cities with many narrow and maze-like streets. Walking in them is an overwhelming experience because of the mass of people, multiple shops, and smells, both good and bad. They are reminiscent of small towns and main streets all over America, before the big box stores with their antiseptic sameness took over. I thought these markets in the Medina’s were a vivid and timely reminder of how entrepreneurial business can be conducted very successfully locally, without a corporate overlay, or a “made in China” label.
All of the Medinas which we visited as we toured throughout Morocco, including those in Meknes, Rabat, Fes and Marrakech were full of classic examples of craftsmanship. There was stunning silver jewelry by Tuareg and Amazigh artists, including handmade babouche carpets created by women and men in well-run, craft cooperatives. These cooperatives also produced embroidered caftans, or textiles such as Berber pillows, kilims, pottery and many other treasures.
Everyone should consider visiting Morocco. If I had enough resources I’d send all the school children in America there. It defies the stereo types we’ve created of the Muslim world. It is far from Saudi Arabia and none of the Muslims I met had any significant interest in Mecca, nor were they fixated on going to the Middle East, since they identify as Africans. In fact they believe that money spent to go to Mecca should rather be given to those most in need in Morocco. They were discreet about their religious beliefs, even though it was during Ramadan, and all were interested to learn about our families and our lives, as we talked to them in Arabic, French, Berber or Spanish.
I found Moroccans to be unusually hospitable and friendly, mirrored by this Berber family shown below in Meknes, who cooked an intimate Ramadan dinner for us, and warmly welcomed us into their home.
Along the way, our guide generously shared many stories about his life and family growing up as he did in a small Berber village consisting of only five families. His ancestors, who were primarily subsistence farmers, have lived in this village in the high Atlas mountains for six generations. He explained to us that because he was the oldest child of his parents, he was given the most opportunity. Because of his love of English and languages, which he was able to practice in a small tourist restaurant where he was a waiter in his teens, he left his home to attend university, the first in his family to do so.
Unfortunately he told us that he regrets his sister had to leave school at ten to help his mother at home, even though she was the brightest in her class. Now, he told us, because of recent laws introduced by the King several years ago, women have equal rights to men. Because of this they are entering universities in greater numbers where their education is completely free, and graduating to fill traditionally male jobs such as pilots, lawyers, train drivers, doctors and tour guides.
Abderrahim often joked with us about how his mother is trying to persuade him to get married, explaining with a laugh that “no girl has yet added sugar to my tea,” telling us that in Morocco if a girl is interested, she serves the man’s family mint tea, (known as Moroccan whisky), with sugar.
I believe traveling shows us that we humans are alike everywhere, despite our cultural and religious differences. That we have the same hopes, fears and ambitions, despite the individual accidents of our birth.
It is this singular thought I believe that must be nurtured, as we build a peaceful future together on this miraculous planet, and make efforts to explore and preserve the history and landscape we all share.
In 1988 two mates from Melbourne, Darrell and Manch turned their entrepreneurial thoughts toward the thing they loved the most — travel.
The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Intrepid sends over 100,000 travellers across the globe each year and employs more than 1,000 staff . Intrepid is still adding to their list of over 800 different itineraries across Europe, Asia, Africa, North & South America, the Middle East, Australia and both the Arctic & Antarctica.
Felicity Harley is a writer who is currently engaged in completing a four book science fiction series on climate change. The first of which, The Burning Years, was published by Double Dragon Publishing in 2017.
Thanks to my fellow travellers: Chris my husband, Abderrahim El Mkadem our wonderful guide, Esmail our superb driver, New Zealand Deb, Australian Deb, Canadians Kris, Keith, and Sue, and Jessica from Oregon, for sharing this fabulous journey and their photographs with me. May we drink many more nous nous together (Moroccan coffee). Salaam Aleikum!