Midnight at the Oasis

Family Tour of Marrakech, Agafay Desert, Fes and Tangier, August 2018

Even though we have expressed in several e-mails the fabulous experience and memories made on our adventure arranged through you, I want to take a moment to formally thank you and convey my appreciation. What started out as a thread of an idea, turned out to be a journey of a lifetime! I had heard you could take a camel trek in the Sahara and overnight, but stumbling upon your website was the luckiest thing that happened to us.

With our rather extensive travel experience, Gayle and I would normally arrange everything ourselves, to us it’s part of the fun. But due to the time restraint, booking so close in, we really had no time to check things out and were really flying blind when Mohammed came to pick us up at the Riad that morning. We had no idea of the adventure that laid before us.

Every day was greeted with such excitement and anticipation, as we learned after the first day, this was something truly special. And each day did bring with it such diversity and new wonders. I complement you on the layout of the program.

First, the product you are selling is so exceptional, but your execution of presenting it to us was excellent. I can’t think of a single problem we had, which is usually unheard of in travel. Besides the logistics, which are essential and basic to the trip, what makes it truly so memorable are the spontaneous experiences along the way. The only people who can help direct that are the people you have on the ground with us, Majhoudi Mohamed, our guide, and Alla Mbark, our driver. Without them, it just wouldn’t have been the same. It’s not easy for five people in one car for six days, who never met before. By the time the adventure was over, we were like family, and there were true tears of sadness to say good-bye. I can’t express what a difference they made to the trip.

Mohamed is a true professional. Both intelligent and charming, his kindness, openness and sense of humour were impressive. He was able to open doors to experiences that we would not have been able to do on our own. Language and custom make it somewhat restrictive for us, and although that has never stopped Gayle and I in the past, it allowed us to make further in roads to the cultural exchanges we seek in our travels. Mohamed had the perfect combination of discretion and service.

Mbark gave us a great sense of security on the very challenging roads. He is obviously an experienced driver and new the roads well, never putting us at risk or making us feel uncomfortable. He was constantly attentive to his job of staying with the car, making sure we were safe and in good positioning whenever we made unexpected photo stops. He always strove to make our comfort and convenience his number one priority, even up to the point in the airport when he got our customs cards for us. Kind and professional, as well as fun, he turned us all into aficionados of the Berber blues group, Tinariwen. (We couldn’t wait to buy their CDs when we got to Marrakech! ) Although, limited in speaking English, he understood much of what we said, and always understood our needs.

Also, I must tell you that we met some other travellers from your agency that expressed the same appreciation as we felt for your flexibility in finalizing the details of the trip. We changed our program so many times, I’m impressed you could keep up, let alone not scream at us. Thank you for your patience.

I often thought of that poor American couple who cancelled because of the recent protests in North Africa. What a shame for them, they missed so much, not least was the education of what the native peoples of this area are truly like. Having been in Morocco, maybe 20 times (and even living and going to school in Rabat) I learned a whole new side to the Berber culture, I never knew.

I wish I could book immediately to see all the areas we missed. Hopefully, it won’t be too long until we do.

Kindest regards, and wishing you all the success possible.

Desert Sojourns

3day Marrakech to Fes Desert Tour, June 2018

As the plane dipped its wing the scattered lights of Marrakech slid into view. Banking hard, the jet pulled itself around and set up for its approach in the warm night. It felt like the sun set a long time ago but a faint yellow glow still clung to the horizon, past the black hills and over towards the ocean far away. My journey took me in the opposite direction. The following morning I would depart east towards Algeria and the desert.

A gaggle of Americans, eight or ten of them, flapped around in the passport check line. They were excited and noisy on the empty flight, too. They asked me if I was from California. I said I was, and that I’ve been in Copenhagen for six months. The passport man eyeballed them hard. I got a stamp and got out of there. A city bus waited outside, past the rabid hordes of taxi guys barking loud. I jumped on, paid the bearded bus driver, and waited. After twenty minutes and a few more people we got underway. The black sky above was pierced with a thousand white lights, far away and unimaginable. All around the bus mopeds, bicycles, donkey carts, and trucks bounced everywhere; chaos rules the Moroccan street. We hit the centre of town and the bus driver slowed, calling me forward. “You are staying there. Remember that.” I had showed him a map and a name earlier. The bus stopped a few minutes later and after flashing a smile to the driver I jumped head on into a new world.

Yellow light filtered down from worn streetlamps that lined the street. In the street traffic bounced and weaved through itself, constantly on the edge of chaos. The sidewalk is safe until a rogue scooter decides it’s faster to jump the curb than dodge cars. Carts with old dirty donkeys pull by. They look like the saddest creatures ever. Off to the left, past a dark section of trees and paths, was an explosion of lights and people. I took a step towards it but kept heading to the riad the bus driver had pointed at. The explosion could be explored later and without a backpack.

The side street appeared after a few minutes and soon enough I was laying on a bed staring out an ornate window into the dark. I still had to find Abdullah, my first contact here. I found him downstairs with the newspaper, he said he was waiting for me. We set off into the mayhem to get some tea and some food. Around us men with dark faces sprawled piles of t-shirts and jackets on dirty rugs. “Cheap, my friend! Come come!” they would say through their smiles. One had to admire their persistence. We wove our way through late into the night; the street performers, medicine men, cooks, and tourists slid around us in a whirlwind.

The bus left at 8:30 the next morning and would not arrive in M’hamid until after nightfall, more than 10 hours away. I said goodbye to Abdullah and found a seat. My bag went in the back and I tipped the bus man so he would keep an eye on it. The inside of the bus was dark: black seats, black carpet, black curtains. It looks cleaner that way and this bus looked dirty. An old man sat down next to me. If wrinkles were years he’d be a thousand. Through the whole journey I sat next to some interesting faces, both young and old. It was the people’s bus; I was the only foreigner. With a roar of diesel we groaned out of Marrakech.

The energy of the city quickly faded into the flat, rural countryside. Date palms flashed green past the window as white robed men walked slowly by the side of the road. Every so often a dirt crossroad would appear and disappear. After a few hours we reached the base of the shadowed and snow-capped Atlas Mountains. The bus grunted, downshifted, and began the slow Icarus climb up towards the white sun. The narrow road wound up and up, black asphalt switching back on itself countless times, an enormous snake amongst the dry mountain bushes. The bus driver’s assistant passed out little plastic baggies in case anyone got sick. A few did.

We stopped at a small mountain village lining the road closely as all mountain villages do. A blue, frothing stream rushed away nearby as the bus unloaded to stretch stiff legs and buy a little food from the few restaurants and shops lining the dirt sidewalk. With a few coins I bought some water from a toothless old man and slowly wandered up and down the street. The village was two minutes long, round trip. After a few laps the bus burst to life and the driver smashed on the horn. Everyone moved quickly and the bus bumped forward again, heading down the long snake road.

The Atlas Mountains peaked with the sun then faded away as we rumbled eastward still. The sun was dropping lower towards the distant horizon and the rocky hills began to light up gold and orange. We passed massive canyons cut deep into the red earth and green, happy oases bursting with palms, mud canals, washerwomen and their playing children. Eventually the sun disappeared past the infinite, rugged horizon and the purple twilight grew to replace it. I smiled a weary road smile for twilight is my favourite time of day. It is the pause between the in-breath and out-breath of night and day; a time of stillness, silhouettes, newly crackling fires, and the smell of cooking food.

M’hamid is at the end of the road. We stopped in its dirt parking lot well past dark with only a few of us left on the bus. Most got off in the oasis towns of Zagora or Ouarzazate. Of the remaining I was the only one who didn’t know where to go. I had been told that there would be a man waiting for me when the bus arrived. As the bus driver pulled the keys and everything went dark I left the bus and practically landed in the arms of my guide, Muhammed. He was a small man standing in the bright moonlight and his white smile flashed bright as he saw me. I grabbed my bag and we set off down the dusty moonlit street towards his home, where I was to stay before departing the next morning for the desert. We eventually pushed through the small, heavy door into his mud brick, windowless home where inside lived some of the warmest, friendliest people I’ve ever met. I ate dinner with Muhammed and a few of his family before falling asleep on the textured, colourful home made rugs and pillows that lined the main room and curled up its dirty walls. We had an early start the next day.

The sun rose without me. When I finally stretched awake between eight and nine preparations for the journey were already well underway. The camels sat with their crazy legs tucked under them and woven baskets slung over their brown backs loaded down with enough food and water for Muhammed, his young son Hassan, and myself. Muhammed is someone who seems to have boundless energy. He runs ultra-marathons in his spare time, multi-day events through hellish conditions for body and mind. He speaks French, Arabic, and Berber and I definitely don’t. So instead we have intense charade and sketch conversations together, gesturing like madmen with goofy grins plastered all over our faces. We were ready for five days through the Moroccan desert. In front of the house neighbours passed and gazed curiously, smiling. It was a family trip, plus one. Soon enough we were ready to depart and with eyes on the horizon we quickly cleared the rough, garbage strewn edge of M’hamid. We walked, camels in line behind us, for three hours out away from the village. Army green shrubs dotted the vast open land. Underfoot the sand was crusted and yellow and blowing low. During the first hours my eyes were wide as we walked through the low dry bush land under the great blue dome of the sky.

Journal Entry: Camp fire + dinner: dates, peanuts, tea, vegetables steamed/stewed: squash, carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes. plus spices. then apples and tangerines for dessert. I just realized that I am the farthest from civilization that I have ever been. Ever. It’s fantastic! Watched the sun set and an hour later the moon rose big and yellow. The stars shined bright for that in-between hour but now are almost all lost in the moonlight. This is one of the best trips I’ve been on. Muhammed and his son are good people. I played football in the hot sun with Hassan today. We used an old vegetable oil bottle and just went for it. He’s seven or eight and classic. He walked almost the whole time today – six or seven hours in the heat. He was shy but after the football match we’re friends. Camels munching in the background. Silence except the scratch of my lead onto this paper. I want to write everything. I can only write nothing. End of Journal Entry

The day passed with subtle changes. The desert tableau shifted in the wind as our feet carried us onwards. The sun would rise cold and silent as the wind howled over the growing dunes. Breakfast is prepared over the open fire that snaps to life in the morning chill. Tea is heated and poured from tin kettle to glass and back to kettle over and over. With long, towering pours the sugar dissolves. The tea steeps. Simple and strong. The coming of the sun is tracked by the successive lighting of the dunes to the west. The warm line would creep closer until it would suddenly move past our sandy camp and the sun the sun shone clear and bright from the east. Hassan would sleep or stay covered until breakfast was ready. The camels picked at the low, scattered brush surrounding the camp, free except for the rope binding their front legs and restricting their stride to short, clumsy staggers. The morning routine also involved wrapping the black headscarf so it would cover the head, neck, and face. Initially Muhammed would wrap and tie mine but soon enough I could take the long stretch of dark cotton in both dirty hands and wrap it around my dirty hair and over my dirty neck. When Muhammed saw this he laughed, proud, and teased Hassan because mine was done better than his.

Lunch breaks are long for a reason. We stop when the sun is high in the sky burning January hot rays down. Muhammed smiles as he sees the bright beads of sweat. Summer is hotter – much hotter. I gaze upwards at the sun again, thankful. Here, way out, it dictates life. It and the constant wind. Shade is found next to the dry, mounded Tamarisk trees nested in the valleys between yellow, blowing dunes. Eventually even the lonely trees stop, exhausted by the sun above. Fire. Tea. Lunch unfolds from the dusty sacks and boxes carried by our camels. They wander again, huge hairy lips searching for food in this nowhere land. One, the darker of the two, loves the orange peels left over. I feed her the scraps from my flattened palm and she looks at me with big brown camel eyes reflecting the deep desert beyond. She’s always around camp and has to be driven off my the little Hassan, wielding a knotted green rope and shouting mad into the emptiness.

Journal Entry: The sun vanishes in a haze of lit clouds, disappearing for another day. I sit on the west facing slope of a darkening dune a short ways from tonight’s camp under the mounded Tamarisk tree. Muhammed is preparing the fire to make bread. We ate the last of what we brought this afternoon under the towering sun. We climbed a huge dune, a mountain of sand, barefoot and scrambling. At the top Muhammed sat with Hassan in the wind and hot blowing sand and told him about the mountains, the desert, how far away M’Hamid lies (34 km, straight), and why the draa (river swale) is where it is. I sat back and wrapped the black fabric over my face to filter the sand. It was blowing fast and hard up up up and over the dune’s narrow ridgeline. Deposits of sand built up on the opposite side, slowly moving the dunes grain by grain. End of Journal Entry

We sat at the top of the highest dune around, a full three hundred meters of sand. The desert exists as a shifting and painted landscape. It isn’t just sand, which piles in clumps and you know where it is. Rocks crop out. Dry lakebeds crack. Tired green trees push towards the sky with dusty branches and exposed roots twisting through the dry ground. It is those trees that provide the bulk of our firewood. Muhammed and I collect it in the fading silhouette light as the ever-present sun drifted below the black horizon. Arms full we march ten minutes back through the dunes. The branches are bone-dry and caked with dust. They light instantly, cracking and popping and spitting warmth and a red glow under the dusty tree where we sit in silence.

Each night the moon rose after a few hours of starred darkness. Its rise was full and bright, the coming of a second sun washing the stars away. The moon hung there round and gray until the cold morning where it would drift down slow, disappearing under the sandy horizon while the sun began its climb once again. Nights are dominated by journals and stories and laughter. The tea flows and the fire burns to red coals under the endless night sky.

The pace in the desert is slower. Things are noticed, observed, and recognized. The sand shifts in colour, pattern, grain, and softness. The trees exist in long rows of tangled roots, low and small. The old trees stand alone on their mounds, proud and strong. Dung beetles scramble black against the sand, paths and destinations unknown. We wander, I am lost, but Muhammed knows. He will stop, look at the ground, look at the sky, and change our direction enough to get us where we are going. All the while Hassan smiles and laughs, constantly wanting to play. The little nomad is full of energy. He monkeys in the brittle trees. The limbs he snaps we plant as a new desert forest on sandy ridgelines. We play games in the sand, especially a form of tic-tac-toe with the date-sized rock hard camel dung. I let him win sometimes. He lets me win sometimes. He captures the dung beetles, throwing them a thousand beetle kilometres across the hot mid-day dunes.

Our route, a large wobbly circle led out from M’hamid and eventually turned after le grand dune back towards where we came from. Backs to the sun we walked on. Off to the left, stretching on into the distance, a low line of dark trees signalled a now-dry riverbed. Here we headed, cutting up and over the shrinking dunes until a way led through the band of trees, wider than expected, and down into the wide dry river crossed with tracks. In the distance, northwards, two camels walked slowly behind a nomad dressed in dark robes. Muhammed knew the man, as he had known everyone in his village and as he knew everyone we would meet on our walk back. We walked on and met the man, exchanging greetings in Arabic. All smiles, white teeth flashing under bright eyes. Our roads led in different directions and we parted ways. After a few minutes I looked back; the man and his camels were lost to the shifting sands. The riverbed, the draa, contains a deep well deep and cool. A bucket made of dirty plastic hangs from a worn rope, anchored to a green steel frame standing rigid above the well. The camels drink long; they haven’t had water in days. Hassan laughs and spills water as he refills the black buckets for them. He’s sitting on the raised edge of the well, barefoot and dirty. A child of the desert. The son of a nomad.

The changing landscapes continued as the day wore on and the sun began its drop towards the cool night. From the draa we progressed onwards past stacked stone ruins of long abandoned outposts. Their thick walls grew from the red desert, a fold of the land built against the wind and sun. All that remained, like so many things here, was the scoured bones of occupation. We looked through the rough doorways and imagined.

Clouds covered the sun and we walked on. Hassan rode up on the darker camel. I walked in my usual spot to the left and slightly behind the rear camel. Here I found the rhythm my steps merge with those of the camels and the deep howl of the wind. I had walked there for three days previous, sometimes moving forward to guide the camels, sometimes dropping farther back. That night at the fire we ate well. Muhammed made bread in the hot coals to dip in the vegetable curry. Cool cucumbers sat in a neat pile. The tree of us eventually lay back and looked to the heavens. The stars burned holes in the blackness. Earlier, after the fire burst to life, I walked out into the void beyond the warm light. It was the farthest from anywhere I’d ever been. A yell, loud and primal, gets lost in the night; evaporated into isolation. Hassan, far away at the shifting fire, yelled his yell up at the great vast sky above our heads. We laughed, points in the emptiness. In the absence of anything we find everything. The fire fades and its coals are raked in three long bars and covered with sand. They stay warm most of the night, insulated by the sand, blankets, and bodies piled above. The camels are silent in the night. Their big eyes rest like ours, readying for the next bright day to follow as they always do.

Dawn is as spectacular as dusk, a full moon sets as an orange sun rises. Cycles begin anew. The fire, always and constant, crackles with dry desert wood. Hassan is buried under blankets and doesn’t emerge until breakfast is ready. Muhammed shivers in the cold, smiling as always, and we warm our hands on the fire until the tea is ready. Today will be the final day. Later we will walk slowly through the outskirts of M’Hamid as the sun sets red behind the mountains in the far distance. The day after the bus will take me up and over them, chasing the sun back to Marrakech. My head swirls with thoughts of the other world, out there, that I will soon return to. The days walk takes us through land increasingly cut with tire tracks and bits of random garbage bleached by the harsh elements. In the distance slow caravans move along ancient routes. I open my eyes wider, trying to absorb it all in one last day. My clothes, unchanged since leaving Rome so long ago, before Marrakesh, before the bus rides, are dirty but comfortably so. Sand and dust have invaded every fold and crease, as it has in Muhammed’s and Hassan’s clothes as well. They didn’t change so I didn’t either. The sand infiltrates everything. My camera’s lens grinds as it slowly opens to capture another one. My shoes trap it; we go barefoot every chance we get, Hassan and I.

The TV flickers and hums to life. In the mud brick home of Muhammed and his family I sit on those thick rugs and talk with an older cousin named Hassan. We speak Spanish, him better than I but it is a common ground nonetheless. We talk about what we can but I mostly just feel like sitting in silence. In the background the TV shows an American movie about a girl terrorized by her psychotic, truck-driving ex-boyfriend who chases her around the countryside in his big black Chevy. It’s completely absurd and a little surreal. I can’t help but laugh out loud; I don’t think those around me quite get how ridiculous the spectacle is for me. A study in contrasts to be sure. Dinner comes with smiles. Little Hassan eats next to me and draws in my sketchbooks. The desert, for him, is a second home. I say little and focus on my food and reflecting on the week that has passed under the sun. We made it back to M’Hamid in the late afternoon glow. At a well I drew water for the camels. Their big wise eyes shined at me lazily. They’ve seen it all before. They know. Every so often as we approached the fringe of the town Muhammed would stop and talk with friends; it seemed he knew everyone. We passed through the dirt streets and found his house. His wife was across the way washing with a neighbour. She smiled and waved but didn’t leave her work. Kids played football in the dust. More cousins greeted us and helped with the tired camels as we headed inside for some tea.

The morning comes early after a deep sleep on the thick rugs. Muhammed was going with me to Zagora, and I was going onwards alone from there. A horn sounded outside the door and it was time. We hurried out the small door and into the waiting bus, much smaller than the one I took previously. Tired men and women sat in the seats. Muhammed insisted I sit up front, next to the driver, while he lay in the back and fell asleep. We bumped over the dirt roads through town for almost a half hour picking up people for the early journey west. As we were about to clear the edge of town we slowed and picked up a police officer. He joined me in the front, sandwiching me between him, the gearshift, and the driver. Gruff smiles flashed in the darkness and the driver slammed a cassette of prayer chants into the tape deck. A haunted, mournful voice consumed the bus. After awhile the sun rose as the road wound on. I struggled to find a comfortable position but the view was good. The driver bombed full-on down the narrow road. Oncoming traffic would dodge to the side at the last minute. Every so often we would stop to pick up a few people until the bus was packed full. The cassette flipped for the fourth time. A and B sides were a total of thirty minutes, maybe forty. The same voice rang out once again as the bus driver missed a shift and gears ground under our feet.

From Zagora I said goodbye to Muhammed and got on the next bus, a big one like the first time. He talked to the bus driver and got me a good seat, not too far forward not too far back. He smiled proudly and waved as the bus pulled onto the main road. West again, back to Marrakech. Some long, uncounted hours later the bus pulled into the city under the black night. I grabbed my bag and headed off to find where I came from. The back streets wound crazily, narrow and bending under yellow lamps. It seemed everyone was going everywhere at once. The contrast with the previous week could not have been greater. Eventually I found the main square and the riad I stayed at. Tonight they were full, even for me. I asked if I could leave my bag while I explored the city for a few hours. Of course. Smiles.

After a dinner of fresh squeezed orange juice, the best I’d ever had, I set off through the streets in search of nothing. To wander, that is the only way to find anything. Street rats, old men, fashionable women, groups of teenagers, and tourists flooded the centre of the city. Everything was being sold: watches, shoes, rugs, lamps, food, mystic crystals, everything. I bought nothing but enjoyed the spectacle as I looped a big circle before grabbing my bag and heading to the airport. The flight was in the morning, Marrakech to London to Copenhagen, so I’d sleep at the airport. The same bus driver that had dropped me off now picked me up. Marrakech blazed through the window as we sped towards the future. The few people on the bus threw me looks: I was dirty, tired, beat, worn out, and completely happy. The airport is under construction and as a result isn’t the greatest place to sleep so I headed out past the lights of the empty parking lot and found an old dark orange grove to lay my sleeping bag in and shut my eyes for a few hours. Soon the sun came, and I was on the plane pulling up hard away from Morocco and the desert. We cut North through the sun. I had sketchbooks out, taking up three seats in the back row. The stewardess smiled and sat next to me for awhile, wanting stories. She said they didn’t have many people like me on their flights, with all my notes and drawings and dirt, and I said that’s probably a good thing.

Looking down through the tiny round window the desert country stretched into the distance. Mountains cast long shadows from the sun, still early in its rise. I turned and focused back on my sketchbooks as the plane flew smooth and true.

Journal Entry: Winding through the dunes there was a sense of isolation that I have not felt for a long time. It was a different kind than many because of its duality: while isolating it is at the same time connecting – people, thoughts, sounds, the sky and the earth. It wraps, overwhelms, comforts, and consumes. One becomes aware of the changes in the sand, the slow steady course of the sun, the howl of the wind in places distant but visible. The sojourn here in the desert is never-ending. The sojourn here is life itself. End of Journal Entry


Sweet Mint Tea Flavoured Sahara

5 Day Marrakech City Break, May 2018

Me and my mom had five days we could spend for vacation. I looked at the map searching for the unique spot that wouldn’t be oceans away from home and then it hit me – the Sahara desert is just 5 hours flight away and is definitely one of the must-see places in the world. I booked the flights to Morocco and contacted Authentic Morocco asking them to organize a desert trip from Fez to Marrakech. I can confidently say – this was one of the most exceptional experiences in my life.

The driver/guide Lahsen picked us up our riad in Fez at the precise time. Over those 3 days trip he became our friend. Not only did he take the best care of us, but he also showed us very authentic places. On our way to and from the desert we visited nomads, had lunch with a Moroccan family, stopped in the High Atlas mountains to admire stunning views, small silver shops to buy some gorgeous jewellery, an argan oil factory and much more. The best part is that during this long ride through the country we were able to ask Lahsen any questions that came to mind and he kindly answered all of them, giving us a chance to better understand Moroccan culture – he made us feel more like we were visiting a friend than having a touristic trip. Also, we were impressed by the hospitality and kindness of Moroccan people – everywhere you stop, you are offered a glass of traditional mint tea with a smile.

The main purpose of the trip, to see Sahara, exceeded all of our expectations. However, this is the most difficult part to describe. The real writer’s talent would never be enough to squeeze all that huge impression into words – it was out-stan-ding. The combination of all the tranquillity, the sound of the wind, the sunset-sky-coloured sand, the never-ending dunes and millions stars in the sky at night creates an unforgettable feeling. I fell in love with Sahara and left a piece of my heart somewhere amongst those dunes. I will definitely be back.

We couldn’t be more thankful to Authentic Morocco, primarily Liz and Lahsen, for this fabulous trip. We felt safe, relaxed and, most importantly, happy during the whole trip. Thank you so much for all the precious memories!

Excerpts from a Moroccan Holiday Diary

5 Day Marrakech City Break, May 2018

First Impressions of Marrakesh.  My first time in Africa and what a place – it is an assault on the senses. The narrow streets buzz with life as push bikes, motor scooters, cars and donkey carts all fight for space through the alley ways of the Medina in Marrakesh. Sights and smells that are a world away from what I know – the tannery, souks, artisan workshops where craftsmen sit in a cupboard-sized space to work metal, wood, leather and anything to sell – after bartering with the customer of course and offering the ‘best Berber price’.

Mountains and Valleys.  Lush valleys and kaleidoscopic mountain colours all traversed in a four wheel drive vehicle using the ‘piste’ – rough, rocky, teeth rattling tracks that open up the best of Morocco’s landscape. ‘Off road’ can seem like ‘off the planet”; where the twisting and contorting of rocks, by massive plate tectonic forces in ancient times, has shaped the landscape. Erosion continues to sculpt the environment and light paints a different picture every hour of every day.

Life and the Berber Nomads.  Driving in the oued (the sometimes river bed) makes the route only just passable. The landscape appears too harsh to support life and yet the nomadic families we meet defy this impression by herding camels and goats.

The Berber nomad children are beautiful – wide eyed, curious but a little afraid and who can blame them. I feel voyeuristic but excited to be drinking Berber tea in a nomad’s tent, watching the children, thinking of the differences between my own daughters lifestyle and that of these young kids. The little girls are enchanting and I am torn between interacting with them and getting (hopefully) some good shots.

We encounter a camel herder named Zaid. The simplicity of his life is extraordinary when held up to our Western extravagance and materialism but he has riches that many of us strive for. When asked his age he says ‘who cares?’. Priceless. How wonderful to not know or even care about such things. The Berbers fit their landscape and survival is paramount – there is no concern for the kind of things that plague our daily lives.

The Desert.  In the desert dunes I sleep under the stars for the first time in my life! And what a sky: gazing at the constellations, the Milky Way, hoping for a fleeting glimpse of shooting stars that cross the inky blackness. Then waking, pre-dawn, to photograph the sun rising, the dunes coming to life as the light changes, edges sharpen, shadows stretch over the abstract shapes of the eternally shifting sand. No two are the same – we can see how the wind has pushed the sand up the face of the dune, sculpting the ripples up to the crest and then letting it slip down the other side. These meticulous patterns are broken only by the side winding tracks of a snake that is long gone and the paw prints of a Fennec fox. Standing there, staring across thousands of miles of Sahara, the vast expanse is stunning, physically challenging and almost overwhelming, but it has a serene quality that holds mind and body.

In the dunes we meet Muhammad who is comfortable with us and strikes a pose that is very poignant – the squint of dark eyes against Saharan sun, the blue of his robes contrasting with the desert sand of the Erg Chigaga sand sea that stretches for miles in every direction.

Lasting Impressions.  I have tried to embrace every new experience such as having my palm read when looking at jewellery and not worrying about my appearance (for once). I cannot hope to capture the magnitude of this place but if these images are technically, or artistically, good or bad, no-one can deprive me of the sense of wonder that these days evoked.

Meeting the Berbers has been humbling. Appreciating how the nomads eke out their existence, envying the farmers their simple lives in the lush valleys, the happy smiling children that wave at each vehicle. I have been completely absorbed by this extraordinary place and the whole experience and I am not the only one – my fellow travellers and I could not decide what day or date it was, we just knew that we wanted to see more and not think about going home, not just yet.

Go, see Morocco for yourself. You will not regret a moment.

Off the Beaten Track

Marrakech with Day Trip to lunch in the High Atlas, December 2017

We thought we would let you know just how well our tour of Morocco went.

When we were planning our trip you were very patient when we dithered so much about the route we wanted to take, your advice was invaluable.

Once we arrived in Marrakech everything worked like clockwork. The guided tour you arranged on the first day was great. The guide was very friendly and got the right balance between cultural visits to amazing buildings and everyday shopping for a picnic lunch!

Mohamed, our driver for the week’s tour was always very punctual and could not have been more helpful. He looked after us all extremely well throughout the tour and was a very safe driver, never taking risks and he coped extremely well with all types of situations on the road. It was also wonderful to have someone with us who spoke Arabic, Berber, French and English and could act as our interpreter, enabling us to talk to people we would otherwise have been unable to communicate with. We feel we got a much better understanding of Morocco as a result.

It was particularly good to be able to get off the beaten track and see parts of the country that so few tourists reach. The landscape was truly amazing, much more spectacular than we had imagined. As you know we were particularly keen to meet a nomad family and as ex-teachers to visit a school and these visits were fitted into our trip seemingly effortlessly. I’d really recommend that other tourists stuff the small spaces in their suitcases with hand or face cream for the nomad women who lead such a hard life or with pens or pencils for the very poor mountain schools.

Everyone we met was friendly, helpful and hospitable and we felt completely safe. We have spent quite a lot of time travelling in Central America and you have to be very careful all the time to avoid your personal possessions being stolen or worse, whereas in Morocco we felt safe at all times of the day or night, including in Marrakech – much safer than in London! We have recommended your organisation to others, and wish your business every success”

Living like a Desert Nomad

Casablanca to Tangier with Marrakech, Fes and Chefchaouen, October 2017

The journey began when we stepped from our elaborately decorated hotel, with its many mosaics and stunning foyer fountain into the scorching Moroccan sun, then into an air conditioned jeep where our Moroccan guide Youssef waited. Armed with our backpacks, cameras and an over abundance of water bottles we set out for the Sahara. Leaving our Marrakech hotel, which had been our home for 10 days, we felt the excitement of being on the road again take over, and watched the fascinating variety of methods of transport battling their way through the hectic road beside us. From donkey karts to mopeds, they wove in and out in intricate patterns in an attempt to take the lead in their imaginary race through the bustling streets. Soon, however, we had left the throng of the city, and were heading along peaceful country roads, with the Atlas mountains in the far distance, creeping closer with every mile.

In the two days travelling by jeep to reach the Sahara, we passed through the most harsh, desolate, but incredibly beautiful landscape we could imagine. Our guide drove the Tizn’Tichka pass through the Atlas mountains and stunning draa river valley where we passed through villages with waving children, excited to see someone pass by their remote dwellings. We received a small tour of one of these villages, Tamgroute, which was a humbling experience showing how little some of these villages have. A child made me a small misshapen camel from clay, and, although not up to the standard of the souvenirs we had bought, meant much more and it became my most treasured item from the trip.

Stopping in M’hamid we picked up our camel guide Mohammed. He invited us into his house, a mere clay and straw walled hut, with two rooms, one of which was minimally furnished with various brightly coloured and elaborately patterned rugs, one small round table and a small TV! The TV seemed strangely out of place in a house with no windows, and only a photograph of the king and an excerpt of the Quran on the wall. The other room was completely bare, but his wife and 4 children were happy to play, and occasionally peek curiously through at us, smiling and giggling, from the other room. We took off our shoes, sat on the rugs and were given mint tea and biscuits. My only regret at this time, was that I could not speak the language. His wife and children were incredibly welcoming and their smiles spoke plenty, but to be able to truly express our thanks for their hospitality would have pleased me greatly.

We watched from the jeep window as the landscape changed from mountainous, to rocky with occasional bushes, into more and more desolate landscape. We watched as the amount of living creatures dwindled, from donkeys and herds of goats, to only the occasional bird. We were caught by surprise however, whilst passing a small flock of birds, when Mohammed suddenly jumped out of the moving jeep and gave chase over the desert floor. It was such a comical sight, with his Jellaba (a traditional Moroccan robe, similar to a kaftan) and turban waving wildly in the wind as he ran, arms wide open like an excitable child after one of the birds. We watched, bewildered and amused by the bizarre sight, and were amazed when he caught one of these incredibly fast footed birds. We suddenly had a sobering thought however, that perhaps this frantic chase was to fetch tonight’s dinner and I began to dread what was going to happen to the poor bird, and also how I would react if this indeed was its fate. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when Mohammed proudly presented this bird to us just to show us, and gently released it again. He hopped back in the jeep as if the whole incident had never happened with a big smile spread across his face.

After a bumpy but exciting ride through the increasingly sandy and remote desert land we finally arrived exhausted, hot and hungry at the Erg Chigaga, dunes in the Sahara desert. The sight of the dunes melted all that fatigue away however, when we arrived at our desert camp. We stared in awe as the dunes loomed over us, golden, highlighted by the evening sun and as smooth as silk.

We could have been the only people in the world that night as we climbed the dunes. Our energy was sapped from us as we battled against the wind and sand, stinging and whipping our faces, with sweat running off us. We covered our faces with scarves and carried on pushing ourselves to the top, with our feet sinking and sliding into the hot sand with every step. It all became worthwhile however, when we sat on the top of the largest dune. The dunes behind stretched to the horizon, like a crumpled golden silk blanket, accentuated by the African sun and it was hard to believe they came to any sort of conclusion as they appeared to flow, seemingly untouched, to the end of the earth. Like a sea of fine sand, the ripples and waves were unspoiled, except for the occasional track of a sandfish and the tell-tale hole where it had scurried down to escape the intense heat of the sun.

Watching the sun fall from the sky in a stunning, and surprisingly quick, sun set, we felt the temperature drop and the dunes turn dark. The silence and calm engulfed us as we soaked in the atmosphere of this incredible place. The beauty and immenseness of the dunes were permanently imprinted in my memory.

When we finally descended, taking the fun way down, leaping and bounding with much giggling, our Berber hosts had prepared our evening meal of vegetable soup, chicken tagine and melon. The intoxicating fumes of the herbs and spices which had been infused in the tagine wafted out one of the Berber tents. We ate by candle light, and let our senses take in the sights and smells of the night. We sat outside our tents afterwards on cushions with fellow travellers at the camp, looking up at the incredibly starry sky, which seemed to feature every constellation known to man, and listened as the Berbers played music in front of us with traditional instruments. Their hospitality warmed us as they sang song, after song, encouraging us to dance and immerse ourselves in their private festival. The Berbers amazed us, as they had so little but the joy in their faces showed how contented they were with what they had. We would regularly hear the Berbers sing as they lazed in the dunes or laughing as they swapped stories and jokes with each other.

We settled that night in our incredibly hot Berber tent, a small hut made with clay and straw walls, and camel hair roof. It was basic, to say the least, but there didn’t seem a need for anything else in that environment. We spent a very hot night in the tent, and felt sand sprinkling on our faces at every breeze coming through the roof, so we were glad to spend some time in a small shelter the next day and get some respite from the heat. Our guide, Youssef, spent much time in the elaborate pouring, and re-pouring of mint tea. It would seem the more times you can pour it, and the higher the height you pour it from, the better, even if it means losing half of it as it splashes over the table. I must mention at this point that mint tea is quite an acquired taste, and I did everything I could think of to politely avoid more than the one glass of it. The shelter was really quite delightful, with many rugs on the floor, a few tables, and some fabric and straw to shelter us from the worst of the sun. We spent most of our day there, and I found it hard to comprehend how the Berber people who live there must spend their days. Much time was spent in drinking tea and talking, but other than that, I couldn’t see how else time could be spent.

I watched as Mohammed, our camel guide, chatted with the other Berbers with a joyful look on his face. Although I couldn’t understand the language, his face was full of character, and almost told stories of its own, showing much animation and excitement as he captivated a group of Berbers with his tales. What these tales were of, I can only guess, but, just being in his presence was an experience in itself.

That evening we returned to our desert camp and spent the evening on a camel trek at sunset. Having spoken to some travellers at our camp the night before we were told stories of lost belongings and camels throwing them off and bolting with their bags. Overcoming our nervousness, and keeping our belongings safely in our pockets, we enjoyed a different experience with our camels, which were very laid back and friendly, and happily plodded through the dunes. I noticed the long eye lashes of my camel shielding its eyes from the sand blowing in the wind as I used my western method of sunglasses and scarf! The experience was wonderful and I can’t think of a better way to watch the sun come down in the desert than from the back of a camel, swaying methodically from side to side.

We felt a strange mixture of relief and sadness at leaving the dunes the next day after another very hot night in our tent. I had a new found respect for the Berbers for managing to cope so well with the harshness of their environment and the heat. Mohammed laughed at our extreme perspiration, whilst boasting of wearing three layers himself, and not an ounce of sweat!

Feeling the sweat, sand and dirtiness of myself, having stayed in the desert for two nights, I felt a change in myself. I realised how over indulgent and vain our lives back home are. I thought of all my belongings in my room at home, and how none of them are really necessary, just luxuries, and it is actually possible to live with virtually nothing but food, water and a rug for comfort. Although this is probably an extreme in minimalism, it was also a great eye opener to show that you can be extremely happy regardless of having no real possessions. I also realised how much I had relaxed my cleaning rituals, which seemed pointless and exuberant in this environment when here I was coated in sand and sweat, probably smelling a fair bit…….but perfectly content.

Transported to Another Place and Time

4 Day Marrakech Desert Tour, December 2016

First off, I want to say that our whole experience with Authentic Morocco was great. Our trip would not have been the same without the experience you afforded us and I feel that the itinerary you created for us, based on what we said we were looking to experience, really allowed us to explore the country in a way that I suspect most visitors to Morocco never get the chance to do.

I really appreciated how patient you were in answering our ‘thousand-and-one’ questions, not just by email but also over the phone. The fact that you were open to me calling and running questions by you over the phone made the planning part of the experience that much more personable, and also made me realize just what an amazing experience we were in for.

Our driver/guide was fantastic! He was very quiet when he came to pick us up at 6:30am, taking care not to disturb the other guests, and was wonderfully patient whenever we wanted to stop for photos; we came back with over 900. Throughout the days we spent with him he was genuinely happy to explain things and, when our plans were suddenly thrown into disarray by the flash floods, he was great.

He stayed calm when we reached the flooding and immediately looked for an alternate route; in the end there was nothing to do but wait for the waters to recede and, when we did manage to cross, the water was as deep as the floorboards in the 4×4. The delay meant that we could not start our camel trek that evening, which was disappointing because my heart was set on watching the sunset over the dunes and spending a night in the Sahara. It was suggested that we could spend the night in a hotel and camel trek the next morning before continuing on our way, but I explained how much I wanted to spend one night camel trekking in the Sahara.

What my wife and I thought was really fantastic was that the itinerary was rearranged so that we spent the next day exploring the desert and, late in the afternoon, we set off on our overnight camel trek. It was obvious to us, from the way this was handled, that whatever we wanted to do or experience was more important than ‘sticking’ to the itinerary and the camel trek was one of the absolute highlights of our trip.

Your suggestion about the Gnawa musicians was fantastic; I was blown away. Sitting in the mud walled room, with the light streaming in from the windows and feeling the drum beat literally in my chest and seeing their faces … I was nearly overwhelmed; it was that moving and intense. I felt like I was transported to another place and time.

In short, our whole experience with Authentic Morocco was great. With you on the planning end, and such a fantastic driver/guide on the ‘execution’ end, we couldn’t have asked for a better experience. We will definitely recommend you to anyone who is looking to have a more personalized and truly authentic adventure in Morocco!

New Year Tour and a Friend Called Stoo

Tin Hinan Luxury Desert Camp, December 2016

A friend of mine called Stoo was going to Morocco on his second Authentic Morocco trip and, as it coincided with one of those rare periods when I had time and money, I thought I should go along and find out what makes an apparently sane man like Stoo want to go back to relive the same holiday twice!

After the usual queuing, bureaucracy and discomfort of what we call “modern air-travel” we arrived in Marrakesh; a big mishmash of a city that is familiarly European in some ways and strange and North African in others.

On 30th December we met up with Authentic Morocco for our 5-day desert tour and headed South in six 4×4 cars towards the Atlas mountains and beyond to the Sahara. I had purposefully not looked at the itinerary as I wanted the holiday to be an unfolding mystery to me and, for most of the trip, I was unable to pronounce the place names that looked like a particularly unfriendly hand in a game of scrabble.

Before we set out for Erg Chigaga from Zagora, on Day 2 of our trip, we were each presented with a long piece of blue cloth and taught a couple of different ways to wrap it around our heads. Stoo told me that the last time he went to Morocco he got turban-addicted and his scalp felt naked without one for several weeks after he returned to Britain; I now know how he feels. Not only do they make you feel like a true son (or daughter) of the desert but they are so practical. They keep you warm on cold winter mornings and protect you from the sun and heat during the day. There is only one downside to them. When thirty people turn up wearing a blue turban you can be sure that they are a herd of tourists and are therefore fair game for your attempts to sell them absolutely anything!

I succumbed once. In one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever seen (Ait Benhaddou, where the North African parts of Gladiator were filmed) I showed an interest in a sword; foolish me. I don’t know how it happened but I am now the proud owner of it. I didn’t need it. I can’t quite remember why I wanted it but somehow the heat and the persistence of the shopkeeper wore down my defences.

That atmosphere of being on a controlled adventure with little to fear but much to experience was particularly evident when we got to the Sahara. Our encampment was amazing because whilst it was in the rolling dunes of the most famous desert in the world it was hardly slumming it. Our encampment had twelve mud walled huts and a huge dining tent and, weirder still, over the next dune was a solar powered hut containing real showers and real flushing toilets … unless I spent two days making my ablutions in a mirage.

I should say a few words about the Sahara … but I can’t really do it justice. To have really lived on this little planet I think you have to see an ocean, a mountain range, a great desert, a rain forest and a bustling city and apart from the incongruous rain forest Morocco has all of these locations and the one that has the least to see and yet is the most impressive is the big stretch of nothing-but-sand called Sahara and the stars, as you might expect in an area where everyone’s mobile phones say ‘No network’, were fantastic – as if you sneezed upon black velvet.

Thus on the night when old weary 2007 smashed into the coming tide of 2008 I was served far too many alcoholic beverages by a man named Mohammad. There is some delicious religious irony here but of course we were mostly with Berbers and although judging a culture on a week’s experience is flippant and possibly insulting, it did appear that Berbers are Muslims in a similar way as the British are Christians. They have the culture, mythology and morals of Islam but do not allow dogma to supersede common sense, politeness or friendliness.

On the way out of the desert Abdullah (who we suspect is the secret Prince of the Berbers as he knows everyone) got all the Landrovers to stop on a line at one side of a giant salt plain and then, as he revved his engine, we all started to figure out what he was intending. Wow, the dust, the freedom and the speed of a 4×4 race in the middle of nowhere.

One final piece of advice for you. If you are going to Morocco on an Authentic Morocco tour – do some research first. Morocco is a country full of surprises but a little reading or educational viewing may help. I, for instance, watched ‘Road to Morocco’ before I went and learnt that Morocco looked like a Hollywood film set and that, if I was good, Dorothy Lamour might visit my tent at night! Of course Dorothy (or any other cinematic sex symbol) never did make an appearance but it was amusing to note that whilst in 1942 Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were filming Morocco in Los Angeles, Morocco is now the favoured location for so many big budget Hollywood films and some of which have left their sets standing.

The one piece of research I regret that I didn’t do was watch ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ again. There is something awe inspiring about being part of a camel train rising up and down dunes accompanied by local guides singing mesmeric chants and in my head all I wanted was to remember the widescreen desert-loving theme tune to ‘Lawrence of Arabian’. No matter how hard I tried though, the first few notes kept turning into the theme for ‘Born Free’ instead, but annoying as it was I guess ‘Born Free’ is not an entirely inappropriate soundtrack for a big open desert in a big country.

Simon Satori Hendley is an author responsible both for the humorous tale of modern pagans in Cambridge ‘Assumptions and Carnations’ (Immanion Press ISBN: 978-1904853343) and the slightly deranged self-help book ‘Apathy: A Cause Not Worth Fighting For’ (Crombie Jardine ISBN: 9781906051037).

Letter to Authentic Morocco

Marrakech Desert Tour, November 2013

My husband, son and I want to thank you for planning the most wonderful vacation we have ever taken together. From the planning stages, where you patiently explained all the locations from which to choose, to the actual execution of our 9 day trip, everything was handled to perfection.

We wanted to see the “real” Morocco and this is what we were able to achieve, thanks to you! The riads you selected were amazing. Each time we entered one, their splendour and craftsmanship took our breath away. The “newest” one was 200 years old and the 17th century kasbah we stayed in, well, we never wanted to leave!

Because we really wanted to immerse ourselves, we took your advice and stayed in the Fes medina. The guide you hired for us in Fes was a wealth of information. He took us through every nook and cranny and every symbol and site was explained in detail. He was also entertaining and a lot of fun to be with!

Our personal Authentic Morocco guide, who drove us throughout the country and stayed with us throughout the entire trip, was absolutely perfect. The stories he told of the desert, the culture and its people were spellbinding. As we drove, he would stop along the way to buy us fresh cherries at a produce stand (the best we’d ever tasted), a rose garland (which I have dried and put on my nightstand) or a delicious tagine lunch at a “local” place no tourist would know to venture into it.

All in all, if you want the real deal, Authentic Morocco is a great way to experience a country rich in history.

Mohammed’s Morocco

Casablanca Tour with Rabat, Chefchaouen, Fes, Marrakech and Essaouira, December 2011

The Authentic Morocco driver who picked us up from our Riad at eight o’clock sharp on Tuesday morning was not the same man who brought us back the following Friday evening. That first day he was clad all in black: chinos, shirt with button down collar, lace up shoes and a leather jacket. He seemed pre-occupied, wanting to load us into his white Toyota Land Cruiser as quickly as possible, manhandling our luggage across the busy, dusty road, dodging the cars, erratic bicycles, buzzing mopeds and lazy, donkey drawn carts that formed part of the Marrakech rush hour. It was only as we reached the outskirts of the city that he seemed to slowly begin to relax and conversation began to flow more easily.

My wife Kay and I watched as over the next four days this man changed with the landscape. As we started the climb through the verdant, rugged High Atlas Mountains, he became more animated when he pointed out the primitive, ochre coloured villages perched on rocky outcrops, or nestled in steep valleys next to rushing streams. His gestures became more expansive, his warm smile more ready and by the time we stopped for our first pot of sweet mint tea against the stunning mountain backdrop, he had taken off his jacket and started joking with our two teenage sons, Will and Ed.

The amazing geology of the mountains gave way to the dense green palm groves of the fertile Draa valley. We stopped the Land Cruiser near a farming village and wandered on foot through the small fields of alfalfa and wheat, balancing on the mud walls of the irrigation channels, the air warm, still and humid, smelling of cut grass and earth. Mohammed drank from the channels, “bit salty”, he concluded, and picked almonds from trees, munching them happily as he strolled. The joyful shriek from behind us announced the arrival of three impish children from the village, tousled, dusty and breathless, carrying a deflated plastic football. Kay rifled through her bag and produced a few boiled sweets and some balloons, bought especially for just such an occasion. Ten minutes later we were surrounded by at least twenty expectant children, with Kay trying desperately to distribute goodies in an orderly, English kind of way. Mohammed, twinkled eyed, watched with huge amusement as any semblance of queuing, impartiality and fair play disappeared amongst the squeals, shouts and small eager hands. Just as matters seemed to be spiralling out of control, with some children feeling hard done by and loudly (and incomprehensibly) putting forward their views, Mohammed swept in on a cloud of bonhomie, jokes, winks, nudges and a promise to inflate their football with the pump in the Land Cruiser. We later discovered these children belonged to his people, the Berbers, the independent minded nomads of Northern Africa. They loved him almost as much as he loved them.

The same scene, or variations of it, would play itself out many times throughout the rest of the trip. Wherever we went, even in the remotest part of the Sahara desert, Mohammed knew people. He was always greeted with huge affection, beaming smiles and hugs, and as our eyes became more used to the social nuances of Berber life, we often noticed that before leaving some seemingly long lost friend, he would access some remote compartment in the Land Cruiser and leave something with the poorest and most needy.

On our second day, as we approached the outskirts of the desert, Mohammed surprisingly appeared in flowing white Berber robes, intricately and beautifully stitched with golden patterns. By lunch time that day, out of nowhere, a black Berber turban appeared on his head and together with his soft, tan leather slippers, the sartorial transformation was complete. In the same way that my youngest son, no matter how hard he’s cleaned, washed, ironed and combed, can ever look comfortable in anything other than jeans and tea shirt, Mohammed now looked at one with himself.

By the time we had reached our camp amongst the huge, breathtaking, golden sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, I think Mohammed, like a cat, had decided that he liked us. Over a candlelit dinner under the Saharan moon, he regaled us with stories of spirits and Berber legends, of self help cures for tummy upsets (large quantities of cumin) and tales of snakes, camels, life and death in the desert.

Take your son”, he whispered into my ear, “walk into the darkness of the desert away from the light. Lie on a blanket and look at the desert stars, you will never forget it”. He was right.

The next morning, up early to see the sunrise over the desert, Will almost stepped on Mohammed, who had spent the night sleeping fully clothed in a sandy hollow he had fashioned near the top of a dune. He too was watching for the sun, but also examining the sky and feeling the breeze, predicting the day ahead. I could not have predicted the effect that day would have on me, although perhaps he could.

After breakfast under a rapidly warming, cloudless desert sky, we larked about a little, driving over small dunes for no particular reason other than the joy of it, getting stuck in the soft sand, and using every combination of gear in the four wheel drive Land Cruiser to get out, Mohammed roaring with infectious laughter. Soon we started driving over flatter terrain, scattered with irregular, cricket ball sized, razor sharp volcanic rocks, like a lunar landscape. In the distance we spotted a well, a simple bore hole with a concrete square arch for a rope and bucket to be raised and lowered by hand, surrounded by a small group of Berber women and children washing clothes under the baking sun. None of them wore shoes and they seemed to be dressed for English winter conditions, with some of them incongruently wearing western style sweaters over their more traditional robes, despite the baking heat. It was after all still only spring in the Sahara; I guessed they would be used to unbearably hot conditions in the summer. Mohammed was greeted, as usual, with smiles and warmth but then there was some more serious looking discussion, with low voices and much gazing at the ground. Mohammed came back to the Land Cruiser, rummaged around in the glove compartment and handed over to the women a small pharmaceutical style cardboard box. The tone lifted a little and we drove just a short distance to a small Berber nomadic settlement of just four families, some of whom we had just met at the well.

The settlement consisted of five or six low lying tent like shelters, three made from short wooden poles supporting a rude canvass roof made from camel hair, held upright with guy ropes. The others were igloo shaped, formed by low irregular walls made from the rocks round about, covered by tarpaulins, camel hair canvass and Berber rugs all supported internally with thin, arched canes. Once the Land Cruiser had pulled to a halt amongst the shelters, we were immediately surrounded by ten to fifteen excited children ranging in age from two or three to about twelve. Kay once again found her supplies of goodies and we all felt a sense of déjà vu as she vainly tried to distribute lollypops, smiley face stickers, notepads, crayons and sweets. Once everything had gone, the children carried on shouting and jumping until she eventually turned upside down the Marks and Spencer carrier bag the goodies were held in, but still they would not calm. Eventually Kay realized it was the brightly coloured carrier bag itself they still wanted.

We were led into one of the larger camel hair tents where Berber women greeted us. The men folk were, apparently, away at the market selling goats. Inside the tent, open at one side, it was cooler. The floor was covered with brightly coloured and intricately made Berber rugs and cushions. It is polite in Berber society to offer visitors water, but Mohammed insisted that he alone drank it, from a dazzling golden bowl – he knew our western stomachs would not have coped with it. The women busied themselves making tea for us over an open fire. They went to the back of the tent and dug around in hessian bags producing traditional glass tea cups shaped like sherry glasses and a silver coloured tea pot, the equivalent of Sunday best. Whilst tea was being prepared, we played with the children, who tried on our sunglasses and grinned the widest grins I have ever seen. We took photographs and joked around with them, Mohammed translating.

A thin old woman joined us, age and wisdom etched on her agile face. There was a return of the more serious conversation as the woman squatted to talk to Mohammed. Eventually Mohammed turned to us and asked, “Have you got any medicine? This woman is sick”.

The woman looked at us with calm and dignity. We asked what was wrong with her and eventually we left our entire supply of paracetamol and Imodium, the only things we had that we thought might help. We looked around. These people had virtually nothing and yet it was already clear that whatever they had they shared. There didn’t seem to be a sense of mine, just ours, or yours if you wanted it. There was no embarrassment in asking for help, for they would gladly give it if asked. It was their way. Only together could these people survive the unbearably harsh conditions of the desert. And yet their happy, smiling faces betrayed contentment with their lot, even happiness. Without access to medicines or doctors, education, transport, electricity or any of the thousands of must-have devices we westerners come to regard as essential to maintain our lives, these people survive in some of the harshest of conditions on the planet.

Whilst drinking our sweet tea (“Berber whiskey”) we broke out a large bag of paprika flavoured Doritos. The kids ate them with enormous delight and gusto and then, unused to the salt and paprika, we watched as, round eyed, they gulped down all the remaining water from the golden bowl.

After three glasses of tea, the polite number, we stirred to leave, and I asked Mohammed if it would be inappropriate to leave some money. He smiled and said it would be fine. Feeling awkward, I approached the old lady and stretched out my hand with some bank notes. She took my hand, and whilst looking straight into my eyes, kissed it. That moment changed my life forever. It was like slow motion. As I looked into the old woman’s eyes, I could see the years of struggle, the hardships and tragedies, her childhood, adulthood and motherhood, her love and commitment . The unbearable pain and joy of the desert and her acceptance of both. The knowledge of her own mortality and the ultimate futility of our trivial pursuits compared to Allah’s greatness. Our shared humanity. The world will continue to turn, with or without us. In that moment I would have given her everything I owned in the world – I felt so small and humble in the face of such courage and grace. But instead I retreated to the Land Cruiser and quietly shed a tear. So overwhelmed was I that I could hardly talk for most of the rest of the day.

And so when we eventually returned to the grasping city, we were all different people. Mohammed had reverted to his western clothes, but we had seen him without his cloak of disguise. When I decided to write about Morocco, I had to write about him, for he IS morocco to me. Beautiful, changing, caring, sharing, larger than life, warm, generous and wonderful company. I still have his number in my mobile. I can’t bear to delete it.