New Year Tour and a Friend Called Stoo

New Year Tour and a Friend called StooA 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).