10 Apr 2017 17:14 IST

Love in Morocco

It’s the warmth of Moroccans that makes their country more enticing

“Were you not scared?”

The voice seated across me queried. I could not see the face in the darkness of the night. The sound of silence was interrupted as the voice continued: “… For miles on end we could not see any sign of life, we were worried sick as to what would happen if our vehicle broke down in the middle of the desert.” My fellow traveller and I lay stretched out on the Erg Chebbi sand dunes in the middle of Sahara desert. The sky was the only protective canopy above us, busy with millions of stars. Our conversation was interspersed with attempts to identify the constellations that lit it up.

No, I was not scared. In fact that was the first time the thought occurred to me. Yes, I had been driving for 2,000 miles through the rugged terrain of Morocco, crossing the Atlas at its highest point — the Tizi-n-Tichka, plunging to the bottom of the deep Todra gorge, crossing the massive Erg Chebbi dunes of the world’s largest desert, staying with locals in their homes called kasbah, dining with them on fragrant pilaf and freshly cooked tagines, and befriending the odd Berber and the nomadic Bedouin.

Earlier that day, it seemed that our vehicle was headed to the end of the horizon — where the blue cloudless sky met the long stretch of metalled road. On both sides of the road were expanses of stony desert plains, and at a distance we could see the Erg Chebbi dunes, rising up in the air. The car air-conditioning had long given up in the scorching heat. Suddenly Hassan, the vehicle operator, halted the car. In front of us an apparition that had emerged out of nothingness — bandaged in bright colours, it looked like a mummy had come alive.

I learnt later that Bedouin Hussain was not an unfamiliar apparition. He enjoyed inviting the rare passer-by for a cup of Moroccan tea to his “home” in the Hamada. As he led us towards the desolate desert plains, I could see only a camel lazing by an old-style Persian well, and a small sit-out by the side. While I was still trying to figure his home, Hussain pointed towards a small burrow in the ground. In the light of a match we saw a flight of stairs going underground. The staircase was decorated with artefacts, which looked as if they belonged to the Stone Age. At the bottom of the flight of stairs was a tunnel that led to a spacious area. A candle flickered in the cool breeze that wafted across the room. Looking up I sighted the sky. The carefully-crafted skylight not only filtered in daylight but also acted as an air-conditioning system. There was a 45-km labyrinth of underground rooms and tunnels below the stony plain, to protect the Bedouins from desert storms. I soon learnt Hussain’s family was away visiting another village; instinctively I felt it was time to leave his underground home and head back towards the open sit-out.

True to his promise, Hussain made us the typical Moroccan tea, sweet and invigorating. As we set out again to conquer the desert, Hussain gifted me a piece of his “bandage”. He swathed my head and face with five-foot long coloured silk, adding, it will come in good use in the desert sand.

We journeyed for some miles, till we reached the dune line. Here the road ended and the travellers congregated to make their way into the interiors of the desert on camel back. It is here that I met my fellow traveller. Together we mounted our camels and started the trek across the undulating sandy dunes. As we gained height, we learnt how to sway and steady ourselves in rhythm with the footsteps of the animal. Covered in full-sleeved shirts, flowing headgear and large goggles, we looked like modern-day Bedouins crossing the desert. Our mirth came to a sudden stop, as we sighted a veil of sand being lifted up from the dunes. Soon the winds caught up, twirling and hurling them around as if in a dance sequence. I closed my eyes, mouth and nostrils, before I could feel the impact of a sand blast. I could not even see the camel in front, in the whirlwind of the desert storm. Through all this, the camel trudged steadily on the defined path, led by the mahout. The minutes seemed like hours and just as suddenly the sandstorm stopped and the dunes seemed to regain their peace. By then we had reached the sunset point — sandy dunes surrounded us, punctuated by sparse vegetation. Watching sunset from atop the mounds is an unforgettable experience. The play of light and shade across the expansive dunes is nothing less than theatrical.

A desert drive across the Sahara was in my bucket list alright. I had carefully planned this three-day road trip from Marrakech to Fez and at various points in time sought repeated reassurance about the safety of the journey. But, lying cradled in the infinity of sand dunes, I found myself silently surrendering to the power of nature and the genuineness of the people who exude warmth in spite of their hardships.

The journey is varied in colours and experiences. The weather changes from dry, hot to cool temperate as you wind your way through the Ziz Valley to reach the quaint town of Fez. The scenic drive takes you through many interesting twists and turns — from the fortified Ait Benhaddou to the palatial Kasbah of el Glaoui along the trans-Saharan caravan route; from the colourful handwoven carpets in Telouet to the handmade argan oil near Tahanaout; passing through the valley of roses in Kelaat M’gouna and concluding with the cedar forests of Azrou, near the Swiss-like settlement of Ifrane.

At the end of my journey in Fez, I negotiated a labyrinth of narrow streets, surrounded by the cacophony of traders and passers-by and the occasional donkey, all jostling for space. I was unable to comprehend the magic of the former capital of Morocco that seemed to captivate many. Till the doors of my riad, where I was to stay that night, opened. My jaws dropped as Dominique, the friendly French owner, ushered me in. Intricately designed mosaic and inlay work decorated the large courtyard, which gathered around an indoor water fountain.

As I discovered, wandering through the old Medina in Fez was like being lost in Ali Baba’s ‘Thousand and One Nights’. Every time I stood in front of an ominous looking door and said “Open Sesame”, it would part to reveal the treasures of handwoven silk, fragrant spices, silverware, ceramics, you name it.

I soon realised I had wandered away from Dominique’s home. And also realised that I did not remember the name of the riad and I had a flight to catch in a while. That was the first time during the trip that panic gripped me. As I took small, unsure steps in the alley, a friendly hand nudged me. “I will take you back to Dominique’s, ma’am”— it was a little boy who had been following me around.

As the little angel guided me back to Riad Kettani, I was once again touched and humbled by the warmth of the people of this terrain, and the little things they do to make you feel at home.

Travel log

Getting there

You can start the Morocco desert drive from either Marrakech or Fez; both cities have international airports and are well-connected from most European cities. The drive cuts through the Atlas mountains and includes a camel trek through the Erg Chebbi sand dunes. You can contact a local tour operator to book a seat in the comfortable four-wheeler of your choice. The driver-cum-guides are very well informed and are fluent in English. The trip can be of varying lengths, the four- or five-day trip involves five-six hours’ drive per day; the three-day trip requires you to be on the road for at least nine hours. Road conditions are good.

Activities

The drive includes a number of stopovers and allows some excellent opportunities for souvenir shopping. Notable stopovers include the World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou (fortified village atop the desert mountains) and the Rose Valley, which is in full bloom in April -May. You can also witness the village manufacturing of argan oil.

Stay

Homestays (kasbah and riads) are prearranged and very popular. They maintain very high standards of cleanliness and the hosts are very hospitable, however the amenities are very basic.

Eat

You can feast on a variety of ethnic Moroccan cuisines. Tagines are a very common preparation. Home cooked wholesome meals are part of the tour. Nuts, fruits are part of most Moroccan dishes. Given the predominance of French influence, there is often a western twist to the meals.

Tip

This a good add-on to a trip to Spain (Madrid/ Barcelona); most Spanish cities are closely located and well connected to Morocco.

(Chandana Ghosh is a Kolkata-based freelance writer. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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