One of the initial things that struck me when I visited Morocco for the first time was that this country, with such a colourful and diverse culture and one so different to our own in the UK, was a mere two hour boat ride from Spain, or a three hour plane from London. More than anything I found myself startled that we were so close to home, yet in fact in Africa.
So why Morocco? The eclectic culture and nature of the country make it a travelling experience comparable to no other, and one that can appeal to almost anyone. (Unless of course, you don’t like travelling at all.) Whether you’re an avid surfer or hiker; love to peruse busy, labyrinthine markets; or fancy a trek through the desert on a camel, Morocco has it all. When planning most trips abroad, there is usually a discussion, sometimes even a disagreement, about what type of holiday you want to have. Is it relaxing on a beach with seaside dinners that we want, or camping in the mountains? History or leisure?
One of the most incredible things about a trip to Morocco: you don’t have to choose. The magnificent and multifarious natural landscape ensures that it caters to all desires. One moment you are looking out across the undulating dunes of the silent desert, the next you are hiking up the lush green paths of the Atlas Mountains. Exhausted, the subsequent days are spent relaxing in a beautiful riad, sipping on mint tea and enjoying dishes of traditional tagine, before a trip to the local souk.
So, here’s the first part of my series on Morocco, focused on the Sahara desert. And hopefully, by the time you’ve read all four parts, you too will understand why I believe Morocco’s got it all. (And more.)
The Sahara is perhaps the most infamous focal point of tourism in Morocco. (And while this is more than justified, my ensuing articles will divulge that it is not the only one.) Undoubtedly, whether you decide to take a day trip to the desert or go all out and camp with the Berbers, it is unlikely to be equivalent to any experience you have had before.
There are numerous tours you can choose from when planning your desert exploration, and as ever, it is always difficult to discern which is the most reputable or value for money. My advice: research, research, research! If you are on a tight budget, as I often dishearteningly find myself, the best bet is to go directly to Merzouga or Zagora and book a tour from there, bypassing the commission-fiending agents in Marrakech who will book it for you. If, however, that all sounds a bit like hard work - fear not! For a few more pennies, there are plenty of travel agents found either online or in Marrakech who can arrange all the details of your expedition. Just make sure you have a little scout around the operators before deciding anything - and ask lots of questions. One plus of booking online is that you can often read reviews from previous travellers and thus make a more informed decision.
I would recommend taking a headfirst plunge into the depths of the desert on a 2-4 day trekking trip. While daylight camel riding is certainly a novel experience, if a slightly uncomfortable one, nights in the desert provide some of the most magical and meditative moments. Witness the pinky-orange glow of the sun as it sets behind the hushed, celestial expanse of the deserts dunes. Sip mint tea by the blazing campfire, sharing stories and laughter with the Berbers, delicious aromas of your fire-cooked dinner filling the darkening air. Spend the evening lying on the sand gazing at the sky’s mosaic of stars; thoughts slowing to the beat of the Berbers drums. In the rush and fuss of our everydays, it is rare to find a moment completely alone, entirely silent. It is an incredible, unearthly, and strangely inspiring feeling, to ride all day without the sight of another soul, and spend the night atop the sand, the only sounds the crackle of fire and the howling of distant wind. Watching the sunrise in the early hours will bring back the profound thoughts of the night before; easily shook off of course, by some adventurous desert sandboarding - or even just getting back on that camel of yours!