Ancient cities with bustling marketplaces, stunning sunsets and a camel ride through the desert dunes all contribute to the enchantment of Morocco for Daisy Sillis.
“Here, it’s yours!” says the young Moroccan boy as he threads a wooden carving onto a thin green string of cotton and places it around my neck. “You’re welcome, you’re welcome,” he says through a smile. Sitting at the entrance of his tiny shack shop, I watch in awe as he chisels wood into small carvings using both his fingers and toes. Surrounded by hundreds of locals and tourists, my sister Aimee, partner Otis and I are meandering through the bustling market maze that is the Marrakesh Medina (‘medina’ meaning walled town).
Marrakesh is Morocco’s imperial city, and we only have a short 24 hours to explore the densely packed markets, palaces and mosques before we head out to the Sahara Desert. The thousand-year-old medina is separated into three areas – central, south and north. The central medina is a tourist hub, where souks stretch across the square and stalls of bric-a-brac and spices cover the winding streets. The southern medina is crammed with heritage museums, exotic hotels, lush green parks and chic riads, while the north is a predominantly traditional residential area with small pockets of markets and boutiques.
Also known as ‘The Red City’, Marrakesh is both exotic and enchanting. We decide to spend our afternoon walking the central streets under the cover of the stalls’ fabric awnings. Armed with shopping lists, the three of us are ready to hunt for bargains and trinkets.
Marrakesh shopkeepers are notoriously known as pushy, forceful sellers. A quick glance at a silver teapot, or a touch of a Moroccan rug becomes a long-winded verbal transaction with the shopkeeper, whether you want to buy it or not.
But although they can be forceful, the transaction is both humorous and warm-hearted. A tribal-style necklace catches my eye, and after a quick pep talk with Aimee and Otis we decide to tackle my first purchase as a team, and prepare for a long negotiation. “Sister, you must buy,” he says. “Look, look! More jewellery here.” After 20 minutes I walk away happy with my new accessory, which I bought for less than half the original price.
Hours later (and with bulging bags) we head for dinner at Nomad, a popular restaurant that specialises in Middle Eastern/European fusion cuisine. Sitting on the rooftop, protected from the sun by a flowing white linen canopy, we watch the sunset over the pastel pink city. From our table we spy on the locals, the blend of rich and poor made clear by the state of the residents’ rooftops. Some are laden with washing, scraps of brick and broken satellites, while the more affluent homes have roof patios decorated with white loungers, exotic greenery and mosaic fountains.
Dotted between the dars (houses built around a central patio) are towering mosques, including the green-tiled Ben Youssef, the oldest in Marrakesh. From a nearby mosque we hear a man start to chant and sing though a large speaker. Confused, I look around to gauge the other tourists’ reactions while another voice replies from a mosque in the distance. “Allahu, Akbah!”, “Allahu, Akbah!” As more mosques join in, the city hums with the beautiful harmonising chant. Our waitress notices my confusion and tells me the chant is the call to Adhan, also known as the call to prayer, which is sung from the mosaic-covered mosques five times a day. I close my eyes and soak in the magical lullaby. I’m not usually one to take an interest in religious traditions but I fall quickly under the spell of the man in the tower, and feel disappointed when the final call ends.
The following day we head by car to the Sahara Desert. Our guide and driver, Omar, reassures us that although the drive is long (10 hours), the sights and stops along the way make the journey well worth it. A few hours in we take a quick 20-minute detour to the famous abandoned city Aït Benhaddou. From the viewing
point we stare in awe at the tremendous size and scale of the ancient city, which is made up of six forts and 50 palaces. From a distance, the sand-like buildings look picturesque and majestic; it’s easy to imagine princes and princesses wandering the dusty streets.
In the comfort of our airconditioned four-wheel drive we spiral up the Atlas Mountains, which span 2500km through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Omar tells us about the Berber villages scattered through the mountains alongside rivers and canyons. These North African pre-Arab inhabitants live in small communities across Morocco and can be seen selling goods to tourists from temporary stalls on the roadside.
Once we arrive at the Sahara entrance we gather our overnight bags and head out to meet our afternoon transport. A line of 12 camels sits in the gold desert sand accompanied by several caretakers wearing kaftans, desert jewellery and beautifully wrapped turbans. “Welcome, welcome, welcome,” says our desert guide, taking our belongings from our hands and stuffing them into the small folds and flaps on each camel’s saddle. In preparation for our 40-minute trek into the Sahara my guide delicately wraps my head in a scarf, to protect my face from the sand and sun. In the background a camel gets loose from its caretaker, making a swift escape into the open desert. Running behind him, the man stumbles in the sand, face-planting twice before catching the rope mid-air. “Naughty camels,” says our guide, chuckling.
My camel (who I name Alice) is demure and calm, allowing me to scratch and pat her coarse coat as she stares directly at me with her large brown eyes. With the help of my guide, I climb onto her. She jolts forward and sways onto all fours before walking to the front of the line. In our group of three, we move apart from the other tourists and make our way into the Sahara. Otis’s camel is impatient, and unsuccessfully attempts to overtake Alice, while Aimee’s camel yawns and slobbers loudly at the rear. While Alice does the hard work, carrying my body weight and overnight bags, I relax for what feels like the first time on this whirlwind trip. Wandering through the world’s largest hot desert I feel at peace and relaxed. The air smells clean and fresh, and the soft, swaying motion of the camel rocks me into a peaceful,
Wandering through the world’s largest hot desert I feel at peace and relaxed.”
conscious sleep. Small dots of tourists and nomads stroll along the sand in the distance, and soon our camp appears like a magical mirage from the dunes.
The site is a cluster of a dozen large tents, framed by a border of carpets and rugs – a defence against the frequent sandstorms. After settling into our three-man tent we start the long climb up the nearby sand dune for sunset. Climbing a 45m-high dune is not for the faint-hearted and with each step we slip half a foot backwards. After 20 minutes I make it to the peak just in time for sunset. Orange and yellow streaks paint the sky and as the sun slips below the horizon the wind picks up and the temperature slowly drops, the dry desert heat becoming a more comfortable and gentle cloak of warmth. The smell of dinner cooking at our campsite pulls me away from the stunning view and I slide down the dune, crawling to a stop close to the campsite entrance.
After a banquet of vegetable and meat tagines, we gather with our fellow trekkers to watch a traditional musical performance by our
Moroccan guides. Men carrying drums and qraqebs (castanet-like instruments) surface from behind carpet walls and curtains, and in a matter of minutes nomads and tourists are singing and dancing together. I am assigned the drum, and after a quick lesson I’m tapping along to the melodies while Aimee spins and dances with our guides. Once the festivities are over, and lured by the vast night sky, we lie in the warm sand and count shooting stars until the early hours.
Named the cultural capital of Morocco, our next stop, Fes, is a 10-hour drive from the Sahara Desert. Home to the largest medina in the country, Fes contains a population of more than a million people and is separated into the new and old city. Within its dusty walls are hundreds of souks and mosques, as well as stalls
and multi-level shops selling leather goods, silk scarves and carpets. We take a tour through the high-walled streets, stopping at the doors of mosques to watch locals clean their hands and faces in preparation for prayer. Ornate carvings and mosaics cover the streets and shops, and the call to prayer can be heard again from the soaring mosque towers throughout the day. Our guide is the ‘man about town’, or in this case medina, shaking hands and quickly discussing business with locals who pass by us.
We stop at a leather shop and get lost among the five levels of bags, shoes and jackets. The shopkeeper invites us up to the rooftop, where we’re handed a sprig of mint (to mask the smell) and shown the Chouara Tannery, which sits hidden between the surrounding buildings. More than a dozen men dip in and out of tubs of coloured dye, carrying animal skins that will soon become bags and jackets in the shop below us.
The Chouara Tannery is more than 1000 years old, and the traditional method used to process hides into high-quality leather goods has never changed. Hides are soaked in a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water and salt, which helps break down the leather and loosen the remaining flesh and hair. After soaking for two to three days, the hides are then soaked in another vat of water and pigeon faeces, which acts as a softening agent and allows the hides to easily absorb dye. From the store’s rooftop I watch men with coloured legs jump from one bath of liquid to the next, using their bare feet to knead the hides for hours at a time.
From the tannery we head out to the souk, on the hunt for traditional Moroccan blankets. Determined to find the right blanket, at the right price, Aimee, Otis and I prepare for the inevitable bargaining and negotiating. A friendly, chatty shopkeeper takes us into his workroom where five men standing in separate weaving machines create rugs from coloured threads that cover the dusty floors. After another comical negotiation we come to a mutual agreement and walk away with four camel-wool blankets for a total of $90.
Our final stop is Chefchaouen, a small, humble town hidden in the Rif Mountains, which is famous for its striking blue streets and buildings. Walking though the medina in the early morning we see locals painting their homes, shops and pathways with a fresh coat of powder blue. It’s a tradition introduced in the 1930s by Jewish refugees, who painted their homes and stores soft blue to symbolise the sky and heaven.
In the afternoon we venture out to the nearby mountains to watch another sunset. Perched on the mountain rocks we hear the call to prayer begin to hum through the city streets below us. Dry sweat covers my forehead and back, and my shoes are still full of desert sand, but it’s hard not to feel at peace in this fast-paced, colourful and intense country.
I’m leaving Morocco with a backpack crammed with trinkets, but the gift of witnessing the passion and fiery spirit of the Moroccan people is worth more than its weight in gold.
“Homes were painted blue to symbolise the sky and heaven.”
Morocco is a land of rich colour, both in its russet landscape and in its manmade goods such as this carpet (right).
Left: Otis, Daisy and Aimee on their camel trek in the Sahara Desert. After a 40-minute walk among the dunes, they arrived at their overnight campsite.
An example of the blue buildings in Chefchaouen.