The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in North Africa
Morocco Sahara Odyssey
Morocco is a country filled with history, fabulous food, incredible scenery, warm and friendly people and a little bit of mystery tossed in for good measure. This was my 13th Overseas Adventure Travel trip, and it ranked as one of the best.
OAT trips are adventurous and provide a good understanding of the people and the country, both geographically and historically. Our odyssey began in Chefchaouen, located on the slopes of the Rif Mountains near Morocco’s northern coast. All the houses and small shops of Chefchaouen are painted with various shades of blue. This tradition has been carried over from the former Chefchaouen Jews. The Bible dictated that the Jews must dye their prayer shawls with a natural blue dye processed from a specific blue shellfish. The idea being that when they look at the dye, they will think of the blue sky and God above them. While I don’t believe there are any Jews left in Chefchaouen, everyone still follows this old tradition of keeping their houses and shops painted with the traditional colors, which makes this small village even more beautiful.
From Chefchaouen we traveled to Fes, one of Morocco’s oldest and most exciting cities. The Medina (the old town) is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a “not to miss attraction.” Some of the labyrinthine streets are so narrow that trash pickup can only be accomplished by using donkeys. Trash is gathered and loaded into the saddle bags on either side of the donkey and walked out of the medina.
The tanneries in Fes have operated here since medieval times and the process has basically remained unchanged. If you have a strong stomach, this is the place to see how sheep, goat and camel skins are processed to make the slippers that are sold all over Morocco. The skins are cured, stretched, scraped and dyed in many vats. A pungent mixture of pigeon droppings, acids and cow urine is used to make the hides supple. A sprig of mint is given to everyone with the stomach to visit the tanneries. I used the mint and was quite thankful for it.
On our way to the Sahara we visited a semi nomadic group of women who invited us into their home and offered us warm bread and olive oil. Since they are semi-nomadic, they spend several months in this dwelling, and when it gets too cold, they move to the desert. When they return, they find their dwellings just as they left them. They don’t worry about theft or vandalism. The women were dressed in their traditional and very colorful attire, their over-skirts tied on the side if they were single and in the front if married. This was true in many of the traditional places we visited.
We saw huge swaths of green in the middle of the sandy landscape and drove though the largest oasis in Morocco measuring 71 miles. People own or rent sections of the oasis and plant tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, cabbages and other vegetables. Usually men do the planting and women do the harvesting.
We finally arrived in the Sahara, the biggest hot desert in the world. The Sahara is about the size of the United States and covers parts of several African nations including Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia. Sand dunes make up only a small portion of the Sahara, the rest of the area consists of rocky plains and mountain ranges covered with stone and gravel.
The Sahara is home to the Blue Men who were initially nomadic camel herders. Originating in Timbuktu, these nomads have inhabited the Sahara for thousands of years. The term Blue Men comes from the blue robes they wear.
We rode through the desert on our camels until we came to our tent site. Since the sands shift constantly, no permanent tent site can be erected. Our tents were very basic (no electricity and no running water) but the view of the dunes made up for any temporary lack of comfort. This was to be our home for the next 2 nights. The sun was setting and there was nothing but bright orange sand as far as the eye could see. No noise, no pollution, and no one else for miles and miles. The plan was to wake before first light and climb to the top of the dunes to see the sun rise. The night was still black when we got our early morning wake up call at 5:00AM.
As the sky lightened, I saw tiny scarab beetle tracks and desert mice tracks. The sand was very soft as we began to climb, and it was difficult to get a foothold. One step forward, two steps back. The dunes looked insurmountable. Fortunately, the local Blue Men arrived to help us with the climb which was a tough one, even with their help. As we got higher, we saw nothing but desert in every direction. We climbed to the highest dune to see the sun rise and drank a champagne toast to our success. From the top, our camp site appeared no larger than a speck of sand. Going down the dunes was much more fun than trekking up. We slid down the dunes with some help from our Berber friends who grabbed our feet and pulled us down the dunes -- called Berber sledding.
Our last stop in the Sahara was a visit with a nomadic family who move from place to place in search of food, water, and grazing land, according to the seasons. This nomadic family consisted of the 43-year-old wife, the 55-year-old husband, and their 9 children. Their lives are very simple. Most are uneducated. They consider themselves Saharans not Moroccans.
In Marrakech we rode in the famous traditional horse-drawn caliches (carriages). Then to the souk - a true shopping experience that is not to be missed with literally thousands of tiny stalls, each having “the best.” There was very little pressure to buy and everyone seemed to have a good sense of humor about buying and selling. The main square, Djemaa el Fna, teemed with snake charmers, story tellers, fortune tellers, monkeys on leashes, water boys and enough sights to cause sensory overload. We returned later that night and there was quite a transformation. Food courts appeared where there were none before, filled with every kind of food imaginable. We had dinner at a lovely restaurant, Dar Es-Salam, which was featured in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much.
The Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech, created in the 1920s and 1930s by French painter Jacques Majorelle and later renovated by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, is a lovely, peaceful space with lots of bamboo, succulents, dwarf palms, a cactus garden and lily-covered pools surrounded by vibrant blue and yellow pots and other decorations. It was a wonderful respite from the bustle of the city.
The food in Morocco was outstanding. Two of my favorites dishes were the tagines and the pastillas. Tagines are stews cooked at very low temperatures resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce. They are traditionally cooked in the tagine pot with its conical cover and knob-like handle which stays cool when the meat is cooking. Tagines use less expensive cuts of meat, and often combine lamb or chicken with olives, apricots, raisins, dates, honey, saffron, cinnamon, preserved lemons, and any and all wonderful spices. In the 3 weeks I spent in Morocco, each tagine dish was delicious and always just a little different. Another favorite was chicken pastilla which is shredded chicken, with cinnamon, powdered sugar, and other spices. The Moroccans also make a dessert pastilla with many layers of phylo dough with yogurt, honey, pistachios mixed between the layers. Since there were so many layers, the tradition is for everyone at the table to take their forks and at the count of 3, smash the deserts. Mint tea is served not only at mealtimes, but throughout the day. It’s also a drink of hospitality and is served whenever there are guests. It is poured from a distance to aerate the tea and to produce a foam.
If you go...
Overseas Adventure Travel: 1-800-955-1925 http://www.oattravel.com
OAT specializes in small group trips for active seniors. There are no more than 10 - 25 travelers per trip. We had 14 in Morocco. They print a very helpful piece in their brochures, called “Is this adventure right for you.” In it, they describe in detail the physical requirements, the climate and terrain, pacing, transportation, accommodations, group size and leadership, and cuisine. We have always found that they are very accurate in their trip descriptions. Because OAT does not charge a single supplement on land trips, it makes the trip affordable for a single person. If you’re looking for an exotic trip to a warm, friendly country, OAT’s Morocco Sahara Odyssey is for you.
© Charlotte Temple April 2012