Marrakesh is not the capital of Morocco – that would be Rabat. Nor is it the largest city, which is Casablanca. If you are hoping to visit the country’s spiritual centre then make your way to Fez. No, the title Marrakesh holds is “the tourist capital of Morocco” and you don’t have to be there long to see why.
The vast majority of tour companies offer visitors the chance to explore Morocco through its aforementioned Imperial cities where you can admire the intricate artistry and history of palaces, marvel at the many humble mosques or immerse yourself in the festivities taking place within the medieval souqs and old town squares.
While on the one hand these urban experiences offer an insight into Morocco’s unique heritage as a melting pot of Berber, Arabic and European cultures, there is also something overtly familiar about being shoulder to shoulder with other tourists, paying excessive entrance fees and waiting in queues for a glimpse of something special, all the while being whisked from one photogenic spot to the next at lightning speed.
In this sense Marrakesh is particularly overwhelming. Referred to as the gateway to North Africa, Marrakesh is often used by visitors as a place to “gain a sample” of Moroccan culture – for those wishing to step beyond the familiarity of central Europe but without having to leave the modern comforts of five star hotels, recognisable franchise outlets and expensive bars, restaurants and clubs behind.
In Marrakesh’s renowned square, Djemaa el-Fna, snake charmers can be heard sporadically blowing their oboes for passing camera, pushy henna artists grab at the unpainted hands of some giggling tourists while shopkeepers do everything from sing and dance to shouting the names of all the countries you might come from in order to attract your attention. All of this reveals the side of Marrakesh most readily available to visitors. However, it isn’t too difficult to explore the city’s more genuine underbelly, particularly when in the company of a trusted local guide, so you taste, touch and smell the Marrakesh beyond the postcard portrayal.
In my all too brief time in Marrakesh I experience both of these sides. My group and I meet our guide, Ibrahim, before being led to a local restaurant full of unfamiliar chatter and no-nonsense service. Then we are returned to our four star hotel, one that works hard to provide its guests with all “modern” comforts. I sleep soundly on this night, not just because the searing summer heat has finally let up but because I know tomorrow we will be leaving the chaos of Marrakesh as we take to the road and explore Morocco on four wheels.
Approaching an Oasis
Just minutes on the road out of Marrakesh and already a sense of tranquillity sets in. As we move, the buildings shift further and further apart, opening up to offer a view of the parched landscape scattered with harsh shrubs and lone standing trees. We leave the city behind, for now, and head south towards part of the Moroccan Sahara. We have a long way to go until then.
The first thing I notice on our journey is the road is lined with stores selling the very same goods you find in the city, but for half the price. And just like in the city, stores here sit side by side but exist without the urban sense of urgency. In fact, shopkeepers can be spotted relaxing in the shade of a prickly pear cactus or under a makeshift shelter. This seemingly slow pace of life is in part due to the fact that right now most Moroccan residents are in their tenth hour of Ramadan, and partly because the temperature on this summer morning already sits at thirty degrees and rising.
The second thing I notice is the looming shadow on the skyline is not actually a cloud as I first suspected but is in fact the faint outline of the High Atlas Mountains. This collection of sharp rocky ridges boasts the tallest peak in North Africa, Jebel Toubkal, which towers at 4167m. I have been assured we have no plans to reach the very summit but as we follow the Tizin’Tichka pass we head towards it all the same.
The pass twists and turns as it ascends, often splitting small villages in two before curling back on itself to offer spectacular views of the path just travelled. When we finally do reach the highest point of the mountain accessible by car it is signalled by a collection of tour buses, roadside stalls and well-dressed restaurants taking advantage of their unique position. For this reason we don’t stop here. Instead we push on just a little further as our guide recommends one of the many other isolated restaurants with a rooftop terrace overlooking the entire valley. We pull over at one of these and the owner welcomes us as though we are old friends. As we look back towards Marrakesh we can spot several Berber villages buried deep into the mountainside. This is our first insight into Morocco’s native Berber culture, though there is plenty more to come as we hop back on the road and begin to spiral our way down the Draa Valley.
The Draa Valley snakes its way through dusty and arid mountains. The little water trickling through it gives life to a surprising abundance of lush greenery. Around each corner is a new town made up of a small and scattered collection of pink mud brick homes. Each town functions as a mini oasis against the barren landscape.
In the end it only takes seven hours of unforgettable scenery before we reach our destination. The harsh and hot crumbling mountains have given way to an expanse of pastel green palm groves. It is the very epitome of paradise – a sappy cliché only furthered by the sound of trickling water and chirping crickets.
Tamnougalt is the name of the town and tonight we will be staying in a Kasbah which has been partially transformed into a guesthouse. Despite being so far from Marrakesh, our accommodation offers every form of comfort from air conditioning to extra fluffy bath towels and it is only now I start to realise here in Morocco, good hospitality is more than just a commodity. Instead, it is treated as something earned by a host, not just bought by a guest.
Seeking the Sahara
Our cars pull over beside a small roadside shop. Ibrahim warns us this will be the last stop before we enter the desert and therefore it is our last chance to buy water for two days. He isn’t joking.
As it turns out, this part of the Moroccan Sahara is not the same place regularly featuring on the popular tour company route. While most travellers head to see and stay at the Erg Chebbi dunes (a place much closer to major cities where I’m sure water comes bottled as well as in the form of a pool attached to an expensive resort) our destination is further south and we are told it is much more remote. A quick look in each direction confirms this. It seems here at the Chegaga Dunes, nomadic peoples still wander the desert, surviving in the harsh conditions as they have been known to do for centuries.
It is almost dark when we reach our campsite. We place our belongings into our tents before taking our precious bottled water and heading for one of the many dunes untainted by footprints. As expected, in every direction we are surrounded by the apparent nothingness of the desert. Every contour of the land is completely visible thanks to a full moon that bathes everything in blue light. We sit and listen intently as Ibrahim tells stories of his experiences as a desert guide. He tells us of travellers in need of rescuing and explains all that can go wrong for the overambitious and the uninitiated. These stories are of special interest to us as tomorrow we will be delving deeper into the desert, leaving behind what little sense of familiarity our campsite offers. Let us hope we don’t become one of Ibrahim’s stories.
After seeing the sun set over rolling dunes, it is only fair we see it rise. It seems you really can’t come all the way to the Sahara without getting on the back of a camel, even if you still have traumas from a similar experience at your primary school fete. Either way I bravely bounce on the back of a camel for about an hour, feeling every bump in the sand as we lazily trek around the dunes. Finally, we hop back into what our hosts refer to as our “four wheeled camels” and take the even bumpier ride to Iriki Lake. Once there our two 4WD’s race side by side, losing all semblance of road and instead simply head in a general direction. We cross the arid lakebed and chase the shimmering horizon. It seems the only water we will be seeing here in this dried Saharan lake is in the form of a mesmerising mirage.
The road to home
We deliberately lose ourselves in the mountains on our way back to Marrakesh. This time we explore the isolated villages sitting along the mostly non-existent roads across the Anti-Atlas Mountains. Finally, we make our way down the Tizin’Test pass which spirals its way back to the city and offers us a final chance to see Morocco’s ever-changing scenery.
Tonight is my last night in Morocco and it comes to an end right where it began; in Marrakesh. This time however I wander the city and see it not just as a place where tourism thrives but where all the different elements of the country are brought together. During the course of my trip I visited remote villages where clay tagines are sold by the very same people who make them, I have passed through valleys where argan trees are grown to produce the oil I see being displayed in the shop fronts before me, and I have come to realise perhaps it is the case all roads lead back to Marrakesh.
Here the night’s festivities are about to start as chefs arrive in the city’s main square with their grills in tow and street performers begin to collect groups of spectators made up of tourists and locals alike.
I find a spot among one such crowd and eagerly wait for the show to begin, though I’m sure I can’t offer my full attention. This is my last night in Marrakesh you see, and even now I am busy planning my return.
Want to experience Morocco like Tyson? Starting and ending in Marrakech the 8 day Sahara Adventure tour offers a unique glimpse into the magic of Morocco. Soak up the souqs of the city before heading to the sand dunes at sunset, via the stunning Atlas Mountains.
Sahara Experience have a range of Morocco adventures to suit your timetable and budget. See Sahara Experience for more information.