20 April 2010 by Pete Mathers
“Steam rose into the cool desert night as the lid was lifted on the earthenware pot. The smells were familiar: cinnamon, ginger and garlic. I’d had tajine before of course – this was not my first time in Morocco – and I knew the classic dish: lamb, prunes and almonds, sweetened with honey and stewed slowly over charcoal until the meat falls off the bone.
But I’d never before had it in such a serene setting. Hand-woven rugs were spread out around the campfire of our Bedouin desert camp. The camels that had carried us here, moving swiftly and quietly across the parched desert farmland, knelt tethered to the side with their Bedouin handlers. Shooting stars streaked across the sky. I’ve never seen so many in a single night. If you’re booking this trip, you better have your wishes ready.”
Wexas Africa specialist Clare Plummer had won a trip to Morocco with leading adventure travel company, Exodus. The weeklong tour of Marrakech and the Sahara had begun the night before in Ouarzazate, a quiet Saharan town south-east of Marrakech. Exodus can provide group flights and transfers from London to Casablanca and on to Ouarzazate. Should you prefer to make your own arrangements, a number of low-cost carriers fly to Marrakech, from where Exodus provides a complimentary bus transfer at 5 p.m. on day one of the tour.
“My partner and I flew straight to Marrakech and booked our own private transfer to join the Exodus tour group,” explained Clare. “We’d arrived a day early for a very good reason – the reopening of the stalwart Marrakech hotel, La Mamounia. For those who know hotels, La Mamounia simply is Marrakech. Built in the 1920s on the site of a sultan’s palace and ideally situated within the walls of the old city, it was reported to be Winston Churchill’s favourite hotel.
The great statesman even had a suite named after him, decorated with oil paintings he did of the hotel’s gardens. “In 2006 it closed for a refurb and we’ve been waiting three years to see the improvements. It was pure coincidence that the Exodus trip coincided with its reopening. I arranged a tour with the Sales Director and can tell you that it doesn’t disappoint.
Praise has to go to Jacques Garcia, who oversaw the project, repairing countless mosaics, mouldings and paintings and adding new furniture, fabrics and woodwork, much of it made by local artisans. He’s mixed Moroccan and Andalucian styles with luxury modern technology and chosen a deep-red tone as the palace’s signature colour; it shines on the grand piano in the Majorelle Gallery and reappears on the fleet of Jaguars and Range Rovers parked outside.
There are 136 rooms, 71 suites and three riads, each with terraces and private pools. Add in a brand new spa, three restaurants, five bars and 20 acres of gardens and you’re on to a good thing – worth a splurge if you’re looking to treat yourself.” It was not, therefore, until she woke at the Ouarzazate hotel that Clare met the rest of the Exodus tour group. “
There were 16 of us in all, which admittedly made the bus a little crowded, though still perfectly comfortable. Ages ranged from early twenties to mid fifties. It’s a busy itinerary and you’re on the go the whole time, but it’s very well organised and exceptionally good value. Our main Exodus guide, a Berber called Mustafa, was absolutely wonderful.” The first full day sees you leave Ouarzazate and head south through the Draa Valley, a huge palmery of more than four million palm trees, to the oasis town of Zagora. Perched right on the edge of the Sahara, Zagora was once a starting point for traders crossing the desert.
“We even passed a sign saying Timbuktu 52 days by camel,” explained Clare. Fortunately, your own journey by camel is neither as long nor as arduous as that faced by the ancient nomads.
Moving in groups of four camels, each led by a Bedouin guide, it’s about a two-hour trek to the desert camp. “When the last of the tajine had gone, soaked up with delicious Moroccan flat bread, we were entertained with songs around the campfire,” said Clare, picking up her story once again. “
Embarrassingly we were asked to sing ourselves, though all we managed was a tuneless rendition of Frère Jacques.” The following day sees you return by camel to Zagora before venturing further into Morocco’s Great South. Of particular interest is a visit to the Koranic Library of Tamegroute and the chance to view original 15th century manuscripts.
The night is spent in a simple yet comfortable auberge. Besides the sweeping palmeries, Morocco’s desert region is also peppered with the remains of fabulous kasbahs, fortified dwellings of baked mud and straw. None are more impressive than Ait Benhaddou, the focus of day four of the tour.
Although few families continue to live within its walls, Ait Benhaddou remains a magical place, a stunning collection of intricate crenellated buildings whose crumbling clay walls glow red in the setting sun. “Just walking through the streets was like travelling back in time,” said Clare. “It was like being on the set of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”
This is not as far fetched as it sounds. Both Ait Benhaddou and nearby Ouarzazate have been used as locations by the Hollywood film industry since the 1960s. Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, The Living Daylights, Gladiator and Babel were all shot here and if you’re lucky you may still spot celebrity A-listers haggling for carpets or colourful tajine dishes. The next two days are spent high in the Atlas Mountains. “It’s a gentle and picturesque walk to the mountain gite where you spend the night,” recounted Clare.
“The views across the fertile Tijhza Valley were exceptional, though the highlight for me was the threehour trek the next morning through Berber villages, past terraced orchards and well-tended gardens, while all around stood the rustcoloured Atlas, pocked with patches of green.” Everything culminates with two days in Marrakech, beginning with a visit to the Djemma el-Fna, the city’s medieval square that, according to Clare, “everyone should see at least once in their lifetime”.
Dusk is the bewitching hour, when lanterns are lit and snake charmers and soothsayers, acrobats and shoe shiners attract locals and tourists alike. Then, of course, there are the souks, a spider’s web of alleyways where closet-sized stalls sell everything from colourful babouche slippers to bottles of dried chameleons.
“The only way to enjoy the souks,” insists Clare, “is to allow yourself to get lost. But if you’d rather escape the hubbub, take a taxi out of the medina to the Majorelle gardens. Among the pools of cool water and cascades of colourful plants is a small museum and a wonderful teashop. Sipping mint tea in the late afternoon light was the perfect end to a sensational tour.”