I should be really calling this blog write up “First Time in Morocco?”, as we heard this phrase asked more than once on this trip, and it was something both I and Chris my former team mate, friend and fellow travel buddy on this journey to the Sahara Desert, had in common. First Time in Morocco.
It was early and we were on our first part of the journey to catch the early bird flight from Aberdeen, Scotland at 6am to Marrakech, Morocco. We had a long day of travels with a 6 hour layover in Amsterdam, before catching our connecting flight. We arrived at 10.15pm in Marrakech with no troubles, a great start so far.
When we landed at Marrakech Airport, we were meant to be greeted by a man who would be handing over the keys for the car we had booked, but surprise, there was no man to be seen where we had been told to meet him, so we made our way to the car rentals looking to ask any friendly face that we could find. After a few minutes a helpful man from one of the car rental companies called the person who was meant to meet us, so we were a step closer to the next part of our journey. It was roughly around 11.15pm and we had been at the airport for an hour now, and a little behind schedule as we had planned to hit the streets of Marrakech for a little exploration before our 6 hour car journey the following day.
Finally, yes! The gentleman with the keys showed up and said “First Time in Morocco?”, it turned out he thought that we were landing in Marrakech at 6am, but all was well, after what felt like a dodgy transaction of taking copies of our passports, drivers license and payment details in the open carpark it was time to hit the road, but first we had to give the car a close inspection like you would all car rentals but neither myself or Chris had ever had a rental car that looked like it had been in the middle of gun fight before. We were just hoping that it was a testament to how sturdy it was. We chuckled at one another, shrugged our shoulders and then on we went to Marrakech. I was looking forward to seeing the vibrancy of Morocco, and the jewel colour tones that it is renowned for. There are Moorish, Berber, Arabic and Andalusian details all coexisting together.
Maybe you’ve noticed the different prominent colours of the cities that make them stand out and tell the stories of Morocco, Chefchaouen is blue, Ouarzazat is yellow, Casablanca is white and Marrakech or Al Hamra as it sometimes is known, the red city.
I was hoping that I was on my way to the red city, but I should probably say at this point that the car had zero gps, but the AC was working which was a bonus and the car engine sounded fairly decent when running. I didn't want to put my phone on and be charged crazy roaming costs, so l had to rely on a map. We both had a rough idea that it was about 20 minutes to our Riad based in the old part of town which the map indicated a direct route, so we both thought no problem. I’m used to navigating my way up hills, so why not through the roads to our Riad right? Now we were in mix of it all, the map showed roads but in actuality the streets seemed to be getting narrower, and more civilians began to appear, food stalls, clothing stalls, all sorts of stalls were in abundance, these were not roads haha.
Now stop for second and picture two of us driving a banged up car down these busy streets lost late at night while men are trying to reach into our windows to sell us all sorts of things, it was pretty different! Like a market drive through comedy sketch. It was Chris’s first time driving in Morocco whilst I was trying to navigate these streets of Marrakech without being distracted by everything that we were seeing and hands reaching at the windows. It was chaotic and I finally realised what the rental guy meant when he told us before we left the airport that Marrakech never sleeps, it was the truth!
Myself and Chris made the decision to find a place to park the car and walk the rest of the way to the Riad (The Riad also known as a Dar is a type of Moroccan traditional house, which is usually formed around a courtyard), but before we even have a chance to stop to try and find a space ourselves in this crazy city, we have all sorts of men and kids haggling with us “You want this? l give you good price, cheap price, come into my store”, then we hear “you need space?” BINGO, yes we need a space, “follow me follow me”... This kid, maybe in his late teens guided us down the street roughly 50metres into a busy market place, he guides us into a space, we park, then grab our bags and the kid asks for payment, obviously we both expected this but then he asks where do you stay, we were naturally cautious like travelling anywhere new and dealing with strangers, but we both felt he had good intentions and just wanted to try make a quick buck in doing so and didn't want to cause us any harm.
We told him the name of our Riad, he said “l know this place” in a confident voice, “follow me, follow me”. As he takes us through the back alleyways of Marrakech we were both still on guard whilst acting cool, eyes darting everywhere but we finally made it to our Riad. We pay the kid a few dirham, which was only about £2 but all we had, and off he went back to the market and off we went into our Riad.
First Time in Morocco... we were greeted with an extremely welcoming vibe and some lovely Moroccan Tea, we chilled finally in the quiet walls of the Riad next to the pool and plants that gave it a lovely tranquil feel and an easy escape from the busy congested city of Marrakech. We decided to try find our bearings and head back out, it was probably around 1am, we were hungry and in search of a late nibble. After a few hours roaming the busy narrow streets and grabbing some local food from a friendly street vendor, we gradually found our way back to the Riad... after a few wrong turns of course, but a great 24hours of adventures so far.
We made it after all, and in one piece.
It was day 2 of our 5 days in Morocco, which meant every day l wanted to do something new instead of chilling with my feet up beside a pool soaking up the sun, which would go completely against the purpose of this trip.
Our plan today was to drive 3 ½ hours to the Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou, the UNESCO Heritage Site that features a stunning fortified village between Marrakech and the Sahara. In the 1940s, nearly 100 families were living here, but in recent years only a handful of families stayed and continued to live inside the fortress. One of the remaining families opened a traditional café to try give visitors an overview of the ancient lifestyle in the fortress to try preserve the heritage, and site. The earthen architecture is vulnerable to weather and with a lack of maintenance no longer having those caretakers nearby with the skills and ability to maintain, or the funds to maintain (which is frustratingly sad) means serious deterioration has occurred. It apparently in previous years received some care and restoration using as many traditional techniques as possible to keep the site historically preserved, even though serves as an important reminder of why we should preserve old skills alongside new. I was excited to get there and see it with my own eyes.
This car journey ended up taking us roughly around 6 hours. The purpose of this whole trip for me was to experience a different environment whilst the opportunity was there, and to test my photography further by photographing in a different landscape with different tones, and fully immersing myself in the local culture in a more natural way without exploitation, or without doing the generic trip to Morocco.
l wanted it to be an adventure that l could learn as much as l could in the short time l was there, about Morocco and this part of the world, and that includes the problems it and the nomadic/berber communities face due to things like climate change, and to learn more about my photography by taking some beautiful photographs in this setting that I have never been in before. To be challenged in general in ways that were unexpected but whilst also making sure that l was still fully aware of our safety and of course ensuring that those who were guiding us, and so on were legit, ethical and supporting poorer areas of Morocco that could benefit whilst ensuring locals were involved and being able to reap those benefits. And that there was an aspect of preserving heritage/culture and traditional way of life, as well as ensuring any animals worked with whilst trekking were well looked after, instead of just flooding areas with tourism and doing things in a mechanical irresponsible or greedy way just because people like myself want to travel, take images (we see many influencers going to others countries now trying to make money off of this, instead of people going to take images using reputable local businesses with the income going back to locals etc) or interested in different cultures.
I am all for travelling and it's a great way to try learn about the world, but even when l do travel l am more and more reminded of the carbon footprint and pollution aspect, the need to travel less by plane and the over-tourism in some places and it's negative effects, like even in my own homeland. Its definitely a tough balance to find in today's world when wanting to get somewhere, l really do hope that we find better, more eco friendly options to travel soon, and we become more responsible conscious travellers but until then it is just about making better choices about how often we are travelling, why, where, and when. And when we are travelling (home or away) leaving less of a negative impact (that includes taking less for sake of it) and choosing responsible travelling and guides and local businesses that ensure that local people are in charge, working alongside utilising and preserving their skills and knowledge which is important and can provide for their families, plus ensure communities are thriving and not just appeasing tourists at the steep cost of local culture, local knowledge, environment, wildlife or community.
With those thoughts in mind, and thinking about how much people take for granted, I felt rather grateful to be here, and wanted to make each moment count. I got up bright and early, grabbed a quick breakfast of fruit and bread with Chris at our Riad then it was time to figure out where our car in Medina was (Medina is considered the old part of town, with narrow streets surrounded by high buildings, palaces and some beautiful mosques). We ended up walking the streets for roughly an hour and a half, the city of Marrakech is as crazy as we remembered from the night before, the fragrant and colourful markets filled with stalls are everywhere, all quite overwhelming to the senses. Its a rather intense feeling walking the streets of Marrakech, cars, bikes, people running, horses, there is all sorts of things happening with the added pressure of people trying to haggle wanting you to buy something or lead you somewhere, you almost don't want to be too aggressive due to maybe being deemed insulting to locals just trying to make a living from tourists, but sometimes a firm no is what is needed and trying not to look lost. A few local phrases for “no thank you, have a good day”such as “Laa, Shukran”, Arabic for “no, thank you” go along way in this city.
As we made it to our car, we are both saying to one another l bet someone will try haggle with us again for parking the car and trying to leave, and as predicted, this man comes up and asks for money, whilst there is an understanding of why people want to make money from the visitors, in this instance it was a firm no and off we went on our car journey to Ait-Ben-Haddou.
The car Journey went smooth, we were about 2 hours into our journey and stopped a few times for bottled water and snacks but as we start entering the Atlas Mountains we get stopped at a sudden checkpoint around a bend by two policemen carrying guns and a bat, they point to the side of the road getting us to pull over. There was nobody else around, an abandoned home and nothing but desert behind us and views of the magnificent Mountains ahead. Chris was driving, l was the passenger, we were both stuck to our seat not knowing what was going to happen, one policeman stood over the other side of the road, the other outside the driver's door pointing to Chris to roll down his window, “Where are you from? Why do you come here? First time in Morocco? What's your name?”. All very basic questions until the words were uttered... “You pay me 400 dirham”, Chris responded “I don't have 400 dirham, l only have 200”. Now bearing in mind 400 Moroccan dirham is equivalent to about £35 British pounds, it's not much in the grand scheme of things but when you are in this situation you do not know whether this is normal or not, and do you pay the man and hope that he lets you go on your way, or will you end up in a jail cell for bribing them even though didn’t do anything wrong. This all of a sudden became very intense, the policeman sounded more aggressive asking Chris to step out the car, at the same time I tried to remain relaxed and not let any sudden reaction change the state of this situation. Chris was naturally intimidated but said in a strong relaxed voice “Sir l do not want to leave my car”, the policeman then adamantly said “Come to my car”. After a few moments chatting back and forth Chris hesitated, and got out of the car making his way cautiously over to the police vehicle. Whilst this was all happening, I was still in the passenger seat keeping a close eye on Chris and the other cop in my peripheral vision, a million thoughts were running through my head of how this could go wrong, with only one hope being he pays the man and off we go. Chris came back over to the car telling me he paid him 200 dirham, and we both said to one another lets get the hell out of here, we had no idea what was happening and it was an uncomfortable situation. As we were about to drive off, the other cop came running over, he tapped on the window telling us to roll it down, at this moment l am prepared for anything, he opens up his folder in his hand and points to the money that Chris paid the other cop and said “Take Take, First time in Morocco, have a good time!”.
Phew, we felt like we had dodged a bullet there yet felt extremely baffled by what happened. What was that?
I didn’t realise until afterwards that this is quite common, and advice from locals is if you get stopped by local police, put 200 Moroccan dirham (about £17) in your passport and if you have to hand it to the police... If they’re a bit dodgy they’ll hand it back empty (or ask for more). If they’re not, and think you’re trying to bribe them, apologise and say you forgot to take the money from your passport or it was in there for any fines. They’ll hand you your items back with the money. It’s a strange scenario to be in.
It had been an intense few hours so far and we were still a little worked up from the earlier incident, but finally we made it to Ait-Ben-Haddou, and before checking into our accommodation for the evening l come into contact with a snake charmer. The reason l wanted to post this image is because it was not exactly something you see every day, but l also want to point something out in regards to what sadly often goes on behind the exotic scenes. The majority of snake charmers are not infact real snake charmers and the snakes that have been caught have often been “defanged”, their mouths sewn partially shut, and/or left without food and water to dehydrate and become easier manageable, and get sick and die sooner than their predecessors sadly, all so the “charmers” can make money from tourists purchasing a picture (and safely for charmer and tourist alike) with the snake etc (whilst discrediting the old traditional art of snake charming, and the traditional snake charmers, who are few and far between now). Yes l understand people need to make a living but this is a huge problem we have in the world exploiting the natural world, including creatures as a profitable source taking away some of their natural abilities, removing them from their natural habitat and even endangering some species all for mere entertainment of tourists, and instead of encouraging and supporting alternatives that could benefit local communities, businesses and wildlife etc in other ways.
The questions l ask myself and you the reader, do they really need to do this to make an income when there are alternatives that could also benefit the natural world? Is it really these people who are to blame or is it the individuals creating the demand? Can people really be that blind or ignorant now to not know the circumstances, given these facts are so common knowledge and easily discoverable now? Why do humans still partake, is it just to brag about it? I think personally its really important we understand the situation and what is exploitative or encouraging that to make money, and what is not, rather than simply getting a picture because it is deemed cool. Nonetheless, I documented this particular snake charmer, and made a mental note of the often sad reality of this industry.
The main reason why we had decided to spend a night in Aït-Ben-Haddou was to see and explore the aforementioned Ksar Aït-Ben-Haddou UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site, famous for its appearance in Game of Thrones and movies such as the Prince of Persia, The Mummy (A personal favourite) and Gladiator. Personally the reason l wanted to see it was because l was curious about the architectural designs and knew it was such an impressive structure hidden away in the Atlas Mountains. Built around the 1600s using earthen architecture such as clay bricks, the pre-Saharan Ksar (group of dwellings) definitely did showcase it's beauty and why it is a known site for tourists.
This leads me onto my next point, l was somewhat disappointed with the poor upkeep of this area given its significance, especially the bus loads full of people etc that would constantly stream in exploring this site to get their perfect selfie/shot or say they have been there and done it. It was dirty which is expected in some cases, but not in this sense, there was trash in among the buildings, all sorts of litter made its way into the town and throughout the UNESCO site. This is becoming a common theme in many sites across the world where places of beauty have all of a sudden become tourist traps, and some individuals just wanting to make a quick easy buck then we see the fallout. It is a sad thing to see since being considered a protected site that the upkeep of the buildings was not managed well (which I touched on slightly earlier) and in some places left unattended.
The people of Morocco have some amazing cultural sites, especially this one and I’m sure the locals want to preserve these sites. I do understand constraints but as a UNESCO site, you’d imagine there would be more assistance. And more tourists penalised for littering such a site.
The town was dead, it felt like myself and Chris were the only ones in the town when the day came to an end. It wasn't exactly the experience l had hoped for, as much as I was grateful to see the sites, but ending this evening on a positive note l was most impressed by the mosque, not simply because it is a mosque with beautiful traditional design but on top of the Mosque Aït-Ben-Haddou was a large nest that had a rather large bird called a White Stork that caught me by surprise, and a cool way to end the night before heading back to our room for the evening.
One of the many reasons l had wanted to come and experience Morocco was the attraction to the desert and photographing the rising sun or the sky here, l have always had this vision that one day l would be here running an ultra marathon. l have had my eyes set on one called Marathon Des Sables, 6 days running over 250km (156miles) across endless dunes and the hot air brushing against my face. I wanted to come to the desert and experience how l would mentally feel being in a place completely different when comparing it to my home in Scotland, that has the green, wet climate, with mountains and surrounded by sea. Very different change of scenery and of course curious of how my body would respond.
I didn't do the marathon this time, l was only getting a taste of what the environment would be like so l could get myself into a different mental state of understanding the desert and so on, but good thing was that Chris is always keen to push the limits physically, and I knew he is would be up for a challenge and pushing the physical/mental boundaries, so the night before we had discussed we needed to get a good sweat in since having to face those intense situations with the cops, chaotic city vibes of Marrakesh, people constantly demanding attention, haggling and sitting in a car travelling long hours, which not everyone could handle. We were due a good physical workout!
We woke up bright and early before the sun started to rise and decided to head out into the town up into the mountains for a great trail run just over an hour getting a great sweat and feeling the vibes of what it would be like running on this terrain. So far it was one of the main highlights of our trip, being up on the mountains seeing the sunrise while getting a solid workout in and experiencing it with a good friend.
As we headed back to our accommodation the town was slowly starting to wake up. I found it funny after only a few days of being in Morocco l had noticed the difference of slower pace here even though the city can be chaotic, we were also lucky that all the places we stayed at breakfast was included, nothing fancy just what you needed, some bread and fruit, really basic and for me this was a perfect start to the day, and of course how could I forget the Maghrebi Mint Tea everywhere we went.
It was time to hit the road for a 5 hour drive through the Atlas mountain with our final stop being Mhamid, we made our way into Zagora (Zagora is located in the Draa Valley, the Draa is Moroccos longest river flowing 680 miles from the Atlas Mountains all the way to the Atlantic Ocean). It's a larger city, not as large as Marrakesh but still lots going on. A few roundabouts, right and left turns before we are back on the outskirts of the city and find ourself in another situation. A large 4x4 truck comes driving up on our right side pointing and shouting at us as if we have a flat tyre, l am driving while this is happening, our banged up little car seems to be doing just fine, but the 4x4 then aggressively proceeds to tailgate us on our left rear side getting closer then it makes a sudden swerve in front of us trying to cut us off. l quickly make a swerve to the left pulling out into the opposite side of the road against oncoming cars dodging the truck and Chris shouting we have lost them, keep driving, go go go… Again, we were unaware of what was happening but apparently this isn’t that uncommon in Morocco and isn’t always sinister, but it certainly feels uncomfortable when happening.
Finally we were back on the road, no more problems and making our way into Mhamid a small Oasis town roughly with a population of 7,500 people where we would be meeting our driver Joseph and greeted by our guide Rahim (Rahim grew up in this part of the Sahara Desert, from a Nomadic Family that has lived in the desert for centuries) The perfect guy to be around and learn about the way of life in the desert, and the changes in recent years etc.
We can finally relax now that we were in the truck with a friendly face, and stop worrying about any possible surprise cops or people trying to swerve us off the road, what an adventure so far!
We were finally heading deeper into the desert and heading to the location where we would be spending two nights under the stars at Camp Al Koutban located at the base of the remote dunes of Erg Chigaga, the longest sand sea in Morocco. I had been extremely fortunate enough to team up with Wild Morocco ( https://wildmorocco.com ) who specialise in all sorts of tours, camps and photography trips and recently featured on Lonely Planet. They were the kind of responsible businesses that I had touched on earlier, and I was very excited to finally be in the desert, as this had been a dream of mine for a long time.
First we stopped off at a mid way point between Mhamid and camp Al Koutban at a water well, nothing except a few donkeys and one nomadic lady stitching small dolls plus smaller handmade items she had to sell for any people passing. We got back in the truck after a little break from the bumpy ride in the 4x4, finally we arrived at the camp and were greeted by Houssine, he seemed like the main man running the camp and instantly asked would we like some Whisky Sahara. I was thinking hmmm yes, but l thought whisky was a Scottish thing, he comes over and pours some Mint Tea and says this is Whisky Sahara with a twinkle in his eye, Very cool dude!
As the day went on, l had a chat with Rahim and Houssine asking them if it was possible to see some Fennec Foxes to photograph, they said we would try tomorrow and pointed to places around camp that were possible to see them but recommended its better to go a few days into the desert as higher chance of seeing them, unfortunately l only had 2 days here... maybe l would get lucky, but if not...next time.
The first day of the camp stay comes to an end, and l had hoped to experience a sand storm, see some wildlife, and of course the milky way.... and we were indeed blessed with a little sandstorm that brought rain and thunder, a Desert Sparrow and the milky way, what an amazing combination. The first night we spent in our sleeping tents with our door left wide open waking up to the stunning beauty of the sunrise over the sand dunes and with the moon still high in the sky behind our tents. Absolutely stunning and something l will never forget.
Rahim had planned to take us for a few hours across the desert to meet with a nomadic Moroccan family, l was very excited about this learning about what it is like living there, and trying to continue living with the land and about what they face when tackling societal change, and all that's happening in the Sahara Desert due to climate change. Very cool being led by Rahim who knows this land like the back of his hand and gave us a great insight into what animal markings on the sand meant, how they move, how to catch them if needed and showing us first hand how easy it is to catch a Sand Lizard, but most importantly best places for water and some history of the land. He showed us a school that had been built deep in the desert that all nomadic children would come and attend but due to the tough climate a lot of families were forced to move into the cities making life easier. I asked Rahim about this, he told us some of his brothers and sisters moved away but he could never as the desert is home and the city is too loud, l also must highlight that Rahim is in his early 20s which l respected even more since he is young, in today's world many of the younger generation choose the lifestyle of the city buzz leaving the beauty of untouched lands behind and forgetting their roots, but he continued to stay and find a way to adapt.
I could relate very much to him and his connection to the land, l feel the same about Scotland, and know that the places that are remote are the places that need the most protecting in the long run. During these two days, l had been wearing a shemagh, traditional headwear that l always wondered if actually protected from the sun and so on in the desert. It was recommend and I was fast to learn that the 100% cotton material did an absolute tremendous job of keeping me cool and protected from the sun, myself and Chris had the thought maybe if we wore these when we drove back to Marrakesh maybe we wouldn't get pulled over again haha.
As we made our way reaching the family we were visiting, all l could see was a stone hut, little tent, fire pit, sheep, goats, some chickens, a small garden with a 1 half year old camel plus the only tall tree l could see for miles. It was exactly like something you would see in a Nat Geo documentary, l was blown away by this because so many people overcomplicate life with so many things and believe that we are better off, and would believe this family have so little, yet they have so much more that matters. This lifestyle is one that the Nomadic family chooses, the husband was away collecting wood and the wife was showing us how she made bread using sand, first she would create a fire then let it burn down to ember then she would get her dough that she made from hand, dig a small hole in the fire pit placing the dough on the hot sand then covering it with more hot sand, then waiting roughly 30 minutes before uncovering, cleaning off the excess sand then giving us some to eat. We were served with some Mint Tea and Bread, what a delicious afternoon lunch and an honour getting an insight into some of the ways of family life here.
The Nomadic family life is becoming more difficult these days, the damming of the main river system the Draa River has made it more challenging, the change in weather patterns is affecting yields of rain-fed crops meaning shorter growth season, animals are dying faster due to rise in temperature making it difficult to find water and source food, and the land mass of the Sahara Desert is growing nearly 10% larger than it was a century ago. This is an ongoing problem that doesn't seem to be slowing down and whilst earth has it's natural cycles, humans are the ones responsible, this is going to be an important subject that we will have to acknowledge and adapt to no matter what, to preserve as much as we can in regards to natural resources, especially all the flower and fauna, and do our best to play our part in trying to make a positive change for the future generations that don't deserve this.
Our time with the family came to an end, as we made our way back to camp l couldn't stop thinking about how challenging it must be for this family that is only one within thousands of Nomads and how helpless they are due to changes in society and climate, and the western world's habits and part to blame for the rising problems including climate, that affect many communities worldwide.
The good thing about being in the desert is it's quiet, lots of time to reflect and think about these problems and possible solutions on how the situation can be addressed, or how to learn more and pass on this information. Again, l was very lucky to be hosted by Wild Morocco and can't thank them enough for their hospitality in the desert, and getting the chance to roam the dunes watching the sunset and experiencing a bit of the local culture that they rightly value.
After a wonderful two nights in the desert it was time to head back, the journey back wasn't as eventful as the journey here, it was relaxed, no problems and a late arrival after our 10 hour drive from Mhamid to Marrakech before catching our early flight the next morning back to Scotland. The stopover in Amsterdam was made that little bit more peaceful by meditating in the prayer room, whilst being joined by a Muslim family undertaking Salat, it seemed fitting after leaving Morocco and a nice way to end the trip.
Thank you for reading, hopefully l have inspired you to check out Morocco (especially Wild Morocco) and the Sahara Desert and not scared you with my experience, it was a journey and a journey l learned a great deal from in the short amount of time, l will be back!