FX Excursions

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Morocco: Twists And Turns

Apr 1, 2011
2011 / April 2011

Hayley Wood made her first footfall in Morocco in 1991. She can still recall her fears, hopes and preconceptions ahead of that initial trip.

“Culture shock hit me full in the face,” she says. “We arrived in Tangier, but it might as well have been the moon. Nothing prepared me for the sensory bombardment. Everything seemed completely alien.”

For some people, abrupt immersion in an exotic culture can curtail any similar travel ambitions. But Hayley was spellbound. She has subsequently crisscrossed Africa as an overland tourist and as a tour guide, often passing through Morocco, where it all began.

Even the most experienced travelers can be challenged by Tangier. Overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, it is buffeted not just by the clash of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea but also by the ceaseless ebb and flow of cultural and political currents from Africa, the Arab world and Europe.

Caid’s Bar, in the atmospheric El Minzah Hotel, is said to have been the inspiration for Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca. Switch from black and white to riotous color, update the story to the 21st century, and modern Tangier retains many echoes of that classic movie. It is a city full of people on the make, of Westerners trying to forget their past, of others trying to find themselves, and of prospective migrants looking for a passage to a new life elsewhere.

It was into this melting pot that Hayley arrived for a short holiday 20 years ago, escorting a female friend in a wheelchair. “Pat had always wanted to go somewhere completely different. So I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Suddenly we were in Tangiers, wondering what we’d got ourselves into.”

Hayley’s worries were assuaged by an aspect of Morocco which has remained consistent through every visit she has made since: the extraordinary generosity of the people. The hotel doorman was happy to devote his free time to guiding the two first-time visitors, helping to maneuver the wheelchair through the narrow, crowded alleys of the Kasbah and even assisting Pat to ride a camel.

By the end of the holiday, Hayley was eager to return to the country to explore the region that the inhabitants of Tangier dismissively refer to as the “interior” — essentially, the whole of the rest of Morocco It was in the interior, five years later, that Hayley’s Moroccan adventures started in earnest.

Morocco is a vast and varied country. Geographically and culturally, the northern coastline has always been influenced by the Mediterranean. Here you will find pavement cafés, waterside promenades, patches of evergreen forest, secluded beaches and wetlands supporting flamingos and migratory birds. The four seasons are clearly defined, and life is lived to their rhythm.

But further south, Morocco has been molded by three dominant geographical features: more than 1,000 miles of wind-battered Atlantic coastline, the snow-capped barrier of the mighty Atlas mountain range and a thirsty expanse of the Sahara Desert.

It was to this hinterland that Hayley arrived on an intrepid group tour in 1996, beginning in the chaotic city of Marrakech. Tangier had merely been a taster. In Marrakech, the sensory bombardment was turned to full volume.

With her companions, she checked into a 2-star hotel in the old town, quickly discovering that 2-star standards in Morocco are not the same as elsewhere. “There were cut toenails in the bed from a previous occupant.”

At the heart of Marrakech’s legendary Medina is the large, open square of Jemaa el-Fna. Alfred Hitchcock famously used it as the backdrop for his 1956 movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, and it has changed little since then. Indeed, its essence has barely altered since medieval times. It is a breathtaking kaleidoscope of traders, shoppers, musicians, astrologers, snake-charmers, belly-dancers, food stalls, horse-drawn carriages, pickpockets and bewildered travelers.

Hayley was able to take it in her stride and felt that she had overcome the culture shock of her previous visit to Morocco. But then she joined several women in her group for a visit to a local hammam — steam bath — and discovered that there was still much to come to terms with in this beguiling country.

“The hammam was very old. It had probably been in constant use for more than 300 years. We were all prudish and wore our swimming costumes. The fat female attendant shook her head and ripped them off us. She then subjected us, naked, to a violent pummeling, which was apparently a massage, then slid us across the floor to the far side of the room, where we shared tea and laughter with the local women. It was an unforgettable experience.”

Improbably refreshed from their experience at the hammam, the women rejoined the rest of the group and embarked on a two-week expedition through the sparsely populated countryside of Central Morocco.

“Every day brought something special. On the first morning out of Marrakech, we reached Cascades d’Ouzoud, North Africa’s biggest waterfall. It’s more than 300 feet high and descends as a foaming torrent in a series of steps. We viewed it from the top and then close to the bottom, where the ground shook beneath our feet. The power of the water was incredible.”

One of the great paradoxes of this largely arid country is that much of its landscape has been shaped by water. The foothills of the Atlas mountains are riven by deep, river-carved gorges. Arguably the most spectacular is Todra Gorge. Sheer red cliffs rise to more than 1,000 feet on each side, while at its narrowest point the width is just 33 feet.

“It’s very claustrophobic,” says Hayley. “Even at the height of the day, it’s cool and gloomy down at the bottom of the gorge. All the time you’re conscious that the gorge was carved by a river, and you can easily visualize the shallow stream being transformed by a flash flood.

“But I love Todra. We stayed in a hotel deep within the gorge and visited hidden villages lush with vegetation in the shadow of the bare cliffs. There were some wonderful handicrafts for sale there. I bought a handmade rug that now lies on my living room floor.”

The trip moved on to the little Saharan town of Merzouga, close to the border with Algeria. The town itself has little to recommend it, but it is the main staging post for one of Morocco’s greatest natural wonders, the Erg Chebbi sand dunes.

“We set off from the town at 3 a.m. on camels in order to reach the highest dune in time for the sunrise. It was worth it. The cold of the night dissolved in the sun’s warmth, and an endless vista of dunes was revealed before our eyes. To descend, you either slog back down the spine of the dune, or run straight down the face. The second option is much quicker and a lot more fun.”

The highest ascent was still to come. They headed back to the Atlas Mountains to the foot of Jebel Toubkal, which, at 13,671 feet, is the highest peak in North Africa. Although the climb is technically straightforward, the paths can be treacherous, and altitude sickness is a threat toward the summit.

“On the way up, there were patches of snow, even though it was summer. We stopped for a few minutes to have a snowball fight. It’s always a novelty to find snow in Africa. We spent a night in a tiny mountain hut — all 17 of us crammed in together — and then began the final ascent at 4:30 a.m. The early-morning view from the top was spectacular.”

In Hayley’s subsequent visits, Morocco has continued to reveal wonders and surprises. On one recent morning, she enjoyed an archetypal brochure moment from the balcony of her accommodation in Ouarzazate, a town that has featured in several Hollywood movies.

“It was a perfect, golden dawn. The call to prayer was sounding from the mosques around the town. The mud walls of the Kasbah were glowing orange in the early light. In the narrow streets, hundreds of women in colorful traditional clothes had congregated. It was exactly how I envisioned Morocco before my first visit 20 years ago. It was only later that I discovered that the women had been queuing to audition for a Wrigley’s chewing gum commercial.”

In that moment, modern Morocco was encapsulated: exotic, beautiful and not always quite as it seems at first sight.


Info to Go

Most international flights arrive at Casablanca Mohammed V Airport (CMN), 19 miles south of Casablanca. Information about connecting domestic flights is available via the Moroccan Airoports Authority website at www.onda.ma/onda/an. A shuttle train operating from the airport to Casablanca takes about 45 minutes. Intercity rail connections operate from the main rail station in Casablanca. For more information, visit www.visitmorocco.com.

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