The Berbers of Morocco
Senior Group Travel to Remote Places Pays Dividends
Article & photos by Sarah Massey
|While in Morocco, the author (pictured above with her tour’s guide and drivers) traveled from the mountains and deserts of the south to the seaside city of Essaouria, meeting farmers, nomads, fishermen, and artisans along the way.
Traveling the trails of southern Morocco in a 4 x 4 Land Rover offers a unique holiday filled with adventure. At this time in our history it is important that we learn about Islam and the Muslim way of life, and Morocco remains a safe place to do so.
The Berbers converted to Islam in the 8th century, but Arabic still remains their second language. As farmers, as well as nomads, they continue to live in the mountains and desert of southern Morocco in a lifestyle remarkably unchanged through the years.
We embark from Marrakech with a small group of 15 travelers from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, Italy, and New Zealand for some days of rugged travel.
Rising at dawn, the drivers load the luggage on the roofs of the Land Rovers and everyone scrambles aboard. Leaving city life behind, we head into the high Atlas Mountains and Tizi n’Tichka pass with a stop for snowball fights before descending to the oasis of the Draa Valley, the date capital of the world and the gateway to the Sahara Desert.
A day is spent in Zagora visiting the 17th century Islamic sanctuary of Amazrmu and watching the ancient method of making the famous filigree jewelry. Then with much reluctance we begin to learn the art of bargaining and haggling over a price to buy a bracelet or necklace. It is a raucous morning with everyone trying to get the best price before we move on to another village known for its pottery and tangines.
The day ends beneath the desert sky at a nomadic Berber enclave with camel rides and hikes up the Tinfou sand dunes to gaze in awe as the sunset. The wind ruffles the tents under a full moon with robed men serving dinner as we sit on pillows in the traditional style. The night ends with the drivers forming an improvised drumming and singing group dancing around the campfire.
After a sunrise hike up the mountain, we set out on a rugged path across the gravel desert for the town of Tata. There are lots of photo ops with camels and nomadic people emerging out of the vast openness, short hikes, and delicious mandarin oranges that we eat by the dozens. After settling for the evening at the hotel, we all rush into town to replenish our water bottles and grab snacks of fruit for the days ahead.
As the journey continues we travel into the Anti-Atlas Mountains through canyons where women wash clothes in a stream and olive trees dot the landscape. Onward we bump over high barren plateaus with Kasbahs (fortified villages and citadels) nestled in valleys and on hilltops and stops for mint tea and picnics amid the Argane trees. After marveling at the goats in the trees eating nuts, Ali, our guide, explains the labor-intensive process that the women use to make the expensive Argane oil of the region.
Arriving at the town of Tafarout we visit a carpet shop before crawling up a mountain road with impossible switchbacks and spectacular vistas to reach our retreat amid the Berbers of Tagudichte. It is a quiet time to regroup in the solitude and serenity of a distant place. The drivers wash their clothes and prove proficient at cooking as we trek to mountain peaks or visit houses in the village. Some people drift off for conversations about the Islamic beliefs and traditions of these friendly people.
Leaving behind the pastoral life we head for the ocean and the cosmopolitan seaside city of Essaouria with its fishing harbor and Portuguese fort. After watching the fishermen unload the day’s catch most of us head for one of the many cafes along the boardwalk to sample the fish of the day. Then it’s off to the market inside the old walls for gifts to take home. Veerle of Sweden stocks up on wool caps while Nancy of Australia shops for leather goods. Theona, the solicitor, decides to read in the park and enjoy the ocean sunset; Ruhan, the futures trader, and Michelle, the legal editor, head off to sample the local wine.
The bustling city life of Essaouria reminds us of our imminent return to our own stress-filled lives. We climb aboard our Land Rovers for the final trek across the Sahara and head for the souks of Marrakech. Haggling over prices at the Marrakech market is serious business but a leisurely stroll through the mint bazaar is a tantalizing delight.
The long flight back to Texas allows time for reflection on the uniqueness of this Explore holiday. Most Americans take holidays with large bus tour groups and luxury cruise liners while the worldwide Explore group takes small groups to places rarely visited by others with expert local guides who are considerate and knowledgeable. This was my second Explore trip. Others on the holiday had taken as many as nine trips. And this certainly won’t be my last trip with Explore.
For more info: The American base for Explore is Adventure Center, 1311 63rd St., Suite 200, Emeryville, CA 94608; 800-227-8747; www.adventurecenter.com or send an e-mail to email@example.com.
Travel Tips for Adventuring Seniors
Buy a daypack. Having traveled for years I had a small daypack that was very worn. With the new weight requirements for the airlines I decided it was time for a new daypack, so I purchased one with padded shoulder straps and wheelies. It was ideal for the long airport hikes and keeping my bottled water handy in the 4X4s.
Take practical and easily packable items. There are now small rolls of toilet paper in the cosmetic section of grocery stores and I have used them every place I have traveled. I learned from a Swedish girl there are microfiber towels that dry instantly. I found one in a camping catalog for my next trip as towels are too heavy and take up too much room. I also bought a handshake flashlight that never needs new batteries—it’s perfect for late night toilet wanders.
Pack very light. Everyone tells you this, but it is true. Adventuring is not a style show and folks wore the same Levi’s day-after-day, even the long-sleeve shirts that are necessary to wear in Muslim countries began to appear and re-appear. I had replaced the long underwear I once used skiing with “silkies” that are virtually weightless. I wore them almost every day to stay warm. Also don’t forget flip-flops, as they are light weight and can be used when taking showers and as slippers in the night on questionable floors.
Be flexible and expect the unexpected. As you get older it seems being flexible gets harder and air travel is very difficult these days. On my past two trips I have arrived a day late and had my luggage go missing—never to be found again. I have been rerouted around the world, slept on the couch in an airport military lounge, and hired a driver to meet up with my tour group seven hours away. Remember everything is an adventure and all part of the pleasure.
Know thyself and don’t try to do everything. I used to hike in wilderness areas, but with hip surgery those days are past. I did not get up before dawn and climb the small mountain to watch the sunrise, nor did I climb the sand dune, but I did fly my parafoil beside the camel and sketched the Berber tent letting others trudge up the dune.
Be gracious. After listening to hours of the same Moroccan music of the van drivers I found a CD kiosk in one town and quickly got the tour leader to select a new CD that each driver would enjoy. The drivers were delighted and we could enjoy some different tunes, even though they all sounded the same to me.
Share, share, and share. Friends come easily when you buy dozens of tangerines or a big bag of pistachios at the market stops for children by the roadside or for hosts at stopping points. They are truly unexpected treats when traveling in the poor rural areas of many countries.