Day One - Casablanca
"You gotta get on that plane...maybe not today, but soon and for the rest of your life.." Yes I got on - and off the plane, and the camel and the mule, and often just legged it. As a classic movie and thriving city that's name has represented for me an exotic mix of nostalgia and 'must-go' destinations for a long while. As a child I thought that anything could happen and everything does in such places - a mix of fear and daring that captivated and transported me - one minute a deadly cobra springing at you and the next a scorpion in your shoe and your water canteen is dry. Heat and dread and dodgy deals in markets where 007 might overturn produce in a mad dash from sabre-baring Arabs - ruining your shopping spree in the medina.
The King of Morocco is loved by the people - probably compulsorily but with an obvious open pride; at least according to Mustapha, who taxied me around Casablanca for a few hours.
Day Two - Meknes
Beautiful city of contrast and bustle, the towering Hassan 2 mosque, Africa's largest, looking truly monumental on the foreshore where rich and poor gather along its long promenade and beach. Water carriers in costume offering a goblet filled from a hairy pig hide bladder. Mmm... I soon feel comfortable in the medina. It's great to watch people come and go. Barrows of God knows what. Overburdened donkeys are uncomplaining under entire families moving through the narrow alleys. A scramble at the call to prayer heard from several minarets at once. Some to the nearest mosque and others to a quiet landing or a riad courtyard to unroll their mats and face Mecca five times a day. This is exotic.
Day Three and Four - Fez
Tommy Cooper never visited Fez but he wore one as he died on-stage mid-sketch. A good reason to visit this labyrinthine city - she boasts the oldest uni in the world built by Fatima 800 years ago. Children singing from the Koran within the medina's 10,000 alleys and 300 mosques. A sumptuous feast of life can be experienced within. Branding is almost absent from the day-to-day, with Coke the obvious exception.
Stalls and barrows full - aburst with variety and colour. Crepes thrown onto heated balls of oiled metal. Olives and flowers and buds, strange veges and spices, halal beef and lean camel meat, pungent fish and dyed cloth and jeballas and dresses, shoes and sandals and knock-off ray bans. Sweet pastries with honey and almond - very sweet café cassé just kissed with milk to break it. Yum. Brassware, copperware, leatherwear and mirrors, lamps and carpets. Such carpets I've never seen, and, after some negotiation, I send a large gorgeous Berber rug par avion to Auckland. It feels a little opulent, but the heirloom factor cancels out any guilt I carry, and besides, I have to travel light. This, I'm proud to say, has a major effect on my ease of movement and exploration. I wear a simple pack and drink bottled water constantly, ensuring regular visits to squat toilets that make me appreciate being male and practice my amazing breath-holding skills.
The mosaicists of Fez are legendary, and the tile factory billowing black smoke from burning olive pips is a must. The skilful artisans are crouched or hunched over their various pieces chipping away or painting and glazing. A teenage potter throws pots and bowls and tagines with consummate ease from one huge lump of clay on a large pedalled wheel that never rests. The results are stunning and elegant. Later, a beautiful sunset accompanies the call to prayer as I watch a puppy terrorize some chickens below my balcony. What an amazing city and one I'll visit again.
Day Five, Six and Seven - The Sahara
Heading just beyond Merzouga and the drive to the desert's edge is riveting as there seem to be no highways - just gravely tracks occasionally marked by a pile of stones. I visit a lovely old Bedouin woman for a cuppa and some shade, my eyes adjusting to the horizonless sky as a sandstorm brews. Goats frolic in the dust. The first night in the Sahara has me wrapped in a turban squinting atop a camel loping along beautiful orange dunes towards a Berber camp. Photography is impossible on account of the sandstorm and I know I would bargain to stay another night which means camelling back to my auberge (hostel) and returning the next night. It proves a wise move as the next evening is windless and clear and the dunes are a blaze of deep pinks and fleshy browns. The silence of the Sahara is a gorgeous song and a soothing ambience against the bum grinding dance of my camel. Eight hours on a dromedary is enough to destroy the toughest glutes and it does mine. My trousers barely recognise my two bottoms next morning, though it prepares me well for my upcoming mule trek.
The northern night sky shines intensely that night - you could read by it. I'm sure the Milky Way is closer than ever. Utterly compelling days and my nights become epic dreams, as there is no way to describe the peace of sleeping in a Berber tent with kittens curled up against you or teasing scarabs nearby and the breathing of camels amplified with the slightest of breezes. Cool at night but not cold. A donkey plays rooster the next morning at six and I gather extra padding for my camel and farewell the Sahara, vowing to return with family soon.
Day Eight and Nine - Ait Ben Haddou
Ouazzazarte and Ait Ben Haddou are breathtaking and Hollywood knows it - major film studios here service locations all over North Africa. I am told by my guide that some Moroccans are more than a little tired of Hollywood typecasting Arabs as nasty terrorists, which does seem grossly rude when one is here amongst such gracious hosts. Typical, I think - accidental imperialism is rife in the west. Thank God I'm a Pacific Islander, I think.
Day Ten and Eleven - High Atlas Mountains
On to Imlil beneath the High Atlas Mountains - Mt Toubkal's brown peak showing the odd patch of ice and a steep mule trek through laden cherry trees and along a very stony and precipitous path tests my sure-footed mount whose back is a waterbed compared to the camel's hump. Truly breathtaking above a clear narrow mountain river, the views dwarf us and I felt like Don Quixote (or was it Don Knots?) unmounting my steed at the lodgings I share with some German climbers. What is it about Germans and climbing? The green lederhosen replaced by designer mountain gear. I have a great night pondering higher things and having a snug read. The return mule ride next day is steep and hard on my knees, though I could get good at it. You've just got to ride a mule to know it's the way to go. It's the all-wheel-drive of beasts of burden.
Day Twelve and Thirteen - Essaouira
The home of the hippy movement - the word 'Essaouira' means image and my ipod groans with many photographs proving it lives up to the title. My head is full of the last three weeks and my boots are well broken in and keen to walk another strange land. But right now none so charming and delightful a place as Morocco
Day Fourteen and Fifteen - Marrakech
Large and loud and bloody hot. A calash ride around the melah and the palace is mandatory. The huge central square is host to a throng and bustle nightly as it seduces you with its markets, snake charmers and food stalls, which are excellent and entertaining. Lose yourself here and you won't be sorry. Finally my permission to shop is granted by me for twenty minutes in which I purchase a groovy camel leather bag, three leather poofs, a jeballa a la Star Wars and a drum for my drumming son. It is tempting to smuggle a few kittens as they appear everywhere looking cute and scrawny. Everything fits perfectly into the camel bag and I still have one arm free.
I know I'll return with my family and this fills me with anticipation as I sit above the square listening to the gnawa drums jamming in and out of synch - the lights dancing with the smoke above the crowds... My head is open and full of new horizons; the vastness of the desert and the spectacle of the mountains and oases informing an inner landscape of possibilities; the grace of ordinary life here and the open charm of its people; the wealth of experience to be had in such a short time; all of this, and yes, there are some journeys that never quite end because the richness of them resonates throughout a life - and this one will with me. I don't think I'll ever quite leave Morocco. Go see for yourself.
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