Bee & Nick Say: Ah travelling. We have managed to pack in a fair amount since landing back in London from our Latin American adventure! There’s been Ghent, Paris and Sweden, as well as a few UK-breaks. However, 2015 is a slightly different kettle of fish because we have that quite major holiday to save up the pennies and ideas for; the one that starts with honey and ends in MOON! With that in mind; travel will be a little more limited until Autumn and so we thought we could share some of the adventures we had before our backpacking as part of a “Take Us Back To…” series.
In February 2013 we went on our first foreign holiday together and after lots of contenders; settled on the dreamy location of Morocco. Neither of us had visited North Africa, and we were also keen to go somewhere that we could get out in the wilds of and use it as almost a “test” before the big trip. This post was first blogged over on Bee’s lifestyle blog likeaskeletonkey but we have edited and added to it, so join us as we return to our sanctuary deep in the High Atlas.
Bee Says: Last Tuesday my alarm went off at 4am and I didn’t mind AT all! We bundled out of the house and a taxi whooshed us to Victoria to pick up a train to Gatwick. It had snowed overnight so all the parks were Narnia-like and frost glistened on the silent streets. Somehow the blue lips and cold fingers as we waited for the train made the fact that in a few hours we’d be landing in 30 degree African sun even more satisfying. The glorious Easyjet fly to Essaouira, Agadir and Marrakesh, and our flights cost £70 return each, so if you book in advance a Moroccan escape can be cheaper than holidaying in Europe. As we creaked up into the air the captain informed us that thanks to a stiff tail wind (heh) we’d be there in a brisk 3 hours as opposed to the scheduled 3 hours 45 minutes. A bumpy trip and beautiful sunrise later and we were descending over the Atlas Mountains.
This was both Nick & I’s first time in North Africa. Rather than staying in one of the bustling cities, we had chosen to stay in the High Atlas. This is the edge of the Atlas Mountains, and about a 25 minute drive from Agadir. After a fair bit of research we had fallen head over heels in love with the Atlas Kasbah which is an Ecolodge situated in the middle of the hills in a small Berber community. The Kasbah ticked the boxes of everything we wanted from the holiday; to be immersed in a new culture, easy access to mountains, desert, beaches and souks and… a pool to lounge around next to on our lazy days.
Nick Says:One of the thrills of travel for me is to go somewhere that feels totally alien, where the sense of the unknown is overwhelming, a tiny bit scary, but utterly compelling. South-East Asia and South Korea previously ticked those boxes for me. I could now add Morocco to the list. I’d never travelled to a primarily Arab country before, and the cultural shift was immediate even upon landing. It felt different, and exciting, and… hot. Very hot actually. An incredible dry heat that you felt immediately upon exiting the plane. This might be a sweaty trip. We had arranged via the Atlas Kasbah to be get a taxi transfer to the hotel from the airport. If there’s ever this option, I would probably advise to do it. Take it from someone who has wandered through the choked streets of Chennai struggling to find somewehere to sleep after a long-haul flight to India and a crowded train trip into the city. Or on their first trip to Asia got thoroughly lost in a pounding rain storm in Kuala Lumpur after deciding ‘finding this hostel will be easy, who needs a map?’ Or… well, you get the picture. Anyway, as well as making getting to the hotel easy, arranging our transfer meant we met a valuable guide for our week in this part of the world, the amazing Saeed. He would prove invaluable, super-friendly, and a knowledgeable man in the days ahead. He started by chatting through the local area on our drive and teaching us a few basic words of Arabic and Berber. Outside the window, the landscape was a marvel. Reddy-brown hills dotted with bushes and scrub (which would later turn out to be the source of argan oil) and seemingly impossibly arid. It immediately conjured up images of nomads roaming the hills on camels, and hidden cities springing up from the desert. But before we knew it we rounded a corner and spotted what seemed to be a fort on a hill. We had arrived at the Atlas Kasbah.
Bee Says: We couldn’t have been more impressed with the Kasbah, in fact on the feedback survey I marked everything 10/10! We were absolutely spoilt with the local cuisine, as in the Kasbah local chefs and cooks from the village create traditional dishes. Everything from the vegetables, to the herbs used in the tea, are grown at the ecolodge in gardens and over the week we ate the best food of our life! From heaps of fluffy couscous, to steaming tagine, to this amazing invention called pastilla (a sort of noodle pastry pie filled with chicken and sweet almond) and every meal was opened with piping hot just-baked flat bread. Even breakfast, which I expected to be a lame buffet effort (HOW wrong) was an epic feast. Every morning we’d wake with the sun rise and stroll out into the immaculate gardens. Sitting in the shade of the trees, we ate a barley soup to warm our stomachs which was a bit like a tepid savoury rice pudding but curiously addictive. We would then be brought pancakes, warm bread, cake and an omelette, along with natural yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice and 6 mini tagine pots filled with honey, pureed apple, dates, jam, butter and almond butter. Nick drank the spiced coffee but as I’m still caffeine-free (and was green with envy!) I opted for mint tea.
Mint tea needs a whole paragraph of it’s own! Now lets just get this straight, the Moroccan mint tea isn’t like the ol’ packet peppermint stuff we have here. It’s the pillar of Arabic culture. We were lucky enough to get a lesson in making the mint tea by the Kasbah host M’bark. The tea is made with fresh mint (50 types of mint grow in Morocco), green tea and a serious amount of sugar. The tea takes 10 minutes to prepare as the water is boiled over hot coals, then poured in and out of metal teapots into small glass beakers over and over, to dilute the sugar and mix the ingredients. You can certainly taste the love that has gone into it. During our various trips we were invited to take tea with 3 different families, to whom we were complete strangers, and each time the process was done with such care (and always by the man of the house – it’s serious business remember!)
In fact the main recommendation I would give for Morocco is how friendly and welcoming everyone is. I had read before going that in Arabic culture everyone they meet is viewed as a gift from Allah and destined to be there, and this attitude is absolutely clear by how warm and open everyone we met was. Especially given the massive language barrier! In Morocco, French and Arabic are the dominant languages, with Berber also spoken in Berber communities. We learnt that Berber people actually refer to themselves as Amazigh which means free people, as Berber was a name given by outsiders and is actually quite offensive (sort of equivalent to barbarian) although still commonly used. I speak no French and given that I’m now 8 weeks into re-learning Spanish, was desperately trying to avoid using French as I was worried the Spanish would all drop out of my brain! Nick, we soon realised, also could speak no French other than the very helpful “shut your mouth” and “I don’t give a damn” which wouldn’t exactly endear us to the local community. We soon decided it would be just as easy (and hopefully a bit more impressive) to learn key phrases in Arabic and Berber. So we made a big effort on our first day to practise and perfect how to say hello, please, thank you and no problem. It’s amazing how far these 4 phrases used alongside some sign language and big wavy arm movements can get you.
Nick Says: After a pretty lazy first day of mainly eating and drinking mint tea, we decided to spend the day hiking in the nearby foothills. Our guide was Ahmed, who lived in the local village. We assumed it would be a nice stroll about, especially considering how blisteringly hot it was. However, Ahmed’s idea of a stroll was to walk 5 metres ahead at all times, with an almost jogging power pace, and then turn round with almost disapproving look that we couldn’t keep up with him! We later discovered that he cheekily told the Kasbah staff that he’d worked us hard because they are young! Added to the furious pace and heat was the fact that Bee was extra covered up on her arms and legs to respect the culture. This is a key thing in Muslim countries (and also in Italy when I visited some pretty religious towns) and worth bearing in mind, even if you’re male. However, it does not make hiking any easier… But it was truly awe-inspiring to be out in wilderness like this. London felt another world away. We walked miles and miles into the hills, barely seeing another living creature. What struck me about the terrain was how rocky and craggy everything was. Even beautiful flowers were covered with spiney stems and dusty leaves. The trees, despite being green, had thorny gnarled trunks. It felt like everything had to be extra tough and coarse to survive the lack of water and the desolate environment.
Bee Says: Eventually we reached the peaks of the hills, where the nomads live. At night, we could see the nomads fires blazing in the distance and it was comforting and humbling to think of them out there, living such a simple lifestyle (especially when we had been patting ourselves on the back at going without iPhones for a week) We then hiked down to Ahmed’s villlage. En route he encouraged (ok politely forced) us to stroke a very poisonous-looking caterpillar and we both wondered if we might drop dead within minutes… but luckily we didn’t. Instead we made it to the village, and were fortunate enough to visit the Argan Oil Cooperative. As part of a push to create more jobs for women, cooperatives have been set up around Morocco where women gather to create Argan Oil (specific to the region and one of the biggest exported goods). We sat with the women for half an hour, using the stone tools to attempt to crack open Argan fruit and then crack open the nut inside, then free the small white seeds which are then crushed to make the precious oil. The women working away found it hilarious that Nick sat down and mucked in, and were howling with laughter the whole time! It felt really special to spend the time there, witnessing what daily life is like for the villagers.
We were then invited to Ahmed’s for mint tea and a flatbread/honey feast. We met his wife and two young children and he proudly showed us his home, his chicken and the area he lived in. We started to realise that perhaps he had been walking so fast because he was excited to get us back to see his house! As we headed home in the late afternoon, the village mosque was calling to prayer. We spotted this glorious blue lizard and spent the evening star gazing.
Nick Says: On Valentines Day we drove into Agadir. We were excited to see the local city, and take in a different kind of culture than the village life we’d adapted to. Agadir itself was a mixed experience. If you’re interested in this part of Morocco,I’d probably advise you just fly in and out of this city… Our first port of call was the Kasbah that overlooks the city, perched atop of a huge hill and visible from everywhere in Agadir. The view from there was breath-taking, and Bee had the added bonus of seeing her first ever camel, which she duly took a snap of, but was a bit frightened to pet. They are pretty bad-tempered though, so I don’t blame her. I once saw a wild camel charge a truck in Australia. Anyway, I digress. Back to the ruined Kasbah which majestically overlooks Agadir, and serves as a stark monument to the power of nature in this part of the world. The panoramic perspective clearly shows the shift caused by the disastrous earthquake that hit Agadir in 1960, killing half the population and completely destroying the old town. The Agadir we visited is apparently unrecognisable from its previous state, having been entirely rebuilt and so I guess you should bear in mind that it’s a city still recovering from a devastating natural disaster.
Bee Says: We spent a lot of the day on the beach; which was clean and pleasant. The town however didn’t really have much to offer. Sadly (well not if you like that kind of thing) Agadir is dominated by resorts. Tourists flock for the cheap flights and guaranteed heat, but then stay in these Club-Med style resorts with huge walls and gated access. Actually I think I only need to say one thing to describe Agadir; there’s an English Pub. And for me, that’s exactly what I was trying to escape! We tried to make the most of the day by visiting the Valley of the Birds; a free nature attraction. However, as I excitedly scampered in and ran up to the first cage of blue parrots… I recoiled in horror. All the birds were balding. Some had almost no feathers. Some had actual bits of them missing, obviously having been gnawed off by their cage-mates. The ‘valley’ was an unfortunate one-way system so we were forced to carry on through what Nick coined the gauntlet of horror and we were very relieved to escape, if a little traumatised. One good thing about Agadir was that we could visit the huge Uniprix (supermarket). Morocco is a mainly dry country = no booze for sale in restaurants! So if you want a few drinks on an evening, you have to bring them yourself. Our Kasbah were very accommodating – and would happily put drinks in the fridge for us, open them to serve with dinner etc. They just don’t have the license (or inclination…) to serve it. The Uniprix is the only place in Agadir to legally sell alcohol, so we picked up a bottle of bubbles and also 4 bottles of the local Casablanca beer. I’m absolutely gutted we just had hand-luggage allowance as otherwise we would have bought a crate of this back! It was a beautiful beer, and a steal at just over £1 a bottle. The highlight of Agadir, and reason I would still recommend a visit, was twilight. As the sun sets, you can sit on one of the beach front bars drinking mint tea (obvs) watching the birds swarm around the port and then the motif on the Kasbah hill that says ‘God, Country, King’ lights up and sparkles in the distance. It was a really tranquil moment and a favourite memory of the trip.
Nicks Says: Our big adventure day saw Saeed back once again to show off his country. He had actually given us a lift back from Agadir the night before, and so by now we felt pretty comfortable with him. After discussing where to go, and what to see and do, we decided in the end to drive the 2 hours down to Souss-Massa National Park. There were endless options of big day trips we could have done – Marrakesh, the oasis of Ait Baha, sampling fresh honey, the waterfalls of Imouzzer or the imperial city of Taroudant. We chose the national park because it was close to the city of Tiznit so we felt we could combine a half day of wilderness and then taking in a traditional souk. At Souss-Massa we were met by a local villager Ahmed (another Ahmed!) and his trusty and much loved binoculars. He took us on a 3 hour trek which trailed the river Massa to the beach, where the sands are the same as those in the mighty Sahara. Along the sea front lay a small fishing village. Although in the distance for the time being, Ahmed gestured that we would be walking towards it through the park. We knew before we visited that Souss Massa was home to the near-extinct Bald Ibis bird. Half of the worlds population (of which there are only 800) reside there and there’s a huge local push to preserve and protect this critically endangered species. We were desperate to see them, but didn’t hold out much hope. So imagine our surprise when Ahmed suddenly whooped for joy, and a V formation of bald ibis swooped over our heads! As we stood stunned on the sand, we saw about 3 different flocks of these incredible creatures and Bee even turned professional wildlife photographer and managed to get a brilliant shot that shows their amazing baldheads. The camel photoshoot had obviously primed her. This has to be the highlight of our trip, seeing one of the rarest birds in the world. Ahmed kept saying bon chance, bon chance as it’s so unexpected to see them. Apparently he hadn’t seen any since Christmas, which was a month and a half before. We also tracked wild foxes, found a wild boar skeleton, flocks of yellow billed herons in the trees and of course… sea gulls aplenty.
Bee Says: As we crossed the sandy planes to the fisherman’s village, I made Ahmed laugh with a crocodile impression (the international language of signing coming in handy again) and in return he gave me his Berber headscarf which I wore for the rest of the day. On another baking hot day, it was sorely appreciated. As Ahmed took his headscarf off, a big curly mop of sun-bleached hair appeared, and we realised that he was a cool surf dude undernearth the traditional dress. He also had an amazing ironic teeshirt, considering he is a guide at a national park, he was wearing a Yellowstone national park tee! After a couple of hours hiking across the type of Sahara sand I have only seen in movies; we walked around a corner and what had previously just looked like a sheer cliff face shimmering in the heat suddenly revealed itself to actually be host to multiple cave houses. It was breath-taking. Just as we were blinking to believe what we were seeing; Ahmed proudly pushed us into one of the caves, which it turned out belonged to his brother, where we took… mint tea! His cave house was beautifully painted and so cosy, the way you could see the sea lapping in the distance from his bed. Any language barrier was easily overcome by Ahmed showing us photographs of a giant dead whale that washed up on the coastline last May (BIG FISHING VILLAGE NEWS!) with men stood around it looking the size of ants. Again I was struck by how little you need to be content, and how simple his life was looking out on the ocean. On the way home Ahmed encouraged us to climb up some stairs built into the sand cliff, which then turned into… just sand. The ground gave away (imagine how slippery vertical sand is!) as we scrambled our way up the cliff. Ahmed of course remained cool as a cucumber, whilst I imagined just how much damage landing on those spiny, sharp rockpools would do to my face… Yet another near-death scrape, but as he tugged me over the final cliff-lip, the views were almost worth it.
Sandy and sun-kissed, we drove an hour to Tiznit. On the way we didn’t see another car, only ragged rugged plains as far as the eye could see, peppered with the occasional nomad’s tent. Tiznit was a delight, and I’d definitely recommend you visit. We were the only tourists and that always reassures me that you are seeing a city in its natural state rather than putting on a show for visitors. I haven’t been to Marrakesh to compare, but I imagine this is a less intense alternative. Tiznit is the capital of silver, and we got to see a local man creating silver that looked like delicate spun sugar. I bought an ebony bracelet with silver etchings, which has shot to the top of my most favourite and precious jewellery items and would definitely get saved in a fire! Tiznit is split in two, with an old terracotta town with huge towering walls and staircases that lead to nowhere. This was where the souk was, and it was a wonder to walk around – heaps of tagine pots, Moroccan slippers, jewels, oils galore, while Saeed kept encouraging me to eat random bits of what looked like twig that he plucked from the market stalls that were apparently good for women (he didnt say how, and they tasted like tree. I even got a tongue splinter.)
Nick Says: You could tell Saeed loved showing off Tiznit. He took us to his favourite Tagine place to eat lunch (it was good, but not as good as the Atlas Kasbah), and ducked and dived around the souk chatting to people and showing off various stalls. He even decided to buy Bee a present, a lovely scarf to help her in the heat. It was such a kind gesture from a tour guide, and was yet another example of the warmth and friendliness we found everywhere in this country.
Bee Says: From Tiznit we drove out into the proper heights of the Atlas Mountains to the Ben Tachfine dam. As we wound narrow roads I had no idea what to expect, and as we stepped out of the car I couldn’t catch my breath. No photo or words or describing will do justice to how beautiful the view was, and how silent and peaceful and just mind-blowing this moment was. I couldn’t have felt further from home. An 86 year old nomad lived at the top of the mountain and invited us for mint tea… and offered Nick to swap me for his donkey. It was quite a nice donkey.
Nick Says: Luckily for Bee though donkeys are my number one most hated animal (a childhood biting incident is to blame) so I was able to refuse the nomads offer. He was a properly grizzled old dude though, and was obviously loving life at the top of the dam. Driving around the mountains made me realise just how vast and empty Morocco is. It felt like we would go for hours without seeing a single sign of life, instead bumping along dusty roads and staring at the parched landscape. Then suddenly we would hit a wellspring of life and activity, or perhaps pass a few nomads in tents, before leaving the far behind in the distance.
Bee Says: So, days merged into days, and a lot of dips in the pools, hours reading in the dusky sun, exploring the high Atlas and sleeping (we averaged around ten hours a night) and for our final trip we drove out to a surf town near Essaouira which is fondly referred to locally as banana beach. Weirdly enough Nick & I had never tried surfing before, despite me having holidayed at Fistral Beach in Newquay and Nick having er.. lived in Australia! I can’t remember at what point we agreed to try in Morocco, but we thought it would be nice to try something entirely new for the first time together. We went with Surf Town who we were reassured were experts with beginners, and they lived up to the claims. We paid £54 for half a day surfing and that included a very hands-on tutor, equipment and wet-suits. We joined a group of 5 friendly Russians and together embarked on our efforts to take on the sea.
I couldn’t believe how MASSIVE the surf board was. I am a weakling, and could barely lift the thing let alone contemplate riding it! But actually once in the water (and attached to my foot) it was a little easier to control. We learnt the basics of surfing on the sand, and then hit the (huge) waves. I have to say, I absolutely loved it. Surfing requires intense concentration, a good sense of timing (to know when to paddle, when to attempt to stand etc) but once you get up on the board it’s the most satisfying, free feeling. Although every moment of exhilaration is matched with an hour of face-planting into crashing waves, sand and (for me) rocks. Woops. I definitely caught the surf bug though, and it helped to be doing it in a glorious exotic location with camels roaming the beach and herons swooping overhead. I managed to stand up once, whereas Nick was basically Beach-Boys level surf star within hours. What I didn’t expect was the world of pain that followed the next day. Every muscle in my body was screaming, so being squished into a full-capacity Easyjet flight for nearly 4 hours wasn’t the best treatment. We both agreed that it’s something we can’t wait to try again. I can’t see us getting his n hers boards and spending the days at the beach, but I reckon we’ll definitely go again this year. It’s quite nice to have started on one of the coastlines that world class surfers long to surf on!
So that’s the end of our first ever trip to Morocco. You have probably gathered that it stole a piece of our hearts, and we’re desperately blue at being back in -5 degree London, which currently is snowing constantly at that level that makes me feel like I’m walking around in Silent Hill. Morocco has been my best ever holiday, and I would recommend everyone and anyone to visit. You can pick and choose absolutely anything you could wish for from a holiday, and be as adventurous or as lazy as you like. I also can’t recommend Atlas Kasbah enough. Every member of staff seemed so personally invested in us having a good time, and were patient, welcoming and endlessly friendly. Nothing was too much trouble, and they made our holiday so much more special because they were from the local area so were endless sources of knowledge and tips and information.
Nick Says: Morocco is a truly remarkable country, and we barely scratched the surface on what to do there. Exploring deep into the valleys of the mountains remains a must. Diving into the manic press of humanity in Marrakesh should be experienced. A night-trek on camel to the Sahara is on the list. As is a proper trip to Essaouira. But most of all I’m tempted to come back to the Atlas Kasbah and do it all again. Which is something I’ve never felt before – I love doing new things and seeing new places. So that must mean Morocco and the Atlas Kasbah did something truly special.
Bee and Nick Say: (Back in current day mode!) Despite all our further travels, there were only a handful places in Latin America that lived up to Morocco in our minds. Morocco is a truly magical place, which sounds like a cheesy term, but its accurate. It’s a land of souks, and silver, and special tea, and nomad fires burning in the distance. The alien-ness to anything anywhere else is palpable; from the warmth of the locals, the unique cuisine, and the language, smells, colours and nature. There’s also a vital lesson to learn from Morocco and its people; the most important thing in life is taking time to just sit down, share a tea and live alongside one another in peace for a moment… or a lot of moments. Nothing is better than that. On our last night we were treated to the most spectacular lightning storms we have ever seen, as if we hadn’t seen enough already, one last gift from one of the most picturesque parts of the world.