FOR all the diversity that Europe has to offer Australian visitors, it can become somewhat difficult to recreate that initial culture shock you get when you first arrive. Even if you’re having to resort to hand pointing and the awkward slowly annunciating English to order food, mainland Europe can begin to become all too familiar regardless of what country you’re in.
And then there’s Morocco. From the hustle and bustle of the souks of Marrakech to the magic that is the Sahara desert at sunset on the back of a camel, Morocco has a uniqueness that can blow the cobwebs from the minds of even the most seasoned traveller.
Marrakech is a-maze-ing
The medina of Marrakech is a hive of activity and although it borders on impossible to navigate the labyrinth of markets, part of the city’s charm is in wandering until you lose all orientation and then wandering some more. Djemaa el Fna (The Big Square) is one of the busiest squares in Africa and is filled with snake charmers, monkeys, henna tattooists and vendors selling freshly squeezed orange juice at less than a quarter of the price of a cup of coffee.
An afternoon can easily be lost wondering through the souks within the medina where you can buy anything from goat skin bags, hand carved chess boards as well as an assortment of spices. A tip for those looking to do some shopping, haggling is as important as the transaction itself, so the more time you spend haggling, the less you’ll have to spend in the end. Once you’ve finished your shopping for the day, kick back at any of the rooftop cafes and enjoy a glass of mint tea as the call to prayer echoes out across the city skyline.
Tea of life
The cuisine of Morocco can be summed in two words; couscous and tagine. The building blocks for any Moroccan menu, you can bet that any meal will include at least one of these items. Be aware that mint tea is the equivalent of a handshake in Morocco. Upon arriving at your hostel, hotel or riad (traditional guesthouse… highly recommended) a glass of mint tea is a traditional welcome and make sure you take note of the extravagant manner in which it is served and then laugh as you attempt to pour it yourself without incurring third degree burns.
Sunrise in the Sahara
A camel trek into the Sahara is an essential experience. While the developed regions such as Fez and Marrakech are popular tourist destinations, some time spent on the back of a camel in the company of a Berber (the nomadic people of Morocco) guide gives an idea of the origins of the Moroccan civilisation. And a night camping in a traditional Berber tent in the Sahara has to be one of the most isolated holiday experiences possible short of an Everest ascent. An arduous post dinner climb of a massive sand dune at the top of which you can stare out toward the Algerian border is the perfect way to cap off your evening in the desert (although running head first back down the steep dune safe in knowledge any landing will be cushioned by the Sahara sand will be enjoyed more than the climb by the thrill seeker). The morning ride back out of the desert might signal the end of the trek but on top of a camel in the middle of a desert is a pretty amazing place to watch the sunrise.
See the sea at Essaouira
Once back in Marrakech take a day trip to the coastal town of Essaouira, which is a little under three hours by bus from the ‘kech. If you do journey by bus, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for goats sitting in trees. As strange as it sounds, Moroccan goats are known to climb the Argan trees in search of fruit.
Essaouira’s walled town centre offers more markets to explore although unlike the inland cities, you have the option of dining out on some fresh seafood… as well as couscous and tagines. Make sure you take a walk along what could be one of the most unique beaches in the world as games of football are interrupted by seemingly out of control galloping horses and camels.
A cheeky Moroccan smile
With all the diversity that Morocco offers it’s the Moroccan people who complete the experience. Sure it feels like every time you turn around there is someone trying to sell you a ride on a camel, a fake pair of Ray Bans or simply asking for a couple of dirham simply because you’re a tourist and therefore should have some spare change. But it’s the cheeky grin that accompanies every request or offer and absence of any aggression that puts you at ease. Some basic Arabic or French will go a long way towards getting the most out your interaction with the locals but listen with appreciation as the vendors greet you in Spanish, French or English testing to see which language you respond to.
Whether it’s a coastal relaxation or a multi lingual day to day haggle battle with the souk stall owners, Morocco has an adventure to suit all tastes. And once the journey is over, you’ll remember what it’s like to have been truly blown away by a new culture.