2009 TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant

Author: Neal Haining


In the south of Morocco, in the plains below the Atlas Mountains lays the captivating city of Marrakech.  Walking out of the train station, we were met with surprisingly modern, clean and quiet city.  We jumped in the first cab we found and with anxious enthusiasm made our way towards our hostel.  Next thing we know, we are in the middle of the urban chaos that is the old medina of Marrakech; eyes widened, culture shocked.  It was as though the taxi had driven through a time vortex and taken us back to the Middle Ages…with motorbikes.  People everywhere, yelling, selling, sitting, begging, staring…but smiling.  As scared as we were at what we had thrown ourselves into, this was a content place.  Where everyman had something to offer, and would work his arse off to sell it to you.

Through the foreign alley ways we roamed, hand in hand and on valuables, until we found the door that was our hostel.  What the hell was this?  No signs, no indications, just a door.  Apprehensively, we knocked, waited.  Speaking confusing Frenglish with the lady who answered, we had found our place, and the stark contrast from what was outside was jaw dropping.  A gorgeous peaceful garden, with a double room ensuite fit for a king (of a small island nation at least).  For €18 there must have been a mistake…and no way were we going to try and correct it.

We spent that day and night wondering through the busy markets, consistently yet politely rejecting the offers of kaftans or bowls or jewellery or copious other pieces of useless yet intriguing artefacts.  Night fell and the town square transformed into the medina eatery.  There were 40 food stands, with tables all lined in a row, each selling traditional Moroccan food, chefs claiming to be Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey. 

The following morning, we took a trip to the Ourika waterfalls with a local Berber man who had sold us his glamorous antique lanterns for a special “one off price…cuz I lika you”. We were a bit hesitant, as we didn’t know what to expect from a local, however we figured this is what travelling is all about.  After waiting an hour for our guide, we were convinced that we had been sucked in and our unique tour was just a big laugh for the locals.  However, belatedly he arrived in his 1973 retired German ambulance, complete with dodgy mirrors, tiny wheels, Labrador and of course, his bed!  Repentant, he wasted no more time and we hit the road.     

We drove for 2 hours through some spectacular views of the Atlas Mountains, eventually stopping in a small village occupied by some Berber families.  After a traditional organic lunch of couscous and tangine (amazing!), we walked alongside the rapid creek and waterfall in the Ourika valley; passing over some dubiously constructed twig and string bridges, which made for some intense moments.  None more so however when our Berber man (Rida) decided to take us along the scenic, off piste route.  It wasn’t the stranger luring us into the bushes that had us scared (although retrospectively it should have), but the fact that we nearly fell over the edge! 


Having thoroughly enjoyed our daytrip and deciding we somewhat trusted our Berber man; we took him up on the offer for a day/night trip to the Sahara.  It was going to be a long day in the car, 12 hours it turned out just to get to the desert, but we couldn’t have been more jubilant with the decision as it became the trips greatest highlight.  12 hours is a long time in a van with a broken hearted (whole other story) Moroccan market salesman.  However, the fact that there was always something amazing out the window made the unpredictable journey entirely tolerable, and possibly the best way to go about it.  We drove through infinite mountains, each one presenting an entirely new perspective as we rounded its corners.  The contrast between seeing the mighty snow capped mountains in the background versus the rocky yet colourful desert landscapes was truly a spectacle to behold. 

The more we drove however, the more anxious we became.  The roads became more remote and increasingly bumpy.  Civilisation had left us an hour ago.  Why are we driving for so long? Why does the Sahara just look like a rocky plain?  Does this guy like Hannibal Lecter?   And then we arrived, and were taken by the most pleasant of surprises, a nomadic Berber tribe in a remote part of the Sahara, living their lives in thatched houses covered by granny blankets.  The unpredictability continued.  That night we sat in their living rooms, ate organic Berber food, drank traditional liqueur (phroaaw!), sang songs of the Sahara and played bongos and a very odd guitar.  Out came the shisha as the night grew late, and we sampled the flavoured tobaccos of the Sahara. This was a night that cannot be comprehended in any other way than firsthand experience, and the reason it became our greatest highlight.

We woke in the morning nice and early to catch the famous sunrise.  Its fame was duly justified as we witnessed a burnt orange orb, cresting over the dunes of the Sahara.  We couldn’t contain our excitement, and sprinted for the biggest of the dunes, climbing up the steep pile of sand as our breath literally abandoned us.  Vastness, emptiness, but beauty as far as the eye could see as the sun drenched more sand by the minute.  This was an indication of time passing by, but our lack of words and breath gave the feeling of it standing completely still.  Every moment we had to cherish, as this was truly something we may never experience again. 

We wished we could stay longer, but our schedule showed that as the sun rose, the ‘real’ world called.  We drove off, leaving behind perhaps one of the last peaceful places on Earth.