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North African Road Trip

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

I definitely had a vision in my head of what I thought Morocco was going to be like before landing there. Having spent some significant time in middle eastern countries, and assuming the culture somewhat homogeneous, I had set my expectations before stepping foot off the plane in Casablanca. To my chagrin, and pleasant surprise, what I had thought I would step into was completely divorced from reality.

This is a good lesson to remember whenever possible - don't project your expectations on people and places you know nothing about. I have to keep relearning this one for some reason.

Morocco is an absolutely incredible, beautiful, and evolving nation with a rich history, and I consider myself very lucky to have been able to spend a couple of weeks traveling across the country.

The western edge of the Sahara desert near Ain Bni Mathar in northeastern Morocco. The dunes here can range from small to over 500 ft. high.

We started out in Casablanca, and I was immediately taken with the history and beauty of the city. From the cafe's tucked away in old colonial forts, to the Hassan II Mosque, to the sunsets and beaches throughout the city, it was easy to get swept up in the culture and activity of what is a very vibrant city. Casablanca was interesting to me it was a clash of so many things - modern day technology, Moroccan culture, heavy French influence from colonial times and some American influence with a lot of American businesses having offices and a presence in the coastal region.

Beach at sunset in Casablanca.

We stayed predominately at Riads (small family owned hotels) throughout the trip. They tend to be located deep in the alleyways of the medinas, and have an indoor open courtyard with the rooms surrounding them. I wish I had taken a few photos of the ones we got to stay in, but I was honestly too busy enjoying the uniqueness of them and my wife's good company that I forgot. That was a first for me in many ways - putting the camera down and just enjoying the moment, environment, and company. I have made a mental note to try and do this more in the future. Travel blogging is fun - but cumbersome at the same time as you are attempting to document every facet of a journey. It turns out my attention span is far too short for this, hence the scattered nature of so many of my posts.

Google Map view of the basic route we took through our time in Morocco.

We spent a good amount of time traveling everyday, but just observing the countryside as we moved along was more than interesting enough to keep your attention focused. For example, I did not know that Morocco is the world's largest producer and exporter of olives, as olive tree groves were all over the western side of the country. Once you crossed the Atlas Mountains, this turned into date tree groves in the oases on the eastern side of the mountains moving out towards the Sahara desert.

Panoramic view of Fes as we arrived in the evening.

After traveling up from Casablanca, through Rabat, and stopping to see ruins from the Roman Empire that were in excess of a thousand years old, we managed to make it to Fes. Fes was unlike any city I had ever visited before - the medina, markets, and the absolute sprawl and activity level was almost a sensory overload. It is a city that has been around for over a thousand years and the variety of historical sites sitting right next to modern day buildings is very strange to experience for your average American such as myself.

Camel meat is a commodity across Morocco - as is imitation stuff I came to find out. Hanging a head outside your shop in the Medina is one way to communicate authenticity.

The Medina Market in Fes has been around since the city was first founded in 789 AD and has a variety of shops and services that is just mind boggling. Turning a corner and finding a camel's head hanging from an awning of one of the shops certainly did wonders in bringing me out of my early morning stupor.

The markets tend to come alive all at once around sunrise, and it is an incredible thing to witness. In talking to some of the shop owners, these small businesses buried deep in the maze of the Medina have been run by the same families for generations - some going back a couple of hundred years or more. At one juncture moving through the markets I met a couple of children around the age of 15 that had never set foot outside of the Medina itself - which is only 1/4 of the total area of Fes. They had lived their entire lives within 25 square blocks and never ventured any further - and when asked, saw no need to do so. I struggled to understand this mindset, but in reflecting back on the conversation, I remember that what you see as the "World" is really completely dependant on the perspective you are born into, and that perspective has far reaching effects in your life.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca right on the Atlantic Coast, photographed at sunrise. The largest Mosque in the world outside of Saudi Arabia and capable of accomodating 25,000 worshippers at a time.

Moving on from Fes and into the Atlas Mountains, we ran into all kinds of things that I would have never even dreamed being here of before arriving in Morocco. Jewish settlements on the outside of Fes that have been present since its founding and on to other oddities such as a

BBQ in the Middle Atlas Mountains on our way west towards the Sahara desert. Goat, Lamb, and other varieties, and quite possible the best lentils I have ever tasted.

Bavarian Village (you read that right) in the mountains that looked like it had been pulled straight out of Austria and dropped there complete with architecture, food, and dress. It was a major stop for the bus tours that were almost completely filled with Chinese tourists, and made me feel like I had been transported north and dropped into a European tourist trap without being told what was happening.

We finally stopped to grab something to eat on our way eastward, and ended up at a small mountain town BBQ/cafe. The people that ran the cafe were more than friendly, and through conversation found that some of their close family had emigrated to Houston TX several years earlier. That conversation reminded me just how small the world can be at times. The food consisted of lamb, goat, and some beef, and what I am definitely calling the best lentils I have ever had in my life. It was delicious, the company was fantastic, and in what felt too short a period of time, we were back on our way.

After a few more hours we made it to the edge of the Sahara and all the associated tourist infrastructure. We got a good night's sleep, and then proceeded to do all of the standard tourist things the next day. Camel riding, going to a camp out in the desert, enjoying a traditional Touareg meal, and sitting around a campfire listening to the stories that the locals love tell about living on the edge of the Sahara for countless generations.

Snake charming is a thing in the Marrakesh markets, although it troubles me that the snakes are defanged and appear to be drugged/sedated in most cases. I understand that people have to make a living, and that tourism drives these practices, but it breaks my heart to see regardless.

What was most amazing about that experience wasn't so much the camel riding, or food or any of that. It was a chance to witness the sheer scale of what is the Sahara desert. The western edge is lined by dunes, some of them little more than a dozen feet tall, but many as high as 300 feet or considerably more. These are not isolated or sporadic, but stretch to the horizon, and then of course a few thousand miles beyond that ultimately ending somewhere in Egypt.

Spending a cool evening sitting at what felt like the edge of an alien landscape and listening to our Touareg hosts tell us stories of the desert crossings of ages past, and then telling us how they still cross every year as matter of tradition was absolutely riveting and something I can think back on with vivid recollection.

Modern crossings look very different from those of a bygone era (think giant offroad vans and land rovers as opposed to camels), but are still a strong tradition within the Touareg Tribe. Oasis stops have remained almost unchanged, and the old caravan routes are still alive and well hundreds, if not thousands of years since they were first established.

A local farmer herding his goats along what looked like a sheer cliff above the road. Due to construction and associated TNT blasting taking place ahead of us in the mountains, we got stuck sitting on the road for about four hours.

Over the next few days we moved southward along the Atlas Mountains towards Marrakesh. We moved at a leisurely pace, enjoying the food, scenery, and people as we went. From the Dades Gorge, to seeing Ait Ben Haddou (a fortified village along the ancient caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakech) history was felt like it was lurking around every corner. Walking in the footsteps of people who had crossed one of the world's biggest deserts, seeing what they had built, and the terrain that circumnavigated was a very humbling experience, and reminded me just how long, adventurous and interesting human history can be.

Ait Ben Haddou. A ancient fortified village along the caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakesh, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We worked our way into Marrakech, nestled in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains from here, and spent a couple of days enjoying the city. From snake charmers, to the world famous spice market, Marrakesh didn't disappoint and was the perfect way to end a trip that had exposed us, even if all too briefly, to the rich and diverse culture of this nation.

In the interest of keeping this post from going any longer or becoming any more rambling than it already is, I am going to cut if off here. What follows are some additional pictures from the trip with some basic descriptions - most of the subjects are well worth a quick search to learn more about them.

One of these days, when COVID is no longer keeping the world in its grip, I have every intention on returning to Morocco to see the rest of the country I couldn't get to the first time. Her people, culture, food, landscapes and history demand much more than just the couple of weeks I was able to give getting to know them. I am absolutely in love with the vibrance that this beautiful North African country has to offer, and grateful for those Moroccans that hosted us, ate with us, and taught us about their way of life.

A portion of the incredible winding road through Dades Gorge in southwestern Morocco. The lines on the road insinuate there are two lanes - but I think that is a debatable point.
A Monkey Trainer in Marrakech with his juvenile Barbary Macaque. This exploitation of local wildlife is difficult to stomach for me - but in an economy almost completely reliant on tourism, it is almost essential for some Moroccans.
The Medina in Fes is a complete assault on the senses, and it is more than possible to get lost in the labyrinth of passages and alleyways.
Snake Charmer in the Marrakech Markets.
Spice Market in Marrakech
A young lady that was my shadow in a Nomadic Bedouin Camp in the Middle Atlas Mountains
A Barbary Macaque native to the Atlas Mountain Range.
The Fes Tannery - a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a place where the process for tanning and dyeing leather hasn't changed in a thousand years.

***All individuals shown in the above photographs gave their verbal or written consent to being photographed and included in this kind of media/social post - except the monkey in the mountains. He wasn't particularly keen on the idea***

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