From a love for desert landscapes and climbing higher peaks to providing comfort at times of grief and stress, Morocco has been more than a holiday destination for travel writer Joanna Booth. And after 18 months of limited travel, it’s Morocco’s combination of calm, colour, culture and chaos she craves.
I’ve missed many things over the past 18 months. Friends, family, pubs, festivals, but, as a travel journalist, it was inevitable: I’ve missed travelling.
I miss that wave of heat hitting my face as I walk down the steps from the plane. I miss the roulette of ordering from a menu in a language I can’t understand. And I miss the relentless, thrilling novelty of new views, experiences and people at every turn. And if there’s one country that embodies so many of those elements I long for, it’s Morocco.
You don’t forget your first time here. Tumbling out from the tranquillity of our riad into Marrakech’s main square, Jemaa El-Fna, on my first visit, I was overwhelmed by the smell of spices and the shouts of the traders. I remember the intensity of the sun baking my skin, and how it brought a glow to the apricot tones of the walls and to the minaret rising above them.
I remember standing still to take it all in—but the stillness didn’t last long. I was quickly immersed into the scene. One person offered to help me find my hotel, another attempted to usher me into a horse-drawn calèche (carriage), and a third tried to persuade me to decorate my arm with a henna tattoo.
Ducking, weaving, and keeping up with a chorus of la choukran (“no thank you” in Arabic), I made my way to one of the stalls, liberally heaped with fruit, and ordered a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice.
To this day, if I close my eyes and think back, I can still conjure the sweet acidity of that first refreshing sip. Years later, I’d discover my parents-in-law had been warned by an overly-zealous, safety-conscious tour guide not to sample the stuff, and it broke my heart.
Morocco, to many, may conjure up images of vibrant streetlife, lively squares and haggling in souks, but like any destination, its personality isn’t singular. Morocco has also been a place of calm for me, and has come to the rescue of my mental health more than once.
When a toxic work environment left me permanently on edge, it was a few days in the whitewashed coastal town of Essaouira that gave me the clarity to plan my escape.
For once, I wasn’t craving hardcore adventure, but a softer, more contemplative trip… Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I felt my spirits beginning to lift.
Standing on the ramparts of the Skala de la Ville with gulls wheeling overhead and waves crashing below, it felt as if the gusting Alizee trade winds were blowing my anxiety clean away. And in 2012, grieving my mother’s death and exhausted by her long illness, I needed a safe haven. So close to the UK, but with a faraway feel, Morocco was somewhere I could escape for a week and reset my mind. But which part?
I considered the cultured, imperial city of Fez, home to the world’s largest urban car-free area; the rocky splendour of the Todra Gorges, limestone river canyons, or wadi, in the High Atlas Mountains; and the blue-washed medina (old town) of Chefchaouen in the heart of the Rif Mountains.
In the end, I chose the beach resort of Agadir. For once, I wasn’t craving hardcore adventure, but a softer, more contemplative trip.
Agadir is often scoffed at by so-called ‘serious’ travellers, but I found the simplicity of its pleasures were a balm to my tender, exhausted brain. Wandering along the seafront promenade, watching the ships in the marina, selecting which flavour my ‘boule’ of ice cream would be each day… these quiet, gentle diversions were a welcome but not overwhelming distraction.
Long walks on the endless rose-gold sand beach gave me the time and space to remember my mother, and the sea breezes and sunshine dried my tears. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I felt my spirits beginning to lift.
One of the traits of travel I also miss is the element of surprise. Sometimes, it’s of the joyful kind, perhaps from an unexpected external force. Other times, you bring it upon yourself and it’s perhaps more a lesson than a thrill. I usually pride myself on being prepared, but on the occasion I drove from Marrakech to the mountains, I had not considered the effects of altitude.
Lingering over one last sweet mint tea on the rooftop of the riad in the city, listening to the fountain tinkling in the courtyard below, a T-shirt and flip flops had seemed an entirely adequate choice of outfit.
An hour later, I had begun to regret packing my trainers and jumper into my suitcase, buried deep inside the boot. And an hour after that, I stood with my bare toes in the snow at the top of the Tizi n’Tichka pass, enjoying the views of the High Atlas mountains from an elevation of 2,260 metres—despite the fact my flesh was one solid goosebump.
That I could go from baking bustle to shivery solitude in such a flash hadn’t occurred to me—and that albeit brief journey has played on my mind ever since.
In fact, I have unfinished business with Morocco’s mountains. My plans to climb Mount Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak, were put on hold by the pandemic and when travel resumes, I can’t wait to return—this time in more adequate clothing—and make the two-day trek to the summit.
It’s Morocco which also started my love affair with deserts. I’ve since crossed the Atacama, scaled the dunes of the Namib, and had spa treatments in the Sonoran desert—but there’s something special about the Moroccan Sahara. Nothing could spoil the austere beauty of Erg Chebbi’s towering tangerine dunes for me. Not even the extreme discomfort of a two-hour camel ride.
After the trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re all in need of a tonic. Mine will be in the form of travel; a trek, a tour, maybe even just a lazy stay. And one place in particular has enriched me, thrilled me and comforted me.
Unceremoniously fettered to the much larger beast ahead of it, my reluctant steed proceeded at a sort-of lurching trot, throwing me around in the saddle like a cowboy on a bucking bronco.
I felt less like Lawrence of Arabia and more like a sack of potatoes. But just when I thought my smarting behind could stand it no longer, our camp appeared on the horizon and I thought my troubles were over.
But there was one more test of my affection for the Moroccan Sahara. I was excited to spend a night in an Amazigh camp, and to learn more about this ancient, pre-Arab culture who have been living in this desert since before the time of Ancient Greece.
Many are now farmers, but some nomadic communities survive, trading and producing exquisite silverwork and textiles. There’s a strong oral tradition, and family and hospitality are at the heart of their way of life. There are many elements of a warm Amazigh welcome; mint tea, a delicious tagine cooked in a clay pot over the fire, and songs.
After our hosts had entertained us with tune after tune, hypnotic call-and-response chants accompanied by rhythmic drumming, the tables were turned. I listened—in horror—as they explained that they wanted all the guests to perform a song from their country.
As it became clear that my husband and I were the only Brits, it dawned on us that we would have to sing in public. When the Dutch family next to us finished a rousing rendition of their version of ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’, complete with actions, I started to sweat with anxiety.
What counts as a traditional British song? The dirge-like God Save the Queen? Greensleeves? My mind was blank. At a loss, my West Ham-fan husband launched into the football club’s bittersweet anthem, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”.
We failed to hit the high notes and trailed off towards the end, our voices cracking with nervous hilarity. Our performance was met with a perplexed silence from both the Amazigh and the other guests. I wanted nothing more than to dig a hole in one of those sand dunes and hide my head in it.
But nothing—not even that performance—could destroy the magic of the desert. I woke in the night and crawled out from the heavy fabric of the tent. The silence was absolute, and with the campfires burning low, the stars stretched like an intricate tapestry overhead.
I’d never felt more aware of the scale of the universe and the irrelevance of my own petty worries. I sat and watched them shine until the awe-induced lump in my throat subsided and my eyelids began to droop.
After the trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re all in need of a tonic. Mine will be in the form of travel; a trek, a tour, maybe even just a lazy stay. And one place in particular has enriched me, thrilled me and comforted me. When the border with Morocco reopens, you’ll know where to find me.
Morocco is ready to welcome you when it is safe and when you’re ready to. Visit IntrepidTravel.com for more information.
Joanna Booth is a UK travel journalist based in London. She specialises in adventure, luxury and family travel and writes for a range of national papers and magazines. She firmly believes you should always leave at least one key activity undone in every destination; that way you have an excuse to go back.