SOUTH MOROCCO DISCOVERY

Erg Chigaga dunes sunset

South Morocco had it all – Cities, mountains, desert and coastline. Intrepid’s South Morocco Discovery was the perfect way to experience it all and more!

When the opportunity arose for some December travels with my new employers Intrepid Travel, I of course was not going to pass on the offer. Operating carbon neutral tours around the world and priding themselves on sustainable and responsible travel, Imbi and I were super keen to experience our first adventure with the worlds largest small group travel company. The question was, where should we go?

Selecting a destination to visit in December was tricky. Eventually after eliminating many desirable places, we decided on visiting Southern Morocco. We’d always envisioned road tripping around Morocco, but just hadn’t gotten around to doing it. So jumping aboard the 10 day ‘South Morocco Discovery’, was the perfect way to experience this new country. It also offered us an opportunity to see my UK-based parents in Marrakech at the end of the tour.

south morocco discovery

Marrakech

Choosing accommodation in Marrakech was overwhelming. We knew we wanted to be in the Medina, but there were hundreds of places to choose from! As we had a further 4 nights in Marrakech when our tour ended, we decided to stay at a few different riads. We stayed in the beautiful Riad Aguaviva, for our two pre-tour nights in Marrakech.

This traditional riad was a great introduction to Morocco for us and everything we had hoped for. Its location in the slightly less touristy edge of the Medina meant we really got to experience the ‘real’ Marrakech. Upon arrival, our host made us feel so welcome. She offered us our first sip of mint tea and Moroccan treats, before giving us a full run down of Marrakech.

After a 3 leg, 27 hour flight from Melbourne our plan was to try and beat the worst of the jet lag. So, after learning the do’s and don’ts of the city, we resisted the urge the rest our weary eyes. We set off through the maze of alleyways ending up at Djemaa El-Fna, Marrakech’s main square. After indulging in our first of MANY Tagines, we headed up to the rooftop of Cafe France. We watched the square slowly come alive with the nightly vendors setting up their stalls. And then experienced our first of many stunning Moroccan sunsets.

Djemaa El-Fna Sunset

We spent the next two days in the Medina traversing the alleyways and lanes. Browsing the street markets and souks, we explored the tanneries and the Mellah and wondered around the largest mosque in Marrakesh – Koutoubia.

Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakesh

It was worth braving the chilly evenings and finding a decent vantage point for the wintery sunsets. Cafe Atay’s rooftop with its 360′ views, offered a perfect place to watch the colourful show, with a snow-capped Atlas Mountain backdrop.

After another tasty Moroccan breakfast, we said goodbye to Riad Aquaviva and the Medina. Our tour started in Marrakech’s new quarter, which was completely different to the Medina. We met our guide and fellow travellers at 6pm for a welcome meeting. After learning more about our next 10 days, we totally flaked before dinner. We just couldn’t shake the jet lag!

Atlas Mountains

We set off at 9am for the shortish drive to Imlil in the Atlas mountains. After storing our luggage in Imlil, it was a gentle 1 hour walk uphill to our Berber family-run mountain gîte in Aroumd, arriving in time for lunch.

After a delicious Moroccan feast, some of us chose to do a 4 hour return hike to Sidi Chamharouch shrine. The hike to this pilgrimage shrine took us up and along a picturesque rocky trail, surrounded by snow capped mountains.

Atlas mountains hike

Sidi (Saint) Chamharouch was the name of the Sultan of the Jinns (King of Devils). Offerings are still regularly made in the belief the sultan can heal mental illness and exorcise spirits for those haunted by the devil, amongst other things. Animals are sacrificed at the shrine on a nearby stone plateaux by superstitious locals, in the hope that the sultan may release the devil from those affected.

Sidi Chamharouch shrine

After a cold wintery night warmed by Berber hospitality, mint tea and a tagine dinner, we set off early the following morning and wandered back down to Imlil. It was New Years Eve and we were heading to Aït-Benhaddou, the place we were most excited to visit.

Views down to Aroumd

Aït-Benhaddou

It was a painfully slow journey from Imlil to Aït-Benhaddou. The very scenic drive took us through Morocco’s highest pass, Tizi n’Tichka. Being winter and with an early setting sun, we were worried we wouldn’t arrive before dark. But we eventually got there, an hour before sunset and rushed off to make the most of the ‘golden hour’ light. Our knowledgable guide, Samir, led a guided walk through the well preserved village for those who wanted, before the site closed. We opted to climb a large adjacent mound for a vantage point over the site and then independently wandered around until it was dark.

Aït-Benhaddou Viewing Mound

The UNESCO listed Ksar (fortified village) of Aït-Benhaddou was awesome and so photogenic. It’s no surprise that it has featured in numerous films and tv shows including:

  • Lawerence of Arabia
  • Jewel of the Nile
  • The Mummy
  • Gladiator
  • Game of Thrones – as the cities of “Yunkai” and “Pentos”
Aït-Benhaddou Reflection

Staying in a lovely riad only a few minutes walk from the site was ideal. The huge number of day trippers from Marrakech and elsewhere weren’t around too early or too late. In the moments pre-sunset, it felt almost like we had the whole place to ourselves. We explored the narrow windy pathways inside the walls of Ksar, right up to the top for a different view.

Aït-Benhaddou views from the Granary

Not able to face another tagine for dinner, we ventured out to a small cafe and ordered pizzas. We tried to stay up to welcome in the year 2020 with a few Casablanca beers, but succumbed well before midnight!

Awake early the following morning, Imbi and I decided there was only one way to start the new decade. And that was to watch the sunrise from the Granary at the top of the Citadel.

Aït-Benhaddou Sunset

Draa Valley

After an awesome start to 2020, we left for Zagora. The route took us through varying scenery of canyons, palm groves and Kasbahs (fortresses) of the Draa Valley. Eventually, we arrived at the small oasis town of Zagora on the cusp of the Sahara. The scenery en-route reminded us of our road trip through Oman.

Continuing along the Jbel Tadrart ranges, we stopped at the historic village of Tamegroute. We explored an underground Kasbah and library of ancient texts, before checking out some of the Tamegroute pottery. The temptation to buy everything in sight was real! After checking into our hotel, we learnt about the production of dates, an important export in Morocco, as we strolled through the surrounding groves and villages.

Sahara Desert

We pushed on through more rugged terrain to the oasis village of M’Hamid El Ghizlane.

Sahara Desert drive

From there, we jumped into 4×4’s and drove through the stony Hamada desert to reach our camp for the night, the Erg Chigaga dunes. It took a few hours to reach our camp and we were glad when the bumpy, windy ride was over.

Erg Chigaga desert camp

Taking a short camel ride through these iconic dunes was a great way to criss-coss through the surreal landscape.

Erg Chigaga camel safari

Dismounting the camels and climbing one of the higher dunes in sight, we positioned ourselves for sunset, a little prematurely. Staring out over the sea of golden sand, I took a quick jog over to some neighbouring dunes before the sunset. Thankfully, these dunes were far smaller (but equally as impressive) as the ones in Namibia, where I’d done something similar in the Namib Desert. That experience proved to be utterly exhausting as it was substantially hotter and far more strenuous!

Erg Chigaga dunes walk

As the sun fell, the group saddled up and jumped back on the camels for the short ride back to our desert camp. I opted to go on foot in search of the quintessential sunset camel silhouette.

Erg Chigaga sunset camel silhouette

We couldn’t resist leaving the warmth of the camp fire to venture back out into the desert for some attempted astrophotography. Wandering a fair way to escape the camp floodlights and despite the half moon, we had some fun playing with our new lens.

Erg Chigaga astrophotography

It seemed like no time before the alarm sounded and we were again running around the dunes like crazy people, watching the morning colours light up the sky as the sun rose.

That morning offered one of those sunrises where the colours just seemed to get better and better!

We left soon after sunrise and the scenery on the drive out of the desert was spectacular, really wowing us.

Sahara Desert scenery

Essaouira (via Oulad Brhhil)

Nearing our destination for the night, Oulad Brhhil, we were strangely excited to see the bizarre sight of goats climbing trees. As odd as it looks, the tree climbing goats are a fairly common sight in that part of Morocco. In the drier times of year, the resourceful goats climb high up the Argan trees in search of their fruit.

Oulad Brhhil Goats climbing trees

After a long travel day, we were surprised when we arrived at the attractive Palais Riad Hida, our home for the night. It was packed with history, charm, atmosphere and eccentricities, which included lovely Moroccan style gardens where peacocks freely roamed. This former palace was unique and turned out to be the most impressive place we stayed throughout the whole tour.

The following morning, we moved onto Essaouira, a port city on the Atlantic coast. We arrived late afternoon, just in time for yet another majestic Moroccan sunset.

Essaouira Sunset

Staying in the UNESCO listed Medina, formerly known as ‘Mogador’, was the perfect location to explore and shop.Famed for its whitewashed houses, adjourned with blue doors and shutters, Essaouira was truly picturesque.

After a lengthy walking tour of the Medina with a very knowledgable local guide, we were free to aimlessly amble through the easily navigable walled Medina. This was nothing like the maze that is the Marrakech Medina.

Essaouira Medina

And if you’re partial to a quaint door photo, you’ve hit the jackpot!

For any Game of Thrones fans, a stroll along the Skala de la Kasbah is a must. These old walls (ramparts), flank the Medina and shield it from the Atlantic. It was the location where Daenerys met the Unsullied Army.

Essaouira Morocco

Not sure what colour to paint your boat? Then heading down to the port for some unprejudiced ideas probably isn’t for you! The historically significant blue colour (a pigment procured from a sea snail of the area), is the only colour local boats are allowed to be painted.

The stunning sunsets continued for our last night in Essaouira.

Essaouira Sunsets

After breakfast, Imbi and I left the tour early, saying goodbye to the group and our excellent guide. We boarded a 10am public coach bound for Marrakech, eager to maximise time with my parents who were flying over from the UK. The very comfortable coach, was the same one the rest of the group would take later that afternoon.

Marrakech

Back in Marrakech, our first couple of the nights were once more spent in the Medina. Imbi had again found a picture-perfect riad. Le Riad Yasmine was an oasis of calm in the surrounding Medina mayhem.

It really was a beautiful boutique hotel which was so incredibly peaceful. Not wanting to relax too much, I forced in a few laps of the pool!

Le Riad Yasmine

We did occasionally venture out for an assault on the senses, through the smells, sounds and sights of Djemaa El-Fna and the myriad of market stalls for a spot of shopping.

Finishing off our trip in style, the four us spent our last couple nights in the Dar Sofil Suites & Spa. Located about 10km out from the city centre, it felt a million miles away from the madness of the Medina.

Dar Sofil Suites & Spa

This quiet, modern Moroccan style 4-room retreat was truly luxurious. We even had the added bonus of having it to ourselves for our final night together.

Dar Sofil Suites & Spa Dawn

Making the most of the in house spa and wanting the full Moroccan experience, we indulged in a Hammam scrub and massage, an absolute must when visiting Morocco. We walked away feeling energised and totally relaxed.

Tired of just lounging by the pool and despite the hotels ‘no children’ rule, I still had some fun. So childish!

After spending 2 weeks in Morocco, we had lost count of how many tagines we had eaten. But the on-site chef spoiled us with the best ones of the trip.

Dar Sofil Suites Tagine

As was the theme for our trip, we were treated to one final perfect Moroccan sunset, before boarding our ‘silly-o’clock’ flight, the first of three on our 30 something hour journey back to Australia.

Dar Sofil Suites & Spa Sunset

Morocco was all we had hoped for and more. Intrepid’s South Morocco Discovery tour was an easy way to see everything we wanted on our tight time frame. And having a few extra days at the end to combine our two favourite things (family and travelling), made the trip even more perfect. We can’t wait to come back and explore the north!

Tips

  • Marrakech has multiple districts to stay in, which all offer something different. If you plan on spending a few days in Marrakech, it’s worth researching what sort of location you want to stay in.
  • Part of the whole experience in Marrakech was having a beautiful Riad to retreat to after spending time in the manic Medina. There are so many to choose from, for all budgets. The two different riads we stayed in, really made our Marrakech experience that much more special.
  • Book early, especially in peak tourists times. Riads can book out quickly.
  • Travelling during the winter months – Dec to Feb offered beautiful clear skies and warm days. But don’t be fooled by the blue skies, as the mornings and evenings were cold, particularly in the mountains and desert.
  • Pack accordingly. We highly recommend a good beanie and a nice lightweight down jacket or something similar.
  • Travelling on a group tour means following a fixed itinerary. For us, it was great way to squeeze in all the areas we wanted to see. Yes, we would have loved a little longer in some areas and a little less time in others. But overall, the balance was great. When booking any trip like this make sure you do some research and ask yourself “is this trip right for me?”
  • Leave some space in your luggage. There are beautiful souvenirs everywhere which are hard to pass up!

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