We’re bombing through the Sahara — up and down and around sand dunes — bouncing around in a silver 4X4 feeling for all the world like we’re in a Jason Bourne movie. Our driver stops abruptly, jumps out and hops back in with a bunch of greens in his hand.
“Ricola,” he announces as he hands me the plant.
“Oh, rocket,” say the young Aussies in the back seat.
The driver hits the gas and I start munching on the arugula, a most peppery and thoroughly unexpected plot twist in the middle of the desert.
It’s one of the many delightful discoveries on our eight-day tour of South Morocco with Intrepid Travel. Others include olives and pancakes for breakfast, fresh-squeezed OJ all day long and a hilarious afternoon stop to marvel at goats grazing up in argan trees. We ride camels, hit up markets and learn that hot water doesn’t always show up when you want a shower at the riad (guest house).
In the desert, we find out why people wear colourful Berber turbans tied around the head and neck. The fine Sahara sand blows into places you didn’t know you had. Walking up a sand dune nets about a cup of sand in each shoe. A few of us go barefoot to the top of a dune where we sit, gobsmacked, watching the fading light and the sun drop. A few hours later, after a tagine feast in the main tent, we are even more gobsmacked at the trillions of disco balls in the sky and a giant moon rising.
We sit around the fire singing “Africa Zina,” which means Africa is beautiful. We know all the “la, la, las” and “hey, hey, heys” to the song by now. Our guide, Abdou Akrouch, has been singing it from the front seat of our mini bus for days. We range from our 20s to 70s and we pick different seats every day for fresh conversations. As we cross southern Morocco, we celebrate a couple of birthdays (21 and 55), lose a wallet in the Sahara and discover a quiet artist from Vancouver is a Beyoncé on the dance floor.
We also discover that some of us are better at bartering than others. Akrouch offers sound advice as we walk to a carpet shop in Ait Benhaddou, just across from the casbah where they shot Gladiator. “Know your price,” he says. I lose sight of this, as well as the limited size of my pack, as more Berber carpets are laid on the floor.
I fall in love with a small rug and we begin at just over half of the (meaningless) 1,400 dirham price tag. I put on my best poker face and suggest 600. The carpet seller starts talking about the village women with “gold fingers” who make the rugs, and we end where he wanted, at 700 dirham (about $90).
“He found your weak spot,” my seatmate, an expert barterer, tells me back on the bus. (Our guide advises us to avoid a few other exchanges, such as any and all snake charmers. Akrouch warns some may tuck the head of the snake in your shirt and demand money to remove it.)
In the High Atlas Mountains, donkeys carry our bags as we hike up an hour to the riad, where bread, olives and tagine are waiting on the sunny terrace. After lunch, some go hiking while others wander the village chatting in French with little kids and handing out pens. The next day, on the way down the mountain we see donkeys headed up with peaceful-looking goats tied up in their side bags destined for someone’s dinner.
On the Atlantic, in Essaouira, we take a tour of the medina and learn throwing out bread is considered sacrilegious in Islam and cobblestones in old trading squares were meant to prevent people from walking on spilled grain. We watch the waves break and see why Jimi Hendrix loved the laid-back coastal city.
We spend our last night together in Marrakech. A week earlier, I wandered the medina by myself careful to note mosque and cellphone towers to navigate my way out of the maze of the old town. This night we set out as a group to make some final Moroccan memories. We vow to stay in touch — we’ve already set up a group chat in What’s App called Rock the Casbah.
As we head back to Canada, the U.K., Europe, Australia and New Zealand, we start sharing pictures of rocky red switchbacks, sand dunes and our smiling faces in cafés enjoying nous nous (espresso and milk). A week or so later, we get the unexpected news that a villager has found the lost wallet in a sand dune, a bonus happy ending to our tour of southern Morocco.
Jennifer Allford travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel, which did not review or approve this story.
When you go:
Do this trip: Intrepid Travel has an array of small group trips in Morocco and around the world. Prices for a 10-day South Morocco Discovery trip currently start at $985 (airfare is extra). Bring a book or two, load up your phone with podcasts for long travel days, and keep some toilet paper and hand sanitizer in your pocket.
Get there: A number of airlines, including Air Canada, Air France and Lufthansa, fly from Toronto to Marrakech with stops in Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Paris.
Currency: You can’t get Moroccan currency outside of the country. But there are plenty of bank machines where you can get dirham that you’ll need to pay for (most) meals, nous nous and souvenirs.
Dos and don’ts: Do bring small gifts, such as felt pens, to give to children you meet in villages. Alcohol is not readily available in this Muslim country.