“It’s a cactus maze!” shouted the oldest boy as he spotted a path winding through two banks of towering plants. “Wait!” yelled his brother, all thoughts of exploring a ruined mud house abandoned in his rush to catch up.
It was the first day of term after the Christmas break, and I’d never known one like it. The dread, angst and mad scrambling for belongings had been swapped for a leisurely breakfast of omelette, pancakes and flatbreads in front of a scorching log fire.
The trick was persuading the boys’ headteacher to let me home-school them for the first eight days of term, albeit not from our own home, or even in our own country. We’d come to Morocco to explore the tip of Africa in return for coming back with two projects about their adventure, “on where they visit, what they see, eat and experience”, stipulated their head. Less a term-time holiday, more an extended field trip, I hoped.
We took the work seriously: they wrote a daily diary and I’d set tasks, such as drawing. I chose our accommodation based on what they might get out of staying there. But my lesson planning was from the school of serendipity.
A great example came with their discovery of the cactus corridor, bisecting the dusty brown village of Tagadert, where we were staying in Chez Max, a haven of polished tadelakt and the tastiest tagines we’d ever tried. It led to an olive grove where the trees were fed by a series of water channels trickling through the dry earth. The boys played Pooh sticks as I watched an old man in a hooded djellaba approach. With three taps of his walking stick, the stream was blocked, forcing the water in a different direction and submerging the roots of the trees.
Irrigation in action; not bad for a morning’s lesson.
Emboldened by the man’s smile, Louis, who is eight, tried out some Arabic from the phrasebook I’d grabbed at Gatwick. “Ma ismak?” he asked. “Hussein,” the man responded, posing afterwards for a photo. Make that engineering and foreign languages, and all before lunch.
We could have amused ourselves for days in Tagadert but the rest of Morocco was calling, starting with Taroudant, a walled town three hours south. Here, we stayed at Dar al Hossoun, a riad — a traditional house with an elaborate garden — in the true sense of the word. Here we found more than 900 species of plants, from palms and succulents to aloes and cacti.
“That one is an Atlas palm. The Berbers use the leaves for everything from brushes to twisting into rope,” the owner, Ollivier Verra, told Louis and five-year-old Raf during a personal tour he offered after I told him the reason for our visit. “And that,” he pointed to a rounded spiky affair, “is nicknamed the mother-in-law’s cushion.” After a lesson in desert survival — Ollivier showed them how date palms stop growing to save water — I asked them to sketch five cacti and write about their favourite one.
The contrast between our next two stops could not have been greater. We had two nights in the Agafay desert, a stony stand-in for the Sahara, where we gazed at the snow-capped Atlas range from our tent at Scarabeo Camp. For city kids, this setting alone would have made the trip worthwhile.
The boys climbed rocky hills, concocted tales of supernatural invasions, and, yes, rode on camels. They also snuggled under pompom-fringed Berber blankets, watching flames dance in an outdoor fire pit under the stars, and wolfed down harira soup by candlelight. It was bliss.
In Tamatert, the main outpost for trekkers heading into the mountains, it took a mule ride for the boys to reach the snow. Happily, thanks to more roaring fires, we had a toasty two nights at Douar Samra, its thick walls of packed earth keeping the chill at bay.
Back down in Marrakech, home economics was on the timetable at La Sultana, our final stop. On the hotel’s rooftop terrace, the boys tied their aprons and got to work chopping onions and stirring spices to make their own lunch: chicken tagine, with preserved lemons and olives. Two hours of concentration produced what they declared the best meal of the trip.
Before a private tour of the neighbouring 16th-century Saadian Tombs, there was time for an afternoon splashing in the hotel’s heated swimming pool. Because even state school children get an hour of PE a week. Plus, their teachers have two projects to prove they really did work hard. Now where shall I home-away-from-home-school them next?