I stared into the darkness through the window as our plane descended, willing the sun to creep over the horizon so I could enjoy an aerial view of Casablanca at daybreak. Alas, it was not to be. My first African sunrise would have to wait.
CASABLANCA. “As-salamu alaykum”, our guide Ibrahim greeted us as our bus left the airport. We were already behind schedule and had to rush to the Hassan II Mosque to catch visiting hours. It did not disappoint. Resting on the Atlantic coast, the mosque boasted of the tallest minaret in the world and stunning Islamic architecture that was simultaneously intricate and understated. After a brief stop in Rabat to see Chellah, an ancient Roman site, we departed for Fes.
FES. We went straight to dinner after checking in at our hotel. Over Moroccan wine and generous portions of chicken tagine, we got to know our new friends with whom we would discover this exotic country. Unsuspectingly, a few of us were plucked out of the crowd to climb onstage with Moroccan dancers and move our hips in directions we had never before contemplated. As the night drew to a close, we could hardly believe it was only our first day.
We woke up well-rested, except the ladies who heard the distant murmur of early morning prayer. Still, sleep deprival was no match for the excitement-fueled energy we had that day. While exploring the medina (town center), we saw Moroccan craftsmanship at its finest. Handcrafted ceramics, leather, rugs and fabric were ubiquitous as we navigated the souk (market). Neither expense nor negotiating skills were spared, as most left nearly every store with a shopping bag in tow. We ended our day with a private dinner at a restaurant that looked more like a rich man’s home. Dessert alone was three courses, including cake for our dear Alissa, whom we serenaded happy birthday in five languages.
SAHARA. We had an early rise but everyone was on time that day. Today was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip – we would experience the Sahara and sleep in the desert that night. But even the long ride to Merzouga, a village next to the sand dunes, was a highlight in itself. Our “technical stop” (“bathroom break” in Ibrahim-speak) in Ifrane, with its French-style chalets, felt like a separate trip to Switzerland. Back on the road, the diversity of the Moroccan landscape was on display. The highway cut through barren mountains on one side and snow-capped mountains on the other. Further along, we saw a massive dam that singlehandedly sustained life in a desert town, shortly after a stop for photos during which our ladies collected marriage proposals from nomadic Berber men.
We transferred to 4x4s for an hourlong drive across a flat and rocky terrain that went beyond the paved roads where we left our bus. At first, we didn’t see much except clouds of dust behind other SUVs in the distance. Then out of nowhere, the Sahara sand dunes rose from the horizon. Giant, majestic red-orange hills of sand resembled waves of an angry ocean frozen in time.
In the desert, Tuareg people welcomed us. Dressed in traditional blue garb, they managed the camp where we would stay for the night. They helped us mount our camels and form a caravan to go deep into the dunes. There were two basic colors in the desert – blue above us and red-orange below – surrounding us in all directions as we sought a spot to see the sunset. Once off our camels, we climbed up steep dunes, our bare feet sinking in the cool and soft sand of the Sahara.
Faraz, one of our trek organizers, urged us to watch the sunset quietly. Most of us complied – the sounds in the desert simmered down to distant whispers and the intermittent rustle of Tuareg guides pulling us down the dunes on thick blankets to find better vantage points. Shortly thereafter, we saw what we had been waiting for. We watched the breathtaking Sahara sunset in silence.
MARRAKECH. The next day, we departed toward Ouarzazate to see ruins of kasbahs (fortresses), gorges, and rock formations carved by wind and erosion. We then embarked on a picturesque drive to Marrakech via the Tichka pass, where our bus miraculously emerged unscathed through winding roads with hairpin turns up in the Atlas mountains. We checked in at La Maison Arabe, a beautiful riad (traditional home with interior courtyard, turned into a boutique hotel) with first-class amenities and a modern twist on traditional Moroccan decor. The following day, we explored the souk – a collection of thousands of shops lined up on labyrinthine paths, open to tourists and vendors on foot, scooters and donkeys alike. Shops stretched as far as the eye could see, selling everything from scarves and leather goods to silver teapots and spices. Jemaa el Fna, the main square, was filled with even more diversions: fresh orange juice stands, dancers, African voodoos and snake charmers. We capped our stay with a day trip to the coastal town of Essaouira, where we enjoyed a relaxing view of the Atlantic’s waves crashing against rocks.
As we took off on our way home, I stared out the window again. This time, I got my aerial view of Casablanca. But I couldn’t appreciate it anymore. Broad daylight isn’t as marvelous as sunset in the Sahara.
Special thanks to our sponsors Groupe Office Cherifien des Phosphates (OCP) & Maroxe Deluxe Tour and our tireless trek organizers Aymen Mohib & Faraz Khalid.