When I started the blog, I knew that I wanted to have people like Antea on these pages and provide you with their views of travelling, learning about the world, people and cultures. Whenever Antea talks about her trips, in my mind I start packing my bags, wishing I could join her on every following trip she takes because there is no doubt in my mind that she knows what to see and when to surrender to which moment. Antea has the ability to employ her poignant vocabulary to conjure up the magic of a city, town or mountain and from this daydream she then wrenches you back to reality with some review of hers and tells you what it is really like to live there.
She's not checking off a to-do list when she travels, she makes up the list for those who come after her. I know this sentence will make her laugh and she may quote it, but I also know that wherever I go, I first call Antea to get her advice.
Antea Popović is my friend and as I write this, I feel a sense of pride that I am able to commit such a sentence to paper. With Antea I have shared a trip to Shanghai for which both of us struggle to find the right words that would describe it, but when we do find them, it's all we can do to check ourselves in conveying the joy we experienced there.
That's why I'm glad that here, on Project: We travel blog we can join her on a trip to Morocco. To walk, think and reflect. To Morocco that still lives in her memory and to which she owes a novel experience in her life.
Where did the idea to go trekking in Morocco come from?
Morocco was an 'accidental' destination for the trip – we wanted to go somewhere not too far away, where weather is warmer than in Croatia. My sister went to Morocco a couple of years before and came back quite fascinated because it was completely different from anything she knows. It took me 2 days to find some traveling companions and it was settled.
Trekking was also an 'accidental' choice – we knew we wanted to go and see the desert and I was searching online for the best routes. One of the agencies was offering desert trekking. Since I and the friends I traveled with spend most of our free time up in the hills, trek and trail running, a desert trek was a must.
I use quotation marks on purpose: considering what the Moroccan adventure gave me, I am sure it was not an accidental choice at all.
What does one trekking tour include (from arrival until departure)?
Our tour started early in the morning and we went directly to the highest dune in that part of the Moroccan desert. We were camping and trekking through Erg Chigaga dunes. The highest dune is 300 m high and it is an amazing sand hill in the middle of the desert. The desert changes due to weather conditions, but the highest dune is always there. Afterwards, you just follow your guide (a real Berber), and even though I have a really good orientation gene, I had no idea where we were going: were we going in circles and passing the same dunes over and over again, or were we really strolling deeper into the desert. After approximately 3 hours we stopped for lunch, in the middle of nowhere, literally.
A second Berber came with three camels and with our lunch boxes, and we all took a break, resting between sand dunes, while the camels ate tamarisk leaves from the only two trees around, which we were using as shelter from the Sun.
Then we continued our trek and visited the edge of the desert, the place where camels go and stay for a while, since it was the time of the year when camels breed. We spent quite some time walking between Mom and baby camels, our hearts melting at those sweet scenes. We walked into our camp in the afternoon, after 20 km of desert trek.
What goes through your mind when you walk in the desert?
To answer that question, I have to explain what kind of impact Morocco had on me. It truly made me question my values and my way of living. And it still does that, over a year later. I have met highly educated people who chose to leave city life and go back to the rural area in the High Atlas, to contribute to the local community and be closer to their families. Life in the city, as the Western world knows it, means no freedom for them, even though they graduated from universities, had good jobs and careers and were able to enjoy all the perks that kind of life gives you.
I met Berbers who work in tourism, but only as much as they need to in order to support their families. The rest of the time they live as Berbers because they enjoy it. They could work more and earn more, but they do not want to. For them, life is about living your inner passion and money is just means to make that happen. It made me really question my inner passion and if I did integrate it into my life and how. Am I living a free life? What is really important to me? And how to come back to that, to myself?
So my desert trek was quiet introspection in the most serene surroundings I have ever been in. I felt more connected and calm than almost anywhere else.
What season is the best for such a trip?
We went in January, which is the low season for them, after New Year's season madness. That meant that we saw all together maybe 4 people in the desert, at the great dune, if we do not count our guides. And I am sure it contributed to the experience. The temperature during the night goes down to zero degrees so it was quite cold. During the day it is around 18 – 20 degrees. We were really lucky with the weather – a couple of days before we arrived, there was a great desert storm and a couple of days after we left, there was actually snow in some parts of the country where there had been no snow for decades. The season itself runs from October through to April, before it gets too hot.
What kind of equipment do you need?
It is important to emphasize that we took an agency guided tour, so they made sure our guides have enough water and bring us lunch.
Also, we agreed on the length of the trek and our guide was checking in on us, to see if we wanted to finish it earlier and in what kind of condition we were. So we were pretty carefree.
We took just some water, sunglasses, sunscreen, something to protect the head from the Sun and a spare shirt. As an experienced trekker, I always take some extra snacks and first aid. We started the trek in our sports shoes, but very soon we took them off while walking through the desert – and the feeling of the sand between your toes, running down the dunes and falling through the sand, it's unforgettable. Since we walked over some firm ground (some dried ponds and a field of wild arugula), we needed them later. I am sure that the required equipment varies depending on how hot it is and on how long your trek is going to be.
Did the terrain change or did you walk only across the desert?
We agreed with our guide to go for a trek that is longer than usual, so he took us to a field of wild arugula, where camels spend time in herds.
How much does a guide help once you decide to do something like this? What is their role?
Honestly, we would probably be still there, lost, if there had been no guide. I would not dare to go on a desert trek without him. He leads the way, makes sure that camels carry everything needed for refreshment (they were not with us all the way, after lunch camels left with the second Berber) and is a great source of all the information you could ask for. Our guide was from a Berber family and gave us great insight into their way of living, their customs, relations and everyday life. That part was an added bonus to the whole experience.
What sight would you describe as incredible while you were in the desert?
Let's just say that everywhere you look, the sight is incredible. The sand and the sky, their colors and the way they combine, how vast they are... When the Sun is setting down and the sky turns pink and splashes every shade of it around... those images are hard to forget. During the night the amount of stars in the sky really makes you feel small and irrelevant and gives you much needed awe of Nature.
What are mornings and evenings like in the desert?
The first thing that comes to mind is – silent and peaceful. There are no usual morning sounds you get here in inhabited places. There is no sound at all, just calmness. Evenings are the same – as the camp goes to sleep, there are no sounds from the distance you usually get in the cities or villages. There are no animals waking up and starting to move, as you hear them in the woods. There is just the sound of silence, the comforting sound of silence.
What does tea taste like in the desert?
Moroccan people like their tea hot, strong and sweet. And I do believe that experience itself emphasizes the taste – so the tea was just like the desert. Hot. Strong. And kind of sweet.
What do you talk about at the end of one such day in the desert while you are getting ready for bed?
We were literally pinching ourselves, we just could not believe that we were actually in the desert, sleeping in a tent - it just seemed so surreal, considering the life we usually live.
Especially after walking for 20 km through that same desert, moving around with camels, and even witnessing the birth of a baby camel (we got that as an extra). You talk about how damn lucky you are to be so privileged to be there, you talk about the cultural differences and the way of life that you got to experience and get in touch with. You talk about Nature and its strength, about how you would like to change your life to be more in contact with Her. You question what is really important and what you want to become more important to you. Well, at least that was what I was talking about, all the time.
And you talk about how unbelievably cold it is while you are getting into your sleeping bag, and under 4 extra blankets you are wearing your winter pajamas and warm socks, after a whole day of sunbathing.
What advice would you give to someone who intends to go trekking there?
Take a local guide. Go to the less touristy part of the desert. Be there for a couple of days, get to experience the rhythm of that kind of life. Walk barefoot. Absorb the Sun, the views. Enjoy the silence. Get to know your guides, get to know how they think and feel about life. Get into endless conversations about life in the desert, their focus on the family, their way of enjoying their everyday life. Question yourself and be ready to come back changed.
We went there with the Wild Morocco agency, which is run by an English-Moroccan couple. They were excellent, from the start of the e-mail conversation, to the last detail on our tour. First day we travelled from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou and spent the night there. On the second day we got to Erg Chigaga through M’hamid El Ghezlane, the last inhabited place before entering the desert. It took us a 2-hour ride to get to the desert and the camp. Day three was reserved for the desert trek. On day four we got back to Marrakech across the dried salt lake Iriqui.