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Morocco: from riad to tent

I’m still not sure what a riad is. A guest house, I think. Not a hotel; not a b&b; something in between. It still costs about $100.00 per night. You have a private room with a bathroom and breakfast is included. It is gorgeous. We saw the entrance way with the donkey. From there, as the front door opens, it is like walking onto a movie set.

As it turns out, in its simplest form, a riad is a Moroccan home with an interior garden. The exterior of the building is often mud or clay bricks, generally with no windows, with an inward focus expressed in the interior gardens and courtyards. All of the rooms enter into the central atrium space which is often adorned with orange or leman trees and quite likely a fountain.

There are about 6 bedrooms in this one, the Riad Magellan, several lounge areas and a rooftop terrace. We are currently in a lounge area, sipping wine, right outside our room. Quiet as can be, with a lovely breeze, this is the life.


I knew that no one would be able to find this riad and our tour company seems to be no exception. I don’t know what we would have done if we had not gotten the night clerk at the riad to call them. He arranged a meeting point (after several calls) then walked us there and stayed with us, making a couple more calls, until our tour guide arrived. Worth every bit of the 20 dirhams we paid him.

Our day consisted, literally of a 9 hour, 300 plus kilometer drive through a very arid, mountainous countryside. The Atlas Mountains separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert in North Africa. I love mountains and I knew as we entered them that I would enjoy the drive.

We drove on through numerous berbers (villages), saw lots of kids and locals, dozens of cats and one dog. By mid afternoon we pulled to a stop at a large Kasbah. Now I always thought a Kasbah was a marketplace. I guess I did not pay attention to Yosemite Sam. A Kasbah, in fact, is a family dwelling. Not just one home but a virtual village. Originally it functioned as a fortress, hence the high walls and lack of windows. They were often built on the top of a hill or near a harbour entrance which made them easier to defend.

All the structures are made of mud, yet, with the exception of a little erosion in heavy rain, seem to withstand the true test of time. The buildings are very ornate and very impressive.

The rest of the day’s drive was serene as the sun began to set in the mountains yielding that warming glow to everything in sight.

We are staying at a small village inn, sorry auberge, the Auberge Levieux Chateau du Dades. I have no idea where it is. I only know it is in the mountains. It’s about 10 degrees here, and about 20 below in the rooms. They are not the best rooms I’ve seen, but their uniqueness gives them charm. Right, keep saying that to yourself as you brace yourself for the coldest shower you’ve ever had.

Our driver/guide, Essalah, is very nice. He is a great driver; both skillful and fast. I hate to think what time we might have arrived here if he drove the speed limit. He seems to know everyone in this country. I’m not surprised in the hotels and restaurants, but he also seems to know all the cops. He gets waved through all the road checks. His father is a cop. Maybe they look out for him.

We had cous cous for dinner, with chicken, I think. It is a traditional dish made of finely ground pasta (kind of looks like rice), then mixed with, chicken in this case, and vegetables. The tagine, which we had for lunch, is the national dish in Morocco and is also the name given to the unique, pyramid shaped vessel it is served in.

Breakfast was wonderful. A delightful crepe, bread, some fruit and a Moroccan coffee; not the best in the world but welcome on this cold morning. Having said that, we came to realize over the next few days that it is exactly the same everywhere you go. So is lunch and dinner. Tagine!!!

The first stop on the itinerary was the city of Tinghir. A typical Arab town, lined with souks, a mosque, children playing in areas that looked like they had been recently bombed and a stop at the carpet maison. How nice. They showed us many of their beautiful carpets, all made on site. They gave us a welcome tea. After tea we were separated from our travel companion and subjected to an extremely high pressure sales pitch. We pled poverty and the guy ultimately backed off. A carpet would have been about 15000 dirhams; probably a good deal compared to what you could buy it for at home. A quick stop at a bank machine in town before leaving topped up our dirhams which seem to be disappearing faster than I had planned.

This was actually a great stop. The sales pitch I could do without, but it’s all part of the experience. I’m a salesman myself, so I know what they are trying to do. I, for one, would never work that hard at it though.

Yesterday’s drive had taken us through the Atlas Mountains. Today we crossed the anti Atlas range. I’m sure there is an appropriate explanation for the anti part of the name, but I’m afraid I do not know it. At the edge of the Sahara there are numerous areas rich in fossils. We stopped for a fabulous visit at a fossil mining company. They mine huge slabs of marble and rock full of fossils then cut and polish them making everything from coffee tables to fountains.

Arrival at the auberge where the camel trek begins was via a free for all, 4×4 race across the “roads” of the pre-dune desert. I know we were airborne more than once. Essalah is a wild and fabulous driver. A quick stop for a pre-sunset photo then it was on to the ritual of the Western city slickers getting on the camels.

We were greeted by a truly incredible sight. You would swear you were living in Biblical times. It was very serene and very Christmas-like with sand instead of snow. The camels, the dunes and the nomad guides set a picture and a mood for what was to come.

Just before sunset we were saddled up and ready to roll; and roll we did on these one humped wonders. Getting up was a challenge. You sit on the camel as it is lying on the ground. The saddle is a homemade structure of blankets with a metal handle to hang onto. The camels stand up in 3 distinct phases and you have to hang on for dear life if you plan to remain on the camel. The motion is very quick and very severe in terms of the amount of movement you are subject to. The only thing tougher is the dismount. The same 3 steps in reverse, but the first one is right out of the mechanical bull scenes in Urban Cowboy.

The ride into the desert took about an hour; the last third of which was pretty much in the dark. It was an awesome experience loping along as the sun set. An occasional glimpse of another caravan on a dune off to the side just made this scene all that much more unbelievable.

We arrived at our Nomad wool tents and the scene was right out of the Arabian Nights. As a matter of fact, all the Arab guides called me Ali Baba because of my beard. By now it was totally dark but the stars were starting to appear. Karen and I are lodged alone in a 6 man berber tent. It is huge and covered in blankets, tapestries and pillows, all laid out on the sand. I don’t know if it will be comfortable, but it certainly looks inviting.

Dinner was fantastic, cooked on a propane element. Chicken tagine cooked and served by our Nomad cook, Abraham. For a national dish they seem to eat it twice a day, every day. Kind of removes the special occasion aspect of it all.

It was a real treat to be able to lounge in a tent on the desert sands, on luxurious blankets and pillows, and be served an incredible meal by an authentic Nomad, a man who lives with his wife and family in the desert.

After dinner we were treated to some Nomad tom tom drumming. Even though I have quite a good sense of rhythm, I had a lot of trouble following Abraham’s patterns. Adi, the camel guide, was amazing as he drummed and sang his native songs.

Adi, like Abraham, is a true Nomad, living with his wife and family in tents in the desert. Adi explained that he had learned English from the tourists. He has slowly converted from herding goats to guiding tourists. He has never gone to school and he has no idea how old he is. I asked if his children go to school. He looked at me with a very quizzical look on his face and replied, “Do you see a school out here?” He has only 2 possessions in his world; a motorbike and a cell phone. I’m not too sure why he needs either of them. I must say the cell phone reception here is amazing. Anywhere we have been in Morocco people have cell reception. Mountains, desert, inside, outside, it doesn’t matter. I can’t get cell reception in my house.

One thing that will stay in my mind as long as I live is the incredible desert sky. There are literally millions of stars. You could sit on the dunes and read a book. Unbelievable.

More by Eric Whitehead in his book ‘Then there Was One‘.


As the neighbourhood rooster ran wild through the various camps, crowing to wake everyone, Karen and I took a leisurely stroll up the huge dunes to enjoy the sunrise.  After a brief visit from Abraham and his son, selling their homemade wares, souvenir camels, we were back on the camels for the return trip. Our overnight stay on the sands of the Sahara was a truly magical experience that will likely never be able to be duplicated.

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