MOROCCO : A night under the Stars in Berber Tents

by Tess Willcox in


This journey, is where the dreams of modern day bohemians come true. A chance to explore the road less travelled into the Sahara Desert. An opportunity to get yo’self into some high altitude road tripping, before landing in the vastness of the foothills of the Sahara. 

Whilst swanning around the Souqs of Marrakech, feeling like we are finally mastering the maze and becoming comfortable in our new surroundings, the pull to experience another side of Morocco is evident. A few days in Essouria for Gnaoua Festival? Surfing in Taghazout? One way ticket to Chefchaouen to immerse ourself in some of the most aesthetically pleasing distressed blue alleyways this country has to offer? No. First. Before anything else. Desert.

There is nothing on this planet that will reconnect you to the earth, and to what it is you really want in life, like spending time in the vast conditions of the desert. Waking up to views of endless sand hills, the camels we rode in on basking in the sun that is slowly rising in the distance, taking solace under that group of palm trees our Berber tents are set up around, navigating our way around the endless scarab beetles to find that perfect spot for Sahara Sun Salutations.

Before YOU get your Namaste on, let’s discuss the journey required to experience the RAD-ness of a night or two in the desert. For the beginners, I recommend 1 or 2 nights. You may think you are Indiana Jones reincarnated (sorry, I actually am, in female form) but if you have limited time in Morocco, this is the best option albeit won’t offer you the TRUE experience. 

Depending on your ‘level’ of Desert diving, you need to be somewhat prepared. For those of you booking your Sahara experience through your hostel, or through your friend Ahmed’s uncles’ cousin, your journey is going to look something along the lines of the below (worth noting that the Zagora experience is the most entry level desert experience. If you want to go the full traditional hog, then opt for the Merzouga tour). 

8am start in JEMAA EL FNA > ATLAS MOUNTAIN CLIFFTOPS > AIT BEN HADDOU > ZAGORA > CAMEL TRECK > 7pm DESERT.

If you are short of time reading this, and just need the MUST REMEMBERS for this journey, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, let’s bask in this journey. 

HIGH ATLAS MOUNTAINS

Winding our way through the Atlas Mountains for hours on end, is not only incredibly breathtaking, it is fucking terrifying. The highest and narrowest of roads you have every seen. Alas, trust that your driver will take good care of you. It is their job to navigate these roads every single day. Worst case scenario, if your driver is falling asleep like mine was, offer him some peanuts and ask about his family. Get out of the car and take in some of the freshest air you will have breathed in a while, and take some incredible photos. 

AIT BEN HADDOU

This Kasbah is one of the most insanely awesome places I have ever visited. It’s like you are presented with a sense of nostalgia when you arrive, without ever having visited before. You will feel as though you have stepped out of a scene from Gladiator, Game of Thrones or Prince of Persia. Basically because, you have! This is one of Morocco’s most highly used landmarks for movies and TV series set in yesteryear. 

The entire village is made completely from clay and mud brick. It's age is unknown yet it has been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 . As we journeyed through the different areas of the Kasbah and talked to the locals, they took us into their homes and offered up an insight into their life in a few words of broken English. ‘Happy. Hot. Family’. Right, well that sums it up then. That’s what I love about these people. They are simple. Their needs are few and their expectations are minimal. The only other communication I managed to get out of them was some collected giggles about how I had to duck the entire way through their home and out on to the terrace. Yes, people, funnily enough the Kasbah was not built for 6ft tall women. 

One of my favourite things about Ait Ben Haddou, is the artist studios and the way the local artisans have crafted their arts with what they have. Be sure to watch them create their masterpiece paintings using tea and flames. It is magic! 

Our Berber Camp next to the Oasis

Our Berber Camp next to the Oasis

ZAGORA to SAHARA

Arriving in Zagora, we load up the camels and trek our way to the foothills of the Sahara. It is a 2 hour long and uncomfortable trek, but the excitement and wonder masks both of those. Making tracks in the sand at the foothills of the Sahara, as the sun sets over the desert dunes, we see our Berber tents in the distance. Set up in beautiful formation around an oasis of palm trees, adorned with the most stunning colours you have ever seen. 10 tents, endless carpets and cushions, open fire in the middle. This is bohemian bliss. 

Apparent from the countless marriage proposals we received on the trek from our guide, he seemed to take a shining to us and we got a beautiful private tent to spend the night in. YES! That night we eat traditional tagine in the central tent, on cushions, with oranges for desert and mint tea throughout. We are then serenaded under the stars and by the fire, by the Berber men with their guitars and drums. Drunk in love with the desert, we spot about 60 shooting stars that night and set off for slumber amongst the stillness of the Sahara. 

As we begin the camel trek back to Zagora after a sunrise breakfast in the sand, and more mint tea, it feels as though we arrived eons ago. Alas it was just one night in the desert, for my second time, but each time comes with it a sense of calm and connectedness. The Sahara brings with it a serenity similar to that of the ocean for me. Maybe it is the endless azure of the desert sands, maybe it is the stillness of the mornings, perhaps it is because that is where the stars are the brightest I have ever seen in my life. Whatever it is, my love affair with the desert will never quite reach that of the ocean, but it holds a special place in my heart. 

NOW FOR A FEW TIPS ON TRAVELLING TO THE SAHARA : 

En route to where the sun sets : Sahara. Photography by Juan Botero

En route to where the sun sets : Sahara. Photography by Juan Botero

MUST REMEMBERS

The journey just to GET to the Sahara, is astronomically long. To this effect, you need to be prepared in the following ways;

- WATER. Take at LEAST 2L. There will be opportunities to buy more on the drive there, but trust me you will need this for the drive alone especially if you are travelling in the months of June / July / August (read 50 degree heat).

- SCARF IT. Again you will have the opportunity to buy a scarf when you get to Zagora, which will set you back about 200Dirham (Approx AUD$30), but if you are smart you will take one with you. They will teach you how to tie this into the most epic turban you have ever seen with a built in wind flap for when the Sahara winds get too strong during your camel ride (never in my life did I think that sentence would be written by my hands).  

- PACK CAMERA. LEAVE SELFIE STICK AT HOME. You will find few places in the world as aesthetically vast and beautiful as this entire journey. Camera is necessary. Take your selfie stick if your primary use for it is to smack yourself in the head for owning it. These things take away from the magic of traveling, plus ruin everyone else’s photos. Get someone to take a photo of you, TALK TO THE OTHER PEOPLE ON YOUR TRIP! 

- TRAVEL LIGHT. Whatever you pack, you’re carrying on your camel, friend! So put your hard case Louis Vuitton back in storage at the hotel, and take ONLY a tote or small weekender bag with something to sleep in and a light outfit for the next day. 

Berber Camp Fire Tales. Photography by Juan Botero 

Berber Camp Fire Tales. Photography by Juan Botero 



MOROCCO : 10 tips for the Dirty feet and Happy Hearts wandering through Marrakech

by Tess Willcox in


Stepping off the plane onto the hot tarmac of Marrakech for the first time, brings with it plenty of internal musings. 'Holy Shit, look at the INSANE tiles in the security area of the airport'. 'Do I need to cover my shoulders now?'. 'Why is this dude grabbing my luggage?'. 'Do I say hello in Spanish, Arabic, French?'. 

Sliding into an old school Mercedes taxi (swoon) and making your way into the Medina (old city), amidst the mountains of spices, the plethora of colours, the bountiful aromas of the souqs, the clinking of the donkeys hooves, your worries begin to melt away. 

It is as though you have found yourself in a time warp. Everything is done by hand in Morocco. By true artisans. Wandering around the maze of the souqs you find the most whimsical little nooks of craftsmanship. Leather workers, wood turners, fabric dyers, silver jewellers. Budding businessmen eager to get you to uncover the story of their world. 

Since that day I first stepped off the plane in Marrakech, alone, some 4 years ago, I have travelled back five more times, each of which I have fallen more in love with the offerings of this vast country. I adore Marrakech. The juxtaposition of old and new. The incredible architecture and interior design. The humility of honouring tradition and respecting native customs by dressing modestly and with bohemian class. Feeling like Talitha Getty every time I find a new rooftop on which to wear a beautiful dress, boots and adorn myself with jewels and a scarf to marvel at the horizon as the sun sets. 

EDIT : It would be remiss of me not to suggest you start your mornings with freshly squeezed grapefruit or orange juice from Jemaa El Fna. Hot Tip - make sure they squeeze it in front of you if you don't want 5 tablespoons of sugar in there. 

The best thing about Marrakech, is discovering the magic of it yourself. In the interest of those of you who like to plan your trips a little more than my 'no rhyme or reason' self, here are my; 

TOP 10 INSIDER TIPS FOR MARRAKECH 

Bursts of colour within the Souqs. Bohemian Paradise 

Bursts of colour within the Souqs. Bohemian Paradise 

1. LEARN A FEW BASIC PHRASES : Most people you meet will have a basic understanding of English, and ultimately converse with you that way. However, the vast majority of people speak French or Arabic, so it pays to learn a few phrases of either just to be polite. I like to mix my languages up just to keep them on their toes, by starting with French, 'Bonjour' (Hello) and ending with Arabic, 'Shukran' (Thank You). 

2. RESPECT TRADITION : We all know that bad ass girl who throws caution to the wind and rocks around in denim cut offs and a midriff where it isn't appropriate. I, myself, like to honour the local custom and cover up as a sign of respect. I don maxi dresses from SPELL, or pants and a light weight shirt. Always with a scarf, just in case. Some people will tell you it isn't necessary, but I assure you your Moroccan experience will be far kinder if you do. At best, just make sure you cover your shoulders and most of your legs. 

3. WHEN SEARCHING FOR WHERE TO DINE, LOOK UP : I recommend eating in Jamaa El Fna (in the centre of the Medina) at least a few times. The place where musicians, medicine men, snake charmers and story tellers converge on the mystical city square in the most enchanting way. It is a prolifically RAD experience. My tip is to watch which stall all the locals eat at, and beeline it that way. The Moroccan Soup and some Aubergine (which should set you back about $2) are a must to start your meal. For the other nights of dining during your Marrakech jaunt, LOOK UP! Try every single rooftop terrace that has a restaurant while you are there. I try a new one every time I visit, and not only do you get the best views of the sunset and city, the food is to die for. 

Scouring the Souqs of Marrakech 

Scouring the Souqs of Marrakech 

4. SAY YES TO THAT MINT TEA FEST (“WHISKY MAROCAIN”)Trust me, you want to. Because, LIFE! If it appears some what creepy to you that the old man who just sold you a lantern, with the brightest smile in the world, is offering a seat on his moroccan cushions whilst preparing you some incredibly sweet mint tea, girl it aint! This is their custom and they are so proud of it. Not only will you feel like you have once again stepped back in time, but you will connect with another human, whose life is incredibly different to yours. Listen. Ask questions. Get to know someone outside of your circle. Understand the story! 

5. HAGGLE YOUR ASS OFF : The initial price you are given when shopping deep within the Souqs, is sure to be absolutely astronomical. It is designed for you to haggle. Work for that bag, that rug, that ceramic Tagine pot you know you will never use but that is sure to look BITCHIN' in your Kitchen. I can guarantee whatever price they have given you, quarter it and start from there. If they don't come down to what you can afford, walk away. If they really aren't making any money off what you're offering they won't chase you. 

Majorette Gardens (Jardin Majorelle) an oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. 

Majorette Gardens (Jardin Majorelle) an oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. 

6. VISIT JARDIN MAJORELLE Yves Saint Laurent, who bought and restored the gardens in 1980, would say he was able to find an unlimited source of inspiration in the Jardin Majorelle, and that he dreamt many times about its unique colours. It is one of the most beautiful sanctuary's in Marrakech boasting the most exuberant colours, cactus and ceramics. 

7. WHEN SEARCHING FOR PLACES TO STAY, WORK WITHIN YOUR BUDGET : The first time I came to Marrakech, a friend recommended I stay at Equity Point Hostel. I would rename it to ON POINT Hostel. I have met some of my favourite people in the world here. It is a converted Riad and is one of the most stunning hostels I have ever seen. If you want a private room, they are INSANE! Blue marble loft anyone (post on this coming soon). It has a plethora of rooftop terraces and even has a BAR which is hard to find in a dry country. For the mid range scale I would recommend any of the Riad's in the Medina or AirBnB, and if you are just swimming in cash (because who isn't #amiright) then El Fenn and La Mamounia are the places to be! 

8. VISIT A HAMMAM (BATHHOUSE). Whether You choose a public Hammam (where the locals visit weekly - men and women bathe separately of course) or a 'luxury' Hammam, this is something not to be missed in Morocco. Make friends with the locals (or your hotel) and let them lead you to a Hammam of their choice. Essentially you will have warm water unexpectedly hurled at your body and face to wash you down, and then beautiful black clay treatments lathered all over your paper-pantie-covered self. They will scrub you within in inch of your life and then you are treated to a beautiful massage. The Hammams are designed like a kiln and are heated from the outside in - they are SPECTACULAR. 

Home cooked Tagine and Grape Sheesha in a local carpet shop

Home cooked Tagine and Grape Sheesha in a local carpet shop

9. DON'T STEP OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE. JUMP! Trust your instincts in a country you don't know, but also make sure you aren't being TOO safe. Like, home before 10pm for a good night sleep safe. Because, again, LIFE. If you are invited into a local home for a traditional Tagine, I have just two words for you; DO! IT! One of the best nights I have EVER had in Marrakech was in a carpet shop, after hours, eating Tagine with our hands, whilst smoking grape Sheesha listening to Arabic radio and stories of our hosts Berber upbringing. Get away from what makes you feel safe and comfortable. Best case scenario, it will change your life. 

10. JOURNEY TO THE SAHARA : After a few days you will need to escape the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. Spending a night or two camping in Berber tents at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, and journeying there on camels, will be one of the most insane experiences of your life. Be prepared though, it is a 10 hour drive to get there followed by a 2 hour camel ride. You can book this through your accommodation in Marrakech, or most locals will have a brother, cousin, uncle who operates the tours and can point you in the right direction. Full post on this coming soon. 

You can shop the MOROC COLLECTION here. Always feel free to leave any travelling comments or questions below x