Back in December sometime during Christmas, there was talk with my travel buddies to plan for another road trip. They wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, for a road trip during the first half of 2020. I tentatively agreed to the idea at first despite an anticipated busy work schedule in the first 4 months of 2020, especially April. I suggested May, but it was a little too late for some of them. We then agreed on end of March, since I had a small window of opportunity to go for a road trip, before a flurry of activity awaited in the office upon coming back from the holiday leading to the month of April.
We were discussing where to go and I suggested New Zealand, which none of them had gone to, except me. I was not overly enthusiastic about going there again, but I didn’t mind at all, since New Zealand is such a beautiful country and enjoying the sights and nature will definitely do me more good than harm by getting away from work and allows me de-stress a little before April arrives.
At that point in December, nothing was set in stone yet as we couldn’t nail down the exact dates where all of us could take time off to embark on a road trip to New Zealand. We then agreed to confirm and meet again to plan our itinerary sometime right after Chinese New Year, toward the end of January.
At that point in time, news of the Coronavirus hadn’t caught on yet (despite the fact that the earliest infections recorded could have been as early as November 2019, but no one new that it was a novel Coronavirus). It was the week leading up to Chinese New Year, when multiple news agencies picked up various reports coming from China that a mysterious new virus has been seen spreading in Hubei province. The news caught on like wildfire, with the situation in China rapidly changing on a daily basis.
I remember at that time, China moved swiftly to impose travel restrictions around the country and began imposing total lockdown in various parts of Hubei province. The authorities in China were serious. They knew something serious and bad was happening in Wuhan. The situation wasn’t any better when it took place during the Chinese New Year period, where the movement of people is at its maximum throughout China. Soon, Singapore and the surrounding region in close proximity to China received confirmation that the virus has arrived in the countries from people arriving from China.
When that happened I had the gut feeling that this was going to get worse. It was a new, unknown virus. We don’t know how easily it can spread, its mortality rate and the symptoms one can get when one is infected. A lot of unknowns were hung up in the air, as thousands get infected every day in China. I had to be the party pooper and told my friends that I no longer felt safe to travel during this period because of the developments in China. I told them to wait and see and put our trip on hold.
Fast forward roughly two months from the moment I backed out from the planned trip, and we are now seeing over 160 000 infections all around the world. Europe is the new epicentre in the virus spread and part of the second wave of infections after China successfully managed to contain the spread from within their borders. Now the number of infected worldwide is increasing again at an exponential rate. Countries all over the world are imposing travel restrictions against one another and Singapore and New Zealand are no exception. Despite the fact that Singapore has largely been successful in containing the outbreak and minimising local transmissions and that New Zealand has only detect 8 people with the virus, given that the disease is now a pandemic, it is natural that New Zealand needs to protect itself from import cases coming from places like China, South Korea, the EU and the USA. So they impose mandatory quarantine on all international travellers.
Looking back, I was right in following my gut feeling in not moving ahead with the itinerary planning and all the flight and hotel bookings bookings, as the trip would have been impossible given the travel restriction New Zealand has just imposed today on all international travellers. I feel relieved that I did not have to go through high levels of anxiety regarding my upcoming trip to New Zealand, if all our accommodations and flight arrangements been made back in January.
When I was planning my itinerary, one of the top things I wanted to do was to explore the beautiful nature on the outskirts of Vancouver. There were many many hiking trials in and around Vancouver while I was doing my research. In the end, one of the hiking trails that I chose to do, would take me to the summit of Stawamus Chief. Stawamus Chief is basically a 700m granite rock that jutted from the ground in the town of Squamish. There are several hiking trails that took me to the summit of Stawamus Chief. There are three summits that are accessible to visitors. However, I only visited the first two summits.
The hike was challenging. I severely underestimated the sheer degree of vertical climb I had to take in such a short distance. Immediately upon starting the hike up the trail, I was met with hundreds of stone steps, some so steep, that I had to be on all fours just to climb up on some of them. I went there early in the morning after renting a car in the city. About an hour later I reached the trail. I remembered the weather being cool and crisp. But within 30 minutes of hiking, I was sweating profusely and my legs were already aching badly. It took me more than 2 hours to reach the second summit.
At one point, I almost got lost, as the trail disappeared among the tangle of trees and dead-fall. I had to wait a round a little until a another fellow hiking came to point me in the right direction. Apparently I had missed a marker that pointed me to series of metal chains fixed along the base of a sheer cliff. The markers were sometimes had to spot, as it those are merely small colored pieces of metal nailed on the trees to indicate the path ahead. Miss them and you could potentially get lost.
The chains were there to aid hikers to pull themselves up along the cliff with a narrow footpath. And when I say narrow, it is extremely narrow, only wide enough for a single person to either go up, or go down, but never at the same time. Thus, there were moments of human traffic jams, as several hikers were trying to either go up or down the summit and had to wait their turn before they can grab the chains to hoist them up or down and walk along the narrow path. As I cleared the chains and made my way up, I reached the second summit of Stawamus Chief.
Despite the difficulties and the challenges, I made it up to the second summit and I was greeted with an incredible view of the surrounding lands below. The view was worth the trip up and I was grateful to embark on this hiking trail. I will never forget the view. I sat right at the edge of the granite rock at the summit, dangling my foot over the ledge. It was dangerous, because there is literally nothing below to save you from falling, but it was exhilarating to be able to do that. The weather was great day, beautiful sunshine, clear blue skies and the occasional squirrel, approaching me begging for food, as I sat there munching on the energy bar to replenish all those calories lost climbing up the steep trail at the beginning of the hike.
All in all, it took me 4 hours to go up and then down to the base of Stawamus Chief.
The next day, I was met with a hell of a muscle ache from both my legs. I knew then and there that I got bit more than I could chew when I embarked on that hike.
Capilano Suspension Bridge
From then on, my legs were aching throughout the trip. I was completely unprepared for the Stawamus Chief hike. I was deterred in seeing other beautiful sights of Vancouver and beyond. One of them that was at the top of the list was the Capilano Suspension Bridge. A simple bridge, about 140 meters long suspended 70 meters above the river. The bridge was kinda wobbly, but the view was beautiful. I was one of the first few to arrive at the attraction and for a short moment I had the whole place to myself. I boarded the first bus of the day in the morning and arrived in time to enjoy the bridge without too many people on it as well as the beautiful greenery and nature around the area. It remembered the place as being serene, quiet with fresh frosty air of the morning still hung in the air. The attraction also had a tree top walk as well as a cliff edge trail was was thrilling to walk on. A trail that hung on the edge of a sheer cliff with nothing but the river below you, it was a walk to remember.
Sea to Sky Gondola
The Sea to Sky Gondola was another attraction that I truly enjoyed. Located about 45 minutes outside of Vancouver, I took a 10-minute ride on a cable car or gondola to the top of the summit lodge. From there, I was greeted with spectacular views, even more spectacular than from the summit of Stawamus Chief, overlooking the blue waters of Howe Sound. The summit also offered awesome views of various mountain peaks nearby. My favourite part of this summit is that there were a lot of benches places along strategic vantage points throughout the trails all around the summit, allowing you to take in the breathtaking view. I love this place specifically because it was not very crowded when I was there. I was even able to admire Stawamus Chief and its three peaks in all its glory. I could barely make out the hikers at the top of the peaks, especially the second one, which was there hiking previously till make leg muscles ache badly.
I cycled around Stanley park twice on rented bicycle. Twice because I was gobsmacked by how beautiful and big the park was. It borders the Vancouver downtown proper and mostly surrounded by water. It was easy getting to the park as it is just located north and west of Vancouver downtown. There were numerous rental bike shops nearby and I just went to the first one that I saw. I rented the bike for about 3 hours, which was more than sufficient time to circumnavigate the park at least once, stopping numerous times along the way, admiring the beautiful waters, passing underneath the Lion’s Gate Bridge as well as seeing other locals and tourists alike walking, running or cycling like me around the park. I was lucky because I went to Vancouver in late spring and the outside temperatures were perfect for outdoor activities like cycling. After cycling, I remembered returning the bike and then setting off on foot to explore the various forest trails that the park had to offer. It was peaceful walking on one of those trails, seeing the pristine forests well preserved even after marking the spot as a city park.
I remember taking one of the shuttle ferry boats to Granville Island. The island is basically a small peninsula and shopping district. Yaletown had a stop for one of the shuttle ferry boats and I boarded one before stopping at Granville Island. It was an interested ride. Like taking the subway with its various stops, but instead, you take a ferry boat that takes you to places along the shores of False Creek, one of them happens to be Granville Island. I cannot remember the price of the ferry ride, but I remembered it was pretty decent, and most of all super convenient, especially when there is a ferry stop close to where I was staying in Yaletown.
Granville Island was an interesting place. It used to be an industrial manufacturing area. But now, the place has been transformed to be a premier destination for tourists looking for food and entertainment. The place is packed full of cafes, restaurants, breweries, and shops selling all kinds of Knick knacks, like a carnival market made permanent. The history of the place is not lost. You can still see evidence of the island as being a former industrial area. Warehouses with zinc roofs, cement factories and silos still stand and dotted all over the island. The Granville Island Public Market is to me, the most interesting part of the island. It is where local farmers and other food vendors sell their fresh produce such as vegetables, meat, seafood, cheese and many many other products. It was a feast for my senses. The food vendors especially, I was so spoiled for choice, I had difficulty choosing what I wanted to eat. And the coffee. So many coffee shops and cafes to try and experience. In the end, I could only truly experience just a tiny fraction of what the island had to offer me. But I was glad that I spent the entire day without any regrets.
Downtown Vancouver has lots of other interesting locations that I visited, like the Coal Harbour, Port of Vancouver (which had a gigantic cruise ship docked while I was there), the famous Gastown with little cafes, rustic looking restaurants and pubs, as well as West End, Davie Village, Robson Square and others. I like the fact that the downtown core is small enough that you can practically explore the city just by walking. Sure there is a lot of walking to do, but with such amazing weather and loads of cafes that you can just stop by to rest and have a great cup of coffee, walking is the way to go in exploring Vancouver.
Nearly 2 years ago, I embarked on the furthest solo trip ever. To Vancouver and Seattle. A 12,800km journey from home. I can no longer remember what motivated me to go on a solo trip so far away from home. And looking back at my blog, I don’t recall blogging about it, much less posting pictures about my experiences solo trippin’ in Vancouver.
So now I need to make up for my lack of posts regarding my experience solo trippin’ in Vancouver and Seattle.
Two years have passed and I have probably forgotten all the little things that happened while I was there. But one major thing happened prior to my trip that I will never forget. I remembered having food poisoning just a few days before my departure to Vancouver, Canada. It got so bad, that I almost cancelled my trip at the very last minute. Even at the gate, I was on the road to recovery and I was afraid that I might not be able to make it through my 12-hour long flight (via Guangzhou) with dignity (if you know what I mean). But for some odd reason, I persevered and told myself, screw this, I paid so much for this trip and I have been looking forward to this trip for so long. I was not about to let a mere food poisoning derail my plans for an epic holiday alone. I boarded the flight, drowned myself in probiotic pills, in the hopes of jump starting my intestinal microflora while in the air and hope to make a quick recovery upon landing.
Miraculously, I recovered. I was totally fine when I arrived in Vancouver. My body was hydrated, and my stomach felt really calm to the point where I could take in solids again. I ate the food on the plane and nothing bad happened to me. When I landed in Vancouver, it was as if nothing happened in the first place.
At Vancouver International Airport, after I wen through customs, I went looking for the train to the city. It was an easy trip from the airport to downtown, which I really appreciate. After that I remembered transferring to a subway train to Yaletown, where I would be living for the next few days in an Airbnb accommodation. I made a great choice. Yaletown is fantastic. Full of modern skyscrapers of concrete, glass and steel. I booked a room shared with the owner of the condominium in Yaletown and I remembered it was in the upper floors of the building. My window had sweeping views of the Vancouver and the neighbouring skyscrapers nearby. It was truly a sight to behold, day or night. I remembered a couple of times, where I just stayed in my room and just stared out of the window, enjoying the majestic view of the beautiful city.
I remembered having my first meal in Vancouver, and it was sushi that I bought at a nearby grocery store. I was hungry and I wasn’t particularly choosy in deciding anything special to eat. The sushi was probably the first real solid food, aside from the airplane food, that I had after the entire food poisoning episode. The sushi was pretty good. The meal wasn’t heavy and it was just the right amount, especially for someone who is just recovering from food poisoning hours ago. I was so thankful that I was able to hold down solid food and that my stomach didn’t give me any embarrassing problems along the way en route to Vancouver, Canada.
It was a sunny afternoon upon arrival. A great day to walk about the city. I didn’t sleep much while in the plane. I was feeling jet-lagged but energized that the same time, knowing that I have arrived at my destination and I am completely ready to start exploring the city.
I remembered exploring Yaletown, trying to get my bearings right, reading the subway maps and where it could take me, and just enjoying the views of the harbour nearby. It truly is a beautiful part of the city. No doubt, the condominium and private apartments would have cost a ton to buy, much less rent.
Marrakesh was our final stop before taking the train back to Casablanca to catch our flight back home.
It was hot. It was the first time since we arrived in morocco that the weather was swelteringly hot. While we were in the desert, it was cool, cold even sometimes especially before dawn. The sudden change in temperature from the more temperate climate of the countryside to the warm and humid air of Marrakesh, was probably the cause of my illness. Coupled with the fact that I was exposed to intermittent rain upon arrival in the evening made things worse.
By the second day of exploring Marrakesh, I started getting fever. I did not feel well at all. You could say that I was lucky in a sense that I fell sick at the end of our trip. But having a temperature and a feeling of malaise really put a dampener on a lot of things. I brought Panadol just in case these things happen during our trip and it helped a lot in controlling my temperature and numbing some of the achy feelings that I had. This general feeling of malaise made it hard for me to really enjoy Marrakesh fully.
We continued our exploration of Marrakesh, visiting the Medinas and the street food that truly became a bustling sight as day turned to night. The open square just outside the Medina was transformed into an outdoor street food market, with a ton of stalls setting up for the evening and touting locals and visitors alike to a wide array of skewered meat and vegetables, seafood, and an array of other snacks.
We also visited their shopping district and urban Centers and even had Chinese cuisine that we encountered by accident while exploring the city. At that moment while walking along their shopping district, it all felt familiar, an urban district you see in any other city. Modern, bustling, and crowded with tourists and locals. It was nice to see international brands that have set up shop in Marrakesh, like Zara and H&M giving it a sense of familiarity.
We had a couple of days in Marrakesh before we had to catch a train to Casablanca. The train ride was pleasant. The journey took just a couple of hours. We hailed a cab upon reaching the train station at Casablanca and headed to our hotel, the same hotel where we started this entire journey. Arriving back at the same hotel was a bittersweet moment for me. It was a reminder of our journey when we first arrive, and also a reminder that our journey is ending. I felt sad for having to leaving Morocco. The country has given us so much more than we initially thought. The memories that we create in this country were simply priceless.
Still, it was time to go. I was still feeling sick, off and on at times, depending if there was still paracetamol coursing through my veins. The medication helped a great deal in getting through the day, but its fading effect can be felt, in regular intervals that served as a reminder to take another dose of the drug before the fever and malaise kicks in again. Perhaps the illness that I had was an illness of the heart? My heart yearned to stay just a little longer in this beautiful country. And now knowing that it was time to leave, I was feeling heartsick.
Things were not all doom and gloom. There were still things to look forward to in London. For me I was most looking forward to seeing my former colleagues who used to work in Singapore. It’s been a couple of years since they left Singapore to go back home to London, and I was excited to see them again over lunch and dinner.
We arrive sometime mid-morning to early afternoon. It was my first time in London. I was fascinated by the London Tube. It was confusing as hell and it took me a while to understand it and navigate London using the Tube. We stayed at an Airbnb just off central London where it was cheaper, in one of the suburbs. It was a pleasant house with extra rooms to spare for us four. There was a small cinema just outside our accommodation which we watched Avengers: Endgame. We were tortured by the need to minimise our exposure to spoilers on social media during our holiday in Morocco, since the movie was released during our holiday there. But when we were in London, we took the earliest available opportunity to watch the movie and be relieved of any accidental spoilers we might have read on social media.
We had only a full day in London and we made the best use of it. We met up with our former colleagues for lunch at Padella, visited the Tates Museum, visited a few famous pubs and had a few rounds of beer. Finally we headed to Din Tai Fung for dinner, capping off with more rounds of beer at a local pub nearby. It was a fantastic day. I was so glad to be reunited with them and to catch up on what was happening with their lives over meals. We were also excited to share our travel stories (which we had several funny ones) in Morocco with them. The entire evening was just full of jest and great conversations. Nobody wanted it to end. At the end of the day, we had to say our goodbyes, with no promise of seeing them anytime soon.
A 12-hour flight awaited us the next morning. We headed to London Heathrow and checked into our Malaysia Airlines flight bound to KL, Malaysia, before taking a connecting flight to Singapore.
Morocco is a country that keeps on giving. Give it time to explore and discover the country and you will be rewarded in spades. Going to Morocco for a holiday was one of the best decisions we as a group has ever made. The people that we met, the food that we tried, the culture that we immersed ourselves in, all culminated in us not simply enjoying our holiday, but also appreciate and understand different cultures and traditions. And that is what travelling is all about. We connect with people from far away lands, and in doing so, we understand each other a little bit better. And with that, you start to realise that it becomes easy to find a common thread in all of us, that everyone in this world is very different, but not so different as to be alien. Morocco certainly has changed me in many ways, broadening our minds, understanding culture that is world’s away, and having a greater appreciation for the kindness and generosity that was bestowed upon us in a foreign land. We are all ambassadors of our own country. Morocco has been a great host to us. No doubt we will do the same for travellers around the world coming to Singapore.
For those who have read my series on my travels in Morocco (all ten parts!), thank you for reading them all. I am by no means a writer, or a travel journalist. I write my travel experiences, because simply put, I love travelling and documenting my travel experiences whichever is most memorable to me. I could write so much more, but I simply chose to write down events that happened during my travels that are most impactful. My experiences during my travels are deeply personal.
With that being said, I have many more pictures that I took that didn’t make the cut while writing all ten parts of my Moroccan adventure. However, you can visit this link to view the entire gallery.
By dawn the next day, we had breakfast buffet at the common tent. It was time to say goodbye to the Sahara desert. The camel rides, sunset by the sand dunes and the bonfire that kept us warm at night in the desert were cherished memories that I definitely brought home with me.
A jeep took us back to the starting point where we arrived yesterday. I was already missing the sand dunes and the night spent in the desert. Seeing the stars, staying warm by the bonfire with all the other guests, and enjoying live berber music. It was such a carefree life. As soon as we reached the starting point, our driver and tour guide, Abdul was waiting for us. Where he slept for the night was a complete mystery. I just hope it wasn’t in the van.
The second, third and fourth day of the desert tour took us to places both man-made and natural. As we visited these places, we slowly made our way back to Marrakesh. I was particularly fascinated by the natural landscapes of morocco. The hills, mountains, ridges, cliffs, gorges and canyons. Not forgetting the oases and the beautifully tended green farmlands and plantations amidst the brutally dry and arid landscape. How such life can survive in such harsh environments is intensely fascinating. Somehow, despite all of that, where rural villages live nearby such oases that support their way of life, I rarely witness any form of environmental exploitation. It felt as if, nature and man lived in complete harmony. That was the impression I got in seeing such beautiful oases.
I remembered seeing a lot of fossil shops in Erfoud. We stopped at a particular shop that sells all kinds of ornaments big and small made from fossils. Apparently the place in and around Erfoud have so many fossils that you can easily find it on the ground. It is so abundant that it is known that the place used to be part of the seabed millions of years ago. Some of the ornaments were beautiful, huge slabs of rocks, carefully cut and sand down to make furniture pieces like dining tables and saucers to small necklaces and paperweights for collection. Although we didn’t buy anything, just seeing the process of making such pieces from stones and rocks containing fossils was fascinating.
Todra and Dades Gorge
I also remembered stopping by at Todra Gorge and Dades Gorge, with its stunning winding road. The Todra gorge is simply a series of limestone river canyon where millions of years of erosion by the river water carved out a steep and deep gorge that can be 160 meters high. Deep and narrow, it looked spectacular when you are at the bottom and narrow end of the gorge, looking up.
The Dades gorges on the other hand holds a small stream of water that cuts through the gorge. We saw many children playing in the water, and villages collecting water from the stream. Remarkably, the water from the stream sprouted out from small fissures at the bottom of the riverbed, most likely from an underground river that wound inside the limestone formations that are flanked on both sides of the gorge. The water is clean and drinkable from the source. No doubt in wetter seasons, the stream will turn into a raging river.
As we made our way to the beautiful gorges, we also stopped to admire and appreciate how Moroccans live in the olden days by visiting the Kasbahs. Simply put, Kasbah can mean a few things. It can mean a keep, an old city or a watchtower. In morocco, the Kasbah is referred to a group of buildings or structures built closely together to resemble a keep. The Kasbah has high walls, usually without windows. They are often easily defended, being built on a hill overlooking the large expanse of land below. Owning a Kasbah back in the old days is a sign of immense wealth for the family living in it and they usually have dominion over the surrounding lands and villages around the Kasbah. In return, the kasbah can serve as a protective fort for the villages living around the kasbah against invaders.
There are a large number of Kasbahs scattered throughout Morocco with varying degrees of upkeep. Some are abandoned and dilapidated, with no one and no money to maintain. Others are still in use, while others still have are still owned by the original families, but have converted their kasbah into a living museum.
We visited two different kasbah along the way back to Marrakesh, as part of the desert tour. Both have been converted into a museum and conserved to allow tourists to explore the compound within the kasbah and learn the way of live of these wealthy Moroccans families who once owned and lived in such buildings.
I learned a great deal about the kasbah. It truly felt like a fort, where you can easily defend against invaders, and when it is situated on top of the hill, you feel a sense of empowerment over the lands below. Though the ones we visited have been hollowed out, they are now simply empty shells, sparsely furnished with a sinking feeling of abandonment. Still, it must have looked and felt glorious back in the days, where the families lived in it with its multitude of servants and private soldiers manning the Kasbahs and protecting the villages nearby.
Another highlight of the desert tour was visiting Ait Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site an popular filming locations for films such as The Mummy, Gladiator, Alexander, Prince of Persia and Son of God to name a few.
As the the ancient fortified village came into view, I immediately recognised the place from all those films that I watched. It was absolutely gorgeous. Add to the fact that it was bright and sunny, just made the entire area shine.
Ait Benhaddou is basically a fortified town along a former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh. It is a collection of ancient buildings and dwellings within a walled compound that makes up Ait Benhaddou. A few families still live within the confines of Ait Benhaddou.
Aside from the Kasbahs oases and Ait Benhaddou, we also visited a number of cooperatives or local industries such as the manufacturing of olive oil, rose oil, cosmetics, handwoven carpets of various materials, cotton, silk, wool. We learned how these things were made and how it supported the local industry. At no time at all, do we felt we were coerced in buying any of their products. These industries and the respective guides to these cooperatives were kind and friendly, taking time to explain how these things were made without being pushy. We appreciate them spending time with us to help us better understand the local Moroccan industry. Because of all these visits, we gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for the country. It all left us feeling hugely positive with great stories to tell back at home to our family and friends.
As we travelled closer and closer to Marrakesh, we stayed at a number of hotels along the way. One was built right at the edge of a cliff face. We had a open foyer right outside our hotel room on the second floor of the hotel and looking up, we saw nothing but a sheer cliffs right above us. I refused to think what would happened to us when there is a rockfall due to an earthquake. We would instantaneously be crushed as we slept in our hotel rooms!
I remember the road to Marrakesh was highly treacherous as we neared the city. I was glad that I wasn’t the one driving for this part of the trip. One main reason for the dangerous roads ahead of us was that the country is improving their major roadways, expanding the roads and making the roads safer. Thus, we could see major road works. We encountered detours, narrow and temporary lanes, some right by the edge of the cliff as well as newly unmarked roads. It was rough, but at the same time, I felt excited that the country is undergoing a renewal and the new roads would ultimately benefit the people.
Despite all of that, the landscape was just jaw dropping.
As we arrive at Marrakesh on the final day of the desert tour, it was time to say goodbye to Abdul. Looking back, Abdul is a super generous and patient man. He took time to explain the culture of Morocco despite difficulties in translating certain concepts to us in English. He was inquisitive about our lives back at home and how we Singaporeans live our lives. We asked about his family and children and whether he enjoyed his job as a driver and tour guide, especially when he had to be away from his wife and children for a major part of his time. We encouraged him to visit Singapore and contact us if he ever made his way there. His reply was, “Inshallah”. He became more than friends at the end of the journey, we were part of his family.
He dropped us at the main train station before heading to our accommodation in Marrakesh. We wanted to buy train tickets for our trip back to Fez, where we would catch our flight back home the following day upon arrival in Fez. We were approaching the end of our adventure in morocco. With a couple of days left in Marrakesh and Fez, we needed to mentally prepare to say goodbye to Morocco.
However, as we stayed in Marrakesh, little did I expect that I would fall ill before our journey could properly end.
It was time to say goodbye to our rental car. Good riddance! While I enjoyed driving for the most parts in Morocco, it was especially stressful when approaching a major city. The chaos, the hustle and bustle, the honking, coupled with the fact that I needed to drive a manual car, all added up to the pressure and stress of trying not to hit anything.
Today, we departed Fez to begin our desert tour. We no longer had to drive. We were being driven. We booked a guided tour from a tour company called Authentic Sahara Tours and booked the 3-day Fez to Marrakech via Merzouga tour. We modified the tour to add an additional night, so that we would have more time to explore the desert areas of Morocco.
It was a private tour with our own private van. Abdul, our tour guide and driver was waiting for us outside the main gate of the entrance to Fez Medina. He was punctual which we appreciate a lot, especially with all our luggage and bags.
Abdul was extremely friendly. Always smiling. Middle age man with a bald head. You can tell from his personality that he is a family person. He spoke a decent amount of English could easily be understood, which was a plus, because as the tour progressed, we were asking him about his life and his job and everything else under the sun. Abdul quickly became our friend and to him, his extended family. He no longer became a tour guide showing the country, but rather a friend showing his overseas friends his beautiful country and his way of life.
Our 4-day desert tour began early in the morning and as soon as we departed from Fez, we were driving past fields, and forests, over hills and rocky terrain. Soon, the famed Atlas Mountain was in full view. It was beautiful. It was spring going summer, and while we could see the mountains capped with snow, by the time we reached marrakech 4 days later, those were largely gone. The seasons were quickly changing.
I remember driving to a town called Ifrane. Touted as the little Switzerland, it is actually home to a ski resort. We were there during spring so there weren’t any snow. But it was strangely cold in Ifrane despite the spring-summer season. The town was beautiful and looked as if you could be in some town in Switzerland. However, we didn’t stay long and had to continue our way to the desert.
By late afternoon, we reached the dunes of Erg Chebbi. It was a long drive. The longest despite being only the first day. This is partly because our overnight desert stay was schedule on the first night of the tour and the drive from Fez to Merzouga was pretty far.
But nonetheless, despite the distance, I was awestruck by the changing landscape. It got drier as we drove deeper into the country. What started out as lush green fields and forests on the coastal areas of Morocco, made way to scraggly, dry, rocky terrain in the country’s interior. The color changes as well from forest green to beige, brown and red. The landscape became raw. But even then, we saw something spectacular. Oases. Oases of varying sizes. It was beautiful. Imagine looking over the horizon, seeing nothing but red, raw earth and suddenly you saw patches of green, filled with lush fields, plantations, and forests in the middle of nowhere. No, it was not an illusion. It was an actual oasis. I have never seen anything like it.
Once we arrived on the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, we were off-loaded including all our stuff on a 4×4 Jeep. We were taken deeper into the desert, where packs of camels roped in a line were waiting for us. I have never sat on a camel before. Everything was new to me. I now know that the camel had to sit before you can actually mount and sit on the camel. Once you are comfortably seated, the camel guide will make the camel stand, first on its hind legs, then on the front. As it attempts to stand up, you get lurched violently to the front, then to the back. I had to hold the handle secured in front of me to prevent myself from falling either to the front of back as the camel tries to stand up.
The hour-long camel ride was exhilarating! The sand dunes were spectacular and the camel ride was one of the most relaxing things I have ever done in Morocco.
During the hour-long ride into the desert on our camels, the Camel guide stopped for a short while to allow us to take photos of the desert, play on the sand dunes and just enjoy the sunset views. Watching the sunset in the desert was truly a magical experience, one that I will never forget.
At the end of the exhilarating camel ride, we reached our desert accommodation. It was a series of luxurious tents with its own bathroom attached to it and a bonfire in the middle of the encampment. We had a sumptuous dinner in the main tent, with about 10 other guests who were staying with us for the night.
Soon after that we sat around the bonfire enjoying the heat of the fire as the desert air grew colder all around us. The hosts of the encampment started playing traditional Berber music for us. We clapped and cheered with them as they played, soaking in the revelry as the night deepened.
If someone were to ask me where the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco would be, it would be Fez.
The city of Fez is old. It is steeped in Moroccan culture and tradition. It’s Médina has a long and rich history and is doing a pretty good job in resisting the march of modernity. I hardly see any modern looking building or architecture within the Médina. Its never ending alleyways snaking through the Médina most probably looked the way it is today, as it was a hundred years ago.
We approached Fez, three or so hours later from Chefchaouen. Enroute to Fez, we were traveling to the deeper regions of Morocco. The lush green landscapes that we encountered near the coastal cities, were slowly giving way to less vegetation, more shrubs, and grassland. The overall landscape was definitely getting drier.
Towns were smaller, making way for remote villages. Farmlands were less plentiful, as were the people we encountered. It was definitely more rural. The road, less well maintained and at times treacherous. On one long stretch of a road towards Fez, the road was riddled with potholes filled with water and mud, most probably from yesterday’s downpour.
The Medina of Fez was founded in the 9th century. It is walled in and is home to the oldest university in the world, the University of Al Quaraouiyine. The Medina is also a UNESCO, World Heritage Site and used to be the capital of Morocco before transferring to Rabat in the early 20th century.
The walled exterior was obvious the moment we reached the periphery of the Medina. The Medina is home to numerous craftsmen and that have been plying their trade for generations and now consists of thousands if not tens of thousands of stalls selling all manner of things the traditional moroccan way, anything from woodworking, to textiles, carpets, metalworking, tanneries and many more.
We entered Fez by the southern part of the city. Our hotel accommodation was Riad Fez Aicha, near Place R’cif, one of the main entrances to the Medina with a large public square. The riad that we stayed had a beautiful interior courtyard, traditionally designed and preserved. The owner of the hotel spoke really good English and was extremely friendly. As soon as we were shown to our room, he suggested a guided tour of the Medina the following day.
I had been contemplating of such a tour of the Medina. So far, our exploration in the various Medina of various cities in Morocco were unguided. So while we may appreciate the beauty of the place, we were still largely ignorant of the historical aspects of the Medina. Since Fez is such an ancient city, I decided to go ahead and hire a local guide to show us around the Medina and hopefully learn more about the history behind it. I was pretty confident that we would appreciate a lot more about the Medina if we understand its history.
We were right. It was one of the best decision I have made on this trip. The Medina had in fact a really a rich history. A middle age woman was waiting for us at the hotel the following morning and introduced to us as the local guide for the day. For more than four hours, we walked inside the Medina, marveling at the history behind Fez. Our local guide was very thorough in explaining the history, its previous inhabitants and important historical buildings and places that make Fez Medina unique. Throughout the walk, we learnt about how the Medina was founded, how it grew, important people and places in the Medina, including places of worship, even the architecture of certain buildings and its defining features. It was literally Medina 101.
My favorite part of the Medina, and widely reported online as the must-see places, is of course, the Chouara Tannery. It’s extremely smelly. You know you have reached the tannery if you start to pick up the pungent smell in the air. It is where animal skins are processed, dyed, and dried in the sun before using it to make various leather products the traditional way. We saw large vats of murky, water, the colour of mud and of other hues in gray, red, and orange. Several dyes of various colours with the leather being soaked as part of the dyeing process were done by so many laborers. It was the first time I ever witness people working in the tannery and it was really a backbreaking form of labor. While tourists are not allowed on the actual grounds of the tannery, we get to see the whole thing in action up on the balconies of various buildings surrounding the tannery. These buildings also serve as stalls selling various kinds of leather and leather products from wallets to bags to shoes.
University of Al Quaraouiyine and various madrasahs
The tannery was an eye opening experience for me. Another attraction in the Medina that I was really interested in was definitely the University of Al Quaraouiyine. It is the world’s oldest university, having founded in 859. The university is attached to a mosque and most of the compound is off limits to non-Muslims. However, as a Muslim, I was able to enter and admire the intricate architecture, tile works on the walls of the compound and various artworks throughout the area. I felt really privileged to be given the opportunity to explore and witness such a deeply historical place.
The Marinid Tombs is another part of Fez that I will remember dearly. At first glance, it doesn’t look much. Just a single dilapidated monumental tomb that has been in ruins in the middle of an open field. But once you walk there, you will immediately understand why this place is such a popular tourist attraction.
Set outside the walls of the Fez Medina, on top of a hill, this place serves as a popular lookout point over the historic city of Fez. I was immediately stunned by the significance of this place. When we reached the place, we were rewarded with an amazing view of the entire city of Fez. You can clearly make out the various gates and main entrances of the Medina, the Minarets of various mosques and the unique and historic architecture that is housed from within.
I remembered walking quite a distance from our hotel, navigating through the Medina to find the appropriate exit to reach the Marinid Tombs. We got lost many times within the Medina, often encountering dead ends. We had to backtrack many times and navigating the alleyways is not easy, especially when data connection needed for Google Maps navigation is spotty.
But the trip was worth it. We managed to reach just in time with a couple hours of daylight to spare to soak in the atmosphere and the beautiful city before us. Just like Chefchaouen, Fez has an incredible lookout point that is the Marinid Tombs. This is one place that everyone must at least visit when anyone visits Fez.