On a recent press tour of Morocco, a country of 32.2 million souls on the northwestern coast of Africa, I became known as an easy touch with a $20 bill.
There was, for example, the maintenance guy at the Kasbah Hotel Chergui in the city of Erfoud, who showed me how to hook up and use my power adapter. (Morocco mainly uses the Europlug.) I was so happy to have this figured out, I gave him $20.
Then there was the kid outside the town’s Café Restaurant Tamounte, who was selling necklaces made of fossilized black marble, which is abundant in the area. I gave him a Jackson, too.
I considered these double-sawbucks to be my contributions to Morocco’s “economic development.” My traveling companions, on the other hand, considered them proof that I was soft-headed.
Erfoud, unlike Casablanca or Marrakech, is a place you’ve probably never heard of. It’s a small, dusty town in eastern Morocco—a one-time outpost of the French Foreign Legion, located not far from the Algerian border. While it’s probably best-known as a jumping-off point for visits to the Sahara sand dunes at Merzouga—that’s why we were there, too—Erfoud was also where our traveling party had one of the best meals we experienced during a week in Morocco, at the aforementioned little Café Tamounte.
Ushered upstairs to a private dining room, where the windows were open to let in the stirrings of an afternoon breeze, we were served more like kings and queens than ink-stained reporters. After our glasses were filled with Morocco’s trademark hot, sweetened tea, we enjoyed a starter dish consisting of fresh lettuce, eggs, rice, carrots and beets. Then came a plate of delicious beef and chicken kabobs, followed by a tasty seffa-rice dessert that included cinnamon, almonds, and raisins.
The meal and the room had been so pleasant, hardly any of us wanted to leave. Then, though, the excitement of our promised excursion to the desert kicked in, with the arrival of our guide, Hussein, and our driver, Laarbi. Hussein and Laarbi transferred us to a couple of 4X4s—late-model Toyota Land Cruiser Prados—for the drive to Merzouga and the Erg Chebbi dunes, the highest in Morocco. There, it was explained, we would ride camels out into the Sahara and watch the sunset, then return to our “upscale desert encampment” to eat dinner and spend the night.
This leg of our Moroccan journey, which was arranged by luxury-travel outfitter Abercrombie & Kent, could not have been more fun or fascinating. After we left Erfoud in the Prados and drove on a paved highway for 12 miles, past black-marble quarries and, yes, grazing camels, the highway ended abruptly and we began bouncing across hard, unpaved dirt and sand. The two Prado drivers from Abercrombie & Kent raced each other, expertly down-shifting through the occasional stretch of heavy sand. After some 23 miles of this four-wheeling adventure, we came upon our private encampment.
Imagine mile after mile of tall rippling sand dunes, then half a dozen huge tents set up in the flatland in the middle of nowhere. These weren’t just any old Boy Scout tents, either, but sturdy, spacious “Caidale” tents in light warm colors. They were outfitted with beautiful bright rugs and large comfortable beds with crisp white sheets and an adjacent “bathroom tent,” each with its own hot-water shower, sink, and toilet.
After stowing our luggage and freshening up in our private tents, a string of camels suddenly appeared, each sitting on the ground so that we could mount them. Following the advice of our guides, each of us wrapped an oversized scarf around our head, Lawrence of Arabia-style, before making for the lineup of double-humped dromedaries.
So, how does one ride a camel? You gingerly climb aboard and grasp a big, wooden saddle-type structure, and the beast rises up, more clumsily—and much higher!—than you expect. With all aboard now, we lumbered off across the desert, plodding along at a snail’s pace until reaching a good spot to dismount and watch the sun sink behind the dunes. The sky lit up, in brilliant pinkish hues, and then we climbed back aboard the beasts and slowly retraced our way to camp in the twilight.
There, the help had set out dozens of lantern lights, magically illuminating our row of tents. After a wonderful meal of cous cous and tagine—a traditional sort of slow-cooked Moroccan stew—most of us were ready to turn in for the night. Like a few of the others, I dragged my bed outside the tent in order to sleep under the ink-black sky. It was filled with more stars than I’d seen in years, and the coolish night was pin-drop quiet. The only sound came around 2 or 3, when you could hear what sounded like dogs barking way off in the distance.
Following breakfast the next morning—hot coffee, plus different varieties of bread with jam and “amlou,” a dip made with toasted almonds, argan oil, and honey—a group of desert nomads abruptly materialized from out of nowhere, perhaps 50 yards from our tents. They were of Berber heritage, our guides explained—an indigenous roaming ethnic people who’ve lived in North Africa for thousands of years, since long before the Arabs arrived.
And they were here to sell things to the tourists. There were perhaps a dozen of them, mostly women and children, crouched on the ground with items like scarves and bracelets and pots and little sculpted camels set out on blankets before them.
Before leaving the encampment for Marrakesh, the next stop on our journey, I spied a black, rhinestoned scarf I thought my wife would like. Naturally, I gave them $20 for it.
This trip was provided by the HL Group on behalf of the kingdom of Morocco.