Morocco 2017: Monkeys, a White Horse and a Kasbah – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text and additional photos.  

My travels have taken me through Italy, Turkey and Spain. In 2017 I hit the top of my bucket list with a belated birthday gift to myself – a guided trip to Morocco. Today’s experiences include monkeys in the Forest of Cedars, and a kasbah.

After a final fabulous breakfast in Fez, we pack the van and hit the road. It’s going to be a long day (340 miles) but there will be a lot to see. Doug says there’s snow in the mountains but the roads will probably be clear.  At least he hopes they will be clear… he relates a story about his previous trip, where he made it over the pass just before the road closed. The couple in the car behind him were not so lucky, and were stranded for a week, waiting for the pass to reopen.

There’s fog hanging over the orchards, appearing to rest on the netting designed to keep the birds away from the stone fruit. There are bottles of olive oil atop wooden boxes at makeshift stands, every 50 feet or so along this stretch of road.  I rarely see people attending these roadside stands, the honor system must be pretty strong here.

We climb into the Middle Atlas Mountains and reach Azrou, in the heart of the Forest of Cedars. Doug tells us to start watching for monkeys, and no sooner does he say the word “monkey” than we start seeing them come down out of the trees. We pull over and park, and are soon surrounded.

Mark Charteris in the white shirt, Mohamed (our driver) in red pants, and Doug Baum in the cowboy hat at far right.

These are macaques (Barbary Apes) – indigenous to the mountain forests of Morocco and Algeria, and with only a few thousand left in the wild. They are twice the size I was expecting, and docile, except for the Leader of the Pack, which the locals point to, with a warning to keep clear. A young guide comes up to me with a handful of broken up crackers, and motions to me to hold out my hand and wait for the monkey to come to me.

He snaps a few photos and then leads me to his horse – a beautiful white creature with an ornate saddle that is standing next to a boulder, a convenient aid for mounting.  The guide again says “photo” and I climb up onto the horse.  He snaps a few more shots, and then unexpectedly grabs the reins, and starts to lead the horse into the forest.

“Oh…. NO… !”

I frantically protest, but he he continues down the path towards the forest. I twist around in the saddle and start waving and yelling to try to get Doug’s attention.  After several more yards of frantic thrashing and yelling, I impress upon the guide that I’m with a group and I MUST GO BACK.  He slowly turns the horse around, and Doug arrives as I dismount.

“Please find out how much that escapade just cost me, I’ll be back with my wallet.” By the time I get back, Doug has negotiated the price down from 300 dirhams ($30) to about 70 dirhams ($7). I give the guide an extra 20 dirham, which puts things right and everyone walks away happy.  

And now I know what “photo” actually means…

I wander around for a few more minutes, picking thick metal spangles out of the dirt that have dislodged themselves from the saddle. I contemplate visiting the merchant’s row but decide I shouldn’t tempt fate again today.

We take a 45 minute detour in search of a tree that we had been told was the source of aspirin. Mark is a doctor, so it’s pretty important to him. We drive up a rocky road and find a tree in the center of a clearing. There are signs all over the place in French, and a placard on the tree itself. The tree is about 800 years old, thought to be the oldest tree in the Atlas Mountains.  It is very tall. It is very dead. And it is not where aspirin comes from.  

Back onto the highway, we reach Ifrane, also known as Little Bavaria or Little Switzerland.  It was built as a summer resort in 1929 by the French; the cream-colored buildings with their sharply gabled red tile roofs make the town look more like Europe than Morocco. Although Moroccans come here in the summer to escape the heat, it’s also a popular ski resort in the winter. There’s a large stone lion on the main drag, surrounded by tourists, I presume another memorial to the wild lions that once roamed the countryside. I’m sad that I couldn’t grab a photo of it.

Beyond the city, we continue past cherry and plum orchards in bloom, and something that looks like ponderosa pine.  There’s an apple orchard, some goats, and a flock of sheep with red faces. Off in the distance I see a conical tent set into a stone wall.  Here are pomegranate trees, and stone walls made from volcanic rock.  Doug points out Ephreda bushes, a common desert plant useful as fire starter.  The landscape starts to shift, and there are red striated outcroppings that Doug describes as uplift from the teutonic plate activity in this area. We drive through several hours of increasingly rugged landscape.

We stop for lunch in Midelt, the City of Apples – a gigantic red apple sculpture at the edge of town tells us so! At the Restaurant Diafa, most of our group orders pizza, while I welcome a salad, one of only two or three that I will find in this country. The corner of the restaurant is curtained off as a prayer room, where men and women take turns behind the curtain for a few minutes of midday prayer.  As we depart, we are barraged by men wanting to sell us fossils.  Morocco was once a sea bed, so ammonites and other fossilized sea life are a pretty big business here. 

Back in the car, we pass juniper trees, and roadside honey stands. As we pass a lake, we are pulled over for the second time today at a security checkpoint. We’re told the ticket is 800 dirham, but the officer will lower the ticket to 500 dirham if we pay it on the spot.  They accept the 100 dirham that Mohamed has in his pocket, and we are back on the road.  We’re starting to think that checkpoint patrols are a pretty lucrative line of work here. 

Well after dark, we reach Mergouza, and the Kasbah Mohayut.  

My. Oh. My. Even in the dark, this mud brick oasis on the edge of the desert is very beautiful, and I cannot wait to explore it in the daylight.  I find my room at the far end of the kasbah, and walk through a modest door under a plaster and stone archway, and into a space with a ceiling of reed and beam, and a carved stone sink, in a space that I swear is bigger than my entire apartment.

I am thankful for the directional signs that prevent me from losing my way back to the restaurant for dinner. Tonight’s meal consists of two meat tagines and a plate of couscous topped with grilled eggplant, which we share as a group.  I’m exhausted and not very hungry and try to leave the table early, but the waiter would have none of that until he had served tea and dessert – a lemon-bar pastry with a torched marshmallow cream topping.  It is very dense and flavorful, and I am glad the waiter was so insistent.

Mark and Catherine’s room, photo courtesy of Mark Charteris.

I wake early the next morning to see the sunrise and to explore this wonderful kasbah. I would tread up and down stairs, and admire a camel spitter at poolside, and photograph doors that would eventually inspire one of my hats. After wandering around the roof and the courtyard, I follow the signs for the restaurant and am the first to arrive for breakfast.  

The buffet offers whatever you want to eat – as long as it is some form of bread!  There’s chorizo soaked in honey, and little chocolate stardrop cookies, hard rolls, soft breads, and deep fried chickpeas rolled in sesame seeds. Hard boiled eggs, cheese wedges and two styles of peanuts offer some protein.  The mint tea here is not as syrupy-sweet as what we had been served up to this point, and is poured into glasses that each have a fresh sprig of mint. I drink several helpings out of an ornate tea glass. 

I wish I could capture the sounds and smells of this place, as I sit at the edge of one of the fountain courtyards, tea in hand, incense wafting over me… above my head an iron chandelier, with palms and birds… waitstaff wearing the blue and gold caftan that the men wear here, smiling at me as they light incense in the four corners of the courtyard.

It is very, very hard to leave. But leave we must.  The Red Dunes await … 

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