Wednesday, 12 June 2013



I have mentioned many times and I hope it is obvious, that this blog [as is our Andalusia Detours blog] is rather more about Morocco itself, than Desert Detours.

Of course I would like to think that should you be considering a trip to Morocco and want something more than just a guided "set-piece" you would look at joining one of our 5 tour routes, but Hey-Hoe!

Many who do read my ramblings have already been on tour with us or have contacted for advice, others we have met during our travels.  One such couple sent the following email that I received just as I sat down to bash out this month's effort ........ I know they will not mind so here's a part.

I just wanted to thank you for keeping us on your mailing list.  Our friends in Ribat-El-Kier are no longer in Morocco so it is unlikely that we will return again.  It was though a fantastic experience visiting them in the Atlas Mountains.  It was one of the most colorful of our experiences whilst travelling Europe since retirement and we can understand why you love it so much.  I hope that love never fades.  Sometimes when you have to do something for a living, rather than for sheer delight, the pleasure gradually fades.

I think it is an excellent idea running the Andalusia tours as well.  Some of the greatest splendors of Moorish architecture are to be found in Southern Spain and they seem generally better cared for than in Morocco where they are accepted as part of everyday life.  In general too, those we found in Morocco are more recent - except of course Volubillis.  Really, we just wanted to thank you for keeping us on your blog list.  I always look through them and they are written with so much enthusiasm and knowledge.  The style is easy and enjoyable to read and you recall so many memories for us as we read them.  Thank you.  

Off now to prepare the chicken tagine you mention for lunch.  Keep travelling happily yourselves and opening the eyes of your clients to such a vibrant, colorful and different culture.  Best wishes, Jill and Ian.


Returning clients are not unusual with Desert Detours.  In fact at around 39% we probably have one of the highest re-booking frequencies in the business...... Mind you, you can choose from 5 different routes over 12 dates.

But there is one couple who deserve a special mention, not just for the assistance and information they pass onto those interested in Morocco via the various Motorhome Forums but also for the number of Moroccan tours they have done with Desert Detours.  When they join us on the all new AMAZIGH SAFARI in September they will have returned with us on SIX trips!  AND they have also booked onto one of our new Andalusia Detours tour.  That makes Dave and Val Aspden practically staff members.  Look forward to seeing them both again soon.


Way back, during my very first visits to Morocco, I heard and read about the magnificent Atlas Lions that not so long ago roamed freely in the Atlas Mountains and Great Cedar Forest of Morocco.  Since then I have been fascinated by their story and style, so I was particularly pleased and interested to find that........

The larger cousin of Southern Africa's plains lions the Barbary Lions were slaughtered en-mass in the staged fights with gladiators in order to demonstrate the superiority of humans over nature.  This alone depleted their numbers at an alarming and unsustainable rate.  The chapter on this magnificent creature was finally written when the last free and wild individual was shot by a French hunter in 1922.

But, currently there are a number of individuals in captivity that are claimed to be Barbary Lions.  Wildlink International has identified a handful of lions in captivity around the world that may be descended from the original Barbary Lion.  These descendants have been tested against the DNA fingerprint and the degree of any hybridization [from cross breeding] has been determined.  The best candidates will now enter a selective breeding programme selected to "Breed back" the Barbary Lion.  It is envisaged that the final phase of this delicate and ambitious project will see the lions released into a National Park in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Already two alleged Barbary Lion cubs have been moved to "The Texas Zoo" in Victoria, Texas, where efforts are being made to preserve the endangered species under the Wildlink International conservation programme.

Now the news gets even better....... Now I hear that the recently renovated Rabat Zoo in Morocco claims to have bred three new Barbary lion cubs, Layth, Rose and Rosa.

The complicated and interesting background being that Moroccan Sultan Mohammed V, grandfather to the current King, had a private collection of lions.  These were gifts of allegiance from nobles and peasant hunters.  In 1953, when Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Youssef [later King Mohammed V] was forced to abdicate and went into exile, the royal lions [21 in total] also lost their home at the palace.  Three of these were moved to a Zoo in Casablanca, while the remainder was sent to Meknes. The Sultan returned to the palace in 1955 and the Meknes lions followed soon after, but the three lions sent to Casablanca never returned.  Then in the late 1960's a respiratory disease swept through the lion enclosure, at which point King Hassan II decided to build a new home for them in Temara.  It is this space that eventually evolved into today's Rabat Zoo, which has since undergone another massive restructuring.

Using ex-situ breeding methods, the zoo reportedly used the genetic material from these animals to build up a captive population of 30 individuals, including Layth, Rose and Rosa, who were born in December 2011.  "These cubs are the direct descendants of the Atlas Lions, because like most of the cubs and lions here, they are pure breed ..... they are not mixed" said Abdul Rahim Salhi, head of operations at the Zoo.

Albeit still quite new, the zoo has received very positive ratings, setting it apart from the like of those say in Egypt/Tunisia. Designed in the spirit of recovering the five major ecosystems of Morocco and the African continent, the Zoological Gardens of Rabat depicts the fauna and flora that live in swamps, Savannah  rain forest, desert and the Atlas Mountains, including what is believed to be the Barbary lion.

Layth, Rose and Rosa, the zoo's pride and joy, are constantly monitored by veterinary specialists and are doing incredibly well.

Only one small, but very important point ....... Desert Detours regularly visit and "Wild/Wilderness camp" in both the Great Cedar Forest and Atlas Mountains on a number of our tours....... In fact as I write this blog entry our "Discovery Tour" has been camping in that area for the last three nights ....... GROWL!!!!!


In most issues of this blog, I try and include a simple/traditional recipe...... This time, for a change, I have listed just a few of the most common dishes you are likely to come across during a visit to Morocco if you venture into the alleys, Medina and byways of the great and not so great cities, towns and villages. 

Indeed as you cruse your way around Morocco and enter villages, you will invariably see and smell, thick wafts of charcoal smoke rising from stoves and cauldrons by the side of the road ......... the glowing embers encouraged by the energetic cardboard fans in the one hand of a "master cook", while frantically beckoning you with the other.  

Traditionally known by the indigenous population as "Public's" these eating places offer much more than just an exceptional culinary experience..... Take a good look around and venture beyond the rows of dangling meat carcasses and pass the vegetable and fruit stands, piled high with fresh produce.  Ignore the stalls selling their imported "Chino" plastic rubbish and perhaps the solo "independent" manning a rickety barrow stacked with dusty Mars, Snicker and Kit-Kat bars nestling between the mountains of fly attracting nougat slabs.  Instead look and you'll likely find the wild honey and local olive oil sellers, peddling their crop in battered re-cycled plastic containers.

Street and public food outlets also offer a great opportunity to connect with the Moroccans as breakfast and lunch does tend to draw an interesting mix of Arab and Berber cultures while in the evening it is not unusual to see whole families sitting down for a substantial .... and cheap ..... meal.  And there is every chance that after a week or so in Morocco you will be well and truly in need of a Tagine break .......

Crusty bread [khobz] is baked in communal wood-fire ovens and is a Moroccan staple.  One or two loaves will be served alongside whatever dish you order.  You may also see an array of pan/griddle-fried loaves.  In particular look out for spongy crumpets bread called Beghrir. Harsha is a butter bread, made of fine semolina while Rghaif is a crumbly layered flat bread.  Any of these are excellent spread with local cheese, honey, or one of the many jams.  Pancakes are also common, taken plain or as required.  Expect to pay around 2-10 dirham depending on the topping. 

A hugh bowl of thick fava bean soup, soaked up with the abundant Khobz, is a common workers breakfast costing around 5-10 dirham.  You may also find this served later in the day, say for lunch, slightly changed to include an infusion of lemon/garlic/olive oil....sprinkled with cumin and perhaps chili powder [to choice].

At the wafting clouds of smoke previously mentioned and you'll find all sorts of mini-kebabs cooking over charcoal.  These will be skewers loaded with chicken, beef, lamb or whatever rubbed with salt and spices mix.  Kefta is a spicy flavored ground lamb or beef mix and is formed around a skewer then charcoal grilled.  Brochettes are generally served with khobz, harissa [a red pepper sauce], chopped onion and small dishes of cumin and salt ...... all for around 35-45 dirham.

Spicy Sardines
Morocco is the world's largest exporter of sardines, making these little fish a street food staple.  Sardines are often stuffed with a spicy chermoula paste made of tomato, coriander, chili, garlic, paprika, cumin, olive oil and lemon juice.  They're coated in a light batter, fried until crisp and often served with a fried green chili.  Sold by weight you need to ask but expect to pay around 15 dirham.

With plenty of fresh, organic produce available expect a variety of succulent and imaginative fritters to be available.  My favorite is sliced aubergine dipped in a sweet smoked paprika batter then deep fried or just fried and dipped with fresh honey..... often served with spicy lubia [white haricot beans strewed in tomatoes, cumin, paprika, garlic and ginger] or fresh salad................ Mmmmmmmmmm

All other bits
Moroccan's are big on nose-to-tail eaters so that you can dine on anything from liver, kidneys, tongue, etc.  Take these much in the way of skewered kebabs. Perhaps you are feeling a little more adventurous?  Then you can sample the whole thing ..... udders, tripe even feet/hooves.

Then there's the Moroccan version of wienerschnitzel smooth and buttery calves livers, crumbed and fried.  And if that was not enough variety try steamed sheep head..... This delicacy is usually eaten for breakfast after a home slaughter during the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha [Feast of the Sacrifice].  In the souk, sheep heads are steamed for about five hours and ready by lunchtime and sold as a half for say 15-30 dirham that's with or without eyes, although the brains are sold separately at another stall.  To eat a head, wait for the vendor to scrape off the fur.  Then sprinkle it with cumin, salt and chili, and scrape out the tender cheek meat and tongue.  Still with me ............ ?

Snail Soup is supposed to be quite nice.  First you pluck the snails from their shells with a toothpick before slurping the soup.  The snails have an earthy flavor, a bit like shitake mushrooms...... Flavored with a concoction of around 15 different spices.  Moroccan's believe the broth is good for digestion and fever, so some drink it without snails.  Stalls selling steaming vats of snail soup are popular across the country.  A bowl costs between 5-10 dirham.

Stuffed camel spleen [known as Tehal], yes.... you heard me right!  Stuffed with ground beef, lamb or camel meat, olives, spices and a little bit of hump fat, the spleen is sent off to be baked in a communal bread oven.  It's sliced, griddled and served up in a sandwich with a texture that is soft and creamy, like liver, and tastes gamey ........ Right, I think we will leave it there..............

HUFF AND PUFF............

"If you try to grow other crops here they will fail," says Ahmed, surrounded by lush green fields of cannabis, the illegal plant he and thousands of other poor farmers in Morocco's Rif Mountains depend on…………but he would say that wouldn't he!

Not the biggest but perhaps Morocco’s most notorious export has been cultivated in the traditionally rebellious northern region for centuries, where the climate and altitude for growing cannabis, or "kif", is considered ideal.

Along the stunning valley that runs between the towns of Taounate and Issaguen, women work in the fields tending this year's emerging crop, while young dealers ply the 70-kilometer (43-mile) road in their cars looking for customers.

But after a massive bust in Spain this month, the attention of European drug agencies is likely to focus again on the continent's main source of hashish and on Moroccan efforts to stem the supply. Spanish police found 32 tonnes of the drug in a truck carrying melons from Morocco at the end of April, and in May the same force discovered 52 tonnes at a warehouse in the southern Spanish city of Cordoba, setting a European record.

Also in April, Egypt said more than 20 tonnes of hashish from Morocco were found aboard a ship in the Mediterranean which a gang of Egyptians and Syrians had been trying to smuggle into the country.
Morocco's interior ministry insists it has spent heavily on tightening border controls and combating trafficking, while deploying "enormous human and material resources" to eliminating cannabis cultivation…….but its continued importance as a top hashish exporter is not in doubt, despite Rabat's efforts to encourage farmers to diversify.

But on the Taounate-Issaguen road there are few signs other sources of livelihood are emerging, and Ahmed, the 55-year-old farmer, dismisses talk about the government pushing the region's farming community to quit the habit. "There is no pressure on us to change. Kif is the only crop that can support my family, even though it's not enough, because at the end of the year we need credit," explains Ahamed, the father of eight, who says he earns just 40,000 dirhams [3,600 euros] per year.

According to figures cited by the interior ministry, an estimated 90,000 households, or 760,000 Moroccans, depend on kif production, which is concentrated in the northern regions of Al-Hoceima, Chefchaouen and Ouazzane.

Aberrahmane Hamoudani, 64, a former mayor of Issaguen, or Ketama as it used to be known, is an ardent advocate of cannabis cultivation in the Rif, which he believes dates back to the time of the Phoenicians, who brought the seeds from the east …… "Kif doesn't kill you, but hunger does," he quips. "Ketama used to be a hippie Mecca," he says, as he takes a sniff of kif-enhanced snuff.

Authorized by the Spanish, who ruled northern Morocco as a protectorate from 1912, the crop remained legal until the 1970's. So is the current situation all that surprising?  Since it was banned, efforts have been made to introduce alternative forms of agriculture around Issaguen, including tending to livestock such as cows and goats from Europe. But farmers insist there is not enough grass for livestock, and that it is too cold to grow other crops. And there is little by way of “tourist infrastructure”  around Ketama, despite its spectacular scenery, snow-capped peaks and famous local product.

Ahamid says cannabis farming is basically tolerated here "as long as things go smoothly," but if there's a big bust, for example in Casablanca, "then they send in the police. It is still here because it is a part of the culture of the people of the mountains. The farmers were born with kif. Their parents and grandparents grew it, as they have done for centuries."………..

So how does this effect ourselves,  Motorhome/Caravan travellers?

Frankly not all…….Firstly perhaps, and it should be said that very few of us venture into the Riff proper and even if you do, except for the odd [very odd, as in strange] roadside trader you will in reality have little or no contact with the “trade”.

Secondly we at Desert Detours insist that you buy your Kif supply directly and only from ourselves………THAT WAS A JOKE!!!!!

We, Desert Detours, run two tour routes that take in the spectacular Riff Mountains and beyond, these being our "Discovery" and our newly introduced "Amazigh Safari" tours.  On these tours we use remote and informal camping locations and other than visually we have little or no contact.  Having said that........ Only joking!!!!!!!


She may be one of Morocco's most popular legends, but to many villagers in the northern mountains she is anything but a myth.

If you're visiting Morocco, particularly the north, you just might hear someone talking about Aisha Kandisha, "The Devil Temptress." Although her name doesn't sound particularly threatening, this beautiful, nocturnal succubus is said to have been luring local men to their death for years. That is, of course, after she drives them mad with lust.

It’s mostly in the Riff Mountain region, to the northeast of Morocco, where people most often report seeing the strange figure of a woman wandering along empty roads or lingering in secluded mountains passes at night. A beautiful enchantress, or Jiniya (she-devil), Aisha is said to have hoofed feet like a goat and is reported to wear a sparkling white veil draped over fiery red hair. Those who have encountered her are reportedly driven mad and are later found aimlessly roaming the countryside or indeed, never found at all. To remedy the effects of her attacks, locals perform “hadras”, a ritual trance ceremony combined with protective spells.

There is of course much debate over where Aisha came from, but little doubt that this and the many other such like legends are all too sincere and form a very tangible part of Moroccan culture and belief.

Indeed…….Every year on the anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed’s birth, the ‘Eid al-Mawlid, thousands of Moroccans take part in pilgrimages to sacred places: saintly tombs, shrines and grottos, and places frequented by “Junuun” [Jinn], those non-human beings talked about in the Qur’an and who hold a special place in Moroccan folklore and popular culture.

He created man of clay like the potter's,
And the Jinn did He create of smokeless fire.
Which is it, of the favors of your Lord, that ye deny?

The Qur'an….. 55:14-15

Annually thousands of pilgrims descend upon Sidi Ali, just a short drive from Meknes or Moulay Idriss, to commemorate Sidi Ali ben Hamdush in search of the supernatural, the trance, the aura of the Junuun, to experience the ritual bath at the spring of Aïsha Kandisha, where she is said to dwell in rivers and underground water sources.

During the week of the pilgrimage tents and stalls line the streets of the small town.  The smell of tea and grilled meat mixes with those of live sheep awaiting slaughter and the sweet incense used in ritual offerings.  Music fills the foggy mountain air as impromptu street performances take place in every corner.  Families gather around the musicians playing anything from Ahidous native to the Atlas Mountains to Sufi music in the Hamadshi or Gnawa traditions.  Then as midnight nears a movement begins making its way to the spring of Aisha Kandisha.

Along the road leading to Aisha's grotto, one finds everything they need for the ritual: incense and candles, spices and milk, dried lizards, to be cut in three and burned, as well as lead used for various magical practices.

The spring of Aisha nestles in the side of the mountain.  A flat surfaced rock is bejeweled with burning candles, incense and other offerings are scattered and charred before pilgrims make their way down a few slippery steps to the spring where small stalls are used as showers and where pilgrims wash with the spring waters and say a prayer...... The chill waters of 'Ain Aisha' flow through a sharp fracture revealed by a few uplifted rocks.

Light-headed but calm from the sweet smell of incense, and acquainted with Aisha, it then becomes trance-time.  By the time the Gnawis began their lailat, the rhythmic evening incantation that brings spirits and humans together in remembrance of God, the population of Sidi Ali will have grown drastically.  In garages, tents and apartment buildings all over the town, the sound of the gambri accompanied by metal castanets echoed as the chant of the gnawis rise in unison.

Slowly spectators are brought into the ritual, dancing, swaying and being offered breaths of incense until some crept into a trance.  The kind of bodily involvement in the trance inspired by "Gnawa" is by far the most intense were women and men in trance rock their heads and sway in sporadic, yet rhythmic motions.

At a moment in one of the Laila, an older man rolled up his pants and sleeves, revealing scars from the previous nights.  Taking deep breaths of incense and calling back and forth in prayer with the "gnawi", he readies himself for the knife.  As the gnawa musicians picked up the pace, he begun rhythmically cutting himself on the arms, the lips, the neck and sides.... now the hajj was only just warming up; before long other participants in the Laila were passing bundles of lit candles up and down their skin.

The experience of the Laila is without question unlike anything you will have ever seen before, however, it strikes familiar cords.  Participants with the mystics during the pilgrimage of Sidi Ahmed ben Hamdush is very much like all mystic experiences: it requires initiation and a degree of belief.  For the outsider, the sweet smell of incense and the rhythmic clapping of castanets and chanting of the Gnawi form an experience that flows between the spiritual and the sensor..... between mere curiosity and more esoteric meanderings .............. and beyond.

Although hardly advertised the pilgrimage of Sidi Ali ben Hamdush is known to most Moroccans. As solo foreigners venturing into Morocco or even passing close by you would probably not of known about it or even gone there………….Yes, perhaps yet another reason for joining one of Desert Detour trips!


Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco it seems can do no wrong, yet again topping the polls as the best dressed at Royal gatherings.  Once more storming to success in two of Hello Online's best dressed polls, following her recent appearance at Dutch King Willem-Alexander's inauguration.

The night before official proceedings began for Willem-Alexander and his wife Maxima, Lalla Salma, 35 stepped out with her fellow royals at Amsterdam's famous Rijksmuseum for the state dinner in a cream Moroccan caftan.  Lalla Salma's jewel encrusted caftan, glittering tiara and earrings earned her 38% of the vote.  The following day Princess Lalla Salma looked simply stunning as the Netherlands welcomed its first king for more than 120 years.

Lalla Salma's outfit was another hit with Hello Online readers scooping 45% of votes.  Mother of two Lalla Salma turned heads in a heavily embellished green caftan and towering gold heels.  Floral detailing on the front of the caftan matched the Moroccan princess flame red curls, which she wore in a pony tail.

Perhaps now we should take a closer look at this particular clothing style and its growing influence on "western dress".

To start, the Kaftan is to be distinguished from the Djellaba.  The latter is traditionally recognized for featuring a hood, whereas the former does not.  The Kaftan is basically a hood-less Djellaba.  As it is commonly worn on special occasions, the Kaftan tends to be far more elaborate and intricate in its designs than the Djellaba.  This however should not undermine the uniqueness of the Moroccan Djellaba, which has also gained a new air of modernity by many contemporary fashion designers.  Hence both the Kaftan and the Djellaba are now almost at the same scale of sophistication and modernity and both Moroccan dresses might sometimes look almost the same in terms of form and constituents.  However, the Takchita is distinctive as it comes in a double layered design: a dress blanketed by a Kaftan like robe ...... so both Kaftan and Takchita are worn for special occasions, though Kaftan comes comparatively more composite in its colors, designs and patterns for it is also widely worn as a traditional wedding dress.  However, there exist simpler and less elaborate versions of Kaftan.

A bridal garment par excellence, the Moroccan Kaftan is traditionally recognized for being a long sleeved, front buttoned robe, traditionally opened at the front.  Made up either of silk or cotton, alongside many other newly introduced fabrics.  The Kaftan tends to be embroidered with braids.  It comes also with detailed and coherent patterns and lustrous colors.  Traditionally hand made this echoes Morocco's highly professional and unique artisans and designers.

Looking in retrospect at Kaftan's history, we need to travel back into time to the epoch of the Ottoman Empire.  The Kaftan in that era was very much reflective of the person's hierarchical rank and position in relation to the Sultan.  The Kaftan worn by women in the entourage of the sultan was unquestionably distinct from that worn by ordinary women.  The higher the rank or the wearer was the more elaborate and embellished was her Kaftan, and vice versa.

When the Kaftan reached Morocco, however, it has gained a different air and signification.  Worn both as a casual and formal attire, depending on the complexity of its design, the Moroccan Kaftan has been more symbolic of women's delicate taste in traditional clothes.  Brides have also worn it during their weddings to accentuate their beauty and femininity.

After the Kaftan had reached Morocco, it encapsulated the country's cultural richness and complexity.  Morocco repainted the originally Ottoman attire with colors from its mosaic of identities and cultural particularities.  The Moroccan Kaftan speaks different languages and is representative of a plethora of Moroccan sub-identities, which in turn form its one and monolithic identity.

Women around the world are now considering the Moroccan dress more of a universal attire that matches all and every distinctive criteria of beauty and high quality worldwide. The Moroccan Kaftan stands up as dress style that is able to compete in an age of revolutionary fashion and design.

A POEM ........... By Rachid Khouya from Smara........

The garden of life is full of wise lessons
for those who use their mind and eyes
Those who read the message of God
Written on nature's colorful board.

Ignorant of the divine message we are,
Ignorant of where we came from and where we head
Most of us are walking bodies without heads
Lost on the path while looking for the main road
Instead of building, cultivating and taking care
Here we are destroying and being indifferent and unaware
Of what God painted with skill and care.

Our eyes, our ears and our hands we don't use
To think before we kill, we exploit and abuse.

Undoubtedly, nothing is created in vain,
As the fog, the sun, the wind makes the rain,
And as the heart pushes blood from toes to brain,
The cows, the bulls, the camels, the chicken and the birds,
The rivers, the oceans, the desert, the wind and the storms,
The fish, the snakes, the scorpions, the deer and the worms
Are created with special mission in this beautiful world.

They all serve, worship and pray for their lord
And speak their own languages, signs and special words.

Walking donkey carrying tons of books,
Unaware of what they carry and bear,
Are those who do not read and do not hear
The voice of the creator of the mouth and the ear,
Every piece and every element of Mother Nature
Is a meaningful lesson from our divine teacher,
The garden of life is full of messages and lessons
For those who use their minds, eyes and listen
Those who read the messages of the globe's creator
Written on nature by the fingers of the great creator.