We arrive to warmer weather than we anticipated (32degC) and I immediately create havoc outside the airport in Marrakech, refusing to pay 200 Dirhams (20 Euros) for the three mile taxi ride into town. This is eventually reduced to 100 but it’s too late, I’ve spied the bus. The driver appears and starts the engine. Just us and one other passenger. He assures us he’s going to la Kasbah. No such luck. He drops us at Jemaa el Fna (the central square). No problem, I can find the way from here, I state confidently. We head in the right general direction but down the wrong road and after half an hour in the heat, dragging the case on uneven pavements and down dead ends, to the bemusement of locals, and after being accosted by a tall man who yells at us about former French president Mitterrand, among other things, we give in and pay an old chap with a cart to push our case down the main road, with us in tow, dodging old taxis, smelly motorbikes and dusty cars to the Kasbah.
A devout Muslim country, Morocco is not the place for an alcohol-soaked, frolic in the sun. But for us, Marrakech is intoxicating enough. The friendly, charming character of the people, the frenetic pace of an ancient walled city of trades and traders, the wheelers and dealers, the narrow streets, the constant smell of incense mixed with cumin and orange blossom, tempered by the odd whiff of dried fish or drains. The only vestige of its French colonial past, the crêpes, pastries, cake and egg custards often eaten at breakfast. This is most definitely Africa, not southern Europe.
We find our riad and settle in before bracing ourselves and heading out into the organised chaos once again and back to the square for dinner. Street food, but of the most authentic kind. Makeshift tables and benches under tarpaulins lit by lantern light, warmly spiced tagines of root vegetable and/or meat, olives with chilli, kobhs (round bread rolls) with coriander, carrot and garlic dipping sauce, cumin-covered tomato salad, freshly cut chips, and griddled salty aubergines and peppers, topped-off with strong and sweet, minted green tea. All for less than £15. What a spread.
Breakfast is served in the reception area of the riad on richly coloured chaise longues. I feel a desire to drink coffee despite my reservations. It seems the most reasonable option over questionable water and sickly-sweet tea. It’s amazing how quickly humans can adapt. My son has adapted. After initial fears yesterday due to our predicament, he declares he LOVES Morocco. There are cats everywhere. Not pets, but they seem to be kept an eye on. A mother with numerous tiny kittens has been housed in two crates close to our riad and given little saucers of offerings.
The nearby streets of the Kasbah seem to be unchanged for centuries. Local produce lines the streets, vegetables and fruit spill out across the path, milk in tapped plastic containers, pallets of eggs in delicate piles, meat hanging from tiny shop fronts, skinned sheep heads in glass counters, women with baskets dashing between bikes and filthy cats licking up remnants. Four hours on a plane and we couldn’t be further from Sheffield. At eight, my son takes it in his stride. He is unphased by a lack of internet, by the walking, by the heat, by the broken conversations with locals that regularly span four languages in our desperate attempt to be understood.
We visit the beautiful mausoleums of the 16th century Saadian sultans, entertained in the queue by a family of tortoises, and the ruins of the El Badi Palace where the incredibly precarious, rooftop storks’ nests and an intricately-carved millennium-old wooden pulpit steal the show. There is a view to the snow-covered Atlas Mountains from a high terrace, and just before closing time we hear the 5pm call to prayer (the third of the day) ring out across the city. The first one woke me at 5.30am and will take a little getting used to. We walk to the Ville Nouvelle (new town) and although there is little to keep us here, our guide book leads us to woodfired pizzas and fresh fruit juice at a hotel café full of Marrakshis. Three tasty pizzas and three delicious juices for only £12. The walk back seems much quicker and we amuse ourselves in the square with some typically North African musicians playing drums and banjo-like guitars. My son asks what is recited in the call to prayer. We look it up.
It seems I haven’t adapted. The two coffees at breakfast have me shaking and sweating within an hour and within two the nausea kicks in. I’ve never got along with coffee and it’s particularly unfortunate when we are immersed in the souks (the covered markets) in the heat of midday. I take refuge on a stool in an alleyway. The neighbouring stall holder pays me little mind. He’s seen it before. The pale tourist with the jitters. My son is getting concerned for my wellbeing so I suggest a sit down lunch at a café on a nearby square full of hats and rattan. There is a queue for the toilets but at least they are in good order. My open vegetable sandwich is delicious but my appetite not forthcoming. A group of young Spanish ladies enter. One sits down next to me and promptly goes to sleep on her handbag. I am relieved I am not the only one. Tom later observes that few of cafés patrons looked particularly well. A mixture of the heat, the dry, dusty air, the bustle of the souks, the constant need to say ‘non, merci beaucoup’ to every second stall holder and the ease at which it is possible to completely lose one’s bearings probably all contribute. After lunch, we discuss at length the style and price of a carpet we have no intention of buying and walk for miles through the labyrinthine alleyways. When we find our way back to the square it is 4pm and utterly roasting and we make a joint decision to head back to the Kasbah. By the time we get to the riad I am totally beat and thoroughly queasy and pass out for a nap. The boys play noughts and crosses on the floor tiles with water bottles and shoes. My child amazes me by seeming not only to continue to take it all in his stride but thrive on the challenges this city throws his way.
A couple of hours later we head out again although I am loathe to be far from a bed, or a toilet. We dine just off the square and I am relieved the food is bland and gently cooked. Two plates of couscous piled with vegetables and dotted with chickpeas, sides of rice, chips and three big round bread rolls, plus a large bottle of water, all for 92 Dirhams (around £6.50). We return to the riad via the square. The moon is large, low and glowing orange. The road back is lined by people asking for money, often disabled, elderly, or refugees, some sell pocket tissues, some sleep on mats; smoke wafts from meat cooking on griddles and pushcarts are piled with fresh fruit. Occasionally bright purple, pink or yellow flashes of bougainvillea or azalea spill from behind anonymous red ochre walls.
I decide to forego breakfast and have a rest and a shower instead. The right decision. The boys return with tales of lemon cake and bring me bread. A recce day today begins with a long, hot walk along busy roads to the Garé Routiére (bus station) where return tickets to Essaouira, three hours away on the coast, are (once bartered for, like everything) 400 Dirhams (£10 each). We decide to make our way back through the souks in the shade, but, as we enter a particularly meaty street, my stomach turns somersaults. It seems that today is chicken slaughtering day. Twelve skinny birds squashed in a cage. Squawking from behind the counter. Feathers scatter. Raw meat everywhere. Flies. It’s not Lidl. Our food experience in England is so sanitised.
We stop for lunch at a bright, clean café where a shared plate of couscous and a vegetable panini go down well. My appetite has returned. My son is in raptures with his mango and banana smoothie. He could live on fruit. He practically is. If it wasn’t for bread and chips. We pass a very small and poorly stocked supermarket and we pop in to find supplies for the bus tomorrow. All we can muster is some individually wrapped McVities digestives (‘Egyptian standard’, whatever that is) and a small tub of Pringles. I get a couple of yoghurts to try diversify my son’s diet a little. He’ll have to eat them soon as we have no means of refrigerating them. Outside, a man with terrible teeth is roasting monkey nuts in a little oven on a cart and sells me 500g for 100 Dirhams which is too much but he looks in need of the cash. A welcome donation. It’s easy to feel rich in Marrakech.
By the time we reach the square it’s 3.30pm and the hottest part of the day. We head down a narrow lane looking for the hostel where we will spend the night on our way back through Marrakech before picking up our car from the airport. No sign to be seen. I pop into the Henna Art Café seeking assistance and meet Laurie from South Dakota, a friendly woman who has gone native. Like us, she visited Morocco on a three-week holiday. That was seven years ago. She teaches us how to say ‘no’ in Darija (la-gh) and looks up our hostel on her laptop. We’ve overshot.
After a rest at the riad, we visit Café Clock for dinner. It’s a cultural centre which hosts cooking classes, artists and musicians and we happen upon an exciting jam session. The food is delicious. Tom and I share a beautifully spiced vegetable platter to start and then I enjoy a vegan bastilla (roasted veg in flaky pastry) while he gorges on a lamb tagine. It’s our most expensive meal, but worth it, and the musicians are excellent. James doesn’t want to leave and shares a meaningful grin with one of the singers. Live music can be such a powerful experience.
After another variance on a French breakfast of bread, orange juice, coffee and a different cake platter (this time freshly-baked coconut buns, chocolate brownies and a kind of herby flat bread) we catch a taxi to the Garé Routiére. Except the taxi driver assumes that we want the train station because that’s where the tourist buses go from and seems most put out when we ask to be taken to the actual Garé Routiére. Tom pays him extra for his troubles. Despite being early, we are hustled straight onto the bus because it is already filling up and many of the seats have been saved with a bag, coat or by another person dutifully waiting it out. We find seats on the right-hand side, which is fortuitous as the left side gets the sun and the passengers understandably keep their curtains closed. After a half hour wait until our allotted time and the bus is full, we are off, but not before our luggage hold is checked by police.
The suburbs of Marrakech stretch on thinly by the side of the road and it is a relief when we leave the polluted city and enter the barren countryside. The old bus is hot with only a poorly serviced fan, but once we are moving at greater speed the roof vent provides a gentle breeze. The landscape is gently undulating with little vegetation except scrub and the odd bush, but occasionally a river valley comes into sight marked out by a splash of green and highly productive lines of crops and olive trees. We stop at numerous small towns where passengers quickly disembark. Over halfway into the three-hour journey and we spy the ‘goat trees’ – quite literally, trees full of goats, who appear to have climbed up them to munch on the tasty leaves at the top of the canopy. There are quite a few along the side of the road and they provide great amusement for my son, who is being a star passenger. He later reminds me that it is the longest bus journey he has ever been on, but there is no complaint; quite the opposite.
Eventually, we come to the brow of a hill and the coastline comes into view, a green sea meeting a mist off to the horizon. A fairly large town spreads out ahead; Essaouira feels a million miles from anywhere. The outskirts of town have an immediately more European feel than Marrakech. The rounded, red ochre sandstone replaced by neat white-washed boxes with wide, paved sidewalks. The bus station is fairly quiet and we have to wake a taxi driver out of his slumber rather than be accosted by two or three, as we would be in Marrakech. The directions through the medina provided by our hosts prove invaluable. Despite the smaller size, Essaouira proves just as difficult to navigate as the big city souks. Narrow lanes lined with shop fronts selling handicrafts, artwork and only a little food. To reach our accommodation, we head off the main thoroughfare down a tiny lane, passing underneath various homes supported by ancient, wooden beams and many unique doorways all painted in seaside colours. ‘Our’ doorway is a bright and cheerful blue with a colourful, worn tiled arch surround.
Our host, Naima Zazou, welcomes us. She speaks no English and we exhaust our French greeting vocabulary quickly, but she seems a happy and generous soul. Our bedroom is on the third floor and has a separate bathroom and access to the roof terrace up a rusting, spiral staircase. It really feels like a home-stay as, despite having our own lockable door, we pass through the hosts’ accommodation to reach it. The room smells damp but we realise that this is the price of living so close to a blustery bit of coast and even outside the moisture quickly penetrates our clothes. After settling in we venture further down the passageway and come almost immediately to the colonial-era sea wall, a beautiful sandstone barricade, fortified with Spanish cannons dating back to the eighteenth century. My son is in raptures and, on spying the two smallest, informs me they are the oldest. He is correct, of course, as we go to take a look and discover the date on one is still visible: 1644.
We leave the wall and the crashing waves beyond and head through the maze of narrow streets to a square off which the fishing boats have returned with their catch and a noisy swarm of seagulls is being fed on heads and entrails. The little port is a hive of activity as the fishermen load up for market. Cats hunt for treasure. Like Marrakech, there are cats on every street here and all look well fed and cared for, if a little dusty and battle-scarred.
We head back to our accommodation to collect more clothing as the wind is unexpectedly quite chilly. We must have lost ten degrees or so from the city. We have a vegan dinner at a café on a small square, but discover that, even with hoodies, it is a touch too cold to sit out at night. Perhaps the dry heat of Marrakech has made us soft.
We are treated to a wonderful Moroccan breakfast of warm fresh kobhs both wholemeal and white, a platter of salad and fruit, olives, omelettes, pastries, olive oil for dipping, local almonds and delicious dates, topped off with freshly squeezed orange juice and the obligatory silver pot of minted green tea. It is delicious and worthy of a five-star hotel. Total cost for three nights’ accommodation, plus this breakfast which keeps us going until dinner? £70.
To walk off our excess we head back out into the medina, and, after another recce of the cannons, we stroll out past the fishing port, through Place Orson Welles (his film version of Othello was set here), and down along the broad, clean, empty beach. The sun is strong but the wind fresh and cooling. Around halfway, we realise that the rounded lumps at the far end of the sand are actually seated camels and head over to take a look. There are dozens of them, all ready and waiting to take tourists for a ride. But there are no customers today. We don’t take up the numerous offers, but instead find a perch in a picturesque café full of low, gnarly trees covered in yellow blossom which shade diners from the sun, and a view beyond the camels out to sea. It is an incredibly enticing spot and we expect prices to be high, but a sugar crêpe, espresso, rooibos tea, smoothie and fruit salad comes in at £15. It is not easy to blow the budget here, although I note that the place is licensed to sell alcohol which would push the price up considerably had we indulged.
Strolling back along the promenade we stop for some sun at a sheltered spot and then wander back into town through a bab (gate) in the town wall by a clock tower. After a further exploration and a rest at the accommodation we head to a nearby restaurant recommended by our guide book. It is an incredibly atmospheric place and we are shown to our table, a traditional North African arrangement, low and surrounded by colourful cushions for lounging on. Uniquely, this table is on what you could only call a shelf, a thin wooden mezzanine above another small dining area, accessed via a ladder. It feels appropriate to remove my shoes and cross my legs, yogi-style. An American couple who were behind us in the queue are shown to a table accessed via our ladder but inside a hobbit hole off our shelf. It makes our seating area feel quite roomy. I wonder how the server will get our food, in its heavy earthenware tagines, up to us, but she manages admirably. It is in this quaint little restaurant that the coronavirus pandemic first impinges on our trip. I notice the staff are reluctant to get too close and seem slightly edgy. We feel that the Moroccan government may be issuing missives about a possible future lockdown and we begin to feel that perhaps our days here are numbered.
After dinner we take our son to the square where we have spied stalls selling French fries. He has been very flexible, attending a restaurant with nothing to inspire him on its menu and, despite giving the couscous a good try, he fills his boots from a hot paper cone. Our evening stroll takes us to a wonderful night market where local people seem to get most of their fresh produce. We have to take care where we place our feet for fear of stepping on the fish laid out for sale in the middle of the road.
Again, Naima brings our breakfast tray up all the steep stairs to our room. This morning she has excelled and, along with all the items we had yesterday, there is also m’semen, a chewy Moroccan crêpe. We have to wrap some of the food to take with us for a picnic as there is too much for a morning meal for three. Naima also kindly offers to wash our dirty clothes for free. We agree, as we have seen no sign of any laundrettes, but we resolve to pay extra on check-out.
We strike out with purpose in search of an ombu tree, a Brazilian import which was planted on the occasion of the town’s founding in the eighteenth century and now residing in a square by some craft stalls. We decide that a 250-year-old tropical tree is worthy of our attention and it is. Never have I seen a tree with such a wide and bulbous trunk. I am attracted over to a stall by a wizened, old chap who wants to show me his home-crafted wooden shark. ‘C’est bois de limon (lemon tree wood). Mon travail (my work),” he assures me. We chat to him for some time and look at many of his items, but decide to think on our purchase. We later note numerous other, similar specimens covering stalls throughout town.
We take another look at the fish market and watch a parade of bare-chested local lads daring each other to jump from the sea wall into the waters of the harbour, before catching some sun by the beach. I get a thirst and remember the beachfront restaurant we visited yesterday had a ‘happy hour’ so we make our way along the promenade which is busy with young people on skateboards or engrossed in five-a-side football matches. Not a tourist to be seen. We are getting the impression that Essaouira is quieter than normal. As we arrive at the restaurant, we are surprised to see the outdoor seating area empty. It’s closed. ‘Are you sure it was today?’ Tom asks, and I am. We are sensing things are changing, and fast.
We walk back into town and by the time we arrive we are gaining an appetite so try a tiny hole in the wall restaurant where we are served by a gracious, young lady who studiously washes her hands with soap every five minutes at the sink in the corner of the room. A British couple are just finishing their meal and talk turns to whether it is wise to be holidaying in the midst of a pandemic. They are due to fly home in two days but are unsure whether their flight will be cancelled. Many have been already. Ours is two weeks away. We wonder whether we will be able to stay that long.
We say goodbye and many thanks en français to our generous hosts and drag our case out to see the sea and the cannons one last time, pausing briefly for coffee at a tiny pavement café with resident cats. The owner encourages us to stroke them and a kitten makes its home on my son’s knee, much to his delight. A sign instructs customers there is no WiFi and to help themselves to a good book instead. It’s our kind of a place. As we arrive at the sea wall, we feel the tide has turned. Fewer tourists, some shops are closed, and the atmospheric restaurant has a sign outside saying it has been forced to close for ‘health reasons’. We feel uneasy and glad we already have bus tickets back to Marrakech. Perhaps we will get a clearer picture there.
Why do journeys always seem shorter on the way back? The bus is stuffy and overcrowded, but the sky is cloudy and it’s a lot cooler, all the way to the city. Things have changed here too. Less tourists around and fewer locals. People seem worried. There are fewer people trying to sell us things. Only two taxi drivers vie for our business at the Garé Routiére. We manage to choose the one with the oldest, most dilapidated taxi in Marrakech but we recognise that he is just trying to make a living and pay him generously. The central square seems quiet and we are glad we have already located our hostel for the night so we can make a hasty beeline for it. Our helpful host here, Mahou, informs us that the Moroccan government has unexpectedly closed the country’s borders and many people are queuing to leave. He also tells us that flights to and from many countries are to be suspended imminently. We rush to check, but the UK is not on the list. Still it does little to quell our sense of unease. Mahou kindly takes us up to a cosy couch on the roof terrace for mint tea, but the hostel is almost empty. It doesn’t feel like a holiday any more.
We decide to have an unfussy meal at the cheap place we went to previously, just off the square. It’s nice for me to visit without the dodgy stomach I had last time. But the huge room is empty, except for a couple of French couples and the waiters seem slightly agitated. A big argument erupts outside between a man on a scooter and an older couple and other people get dragged in. It makes for interesting dining entertainment, but everyone seems preoccupied. We see a few people in face masks passing by and hurry to finish and get back to the hostel. The only Covid-19 cases in Morocco have been brought here from Europe and we wonder if our presence will become unwelcome.
Back at the hostel, I check the travel advice on the British government website. It’s changed. They are advising against all but essential travel to Morocco and for all British citizens to leave as soon as possible.
We get up early and, after Mahou tops up my Moroccan sim card from his phone, I use up all of the 10 Euros credit trying to speak to our airline’s customer service department. I am told that our flight needs to be brought forward but they can’t find any free seats within the next week. We chat to a Canadian woman over a light breakfast. No-one is terribly hungry. She says she has decided to stay put as she has a Moroccan boyfriend and flights back home are too expensive. Her family are worried and think she is making the wrong choice. I wonder if she will change her mind.
We are due at the airport to pick up a hire car so we can also find out about flights. We go to catch a taxi and the driver has no interest in overcharging us. 70 Dirhams. It’s less than the bus. The airport is busy and there are a number of long queues to customer service desks. The one marked for our airline is empty. A sign says it is closed. Nothing doing. Many people are in face masks. It seems to make little sense to hang around the airport so we pick up our car and decide to make use of our next night’s accommodation. A good WiFi signal seems to be the most important requirement now. At the car hire pick-up I am accosted by a young Swiss couple. Their flight has been cancelled and they can’t book onto another one. Everything is full. They pull down their face masks to smoke cigarettes and stand too close. They say their embassy has abandoned them and talk of trying to get over the border into the Spanish enclaves. They ask where we are taking our car.
We head off out of the city, but there are no road names and few signs. We stop at a petrol station where I go to ask directions. I am escorted out of the building towards a man who speaks English. He shouts angrily in Darija to the staff member who put him in this predicament and sends his young daughter to play on the swings. Then he says: “Where are you going? You should be going to the airport. You have to leave. You can’t be here.” He gives us good directions though and we follow them, but end up stuck in a small village on market day with our way blocked by throngs of people, herds of goats and stalls. I don’t know how Tom navigates us through without crashing into something, running someone over or giving up on the enterprise, but he does and soon we are on our way to the Tizi n Tichka. It’s a steep pass through the Atlas Mountains.
As we wind our way up, the plains of the lowlands stretch out back to Marrakech and are surprisingly green with olive plantations and fruit trees. There is a mist hanging over the land, and ahead of us the tops of the mountains are hidden by cloud. We continue to wind our way up, the increasing altitude matched by our increasing anxiety about whether we are doing the right thing, whether our return flight will go ahead or whether we will find ourselves stranded in a country we know so little about for an indefinite amount of time. What if we are met by indifference, or worse, hostility, when we arrive at our next destination. Perhaps they have shut up shop and failed to inform us. This anxiety grows as we are stopped at numerous road works, the worst of which seems to involve a digger parked at a dizzying angle on the mountainside instigating a mini landslide onto the road in front of us. I feel out of breath and am unsure whether it’s the altitude or panic or, worse, the virus.
Five hours later, and after just a light breakfast and a few biscuits and crisps, we are on the other side of the Atlas. We may have underestimated the trip. Thoughts turn to our arrival at the ecolodge, our home for the night. I worry we will feel lost and have no internet connection, or worse, will have to find alternative digs in the dark. We come upon a sign for Ait Ben Haddou, an ancient Berber kaur, a fortified village on the trans-Moroccan trade route, and decide to check it out. We’ve driven all this way after all. It’s an evocative place of high adobe walls and thick wooden doorways, narrow alleyways and dark cavernous rooms. We climb to the granary at the top of the hill, grateful for the fresh air and exercise and see the terracotta walls lit by the setting sun. We had better get on our way.
By the time we reach Ouarzazate, it is getting dark, and I realise the directions I had set in my head from Google Earth and maps don’t seem quite so obvious in the dimming light. “It’s a right down here,” I say pointing on down the road, but in truth I feel lost. “Which right, there are lots of them?” Tom asks, perfectly reasonably, because there are. “The main one”. Holding my nerve, I wait and wait until we are somewhere that feels like the centre of town. It seems much bigger than I had expected. Completely different, in fact. Then, there are traffic lights and we take the right and then are heading over a bridge. This feels right. “It’s a small left just on here”. It seems completely crazy, as I don’t have a street name, my phone is out of credit so I can’t ring to check and it is hours later than I told them to expect us. I see a sign over a shop. We ARE in the right area. I remember the name. And then we take a left and drive and drive until we feel like we are totally and utterly lost and without hope and Tom starts to imagine spending the night sleeping in the car, and then I see it: La Ecolodge Palmeraie. Thank goodness. But we’re still worried because we don’t know whether we are expected, or even wanted.
We are met by a wonderful character with an unidentifiable accent who is as warm, caring and generous as anyone could hope to be. Hamid speaks five languages fluently and is obviously very confident in his staff and everything his unique accommodation offers. He shows us to our ‘house’. It is a beautiful adobe structure with two generous rooms, a beautifully tiled bathroom, and numerous beds. Too big for us for one night, but it smells wonderfully of the sweet straw of its roof, the natural clay walls and the clean air of the countryside we find ourselves in, having left the town behind.
Hamid asks if there is anything we need and food springs to mind; I spied a large Berber tent on our way through the grounds where I could hear the sound of cutlery. It’s nearly 9pm, but he dashes to speak to the chef. “Come, come”, he invites us, saying all our names one after the other. I couldn’t have hoped for more and feel quite emotional after our day. “You’ve had a very long drive, relax,” he encourages us. We are brought a spread of beautifully fresh vegetables, meatballs, couscous and even fries. My son is thrilled. We will sleep well here, but wonder pensively what tomorrow will bring. There are so many stars to see tonight.
We dash out for breakfast, not wanting to be last again, but we are. We are still tired. A beautiful spread made from local ingredients is laid out in the centre of the dining tent. It is so welcome. Delicious jams, breads, tomatoes and eggs, a selection of smoothies blended with homegrown veg, even homemade peanut butter. We fill our boots. I fill my boots. Who knows where we will be today and when we will find food again. There is a little webcam in the corner of the tent and I imagine Hamid watching me gorge from his office. Little gecko-like lizards rush across the tent roof, their tiny bodies and legs silhouetted in the sun.
It’s a gorgeous sunny day. I sit amongst the trees by the swimming pool where I can get a WiFi signal to check the situation. There is still no word from our airline. Do we just carry on as though nothing is happening? That is what their silence seems to expect from us. There are four other couples staying on site, three French and one German. Some are in campervans and have no real prospect of leaving the country. Apparently, there are queues of vans at the borders. No-one can leave. One French man comes to sit with me. He speaks little English but explains that he is camping, travelling by motorbike. He thought about going south into Western Sahara, but even there the border is closed, even though Morocco claims the land there. He is completely stuck, he says.
Hamid tries to ring the airline for us. He puts his phone on the speaker. A very English voice says “We are sorry, this line is busy.” The British embassy in Rabat is closed. It’s impossible to get any clear information.
To take our mind off things, Hamid takes us to see the animals they keep at the ecolodge. They have goats, sheep, donkeys, chickens and geese. They grow vegetables between the buildings; beans and peas are being irrigated. We stand in the animal enclosure and talk about the value of living close to nature. It seems a world away from our worries and a welcome break.
Then I get an email from Tom’s brother back in the UK. He’s sent a copy of a Tweet from the British ambassador to Morocco. It simply says that flights to and from the UK will be suspended in 48 hours. A number of flights will be leaving Marrakech and Agadir, and that’s it. It’s clear, the holiday is over, if it wasn’t already, and we have to go back. Today will be the Tizi n Tichka pass again. Let’s hope there are fewer hold ups this time. Hamid gives us his number and wishes us well. We are welcome back any time, he says. We wonder whether he would put us up for a few months if we don’t make it out of the country. Either way, we all agree we would love to go back.
On the mountain pass, I get a text from the airline saying our flight in two weeks’ time has been cancelled. We wonder what on earth we will find at the airport, and whether we will manage to get on one of the few remaining flights. We are nervous about being forced into a confined space with untold numbers of other people from who-knows-where for an unspecified amount of time and with a deadly virus rampaging its way through the populations of so many countries. We have little choice but to put ourselves in this situation, even though the prospect of being stranded in this country would be slightly less daunting without the potential added complication of one or all of us getting sick.
Five hours later we are back at Marrakech airport, stocked up with more crisps and biscuits (literally the only thing we could buy at the petrol station) and arguing with the car hire staff about whether we should cancel the booking and leave the car with them or park it in the car park and keep the booking open, in case we need to use it again. The staff seem to be trying to help us by keeping the booking open, but we don’t want to pay for the car if we are stuck in the airport for days. We compromise by keeping the car until the office closes in a couple of hours, when we might have a better understanding of the situation. No such luck. Two hours later, Tom goes to cancel the car. We are still at the back of a very long queue. And after four hours, the customer service desk closes and we are all left to sleep on the floor, still in our queue formation.
At one in the morning, a friendly guy behind us, who had been teaching English in Casablanca, tells us that two new flights have just appeared on the airline’s website, leaving today. I manage to book onto the first one, but not as a swap, as a new booking. It costs over nine times the price of the cancelled flight, but we are on it and that is what matters. The desk reopens at five and by eight we are at the front of the queue. Our booking is confirmed and we have a quick walk at the front of the airport, before joining another queue for check-in. We are in this one for a further five hours and, thus, miss our flight. However, our bag has gone without us. We are now stranded in the departure lounge with our friend from the queue and a Canadian guy who is trying to get back to Toronto. Our flight left full, so passengers from a different flight must have been put on it in our place. The airport staff have made a mix up. It is vaguely understandable because everything has changed at the last minute. But it doesn’t give us much confidence. Then our boarding passes are taken away and replaced with new ones. We appear to be leaving on the 7.15pm flight.
After further delays, additional security checks, 29 hours in the airport, and confusion over seats (many are double booked) we are finally leaving. It is ten o’clock on Wednesday night. Thursday is the last day to leave Morocco. We nearly didn’t make it. I sleep for most of the flight, so that it seems to take half an hour to get back to the UK. My son is exhausted. He has slept for two hours out of 38 but has not complained once. He quite enjoyed ‘camping in the airport’. This trip was always meant to be an adventure, but we all got rather more than we bargained for.
Morocco, like many countries, is now in total lockdown and it would have been very difficult to find accommodation to see us through the next few months had we been stranded there. Perhaps one day we will return and complete our trip. For now, we are just extremely thankful that we got home.