Leaving Fez, we drove south up through the Middle Atlas Mountains and came into quite a bit of snow as we approached the charming Swiss-style town of Ifrane. We reached a plateau blanketed in white that made me yearn for my snowshoes. Not many people realize it but this country has some good skiing, particularly in the High Atlas Mountains.
At a roadside stop to photograph the fantastic scenery, we came across two Barbary apes (actually monkeys — macaques — not apes), one of which jumped onto the car and then onto me! This mischievous little imp started picking through my scalp, and when she found nothing to nibble on she pulled my hair and slapped me on the head. She then yanked my nose and stole my sunglasses, which thankfully she dropped as I chased her or I might never have retrieved them. These monkeys, and also quite a few dogs, come to the roadside in winter to forage for food or beg from passing cars when they can’t find enough to eat in the forest.
We drove on, passing through an extensive cedar forest with the tree limbs sagging under the weight of big globs of snow as if Mother Nature had gone crazy with an enormous can of Christmas flocking. On the plateau we drove through vast rolling plains of snow before getting into more mountainous terrain as we descended into the desert below.
This part of Morocco is Berber country and the desert landscape resembles the southwestern U.S. except for the oases of date palm trees jutting out here and there. Even the architecture here is somewhat similar to that of Native Americans — boxy, mud-and-straw adobe structures in earth tones of beige and salmon pink with crenellated rooflines. The ceilings here are more often cane-and-timber rather than carved and painted cedar, a reflection of both the raw materials in this area and the Berber emphasis on simplicity as opposed to the Arabic flourishes found to the north.
We made it to Erfoud — a dusty town of pink buildings that serves as a staging area for tourists who visit the sand dunes where we would spend one night — just in time to get a 4×4 ride out to the dunes. We then hopped on camels to take us up to the top of the dunes so we could watch the sunset change the colors of the sand. Marvelous!
On the way back down on a particularly steep stretch, our two Berber guides pulled out a rug and invited me to take a little magic carpet ride. Given my unfortunate sledding incident three years before, I was a bit leery but took them up on the offer to pull me down the sand slope at what seemed like a very high speed. It was fun, though I got a faceful of sand in the process.
Gaby Whitehouse of CATS, who had organized our Africa adventures, booked us into yet another luxurious hotel, the Kasbah Xaluca, a big, medieval fortress-like compound set in a palm oasis that would look right at home in Scottsdale, Arizona. Part of the reason I enjoyed Morocco so much was due to the very nice accommodations we had — far more creature comforts than one could reasonably expect in the middle of nowhere.
Speaking of cats, they seemed to be everywhere in Morocco. In every city we went we found cats begging tableside, some of which had refined their techniques to look me straight in the eye and meow repeatedly as if to say, “PLEASE give me a scrap. I know your plate is loaded with good things to eat; I can see it. Just drop something quick before the waiter comes back.” Cats also hung around in the streets, particularly near the outdoor butcher shops, trolling for sustenance. They all seemed to be healthy and well-treated, so of course I was charmed.