Imogen Matthews45600, St Lucia

From St. Lucia To Morocco

Imogen Matthews45600, St Lucia
From St. Lucia To Morocco

Walk Marrakech – 5 November – 11 November 2010

Cold wet mornings, darker evenings, forecast of snow and… St Lucia.

For once I didn’t mind getting up in the pre-dawn chill, packing the suitcases into the car and driving off round the M25 in the dark. Two weeks away from England at one of the worst times of the year.

I felt a tingle of anticipation as we walked into the departures hall and located the self service machines to book in. But they refused to register our booking and spat out our e-tickets. Nothing unusual there. An airline official wandered over, looking bored.
“Where are you travelling to?”
“St Lucia.”
His expression didn’t change. It’s all the same to him whether we’re flying to St Lucia, Bridgetown or Birmingham.

“The flight’s been cancelled,” he deadpanned.

Is it really necessary to pull that one on us? Does he do it to everyone? I looked round for Matthew who still hadn’t given up on the ticket machine.
“I’m serious. The flight’s cancelled. There’s a hurricane. The authorities aren’t allowing anyone onto the island. Only nationals.”

How would you react in a situation like this? Rant, throw a tantrum, demand to see someone in charge?

One by one, people on our tour arrived and eventually a rep from the travel company. “We’ll have to see what we can do,” he said. “I suggest you go and have a coffee and wait.” He wasn’t panicking, but then he wasn’t about to have his holiday plans scuppered.

We trooped off to Costa and tried to think positive. One of our group had picked up a leaflet explaining that 14 people had been killed by Hurricane Tomas in St Lucia, more were unaccounted for, possibly buried under rubble, and the main roads were impassible. The longer we sat in Costa, the less I wanted to go. Just imagine if they did swing it for us and we got there, only to spend two weeks holed up in our hotel peering out at the rain and unable to swim in the pool as it’s filled with rocks.

 

Four hours after we arrived at Gatwick, our tour guide, Malcolm, called everybody over. “I’m sorry to have to tell you that the holiday is cancelled. Ramblers will refund you back your money within seven days. If you want to rebook, there are still places on the January tour. The reps are also standing by for anyone who wants to book another holiday leaving today. They tell me there are spaces on the South Africa trip.”

I’ve never been particularly spontaneous but here was an opportunity to go anywhere we liked at the drop of a hat. Matthew got on the phone straightaway and established that the South Africa tour was two days longer than the one to St Lucia. He had to be back at work by the 18th, so that was out. Momentarily, I was disappointed. He continued to talk, making notes I couldn’t read on a scrap of paper. After ten minutes, he came off the phone.

“How do you fancy going to the Sahara? Morocco?”

I didn’t hesitate.

We’ve wanted to go back to Morocco since our last holiday walking in the High Atlas mountains. Our flight to Marrakech was at 5pm, giving us time to extract our car from the long-stay at Gatwick and deposit it at Heathrow. We had no tickets and only an email confirmation {thank goodness for iPhones!}, but it was enough and we flew.

It took a couple of days to get St Lucia out of our heads and acclimatise ourselves to the idea of hot, arid and dusty instead of hot, steamy and lush.

If we’d gone to St Lucia, we’d have missed out on some fantastic sights. The highlight for me was the transfer from coach to 4x4s so we could get to a Kasbah several miles off-road in the desert. After a few minutes, the vehicles took a sharp left off the tarmac road and raced over sandy tracks to our destination, Merzouga. We wore long indigo scarves bought from sellers at the side of the road, which we’d learnt to wind round our heads into Berber turbans as protection from the sun and dust blowing in through the open windows. The 4x4s followed barely discernible tracks weaving past each other at speed as if taking part in the Paris-Dakkar rally. No-one got stuck in the sand (it does happen) and we roared up to our Kasbah, through the arch and to a stop in the palm-fringed courtyard. Just in time to see the sun setting over the dunes.

 

Everybody, including the serving staff, came out to see the spectacle and probably do so every other night too. The Erg Chebbi dunes are the largest in Morocco and stretched before us in huge geometric burnt orange and indigo shapes.

Not long after the sun dipped below the horizon, Jupiter and a slice of moon became visible. Gradually, the stars appeared and we stood with necks craned, picking out twinkly Orion with his dangly sword at the edge of the Milky Way, shaken out like a bejewelled rug above our heads.

 

Next morning, we trekked on foot over the sand dunes, saw Bedouin encampments and stopped to pause in wonder at the majestic view. Out of nowhere, two little children appeared and spread their handmade jewellery and camel toys before us. Hardly anyone went away empty-handed and everyone pressed a few Dirham into their small, dusty palms.

We couldn’t resist the offer of a camel trek at sunset, setting off in a caravan of five, plodding slowly through the soft sand as the indigo shadows lengthened. Near the top, the camels sunk to their knees, allowing us to get off and walk a little further. We took off our sandals and scrambled up the slope, our feet sinking into the warm sand. After all this, the sunset was slightly disappointing, but the atmosphere was magical as the stars appeared one by one. The camels swayed us back to the Kasbah which emerged outlined by a few lights against the darkening sky. Everyone was quiet. The only sound was the swishing of the camels’ feet on the sand and the occasional snort as one cleared its throat.

 

So what else? The miles and miles of date palms along the Draa Valley deserve a mention. Men stand at the side of the road holding up boxes of dates costing less than £2 for 500gms. We stopped at a particularly pretty viewpoint for photos but were overcome by men pushing baskets woven from palm leaves and filled with dates into our faces. It was almost impossible to resist as were the succulent dates. We never actually got to take photos of that view.

I fell in love all over again with Moroccan food –the chicken tagine cooked in deep yellow saffron with juicy green olives and tangy pickled lemon; the refreshing Moroccan salads of diced tomato, cucumber, pepper and onion, dressed in olive oil and lemon and sprinkled with cumin; the Berber omelettes, which were served bubbling and fragrant in a terracotta tagine and the masses of green-tinged satsumas, so fresh the leaves were still attached.

Time and again I’m drawn to Morocco. I wonder when my next trip will be?