Moroccan Adventure: Gnaoua Musicians in Merzouga and a Camel Ride in the Sahara to Camp under the Stars (Bonus: Kefta Recipe!)

During my volunteer trip to Rabat, my new friend Paige and I had the opportunity to take a weekend excursion to Merzouga. It’s a small town in the eastern part of Morocco, just 31 miles (50 km) from the border of Algeria. To get there, we took a 10-hour drive through the Middle Atlas Mountains, and the scenery was beautiful enough that I never opened the book I’d brought with me for the journey.

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A display of ancient fossils found in and around Azrou, Morocco

Along the way, we stopped a few times to stretch our legs, taking in the local sights as we did. This particular stop in Azrou involved searching for macaques in the woods (there weren’t any that day) and checking out out the beautiful, ancient fossils that were found in the area.

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In addition to the breathtaking scenery, this was my view for 10 hours. Yes, that’s a fur on the dashboard. Apparently this helps protect the leather or vinyl when cars get extremely hot during the summer months. It’s also a way of personalizing vehicles and harkening back to the days when Moroccan transportation came with its own fur.

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The dining room of the Hotel Taddart just outside Midelt, Morocco, in the foothills of the Eastern High Atlas Mountains

We had dinner at Hotel Taddart in its dining room facing Jbel Ayachi, one of the highest mountains in North Africa. It was another gorgeous vista, and the hotel and restaurant were very charming. I went a little crazy on the buffet since they had steamed artichokes, which are one of my favorite foods. I’m pretty sure I had at least three. The food was all traditional Moroccan, including couscous, tagine, lentils, and lots of lovely fresh fruit.

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Our accommodations for the first night were at the Hotel Kasbah Mohayut, and they were beyond charming. Set in the foothills of the high dunes of the Sahara Desert, this compound has dozens of beautiful, rustic suites, each with its own private courtyard.

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An enchanting hand-etched brass throwback to the days before plastic hotel key cards

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Our private courtyard at the Hotel Kasbah Mohayut in Merzouga, Morocco

We had a restful night and a delicious breakfast before setting out to explore Merzouga. The first local residents we encountered were a pack of delightful camels who were eager to smile for our cameras.

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Eating raw almonds straight off the trees in Merzouga, Morocco

Our wonderful guide took us to a very old almond grove, where we basked in the cool shade and ate nuts we picked from the trees. It was exactly what I would imagine a desert oasis would be like in the mind of an ancient traveler.

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Ever wondered what almonds look like when they’re growing on the trees? Now you know.

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Traditional irrigation ditches in an almond grove in Merzouga, Morocco

The grove used a traditional trench irrigation system much like the ancient Romans used. As an avid gardener, it was fascinating to see how methods were adapted for this arid climate, and it certainly gave me hope for future gardens should we move to a desert somewhere.

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Paige putting on her game face to negotiate prices for handwoven Berber rugs

After touring the almond grove, we crossed Merzouga’s main road into the old city, where merchants sold the wares crafted in remote villages throughout the country. The handwoven Berber rugs and giant metal and glass lanterns were spectacular, and it was tempting to hire a shipping container and buy the whole lot.

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Is it good to have the fire extinguisher in the taxi? Or is it scary to have the fire extinguisher in the taxi? Either way, it’s there if you need it.

Following our shopping, we hired a taxi and drove to the Bedouin village of the Gnaoua musicians. Gnaoua, or Gnawa, music is poetry combined with traditional music and dancing, all of which are based on ancient African Islamic spiritual religious songs. The musicians performing in Merzouga were from Algeria, and it is an intense experience. You’re in a small room with around half a dozen men who are singing, chanting, and playing their drums, lutes, and krakebs at full volume, and each song is just a few rhythmic lines that are repeated over and over again. It grabs you by the head and the heart and the spine and draws you completely into the mesmerizing moment.

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Gnaoua musicians performing traditional African Islamic songs in Merzouga, Morocco

After performing several powerful songs, the audience is invited to pick up a pair of krakebs, which are large iron castanets, and to join the maâlem, or master musician, in a circular folk dance. It’s easy to follow, which is why many tourists join in.

With the Gnaoua music still ringing in our ears, we returned to Hotel Kasbah Mohayut to cool off in the pool and prepare for our desert excursion. We were to head out just before sunset and make our way to our Saharan campsite.

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A camel presides over the courtyard pool at the Hotel Kasbah Mohayut in Merzouga, Morocco

Walking toward the camel pen, we were treated to this magnificent panorama of the grand Saharan dunes from the Mohayut rooftop.

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The grand dunes of the Sahara Desert as seen from the rooftop of the Hotel Kasbah Mohayut in Merzouga, Morocco

Sun protection is important in the Sahara Desert, even in April. We were taught how to fashion a traditional Moroccan turban from a large cotton scarf, which would protect us from the sun as well as wind and blowing sand. Plus, it’s fun to wear.

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My new friend, Clyde, and me just before we set out on our trek through the Sahara Desert

After texting this photo to my parents before we set out on our journey, my father insisted that I call my camel Clyde after Ray Stevens’ 1962 song “Ahab the Arab.” He was an affable camel and seemed happy with the name.

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GoPro camel mount

When you’re on a camel, which is not the smoothest ride, all you have to hold onto is a metal bar at the front of the saddle. Mike insisted that I film the trek with a GoPro, so I also held onto the camera when necessary.

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The grand dunes of the Sahara Desert in Merzouga, Morocco

Once you become accustomed to a camel’s lurching rhythm, you’re free to enjoy the scenery surrounding you. And what scenery it is! The dunes of the Sahara are surreal and majestic under an intensely blue sky. You might swear you were in outer space.

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Clyde and friends taking a break to enjoy the scenery of the Saharan dunes

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As the sun began to set, our camel caravan formed perfect shadows on the desert sand of the Sahara

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When we reached our campsite, the camels meandered off to their own sleeping spot just outside the tent compound. They made a splendid scene as the sun set behind the dunes.

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After getting settled into our tent and exploring the area, we watched a few guests try their hand at dune boarding. Imagine a snowboard careening down a mound of Saharan sand, and you have the gist. We then gathered around the tables for dinner, which was cooked over an open campfire and absolutely delicious.

Our fellow guests were from all over the world. There were Germans, French, and Spaniards, including two lovely ladies who generously shared their bottle of red wine with us. (Be sure to bring your own bottle if you’d like to enjoy a glass with your meal.)

The campsite wasn’t as rough as you might imagine. Each tent had well-appointed cots and electric lights, and there was a full bathroom with a shower on site as well. Definitely more on the “glamping” side of things.

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Sunrise over the grand dunes of the Sahara Desert as viewed from the rooftop of the Hotel Kasbah Mohayut in Merzouga, Morocco

We woke early so we could experience the sunrise on camelback, and it was more than worth the 5 a.m. wakeup call. After freshening up, we relaxed in the courtyard of the Hotel Kasbah Mohayut while we waited for breakfast service to begin.

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The central courtyard of the Hotel Kasbah Mohayut in Merzouga, Morocco

Shortly after breakfast, we began the 10-hour drive back to Rabat. I did a bit of sleeping in the car this time, but I didn’t miss all of the amazing vistas along the way. I also got a kick out of the storks nesting on rooftops, chimneys, and towers in several villages en route.

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A lush valley amid the desert in Morocco

When we stopped for lunch, Mohamed (our host from Cross-Cultural Solutions) tried to talk us into a more Americanized restaurant, but Paige and I insisted on eating local fare. Boy, are we glad we did! It was one of the best meals I’ve had in Morocco.

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We were served traditional Moroccan kefta, which is a huge patty of beef and lamb mixed with herbs and spices then grilled over an open flame with tomatoes and onions. It’s served with a large, flat loaf of Moroccan bread, and you tear off a hunk of each and make something resembling a hamburger. But it tastes unlike any burger you’ve ever had. The combination of juicy lamb and beef mixed with fresh mint, parsley, and a host of Moroccan spices is magical. I love making kefta at home now for dinner parties, and there’s something fun about pulling your portion off the huge patty and assembling everything just the way you like it. My recipe is adapted from Christine Benlafquih’s on The Spruce.

Moroccan Kefta Recipe
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground lamb
1 cup dehydrated onion
2 teaspoons paprika
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup fresh parsley
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons mint leaves

2 medium tomatoes
1 medium onion
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Chiffonade all fresh herbs (I love these multi-blade herb scissors for making quick work of this task). Mix the dehydrated onion with 1 cup of water in a medium bowl and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Mix all ingredients except tomatoes, whole onion, and olive oil by hand in a large bowl just long enough to blend. Don’t overwork the meat, or it will be tough. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour to allow the flavors to blend.

Slice the tomatoes and onion and brush the slices with olive oil on both sides.

On a cutting board, shape the meat mixture into a large patty approximately 1/2-inch thick in the center and slightly thicker, approximately 3/4 inch, toward the edges. The large patty will shrink as it cooks, and this will keep cooking times consistent throughout.

Using the cutting board, transfer the patty to a hot grill and cook five minutes before carefully flipping using a spatula with the assistance of grill tongs. (A pizza paddle works well for this, too; just be sure to clean and sanitize it thoroughly after use with raw meat.) Cook five more minutes on the second side. Add the tomato and onion slices to the grill. If you’re using a gas or electric grill, turn the heat down to medium and close the lid while the patty and vegetables continue to cook.

Flip the tomato and onion slices after two minutes and remove from the grill after four or five minutes total when they are softened and have lovely grill marks on both sides. Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat patty in several spots; it’s done when it reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pile the patty, tomatoes, and onions on a large platter. Don’t worry if pieces break off while you’re removing the meat from the grill and plating it; if anything, that makes it more authentic! Serve it with a large, flat round of freshly-baked white bread or with pitas sliced in half to form pockets.