One of the all time classic movies is Casablanca set in unoccupied North Africa during wartime. It featuring Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine) and Ingrid Bergman, and the pianist Sam and was centred around Rick’s Café in Casablanca. However the movie was shot entirely in Hollywood and released 70 years ago. There was no Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, that is until 2004 when Rick’s Café was established by Kathy Kriger in a mansion near the old medina. It’s a great place for diner and/or a cocktail.
Despite this disconnect, there is a strong link between Hollywood and Morocco due largely to its unique geography and spectacular desert environment. Films such as Lawrence of Arabia, the Jewel of the Nile, Gladiator, The Mummy, Prince of Persia, etc have had scenes shot in and around the ancient ksar of Aït Ben Haddou. Aït Ben Haddou is located about 200 kilometres from Marrakech, near the city of Ouarzazate.
So I booked a 2 day/1 night Marrakech-Zagora bivouac expedition with Sahara Expeditions. The hyperactive sales guy insisted I view their promotional video before making my booking. This encompassed an Amazing Race theme, with a bunch of guys doing white water rafting, rock climbing, and snow scenes – absolutely nothing like the 47C desert landscape we were entering or the type of tour we were taking.
The initial part of the expedition, to Aït Ben Haddou, involved a 4 hour bus trip from Marrakech. The vehicle contained an eclectic bunch of travellers (Portuguese couple, Spanish couples, gay Canadian couple, two from Korea, a family, etc) and Yousef our ramadan fasting driver. I rode shotgun in the Mercedes people mover which did not have a functioning air conditioner, so access to a window was very much appreciated.
The trip out involved traversing the Atlas Mountains and we all enjoying some spectacular scenery. Needless to say there was a level of anxiety for the travellers as the road was carved precariously from the edge of the mountains, so there was the suspense generated by potential rockslides and very large trucks and buses plying these quite narrow roads. Along the way we stopped at strategic locations for views, at which point we were inundated with persistent sellers of semi-precious stones and crystals. Plus there was the obligatory stop at the argan oil shop with the demonstrations of oil extraction, and encouragement to part with dirhams to buy argan oil-based skin and cosmetic products and extraneous food products.
Eventually we arrived at our first significant destination and were handed over to our guide to enter the ksar. He told us the entry fee to the site was 10 dirhams but indicated we didn’t need to give it to the people at the entrance point, rather we could all pay him later. Some Australians at the entry point demanded to know why we were privileged and could enter without paying at all. Later our guide extracted the entry fee which had now risen to 20 dirhams for each member of our troupe. Business as usual in Morocco.
The entire ksar at Aït Ben Haddou is a living museum and is World Heritage listed. For our 20 dirhams we were treated to a walk through history, meandering through the significant structures and parts of the ksar. This included walking up mud stairs supported by wooden lintels in dodgy, wobbly buildings. It was important not to dislodge or damage structures. It’s all very precarious and each significant rain event further damages these mud structures.
The ksar is totally gorgeous with great views over the surrounding desert, river bed,and villages. Plus we enjoyed unlimited access to the entire site. But it certainly was a hard slog to the top in the midday sun.
So the higher you climb the more impressive is the view of this fortress village, and the greater the number of vendors. Strategically it was a perfect fortress site, giving 360 degree visibility across the adjacent river (when it flowed) and the nearby plains of any marauding tribes and villains. For us intrepid travellers it was back down the hill, Cross the ‘river’ and straight to a dehydration quenching cold …… water.
To support all this movie making, a big film studio has been established in nearby Ouarzazate. This modern city has a wealthy feel about it, no doubt from the influx of movie dollars and employment the film industry generates. It’s not hard to visualise a bunch of locals being engaged as legitimate extras in all these movies and enjoying their new star status amongst their peers.
And no, we didn’t see Brendan Fraser, or Peter O’Toole or Russell Crowe.