Adventure in the desert: the children will love it

Adrian Mourby was rewarded when he went to Morocco and introduced his family to the 'sheer otherness' of North African culture
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The Independent Travel

'So what did you like best about the desert?" I ask. It's the kind of thing a father says en route to the airport. "The sea," my son replies. Well, that's kids for you.

'So what did you like best about the desert?" I ask. It's the kind of thing a father says en route to the airport. "The sea," my son replies. Well, that's kids for you.

Actually our arrival at Essaouira, on the wild Atlantic coast of Morocco, had been quite something. After five days in the Draa Valley, the dunes of M'hamid and the bustling inferno of Marrakech's Djemaa al Fna, the sight of this Portuguese fortress and its storm-tossed islands was impressive. Our driver was kind to us and stopped at a vantage point above the town so we could watch the deep blue Atlantic crash - in brilliant sunshine - against the old whitewashed port.

John, who had not been taken with the camels, the street traders or even a road trip over the Atlas Mountains, had really gone for Essaouira. The fact that Orlando Bloom had recently filmed Kingdom of Heaven on its ramparts helped. Here was something that looked familiar. Children can be very conservative. That's why a family trip across Morocco was always going to be a challenge.

By contrast, John's sister loved it. All of it except our first night in the desert when we were warned to check our sleeping bags and boots whenever we got into either, just in case snakes or spiders had sought refuge within. "They are more frightened of you than you are of them," said Brahim, our guide. But I wasn't so sure. I don't think anything could be more frightened than poor Livvie as she clung to her mother.

As far as I'm concerned, trips like this are what childhood should be about. In my youth, we never went anywhere except Aberystwyth and Harlech and once, when my father was feeling really adventurous, Cromer. I would have loved the chance to bake bread with Berber tribespeople, join a camel caravan into the Hamada du Draa for lunch in the dunes, or watch snake-charmers in the market places of Marrakech.

Morocco is a great country for introducing your children to the romance of the desert and the sheer otherness of North African culture. We spent our free time in Marrakech discovering the serenity of the Saadian Tombs, the sturdiness of the 12 miles of wall that enclose the old Almoravid city and the austerity of the Koutoubia Mosque (with its printed sign reminding visitors that, No, non-Muslims may not enter).

Livvie, who rushes in where even fools usually fear to tread, almost caused an incident there. For her, Marrakech was a riot of colours, an Aladdin's Cave of delights to be explored with enthusiasm. Born to shop, why shouldn't she enjoy a city that was built to sell? Charging through the Souk of Slippers, the Jewellery Souk or the carpet market with a 10-year-old who wants to buy everything in sight is tiring, especially when you're continually having to extract her from the clutches of shopkeepers who have decided that Christmas has come early this year.

But her enthusiasm was infectious, even on a baking hot afternoon. We bought more than we ever needed - jointed wooden snakes that weave from side to side in a most convincing manner, baboushes (slippers of both Berber and Arab design), a large pink leather pouffe for stuffing back home, four tassels for the bolsters and five palm-fibre baskets for no reason at all (other than that they were cheap). Livvie also picked up two "genuine" Gucci handbags (made by Mohamed Gucci himself) for her best friends, a small terracotta kasbah for her window-sill that broke before it even got to the airport and half a dozen Hands of Fatima, some of them with fingers so abstract that they looked more like the Jellyfish of Fatima.

John didn't like the markets at all, though, as I feared, he was drawn to the viciously hooked swords and daggers which may have been intended for ceremonial use but had irresponsibly sharp points once you wrenched them free of their scabbards. In the end, I relented. You can only say "no" so many times. I then had to get involved with the whole business of haggling, which added delay and tension to a day already hot and expensive. There are many things I'd like my children to learn from North Africa, but not this ridiculous charade that accompanies every purchase. Life is too short to pretend that a carved wooden camel costs 10 times the price you'll accept.

Brahim's team were good at helping us understand the cultural side of the trip. In M'Hamid, they put us in the hands of a Berber named Miloud who provided partitioned tents in which we could sleep and lots of answers to our questions. Used to dealing with British families, Miloud was happy to explain how desert people find water, gather firewood and cook, though even he couldn't persuade John to eat anything that was prepared in the small earth kitchen. Having left the UK with a distinct sense of culinary foreboding, I had stocked up on peanuts and chocolate for just such an emergency. And I knew there was a McDonald's in Marrakech if things got really bad.

For my wife, Kate, and me, the one culture shock we had not anticipated was that our hotels were mostly dry. I'm used to travelling in Muslim countries and I'm used to the fact that the Koran seems to decree that hotel mark-ups are huge. You can end up paying West End prices in the most basic of bars. But I do like a bottle of Guerrouane Gris or Cuvée du President with my supper.

We hit the same problem eating at Marrakech's famous outdoor dinner stalls in Djemaa al Fna. They are like a vision from Dante's Inferno - huge plumes of sizzling white smoke obscuring diners as meal after meal is banged out and the chefs' sons compete loudly to attract passing trade. The food was great. Even John took to the kebabs. But I wanted something other than Fanta to drink. "Sprite?" suggested the chef.

Overall, the trip did what it said on the box. We introduced our children to another culture. They didn't like everything they saw but they didn't like everything at Disney either. At least here they were broadening their horizons rather than just shaking hands with Goofy.

"I know what you liked best, Dad," said John. "The Alcohol Shop in Essaouira."

It was true. My wanderings round the 18th-century fortifications had taken me past a hole in the wall store on Boulevard Moulay Youssef which sold cheap bottles of Moroccan rosé. That night, Kate and I had sat on the balcony of our hotel and toasted the sun enthusiastically as it went down over the Atlantic.

"Let's say we both liked Essaouira best."

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Adrian Mourby travelled to Morocco with GB Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com), which offers return flights to Fez and Marrakech from £199. Guerba World (01373 826611; www.guerba.com) offers nine-day Moroccan Family Adventures, visiting M'hamid, Marrakech and Essaouira, from £320 per adult and £285 per child, plus a local payment per person of €120 (£80). Flights cost extra.

Further information

Moroccan Tourist Board (020-7437 0073; www.visitmorocco.org).

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