(All images shot with Nikon D810 + AF-S 50mm f/1.4 G)
We paid our cab fare and ran up the steps, huddled tightly in our coats under the light rain. The wind was strong, and the sun hid behind the clouds. It was the height of winter, and we had picked a cold month to be in Morocco. Andrea and I settled down in a small cafe recommended by our Moroccan friends — La Sqala, right outside the Old Medina of Casablanca. I opened the menu and right at the bottom in a fancy font, read: The Land of The Setting Sun.
And so began our adventure in The Furthest West earlier this year in January. We were there for ten days to shoot an exclusive campaign for a local label, The Tinsel Rack. Geographically, Morocco is the Furthest West of all Arab countries, for beyond which extends the impassable North Atlantic Ocean… It was my first time setting foot in (Northern) Africa, and I’m so excited to share what I’ve seen and done during my time in Morocco.
But before I go on with the visual vomit, I’d like to thank Nikon Singapore for allowing me to get my hands on the D810 together with an AF-S 50mm f/1.4 G lens, which I used to take all the pictures you’ll see in this post. I’ll also be doing a second part on my thoughts about using the Nikon system for the first time so stay tuned for that!
PART I: MOROCCO 2015
Casablanca was gloomy upon arrival. We stayed there for two days in Cristina’s beautiful apartment, and spent our time visiting the Hassan II Mosque, Boulevard Mohammed V and Rick’s Cafe (created after the famous bar in the classic, Casablanca), to name a few.
We had a short time in Casablanca, but one loaded with new experiences nonetheless. If there’s one thing that stuck with me from my time there, it’s that they do the taxi-pool thing, so don’t be surprised if you hop onto a taxi with another passenger in it. Oh, and here’s also when I realised how terrible my French is (Morocco is also a French-speaking country and yeap, I briefly learnt French when I was still in university). All I could say was, “My French lessons did not prepare me for this situation!” :/
We had initially planned to take a domestic flight from Casablanca to Marrakech, but unexpectedly, our flight was cancelled. Cristina suggested hiring her friend and private driver instead, and so we did. It turned out to be our best decision ever. For about 250USD a day, Youssef became our friend, companion, bodyguard, trip organiser and private driver for the rest of our adventures in Morocco.
We arrived in Marrakech close to midnight, and checked into a riad hidden along an alley. The next day, we moved to the most luxurious hotel in Marrakech, La Mamounia. I have to say, Moroccan architecture is really beautiful and a lot of thought goes into building and designing a house / hotel (or riad, as they call it). Sadly though, the locals don’t approve of the recent renovation done at La Mamounia because it “looks less than authentic”. What?! To think La Mamounia still got us enchanted with its interiors, architecture and grandeur. Not to mention its acres of immaculate landscaping within the compounds. I could get lost in the grounds of La Mamounia forever and still never want to come out. Yeap, it’s that beautiful.
Orange trees are a common sight in Marrakech, but these oranges are never eaten because they are bitter – they are mainly ornamental since they bear fruit all year long
I can’t remember which flight it was, possibly on the flight home from Croatia last year, that I watched the biographical film Yves Saint Laurent and learned that Yves had spent some of his years living and working in Marrakech. Of course, I was thrilled to find out we were headed for Morocco a few months later, excited to see the city that had inspired Yves.
So, we visited Jardin Majorelle on Rue Yves Saint Laurent (a tribute indeed), where his ashes were scattered after his death. It’s the closest anyone could get to one of the most iconic fashion designers ever. The walls in the garden are painted Majorelle Blue (named after the artist who created the garden), and on a bright and sunny day, shadow play and the contrast between colours become a kaleidoscopic dream. I can understand why Yves liked to spend so much time in this garden.
We left for the Sahara Desert after two nights in Marrakech and we were to pass by the Atlas Mountains on our way to the desert. But due to the heavy snow that fell the night before, we had to stop by a café while waiting for the roads to be cleared. We sat in the van for what seemed like years (3 hours in fact) with no wifi or 3G connectivity. Torture, and totally a #firstworldproblem.
I recall seeing this man (whom I think is a Berber, or an indigenous North African) — tired, cold and presumably hungry — approaching the café we were parked at. It must have been a long walk from where he came from. The mountains, perhaps? He ordered, laid his gunny sack down and sat outside in the cold, while I watched him with genuine interest from inside the van. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t be sure if he caught me taking a picture of him, but he glanced briefly in my direction before returning his attention to his hunger. It struck me how blessed we were to be in the complete opposite situation. Snug and warm, with Youssef’s van for transport… and there we were, begging for internet connectivity. Kind of a weird story, but I’m just reminded how traveling always makes me realise how fortunate I am and that we shouldn’t take things for granted.
No beating around the bush – the Atlas Mountains were breathtaking. As we passed by, I clambered to the seat beside Youssef in excitement and wound down the window. The air was fresh and cool, perhaps about five degree celsius or so, and I couldn’t stop taking photos while Youssef drove. Every time we went round a bend, the view looked so different. Eventually, we conquered the mountains and drove through small towns into desert plains. I say conquered, but really – it was amazing. I’d be more than willing to take on that long drive again anytime. I fell asleep intermittently and remember waking up to Youssef saying we had to retire for the night in a town named Zagora, five hours from where we came from. It was already pitch black, and we had to head to the desert the next day instead.
In the morning, we hired a desert guide, Sallah, who would bring us to the Sahara. (There are laws in Morocco where only the local people of that town/city can bring you on guided tours in the area. So Youssef, who comes from Casablanca, was not able to bring us in.) Three hours later, we found ourselves at the camps of Erg Chegaga, one of the more expensive and luxurious ones in the desert (also dubbed the ‘VIP camps’ by Youssef).
The sun was setting and we hurried to settle down as our new friends welcomed us with some biscuits and warm Moroccan tea under the common tent. It’s some sort of (yummy) mint tea if you’re wondering, and it was a comforting drink to have in the Moroccan winter.
When we finished dinner, we emerged from the tents to a blanket of stars watching over us. We gathered around a fire and Sallah and another man started singing and beating the drums. There was no one else, and only the rhythm of their drums accompanying their voices and the fire crackling filled the silent air.
I walked away from the fire and laid on the sand. It was extraordinary, the sky, like nothing I’d ever seen before. There was no light around us save for the dying fire in the background, and all one could see was a thousand blinking stars in the night sky. I thought I saw a shooting star or two shoot by, but I couldn’t be sure if my eyes were fooling me. Regardless, it was magical.
I’d always loved looking at stars since young, and when I started flying more and more frequently to stunning starry night skies, I became increasingly captivated and fascinated with the stars. Now, as I’m typing this on the plane from South Korea back to Singapore, I look out and I see stars all around, and the brightest and roundest moon with the sun setting beneath it; and even though this scene is beautiful too, nothing compares to that night in the Sahara desert. It was a true panorama that I’d never forget.
I am still poor at astro/starscape photography since I don’t ever bring my tripod abroad and I still have no idea which settings work best for my purposes. I’m after all, still learning everyday. But hey, if you’re interested, my friend Jemimah wrote a little beginner’s guide on it here (unfortunately, only after I returned).
Morning came and we were awoken by the cold winds blowing against our tents. We never really got much sleep that night – there was no heater and the blankets weren’t enough for us despite the number of layers we had worn. So much for everyone’s misconception about the desert always being hot. Well, there you go, it is not.
We rode on camels across the oasis for the rest of the morning on a mission to take some pictures, while the rest drove on to our final destination to wait for us. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, but I daresay it’s a lot better than riding a horse as we did two weeks prior to Morocco. Our camels were really docile and friendly, and we couldn’t resist taking photos with and of them.
Our phones beeped non-stop with messages of concern for our safety as we headed back to Zagora. We had survived our stint in the desert for two days without any form of communication with the outside world. And maybe it was the lack of distraction that made it much more memorable for both of us.
We visited Tamegroute on the way, where the locals make beautiful ceramic pottery from natural dyes, and we saw first hand how a sculptor shaped a tagine pot in front of us in a minute. (#Skill). Children ran around the compound, playing with damp clay in their hands, and two of them came up to us and handed us what seemed like a clay camel. We lingered in the shop for a long while, undecided on the pottery we wanted to buy. Unnecessary shopping but it was too pretty to give it a miss. I’m not the kind to buy back souvenirs, but this would be good memorabilia from Morocco for sure.
We left Zagora for Marrakech the next day, and we stopped by a small town, Aït Benhaddou, where many films including Gladiator had been shot. The fortified city made from earthen clay was a patch of brown against the blue skies, and for once it seemed like the weather was becoming a little more bearable. We made it to the Old Medina in Marrakech before sunset. It was a crowded place to be at, and many performers with their snakes and monkeys that gathered in the square touted tourists that walked by. It was slightly intimidating (thank goodness for Youssef), so we quickly took our shots and explored the souks / markets briefly before leaving for dinner.
We drove back to Casablanca to catch our flight to our next destination, London. The days had passed by so quickly and it was already our last night in Morocco. Had it already been ten days?! Everything that I’d seen, heard, done, and tasted still felt so special that I wanted to hold on to the magic for awhile longer. I didn’t want to leave. This surely had to be one of the best and most enlightening travel experiences I’ve had! It’s such a pity we only had that amount of time to explore the few cities and towns that we did in Morocco… I’m definitely hoping to come back again to visit the northern parts of this beautiful country.
We shared a teary goodbye with Youssef at the airport as we exchanged hugs and promised to keep in touch. We’d swore to be back again soon to the other cities of Morocco. Fes, Chefchaouen, Tangier and Rabat, perhaps? I don’t know for now, but soon, it shall be.
Thank you Morocco for the best time ever, see you again soon!
All photos taken with Nikon D810 + AF-S 50mm f/1.4 G, courtesy of Nikon Singapore, and edited with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Look out for Part 2 where I’ll be sharing more about my thoughts on the camera.