There’s a group of kids playing in the corner of the restaurant, jumping off the coffee table onto the sofas. They’re dancing and singing in a state of hysteria that comes from knowing they’re on the verge of being told off, but are just about getting away with it.
The staff are unfazed. Colin, one of the parents, is supervising, ensuring they don’t stray too near the balcony. They’re contained in the corner at least, this small group of seven little people of various ages from two to six. And yes, they belong to us.
We try not to draw attention to this detail and sip glasses of wine, kindly provided by the hotel’s restaurant, set on the periphery of Marrakech’s main Djemaa el Fna square where, for the most part, no alcohol is served. Our time in Morocco is almost up. A final celebratory photo call and we toast the end of this family adventure, all of us on a high.
Who could have predicted this state of euphoria? Six nights earlier, at the beginning of our trip, my four-year-old daughter, Rae, is sitting on the trolley next to the carousel in tears, mourning the loss of her favourite summer dresses. These have vanished along with the rest of our luggage. Luca, our two-year-old, is being distracted by my iPhone. Chad, their resigned father, completes the picture alongside me the ever-guilty mother who’d booked the trip.
Less than an hour into the trip and a valuable lesson had already been learnt: don’t put all the kids’ clothing into one case. Our journey from London to Marrakech via Casablanca had involved an over-optimistically short transfer time. Previous self-drive and fly-and-flop alternatives had always been planned with strategic precision, but this was altogether different. Joining a group of families with similar-aged children as part of the Adventure Company’s Magical Morocco tour, we were to take in Marrakech, Ourika, the Atlas Mountains and the beach resort of Essaouira. The experience promised ‘exotic Marrakech’ with caleche (horse-drawn carriage) and camel rides, tours of old Portuguese forts, donkey treks up to mountain villages and an insight into the Berber way of life. Luca had coined the phrase as ‘Mo-ro-ko’ (pronounced Moloko with an ‘r’, sounding like the name of an erstwhile electro duo) and Rae was telling everyone we were off to Africa. It all sounded wildly adventurous but was it really suitable for kids aged two and five…?
We catch up with our group at the traditional, riad-style Morrocan House Hotel in Marrakech the next morning, having flown out 24 hours later (so as not to miss any school). They were a day ahead on bonding, but it doesn’t take long for kids to break the ice. The group consists of a further two families of four and a single parent with one child, all from different backgrounds and with varied reasons for being on the trip. This is the beauty and pitfall of a group holiday: you’re flung together in a mish-mash of different parenting styles and personalities, finding your only common interest is having similar aged-kids. Surprisingly, it works well.
The first excursion, to the Saffron Museum and farm to see how the spice is harvested, sets the tone for travel with seven under sixes: pretty fun, humorous and challenging all in one. Our two have already found kindred spirits. Alistair (six) with a penchant for ketchup is heading for the muddiest part of the trail, while the unruly red-haired Merryn (three) does her own thing. The well behaved, quieter Inca (six), playful Sam (three) and sleepy Jack (three) complete the kids’ group.
Back on the bus, everyone else has had the sense to bring backpack-cum-car seats and I’m (again) feeling badly prepped. Mohammed, our guide, an old hand with tour groups, gives gifts of French Foreign Legion-style sun hats to the kids, which are well-received.
Lunch is one of two prepared picnics hosted as part of the trip, taken by a pebbled river near the small town of Ourika. At first the children are afraid of the makeshift mud, wood and stone bridges but it doesn’t take long for them to invent a game of throwing bigger and bigger stones into the river, until they decide it’s more fun to focus on how wet this gets them. This becomes a familiar scene — the kids play, overstep the mark, then either get wet, muddy or worse. No guessing whose kids they were. “We were glad when you guys turned up,” said Colin, Alistair and Merryn’s father. “Our kids seemed the most feral until then!” Hmmm.
The donkey ride
“Mummy, Africa needs a wash,” says Rae as she’s ferried, somewhat unwillingly, up a mountain by a donkey. “The chickens and donkeys and cats need a wash. Africa is smelly.” Well, kids are not known for being politically correct. The red dust of the mountains coupled with this authentic Northern African experience is all a little much for her. Perfect or pretty it may not be, but exotic it certainly is. Vivid green cacti and prickly pears line the mountain trail as we head up to our lunch stop, against a backdrop of mist, fog and red rock.
We arrive at a traditional mud, stone and wood house in the mountain village of Tizi n’Oucheg, where a chicken tagine and salad with flatbread awaits us. “Bread?” says Luca, delighted. This is to be his sustenance for this trip and despite it being served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, his reaction is one of constant happy surprise. The kids barely sit still through lunch and are instead raring to get to grips with the bus they’ve built with cushions and stools. It’s apparently bound for a vampire and zombie school, as opposed to the imminent donkey ride back down. Rae is adamant she’s not getting back on her mount, until it starts to rain and she begins to slide down the muddy mountain. Mohammed, our guide, scoops her up to ride with him.
“You’re like my daughter,” he smiles. “Carry me, I’m tired,” he mimics. Rae is too embarrassed to be anything other than complicit. The younger ones quickly fall asleep — an impressive feat — leaving parents clinging to their infants, arms numb, for the wobbly hour-long ride back down, while Mohammed provides an insight into the history, culture and politics of the area. This is Tuareg ‘Berber’ country — one of the famed North African nomadic tribes whose bright indigo-blue veils, worn as protection from the sun, have seen them nicknamed the ‘blue people’. The children seem far more absorbed in scrabbling up the mountains on the pit-stops to listen, but we hope some of it is absorbed.
Our return to the hotel is greeted with the news our luggage has arrived in Marrakech. Pity we’re in Ourika. We’re covered in mud from the donkey ride yet Rae and Luca are beyond caring, happily jumping off the single bed onto the mattress on the floor. I’m busy working out how to switch on the hot water in the shower. “Turn the taps in the hand basin on full first,” I’m informed. Right, of course. Adopting a roll-with-it attitude is the norm.
A four-hour minibus drive to Essaouira is on the cards, a little much for infants with untrained bladders. We make a luggage stop in Marrakech (we have clean undies!) and punctuate the rest of the trip with toilet stops, and the heavy use of gadgets, games and snacks until we arrive in Essaouira. Dining in the heart of the medina later that rain-soaked night, a couple on the nearby table smile as the kids run rings around them. “Guys, stay away from the table,” I say. “Not everyone likes kids you know.” They laugh, we laugh. The next day the couple spots us again and moves to a different restaurant. A familiar response to our unusual group.
Essaouira’s huge expanse of sandy, deserted beach is far more forgiving, allowing them the freedom to run free. We have to literally drag them away from the beach to explore the medina’s fort and canons — the kids are desperate to return to chasing waves and picking up shells.
Visiting Marrakech with your family gives the experience a new dynamic. We head into the hub of the city, the frenetic Djemaa el Fna square with its acrobats, water sellers and chaotic open-air restaurants. A warren of alleyways leads into the souk: a hive of stalls and hawkers selling their wares, offering everything from teapots to scarves and lamps to livestock. Hard bargaining and hassle-heavy haggling are the usual order of the day but today, hawkers ruffle the kids’ hair and weathered faces crack into smiles.
Still, where there’s money to be made there are always chancers and today it’s the snake charmer who charges 200 dirham (£14.40) for a picture with Rae. We won’t go above 50 dirham (£3.60) and walk away with him berating us. Rae, meanwhile, is chuffed at her own bravery. “Mum, I had a snake round my neck!”
The Hotel Islane’s restaurant hosts our last meal with the group (cue children dancing on the coffee table) and we share an awkward goodbye with our new friends. I’ve opted for an extra night at the Riad El Fenn boutique hotel — a five-minute walk from the Koutoubia Mosque and main square. It’s not part of this adventure experience but a promise of a little luxury was too great to forgo. I’d booked this on day two of our stay while covered in mud with no prospect of a change of clothes. Luca and Rae are introduced to the resident tortoises and although the rain keeps us imprisoned all day, the spa, home cinema and our generous room size is enough to keep us entertained.
Would we do this type of trip again? Absolutely. It taught us we could deal with just about anything from five-hour car journeys or tricky plane transfers. As long as the kids had our attention (or friends to play with) they were happy. Out in a foreign world, their sturdiness and an ability to get on was a welcome surprise. And, rather than be a hindrance, they genuinely enhanced the trip.
The kids, of course, see it like kids do. “I liked the donkeys and the cannons,” says Luca, simply. “I liked playing with Alistair and Merryn.” Not be outdone, Rae says: “My favourite bit was the seaside and collecting shells. And the other kids. Why do we have to go back to our old house?” Indeed.
Published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)