Las Palmerais. Look at that. I mean, once you’re over the confusion of how to pronounce it (or if you’ve ignored that element altogether), it still looks and sounds like a mighty fine word. French rather than Arabic, the word might be tinged with a hint of colonialism, but it’s still impressive.
Add to that an enigmatic location on the outskirts of Marrakech and the allusion to palm-tree-lined tropics in the name, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that, away from the soukhs and mosques, the city’s real beauties are found in Las Palmerais.
So it turned out we were the lucky ones. Unable to find the time for a two-day trip to the Sahara (this time), we automatically entered, and won, the draw for the second best place to ride a camel in Morocco. Las Palmerais it would be.
We booked in with a trustworthy-enough hotel offering the service and set off that afternoon.
Initially, the taxi took us bravely through Marrakech’s chaotic A-roads until we were dodging death traps no more and instead bumbling along gently into Moroccan suburbia. We looked out of the window as the buildings around us became less and less frequent. I began to wonder when we’d hit the exotic beauty. Las Palmerais sounded like a close whisper in my ears. Not long now.
Then, as the increasingly ramshackle settlements continued to pass us by, now looking as though they were made up of breeze blocks and little else, I realise that these settlements, separated by growing stretches of sand and rubble, were as far into the suburban landscape as we would be going.
Shortly after this near-euphoric realisation, I noticed groups of camels begin to appear alongside the piles of rubble and upright brush. Then the driver found our spot: four men lying under a tree, fasting and conserving energy, next to four camels which sat patiently in the heat.
A cheery young man took over from the cab driver, who then waited behind for us, his day’s money made. The boy guide – evidently still undergoing his Ramadan initiation by volunteering to do this round – smiled and chatted along with his crew in Arabic, as he dressed us head-to-toe in Arab garb. (Note to reader: it’s easy to feel self-conscious when a stranger and his friends are laughing as he dresses you up in a pink turban and blue dress).
Following the minor embarrassment, we were walked over to the camels, who turned out to be sitting in puddles of their own special blend: green and fermenting bodily waste. My camel, by way of greeting, opened his mouth to let me smell some of the his specially-brewed bi-product as I got close: a portion of sloppy green mulch. Then, their cud-chewing reverie over, the poor creatures were kicked into action.
I’ll never forget the lurch of a camel. The jolt in your midriff as its brittle legs stumble upright, followed by the roll of its humps beneath you as the vehicular animal makes its steady way forwards. In the midst of all the ugliness of Las Palmerais, the stacks of rubble and the strange semi-arid half-desert around us, the creature and this motion had their own eerie magnificence.
However, I’ll also not forget Las Palmerais.
As we trundled around on those broken beasts (supporting us with what felt like their last legs), intruded on a villager’s back garden to drink mint tea and stared out across the bare paradise-come-wasteland, I wondered how the place became such a vacuous hollow. Tourism had worn on this tired imitation of the desert. Along the horizon, rubble heaps lined up next to the tiny hamlets, unwanted neighbours that the residents were too weary to get rid of. Camels had learnt to sit all day in their own waste fluid, before being kicked to their feet to carry tourists around this strange mess of a place – the tourists who probably feel as ridiculous in their brightly coloured, sweatshop-made Arab guise as the herders, villagers, taxi-drivers and camels that prop up his ludicrous tourist-driven enterprise.
But, in the event that this unfortunate micro-economy is not helped back onto its feet with the dignity its kind people so dearly deserve, at least I can tick riding a camel off my bucket list.