Morocco — Africa’s California?

By Wayne Wirtanen
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(First of three parts)

Partway through my visit to Morocco in September ’04, I realized that there were similarities there to what one might find on a trip in California.

A quick look at a map showed that Morocco is roughly the same size as California, it has a long, west-facing ocean shoreline and, like California, it has deserts and a central north-south mountain range.

In Morocco I was not disappointed with the exotic differences from California that I found — I had expected to see huge sand dunes, exotic city scenes and a casbah or two — but I was certainly surprised to be able to visit a major movie studio and a ski resort.

Morocco’s movie industry

First, be aware that two of the best-known “Morocco” films were not made in Morocco. My Internet source claims that the 1942 Bogart/Bergman movie “Casablanca” was made in Hollywood and that the final “farewell” scene was filmed at the nearby Van Nuys airport. And the desert sand dune scenes in the 1942 Crosby/Hope/Lamour comedy “Road to Morocco” were filmed outside of Yuma, Arizona.

Because Morocco is perceived by international filmmakers as a safe and stable part of the world, one where costs are relatively low, many desert and exotic city scenes have been shot there, most often in films where the story does not necessarily take place in Morocco.

Among the long list of familiar titles of movies that were made in Morocco are “Lawrence of Arabia,” various Cleopatra films and documentaries, “Gladiator” and “Alexander the Great.”

Recently I watched the 1985 Danny DeVito, Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas adventure film “Jewel of the Nile” on TV. I recognized the sets and props that I had seen during my visit last year to Atlas Corporation Studio outside of Ouarzazate (WAR-za-zat), southeast of Marrakesh.

This film studio has a massive outdoor “back lot” with false-front constructions representing ancient buildings from Egypt and other exotic locations. It can be visited by the public, though sound stages are off-limits to the public as is the entire facility when filming is underway. There are luxury hotels across the road from the studio to accommodate movie personnel when filming is ongoing.

Skiing in Morocco

The skiing season in Morocco is February to April. This is in the Atlas Mountains, where there is a ski lift and tows in Oukaimeden, south of Marrakesh.

In the summer, these resorts, with lush greenery, are popular hiking and relaxing-with-family destinations — not that far from Sahara’s dunes but seemingly in a different world.

On a balmy, sunny day in mid-September, I enjoyed a pleasant lunch hour at an outdoor Alpine-look café. The surroundings were a pretty good match for a village in Switzerland or California’s High Sierras.

Moroccan fossils, genuine & fake

Something that we don’t have in California is Morocco’s large quantity and variety of fossils that are much in demand by collectors around the world. The fossil most commonly unearthed in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains is the Devonian trilobite (TRI-lo-bite), found in sedimentary rock that was the sandy bottom of the sea some 400 million years ago.

Trilobites were flat sea creatures with a segmented top shell. Fossilized specimens vary in size from less than an inch to giants a foot or more in diameter.

Fossilized trilobites are found in many parts of the world where sedimentary rock from ancient sea bottoms rose up into present-day mountains. The great attraction of Moroccan trilobites to collectors is not only their great quantities but their amazing variety. Strikingly different and exotic-looking species are reported to be discovered every year.

Other fossilized species that I admired at a dealer’s shop resembled snail shells of all sizes and 6- to 8-inch-long, pencil-thin squids. Colorful mountings of these fossils on large flat stones made attractive display items. When I showed a great interest in the dealer’s displays, he took me down to a cellar beneath his showroom where he had a 4-foot-long fossilized skeleton of some kind of dinosaur plus other exotic creatures.

There was a great profusion of simple fossilized trilobites for sale at nearly every street corner in towns or at souvenir stands. Prices ran up to $5 each. At a large fossil outlet near the Atlas Mountains, I purchased 10 of these same trilobites for $4. These trilobites were in a rock about the size of a small walnut. Each rock, already split in pieces, revealed a 3-dimensional fossilized creature millions of years old — collectors’ items good enough for me and the interested members of my family.

It wasn’t until I got home and looked up Moroccan fossils on the Internet that I discovered that there was a “fake fossil” industry. The great interest in Moroccan fossils by foreign collectors has spawned a widespread industry producing excellent reproductions by making molds from genuine fossils and then casting and coloring large quantities of identical imitations. (Punch up Sahara Overland Tours on Google for details of this technique.)

My further research has indicated that imitations are most likely made of the larger and more complex fossils than the ones that I purchased.

When I was able to find and talk to a fossil expert, I found his final advice interesting. He said, “Genuine fossils that might cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars are reproduced to sell for $10 to $100. Some of these reproductions of rare/exotic specimens are so good that experts have a hard time detecting the fraudulent work without destroying the item.

“As long as you are paying the lower price and don’t particularly care about the authenticity, go ahead and buy them. They are usually very attractive and excellent representations of the real thing. What better souvenir to bring home from Morocco?”

I suspect that my small trilobite fossils are genuine, although not rare or valuable specimens.

Teatime in Morocco

The national beverage in Morocco is a sweet mint tea, served hot. Tea breaks are taken whenever the urge or opportunity arises. A family often will get together at midday for an informal gathering, with tea served all around. Sharing some mint tea is a traditional preliminary step before a business meeting or a simple purchase from a merchant.

The most traditional way to pour tea in Morocco is from 12 to 18 inches above the glass in a dramatic demonstration of skill and hand-eye coordination.

Plan a trip

On this trip, I was a guest of Oussaden Tours (8 West 38th St., 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018; phone 800-206-5049 or 212/382-1436 or visit www.oussadentours.com). Contact them for information on their variety of trips to exotic Morocco.

Next month: Morocco’s distinctive architecture and people.

Happy trails.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

(First of three parts)

Partway through my visit to Morocco in September ’04, I realized that there were similarities there to what one might find on a trip in California.

A quick look at a map showed that Morocco is roughly the same size as California, it has a long, west-facing ocean shoreline and, like California, it has deserts and a central north-south mountain range.

In Morocco I was not disappointed with the exotic differences from California that I found — I had expected to see huge sand dunes, exotic city scenes and a casbah or two — but I was certainly surprised to be able to visit a major movie studio and a ski resort.

Morocco’s movie industry

First, be aware that two of the best-known “Morocco” films were not made in Morocco. My Internet source claims that the 1942 Bogart/Bergman movie “Casablanca” was made in Hollywood and that the final “farewell” scene was filmed at the nearby Van Nuys airport. And the desert sand dune scenes in the 1942 Crosby/Hope/Lamour comedy “Road to Morocco” were filmed outside of Yuma, Arizona.

Because Morocco is perceived by international filmmakers as a safe and stable part of the world, one where costs are relatively low, many desert and exotic city scenes have been shot there, most often in films where the story does not necessarily take place in Morocco.

Among the long list of familiar titles of movies that were made in Morocco are “Lawrence of Arabia,” various Cleopatra films and documentaries, “Gladiator” and “Alexander the Great.”

Recently I watched the 1985 Danny DeVito, Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas adventure film “Jewel of the Nile” on TV. I recognized the sets and props that I had seen during my visit last year to Atlas Corporation Studio outside of Ouarzazate (WAR-za-zat), southeast of Marrakesh.

This film studio has a massive outdoor “back lot” with false-front constructions representing ancient buildings from Egypt and other exotic locations. It can be visited by the public, though sound stages are off-limits to the public as is the entire facility when filming is underway. There are luxury hotels across the road from the studio to accommodate movie personnel when filming is ongoing.

Skiing in Morocco

The skiing season in Morocco is February to April. This is in the Atlas Mountains, where there is a ski lift and tows in Oukaimeden, south of Marrakesh.

In the summer, these resorts, with lush greenery, are popular hiking and relaxing-with-family destinations — not that far from Sahara’s dunes but seemingly in a different world.

On a balmy, sunny day in mid-September, I enjoyed a pleasant lunch hour at an outdoor Alpine-look café. The surroundings were a pretty good match for a village in Switzerland or California’s High Sierras.

Moroccan fossils, genuine & fake

Something that we don’t have in California is Morocco’s large quantity and variety of fossils that are much in demand by collectors around the world. The fossil most commonly unearthed in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains is the Devonian trilobite (TRI-lo-bite), found in sedimentary rock that was the sandy bottom of the sea some 400 million years ago.

Trilobites were flat sea creatures with a segmented top shell. Fossilized specimens vary in size from less than an inch to giants a foot or more in diameter.

Fossilized trilobites are found in many parts of the world where sedimentary rock from ancient sea bottoms rose up into present-day mountains. The great attraction of Moroccan trilobites to collectors is not only their great quantities but their amazing variety. Strikingly different and exotic-looking species are reported to be discovered every year.

Other fossilized species that I admired at a dealer’s shop resembled snail shells of all sizes and 6- to 8-inch-long, pencil-thin squids. Colorful mountings of these fossils on large flat stones made attractive display items. When I showed a great interest in the dealer’s displays, he took me down to a cellar beneath his showroom where he had a 4-foot-long fossilized skeleton of some kind of dinosaur plus other exotic creatures.

There was a great profusion of simple fossilized trilobites for sale at nearly every street corner in towns or at souvenir stands. Prices ran up to $5 each. At a large fossil outlet near the Atlas Mountains, I purchased 10 of these same trilobites for $4. These trilobites were in a rock about the size of a small walnut. Each rock, already split in pieces, revealed a 3-dimensional fossilized creature millions of years old — collectors’ items good enough for me and the interested members of my family.

It wasn’t until I got home and looked up Moroccan fossils on the Internet that I discovered that there was a “fake fossil” industry. The great interest in Moroccan fossils by foreign collectors has spawned a widespread industry producing excellent reproductions by making molds from genuine fossils and then casting and coloring large quantities of identical imitations. (Punch up Sahara Overland Tours on Google for details of this technique.)

My further research has indicated that imitations are most likely made of the larger and more complex fossils than the ones that I purchased.

When I was able to find and talk to a fossil expert, I found his final advice interesting. He said, “Genuine fossils that might cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars are reproduced to sell for $10 to $100. Some of these reproductions of rare/exotic specimens are so good that experts have a hard time detecting the fraudulent work without destroying the item.

“As long as you are paying the lower price and don’t particularly care about the authenticity, go ahead and buy them. They are usually very attractive and excellent representations of the real thing. What better souvenir to bring home from Morocco?”

I suspect that my small trilobite fossils are genuine, although not rare or valuable specimens.

Teatime in Morocco

The national beverage in Morocco is a sweet mint tea, served hot. Tea breaks are taken whenever the urge or opportunity arises. A family often will get together at midday for an informal gathering, with tea served all around. Sharing some mint tea is a traditional preliminary step before a business meeting or a simple purchase from a merchant.

The most traditional way to pour tea in Morocco is from 12 to 18 inches above the glass in a dramatic demonstration of skill and hand-eye coordination.

Plan a trip

On this trip, I was a guest of Oussaden Tours (8 West 38th St., 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018; phone 800-206-5049 or 212/382-1436 or visit www.oussadentours.com). Contact them for information on their variety of trips to exotic Morocco.

Next month: Morocco’s distinctive architecture and people.

Happy trails.