Morocco to Timbuktu: Meet the woman exploring North Africa’s salt roads

Alice Morrison travels from Tangiers to the fabled sandstone city of Timbuktu in her new BBC2 series

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In Morocco to Timbuktu: An Arabian Adventure, adventurer Alice Morrison explores what was once the world’s richest trading network: the salt roads of North Africa, which were forged by the demand for gold from the mines of sub-Saharan Africa.

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Setting off from Tangier, she travels 200 miles – via the Islamic city Fes, Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains – to the “city of gold”, Timbuktu. Along the way she chats to people in fluent Arabic and French about the country’s history and traditions.

We asked her about the highs and lows, and how she ended up becoming a TV adventurer.


What do you love most about living in Morocco?

I love the people. Their friendliness, kindness and hospitality. They also have a very similar sense of humour, so you always have a good time when you accept an invitation to a glass of fresh mint tea. 

Some people might not realise Timbuktu is a real place – where is it and why did it enter our lexicon?

Timbuktu is on the southern edge of the desert in the West African country of Mali, close to the great river Niger – where the camel meets the canoe. It came into our lexicon when it was defined as the “furtherest place on earth” by the Oxford English Dictionary. 

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With a donkey cart in Timbuktu

What’s there now?

It is a small, sleepy town with a massive heart. The ancient mosques are still intact and there is the great library with its store of magnificent books and manuscripts which were saved from Al Qaeda by the courage of the librarians.

You travel along old trade routes – why are they called salt roads?

These were the roads that the merchants travelled with cargoes of salt which they traded for gold. At one point a kilo of salt was worth as much as a kilo of gold. 

Of all the people you meet along the way, who made the biggest impression?

That is a tough one! I think that spending some time with Hafida Hdoubane crossing the great dunes was a really special experience. Her great-grandmother was a slave captured in Ethiopia and given to her great-grandfather as a prize for his prowess in war. Her family history has been one of struggle and yet she has overcome all of that to go on and become Morocco’s first female mountain guide. She is a fantastic woman.

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Helping at a tannery in Marrakech

What were the other highlights?

Working in a thousand-year-old tannery and feeling my waders fill up with liquid pigeon shit; racing against time to get to the pass in the Atlas mountains before the storm set in; climbing to the tombs in Fez before dawn to watch the sky stain pink and hear the muezzins in the mosques sing out the call to prayer across the city; dancing with the Touareg women in Timbuktu; and, above all, that first moment when I got to touch the Sankore mosque and lay my hands on hundreds of years of history.

And any low points?

Understanding what the people of Timbuktu suffered under the occupation of Al Qaeda and how fearful they are that, if the UN leaves, Al Qaeda will return once again.

Most tourists don’t make it beyond Fez and Marrakesh. Where else would you recommend in Morocco?

Morocco is an outdoors paradise and I would say you MUST go to the Atlas Mountains and do some hiking. The scenery is magnificent and the Berber people will welcome you with open arms. The desert is also magical, with the endless, golden dunes and fiery sunsets. Drinking hot, sweet mint tea under the shade of a nomad’s tent is one of life’s great pleasures.

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Mountain guide Saaid and Alice walk across the High Atlas Mountains

Do you have any tips for people travelling in Morocco and women in particular?

The people here are welcoming, open-hearted and friendly, so if you reflect those qualities back to them, you will have a wonderful experience. Don’t rush things, take your time and talk to people. I would recommend that women dress mindfully as this is a Muslim country. It is a great place to wear gorgeous long dresses which are also cool in the summer. Learn a couple of words of Arabic and you will make friends for life!

How did you end up becoming an adventurer?

I started off by just doing mini-adventures at the weekend or in my holidays and the more I did, the more I liked them. There are always times when I think, “What have I got myself in to? I just can’t do this, everything hurts.” But they make me feel a hundred percent alive and give me the great experiences of my life.

What’s your toughest adventure to date – the Marathon des Sables or the Tour d’Afrique?

The long day on the Marathon des Sables, which is 52 miles at one go across the burning sands of the Sahara Desert was pretty grim, but I felt amazing when I finished it. Tour d’Afrique was the most extraordinary experience – cycling across a whole continent.

What is still on your bucket list?

My travel list is very, very long. I would like to cycle across Australia and America, hike the Appalachian trail, trek the entire length of the Atlas across Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, walk the Camino de Santiago, visit Isacotra in Yemen, go through the north of Iraq, learn Persian in Iran, discover frankincense in Oman, scuba dive off the coast of the Sudan, explore the Galapagos, go in search of the lost city of Ubar…. I better stop now and get planning!

Morocco to Timbuktu: An Arabian Adventure begins on Thursday 11 May on BBC2 at 9pm


Radio Times holidays to Africa

Namibia tour, 13 nights from £2,599pp. From the endless sand dunes in the world’s oldest desert, to the vast salt pan and teeming waterholes of Etosha, to the haunting Skeleton Coast, Namibia’s diversity is simply awe-inspiring. Click here for the full itinerary and to book

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South Africa, 15 nights from £2057pp. What’s included: Scheduled flights to Johannesburg and from Cape Town, all transfers, 13 nights’ accommodation on bed and breakfast basis, three dinners, all tours as mentioned, visit to Apartheid museum, visit to Blyde River canyon, full-day Kruger safari, tour of Zulu battlefields, tour of the Featherbed Nature Reserve including lunch, whale-watching depending on season, winelands tour, visit to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, tour of Cape Point. Click here for the full itinerary and to book