Deputy Editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Sasha Slater, travelled with her family to Marrakech and Ouirgane with Lawrence of Morocco in April 2014.
We first met tortoises in the pools in the gardens of La Roseraie in the Atlas Mountains. Brushing past the creamy yellow roses and hot-pink bougainvillea that make the grounds an exotic wonderland, we reached a small pond in which a solemn tortoise was sunning himself, neck and head extended to their fullest from his shell, to catch the heat. There were lizards here too, of the kind we are used to in the south of France - svelte and elegant, they whisk swiftly out of sight into the cracks in the rough-stone walls if your shadow crosses them.
But it was while staying at Les Deux Tours, in the Palmeraie on the outskirts of Marrakech that we fully appreciated the richness of reptilian life in the country. Les Deux Tours has not one but many turtle ponds and we lost count of the numbers of these serious but charming creatures to be seen clambering laboriously onto water lilies and rushes to sunbathe every morning. They are surprisingly fast-moving but my seven-year-old daughter caught a baby within minutes of arriving at the hotel, while we were still checking in, and held it, entranced and examining it minutely, on the palm of her hand, before sliding it back into its pool and safety. It was a wonderful welcome to a new hotel.
Some were the size of dinner plates, some only as big as a 50-pence piece, but all seemed to be revelling in the glories of the place, just as we were. The day after a monumental storm, during which forked lightening had illuminated roads transformed into torrents and the camels had huddled forlornly under palm trees to avoid the fat raindrops, the tortoises were out in force to warm up in the dazzling sunlight of the fresh morning as we strolled to breakfast brushing past the rain-washed leaves of palm trees.
There were other, more dramatic reptiles to enjoy elsewhere in Marrakech. Djemaa El Fna, the main square of the city, has snake charmers whose assistants drape non-venomous snakes round your (or rather your delighted children's) necks. So entranced were we by the dry, supple, rope-like animals whose heads we held that we backed unthinking almost into the black cobras and diamond-patterned puff adders that lay, inert but menacing, on the hot stones of the square until we came too close and they reared up, hoods raised and we backed hastily away. Later, strolling through the Medina, and explaining repeatedly to our indignant six-year-old son why we couldn't buy terrapins or tortoises to take home hidden inside our hats, we found a smaller square which had a chameleon balanced onto of his wire cage, and fat iguanas which crawled with little prompting up our arms to loll on our necks. Even in the carpet shop we were lured into (everyone always is, there is no escape, just relax and enjoy the ride), there was a pet tortoise on the move, crossing the multi-coloured red, blue and orange squares of the carpets that we were briefly bamboozled into contemplating buying as we sipped mint tea.
We didn't buy a carpet in the end. But when we got home, we did start googling 'turtle for sale'.