The further south you go in Morocco, the more it feels like the roads are just waiting to disappear. One or two turns off the main strip of tarmac and you’ll find yourself driving along a juddering dirt path. The kind of dirt path where you might round a corner and be forced to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting two donkeys that have wandered into the road, as we do.
The donkeys seem only faintly phased by their near-car experience – as if they’re entirely in the right and we’re entirely in the wrong. And why not? After all, this isn’t a road in any sense that a donkey might understand a road. There are just two indents, about a car’s width apart. We barely understand that it’s a road ourselves. Why would a donkey?
“If you are truly honest with yourself, you will know whether shitting into a bucket of sawdust is something you are really capable of.”
Given these difficulties with the route, we are lucky to find L’Ane Vert at all. The maps on our phones show its vague area but the streets do not come up at all. The nearest town is Tafedna, flanked by a mountain road that doesn’t bother to meander into the town itself.
We eventually find the place by sheer luck. We spot two westerners, garbed in the classic ‘I’m-travelling-Morocco’ look of loose-fitting shirt and scarf. We park the car off the path to return to in the morning, before carrying our bags through the hut structures to find the lit-up main building – a sandy coloured small desert chateau that houses the reception, a few living quarters, and the bar.
L’Ane Vert – whose name, somewhat ironically given our earlier encounter, means Green Donkey in French – is marketed as an eco-lodge. The bulk of it was built from local materials without machinery. Its Berber tents are hand-woven. Whether the hands that dug the foundations were those of the same travellers who now serve as its staff isn’t clear, but I’d imagine they were cut from the same cloth: European escapees trying to build an eco-utopia, as if someone had managed to monetise the beach from Alex Garland’s novel.
It’s these staff – the majority of them volunteers – who greet us on arrival. Bright-eyed kids in their early twenties who still haven’t quite shouldered the responsibility we tell ourselves they’re supposed to; drop-out types in their thirties who you guess could do this same thing in third world countries all over the world. We heard the same story over and over again: “I came here for two days – that was three weeks ago.”
The lodge itself is an impressive feat of DIY engineering. It has two ‘backpacker rooms’ with bunk beds of differing qualities, along with several small structures that wouldn’t look out of place in a live-action Flintstones remake. The toilets are buckets that slowly fill with sawdust. Two German carpenters, working for a pittance along with food and board, are building a deck for a pond. The Flintstones lodges have private bathroom areas and holes all around the walls, to make sure that if you haven’t found nature, nature will find you.
A few days into our stay, as I lay on a bottom bunk in the afternoon, dozing away a mild stomach-ache, an almighty croak rings through the room. A toad has wedged itself between my mattress and the wall, angrily close to my head, and doesn’t want to leave. A toad surprised me in the bathroom on more than one occasion too. As much as you are seeing through your ecological ethos, you are living on their space.
I talk about that day inexactly because I’m not sure I remember which days were which. The calm of the commune makes real sense here; it infers a freedom that feels almost teenage, like we’re hanging our heads out of hatchback windows because there’s nothing else to do.
There is the contentment of the beach and of a bed and a shower, of food being there and changing conversation, even a bit of labour if the mood takes you. It moves one to slower, simpler places. We enjoy ourselves by standing on the beach and rereading books we already knew we liked.
The community is rarely broken up by the flash of a phone, or by the community outside that we’re supposed to pay attention to. Things are happening at the White House, I’m sure, but the beach is just a short walk away. The girls are pretty and the boys are fit and topless.
My attention instead goes into rereading Joan Didion, taking in her liberated sense of the American West with a warm mojito (the ice has run out, it’s just something you accept in the commune).
One of Didion’s first published essays is called ‘On Self-Respect’: it details her idea of self-respect as a kind of self-knowledge. Knowing the things you want and don’t want, understanding yourself better, is the truest self-respect, she argues. L’Ane Vert is a good test of that.
If you are truly honest with yourself, you will know whether shitting into a bucket of sawdust is something you are really capable of; you will know whether the droning hubbub of insects and toads continuing through the night is too much for you; whether you really want to be surrounded by half-dressed post-teenagers taking down your dinner order. Is this hippy communal existence really something you can handle?
Incidentally – and somewhat surprisingly – the food is impressively good. For somewhere with a truly captive audience (there is not a sandwich shop down the road you could pop to), every afternoon and evening we’re served a set of interesting, fresh and delicious plates.
A starter (a pesto-drenched tomato, for instance), a vegetarian option (heavy gnocchi in a tomato & basil sauce, say), a meat option (fresh-caught sole, perhaps), and a dessert. The omelettes in the morning are full of vegetables in each small cut you make; the mojitos (one of four or five cocktails on offer, depending on the availability of spirits) are joyously stuffed with mint leaves and lime, haphazard and flavourful for it. It leaves you with the impression that if you were to walk down to the beach and take a mouthful of seawater, it would have a hint of lemon.
It’s hard to tell which bits to praise the volunteer cabal for, and which to attribute to the Moroccan staff. Either way it’s easy to see how the food and drink rack up noticeably on our final bill. We want it – and more.
After a wild first night of fast-sliding cocktails, halter-neck slipping and hippy pairings off, things settle down somewhat. There are more couples visiting; a different air descends on the place. The casual, temporary style of employment at L’Ane Vert means that each experience will likely be entirely different – “cooler” kids behind the bar might bring a more party atmosphere, more couples could make it more cuddly, an influx of trustafarians could bring a haze of a different kind.
But the constants are all around you. There’s the landscape and the sea: a vast, empty, spotless beach, covered in sun and crashing with waves. And the animals. One night, after the cocktails have settled we decide to walk down to the beach to see the stars. We climb a small dune which we believed marked the start of the beach, only to find it isn’t there.
I shine the light from my phone and we try to work out our bearings when my companion says: “Something’s moving.” One of the bushes rears its head out of the stand, another turns towards us. As our eyes adjust we saw that the bushes are camels, hundreds of them, sleeping along the beach.
I read that the beach they filmed in the eponymous movie had to shut recently due to the influx of tourists, but L’Ane Vert reminds you that places like this still exist relatively untouched elsewhere. As much as the madness of the volunteers can grate on you, it’s easy to become attached to your particular cabal of kids in all their youthful weirdness.
As we leave, we give three of the volunteers a lift to Essaouira. They smash cans of Flag in the back of the white Dacia as we cycle through an old iPod nano and make bad jokes. We are pulled over at one of Morocco’s many police checkpoints and I feel a twinge of responsibility – outside the alternate universe of L’Ane Vert, these three might not quite know what they’re doing. We’ve left the lodge and are now back in a real country with real people in it.
I look in the mirror and address the boy as an officer approaches the car. “You need to put a shirt on,” I say, and he does.
James Tennent is a London-based freelance writer. Keep up with him on Twitter.