Thursday, March 19, 2009


Our trip began far too early, as we were up at 4am to catch the bus to the train station, and then a train out to Gatwick for our 7am flight to Marrakech.
After landing in Marrakech we decided to be Intrepid tourists and rather than get a taxi to our hotel, we caught the local bus. An interesting experience. First issue was finding the unmarked bus stop (about 800m from the airport, across a busy 4(ish) lane road), although it seemed that it was best to stand in a patch of shade and hail the bus when you see it. After successfully getting on the correct bus, the second issue was where to get off. In our case we chose the wrong Tourist Information Centre causing us to walk an hour in the opposite direction. We did save ourselves about 90 Dirhams though.
It seems that every village has this street (named after the first King of Morocco).
After doing the open top tourist bus tour around the city in the afternoon, we met up with our tour group and headed into the main square for dinner. The Jemaa el Fna is a crazy place. There are hundreds of people strolling around the food, juice, spice and dried fruit stalls as well as a wide variety of performers vying for attention. To add to the mix motorbikes come roaring through and speed off into the surrounding streets. For our dinner we went to one of the stalls and tasted the first couscous and tajine of the trip.
Katoubia mosque
A street leading into the Jemma El Fna
Jemma El Fna by night.
Cooking dinner!
Imlil & High Atlas Mountains
Today we boarded the mini bus and began the tour proper. A quick stop at the supermarket for snacks where we discovered it was ladies day. Sadly Claire was the only lady in the entire supermarket to not receive a free rose. 2 hours later, after driving through some spectacular scenery we arrived at Imlil in the High Atlas Mountains with views of Mount Toukbal. We then had to walk uphill for about an hour to reach the village of Aroumd where our Gite (homestay) was. After lunch 5 (although 2 turned around before the climb started) of the group took up the opportunity to go on a 8km, 4hr hike up the mountain to a pilgrimage site Sidi Chamarouch. Across rocky creek beds, up into mountain goat territory, and we reached the destination. Interestingly it is also a ski field and yes there were people skiing. They are very keen as you have to hike up!
100m to go!
We found a herd of goats on the way back down. The goat herder resorted to throwing snowballs at them to keep them moving upwards.
Near the end of the decent Claire had a little incident with her ankle and a rock. She struggled back to the village, across flooded paths, and slippery terrain. Even though the physio's teach you the RICE principle (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation), Claire decided to trust the local Berber medicine which involved putting your ankle into hot water & salt. Skeptical as we were, there was minimal swelling and bruising. Claire did need a donkey ride to get back down from the village to our mini bus, and made do with a broom handle for a walking stick.
Aroumd from the back.
Not feeling quite so happy, but the view was pretty nice!
Claire's donkey that carried her back to Imlil.
Ait Benhaddou
Back in the mini bus and we head to Ait Benhaddou. Along the way we drove through a weekly market in one of the villages. It was mayhem! People, cars, donkeys, bikes all trying to get ahead of one another, and often with massive loads precariously balanced. We also drove over the Tizi n 'Tichka pass (2260m). Not for the faint hearted this road turned back on itself numerous times and there were some hairy moments as we encountered other buses. Arriving late in the afternoon at Ait Benhaddou, we made for the UNESCO world heritage site of the Kasbah for sunset. In order to get there we had to make our way across a fairly fast flowing river. The local kids are entrepreneurial and had positioned the larger rocks and some sandbags as steps. For a fee they would walk in the freezing water and keep you upright and dry. Sadly they went home at sunset and we had to ask someone if we could borrow a donkey (for a fee of course) to get back across.
The weekly market.
Tizi n Tichka pass. Yes that is the same road.
The snake man waits for tourists at the viewpoint just outside of Ait Benhaddou
View of Ait Benhaddou from the Kasbah. You can see where people are crossing the river.
Sunset on top of the Kasbah
The best dinner of the trip. Beef tajine.
This day we started out in the town of Ouarzazate. One of the group had asthma and decided to skip the Sahara portion of the trip, so we put him in a Grand Taxi back to Marrakech. He ended up paying for 4 of the available seats and the other passenger only paid for one, otherwise they would have waited until the other seats were taken. A quick stop at the Berber Pharmacie where we were given examples of how different plants are used for common ailments. Claire also volunteered for the head massage demonstration. Apparently good for migraines! We reached Zagora that afternoon and went for a walk through the Palmerie. It was interesting to learn how the village manages the land and in particular the irrigation system. Walking alongside the canals was tricky at times, especially when motorbikes try and pass you on a 60cm wide sandy track. It is also the home of the famous 'Tombouctou 52 Jours' sign (Timbuktu 52 days by camel).
Nomad camp
Loved the walking stick!
Motto - God, Country and King. This is laid out often with white stones.
Sahara Desert Camp
We stopped at a local pottery workshop, and purchased some great table lanterns. After driving to the end of the road, we stopped at M'Hamid for some lunch. On today's menu was Camel burger. We thought it was a little odd that after our camel burger, we went for a camel ride around the village.
Cooking camel burgers
The tea is alwasys poured from a great height
We then switched from our mini bus into 2 Land Rovers, and went off road into the Sahara. After a very bumpy 2 hour trip accompanied by Berber music, we arrived at our nomadic style camp at the base of one of the largest sand dunes in the area, the Erg Chigaga dunes. The wind got up that afternoon, and made it a bit uncomfortable climbing the dune for sunset. A full moon lit up the sky that night, so after dinner we took the opportunity for a group YMCA photo.
It was very windy and the turbans were a must.
Our camp
Only the Y passed the statue test.
After an early night, we were up for sunrise, with the customary photo opportunities. After breakfast we got back into the 4WD for another 3 hour drive through the dunes. Today though we were expected to clap along with the music! We were all grateful to get back onto tarmac!
A herd of camels
Our driver. There isn't really a road out here, you just follow the line of mountains.
We were doing over 100km/hr at this stage
We met our mini bus in the settlement of Forum Zguid and then continued on to Taroudant (about 6 hours drive). Again more desert scenery, the highlight was seeing the local Argan trees. The nuts from these trees are popular with the goats, and we were lucky enough to see a few of the goats climbing the trees.
Goats in trees
After arriving in Taroudant we walked through the medina and souks and Claire bought herself a pair of sandals. Well Steve did all the hard work in negotiation. Haggling is a national pastime.
Typical local butcher
On the way out of Taroudant, we stopped in at a Tannery. It smells! Luckily they gave each of us a small bunch of basil to smell and mask the odour. Steve was offered a job as a 'pounder' of the sheep skins. It looked way to hard!
Our lunch destination was the beachside resort town of Agadir. It was surprisingly the first properly warm day of the trip, apparently it was 34 degrees. After a picnic lunch, we took a stroll along the beach with a mandatory ice cream as well. Swimming & sunbaking is a strange concept in a muslim country, with the local women being fully covered, and the many French tourists wearing next to nothing.
We stayed 2 nights in Essaouira, and took the opportunity to wander the many streets. Blue doors were popular here, as originally there was something in the Blue paint that repelled mosquitos. This was the relaxing part the trip with no real plans. We also got to stay in a Riad which was a nice change. We did a bit more haggling with the locals and picked up some artwork. The seafood market was great to people watch. You can buy you fish straight off the boat and then take it to a row of people that will scale and fillet it, and then you take it to the BBQ and someone cooks it for you.
Our Riad which must have been nice as French tour groups kept coming in and taking photos of the ground floor
Sunset from the Raid rooftop
All these doors are now shops
To get the water you had to walk through 3 soccer matches!
This is the guy that scales and fillets the fish
Medina street
We bought a couple of these
We boarded a coach back to Marrakech, where we seemed to be a lot of time on the wrong side of the road, overtaking slower vehicles, sometimes 4 at a time. Our bus driver was far more confident at overtaking than we would have been.
The doors of Morocco captured Claire's eye, so we have a few photos. Here is a selection of her favourites.
Overall, a busy 10 days. Lots of driving. Lots of couscous & tajine. Some very basic living arrangements. We now appreciate hot water a lot more. It will also take some time to get all the sand out of our clothing and both our cameras... but we loved it!