from Marrakech to the Sands
12.02.2011 - 21.02.2011 20 °C
We arrived in Marrakech ready to undertake the usual negotiations with the touts and taxi drivers. After declining a few unrealistic prices, and unsuccessfully trying to negotiate the fare suggested by our research, we were finally chased down as we were about to board the bus and ushered back to the cabs. We were given a reasonable price for the taxi ride to our hotel, in the Gueliz (new town), and the driver seemed more than happy to have the fare. He thanked us, 6 minutes later, when we arrived.
After a quick pit stop, to grab a shower and unpack, we walked through the centre of the new town and down Ave Mohummad V towards the main square, Jemaa el-Fna.
We stopped at a cafe in front of Koutoubia Mosque and had a coffee and water before heading to the square. We had a little wander around the market stalls and shops bordering the square before enjoying a delicious dinner at restaurant Agana - chicken tagine for Jen and veggie couscous for me. We sat on the balcony overlooking the square, which was filled with rows and rows of restaurants and stalls selling fresh orange juice, figs, nuts and dates. Musicians, kids selling novelty items, performing chickens, monkeys and even snake charmers filled Jemaa el-Fna.
We walked back through all the activity, past a well lit Koutoubia and home for the night.
Sunday we woke early, walked into town, and did the obligatory hop on hop off bus. It's a good means of getting an overview of the layout and distances between the various areas of the city. We eventually disembarked at Bab Agnaou - a beautiful 15th century archway to the royal kasbah in the southern part of the medina - in search of the Saadian tombs... without success. We ended up having a very lengthy walk through some beautiful alleys in the old Jewish quarter. Wandering around without even a vague idea where we were, or where we were headed, became somewhat of a theme on this holiday. It always delivered some wonderful sights and surprises though, so we learned to embrace the concept of 'Optimistic Disorientation'.
We usually like to be self directed when holidaying but on this occasion we chose to book a tour, as we thought it would be the most effective way to travel to number of areas in a relatively short period of time. We checked for feedback about the various tour operators and one group had consistently good feedback. Our decision made, we chose to take a four day adventure starting in Marrakech then travelling across the High, middle & Anti Atlas Mountains, ride camels into the Sahara before returning back to Marrakech.
We were packed and ready for collection from our hotel at 8:30a.m. We were met by our guide, Essalah, and went to collect the other couple who were joining us for the tour. We had our fingers crossed that they would not be stand offish or awkward to get along with. We were very pleased to hear a confident "G'day" as they climbed into the Landcruiser. Adam & Lauren are an Australian couple, living and teaching at an international school in Switzerland. We began the journey from Marrakech, towards the High Atlas mountains via Tizi nTichka pass. We chatted about our various travels and Essalah explained the history of the region, we stopped occasionally to photograph the amazing landscapes.
We spent the afternoon visiting the World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou. This village of clustered kasbahs has been used as a backdrop for more than 20 films and was one of the most important fortress strongholds on the old Salt Road where caravans brought slaves, gold, ivory and salt from Saharan Africa to Marrakech and beyond.
We passed through Ouarzazate, and the Valley of the Rose, famous for soft Persian rose oil. Our next destination was the Dades valley. We passed through a variety of villages and watched the colours of the country change as we travelled.
Our first night was spent in a beautiful auberge in the Dades valley which overlooked the gorge. We had a delicious tagine and hit the hay
After breakfast we jumped in the prado and drove through the Saghro mountains before stopping in Rissani for lunch. The restaurant was beautiful and we started with some fresh carrots which were sweet and full of flavour. We had forgotton what good natural food tasted like. The main course was a delicious traditional dish followed by fresh orange with cinnamon. After eating (too much) we were invited to take a tour of the town. "Have you ever seen a donkey park?" our guide asked. "No but I assume it's a big park where donkeys live" we answered. "Well no... you have car parks, we have a donkey park" he told us. We turned the corner and arrived at the edge of a huge flat lot filled with carts and eeaawing donkeys of every size and colour. The air was filled with the sounds, and smells, of all things donkey.
We walked through the park to the livestock market, then through stalls of fresh fruit, vegetables, spices and other items. The vivid colours of the Saffron, Paprika, Cumin, Cinnamon were so rich. Indigo and Henna, fresh beans, carrots and oranges were there in abundance. The market was a hive of activity.
Next we visited a carpet store and saw a variety of designs perculiar to individual Berber families. All were prefixed with the word 'Ait' (meaning of or from) then the family name. After much deliberation, they were all so beautiful, we bought a small carpet to take home.
Back in the car, we drove further until the landscape gave way to a flat expanse of barron land. We drove for several kilometers across the corrugated dirt roads. Essalah expertly avoiding potholes and rocks. In the distance we could see the Erg Chebbi dunes appear on the horizon. Our destination was the Jasmina auberge, about 30km from Merzouga. We signed the hotel register, donned our recently purchased head scarves and went to meet our camels. This was the part of the holiday we were most looking forward to. The camels were all saddled up and sitting down in a line. The saddles were made with a rolled up carpet which made a U shape around the hump (single humped dromedary camels here) then a couple of thick carpet blankets over the top. Our guide, Ibrahim, told us to climb aboard and hold on very tightly.
The camels stand up by first straightening the back legs, so you almost feel you are about to go flying over its head and land face first in the sand, then it straightens its front legs and often lets out a low toned kind of growl of discontent. Once we were all sitting tall in the saddle (or on the hump as it were) we farewelled Essalah and began our ride into the dunes. The camels had a slow gait and, if you loosened your hips, were quite comfortable to ride. The saddles were surprisingly comfortable too.. apart from some slight 'hump breakthrough' towards the end of the journey. The sun was setting as we approached the bivouac (camp) so we dismounted and began climbing a huge dune to capture the beautiful sunset. Jen, Lauren and I made it about halfway before collapsing and resigning to watch from where we fell. Only Adam made it to the summit, he must have premium quality lungs and legs!
After watching the sunset we carefully managed our way down the steep side of the dune and into camp. It was set up with a circle of large nomad wool tents surrounding a central fire. Half a dozen long cussions were layed around the fire with small tables. We drank mint tea and ate lamb tagine for our dinner. After our meal Ibrahim and the other guide built up the fire and brought out some sheepskin drums and iron castanets (of the Gnawa people). They tightened the skins by the fire and then played and sang for us as we lay on the cussions gazing at the almost full moon and the blanket of brilliantly shining stars which filled the sky. We were invited to join in and I leapt at the chance to play the drums with the guys. We retired to our tent for the night, under the almost crushing weight of four heavy blankets, the desert was freezing cold but we slept well.
About an hour before sunrise we were gently woken by the guides. We quickly washed and packed before mounting the camels and riding towards the Algerian border. As the sun slowly rose, the colour and patterns of the dunes changed. We stopped shortly before sunrise and found a quiet place to witness the first rays across the sands. The view was simply breathtaking. It was a most beautiful scene and we had the silence to take it all in. As we rode we looked west and could see Algeria. When we arrived back to the auberge, we farewelled our faithfull 'ships of the desert' and washed before taking breakfast on the terrace. We gazed out to the dunes and chatted about our adventure, each of us feeling very lucky to have had such an opportunity.
Essalah found us and we jumped back into the 4 wheel drive and headed to Tinerhir. Along the way we stopped and wandered across the expansive rock slabs filled with fossils. The density of fossils in the rocks of this region was astounding. The area had once been part of the Mediterranean and, as a result of the slow shrink of the water mass, left an abundance of sea life which became fossilised. We also stopped to visit a fossil workshop and made a couple of small purchases as momentos. Later we took a walk through Todra Gorge, where sheer limestone walls rise to 300m in its narrowest part. We asked Essalah if we could have lunch somewhere that the locals would eat. It was shortly after that we experienced what Adam rightly described as "The best servo food ever". We pulled into a petrol station and as the car was filled and washed, we followed Essalah to a window at one side of the building. It was a butcher shop. We ordered lamb chops and kefta (lean meat combined with garlic, onions, cumin, coriander and turmeric) the butcher passed it through a window to a guy who immediately threw it onto the charcoal barbeque. It arrived with more mint tea and was, quite possibly, the best BBQ ever.
After lunch we drove to our final accomodation - Hotel Tomboctou, an old kasbah in Tinerhir. We showered off the sand from the previous day and then joined a guide for a wander through the local palmeries, villages and gardens. We visited the old kasbah quarter and saw how traditional Berber carpets are woven. After yet more mint tea we made the late afternoon walk back to the kasbah for dinner in the Caidal Tent.
After breakfast the bulk of the day was spent driving back toward Ouarzazate, where we visited the old Glaoui Kasbah Taouirt.
We crossed the High Atlas again, stopping for lunch in a local roadside restaurant. We were all a bit sad knowing this would be our last meal together. We presented Essalah with a toy koala and a genuine Aussie stubbie holder, with indigenous art designs, and toasted our mutual good health and happiness. We drove the final leg down the Tizi nTichka pass before arriving in Marrakech. We dropped off Adam & Lauren and thanked them for being such wonderful travelling companions. Essalah dropped us at our hotel and we thanked him for taking us on such a wonderful trip. We also promised to return again soon.
We spent Fridaylooking at areas of the town we had previously not explored and found ourselves again indulging in 'Optimistic Disorientation'. We bought some items at the market stalls and ate in Jemaa el-Fna.
Saturday we took a taxi to the previously elusive Saadian Tombs. We had managed to walk past it twice during previous attempts to visit.
We ate in a little place on the footpath in the new town. We had regular visits from people wanting to sell us everything from carpets to pens, watches and whiteboards. We also witnessed the generosity of the locals who did not hesitate in giving a portion of thier meal to the passing beggers. We gave change and food to the beggars and... bought another carpet!
We continued walking to the old town medina and came across a large group of protestors. Unable to read the signs or understand the chants we asked one of those attending what was happening. "It's just some people asking for some people to give them some things because they are not happy about some things" he said. His vagueness was quite deliberate and he was very keen to assure us that this was nothing like what had been occuring in some other countries. The group began marching as we headed into the medina. We had a map of the alleys and souks, and were very keen to locate the 'dyers souk' where traditional wool dying still takes place.
Cue the 'Optimistic Disorientation'... the map was of no earthly help whatsoever. A number of men offered to help us find the main square (for a tip) but we explained we were just wandering around having a general look. We had one very persistent fellow spend a great deal of time trying to convince us that we wanted to go to the main square. He seemed genuinely crazy so I only spoke to him in Mandarin Chinese... he looked confused and left us alone. We walked in circles for another hour or so before stopping for a coke. The shop owner suggested that we should go left and take a look at the dyers souk. We were very thankful for the suggestion. He didn't even want a tip! We eventually arrived at the old souks and found one of the dyers. He was busy soaking wool in indigo before fixing the colour with salt and vinegar. It was the warmest day so far and he was working very hard. He invited us to take some photos and we thanked him for his time, and information, with a cold drink and a bounty bar.
By the time we reached Jemaa el-Fna, the protestors had arrived and were in full voice. The number had swelled so we felt it best to sit for a while until things quietened down. When we made the journey home we saw the trail of discontent which the protest had left. Oranges had been plucked from the trees which line the main road and had been thrown at the windows of some of the businesses. BMC bank, a telephone company and, in particular, the McDonalds were targetted. We spoke to a group of young men who explained that they were unhappy about the divide between the rich and poor, the rising price of staples and thier dislike of the local McDonalds, which they saw as an icon of the wealth gap and something out of the reach of average citizens.
That night we dined close to our hotel. Things were a little difficult because the waitress spoke only French and our French is very limited, but we managed to decode the menu and order. We were the only customers in the place and shortly after the food arrived there was a rush of staff to the front of the restaurant. There was much conversation before the lights were abruptly turned off. The staff hurriedly dragged all the furniture, and the grill and gas bottles, from the sidewalk into the back of the restaurant. We jumped to our feet and offered to help but they insisted that we sit and enjoy our meals. We were left in the dark wondering what was going on, as the roller shutter came down. We could hear the protesters chanting in the distance as the manager urged staff to be silent. The waitress kept coming past and shooting a reassuring smile in our direction. After about 15 minutes things calmed down a little. A single light was turned on and, in it's dim glow, we could again vaguely see our food. As the shutter slowly raised we finished and paid for our meal. The waitress asked if we enjoyed our food, we assured her it was 'Parfait' and that "l'ambiance était très très bon" she laughed and we left.
The next morning we reluctantly headed to the airport and flew home.
Morocco is one of the most beautiful countries we have visited and we were so pleased to have shared some time with Adam & Lauren, and with our wonderful guide Essalah. We WILL return soon.