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North African Adventure

MOROCCO | Wednesday, 23 December 2015 | Views [926] | Comments [1]

There is something very satisfying about arriving in Africa on a ship. It harkens back to a more graceful age of travel when ocean liners were the norm and the minimum baggage allowance would be three sturdy trunks and a full length mirror. We had booked to cross the straits of Gibraltar on a fast ferry direct to the centre of Tangiers from where it was but a short walk to our hotel. The weather had a different view of the situation however and threw everything it could at us, leading to very stormy seas. The catamaran was unable to put to sea but we were able to re-book on a larger, slower ferry which managed to weather the storm and deposit us on a windswept and bedraggled North Moroccan coast with the prospect of an hour long taxi fare to follow. It is somewhat ironic that the coldest we had felt on our entire trip was in Africa of all places but this storm which had Europe firmly in its grip lashed the North of Africa with its tail until its energy was spent three days later. Those days were happily spent though immersing ourselves in a completely different culture and Tangiers was a delight with its medina and many curious shops and restaurants. It was here that we were introduced to the concept of largely male only tea shops with seats all in a line facing onto the street. There is so much going on in the streets though that we could think of no better way of sitting and quickly adapted to the people watching agenda.

Tangier Street Life 

Tangier Street Life

Introduced to the concept of Geocaching by our daughter we found that the only Geocache in Morocco was just down the road from us so we trotted on down to find the hidden capsule rather too easily affixed to the rear of a signboard in a magnetic container. We had bidden fairwell to my parents the day before and now it was time to sit down and plan ahead for our trip around Morocco. Tamara has wanted to visit Morocco for many years and, as is her wont, had already put together an itinerary which formed a skeleton for our actual tour.

From Tangier we boarded a bus for a short journey to the hill town of Chefchaouen. This town is known for two things: "buildings painted every shade of blue" and "marijuana". Whereas in Tangier I had been approached on a couple of occasions to ascertain whether I was partial to a little weed, in Chefchaouen every second male I passed seemed to have some surplus that needed re-homing. Although this activity was patently obvious to anyone in the vicinity each was laughably furtive in their approach and my naive and over-loud "what was that? .....No, I don't want any drugs" was not always welcome!

Chefchaouen 

Chefchaouen

The blue buildings were something else entirely. Sometimes it is desirable to try for perfection; on other occassions a collective slap-dash aproach can lead to a fantastic result and this is the case with the paint job in Chefchaouen where "cutting in" is unheard of and stopping painting once reaching the bottom of the wall is considered inappropriate. As a result the colour flows from the wall and over a foot or so of the pavement in a deliberate blurring of two normally separate entities. This, combined with rounded corners, gives a very fluid feel to the urban fabric. Like many towns in Morocco Chefchaouen was constructed well before the advent of the motor vehicle and its narrow streets and many steps are only suited to foot traffic or beasts of burden which means that within the walls of the medina it is very peaceful. In the centre of town we enjoyed a tajin in the shadow of the ancient rammed earth walls of the kasbah. A tajin is a meat dish cooked in an earthenware container formed of a deep plate with a chimney shaped lid. Within this container potato, vegetables, meat and gravy are piled high and left to simmer for hours while retaining the moisture to deliver a very succulent dish - comfort food personified! During our time in Morocco we were to have a varient of this almost every evening but rarely found the repetition boring.

Berber Men Wearing Djellaba 

Berber Men

Being in the hills allowed us the opportunity to explore a little on foot. First we climbed past the "cascades" (at that time of the year fully enclosed in one hose pipe!) and up to the "Catholic Mosque". From the name you will correctly surmise that the original church has since been taken over by muslims and renamed a mosque. This is something that we have repeatedly seen through Turkey, Greece, Spain and Morocco with the building's purpose often changing several times over the course of history. On our second day in Chefchaouen we booked our bus ticket on to Fez and then waited around for a share taxi to take us around to the other side of the mountain where we followed a narrow path for three hours up a river valley to the Akchour waterfalls. In this case thank goodness there was a creditable flow and a lovely pool surrounded by a glorious curved cliff face over which poured the river. We shared the cab and the walk with a very colurful gentleman hailing from Suriname originally - now based in the Nederlands and a committed wanderer he has an income stream which he was determined to speak of but as furtively and mysteriously as he could.

Our Gentleman From Suriname 

Our Gentleman From Suriname 

That evening I needed the assistance of the hotelier to find a particular haunt in the city and while he was with me Tamara was tasked with manning the reception as the arrival of a couple of Russian girls was anticipated. When they arrived Tamara sprang into full welcome mode and they felt quickly at home. It was a suprise to them when upon our return it was revealed that she was a fellow traveller but by then a bond had been formed and they joined us for dinner that night and breakfast the following day. When you make a good friendship it is always sad to cut it short and so, when they offered a seat in their car to Fez the next day it was an easy decision to forego our pre-bought tickets and join them for a more comfortable and flexible ride. We were so glad that we did as the next couple of days in their company were full of fun and laughter.

Meeting The Locals 

Meeting The Locals

On our journey to Fez we pulled over at one point to enjoy the view and watched a family working together harvesting olives in the adjacent field. Eventually Tamara felt emboldened to approach them and soon we were enjoying a full and happy conversation with them, us in broken French and them in broken English. The glue that stuck all of this together was their beautiful young daughter whom everyone was gushing around like paparazzi trying to capture her smile for posterity. Later we pulled over on the outskirts of Fez to investigate a field in which there were a myriad of bedouin tents and lots of cars parked in a field. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" we thought and plunged headlong into the mass of locals to find ourselves on the fringe of a huge dusty field containing thousands of horesemen in full tribal regalia. Again and again a line of around thirty horesemen would gallop at full speed across the field and then at a given signal let loose a volley of shots. If this volley was a tight one then the crowd would erupt in praise. The atmosphere was very lighthearted and we found ourselves very welcome despite being the only westerners there. We joined the throngs ordering colourful nougat and cheered as loudly as them after each successful charge. It turned out that these were hill tribesmen who had come down to the plains for this annual festival. It is very personal to them and no plainsmen usually attend so we counted ourselves very fortunate to have been able to partake in the celebration and to be so welcomed.

Impromptu Celebrations 

Impromptu Celebrations

On arrival in Fez we found that our respective accommodation was within a block of each others and once settled in we hosted Maria and Elena for dinner in our Riad "Palais El Yazid". The next day we drove out to the neighbouring towns of Meknes and Volubilis. Volubilis was the first place that we came to and it is approached via a wonderful piece of modern architecture being the newly constructed visitors' centre. This is the only new construction with the remainder dating back to the time of the Roman occupation. We happily wandered around this site with one of the official guides until such time as it got a little less interesting at which we started to muck around a bit acting as slave and master or blatently photobombing the girls' photoshoots. Everywhere we went Maria and Elena loved to strut their stuff in front of the camera which led to some very amusing entertainment and some very good results!

Volubilis Photobomb 

Volubilis Photobomb

Meknes is one of the royal cities which means that it is dominated by the Royal Palace. Unfortunately this palace is largely concealed behind an immense wall guarded at regular intervals by very casual guards slumped beneath some dirty sun canopies of the sort that would be found in a typical back garden furniture set. The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail rescues the heritage tourist and is a great introduction into the wonderful geometric architecture typical of islamic architecture. Sultan Moulay is reported to have sired in excess of 1100 offspring in his time with a harem of 500 concubines in addition to his "cherished" four wives and this claim has since been subjected to extensive computer simulation to establish whether or not it is physically possible. Apparently so - just have intercourse every night for 35 years and Bob's your uncle (so to speak). Whatever the real figure it is clear that this bloodthirsty Sultan was due a rest and this beautiful mausoleum is a good a place as any.

The Tanneries In Fez 

The Tanneries In Fez

That evening we retired for some evening drinks in the room with our friends. There was plenty of space in our sumptuously furnished penthouse suite and we were delighted with our choice. Our hosts were so friendly and we arranged a walking tour of the city to take place the next day. This was one of the best tours we have ever had the priviledge of partaking in and for the next six hours we were introduced to so many hidden nooks that we could barely hope to list them all. In one street we could turn one way and find ourselves in an alleyway narrower than my shoulders or turn the other to view a magnificently decorated archway. A few minutes later we could open a waist high gate in a blank wall to reveal a semi basement community bakery (just bring your own dough and one dinah payment and they will bake it for you) or stumble wide eyed through the tinsmiths quarter where our guide used to work and where he lost the majority of his hearing as the hammers ring out incessently. Our guide was such a well spoken literary fellow currently studying for a doctorate in English Literature in his late fifties. Once he knew of my involvement in architecture he pulled out all of the stops and soon we were introduced to the interior of a riad currently in the middle of an extensive refurbishment. Each tiny mosaic tile being individually hand trimmed and laid was a wonder to watch. I was able to show the craftsman photos of the theatre which I had worked on in New Zealand and we each offered respect to the other. There is so much more to say about Fez - the fragrant spices and the equally fragrant tanneries, the narrow covered streets and the soaring domes and minarets. It is clear that the buildings are in some cases on their last legs and there are a myriad of timber props trying to prevent any possibility of collapse but in any case we thoroughly recommend throwing yourself into the maze that is Fez; trust yourself into the hands of a recommended guide and you will have a day to remember!

Our journeying with the girls had convinced us of the viability of renting a car and so it was that we now headed off south towards the desert in a modest Fiat Punto. Our route took us via a highland university town Ifrane where narry a headscarf was to be seen and which has been likened suprisingly to Switzerland mostly because of its chalet style architecture. We actually saw a good resemblance to parts of New Zealand in the surrounding lakes. Our overnight stay in Zaida was fairly unremarkable except to note that we arrived in this "frontier town" after dark and followed a very chaotic and post-apocalyptic alleyway to find our accommodation. This hotel has some wonderful owners and offers a good service, even down to suprising us with a large box of local apples as we were set to drive away. These apples lasted us for the remainder of the trip. Unfortunately though it is likely that the hotel will struggle due to its surroundings rather than any fault of its own.

Sahara Desert Camp 

Sahara Desert Camp

When working through the options available to experience the Sahara Desert several organised tours were offered to us by very well meaning and sincere people. Each of these would be in the order of €200 each and would include food, accommodation, camel and guide. We took an alternative approach which involved booking a "room" in a desert camp via booking.com. This room cost €59 in total and included all of the above together with entertainment in the form of a troop of percusionists around the open fire. We had such an excellent night lying alone on the top of a dune star gazing, joining in the drumming, enjoying the sunset from the highest dune around, rising early to view the sunrise and partaking in such tasty and generous dinner and breakfasts. This visit to Maharba desert camp was an undoubted highlight of our entire trip and all for very minimal cost. We thanked our hosts by completely re-writing the English directions that they send out so that subsequent guests will have no problem following them to the remote start point of the trek.

Rocking The Headscarf

Rocking The Headscarf

From the desert we headed west across the south of Morocco. This is also desert but stony rather than the beautiful sand dunes of the Sahara and with full burqas now the norm for the womenfolk. We stayed a couple of nights in the oasis town of Tinejdad. Architecture in southern Morocco is so transitional. The buildings are made from adobe which lasts for centuries provided that it is maintained as there is a definite tendancy to dissolve as soon as there is any decent rainfall (approx. three times a year). A kasbah is a large individual dwelling and a kasah an even larger structure providing communal living with a defensive outer wall. Our hotel in Tinjedad occupied part of a traditional and very ancient kasah and its construction has provided the financial cornerstone of the refurbishment and reoccupation of the previously abandoned kasah. When the maintenance starts to be too demanding and/or the facilities can no longer keep pace with the aspirations of the occupants there is a tendency to abandon the whole place and rebuild adjacent. The original building is not demolished it is simply left to disolve back to the earth from whence it came. Truly sustainable construction which leaves a fascinating landscape of semi disolved buildings blending in completely with their backdrop.

As you drive the back roads of Morocco you will very commonly find people sitting patiently beside the road. At your approach their eyes light up and they spring into action. On four occasions we stopped to offer a lift which was always gratefully received. These often resulted in rather surreal journeys with a passenger sat silently in the back as the language divide proved rather too daunting to these shepherds. One chap that we offered a lift to just outside Ouzazette was quite the opposite. A scholar of film and video editing techniques he is learning his trade in the Moroccan Hollywood. Two studios in Ouarzazate provide desert settings for all manner of films such as Anthony and Cleopatra, Asterix or biblical classics. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in a nearby kasar of Aït Ben Haddou. Our guest Youssef speaks really good English and was eager to debate the similarities, differences, rights and wrongs of the Muslim and Christian religions. This discussion has continued since and we are each respectively learning more of the other's culture and faith.

Travelling The Back Roads At 3000 Metres 

 Travelling The Back Roads At 3000 Metres

One back road that we found ourselves on was rather more intrepid than we had ever expected. Looking back on it now we see that it is strongly advised that this section of road only be attempted by 4WD vehicles travelling in a group and employing a local guide. It should certainly not be attempted outside of the months of April to September. This is the track that we followed for five white knuckle hours rising to between 3000 and 3500m above sea level crossing multiple rocky stream beds and generally tracking the length of the incredibly scenic Dades Gorge, all in a 2WD Fiat Punto during November. As a result of a lot of prayer, patience and - dare I say it - skill? we came through in relatively good shape. Nothing that the mechanic in the next village couldn't address the next day in any case. We were of course aware all of the time that our insurance policy was not going to help us so far off road and were glad that none of the stories of lost sumps and abandoned vehicles that we were to hear of that night from our hotelier applied to us.

The Boulders Of Taliouine 

The Boulders Of Taliouine

One final piece of desert landscape remained for us to explore, this one in Taliouine has been made quite unique through the vision of one artist and the labours of the local fire brigade to paint huge boulders in distinct colours so that they stand out in the barren landscape. This is very effective and it was a delight to wander around in the surrounding countryside although I would't want this to be aped around the world as the natural environment seldom benefits from human "enhancement" in my opinion. We shared the experience with a couple of campers and a hundred or so goats led by their goatherd by voice commands alone.

Wonderful Shopping 

Wonderful Shopping

By now we were back in more familiar territory to the typical Moroccan tourist as we had set aside some time at the end of the trip to relax in the beachside resorts of Agadir and Essaouira. Agadir was the pick of the two for the beach and marina although Essaouira had the more interesting town centre. Unfortunately the real winner was the wind though and beach time was not really an option. And so it was that we found ourselves in the busy metropolis of Marrakech. The central square and the surrounding medina are always full of life with snake charmers, drummers, dancers, hawkers, food stalls and shop keepers all vying for your attention. We have not proved immune to the charms of Morocco and our bags are joined by a couple of others now bulging with lamps and lanterns, knives, fossils, wooden games and boxes and all manner of wonderment! We did manage to find one place of peace amongst the hullabaloo thankfully; the lovely succulent garden and studio of an artist which has since been purchased by Yves St. Laurent and donated to the nation. Morocco would not be Morocco though without a final crazy twist, this time during our drive to the garden following the hitherto oh so trustworthy maps.me app. Keep in mind the busy streetscape you have imagined earlier in this paragraph and then imagine the two of us following progressively narrower and busier streets until it was obvious that we could not go any further as we would have been driving within the pedestrian bazaar. Decision made, all we had to do was turn around. I will leave you dear reader with the image of us slowly and gently pushing an ice cream freezer through a shop front with our trusty Punto. Incredibly the car was accepted back without a scratch on it but what a journey it took us on!

'Till next time.

Tags: desert, road trip, sunsets, trekking

 

Comments

1

You have had some excellent adventures and I really like the lamps you purchased.

  Frances Feb 27, 2016 1:56 PM

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