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Published: February 4th 2012
Todra GorgeMotorhome News from Morocco 3 1st February 2012 Continuing our travels to Morocco by motorhome, with friends, Kit and Morag from Norfolk, UK, and Brian and Kathryn from Adelaide, Australia.
From Sand in the Desert to Snow in the Mountains
Todra Gorge, Erfoud, Merzouga, Midelt, Azrou, Fes, Volubilis, Chefchaouen and back to the Med.
It always makes sense to read the guide books before travelling. 'This walk is best done late morning,' it said.
On this advice we left our campsite a little later than usual to drive up into the Todra Gorge for some brisk hill climbing, before returning on foot for the breath-taking views with the noon-day sun on the mountains high above us. This magnificent gorge carves a great channel through the stunning 300m high vertical ochre walls of the High Atlas, a narrow winding road snaking through the gap beside the river, a few touristy stalls, produce from nearby smallholdings in sacks at the roadside awaiting the next overloaded minibus, Berber families from somewhere over the mountain with their young children and produce on donkeys, the dry, boulder-strewn wadi, and goat herds with their flocks amongst
the crazy climbers high up on the valley walls. It takes a bit to get us 'wowing' these days, but this walk through the most spectacular scenery left us wide-eyed, breathless - and certainly fitter for the experience. And Brian's damaged knee is holding up well so far by the way - thanks for asking. It was a relief to find a decent hike without the pestering 'guides' who pop up from nowhere and won't go away. A well earned walk through the palmeries the previous day had to be cut short as the result of constant, intimidating pestering.
Many of the people seen standing or sitting aimlessly beside the road are waiting for buses. If no bus comes, perhaps they'll cadge a lift in the next lorry or car - or grab a Grand Taxi, an old Mercedes with seats for four, or five, or six, depending on how many people need a ride. Every other vehicle here is a taxi. They're cheap, incredibly cheap, and in great demand. They supplement the buses, picking up and dropping off all-comers in remote areas, their kamikazee drivers overtaking, zipping across solid white lines, on blind bends in the
face of oncoming traffic. And where do all these old Mercedes taxis come from? One clue is the 'D' sticker still affixed to the boot lid. Germany of course. If nothing else, they keep every town's welders in business - and there's a welder somewhere on the street in every town. Vans are seen to pick up passengers willy-nilly around going to work time, as many as a dozen crammed into the back until the doors won't shut. Few people own cars, certainly in the south, and many of those should have been consigned to the scrap-yard years ago along with most of the lorries, groaning up hills under their tons-over-the-limit loads.
Police check-points appear out of the blue on major roads. We have come across one or two every day, stingers half way across the road, radar guns, pens in hand and clip-boards at the ready, checking papers, waiting for unsuspecting motorists to cross the solid-white lines over bridges. Yes, we were copped, descending a hill behind a severely overloaded lorry at 20kph and opening up to overtake on the long clear straight with nothing in sight for half a mile - except two uniformed gentlemen
Into the desert
waiting to pounce. "Your vehicle papers, please," one said, directing us, and Kit in his motorhome behind, over to the side of the road.
Our grim-faced young constable studied the papers; log book, insurance, green card, import license.
"Do you have 700 Dirham?" he asked.
"No. Why?" we answered in unison, guessing where he was coming from.
"For crossing the white line on the bridge!"
"Ah!" As we thought.
But with a bit of pleasant banter, a lot of sincere apologies for not knowing the rules of the Moroccan road, a brief outline of British double lines and a bit of smooth talking, we were able to smile our way out of trouble in the interests of tourism! It's a ploy we've used before; be polite, keep 'em talking long enough, smile pleasantly and thank them profusely for pointing out the rules whilst pretending not to understand a word of what they are saying.
Now, I'm only the driver, I'm sure you will have realised by now. Our route for the next day was finalised that evening and off we went to bed around nine o'clock thinking of maps
Janice and Morag in the saddle!
and dreaming of straight roads without bridges. At 9am the following morning there was a sudden change of plan. That's the beauty of motorhoming; wait a while to check which way the wind blows, or chuck a stick in the wadi to see which way it floats.
It's Morag's turn today. She's been reading the guide books again and has set her sights on another visit to the desert. Janice needed very little persuading. Kit and I do as we're told; you'll have already realised that too no doubt. That's how decisions are made hereabouts, so it's off along the flat road eastwards through the gravelly desert all the way to Merzouga, mixing it with a thousand school kids on bikes all over the road in Rissari at noon, by-passing Erfoud, famed for its marble, dates and fossils, and up to our ears in sand in the desert again at Merzouga in time for a late lunch. By three o'clock the girls were up there on camels traipsing off into the sunset across the dunes. Forget the tiddly dunes we saw down there on our 4X4 trip in Mhamid last week. These are the real thing; enormous, alluring, truly
Lawrence of Arabia stuff!
The Merzouga campsite, 'Camping La Tradition', is on the very edge of the desert, facing directly out onto the iconicly Moroccan, 150m high, Erg Chebbi Dunes featured on the front of every Moroccan tourist brochure; truly, right on our doorstep. In the ramshackle town nearby they hire out skis and snowboards for tackling the dunes and every other open-shop-front on the dusty unsurfaced main street offers colourful scarves for turbans, rugs, silver jewellery, camel rides and 4X4 tours. Sadly, this being desert, we've lost the Adelaide nomads, Brian and Kathryn, again. They have gone on ahead. Hopefully we'll catch up with them a little later.
Winter sunlight breaks through the crystal morning air around 7.30am most days, warming our backs as we walk by midday in shirtsleeve and light sweater temperatures of 12C - 18C, leaving us with clear skies peppered with a million stars and a crescent moon as darkness falls shortly after 6pm. That sure beats the UK for daylight at this time of year; just one of many reasons to head south! The temperature drops significantly overnight, however, occasionally a little below freezing. Reports suggesting snow in
Sand dance - David and Kit performing!
the High Atlas in a couple of days prompted us to think about leaving the sun and sand and make tracks northwards over the Col du Zad, just in case the road should become impassable.
That night, the 25th January, was Burns Night as any true Scotsman will tell you, and as Kit considers himself half-Scottish (because of his sewn-up pockets) we made the appropriate sacrifice and downed a few drams of malt (kept hidden from Moroccan Customs under the bed), over a noisy game of Farkle.
But it's not all fun and games here in Morocco; there are certain frustrations as we have experienced. As Europeans it's not possible to walk anywhere without hassle from touts, we stick out like a pair of white English legs on the beach at the beginning of summer. Everywhere here in the south there are people wanting to act as guides or lend a hand in return for a light greasing of the palm. That, and our motorhome, sure makes us a prime target for a game of 'catch the tourist' the minute we step out. It's costing the Moroccan economy dear though. There are many tourists who will
never return, distressed by the incessant pestering. The little so-and-so's can be even more adhesive than Evostick. However, we have found most people extremely friendly, particularly the kids, though even they can be astonishingly rude when the mood takes them. Moroccans generally don't like their picture taken, though there are exceptions, when they expect to receive a small payment. Then, if they don't consider the payment sufficient, they're apt to throw the dummy out of the pram.
After two days we dragged ourselves away from the blue skies of the desert and made tracks from Merzouga via Erfoud to a much talked about tourist spot, the Source Bleue de Meski, the site where the Wadi Ziz reappears from underground as a sparkling spring, captured in blue pools teeming with trout - and swimmers in summer it seems. Here we succumbed to the finely honed skills of the carpet-seller and purchased a hand-made Berber rug for 200Dh and two bottles of Spanish plonk from under the bed, which he promptly stashed under his Jellaba and hobbled off back to his stall for a quick snifter. The strongest drink on the Moroccan menu is mint tea, served religiously after
every meal in little glass cups from silver tea-pots, held high, with a flourish.
This road winds endlessly through the lush green palmeries of the Ziz Valley, bordered by arid rocky hills, continuing northwards into the staggeringly dramatic Ziz Gorge, flanked on all sides by great flat-topped buttes and massive red-sandstone cliffs, so beautiful and so reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. It struck me we could be on a similar latitude. We'll check it out. Ahead of us the flat barren plains of the Moyen Atlas, the Middle Atlas, with distant stormclouds brewing over the snow-capped High Atlas on the horizon, threatening leaden blankets set to pounce with a truck-load of snow the minute we set foot on the mountain road, and sweeping streaks of white-lace cloud racing across the foothills.
We stopped overnight in Midelt at the crossroads between north and south Morocco, once a French garrison town, set at the foot of the 3,700m Jbel Ayachi. Midelt is now noted for its annual apple festival but more readily remembered for its scruffy, litter-strewn streets, and we went to bed early, bracing ourselves for the next chapter of our voyage, crossing the snaking
1,650m Col du Zad before the snow arrives. Sleep came slowly to the yap, yap, yap, of noisy dogs and the gentle pitter-patter of rain on the roof, and dawn broke to the clatter, clatter, clatter, of chattering storks roosting on the nearby transmitter aerials.
The N13 heads north through Azrou but it's hard to tell. Few roads are numbered on signs and town names are often spelled differently on our maps, but intuition prevails more often than not and we rarely get seriously lost. A few miles out of Midelt the windscreen wipers came on for light rain but as we entered the Col it turned to hail and finally, amidst the forest of holm oak, juniper, Aleppo pine and magnificent Atlas cedars we encountered snow and slush on the gritted road.
Visibility was down to a hundred metres by the time we reached the top, craning our necks, peering through the blinding snow to follow the vehicle ahead on the winding road. Exhausted, we finally took a welcome break to chat with the friendly Macaques, the Barbary apes of this 'Foret de Cedres', waiting, in true Maroccan style, for hand-outs from the tourists. They're
It had stopped snowing by the time we reached Ifrane on the road to Fes but by then it had already denied us our dream of a brisk walk in the cedar-forest and birding on the nearby lakes. You can't win 'em all.
Ifrane is now a modern University town. It also boasts the King's summer residence, and the smart set have seen fit to join him, with their eyes on the nearby winter ski-slopes and summer walks in the forest from their swish Tyrolean-style villas, with pitched, tiled roofs. It's tidy, it's up-market in big letters, and it's as green as green this side of the Atlas. Yes. Another world indeed.
Miles of fertile arable fields, green with new season's growth and dotted with olive and fruit orchards, heralded our approach to Fes, Morocco's third largest city. Here we met up with Brian and Kathryn once again at 'Camping International', conveniently situated for a short 'petit taxi' ride into Fes el-Bali, the historic centre. Camping International Fes is little different from most other Moroccan campsites; the toilets don't flush and they're none too clean, but don't be surprised - they're all out
of work but there is nobody to clean the loos or mend the plumbing, replace the cracked and broken tiles, fix the locks, paint the walls or fill the holes. There have been very few exceptions to this; Aglou Plage, Azrou, Todra Gorge and Zagora perhaps, but in general maintenance is extremely poor and hygiene standards abominable, so you shouldn't expect European standards should you venture this way - and expect to use your own facilities if you come by motorhome.
Our petit taxi (21Dh = €2) sped through the appartment blocks and shopping streets of Ville Nouvelle towards Fes and dropped us off at the gates of the Medina. The streets were swept clean and tidy for our early morning arrival, as shopkeepers were unlocking their steel shutter doors to display their wares. Paved alleys, dark and mysterious, rising and falling, led to tiny squares, reverberating with the banging and clanging of hammers on copper, whilst round the next corner silver was sparkling in narrow shafts of sunlight on narrow streets. Our senses were assaulted at every turn by the hustle and bustle of donkeys and mules, the heady aromas of herbs and spices, perfumeries, wallets,
belts and leather bags, elaborate wedding chairs in silver and white, dresses for ladies and tailors for men, Chineese tools and watches galore, tourists from China doing what the Japanese always did so well, happily snapping and chattering away, souks for leather, souks for shoes, souks for kitchenware and souks for meat, souks for jewellery, live chickens and live ducks for sale, all in the tumble and jumble of chaos. Unlike Marrakech there are no mopeds on the streets of the medina in Fes... and there are Mosques you can go in and those you can't.
Sometimes it's important to leave the best things till last: Yellowstone National Park in the USA, that balloon trip over the Nile, Bruges again on the way home from Denmark...... There were a couple of things still on our list before leaving Morocco.
The Roman Empire stretched this far once upon a time. That came as no surprise to us, but the scale of the ruins at Volubilis, just to the west of Moulay-Idriss, is quite astonishing. The 2nd Century walls once enclosed an area of almost 100 acres, with aqueducts, baths (of course), a forum, grand houses, impressive temples,
oil presses, delicate descriptive mosaics, great stone arches and columns. Beyond the Triumphal Arch, green fields; green fields stretching away into the distance across the hills, the sustainable source of living in the town the Romans chose to be their home. Whilst not in the same league as Pompei, the site has much of interest, and we joined the tourists and locals out for a picnic in an hour or two of ancient culture, absorbed in the truths and myths of yet another Empire left in ashes.
It was another fifty miles of steady driving, on the N13 once more, across broad hills blessed with the green of an English spring before we reached our next chosen destination. Great spreads of fields of cereal and narrow strips of onions, broad beans, turnips and peas, ripening to feed this hungry nation, brought us to the lovely little town of Chefchaouen nestling in the lee of the mountains of the Rif, their grey peaks lining the horizon. The steep narrow streets of white and indigo blue limewashed buildings are clean and fresh and the ornate doorways and red-tiled porches a sheer delight. It was not possible for non-muslims to
enter Chefchaouen until 1920 and it has retained much of its individual character, steeped in tradition. A couple of elderly gents played traditional instruments in the small paved and cobbled square where we took the 'Tagine of the day' across from the kasbah, bathed in mellow afternoon sunshine, old men in jellabas hobbled past with knotted sticks alongside locals in jeans, ladies in bright kaftans and tourists in shorts and tee shirts. Yes, tourism is now a major contributor to this town's ecconomy but had we visited this pretty place four weeks ago our first impressions of Morocco would certainly have been rather different. This is indeed a country of considerable contrast.
And finally, our last night in Morocco before catching the ferry back to Spain. A few hours to experience yet another face of Morocco. The coast road up to Ceuta, a little Spanish enclave across from Gibraltar, faces east across the Med, its dualled carriageways lined with grass verges and palms, swish standard lamps, giant promenades and sparkling white beachside resorts a la Portugal's Algarve sweep up the hillsides like the diamonds their wealth represents. It's a long way from ladies doing their weekly wash in the
river, water carried on the backs of donkeys and the dirt football pitches of the desert. This is certainly a nation of have's and have-not's.
And yes, Morocco fits the bill perfectly; it is remarkably Marmite. You will either love it or hate it, but it is a country of such immense contrast you can surely both love it and hate it.
We loved it for the diverse culture, rich and poor, long sunny days and blue cloudless skies, the awesome scenery from desert to arid plains, from palm-filled valleys to hilltop forests and snow-capped mountains, the dazzling paint-box colours of foothills and gorges, the smiling children and warm salutations as we pass, fresh peas from the pod that taste like peas and carrots that taste like carrots - and diesel at €0.73 a litre! Only those Moroccans who chance to visit the modern supermarkets in the north will see the world of the future as Europe already sees it, but our greatest surprise was to discover how safe we felt throughout this adventure. If you want the truth, our impression is that it's safer for tourists than both Spain and Italy.
But there have
been times when we have experienced ingratitude and insults, incessant pestering and the expectation of handouts because we're European. Campsite facilities certainly leave a lot to be desired, Moroccan drivers are Cavalier to say the least and, whilst there's obvious progress, many of the roads are in an appalling state of repair. Plastic bags and plastic bottles are the curse of Morocco and a programme to ban their use or add a little to the sales price and pay the kids to recycle them would help and it might begin to tell them something.
There have been fewer children on the streets in the north. Education it seems, is not embroidered on the surface in the north as it is in the south. Children and adults alike sidle alongside us as we walk.
"Where you from?" they ask.
"England," we reply.
"England! London? Welcome!" That one word is at the very beginning of their every-day touristy vocabulary.
If we were to do it again we would do it the other way around for a differnet slant. But that's another story.
David and Janice
The grey haired nomads
Erg Chebbi dunes
In our next Blog: Passing back through Customs in Morocco and Spain and on our way home. It's likely to be a few weeks before we return to the UK. There's no rush, whilst the sun still shines here in the south of Spain.
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