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Published: February 7th 2020
Morocco is obviously known more for desert than the mountains. However no matter where you stay in the city, any vantage point will reveal a view of snow covered peaks. Yes, snow. It was pleasantly warm in the city - certainly warm enough to entice the tourists to don their bikinis. A mere 2 hours away in the mountains, others were skiing. Winter sports hadn't been something I had associated with North Africa, but yes there is a ski resort up in the mountains. We Brits tend to like the underdog and possibly our most famous Winter Olympian was also the least successful. Success is measured in many ways. Eddie the Eagle might not have won gold, but he won the hearts of a nation. It is therefore worth considering then, just 2 hours away from where I sat the Moroccan equivalent of Eddie or the Jamaican bobsleigh team could be preparing to participate in the next Games in 2022.
I normally like to wander around independently, but this wasn't going to feasible on public transport here. The obligatory trip when in Marrakech is that to the waterfalls in Ourika Valley. There are endless possibilities, but we kind of figured
we wanted to see a bit more than just a tame looking waterfall. It certainly didn't look on the scale of Victoria or rank as one of the highest in Africa. The vehicles in use were standard minivans, which implied sealed roads. The local equivalent of a Sunday outing for the locals. We pushed the boat further out and secured a Toyota Landcruiser trip. The numbers would be lower and by implication, the use of a Tojo suggested slightly more rough terrain than the A46. We duly paid over a fistful of cash and selected a trip entitled "Trois Valleys". I told you I was getting the hang of this French lingo. The following morning, neither the local cockerel, dogs or mosque let us down in the wake up call department. We were breakfasted and waiting in reception for 8:30 am. The golfing fraternity wee also awaiting their pick ups. Our man duly arrived with his Landcruiser, which was a relatively new looking black model. The last time we had been in a Landcruiser was way back in Australia in 2006. I had forgotten just how uncomfortable they can be. The complex engineering that makes them a must for the
"Bright Eyes" camel
terrain was never transferred to the seats. We were accompanied by 3 French from the same resort, one of which was eagerly looking at the journey as something he could recreate on his trials bike. He sported his BMW Motorad baseball cap with pride.
We crossed the city and exited near the airport. As with our taxi driver on arrival, our driver adopted the "I am bigger, so get out the way" approach. The majority wisely took the hint. The outskirts of the city are under development. Conference Centres, hotels and golf resorts are springing up. Palm trees ... all no doubt freshly planted ..... finish the scene. The former desert scrub land is transformed into something that most Europeans would anticipate in their brochures. Tourism is definitely on the rise in Morocco, as it seeks to persuade those made nervous by extremism in neighbouring states, that they need look no further for a new destination. The environment out here is a world away from the crazy, narrow streets of the Medina. The roads are akin more to wide French boulevards. The French used to be the colonial kings in this part of the world and the language is
still very prominent. The driver highlighted the multi-lingual nature of a sign outside a primary school. French was the lead, but the indigenous Berber followed before Arabic made up the rear. The Arabic script was familiar, but incomprehensible. I get the same feeling when I look at cyrillic in Serbia or the Ukraine, except this is written from right to left.The Berber was more Latin in script and the lettering follows the more logical left - right pattern with which we are familiar.
The road began to climb about 25 miles outside the city. We were approaching the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The guide explained that these twists and turns on the road was where Tom Cruise was seen in a chase in Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation. This fact got me looking at other film sequences shot around Marrakech, but we will return to that another time. The mountains stretch an enormous distance - from near Agadir in western Morocco, across Algeria and up towards Tunis - a distance of over 2000 kilometres. They effectively form the barrier between the coast and the Sahara to the south. The population is mainly made up of Berber villagers. Wildlife
is at a premium. We saw none all day, although the odd jackals scavenge, a few troops of Barbary apes wander and wild pigs can cause havoc on the cultivated terraces. The highest point - Mount Toukbal - was visible. Toukbal is over 4000 metres or 13,600 feet in old money. It is a mere 39 miles from downtown Marrakech. The accessibility of the area makes it popular with climbers and trekkers, but I read the first recorded ascent was only in 1923. I presume many other, unrecorded climbs went before that date. The Tojo had been under employed until we reached the regional centre of Asni and turned off the main highway. We had slowed down to avoid the attentions of the Police roadblock on the outskirts. Police at roundabouts and major junctions are commonplace, but these two were the first we had actually seen doing anything. The Tojo with tourist cargo was deemed unworthy of a stop.
We continued to climb. There was a brief stop for a viewpoint across a valley. It was nothing special or so I thought. The object of the exercise was revealed as Richard Branson's executive hotel in the distance.
.... the "gurning" camel
The Kasbah Tarnadot was bought by the tycoon after one of his ballooning trips. I guess we won't be staying there in the future. I just checked the price. The rooms in low season range from 1700 Euros to 3200 Euros for a 2 night stay. I would empathise the rate is half board. If you were thinking of cutting costs a little and going out for a cheap meal, it might be worth checking where you would find the nearest restaurant. There were none obvious. I believe arrivabus helicopter or balloon is optional.
The snow that seemed distant and untouchable a few minutes before was now around us. The tarmac partially petered out into a single track road with barely enough room to pass. The road was ice free only where the tyres of former vehicles had already driven. The progress slowed. At each hairpin bend, the road surface disintegrated. The large ravines down each side were cut deep by the melting snow or floodwaters, as they headed downwards. Blue skies were the order of the day, but the deep cuts in the landscape suggested it was not always so. We periodically passed pedestrians - going about their
business, but seemingly miles from anywhere. Villages dotted the landscapes. I say villages, but most had no obvious facilities let alone a shop. There were usually some houses in each that resembled a proper build. However, the majority were just adhoc construction projects making use of any material available. The walls usually blended in with the surroundings. Our driver explained that most were built with the local clay, each would take the characteristics of the environment. Red earth meant red houses, yellow earth meant yellow houses. It was time to take tea.
We stopped at a Berber village, where a local family would entertain us. The local kids ran towards the Landcruiser, enthusiastically greeting the strangers but without menace or demands of money. The make do and mend door of a house opened and a Berber lady offered welcome. The house was a hotchpotch of clay fused with a bit if concrete. The roof was a layer of cane over some plastic sheeting. The double glazing salesman had missed his commissions here. One window was covered in some gauze to keep flies out and the other a plastic sheet. The roof was supplemented by a satellite dish. I thought
back to a village in Lesotho where a chief had been keen to show off his dish to all and sundry. Alas, the village was waiting for electricity. In the event of the arrival of power, he was prepared and ahead of the game. The prospect of watching Liverpool or Manchester Hnited or whoever would be within his reach. The Berber village had the electricity, but I scoured in vain for the plasma TV mounted on the wall. We were led through to the tiny kitchen. A delipdated settee and a few small stools were on one side. The water was boiled on a 2 ring gas stove. The oven was outside - a clay oven for baking bread. The walls were decorated with a series of shelves, stocked with provisions for the family. Simple strips of timber were held up by 6 inch nails piercing the walls at intervals. I smiled at the containers, some of which were empty packets of Pringles. The lady of the house made the tea and brought out bread. A bowl of thick olive was placed in the centre of the small table in which to dip the bread. You could not describe the
place as a palace, but all was spotlessly clean. The word houseproud came to mind and boy did it have some view. The kids, who had been banished outside during the tea drinking, waved us off. The neighbours looked in enviously, as the source of regular cash disappeared down the road.
Other vehicles were scarce. A Mercedes 4x4 cautiously manoeuvred along the ridge. It had French plates and was probably more used to the school run in Paris. It looked new, so the owners were possibly introducing the vehicle to a less than perfect road for the first time. The next car was also bearing French number plates. It wasn't a 4x4, but was bounding along at a far pace. The Fiat Panda was showing the Mercedes the way to go. A cat was bizarrely slumbering on the back parcel shelf. Our driver pulled up and suggested we stretch our legs. "The next mile or so is flat", he explained. My eyes were drawn to a set of goalposts above the road. I climbed up the slope to investigate. There was no turf. The sandy surface looked like it would draw blood, should you go to ground. Slide tackling
was possibly not advisable. However, there would be no game today. One end was covered in snow and ice. Who could predict that? Match postponed in Morocco. Frozen pitch. I had picked up a message earlier from a friend just back from Moscow. She had bemoaned the lack of a real winter. Moscow has had no real snow so far this winter. The ski resorts of Morocco have had no such problem!.
We began to descend, skilfull yshowing the aforementioned Fiat Panda who was king of the road. The local entrepreneurs were busy at the roadside. Stalls selling anything and everything were on hand. The water levels in the valley below were low. The widths of the floodplain strewn with boulders indicated that torrents of water were not uncommon. Our guide advised a Government early warning system was now in place, in order to give advance notice of flash floods gathering pace in the higher slopes. The locals were obviously confident of the merits and had arranged chairs and parasols on the edge of the riverbed. It was a strange sight - the Atlas beach. One of the products you see advertised everywhere is Argan oil. The powers of
healing and virtues are incessantly pushed. In a bid to make it look more labour intensive and therefore expensive, old ladies are often employed to demonstrate the extraction technique on a hand turned stone. A group of tourists arrive and they up their efforts. The tourists fade away and they slip back into having a drink of tea or discussing last nights episode of Moroccan Coronation Street.
The lunch stop was in the Ourika Valley. It was a million miles away from the Berber village, where we had taken tea. Restaurants lined the road. The main method of drumming up business seemed to be to have a parking man to point you in the direction of their available spaces. Clad in a high viz vest as though it would afford some protection, the said guy would walk into the passing traffic in a bid to redirect you in for lunch. It seemed a spectacularly unsuccessful tactic. Today, most would remain under capacity. The sheer num era however, indicated that the weekend and holidays brought better pickings. The close distance to the city must bring daytrippers out in their hordes, when the summer heat intensifies. Lunch was included in the
trip and we pulled into a hotel /restaurant complex. They obviously felt assured of their customers, as they seemed to be the only ones on the strip who saw fit not to employ car park man. We were led to the empty terrace overlooking the valley. There were a dozen or so tables laid, but no other guests. The relaxed day for the waiting staff would soon change. The car park filled with other Landcruisers. We gazed out over the valley and ate our fill of salad and chicken tagine. Tagine is very much the local signature dish and named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. The best way to describe it would be a sort of slow cooked stew with a host of spices. It apparently requires very little water as the steam condenses in the domed pot and runs back down to aid the cooking process. We had better in the hotel, but the surroundings were pleasant. The locals seem to think if you eat enough of it, a tagine pot will come high on your list of souvenirs. The number of roadside stalls selling highly decorated versions in all sizes perhaps suggests their marketing
is correct. We made some laboured conversation with our French co-inhabitants of our Landcruiser. We settled for the controversial subject of Brexit, which all seemed to agree was a dumb idea. TFB was obviously not dining with us. It got me thinking how different all this could have been - speaking French that is, not Brexit. As kids, a lot BBC children's TV was of French origin. Belle & Sebastian. White Horses. The Flashing Blade..... and not forgetting The Magic Roundabout. They were all dubbed into English. If by chance the original language audio had been left to play to us, this language game might have a whole lot simpler. We basically started too late.
We were on the homeward stretch now and sped back through the more regular small towns. The French on the trip coveted a camel ride. It wasn't on the itinerary, but who were we to spoil their fun? We had last come into contact with camel rides in Broome, Western Australia, in 2006 and we declined then. We declined again today. It was 100 Dirhams or about 10 Euros for 30 minutes and once kitted out like proper Bedouin, the French trio trotted across
the desert scrub. Mr Camel Man owned 23 camels and lived across the road in a fairly palatial pad. The camel business was seemingly going well. He had a few baby camels back at base, so I risked life and limb and crossed the road to see them. The centrepiece of what looked like the house was in fact the camel stable. The camels were living in style. The moral of the story appears to be, look after your camels and your camels will look after you. Chief cutie amongst the junior camels was laid out on the floor, soaking up the sun. It had been a hard day. Tea was served in the tent, whilst we waited for the French to return. The conversation turned to the value of camels for which there seemed no definitive answer. In true Art Garfunkel thinking process, the one with the Bright Eyes was deemed a top beast. I personally thought that the one with a talent for gurning - the ability to deliberately distort a face - had a possible future outside of the camel ride business. We arrived back at the resort in the late afternoon and settled in for a
small refreshment session before the sun faded.
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