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Published: January 28th 2012
TafraouteMotorhome News from Morocco 2 22nd January 2012 Continuing our travels through Morocco by motorhome, with friends, Kit and Morag from Norfolk, UK, and Brian and Kathryn from Adelaide, Australia. The Saffron Trail - into the desert, and that red warning light is still trying to tell us something!
Shoemaker in the souk
We came to Tafraoute on an anti-clockwise route previously recommended by friends; from Tiznet on the Atlantic coast, climbing up the precipitous road into the Anti-Atlas Mountains. For the Imelda Marcos fans amongst you, Tafraoute is the place to come for shoes; the round toed Berber variety, plain or delicately embroidered, yellow for the gents and red for the ladies, all hand-made in the tiniest of dingy workshops on narrow alleys in the souk.
I guess we take bread for granted back home. But it's a staple food source here; either a french-stick/baguette or something round and flat rather like a thick pancake. In Tafraout we hunted down the local baker and were invited into a dark hole in the wall, usually the preserve of the cash machine, where we ducked our heads and descended the dingy stone stairs into the cellar to enter the
The Hole in the Wall baker!
baker's oven, an underground cavern where hot charcoal and argan-nut husk cinders bake the town's daily bread. We bought the steaming fresh bread of course and returned later with copies of the photographs taken as we had promised. We'll share one with you here - the photo, not the loaf. Tafraout turned out to be a friendly place, a place where we felt comfortable despite the dusty streets and fluttering litter. With help from the 'Rough Guide' we booked a 4X4 tour through the Gorges-d' Ait Mansour the next day.
It's taken a while but we are beginning to realise how little we previously knew about the real Moroccan landscape. There is little shown on TV, but we are assured they once made cowboy films a little way outside town in an idyllic, lonely valley, sculpted with massive boulders, a natural extravaganza comparable with scenes in North America's Zion or Joshua Tree National Parks. And yet we have never heard of it. But that was before some daft Belgian vandal threw tons of paint at the rocks in the name of art. It's now a 'tourist attraction', The Painted Rocks. Our 4X4 drifted through breathtaking deep gorges of strange
The Painted Rocks
striated escarpments, narrow dirt roads in lush palm-drenched valleys and peaceful villages of flat-roofed mud-brown houses, old ones abandoned, often whole villages crumbling into the dust, long derelict. Most of the hillside terraces, once cultivated, are also deserted now, their owners off to work in the towns or overseas, sending their earnings back home to build anew and often quite extravagently. Unmissable!
Those of you who have a map to hand will find Taroudannt, our next port of call, about 80km to the east of Agadir in the general direction of our travels over the next few days. Taroudant's magnificent ochre ramparts portray the true image of a Moroccan town. It sits comfortably at the centre of the Sousse Plain, the fertile provider of the Nation's fruit and vegetables, from open fields, plastic-covered market gardens and the endless walled orange plantations. A kilo and a half of beautiful oranges in the Berber souk cost but a handful of pennies. Doubtless our supermarkets back home are buying in bulk from this area and they must be laughing their way to the bank everytime we buy them for ten times that price. They weigh all your fruit and veg together in
The ochre ramparts in evening sunlight
a plastic bowl in the markets here; it's all the same price, just pile it in!
Woken early by the resonance of the call to prayer from a dozen mosques, we left town early, jockeying for space on the road with donkey carts, bikes and scooters, all going round roundabouts in the wrong direction or on the wrong side of the road; open-backed trucks heading into town carrying a dozen or more seated children in the back, en route to school - and similar numbers of workers, both men and women, standing, out of town, presumably off to work on the local farms.
Seventy miles to the east lies Taliouine at the centre of Morocco's saffron growing region. The Saffron Museum was undergoing refurbishment when we stopped by and the eratic electricity supply to the video player cut short our educational introduction, but we got the gist; the importance of the region's combination of climate, altitude and mineral-rich soil nurturing the saffron bulbs to peak condition and the painstaking work of the local cooperative labour-force producing the finest saffron in the World, known locally as 'red and purple gold'. We just had to buy some, the genuine article
Chucking out time!
from its source. It was not until we drove on that we realised the scale of this 'cottage' industry. The freshly tilled saffron fields stretched to the foot of the mountains on either side of the road as we sped our way further eastwards for mile after mile. Saffron goes a long way in the pot; just one strand per person we're surprised to learn.
One picture of Morocco that does spring to mind is that of desert, oases and camels. We have seen all of that on the postcards and sometime soon we should find that image for ourselves. But before that there is yet more to be seen in this intriguing country. The Anti Atlas Mountains have tugged at the strings of our hearts seen from the road and on distant horizons, but the road from Taliouine via Tazenakht to Agdz crosses the altiplano, the high plains between the Haut (high) Atlas and the Anti (foothills) Atlas. This endless barren landscape is without limitations, the narrow tar-strip road diminishing as it rolls to infinity into the arid distant mountains, nutmeg- brown in the noon-day sun, empty, treeless, one hundred miles of uninhabited landscape we have not previously
...and waiting for something
experienced other than perhaps in the far north of Norway. Alarmingly, shortly before Tazenakht, gusting gale-force winds started to buffet the motorhome, pushing us back-and-forth as grit-blasting dust-storms swirled across the road bringing visibility down to a few metres before we finally reached the wider road at Tasla. This is a big country. Our day's drive covered 180 miles of tough driving, but as the 'Rule of Kyna' states, you often have to drive the 80% you don't need to see, to get to the magical 20%.
It will come as no surprise for you to learn that we turned south from Agdz, out along the Vallee du Draa towards the Sahara Desert, following the palm-fringed languid river and fertile fields to the staging-post modern town of Zagora. Outside of Zagora the wind picked up again over the rocky desert-plain and shifting sands swept across the open wasteland. Beside the road amidst this wilderness a hundred or more bikes leaned on the wall outside a secondary school. We had seen large numbers of schoolchildren cycling around the towns along this valley, though this had not been the case elsewhere. The bikes, we later learned, are provided for those school-children
travelling long distances to school. But there was not a dwelling in sight in any direction. Just flat, desolate, rock-desert, stretching into infinity. Schools are in evidence in every town however small, children of all ages appear on the streets at all times of day going in all directions, sometimes in small groups, girls all together, boys all together, occasionally in their hundreds, merrily strolling and chatting as they wander in the centre of the road oblivious to the traffic. School is from 8am -12noon and again in the afternoon from 2pm - 5pm, often different groups. It's reported that more than 40% of the population is under 15 years of age and it certainly shows.
Men and women sit beside the road - waiting for something. Not for anything obvious. Just Waiting - for something. Where are the jobs coming from to support tomorrow's economy?
It's yet a further 50 miles beyond Zagora to where the windswept single-track strip-tarmac road ends - at M'Hamid, a dusty ramshackle town on the very edge of the Sahara Desert. From there it is 49 days to Timbouctou in Mali - by camel. Locals will tell you it's not so long
since the 300 strong camel-trains left from M'Hamid to cross the desert on the journey to Timbouctou carrying local produce to barter, twice each year, summer and winter.
But six miles short of M'Hamid the 'Engine Malfunction' warning light came on again and our engine lost power. The last time this happened was in Spain, a few weeks back. That, we have assumed, was a false alarm with no further evidence of an obvious problem, but this was the last place on earth we needed motor problems. Frighteningly, it's a hundred miles back on the same road to Agdz in a couple of days! "We must be nuts to be down here," Janice had already observed more than once.
We limped those last few miles, checked for obvious solutions and laid the engine to rest overnight in the hope it was another false alarm. Whilst we waited for the engine to cool and the fierce wind to abate, we set off to do a deal with Ahmed, Zbar Travel, for a 4X4 tour into the desert the following day. Janice was hankering for a lunch in a Nomad tent, Kit and I wanted to see the dunes -
and Morag was desperate for a a ride on a dromedary.
Thursday. 9am. The Toyota 4X4 is there at the entrance to the campsite waiting for us. One whole day. One driver. One English speaking guide, Abidine. Four passengers - the Australian contingent has seen desert dunes before and are resting up at Zagora awaiting our return.
Wham! The road ends here at the bottom of the main street. It's rocky desert terrain, marred only by plastic bags and other trash.
Soon, the dunes, wispy grasses and scrubby tamerisk old and gnarled, rocky tracks, rattling suspension over rumble-strip and zig-zag turns gaining grip on windswept sand.
Soon the camels (they're actually dromedaries) lumbering in the swirling sand like lost sheep in the charge of nomadic herdsmen.
Soon the oasis, a bubbling spring amidst the sand 20km from M'Hamid, gently swaying palms, huge tadpoles the size of sardines in the shallow pool, desert larks sampling the warm water, a broken-down jeep that didn't make it, and a group of adventurers from Hungary in 4X4's about to embark on the challenging trek across the desert to Senegal. We're mere pussy-cats when it comes to real adventure!
And soon, 30km beyond, the Nomad tents, the friendly cat, the wide sweeping, 300m high dark-ridged Chiggaga dunes we came to see, their peaks swept by a seering wintery wind in sunlight charged with swirling sand and briskly floating cloud.
And then,the Nomad-tent lunch; lemon tea, brochettes, very tasty, and finely-chopped salad, followed by cinnamon coated oranges....the cat, by this time, had disappeared.
That's seven hours of bone-shaking new life-experiences to put in the memory bank, for 350Dh (€28 pp), rather good value we feel. It's not exactly your most authentic desert and Berber camp experience, it's a commercial gambit to boost the town's economy. The Nomads will surely still be off somewhere else with their camels if this wind keeps blowing, but go for it if you get the chance! We did eventually make the return trip to M'Hamid, though yesterday's tracks were obliterated by sand-drifts and our driver was pushed to the limit. Dreams fulfilled for three of us....but Morag's camel ride will have to wait.
It has not rained in M'Hamid for three years, Abidine told us, but there has been rain further north around Fez and welcome snow over the mountains,
the source of water for the people of the valleys. This precipitation is responsible for the strong winds here, 100 miles to the south. I was fascinated by Abidine's turban and keen to know more. He kindly untied the long scarf and demonstrated its circuitous route around his head. "It is six metres long," he told us over lunch. "With that length I can draw water from the well and tether my camel." Abidine came from the desert to M'Hamid with his family when he was twelve. With no formal education his self taught English is indeed exceptional. He also speaks some French and Spanish. With those sparkling brown eyes and constant beaming smile he will do well. At 25, he's in no hurry to find a wife.
Along with the road, the River Draa also ends at M'Hamid, sinking into the desert sand to reappear at brief intervals as oases and desert wells, before continuing its way, undergroaund, to the Atlantic coast. It's a while since we had seen water in a wadi. There has been so little rain in the mountains this year. We returned up-river, straddled on either side by high escarpments, a picture so reminiscent
of the Rift Valley in East Africa, the 200km to Agdz. Here we started the long climb, up and over the Jbel Sarhro, the Sarhro Mountains, golden-brown schist, layered like the contours on a map on the climb, turning to towering bronze monuments on the northern face; a view to challenge the Grand Canyon or the buttes of Utah, (though a little smaller perhaps!) way across the Atlantic. Beyond and above the Sarhro along the road to Ouarzazate, the High Atlas, a great strand of dazzling white like a scane of snow geese clear across the horizon - and above, the blue, blue sky. We plan to cross the high Atlas in a few days. With luck, the snow will have cleared. Love it or hate it, this country holds many fascinating secrets.
A new government was elected one month ago here in Morocco and there is new hope in the future. The government governs here, but it is perhaps the King who provides the leadership and direction. Kind Mohammed VI is a young man, portrayed in pictures hanging on every wall in every shop and every office, wearing a Western style Saville Row suit - reaching out northwards
towards Europe, rather than to the East one would suspect.
At Ouarzazate we turned to the east once again, continuing our slow progress upwards, this time following the source of the Dades River along the Vallee du Dades, also glamorously portrayed as the Valley of Roses. But there is little evidence of roses along the valley at this time of the year other than the wayside sellers of rose-tinted by-products and the romance of roses is marred by a disappointingly continuous urban sprawl. There are many fine Kasbahs along this route, seemingly a valued centre for its fertile soil and water in its day and rife with tribal conflict. A well-earned stop to visit the amazing 17th Century Amerhidl Kasbah at Skoura brought us a few insights into local history and the day-to-day lives of those who lived in this beautifully decorated mud -built castle. The Amerhidl Kasbah features on the current Moroccan 50Dh note and they filmed scenes from Lawrence of Arabia and Aladdin here, our energetic and delightful guide informed us as we climbed staicases, ducked our heads through doorways, leant over parapets and peered into dark cavities in quick order. We manage to find a little
Morag and Kit
Doing a deal in the souk!
pearl most days!
A diversion northwards along the Dades Gorge led us beside small fields divided into tiny cultivated patches a mere few metres wide, and fig, almond, walnut, and poplar trees, a strange wintery verdigris mist of twigs and branches along the valley bottom, in stark contrast against the steep terracotta and ochre canyon walls - and that ever-present sapphire sky above.
There's a newly surfaced road for the next 50km to Tinerhir bordered by the most stunning scenery. To our left, rich red and terracotta mountains of the High Atlas foothills, stirred like thick-cut marmalade in creamy semolina, and to our right, the sombre slag-heap grey outline of craggy mountains stretching eastwards - also featured as a back-drop in Lawrence of Arabia! At this point the Todra Gorge leads up from the prosperous silver mining town of Tinerhir. We plan a short drive up there tomorrow with the prospect of some good hiking and birding if we can keep clear of the tiresome touts and guides looking for handouts.
By now you'll have gathered the motorhome's engine warning light was yet another false alarm sent to try us. It's still all systems go since we
cleared the sand from our electric door-step, sorted the air-lock in the hot water system and put the rubber boot back on the steering column where it belongs. All these things are sent to try us.
Janice and David
The grey haired nomads
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Just a few of the birds seen in recent days; Moussiers Redstart, Brown-necked Raven, Long-legged Buzzard, Desert Lark, Bonelli's Eagle,White-crowned Wheatear, Maghreb Wheatear, Barbary Falcon and Lanner Falcon, Red-rumped Wheatear, Temminks Horned Lark, African Blue-tit, Crag martin, Rock Martin, Common Bulbul, Blue Rock Thrush, Laughing Dove. And far beyond their range, chiff-chaff and chaffinch, both of which we suspect are North African variants and not in our book!
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