Morocco: Marrakech and Bushcamps, December 2010

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Africa » Morocco
December 1st 2010
Published: December 23rd 2010
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The next day we left en-route to Marrakech. It was a long drive with very grim weather most of the way. In the early afternoon we visited Ait Ben Haddou, a 'fortified city', or ksar, along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech in present-day Morocco. Only ten families still live in the city however, and it has been the set of several films including ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. It was interesting to see one of the old cities close up.

After leaving Ait Ben Haddou in the pouring rain, we faced a problem of trying to find a bush camp in the increasingly sloppy mud. After discounting the first few options, we were randomly approached by a Berber chap who offered us the use of his house which included the use of two rooms and a goat hair tent for sleeping. This unexpected boon turned into one of our best bush camps yet; as the family were incredibly welcoming and most of the group fell in love with the young daughter, Nadia, who was such a cutie the entire group talked of smuggling her home. She was also soooo well behaved - we gave her a glass of coke and before we knew it she was doing the washing up. Then when we were folding up our tarp she was immediately making sure there were no crinkles in it! We so wanted to take her home ;-) After dinner we indulged in some cultural exchange, they played us local music with drums, we played them Black Eyed Peas to Michael Jackson to Jay Z and taught the kids how to pole dance on the awning poles. Booze may or may not have been a factor. It was a festive and enjoyable night where everyone enjoyed a fantastic evening.

The next morning our favourite Berber family came to share breakfast with us and we discovered the repellent effects of peanut butter where one such slathered piece of toast was passed from family member to family member and finally to the pet dogs. In the morning we also had the full effect of the stunning panoramic views from the Berber homestead, which was perched on a small plateau. Simply one of the best views yet. The family is in the process of setting up a place to stop for passing visitors and they are really putting the effort in, beautifying their plot of land on the cliff with small gardens and well swept areas for vehicles. It is very charming, and an absolutely stunning spot. Definitely stop by if you are ever in the area! We also learned they were getting electricity the following week, it will be the first time anyone in that family including the grandparents, have enjoyed such a luxury in their own home.

The following day we drove up into the High Atlas Mountains – it was absolutely freezing. We stopped at the highest point of the mountains, 2226 Metres where it was freezing and Marc, Martin and Andi had to fight the wind and frozen fingers to put the canvas roof back on the ‘beach’ which was a bugger of a job! Played loads of 500 that day before arriving into Marrakech at 2pm.

Before heading off to our campsite we stopped at another Marjane for supplies and the ‘second to last McDonalds until Capetown’ as Hasty kept reminding us! Our campsite, which was about 10-15km from the city centre, was pretty isolated - but it had warm showers (well in the ladies anyway... ;-)) and WiFi, albeit the slowest WiFi on the planet. Martin and Ian went off scavenging and managed to lug back an entire tree trunk for firewood – awesome. After a vege dinner we all had a quiet night around the campfire before retiring early in order to be up bright and early for our first day in Marrakech.

Ian, Kirsten, Marc, Emma, Bunny and Martin had all decided we would stay in town for the next couple of nights, the idea of a chance to have hot showers, constant electricity, a chance to re-juggle our stuff and be a whole lot more central was too appealing to miss! After wandering around the chaotic city centre and viewing several places we found a lovely hotel called ‘El Kenneria’ (which turned out to be a real drama the next morning!). After settling in and having scalding showers we set off refreshed to explore the Place Jemaa El Fna – a huge central square/marketplace right in the middle of the city. This square also borders the largest souk in Marrakech, so it was an awesome place to get lost in the culture and vibrancy of Morocco’s largest city.

The square is surrounded by many small narrow streets; crammed with people shopping in the multitude of tiny stalls and shops. Motorbikes weave through the crowds at great speed and it's amazing you don't see an accident every four seconds. There is a huge variety of goods on offer and the souk is more-or-less broken up into areas where similar products are found eg: wooden goods, bakeries, sweet shops, antiques, clothing etc etc. This makes navigating quite easy, despite the huge area and dizzying array of tiny streets and alleys.

In the square itself, you can see snake charmers, henna tattooists, story-tellers, street entertainers and pick-pocketing monkeys. (The little devils would innocently hop on an unsuspecting shoulder and then deftly reach into pockets during the inevitable photo!) We could also see the preparations for the local film festival, including two giant screens which were playing very amusing Arabic music videos – whacky stuff indeed! Bunny got a lovely Henna tattoo on her foot/ankle and we were in hysterics watching the crazy videos while waiting for the henna to dry. We had lunch at a lovely cafe right on the edge of the square – bubbling tagines which were fantastic.

At 4pm we met Ian, Kirsten, Emma and Marc, then we all found a quiet spot on a fourth story roof terrace and enjoyed tea and coffee while watching the fabled Marrakesh sunset – which was lovely, especially as we had wonderful views over the square as it transformed into a heaving hustle and bustle as night approached. (Alcohol, much to the boy’s annoyance is practically non-existent and when you do find it, at extortionate prices). The smoke from the cooking fires drifts across the square in a haze and the smell of hot food drifts across the city. As the darkness set in, we headed down to the famous ‘Food Extravaganza’; which occurs nightly in the Place Jemaa El Fna. We had heard this was amazing, with lots of stalls offering a massive variety of local delicacies. However we were disappointed to find that in reality it was just lots of plastic covered tables and benches, with overly aggressive and sometimes quite nasty tauters trying to lure you into their stalls and then serving overpriced tiny portions of very average cuisine. Apparently it just isn’t what it used to be, another example of mass tourism killing a cultural experience.

However all was not lost, after meeting Falcon, Big G, Lindi and Vicky for a few beers in the scungy Hotel Tazi we met up with Ian and Kirsten and allowed ourselves to be led to a nearby restaurant ‘Dar Neffarine’, which has the impressive reputation of being the only Restaurant in Marrakesh where all the food is prepared by women. It was absolutely brilliant, a bit pricey, but the food was divine – caramelized pumpkin and chicken tagine was to die for! We sat in a plush rooftop tent and the atmosphere was relaxed and lovely; they also had two gentlemen (one blind) playing local music throughout the evening and then to our surprise a belly dancer – who may well be the only hot belly dancer on the planet.  After several more drinks we finally headed back to our respective hotels, thoughts of the crappy food extravaganza all but forgotten.

The next morning we had the unpleasant ultimatum that we needed to move out of our room (which had 4 beds) despite having booked for 2 mights – the hotel clearly wanted to maximize their occupancy. We argued and abused them and ended up getting our rate chopped in half and then left to find a new hotel – with the idiot manager telling us if we came back at 6pm they might have room due to the snow in England. What a dickhead. It was pretty rubbish having to waste a couple of hours finding a new hotel, but we eventually did and then headed out to make the most of our final day in Marrakesh. We did a fair bit of shopping; getting scarves and two large clay serving bowls (Here’s hoping they make it home in one piece!!) we also stopped in a lovely and trendy cafe for coffee, it was set over 3 levels and playing western music – the first we had heard in weeks – and created a wee bit of nostalgia.

That evening we had chawarma’s in a local restaurant and went out to explore the square. Friday is the Muslim version of Saturday, so the square was heaving – people everywhere! There were several entertainments set up: fishing for coke bottles etc and one curious event where two ‘random’ locals were boxing and the audience were expected to place wagers on the winner – the possibilities for match fixing were staggering! The two huge screens were both playing English films dubbed in Arabic and there were huge crowds watching. We bought some dates, apricots, cashews and pistachios for the drive tomorrow and then headed back for a welcome night’s sleep in a cosy bed.

The next morning we raced off and did a last bit of shopping - pictures, earrings and presents for the secret santa exchange we are doing at Christmas. We also went on the hunt for some bubble wrap to bundle up our bowls, we couldn’t find any and ended up settling for a large sheet of cardboard instead – beggar can’t be choosers... although we still had to pay for the cardboard, taken from a pile of apparent rubbish! The Moroccans are definitely entrepreneurial!!

Marrakech was a heaving, bustling mecca, with a definite colour and vibrancy to it, but it was a bit of a culture shock after the slower paced towns and cities we had so far visited in Morocco. The stall sellers were far more pushy, to the extent of even being aggressive in some cases. Often we received glares or they muttered under their breath things we could only assume were non-complimentary when we tried to bargain with them. Even the occasional insults in English. We were glad we got to visit Marrakech while we were here, it is a fun place – plus the food is great! However, up until now we had experienced much quieter areas and the Moroccans had been largely a very polite and hospitable people. Marrakech does seem a bit distant to these other places and we’d recommend if you are visiting Morrocco that you see more than just Marrakech to get a true feel for the country. We left Marrakesh at about 1pm and drove off in the direction of the seaside town of Essaouira, stopping on the way in the middle of nowhere for a lovely bush camp in a dry river bed.

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