An epic adventure of camels, souks and searing heat
Arriving late at night in Marrakesh's main square is a mesmerising assault on the senses.
I opened the door of the taxi and was abruptly greeted by a cacophonous combination of storytellers, snake charmers, magicians and food sellers. Smoke from outdoor eateries hung in the air, carrying the sticky smell of barbecued meats, while the wail of flutes led my eyes to a cobra curled on the ground, swaying mesmerised to the movements of the turbaned man opposite, sitting crossed legged, his eyes locked on to the deadly reptile in front of him. Another glance around revealed traders peddling cheap T-shirts and sunglasses, while younger men fired florescent plastic helicopters into the air, much to the delight of the young children, who were eagerly trying persuade their parents to part with their dirhams on these pieces of tourist tat as they drifted to the ground. This was Marrakesh's Jemaa el Fna, the famous meeting and trading square. A place that wrestles with your senses and gives you a full hit of culture shock within moments of arriving. I picked up my backpack and gave my companion a confident smile, hoping she wouldn't be able to immediately see through my concerns, for I could tell from what was in front of us that the directions to our hostel, which I had scrawled on a piece of paper, might as well have been written in the Arabic I was seeing all around me. Navigating the Jemaa el Fna, in the dark, with two fully loaded backpacks, was going to be a lot more difficult than I first anticipated.
Chaotic, bustling, and bloody hot was the introduction we had to Marrakesh and, as we would find out, was a close reflection on the rest of the country too. After delaying our trip due to various reasons we'd ended up heading to Morocco a few months later than first anticipated, placing us there at the beginning of summer. In typical backpacker fashion, we had limited funds and were originally going to try to stretch them out into a three month trip around the whole country. Our plan was to stay in the cheapest hostels and riads we could find, riads being houses typically built around a central courtyard or garden, offering what looks like a square of oasis in the middle of the building. We arrived, as most travellers will, in Marrakesh, to experience the famous medina, and see the sights of this ancient city. The medina is a densely packed warren of narrow market streets called souks, filled with traders, hagglers and hustlers and, at first, they're hard work. Shuffling along the compacts stalls of spices, rugs, clothes and jewellery, we found ourselves diving in and out of the way of motorbikes while traders tried aggressively to get us to dish out our dirhams for (what was likely to be) fake jewellery or for souvenirs which we had no room to carry. And this was before we’d even found our hostel. The Jemaa el Fna is pretty much deserted during the day, as well it should be when the mercury’s hitting over 40 degrees celsius, so it’s after dark when it really comes to life. Tourists and locals alike dine together, mainly eating tagines of cous cous and vegetables or a choice of barbecued meats. Portions are generally ample but, for a country that’s famous for its spices, surprisingly bland. Wandering the main square and its souks we weren’t fully prepared for the experience and didn’t expect to be forcefully pushed and jostled by touts trying to get us to eat at their tables or to buy something they were selling.
As we were staying in a cheap backpackers’ hostel and in rather a large shared dorm, being able to retire to a nice room to relax in the afternoons wasn’t really an option. This meant a lot of wandering around in the heat of the day which wasn’t ideal. Outside of the main square, there’s numerous museums, palaces and some not wholly unimpressive ruins to visit, but quite often there’s very little shelter from the blazing sun. This, coupled with the fast-paced atmosphere of the evening markets, makes Marrakesh everything you’d expect and more; dusty, noisy, busy, exciting and exhausting. It’s certainly not the place to come to relax and we really needed to learn to be on our guard, a lesson which we had to learn quickly with a trip around the rest of the country still ahead of us. We'd be returning to Marrakesh and so decided to head for the coast where we hoped it would be a little less hectic.
Hitting the coast
After the madness of Marrakesh, Morocco's west coast is, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.
For a much needed break from the dust and heat, Morocco’s coast makes a welcome escape. We started our coastal route in Agadir, where we could take a breath of fresh air after such an intense start to our trip.
Agadir is actually quite modern for Morocco, but this is largely due to the fact that it was flattened by a huge earthquake in 1960. Because of this, an extensive (and expensive) rebuilding project has seen a large stretch of concrete promenade running alongside the beach, where couples walk hand in hand (a rare sight in Morocco), and numerous bars and restaurants are lined with diners watching the sunset. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were on the somewhere on the Algarve as opposed to an African coast, but it’s a welcome change, especially after experiencing the madness of Marrakesh, and it’s nice to breath some fresher air and feel a cooler breeze on your skin. The trouble with rebuilding a place after a natural disaster is that it loses character and that’s what Agadir lacks. The town itself is small and concrete but if you’re after a resort-like feel and the freedom to be able to sit and sunbathe then this is a good place to be. Most of the accommodation in the town centre is budget, to say the least. While this is good for those looking to save their dirhams, budget here also had a slightly seedy feel to it, and the damp-smelling motel-style room we chose in the centre of town coupled with the lack of atmosphere of Agadir meant a one night stay was enough before catching the bus on the relatively short ride north to the fishing town of Essaouira.
Essaouira is where you can really start to relax. A stroll around the 18th century ramparts complete with brass cannons opens pleasant views of the rocky coastline, although the strong coastal winds can mean digging for a jumper. Because of the wind, the crescent-shaped beach is popular with all kinds of surfers and the odd hippy-type character can be spotted wandering around the maze-like streets. You can meander the streets freely here, without any pressure from pushy salesmen, and you're just as likely to see inflatable dinghies and beach balls being sold alongside the standard rugs and clothes. Unsurprisingly, seafood is a specialty here and on strolling the harbour, local fishermen can be seen mending their nets and working on their boats, closely shadowed by colonies of well-fed seagulls.
After tasting the cool air and sea breeze, we decided to follow the coast further north to a sleepy UNESCO town called El Jadida. We figured it would be a good way to break up our journey to Meknes and Fes as well as seeing a town which didn’t feature on a lot of travellers’ plans. We were also about to find out the difference between cheap travel and really cheap travel.
In keeping with our budget of practically nothing, we’d bought the cheapest bus tickets we could find for the Essaouira to El Jadida journey. Stepping on to the bus we immediately began to reconsider the necessity of pursuing the cheapest of cheap prices. This wasn’t one bus, but several disembodied buses which, at the point of retirement, had been prised apart and with what could only be a deliberate act of imprecision, pushed together at random and duct taped into submission. As the bus wheezed reluctantly into action I watched crumbs of foam fall from the seat in front of me on to a stack of discarded Dairylee triangle wrappers which had already started to panic and make their way towards the exit. The air was tinged with sweat but at least that was offset by the delicate bouquet of warm meat. After about the fourth or fifth unscheduled stop I welcomed on to the bus a lady and her charming child who had decided to squeeze themselves into the seat that didn’t exist next to me. The child obviously had the same fears about the bus as I did because for the next half hour it insisted on leaving; crying, shouting and crawling its way off its mother and grabbing my legs with his sticky, grubby little hands. We had originally thought the journey would take about three and a half hours. When we bought the tickets it had already increased to four and half. When we arrived it had been an emotionally draining, backside battering six and a half hour airless toil. From this point on, when looking at cheap tickets, we would no longer think ‘how bad can it be?’ but remember how bad it was.
Peeling ourselves from the bus we could see it was all worthwhile though, as this charming little town revealed old Portuguese colonial buildings nestled into quiet, cobbled streets and the seafront came complete with a red-bricked castle where children kept cool by bravely leaping from its ramparts into the moat below. Later in the evening, on the comfortable terrace of our guest house, we sat back in a sofa and watched the sun go down – even affording ourselves the rare treat of a bottle of local wine and a chat with a friendly local who used to work there. This was probably the closest we’d got to feeling like we were on holiday, rather than backpacking, and it was nice to talk to a Moroccan without feeling like we had to give cash in return. I admit, it took a good few minutes for me to feel comfortable speaking to him, as previous experience so far had meant that I was suspicious of engaging ‘friendly’ characters. It was during the course of this evening that we decided three months around Morocco was probably going to be too long to spend in the country. We’d been there little over a week and it wasn’t until we’d stopped in El Jadida that we realised how exhausting it had been. By shortening our trip to just four or five weeks, we could still see the whole country and have extra money to boot. We could also avoid nightmare inducing bus rides as much as possible. On this note, we booked ourselves on a (still really cheap) first class train ticket northwards to another UNESCO city, Meknes.
Roman ruins, rooftop terraces and a hotel fit for spies and spiders await in a mini Marrakesh.
Moroccan trains are cheap and characterful, with their corridor coach layout fitting six to a room comfortably and it was a far cry from the cheap, dusty, hot buses we’d become accustomed to on our trip so far. It felt like a trip back in time to the turn of the century when this style of train was in its heyday. We actually felt quite important on our first class ticket and we sat and watched the scenery getting more and more mountainous as the journey rolled on. Surprisingly, our step back in time continued once we arrived at our accommodation in Meknes. With the extra money we’d freed by shortening our trip, we were able to splurge a little on hotels, rather than the bedbug ridden hostel dorms we’d been enduring. We’d chosen a reasonably low priced hotel that looked quite charming from the outside. Stepping inside, our eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim, yellow-orange light flickering through the wonky glass lampshades. Once we could get our bearings we were transported to the 1970s, the brown and orange threadbare floral carpet matched only by the thinning brown curtains which hung limply from flowered brass curtain rails. The musky smell of stale cigarette smoke hung in the air, clinging to the thick particles of dust that layered the surfaces of the cracked and creaking brown armchairs which had long since tired of being abraded by sweaty backsides.
It was clear that in its heyday, this was once a quite grandiose hotel, with its sweeping staircases and wide corridors, and I pictured suited spies and ball gowned femme fatales mingling in the low light to the sounds of seductive Sufi music emanating from the ballroom while important men in djellabas negotiated business in the lobby and suites. Unfortunately, what was left was just a relic of yesteryear, the most frequent guests being the spiders that had spun their cobwebbed homes among the lampshades and crumbling corner cornice. Despite this, our room was clean and comfortable and the shower hot and fit for purpose. I cleaned myself up and lay back on the bed picturing myself as a spy who’d checked in to the hotel on my latest secret mission, getting ready for my next set of orders or to be shot in the head.
After enjoying the coastal temperatures, inland Meknes, despite its higher elevation, was back to standard Moroccan heat standards. We left our hotel early evening and made our way to the main square. Sitting on a rooftop terrace enjoying a couple of drinks, we were able to watch the stalls being set up and the nightly entertainment were warming up their acts below, from jugglers to jesters and Meknes had a nice feel to it. It was a Marrakesh-lite; less noisy and, while there were far fewer tourists, we were able to walk around the main square and markets relatively hassle-free. I say ‘relatively’ hassle free because we’d ended up being followed by a wizened old man who, despite our refusals, kept insisting he would open up his ‘music shop’ for us to have a look around. We’d become quite hardened to the advances of strangers by now and were able to tell him ‘no’ without pretending to be interested. Music Man was insistent though but we were resilient enough to keep refusing for a while. When we were no longer resilient enough we’d worked out were were a hell of a lot faster than this old guy and so were able to escape him by picking up our pace, weaving our way through the crowds and ducking down side streets. I was the spy I had imagined I was while lying on the hotel bed, dodging enemies and manoeuvring the narrow side streets, hiding among the hordes of people. I was going to tell Alice this as we gave Music Man the slip but thought better of it at the risk of sounding like an idiot. As day turned to dusk we stumbled across a hot food section on the edge of the market. Here, we found delicious, huge sausage baps for just 20 dirhams. Without asking, we were brought a couple of upturned buckets to sit on which we gladly accepted; shuffling around markets in the heat is surprisingly tiring. When we looked aroun
d we were surprised to see that the majority of people in this little part of town were women, all eating from the stalls, all simply hanging out and having a chat. This was an unusual thing to witness as during our trip so far, the only people we’d seen in groups were men. We’d certainly never seen women getting together, talking and laughing while sharing a bite to eat without men nearby and we felt very comfortable sitting there among them. After a pleasant night’s sleep in our spy hotel, we awoke refreshed and ready for the day. One of the reasons to visit Meknes was to check out the nearby ruins of Volubilis and, after eventually managing to haggle a taxi, we were on our way.
Volubilis first started to develop in the 3rd century BC but grew at its most rapid from around the first century AD. The Romans built a basilica, temple and triumphal arch, all enclosed in 1.6 miles of wall. Due to its remote location it was largely left alone after it was retaken by local tribes in around 285AD and eventually even those tribes had moved on by the 11th century as Morocco’s centre of power shifted north towards Fes. Because of this there’s some prime examples of Roman architecture, despite an earthquake and countless lootings, and today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can wander the streets and let your imagination fly as you step over fabulously complete mosaiced floors and sit on the steps of the ancient public buildings. There’s no shelter at all though, and while it can take a while to navigate the huge site, it’s not recommended to spend more than a couple of hours here as the blazing sun can really take its toll, even fully greased up with sunscreen. Our deal with our taxi driver meant that he was waiting for us on our return and it was good to be able to jump straight back in when we were ready and return to our hotel where we were to pack our bags once more.
The Rif Mountains
Colourful buildings, a laid back town and suspiciously scented mountain air.
By midday, I was wedged in the back seat of a cab, uncomfortably squeezed between a sweaty, fat Moroccan man on one side and a fidgeting girlfriend on the other. We were pulling up into Chefchaouen, after being made to finish off our journey from Meknes by cab as the bus didn’t quite go all the way into the town. The scenery had been slowly changing from the sandy brown nothing that covers most of the country into pleasant shades of green as we travelled upwards into the mountains. The temperature had also dipped slightly and on getting out of the taxi, the air felt fresh and cool against my sweaty legs. I was just hoping it was all my own sweat as I watched the fat man hobble off in the opposite direction. We’d been dropped off next to a winding, cobblestone street which led on to the Medina. Painted and washed in shades of blue, the crooked walls of the ancient buildings really made this picturesque mountain village stand out from all the other places we’d visited so far. We navigated our way through the narrow lanes to our hostel surprisingly easily, helped by the small size of the medina and noticeably fewer hustlers offering to show us the way.
The roof terrace of our hostel doubled up as cheap accommodation for those wanting to chuck down a sleeping bag and rough it under the stars, but we’d chosen a much more comfortable and clean room which was half the price of some of the places in the cities. Sitting on the rooftop, overlooking the red-tiled roofs and pastel-blue buildings, we were able to put our feet up and take in the view of the lush mountains surrounding us. Breathing in the mountain air and listening to the calls to prayer, there was a distinct lack of car fumes, noise and chaos that we’d become accustomed to when arriving at a new town. Chefchaouen was instantly relaxing, a peaceful and pretty reprise from what we’d become accustomed to and would prove to be an ideal place to relax for a few days. A meandering river flows around the town and where it drops local townswomen can be seen scrubbing their laundry on wooden washboards, the faster flow of water carrying away the dirt and soap suds. It’s a reminder of how easy it is to take for granted an everyday task that, for some people, is still a back breaking chore that can take up most of the day. Despite this, they’re quick with a smile, the same laid-back attitude permeating even those with chores to do.
One of the reasons behind the relaxed nature of the townsfolk and the laid-back atmosphere isn’t exactly innocent though, as the occasional waft of sweet scented air makes apparent. This is hashish territory, the Rif mountains being the perfect climate for growing marijuana. Coupled with the mountains’ close proximity to the port towns of mainland Spain, it makes this area the biggest exporter of hashish in Europe. Although strictly illegal all over Morocco, a blind eye is generally turned here, presumably making the local police force quiet wealthy in the process. Kif, a product made from grinding dried marijuana leaves into fine powder is commonly smoked by the older generation through water pipes and the ease of transporting the high potency hashish makes this Chefchaouen’s second currency, the production of which we would soon see for ourselves. Going for a hike is not something that’s recommended in most parts of Morocco, especially during summer, but up in the Rif mountains we were able to take advantage of the fact we were out of the face-melting heat of lower altitudes. Armed with a couple of water bottles and completely inappropriate walking attire, we set of early one morning for a trek up the mountains. There are several paths to take from the village, all of which ascend to quite spectacular views of the blue buildings below and, while not particularly challenging, the earlier you leave the better, as walking on an upward trajectory while the temperature rises can be quite exhausting. Following the river eastwards and then up one of the paths, we came across an old Spanish mosque sitting alone and crumbling on a hill overlooking the town. The town looks surreal from here, like a model village, the colours and shadows made more vibrant by the rising sun and, as it’s still too early for people to be going about their business, it’s eerily quiet and a perfect spot to take in the vantage point and absorb the magnificent mountain surroundings.
We wanted to see if we could make it up to the top of this particular path we were on but, every horizon seemed to make way to another. Whenever it looked like we were reaching a summit, it would give way to another bend in the path and continue up the mountain. We persevered, however, as the views behind and below were well worth the hike, although the soaring temperatures meant that we were getting low on water. We agreed to continue a little further and, if it still looked like we weren’t going to reach the top, we’d turn back. We turned another corner and noticed that the already lush landscape on the sides of the path we’d been navigating had turned a noticeably lighter shade of green. There was a recognisable scent hanging in the air, the same scent that could be smelt throughout Chefchaouen village or most student dorms. We were surrounded by marijuana plants, not just one or two, but thousands of them, growing freely up the mountainside as far as the eye could see. Some were obviously quite young, just a few inches protruding above the soil, but others were at least six feet tall, swaying gently from side to side on the quite aromatic breeze. Standing among them was what must have been the most chilled out wild cows in Morocco, these glassy-eyed bovine stoners giving us little more than a nonchalant glance before going about their business of chewing up the local cheech.
On closer inspection though, this wasn’t simply a heap of hemp gone wild. Long black irrigation pipes, about an inch thick, ran along either side of the path, each joining an intricate system of further pipelines held together by silver duct tape and running through the sea of green and up the mountain. Despite the heat, the soil was moist and water was sprinkling out of holes in the side of the pipe in what was a crude but highly effective irrigation system. These plants were being well looked after. There was no sign of any danger, no warnings to retreat or even any attempt to block the path as we continued on. This was being grown freely, bribes to the local constabulary clearly paid, and as we passed a local farmer in among the crops, I gave a wave which he kindly reciprocated. Two tourists weren’t going to be of any bother to him and we were able to continue on our hike unhindered, as if we were simply strolling through the local park. There just happened to be millions of pounds’ worth of marijuana growing in this particular park.
Once it hit midday it was far too hot to continue any further. We’d walked a fair few miles, uphill, and our only water supply was condensation in the long empty plastic bottles we’d been carrying with us. It was time to make our retreat. On our way back down we passed the same cow, chewing in the same place, where it probably had been for days, this time eyeing us with paranoia and suspicion. We’d also passed what looked like a man-made spring earlier in our hike up, where water flowed from a stone feature in a wall, into a basin below. By the time we reached it on our way back down, our thirst had got the better of us, the dusty air and the what was now stifling heat, drying our mouths and making us dizzy. Despite initial reservations, I put some of this clear, clean looking, ice cold water into my water bottle and took a gulp. It was instant relief as the dust and dirt was washed from my dry mouth and throat and I could feel the energy flowing back as I took another long swig. What could possibly go wrong, drinking water from an unknown source? In Africa? I hoped I wouldn’t find out...(unfortunately, later that day, I did!).
Gentle strolls around the peaceful, colourful village, delicious dinners at rooftop restaurants and no one pushing to be your guide made Chefchaouen a delightful place to spend a good few days. After exhausting all the local attractions we were in danger of becoming too settled and decided it would be a good idea to move on. No trip to Morocco would be complete without a desert trek but that was a long way away and it was going to take about a week to get there from Chefchaouen. We would be sad to leave this sleepy little town and the relaxed nature of the people and this place put us off guard for our next stop, Fez.
Miles of souks and dodgy leather jackets are all part of Morocco's chaotic capital.
It’s 11am in a cramped souk, unbearably hot and crowded, and I’m in the middle of a heated argument with a young Moroccan man who is refusing to let us pass. “You go back to your hotel, you don’t walk here”. The young man in a red T-shirt points in a general direction. “We’re going this way”, I reply curtly. I’m tired, starting to feel a little unwell and getting a little annoyed at the fact there’s a Moroccan in my face who won’t let me walk where I want to. He can’t be much older than eighteen and he’s got the hump because we refused his services as a ‘guide’. As such he’s been following us around the Medina, blocking our path no matter which way we go. “You go back to your hotel! Go!” He’s raising his voice even more now and we’re beginning to attract attention. “Get out of our way!” I shout back. “Just because we don’t want you as a ‘guide’ doesn’t mean you can block our way. We’ll walk where we want to.” “You go back to your hotel, you go back to your own country. You go NOW.” He takes a step forward and it’s clear this isn’t an argument that should be taken any further. Avoiding conflict with foreign locals is generally a smart move. I swallow my pride and we make our retreat out of the Medina’s shadow and into the sweltering heat. Our whole arrival in Fez hadn’t started well. An hour or two earlier, we’d alighted our bus only to have the cab drivers refuse to take us anywhere unless we paid them an exorbitant fare. They were flat out refusing to haggle and it was one of the times you know that you’re being ripped off simply because you’re a foreigner. Annoying yet not wholly unusual, we reluctantly agreed as there was no other way of getting to our accommodation. After checking in to our dorm we’d walked to the Medina and entered through one of the many side streets which weave through Fez. The mountain air of Chefchaouen was long gone and the rows of traffic on the packed, narrow roads were belching out diesel fumes into the hot air forming a thick, bitter-tasting smog that hung over the city. The shaded Medina offered a little shelter and it was as we shuffled along wearily looking for somewhere to eat that a young ‘guide’ had decided to latch on to us. He’d tried every trick in the book to get us to accept his help but as we continued to politely refuse his aid, he became more and more aggressive, telling us that it was ‘too dangerous’ for us to be walking around the Medina without him and that we needed to have him with us. Our last refusal, polite, but firm, was what tipped him over the edge and he resorted to simply blocking our path so we couldn’t continue in any direction.
We escaped to our hostel with an uneasy feeling hanging over our heads. We’d been accosted, harangued and hassled most of our way across the country so far, but there was something about the atmosphere in Fez that made us very apprehensive about being there. Some of the tradesmen were openly hostile and didn’t seem to want us near their stalls, the taxis had ripped us off to get to our hostel and the ‘guide’ was going out of his way to block our path and make life difficult for us because we’d refused to be extorted out of our dirhams. Maybe we just needed time to adjust and, at the end of the day, we decided to give Fez another try the next morning.
I awoke in the early hours of the morning, painful cramps in my stomach. The six other people in our dorm were fast asleep and I sat up as quietly as I could. Fortunately, the dorm was en-suite and I made a hasty but silent escape to the bathroom. I hoped the silence wasn’t broken by the sound of me turning inside out but there was little I could do about it. The refreshing and delicious water I had quaffed back in Chefchauoen wasn’t quite as clean and fresh as I’d hoped and I was now paying the price. I spent the next day feeling sorry for myself and tried not to stray too far from a bathroom while Alice was left to her own devices. The previous day had understandably made her wary about venturing about on her own but the hostel was nice enough to spend the day in, especially with a spacious rooftop terrace to relax on during the cooler hours. After dodging food and getting a couple of days’ rest, I was ready to venture further afield. We decided to hit the Medina again and see if things went better this time. Despite the Medina being huge, it wasn’t as difficult to navigate as we’d first imagined. Signposts were there to aid aimless tourists like ourselves and point us in the right direction, giving us a route to follow and a sense of direction. Despite this, the mazy warren comprising miles of souks was still disorienting but we were fortunate enough to stumble across a delightful oasis in the form of a friendly, student-style cafe in the middle of the medina. Lush plants sprouted from colourful pots and comfortable couches rested against pastel coloured walls on a shaded rooftop which caught the afternoon breeze. This retreat was just what we needed from the chaos below and we sat and drank mint tea, able to relax for a while and rest our aching feet.
The main reason for visiting Fez was to see the tanneries, where much of Morocco’s leatherwork is made out in the open using the same traditional methods that have changed little since the 16th century. The tannery scam is one we had heard of and read about and we were determined not to be the latest suckers to be pulled in by it. Locals are keen to tag on to tourists who don’t know where they’re going and lead them to smaller, much less impressive tanneries – all for a hefty price, of course. Surprisingly, despite being asked if we needed a guide, we were generally left alone on the way there. It wasn’t too difficult to find the tanneries either. Following the directions in our guidebook, our nostrils picked up the scent of them before our eyes did. Made worse by the thick, hot air, the eye-watering hit of ammonia caught the back of our throats and made it difficult to breathe without coughing. The thick leather hides are softened using pigeon and cow dung, each kept in huge clay vats and from our vantage point of the street, we were able to see the workers standing waist-deep in vats of coloured dye, scrubbing, brushing and treating the raw animal hides. It’s an unenviable job but there’s a bunch of dedicated workers heaving the heavy skins in and out of the vats after which they’re hung out to dry in the sunlight.
A short man in a blue outfit and traditional Fez hat opened the door to one of the stone buildings nearby and, on seeing us, offered to take us up to his roof so we could get some better photos. We suspected there would be a price but decided it was probably worth it to take in the vista properly. He led us up a steep staircase and two floors later we popped out on to the rooftop. It was a sight worth seeing too as we could see much further back, where water flowed out through what used to be windows on the furthest buildings, spilling into the giant clay vats which we could now see by the dozen. The range of colours was dazzling, with blues, reds, greens, yellows in front of the white vats of pigeon dung, all of which spilt over on to the stone floor, mixing together into murky puddles of brown. You had to feel for the workers, toiling away in the heat and the stench so that the nearby factories and workshops can make shoes and jackets out of the fruits of their labour, to be sold on at a high profit while the ones doing the real work get paid very little. It didn’t take me long to realise that this is simply the way of the world, a world where the people who do the real work are the ones who profit the least. These Moroccan tannery workers were comparable to cotton pickers in Kenya or diamond miners in Sierra Leone, doing the hard, dangerous work at the bottom of the production ladder so that the more fortunate can enjoy the fruits of their labours without having to care or think about where the raw materials come from. After taking some good photos and breathing in enough ammonia for one day, we were led back downstairs where the cost of our rooftop voyeurism was to be revealed. On the ground floor of our Fez-furbished friend’s building was a whole level of leather products, the scent of which was quite pleasant compared to outside. The problem with the handbags, shoes and jackets on display was that they were all aimed at fans of 1982. I’d never seen new leather jackets look so instantly out of date and I was about to ask him if he’d modelled them on Michael Jackson’s Thriller jacket but before I had the chance, he’d taken one of them off the hangar and had deftly managed to slip it on to my back before I could say ‘beat it’. I tried to feign interest while Alice tried to stifle laughter and pretended to look at handbags. After a few nods and grins, he removed this piece of 80s memorabilia and decided I’d look better as a 1960s racing driver, adorning me with a classy skin tight number, with white tramlines outlining a two inch wide maroon stripe down each arm. Seeing I was unsatisfied with the short length processed cow hides he was throwing over my shoulders, our guide then moved to the longer-length variety, deciding that maybe an 80s hipster look would be better. I looked at myself in the full-length mirror I’d been escorted to. Perhaps this was the coat for me! Alas, no, looking like one of The Lost Boys wasn’t quite what I was going for. Besides, unlike The Lost Boys, I still had a reflection but I couldn’t quite figure out if this was a good thing or not. Eventually, we had disappointed our host enough and we’d made it clear that we weren’t going to buy any leather jackets, despite their amazing ability to trigger distant memories of vampire movies and shit music. Besides, at 40 degrees celsius you’d have to be a damn fine salesman to shift these pieces of modern history. While we weren’t allowed to leave for free, we weren’t asked for much and it was worth it for the entertainment value. It did make me feel more sorry for those putting all their time, effort and health into tanning the leather only to have it made into the terribly designed goods we’d seen on sale. I hoped somewhere it was being put to better use. One thing I knew for sure was that I certainly didn’t need a leather jacket at our next destination.
With searing heat, endless sand dunes and camels on the doorstep, experiencing the remoteness of the Sahara is a surreal experience.
I don’t know why I was surprised that the desert was deserted, but stepping off the bus after an 11 hour journey with nothing but a wide, empty road behind us and miles of endless sand to the front was a little unnerving. We had, quite literally, reached the end of the road. The thought of spending 11 hours on a bus had initially filled us with dread but it was surprisingly comfortable, air conditioned and we’d actually managed to get some sleep on the way to Merzouga, the gateway to the Sahara in the south west of the country. Fortunately, it was 6am which meant we could find our accommodation without being exposed to the fiery heat of the day which was yet to come. We were greeted by our smiling host, Youssef, who immediately made us feel at home, taking us to our cool, shaded, thick walled room, designed to counteract the intense temperatures of outside. We’d arrived at the quietest time of year, only crazy people head to the desert in the summer, and Youssef immediately made us a hearty breakfast which was extremely welcome after our long journey.
Feeling refreshed, we arranged a camel trek for that same evening which would take us a few miles into the desert to a Berber camp, where we could experience a night in the remoteness of the Sahara first-hand. In the meantime, there was time to look around. Merzouga being a desert outpost, there’s very little to see except the reddish-brown sand dunes shimmering in the heat haze on the horizon and a scattering of stone houses among the blowing dust. Temperatures were already soaring so we didn’t spend too long outside before making a retreat back to our riad. On the way back we were hailed by an old, sun-blackened, wrinkly old man who invited us into his home and workshop. He seemed friendly enough so we followed him in to the dark, cool room. Despite not speaking any English, he dusted off a couple of stools for us and pottered off to make some tea. We sat there for a moment wondering what we’d got ourselves into, after all most of the friendly people we’d come across usually wanted something in return. He brought us our tea and then proceeded to show us around his workshop. We communicated with the usual smiles, nods of the head and hand gestures that accompany thoughts of ‘I’ve no idea what you’re saying’, while keeping it all polite. My eyes had become accustomed to the dim light and I could finally see what he was trying to show us. This wizened old man was a fossil hunter and was showing us the fruits of his labours, scouring the desert for these millions of years old dinosaur remnants. It turns out that the Moroccan Sahara is famous for its fossils, which remain from hundreds of millions of years ago, when the desert was lush with green plants, trees, wetlands and possibly oceans. This landscape led to a multitude of dinosaur species including the largest known meateater, the Spinosaurus. It was the fossils of these creatures that we were being shown, each specimen handled with extreme care by the shaky old man as he unwrapped them from small cloth bundles and laid them out on to a stone table. Most were small teeth, about an inch long, but all equally impressive. I wasn’t sure if I was more impressed by the fact I was looking at parts of ancient beasts or at this ancient man, who goes out in to the Sahara in these temperatures to find them. He obviously wanted to make a sale and if he’d been as pushy and rude as some of the other traders we’d come across then we’d have made an excuse and left. But, he was a friendly old man who’d made us tea and actually shown us something worth looking at. It was also a welcome break from the sun outside but I could feel Alice’s eyes on me telling me to hurry up and stop entertaining this old man. We’d hadn’t brought much cash with us to Merzouga, only what we’d need for our stay and our desert trek so I worked our what little I had spare and haggled our new friend down to a rock bottom price for a pair of small, sharp dinosaur teeth which he wrapped up for me before gently waving us on our way. I later found out that I’d bought two teeth of an Onchopristis, an eight-metre long giant swordfish that used to swim around in abundance 100-66 million years ago, where there’s now nothing but sand.
Early evening and back at our riad, we were surprised to see two camels’ heads peering in through the doorway. It turns out this was our ride and we were off into the desert, led by our Berber guide. It didn’t take long to leave civilisation behind and feel truly alone in the vast, empty expanse of sand. Endless dunes stretched on for as far as the eye could see and, despite having no road or path to follow, our guide was able to navigate his way. Quite a relief really, as the only point of navigation I could see was the hazy reddish-yellow sun that had started to slowly sink into the horizon. Camels are fun at first, it’s a great feeling plodding across the desert on one of these magnificent beasts which didn’t seem to notice or care about the fact it had a lanky, sunburnt white person on its hump. After a while though, they’re bloody uncomfortable and with no stirrups to hold your feet in place or to allow you to lift your weight up, your backside really takes a pummelling. We’d been advised to wear long trousers or jeans to prevent camel chaffing but that meant I was getting quite hot and sticky bouncing about on the back of this desert wanderer. We both welcomed our camp with bruised behinds but it had been a great journey of a couple of hours’ trek across the desert. Our camp was made up of a circle of tents surrounding a central area of low tables and cushions in which a few shrubs and trees grew. Rugs and pieces of carpet adorned the sandy ground and pieces of fabric hung between wooden poles gave the area some shade. It was a true oasis which seemed to appear out of nowhere as we navigated around a dune.
While our guide tended to the camels, we decided to trek up the tallest dune to catch the sunset. This was not as easy as I thought it was going to be. Every step forward seemed to mean two steps back as the sand broke and slipped under my feet and it was exhausting work climbing the dune. By this time the wind had really picked up, blasting sandy crystals into my already dry mouth and eyes. Hot and tired at the top of the dune, there was no sign of the small town we’d left behind only a couple of hours previously. Shadows started to form on the ridges of the dunes and the strong winds cut smooth lines across the landscape as the colours started to change to a rich red and orange hue as the sun dipped below the horizon. Dinner was made by our guide who brought us a plate of the standard vegetables and cous cous which we’d had on many occasions during our time in Morocco. ‘Not bad’, we thought as the portion was ample and it was certainly enough for two people. We’d made good work of this and thought that was it until we were brought another tagine, this time of rice, olives and tomatoes, followed by a plate of grilled chicken, more vegetables and a mountain of bread. We had enough food in front of us for a family of six to eat twice over and, despite our best efforts, were unable to finish the mighty pile of food in front of us. It was an unexpected surprise and certainly a treat to be so well fed in the middle of the desert but we did feel guilty about having to leave so much. With two large camels nearby I’m sure it didn’t go to waster though. By now, a multitude of stars and appeared overhead and the dusty glow of the milky way could be seen stretched across the desert sky. Lying back, a belly full of food, and nothing but the sound of the wind against the dunes, it was hard to imagine that less than 24 hours previously, we’d been breathing in traffic fumes, smog and navigating the noisy, crowded streets of Fez. This was an experience that was a world away from where we’d been before. We would have spent the entire night outside but paranoia of desert scorpions and snakes got the better of us so we retired to our tent, which came complete with a comfortable bed. It had been an exhausting couple of days, we’d navigated the capital, spent the previous night on a bus and somehow ended up in the desert. Needless to say, I slept like a log.
The next morning as we left, we met up with a few other tourists on top of camels who must have been staying at another camp. We had to leave early to catch the sun rise over the desert and then make it back before it got too hot. I realised how sore my backside was after the previous day’s ride but we made it back to our riad before it became too unbearable. As we alighted our camels, our guide unfurled his mobile gift shop and spread various rocks, fossils and trinkets across the ground. I’d spent my last dirhams on the dinosaur teeth the previous day and between us we had no cash spare to offer our guide as we still had to pay for our accommodation. It angered our guide that we had refused to buy something and he gathered up his goods in a huff and gave us the briefest of curt handshakes before storming off. We felt a little guilty but there wasn’t much we could do about it. It was a shame a wonderful experience had ended on a bit of a sour note but we were warmly welcomed back to the riad by Youssef, who made us another delicious breakfast washed down with refreshing mint tea.
We weren’t leaving for another day which left little else to do but relax around the riad and get some more rest. As dusk approached the sky had turned a peculiar red colour and the air was unusually calm. We made our way to the roof of our riad and looked out towards the horizon. In the distance was a huge wall of red and orange slowly getting bigger and bigger as it approached. “Sandstorm coming,” said Youseff, as he began to close the shutters and blinds of his property. “You should move inside”. We didn’t need telling twice as the wind suddenly picked up and our riad was slowly surrounded by an eerie orange glow as a thick cloud of dust and sand descended, blocking the light from the windows and reducing visibility to little more than a few metres. We were grateful that the storm hadn’t hit us the night before, but it was another desert experience that was a rare and incredible sight for outsiders like us to see. To be able to survive here takes something special, whether it’s being able to follow an invisible path across the sand to dig out ancient dinosaur bones, or simply having a smile on your face when strangers come to stay in your home, the people here deserve a great deal of respect. Although we had been in the desert for just a couple of days, we were able to get a brief insight into what it takes to live here and see a unique and difficult way of life in one of the world’s most arduous and unforgiving environments.
The Todra Gorge
Steep valleys and sleeping under the stars contribute to some magical mountain views.
We arrived in Tinghir at the start of Ramadan, something which didn’t curb the enthusiasm of the local hustlers who insisted on trying to ‘guide’ us to their particular hotel, restaurant or tour. We gave them a wide berth but because of the speed we rushed off, we’d actually ended up walking in the opposite direction to where we’d intended to go. When we were safe from the circling vultures, we sneaked a look at our map and realised we’d have to backtrack and get a taxi to where we’d planned on staying. As it was Ramadan and we were desperate to put down our bags, we didn’t even bother negotiating a fare and jumped in the first taxi that would take us. We were now in the High Atlas, just south east of the central mountains and had come here to see the Todra Gorge, what we’d hoped would be an impressive feature in the mountains. The landscape here was a far cry from the desert, with lush palmeries stretching for miles and the fertile, green land kept moist by the high rainfall and humid atmosphere. Wispy ghosts of fog and mist rose from the surrounding mountains into the grey sky and the constant threat of thunderstorms hung in the air.
This was a brief stop and, as such, we’d chosen a simple campsite within walking distance to the gorge for our accommodation that evening. While we’d seen others sleeping on rooftop terraces in various hostels, this was to be our first experience and it was surprisingly comfortable. Enclosed on three sides and half-covered by a ceiling, the concrete terrace had a number of foam mattresses strewn about with relatively clean blankets and cushions for us to use as we pleased. Due to the time of year, we were the only guests there and so we made our bed for the evening in the middle of the terrace. Despite our austere sleeping arrangement, the view was quite spectacular, with mountains all around us and below, tall palm trees shuffled in the wind, their shaky reflections dancing in small ponds while occasional drops of rain caused the otherwise still water to ripple. Next to a stream, small round tables were adorned with green striped tablecloths and empty chairs waited for customers who were unlikely to arrive at this stage of the season.
It was a surprisingly easy walk into the gorge. A thirty minute walk along a quiet dirt track cut through the mountains straight to it, the green scenery becoming much more arid and rocky as the steep hills rose sharply. The road below becomes cast in shade as the path cuts through the gorge itself, where a concrete road has been laid to make it safer for visitors and vehicles to pass. It also allows for water to run alongside as the dry, rocky ground is prone to flash floods and apparently water levels can rise quite rapidly.
As we walked through the steep gorge, the path continued upwards as it opened out into a wider road and we stopped for a break after we had exited the main section. It was here a couple of people in a car began shouting and waving their arms, not just at us, but to other groups of people who were walking along the road too. We couldn’t decipher what was being shouted and the other groups didn’t seem to be paying them much attention. We decided to sit for a few minutes longer and see what was happening as we still wanted to continue along the path and up the mountain. The car came back and it seemed like we were being told not to go any further and to go back through the gorge the way we came. By now we weren’t exactly concerned, but we felt like someone was trying to tell us something and as we couldn’t tell if it was true or not, our best course of action was to make our way back the way we came. No one else seemed in any hurry to move and they could understand what was being said, but we decided not to take any chances. We knew about the potential for flash floods but we hadn’t seen any rainfall and it would take a flash flood of near biblical proportions for us to be in danger of being swept away through the gorge so it seemed unlikely that this was what we were being warned about. Regardless, we made it back through the gorge unscathed yet still none the wiser about what the people were shouting. One of the guys from the campsite had offered to taxi us back to the bus station early the next morning. In his mid twenties, he was happy and friendly and stopped several times on the way to Tinghir so we could get some photos of the surrounding valleys. We were still bleary-eyed after our night on the roof but I managed to feign enthusiasm to avoid disappointing our overeager driver/guide . At at that time in the morning after a poor night’s sleep and worried about missing our early bus, stopping off along the way wasn't really what we wanted to do but I got some decent photos and it was nice of our driver to point out some good views. Despite our frequent stops though, we made it to the bus station with time to spare and little did we know, we would soon spending the night in our very own castle.
Rocking The Kasbah
Deep in the middle of dense palmeries, a fabulous surprise rises up majestically from amongst the fronded greenery.
We’d decided that no trip to Morocco would be complete without spending the night in a Kasbah, and our route back to Marrakesh passed through the Dades Valley, otherwise known as the Route Of A Thousand Kasbahs. After the road twists and turns into the valley, it eventually straightens out and on either side lies densely packed palmeries. Scattered throughout these palmeries and on the sides of the road are the famous kasbahs, magnificent mini-castles and fortress-like buildings, built from reddish mud and clay. These were once home to the ruling families of the local ksars or ighrems; tribal villages home to workers and families. The kasbahs are magnificent buildings, each one needs to look impressive to command respect of the citizens it presides over and to also outdo its neighbours and they’re often decorated with intricate designs and geometric patterns as well as having a grand entranceway announcing the name of the kasbah. We alighted in Skoura at the heart of the Dades Valley. The bus station conveniently doubled as a cafe and we decided to stop to keep our arrival as stress free as possible and to get our bearings. The owner was a charming moustachioed man in his forties, who spoke excellent English and gave us some advice as to which kasbahs we should stay at. He told us that a lot of the ones in the guidebooks and some of the more popular ones are actually purpose-built guesthouses designed to just look like kasbahs instead of being the real thing. Instead, he gave us the name of one of the biggest and oldest kasbahs which dated back to the 18th century and said we should head for that one instead.
Our taxi ride took us deep into the palmeries, the car jolting and bumping along a potholed dirt track. We’d lost all sense of direction as tall trees surrounded us on each side with the occasional crumbling building nestled in between them. Eventually our driver pointed ahead to a rather grandiose looking building through the trees. A huge castle rose up from behind an eight foot wall, its brown clay walls adorned with geometric patterns on the walls, with turrets and towers on the corners of the roof. A huge archway announced the kasbah as we drove past the walls. This was Kasbah Ait Abou, the largest kasbah in Skoura and it didn’t disappoint. This magnificent building stood tall among the palm trees and had been remarkably well maintained. Heavy rainfall can wash away the clay and mud that the kasbahs are made from but this one stood firm, a fine and proud example of Moroccan architecture deep in the midst of the palmeries.
Because of the time of year, we had the place all to ourselves and our host took us up to the rooftop where we could climb the tower walls and look out over the thousands of palm trees that stretched far into the distance. Inside, the kasbah was basic but clean and any mod cons would have detracted from the whole experience of spending the night in a deserted castle. The walls were at least two feet thick and the windows small and narrow in order to keep the temperatures cool inside. In the central courtyard, a couple of now dry water features were built around a mosiac-patterned star which was a common feature in a lot of the riads we’d stayed in. There was little noise except for the rustle of the trees outside and the gentle whistle of the wind passing through the rooftop embrasures.
The grounds surrounding the building were being used for farming, although the dry, heavy soil was solid and it was difficult to tell what was being grown. After taking a walk around the grounds and the narrow paths that winded their way around the kasbah, the sky had turned a dark grey and we could feel the occasional rumble of thunder in the distance. Getting caught in a storm in the middle of a palmery wasn’t a good idea and we made it back just in time as orange flashes of lightning lit up the sky and huge spots of rain began to pummel the dry soil. There was little to do that evening except relax and enjoy dinner in our very own castle.
Back To The Start For The End
Now used to the pace and culture, a return to where the trip began is much more manageable.
We’d returned to Marrakesh in the middle of Ramadan which actually made it much quieter during the day. Shops and stalls were still open but, because everyone was trying to conserve their energy and hydration levels, we could walk around freely during the day without as much hassle as before. We’d become pretty hardened to the Moroccan culture by now too and weren’t as intimidated as the first time we’d seen Marrakesh. Despite Ramadan, most places were still open and happy to serve the smattering of tourists that were about although we were careful not to make a show of the fact we were eating during the day. We steered clear of the main square and found some hidden gems down the side streets that led away from the main square. A couple of smaller cafes occupied by younger, student types, were tucked away in the shade and we joined them in the evenings for when they broke fast and the festivities began. Ramadan in the evenings is a fun time, when the evening call to prayer, the maghrib, means the locals are able to eat, drink and be merry, and this they do in style. Most stay up throughout the night for the iftar, which is served after sunset, and the suhoor, which is served before dawn. Meals are often served in family homes or mosques but we saw plenty of people outside enjoying their iftar after a hard day without food and drink.
From Marrakesh, we were able to take a day trip to Azilal, to see the Cascades d’Ouzoud, a series of waterfalls which circle a picturesque valley below. As public transport was limited, we took a guided tour for the first time on our trip and it meant we could relax and have everything arranged for us.
The Cascades d’Ouzoud are a beautiful sight, with different crests dropping into the rock pools below. A narrow, winding path spirals down into the valley and each turn leads to a different view of misty sprays of water which glisten in the sunlight forming mini rainbows on the dewy haze. The breeze is cooled by the moist air as the path descends to a group of small, surprisingly uncommercialised, wooden shacks and Berber tents serving freshly squeezed orange juice and we sit and watch groups of people swimming in the refreshing waters. The rock face itself is home to a network of passages and tunnels which join the nearby villages, giving the Berbers of the past safe routes to follow and a place of shelter for the local Berber apes which live in the surrounding scenery.
Later that evening we sat overlooking the Jeema El Fna on our last night in Morocco at the sight we were greeted with when we first arrived. I remembered how confusing it had been trying to navigate the winding souks and dark, shaded streets and how every tout and waiter tried to push us into their cafe. A month later and that hadn’t changed one bit but it certainly didn’t feel as intimidating as it once did.
Proper travel, real travel, is about making your own way around, dealing with problems as they arise and making sure you get the most out of your visit. Travelling Morocco is certainly not a holiday but a true travel experience, one where a completely different culture takes a lot of getting used to, where it’s not about relaxing next to a beach but about coping with the full-on and fast paced of life that exists in heat that’s almost unbearable at times. In some of the places we stayed, we’d endured stiflingly hot dorm rooms and been eaten alive by bed bugs but we’d also slept in the Sahara and had an entire, remote kasbah to ourselves. We’d taken dodgy buses along rough roads to some fascinating places and explored some of the rich history that this ancient land is steeped in. It’s a history that’s still relevant today, where traditional methods of doing things still coexist with the modern amenities of today, from the backbreaking leatherwork in the tanneries to slow cooking tagines over a coal fire. The chaotic markets still operate as they did years ago, although now you’re just as likely to see mobile phone covers being sold alongside rugs and spices. I’d never drank so much mint tea and I don’t think I’ll be eating cous cous again for a while, but the food was fresh, local and seasonal and makes a change from the vast quantities of processed foods that constitute a diet in a lot of countries. All in all, travelling round the whole of Morocco is an experience of contradictions. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country which has managed to excite, invigorate and energise while being downright frustrating and exhausting at the same time. Cool, green mountains lie to the north while dry, arid desert sits to the south. There are pushy salesmen and peddlers, but there’s also some genuinely friendly people who are fantastic hosts and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. Travelling Morocco probably isn’t something I’d do again in a hurry but it’s a rewarding and enriching experience that every traveller should have under their belt.