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First Date in Morocco

Morocco, or in Arabic, El-Maghreb El- Aqsa, the “land of the farthest west”  is possibly the most exotic country full of surprises and mystery within easy reach of the UK.  Images abound. Vast desert dunes, oases, gorges and snow capped mountains coupled with covered markets, Kasbah’s, couscous, kaftans, copper trays and mint tea. The sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer, and groups of men, seemingly doing nothing apart from chatting, smoking and sipping mint tea within a land of colour and light that inspired great artists, such as Matisse, and piss-artists like me.

Those were my thoughts 20 years earlier, just prior to my only previous visit to Morocco. However,  having my passport purloined and a pistol cocked at my skull within the first 6 hours of what ended up a 10 hour stay had somewhat coloured my judgement thereafter. Although I have had fascinating and enlightening experiences elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, I suffered from “Moroccophobia” a disease that could only be cured by returning.

Nibby, my wife, had been suggesting we visit Morocco for years. I resisted rigorously. Her imploring ceased however at the conclusion of a tiring and difficult year, when she presented me with the travel doctor’s prescription. “Go to a quiet, hassle-free and relaxing hideaway forthwith; drink cocktail’s, get pampered and chill-out.” Morocco it was then. Perversely (or perhaps not) I’d heard, but not listened, and organised a self-drive trip for 8 days, south of the Atlas. Our off the beaten track holiday skirting the Sahara in one of the most undeveloped parts of the country would include amongst other things, driving, walking, climbing, and sleeping in a Berber’s tent miles from any ambient light and “facilities”. (Dig yourself out of this one Paul). Pampering was therefore likely to be in short supply on this circular route. Cocktails, would probably be in a rarity in dusty desert towns and villages in a land where it is not only the climate that’s “dry”. Just to add a little something to the punch, I’d also picked the first week of Ramadan, the month long daytime fast, to embark on our trip.

Needless to say, Nibby was somewhat surprised by my actions, and not a little sceptical. (Think understatement!) Either the “travel chemist” messed up the prescription, or had I just gone certifiably insane. Nibby concluded that it was almost certainly the latter. However, fortunately we’re still married and I’m able to reflect on a trip that not only permanently cured my “Moroccophobia”, but, in a way, provided Nibby with each of her holiday requirements too.    

Ouarzazate, Ait Benhaddou and beyond

Our mini Moroccan odyssey began in Ouarzazate. Reached by plane from London via Casablanca it is the only place within the region with an airport. The town is many things and yet nothing. Both a dessert outpost and one time French garrison town, it combines the location and infrastructure to gently introduce the pampered westerner to the wonders of the Sahara. It’s also the hub of the Moroccan film industry, and the Atlas studios are permanently active. “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Jesus of Nazareth”, “The Sheltering Sky” and, slightly incongruously “The Mummy” represent just a tiny fraction of the productions filmed here and in the region. You just might run into a Hollywood star (or extra) at Chez Dmitri in the centre of town. Once the bar of the Foreign Legion, it’s walls are now peppered with signed photos of the odd ex-A list actor and plentiful C-list starlets that have eaten there. We eavesdropped on some wonderful stories that I can’t print for fear of being sued. Let your imagination run riot and you’ll get there. Importantly for Nibby, they served her the best cocktail in town as I supped my digestive in a rather relieved fashion. I’m running ahead of myself however.

An extremely pungent, but not unpleasant aroma seemed to permeate the air as we walked to our room that first night at Hotel Karam Palace. I asked Nibby what it was. “Jasmin” she replied. “Wasn’t that the name of the receptionist?” I wondered before noticing the blossom that enveloped the buildings. Three minutes walk from the old Kasbah, a view to the mountains, coupled with a pool and comfortable rooms, the Karam Palace represented a decent start.

The following morning, prior to collecting our car, Nibby still had sinus trouble from the flight. Although our luggage contained most of what Boots sold, suitable medication was not found, and our first excursion was to find a chemist. My schoolboy French and our pidgin Arabic didn’t help us here.  I even tried to draw the pharmacist a diagram. However, my attempts actually looked more like a figure from a biology text book that introduces children to the rudiments of sex education than something that was going demonstrate the “mal a la tete” that I was trying to explain. The pharmacist probably thought that I was “sick in the head” after I’d said “non” to all items that varied from laxatives (a rarity here I’d have thought) to toothpaste. We eventually got there with something that did the trick. Not sure what class it was though.

No self-drive holiday would be complete without the required vehicle. I’d pre-booked this, and surpassed myself again. I’d told Nibby that I’d organised a Toyota, which was being driven to us from Marrakech – a 3 hour drive over the Atlas Mountains. Not unreasonably, given that we were probably going to be driving across desert, up mountains and into gorges she’d imagined that the friendly locals would be delivering a Land Cruiser or, at least a 4-wheeled drive.  They provided a Toyota, and a relatively new one at that. The Yaris is a pleasant enough, low powered tiny utility car – handy for parking in the city, or doing regular short trips to the supermarket. “It’ll add to the adventure and be economical on petrol” I reasoned sweating in the morning heat.

Our first trip was a must. If you ever find yourself in Ouarzazate at a loose end, a visit to Ait Benhaddou should be compulsory. 30 km outside the town and set on rock above a reeded assif, the Kasbahs controlled the route to Marrakech before the French blasted a road through the Tizi n Ticha.   Now a UNESCO World Heritage site the group of burned ochre coloured Kasbahs at first site appear so closely knit that they seem to be one building.  Crossing the Oued  (dry river bed) on foot the structures spread out as the stepped up housing and crenellated ramparts allowed the sun’s rays to play tricks with the colours. The “Jewel in the Nile” was filmed here, although I’m unable to tell you what Danny de Vito and Michael Douglas ate at Chez Dmitri.

The Dades Valley and Gorges

The following day, the Yaris, Nibby and I left Ouarzarzate and headed east towards the Dades Valley. Scattered oases and Kasbahs marked our way along the route. The High Atlas rose to the north and the rugged Jbel Sarhro dominated southern vista.  Its sobriquet “The Valley of a thousand Kasbah’s” is entirely apt.  90km’s into the valley we arrived at El-Kelaa M’Gouna – the stopping point for our first trek.  M’Gouna is the centre of the rose-water industry. It apparently takes around 5 tonnes of petals to produce a litre of good quality rose oil. As a consequence hundreds of square kilometres of rose bushes perfume the air with a slightly unreal aroma that was not unlike how I’d imagine a WI national convention to smell like. We’d organised a guide to escort us on our afternoon hike through the “Vallee des Roses”.

We met Hassan, at a packed bar in the centre of M’Gouna. Men gossiped noisily, while drinking, smoking and eating – well absolutely nothing. Business must have been non-existent as this was Ramadan – the month long daytime fast was on and the sun was high. Naturally with our baseball caps, burning skin, gallons of water and picnic hamper, Hassan was able to spot us among the throng.

He hopped in the back of the Yaris and directed us away from the “main” road, where we were to begin our walk through the valley.  As we drove, M’Gouna disappeared behind us and we headed further into the gorge and towards the High Atlas. The covered road ceased after about half an hour of a steady, meandering climb across lunar like terrain to what appeared to be nowhere. As the tarmac was replaced by stone, and the stone by rock, my concern for the poor little Yaris became paramount. The tiny, erstwhile blue car shuddered uncontrollably, as I wondered whether one spare tyre would suffice completely off-piste in this rugged and rocky no-mans land.

“Trust me” – Hassan said, as, not for the first time, I began to question my own sanity. My “Moroccophobia” was in danger of returning. After what felt like a fortnight we arrived at our destination and Hassan led the way. What follows will fall in to the “don’t try this at home folks” category. Somehow our gregarious guide managed to persuade us to hand him the car keys. He then left us a map (in Arabic) pointed us in the direction of a two hour walk and said he’d meet us in the car at our destination. We let him drive away leaving a cloud of Saharan dust behind him. As we stood on our own, in the midday sun, a million miles from habitation where the Sahara bordered the High Atlas I awaited the alarm clock to wake me from this surreal dream. I continued waiting.

There was nothing for it, but to walk and hope.  Vigorous mountain streams coursed their way through the partly irrigated valley. Emerald green crops bordered the water. Cracked and broken down ruined Kasbahs were scattered liberally en route. Sure enough, after two hours, we traversed the icy water to discover an approaching cloud of dust. Our Hassan filled Yaris appeared like a desert apparition. Back in the car, we shuddered across the Martian like terrain for an hour until we arrived at Hassan’s family home. A ramshackle wooden door opened into a sun filtered courtyard where his young children played. We left our shoes at the gate and entered. Hassan was a generous host and treated us with dish after dish of fresh breads, figs, couscous and dates. His boys looked on, while his daughters, whom we didn’t see, helped his wife in the kitchen. Given that this was Ramadan and still daylight we felt odd gorging ourselves while Hassan and his family, continued to fast. However our slightly unorthodox guide had contributed to an adventure that will always remain with us.

The Yaris now resembled an octogenarian marathon runner as we headed east to the Gorges du Dades. We drove to Boumalne and headed well into the Massif. We were greeted by Mohammed, our next guide, at the Kasbah Itren – a small family run auberge. With our walking boots secured, we were ready to stroll. Whereupon we noticed something slightly unusual about our guide’s attire. Mohammed appeared to be dressed for the beach. We were embarking upon a lung busting, mountainous walk – and our guide’s bloodied and scarred feet, sporting claw like toenails, slipped into a pair of plastic flip-flops.  He knew what he was doing though. I felt like an extra in a Disney cartoon as Mohammed threw himself at the rocks and leapt over the imposing boulders whereas I merely splattered myself against them. Still it provided Nibby with great cause for amusement. Anything to please. 

Mohammed collected individual small twigs that littered our route. I wondered what he was up to, until he magically produced a small, battered pot, a little water and some mint tea. I got my own back for the “rock splatting” as I watched his attempts to light a fire by rubbing together a couple of twigs.  After about 10 minutes of smiling, pointing and, on occasion, laughing I decided to get out my lighter to put him out of his misery. Mohammed thanked me graciously through gritted teeth, and I felt much better.

Mohammed was a Berber, and gave us a fascinating insight into their history within the region, and how they still lack any real political and economic power within Morocco. We conversed in an international blend of French, English and Spanish; although I think that he was a pretty good advocate for the Berber equivalent of Plaid Cymru. We returned to the worn out Yaris, exchanged emails, headed back to Boumalne and the Kasbah Tizzarouine – our stop for the night. Our room was actually a tiny cave (troglodyte), which although obviously basic did provide us with a cosy night. As the sun dropped like a stone the sky blended blue, purple, pink and orange as the last rays bounced off the Oued Dades and the mountains to the north, I was desperate for an ice-cold beer to accompany the sundown. Boumalne is dry.

The Gorges du Todra, about 30 km’s further east is arguably even more magnificent. Formed by a huge fault in the plateau that divides the High Atlas from the Jebel Sarhro a crystal clear river slices through the ranges. The chameleon like rocks turn from pink, to burnt ochre before casting their cold black shadows across the gorges while the sun heads west. However, it’s been discovered by tourists. Coaches parked as gorge pink northern Europeans descended laden with cameras and hungry into the welcoming café. The Yaris continued to point us in an easterly direction.

Erfoud and the dunes of Erg Chebbi

Erfoud, like Ourzarzate, had originally been a French garrison town. Small, sleepy and relatively non-descript, it boasts a date festival in October and acts as a suitable staging post for trips to the dunes at Merzouga. We’d missed the festivities by a couple of weeks, and I was unable to establish whether date lovers convened in their droves, or whether the action in town was instigated by lovers on dates.

However, the magnificent desert hotel, the Kasbah Xaluca Maadid is located a couple of kilometres outside town, and was the perfect place to stay prior to heading south to Erg Chebbi, (the largest “erg” (dune) in Morocco.) Built in the style of a Kasbah, with a wonderful pool, superb food, “Nibby approved” cocktails, and luxurious rooms, I’d have considered it a mirage had we not experienced its delights ourselves.

Having spent most of our time in alcoholic abstinence I found myself “rather full” by bed-time and was a trifle delicate at first light. We’d decided that our Viagra-fuelled Yaris deserved some time off for good behaviour and organised a 4 wheel drive taxi across the desert plain to Merzouga. As we rattled and shuddered the 50 km south over a harsh other worldly landscape, my heavy head descended to my toes as I wondered whether we’d have been better off hiring Apollo 11.

At Mezouga the rock gives way to the enormous drifting expanses of dunes that typified the Sahara in my mind. There we met Yusuf, a tiny nomadic Berber with a  winning smile and red-pomegranate stained teeth. At his side were a couple of camels – one of whom appeared to be called “Barry”! What a magical journey! Riding Barry for two hours over the mountainous dunes was astounding, (and not a little uncomfortable.) The sand shifted colours from gold, to pink and finally red as the sun dipped towards the horizon.  As it fired out its final rays we arrived at our destination, a temporary encampment of about 10 Berber style tents, where Yusuf’s family were hold up for a few months.  I eased myself gingerly from the humped beast, worried that my gonads would remain where I’d been sitting. Saddle sore, but overawed by the night sky. The plethora of gleaming stars set among the endless black firmament healed me. The heavenly crown jewels sparkled spectacularly – a real life planetarium. As I stared upwards, I found myself repeating a single word over and over. However, on sober reflection, I’m not sure if using “fuck” as an adjective does the scene justice. Suffice it to say the sight rendered me virtually speechless.

Yusuf fed us on chips and pomegranates. As we had virtually no common language, conversation was sparse so we retired early with a burning candle to a small carpet covered tent next door. Nibby thought that it was safe to conduct her nocturnal ablutions a little distance behind our tent. We’d no previous experience of how dark, dark is 50 km from any electricity, but she left the candle inside the tent to protect her modesty. Mid-flow, she was startled to hear a loud animal like growl, inches behind her. Luckily though it was only a snore from Yusuf. He’d decided to sleep outside in the “fresh air” on this warm night. While this may have been a slight shock for Nibby, I’m not sure how Yusuf would have felt had he been disturbed from his slumber. If we could have conversed I’d have imagined him greeting us at sunrise with “I have the strangest dream last night..”  We drifted off to sleep in the long desert night to the sound of gentle drum beats, a desert breeze and singing from the far end of the encampment.

Sunrise was every bit as special as sunset. The colours gradually altered in reverse order as we made our way, side-saddle, back to Merzouga and eventually our rested Yaris at Erfoud. 

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