04.08.2009 - 07.08.2009 38 °C
4 days was never going to be enough. Morocco has been in my dreams of adventure for sometime. A romantic outcrop of the ancient Arabic Moors; sense tickling spice markets, noisy and busy Bazaars, the mazes of souks, the wild Atlas Mountains and the epic Sahara, a traveller’s paradise. I have to admit to being a tad excited about the trip.
July had proven to be a quiet, long haul month in Palma. Few boats ventured into port and work has been as scarce as a never before. By the end of the month I was definitely in need of a break. Thankfully the European Union helped make the decision for me with my 3 month travel visa nearing its culmination. My good friend Dave Lunn and I therefore decided on Morocco; a short 4 day visa renewing, epic adventure to seek a bit of reality to my travel dreams.
One of my more unplanned trips, Dave and I landed in Marrakech with very little travel information (a consequence of taking up residence in a country where you can’t speak the language). 43 Celsius and we are scrambling off the plane, across sole melting tarmac and into the now impatient immigration line formed at the doors of the terminal. Stamp, check. At this point I could turn around straight away and head back to the safety of Spain. I can see in Dave’s eyes a momentary contemplation of doing this, but instead we are flying into town in the back of an old Mercedes taxi.
We spent our time in Marrakech staying in a Riad within the maze of souks in old town. It was a wonderful hideaway from the madness that greeted us outside the front door. Morocco instantly reminded me of India - the senses in overload, the noise of the market commerce and the intensity of people everywhere doing what they have been doing for thousands of years. I loved it. Within an hour of arriving I knew it was everything I thought it was going to be and more; rich colours, bold smells, rabbit warrens of alleyways, hassling hustlers, an air of mystery and the strange sense of tranquillity.
After settling into the hostel Dave and I had a quick whiteboard session to try and work out what to do here. We ended up gambling on an overnight trip organised by the hostel across the Atlas Mountains, and into the desert. 50:50 whether it was going to be alright I figured. That left us two days to check out the delights of Marrakech.
And then Dave decided he was going to buy a bag. Morocco has always been known for its leather products, though not necessarily for their high quality. The search for the perfect weekender was on, intrepid Dave leading the way through the souks. A souk is the type of place you don’t take a shopaholic. Every trinket, handbag, necklace, lamp shade, smoking pipe, copper bath tub, chicken, peppermint leaf and rug that you don’t need is guaranteed to be offered at an amazing once in a lifetime, lucky day of the month, because you have the same name as my brother, New Zealand only price. The second issue with souks that must be managed closely is not getting lost. Think of the most difficult maze you have ever been in and then add a stadium full of people, animals, noise, an overload of smells, kids pointing every direction and a temperature to rival the surface of the sun.
Before we knew it we were hopelessly lost, on the verge of buying half a dozen items that we definitely did not need and slowly feeling the effects of sun stroke. Then we found ourselves on a quick tour out to the tanneries. The only place to get a genuine, ‘high quality’, Moroccan bag apparently. After almost throwing up during a proud showing of the local tannery, Dave did his best to keep some integrity and walked out with not one but two bags and no money. Well done son.
While Marrakech hums with commerce and lost tourists during the day, by night the town really comes alive. Centred on the central plaza, it is the time when all good Marrakechan’s come out to join the social circuit of food stalls, markets, and street games in a fantastic and somewhat magical carnival atmosphere. This is when I think we both fell in love with Morocco. Sitting down at a food stall amongst the laughing and somewhat wrestling locals, eating plate after plate of beautiful food, taking a leaning position at the nearest juice stall, fresh orange juice squeezed in front of you. The flames of a barbecue, the smells of a spice stall. Fig, prune and date tapas at a dried fruit stall. Cake and spiced tea poured from brass vats. Love it.
Bags packed, sleep wiped from the eyes, we are met at sparrows fart by a kind gentleman to take us on our overnighter to the desert. Apparently in a bit of a rush, we found ourselves bags and all jogging to keep up with him as he swept through the silent and empty morning alleyways. Packed, and seats found in the mini bus we scooted around town picking up a disturbing number of families from various locations. Things were looking a bit ominous. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Sipping away on a fresh coffee and tucking into a croissant, while waiting for our last 4 tour members things turned for the better. Out of the mass of people four beautiful Spanish girls walked up to the van. Things were going to be alright
The Atlas Mountains are a vast range that cut the length of eastern Morocco, bearing north east into Algeria. During winter they are dusted with snow, during summer they are barren and rocky. Thankfully they are also though cooler than the plains below. Ahead of us we had two 8 hour bus trips. Plenty of time to practise our Spanish! The road was in surprisingly good condition and as we wound our way up the valleys and into the mountain passes, dramatic vistas passed by one after the other.
We had a number of stops to make along our drive; box tickers I think is a good term. The not so famous Aït-Benhaddou was one of those. A traditional mud brick village in the upper Atlas, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an in situ Hollywood film set. Sadly although pretty, it has become a bit of a tourist trap to the extent that you have to pay at the gate to enter the old town. The town was used in Gladiator where old mate Russell was first thrown into the Gladiator ring.
After a long, but interesting bus trip we finally made it to the end of the road. A small oasis cradled in a valley between the mighty mountains and the wild desert, we definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore. You get the impression out here that there is a constant and epic battle of nature; a fight between the sands, the mountains, the vegetation and any waters daring enough to try and hold piece of the earth. The local people out here don’t even pretend that they have control of nature; instead they have a remarkable ability to understand and work within the forces and currents of it all.
In the mist of a sand storm blowing through the small oasis township that we had arrived in, covering everything and everyone in a fine layer of dust is was time to mount our noble steads for the last leg of the day. Camels are not my favourite animal. They are dirty, smelly, spit, are not overly comfortable, but they are the only long haul transport that you could want over sand. Their grace over a sand dune is something we humans could only dream of.
As the sun went down over another hot and wild day our caravan walked on. We entered camp in the dark, thankfully setup and ready to go, dinner on cooker. I took the opportunity to walk the sand dunes with my camera. Being out in the wild is always a great feeling for me. It always brings home the feeling of how big the universe is around you, the complexity, yet apparent simplicity of a living system that is constantly evolving around us and the fact that we are not at all in control of it. A bit of a reality check to what the important things in life are instead of the superficial that we somehow fill and clog our lives with!
I decided to spend the night under the stars, a decision partially in reaction to the tropical tent temperature as well as a bit of a tribute to the living raw philosophy. It was a sandy night out. The next day we parted ways with our camp and in due course our desert caravan for the comforts of a jam packed mini van. We rolled back into Marrakesh that evening with wariness in our eyes but in good spirits of the adventure had. Our savior was the distraction and humour in trying to communicate to our Spanish girls for the 16 hours of driving that we managed to clock up. We continued the night in the same fashion, spending our last night in Morocco knocking back a couple of bottles of wine with the girls.