27 to 31 Dec 07
First a mystery.
The ride to Agadir down the coast road is a delight as it winds through the foothills of the High Atlas where they sweep down to the sea. The surface is no worse than that on many of our SE Queensland roads and the scenery is excellent.
At first sight Agadir surprised us. It has wide boulevards, modern buildings and a broad strip of modern resort hotels clustered along the waterfront. What it lacks, however, is an old quarter reflecting the city’s foundations as a Portuguese trading post in the 16th Century.
Modern Agadir. Just don’t ask about what happened.
When we asked about this we were told that the city had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1960 and had to be rebuilt. This story interested us, so we set out to find out about the 1960 catastrophe.
Our first stop was the site of the old Berber Kasbah located on a hill overlooking the town. We found an area that had been bulldozed clean leaving only a few old walls. There was not much else and the story about what happened was not to be found there.
The view from the old Kasbah was fantastic, but the area had been bulldozed flat and there was no useful information available.
We found the site of the pre-1960 Medina. Once again this had been bulldozed flat and apart from a few low walls and the site of some mass graves, there was no story here. Our next stop was the Earthquake Museum, surely here we would find the story!
The saving grace of the Museum was the beautiful roses at the entrance.
It’s that kind of logic that continually gets us into trouble. Inside the museum there were a few before and after photos but nothing to tell us anything about the earthquake. Our interrogation of locals garnered a few basic facts and one chap showed us some old postcards from pre-earthquake time.
Apart from a few photos, the museum provided only hints about the drama that unfolded in Agadir.
At the end of two days of investigation we knew that there had been an earthquake in 1960, about 12,000 or 15,000 souls perished and the city had been rebuilt leaving the site of the original kasbah and medina bare. It was clear to us that there wasn’t much more information available.
The modern city shows little sign of a past earlier than 1960.
At one level this was disturbing. This was, after all, the history of modern Morocco estranged from modern Moroccans. At another level, we understood that in a developing country like Morocco, there are simply many other more important priorities than the documenting of earthquakes for esoteric tourists.
Then, on our fourth day in Agadir we came across an interesting man. Bernd Laube is a German, a Professor of Mathematics and Science, a Moroccan enthusiast who has visited this country more than 35 times, and the author of the only book (still unpublished) on the 1960 earthquake. Information was so hard to get that it had taken Bernd nine years to assemble the story of the Agadir catastrophe. He had clearly not been deterred by the lack of an official Moroccan record of the event.
Bernd with the draft of his book. Finally we found our story.
The story we learnt from Bernd was amazing. The earthquake, as earthquakes are, was caused by the movement of the tectonic plates (hands up all those who knew that Morocco was once connected to Pennsylvania). It happened at Agadir because the town sits at the foot of the High Atlas on about 1000m of unstable sedimentary deposits. The town still sits astride a fault line.
The earthquake (measuring 7 on the old Richter Scale) happened at 0043hr on 29 February 1960. The tremor took only 15 seconds, but in this time the buildings of the old and new towns simply fell down on their occupants. 15,000 people died in seconds and another 12,000 became casualties. Among the old buildings of the Kasbah all but one thousand of the inhabitants perished in the initial seconds.
This photo shows the way the original buildings collapsed. It all happened in 15 seconds and many did not have a chance.
Those that survived moved off the mountain and established a shanty town on the low land taking with them the memory of that disastrous night. Later, the authorities dispersed the shanty town dwellers because they had no title to the land they occupied and dispersed with them the collective memory of the earthquake.
This dramatic set of photos shows the Hotel Saada before and after. The reason for the high death toll is obvious.
International aid was sent by the US (US Army engineering plant in particular), the French, Spanish and other European nations. A massive evacuation of 35,000 survivors further dispersed the memory of the night.
A few buildings did survive the earthquake. This is the old cinema, still in use today.
Most of the inhabitants were Berbers who are traditionally loath to work for wages and tend to mercantile and trade for their living. By the time the city was inhabitable, many of these folk were established elsewhere and did not return and the memory was further diluted. Almost everyone who lives in Agadir today has arrived since the earthquake.
The rebuilding of Agadir was spectacular. We heard some stories that donor countries had been responsible for separate areas but this turned out not to be the case (despite the ornate Italian ceilings in the restaurants in one area). The money went to a central fund and contracts were let from that. A new building code was introduced for the reconstruction.
Interestingly, the architectural style chosen was Bauhaus or Post Modern because they best reflected the traditional style of housing and the three story limit imposed by the reconstruction authority. The city has many streets with beautifully integrated Post Modern buildings. A coat of paint and even some of the poorer areas would look a treat.
A Bauhaus street not far from our hotel.
Typical new town construction.
Downtown apartment is still stylish today.
The small market near our hotel is built to modern reinforced concrete standards and will certainly survive better than traditional structures.
More than 44,000 new trees were planted. Many of them were Australian eucalypts which, 40 years on, provide some lovely shaded areas.
Good old gum trees everywhere!
And so the mystery was not so mysterious at all. It had all been over in seconds. Many that survived were dispersed and didn’t return and those who came after were newcomers with little interest in the past. After all, there was nothing to show for it. Everything had been bulldozed flat.
Not everything in new Agadir is stylish.
And now a small fish story…
While standing on the wall of the old Agadir Kasbah pondering what had happened to the people who lived there for 500 years then didn’t, we were looking straight down on the port. We were amazed by the size of the trawler fleet docked there. Several hundred large trawlers were tied up in matching sets at company docks. There were also hundreds of intermediate trawlers crowded into another area and the small open coastal dinghies were crowded into several other areas.
One small part of the sardine fleet as seen from the old Kasbah.
Being both idle and curious, there was nothing else for it but to clamber onto the Elephant, convince the port security that we had bone fide business and go and have a look for ourselves. What we found in Agadir was the world’s biggest sardine fishing fleet and a mad scramble of activity. Purposeful crushes of people unloading catches, loading ice and vittles, and boxes of sardines everywhere.
Unloading the small boats by hand looked like hard work.
Boxes of sardines everywhere.
After wandering around and taking an interest in the sardine business for a while, there really was nothing else for it but to find a dockside restaurant and order up a plate of fresh grilled sardines and a beer for lunch. It seemed like a good thing to do.
Jo finds the small bones.
We finished our time at Agadir with a New Year’s Eve dinner and a bottle of Moroccan wine followed by a walk along the crowded waterfront for a coconut ice cream. It was 34 years since the New Year’s Eve we had met in Sydney and I had given Jo her first pillion on a bike. A lot had changed in the intervening years, but then, not so much as you might think.
“I’m not anti Atlas” he said. “I’m really quite pro-Atlas”.
1 to 9 Jan 08
Every parking space in any big town is controlled by a parking “warden” who makes his meagre living by organising the parking and guarding your car or bike. I paid the guard in Agadir well to keep our Elephant safe and also had him give it a New Year’s Eve wash; the first since leaving home. For reasons that will become obvious later in this story, his effort was wasted.
Into the Mountains
Morocco is defined by its mountains. The Riff Mountains press hard against the Mediterranean in the north. The Anti Atlas slashes across the country and isolates the arid south. The Middle Atlas and mighty Atlas Mountains form a defining backbone driving from the northeast down to tumble into the sea at Agadir on the Atlantic coast. Other lesser ranges such as the Sahro ensure that almost everywhere in the country is framed by mountains.
Bike riders love mountains because mountains have mountain roads! Corners!
An hour after riding out of Agadir on New Year’s Day we had crossed the fertile Souss Valley and were heading into the foothills of the Anti Atlas Mountains. The road wound up into the hills that were heavily terraced to use every available piece of fertile land. Although the surface was often treacherous, with gravel on almost every corner, the riding was great fun with stunning sights that kept us interested.
Passing through high valleys we found many kasbahs. Some were ancient and crumbling back to the earth. Others, like this one, are still in use.
An overnight stop in the hill town of Tafraoute reintroduced us to chilly mountain weather. But after a great day’s riding in the foothills, we were looking forward to pressing on into the mountains.
From Tafraoute, we climbed north east into the Anti Atlas Mountains along an exhilarating black snake of a road towards the mountain village of Igherm.
At a high pass we stopped to get our first view across the top of the range, and…
…added a little nitrogen to the depleted soil.
We found tiny and very poor villages clinging to the rugged hills. While the soil is rich in this area, there is little flat land and very little water. These villagers literally scratch out a living.
We rode on through the village of Igherm and turned south east towards Tata through some spectacular mountain valleys.
The Anti Atlas have been thrown up like huge skeletons stripped of vegetation and soil…
…all backbone and ribs…
…with extraordinary colours reflected from weathered minerals.
The road snaked down the valley and provided an exhilarating ride. At our overnight stop at Tata, we were in great spirits. We ate a hearty Berber meal at a rambling hotel that was full of “expeditioners” heading into or out of the deserts of the south. These folk pay a lot of money to be squeezed into a Landrover or Landcruiser and be driven into the small patch of sand that Morocco calls a desert (it wouldn’t qualify in most places) where they stay at a “Berber Camp” before returning to the comfort of the Tata hotel.
If we hadn’t been so excited by the two days of amazing riding so far, we might have checked the weather report before making our next decision. With the sort of blissful ignorance that always precedes a beating, we decided to go north into the mountains again and to make for the village of Taliouine which is the centre of saffron production.
Our first leg was to revisit the village if Igherm, this time by a different, higher mountain pass. As we rumbled up through the hills we took this photo of a small oasis.
This was the last photo we took for the next day and a half. Twenty minutes after this we were climbing through the cloud base on a treacherously slippery switchback mountain road. It started to rain and didn’t stop for the remainder of the day.
We stopped at a village café for hot coffee, and to put on more warm clothes and our outer waterproof suits (and to provide much entertainment for the locals). We pressed on through the mountains covering 45 km without getting out of third gear.
It was still raining when we arrived at Taliouine so we elected to leave the saffron cooperative to its own devices, find an omelette for lunch and get warm in our hotel. We ate dinner in our hotel still warm in our riding suits. We were finding out that Moroccans don’t have much in the way of heating in their homes or hotels. It is simply too expensive. People just put on more clothing and put up with the cold. That night a German family staying at the same hotel came to dinner with a blanket from their room to keep warm in the icy dining room.
Into the Desert
If the Taliouine hotel had been warmer, we might have snuggled in with a novel and waited out the rain. As it was, this seemed like a second best option, so the next morning on went the nylon suits and we rolled the Elephant out onto the road.
By lunch we had reached the village of Agdz in the Draa Valley and had left the rain behind.
The village of Agdz was so pleased we were coming that they decked the town out in national flags. The visit by the King the previous week was merely incidental!
The fact that we were out of our rain suits, however, did not get us out of trouble. The winds that had brought rain and snow to the mountains blew itself out across the desert creating a dust storm that limited visibility and kept our helmet visors down. By the time we got to The Palmeraie Hotel at Zagora it was blowing hard and we were keen to get us and the bike indoors.
Like many hotels, The Palmeraie was happy for me to park the Elephant in its foyer…
…where we had to warn it not to fraternise with the mounts of some crazy Spanish cyclists.
When the dust settled the following day we decided that, having come this far south, we may as well go to the end of the road to the old caravan town of M’Hamid. The weather looked good, we felt good and the Elephant had had enough time with the cycles.
The Draa is Morocco’s largest river and its valley is broad and dry with a thin line of green marking out the water course. A little further south, the river simply disappears into the desert sands only to reappear and find its way into the Atlantic just north of Tan Tan.
As we went further south, thatched fencing was used to stop the sand blowing across the road and …
…the desert came up to meet us.
When we arrived in M’Hamid we were surrounded by touts offering guides into the desert, Berber camp experiences and “jeeps” to take our luggage, before we had even switched off the ignition. So…
…we didn’t switch off. We just headed out of town and went to find some desert ourselves.
Finally, we found a little shade and decided to boil the billy. Almost on cue, a bunch of Berbers turned up in a rat-arsed Renault R4 and offered to take us to their desert camp for a sleep-over. We sent them packing and were delighted when…
…they got stuck a little up the track. We reckoned that they were the desert experts, so we packed up and left them to it!
Down this way camels are still used for a lot of basic transport tasks. This train was heading off to re-supply a camp. While we found this fellow…
…hobbled in the desert and waiting for his owner to come back from market.
Since both Jo and I have done our time sleeping under the stars in the freezing desert, we decided to leave the sandhills to the tourists and the touts and head north again to see if it had stopped raining on the mountains. Bike riders will understand this sentiment, others will just have to figure it out.
Into the Gorges
Next stop was El-Kelaa M’Gouna in the Dades Valley, also known as the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs.
The town was packed for market day and we found a Berber wedding procession blocking one side of the road.
About 50 women with musical instruments paraded the bride along the street on the way to the ceremony.
Here in the south, where the population is nearly all Berber, we found women to be much more prominent in everyday life. They often spontaneously waved and smiled as we rode through the villages and they are engaged in commerce in one area or another. We didn’t see this in the Arab north.
In El-Kelaa M’Gouna, we shared our overnight stop with a group of about 16 riders who had paid a king’s ransom to spend a week riding dirt bikes in Morocco and following the Paris-Dakar. They had only been in country for one day and one rider already had an arm in a sling and they were all pissed-off about the cancellation of the rally. The Elephant wasn’t interested in any skinny bummed KTMs, so we left them to it.
The road up into the mountains was another spectacular ride…
…always with the snow covered Atlas Mountains framed by the powder blue Moroccan sky.
We found many spectacular old kasbahs running up the fertile valley leading to the Dades Gorge.
And the higher we got, the more eerie they became against the snow covered mountains.
The gorge finally appeared at the head of the valley and the road clambered up in a series of impossible switchbacks. Through a narrow pass at the top, the road dropped away into a second valley beyond the gorge. Unfortunately this section got little sun and the snow and hard ice made it an unlikely prospect on the bike. We did a three point turn and headed back to the top of the pass…
…and the café at the top of the world for hot coffee…
…and a little route re-consideration.
We decided to do what we often do when faced with an impasse and went back down into the valley and found some lunch. In this case, our favourite lunch, the Berber Omelette.
These are made in a tajine and contain onions, skinned tomatoes, olives and saffron. Delicious!
We also thought the name of the restaurant was appropriate since Jo’s nephew, Christoph, has just become a father. His wife, Siobhan, gave birth to Ava on New Year’s Day.
Further east at the village of Tinerhir, the proprietor of the Oasis Hotel let us park the Elephant in the storeroom. I would recommend that anyone planning a trip like this spend some time practising riding their fully laden bike up stairs. It is a skill you will need!
Our last adventure in the south was a ride up the Todra Gorge. Jo had been in this area in 1971 and the only thing she remembered from that trip were the goats…
…and the goatherd she met. She reckoned that this eight year old…
…is probably the great grandson of the fellow she met in ’71!
Perhaps the goat could be related to the one she saw back then; or perhaps not.
The road up the gorge had been washed out the year before so progress was slow. When we finally cleared the gorge and reached the last village…
…we found a group of Brits on BMWs and a KTM parked to clear mud from the back wheel of one of the bikes.
After the mandatory discussion on the benefits of shaft drive, we bid both the boys and the gorge farewell. We headed back to the bitumen and the road west to Ouarzazate and access to a pass over the High Atlas.
By the afternoon of 9 Jan the Elephant was parked on the veranda of another hotel and we were drinking red wine and talking about riding over the mountains into Marrakech.
This time we will check the weather report before we start!
10 to 18 Jan 08
Our Anti Atlas adventure brought us eventually to the town of Ouarzazate, home of the Moroccan film industry and the stepping off point for our travels back to the north to Marrakech and the Imperial Cities of Fes and Meknes. The town has a large film studio and a Moroccan version of a film theme park with fancy horse and camel riding and scenes from the many major films made in the area.
Ouarzazate itself is interesting without being spectacular. It has a partly restored palace in the old town and a modern new town with a big public square.
To get to Marrakech we needed to cross the High Atlas Mountains through the Tizi n’Tichka pass at 2264m.
The Tizi n’Tichka would have been a great ride except for the large amount of traffic on this major road.
In Morocco, the mountain roads go on forever! Well, almost. We eventually descended to plains and into the big-smoke an hour later.
The first thing we noticed about Marrakech was the number of tourists, thousands of them everywhere, and the number of touts. We gave it a day and then pushed on north towards Fes.
Our quick dismissal of Morocco’s main tourist city may seem a little harsh and we wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone else from going. It is a wonderful place with some fantastic things to see and do.
The shopping, in particular, is simply the best. However, one of the things about being a voyager, rather than a tourist, is that you reserve the right to get lost in their medina if you want to, you don’t buy anything, ever, because you don’t have anywhere to carry it, and you really don’t want to mix with tourists.
We met Swiss biker Daniele Bonassi on the Tiz n’Tichka and stayed at the same hotel in Marra. Daniele had enjoyed a week in this bikers’ paradise and was flying home the next day. Here we were checking the local beer for defects.
On a road somewhere near you. .
The 300km ride north on the twisting back roads to Beni Mallal was another one of those days that left us grasping for superlatives.
The winding roads were breathtaking with views like this every few km.
Beni Mellal is an average prosperous try-hard Moroccan town. The policeman who pulled me over on the way in, after I failed to stop at a red signal (it was not as though you would know where it was unless you were a local), was surprised to learn that we were staying in town. He gave us directions to a hotel and sent us on our way with a smile and a welcome. There are no tourists or other terrorists in Beni Mellal.
After the hassle of Marra, no one in BM gave us a second glance. No one offered to guide us (no one cared if we got lost), no one tried to drag us into their shop, offered us tea, wanted to chat to improve their English, or really gave a stuff whether we were there or not.
Fes was next town on the list but the 350km ride north to get there was an adventure in itself. The road runs over the Middle Atlas Mountains for most of the distance and through the towns of Azrou and Ifrane which are the major ski resorts.
Ifrane was built by the French in the 1930s to resemble a European alpine village.
This was a long, spectacular, cold ride (that white stuff is chilly) but we are now so used to riding above the snow line that we hustled the Elephant along at a good pace all the way and were into Fes and settled by late afternoon.
Fes had fewer tourists than Marra so the touts had to work twice as hard.
The skyline of the oldest city in Morocco gives the game away these days!
Fes is famous for its leather and the tanneries occupy a large section of the old city. It is filthy work that leaves the river…
There is much to recommend Fes as a better alternative for tourists than Marrakech. The old medina is just as exotic and there are fewer people to share it with. The touts, however…
…are the most determined we have come across.
60km west of Fes the old Imperial City of Meknes is a sleepy backwater with few tourists but some great history and a busy but easy to navigate medina.
Meknes is a centre for traditional cedar carving…
…and a type of work with silver inlaid on iron. This gentleman had made an order of 22 kangaroos like this for a customer in Sydney.
Meknes doesn’t have much of a tourist face, but you see plenty of Moroccan real-life. This is part of the metal workers’ souk where about 30 small jobbing shops made all manner of goods from steel.
We liked the easy pace of Meknes so decided to lay up there for a few days to do some planning for the Tunisian leg of our travels. Just north of the town the Roman ruins of Volubilis were a very pleasant day trip.
The Romans came here to grow wheat, and when you see Volubilis sitting above a fertile plain of broad acre wheat production, you can see the point of the venture.
The weather had warmed considerably by the time we visited so we took shelter among the ruins (some ruins among the ruins I hear you say) to ditch our riding suit liners.
The stunning blue sky tells the story. The storks seemed to have found a use for some old Roman rocks.
Volubilis is noted for its well preserved murals. In this one a man sits backwards on a horse holding a cup which we assume he has won for trick riding!
There is a story here about the four seasons, but we liked the trick riding better.
At Volubilis we had the good luck to meet Daniela and Narcel riding one of the best outfits we have seen.
Narcel is a mechanic and did all of the work on the bike himself. It has spares everywhere (it is a Guzzi after all), great protection from the elements and plenty of storage.
Meanwhile, back in Meknes…
…a local hand-made rig was showing the right inventiveness. Although it might be better to stick to the traditional arrangement:
As we post on 19 Jan, we have completed planning for the last leg of our Moroccan adventure and the move on to Tunisia. Our final leg will take us up and over the Rif Mountains, along the Mediterranean coast and back to Tangier. Or maybe we could ride south again and chase the sun……
20 to 24 Jan 08
This is our last post from Morocco.
The Riff Mountains were different to every other part of Morocco we had visited. This place has a Wild West feel to it. Everywhere here you get the impression that central government control is “limited”.
On 21 Jan we rode over the Riff Mountains to the Mediterranean coastal town of Nador with the hope of getting a cheap ferry to Sete in France on 23 Jan. We couldn’t get a cabin, and Nador wasn’t the sort of town we wanted to spend a week in waiting for another ship. We headed north along the rugged Mediterranean coast to overnight at the town of Al Hoceima before pressing on to Tangier.
We were parked in the main street studying the map and deciding which of the unattractive accommodation options we would take, when a fellow asked if we needed help. Within a few minutes we knew that Stephane was French and that he was working in Al Hoceima for two years for his French company.
After considering the accommodation options, Stephane offered us his spare room and organised a garage for the Elephant. Once we had stowed our gear, we had a guided tour of the waterfront, selected some fish from the fishermen on the docks, and had them prepared by a nearby restaurant.
Stephane and I had some background in common so we had plenty to talk about (apart from Morocco) and he was also astute enough to organise a couple of cold beers to top off a wonderful evening.
This was to be our last night in Morocco and we couldn’t have had better company or a better time to remember.
The next morning we said farewell to Stephane and headed into the Riff Mountains for the gruelling eight hour ride to Tangier. We arrived just before last light and purchased a ticket on a fast ferry to Spain. Jo fought it out in the passport line while I manoeuvred the Elephant through the traffic jam and we were on the ferry a few minutes later and with a few minutes to spare before departure.
By 2100 on 24 Jan we had cleared Spanish immigration and were heading for a hotel. After six weeks our Moroccan adventure was over.
We stayed in Morocco longer than we planned and we were reluctant to leave, but we still have a long way to go and we need to keep heading east.
Morocco has a reputation of being a paradise for bike riders and it has lived up to its reputation for us. The fantastic mountain and desert roads should be obvious from the photos. We have also had a bit to say about the food along the way as well. It is probably also obvious from our posts that we have felt very much at home here. The Moroccans are genuinely friendly and hospitable, there is none of the anti-western rub we have experienced elsewhere, and there is little crime and no alcohol induced violence.
We have made ourselves a promise that this will not be our last winter in Morocco. There is simply too much more to do.
Our enduring memories of Morocco:
Frozen mountain roads.
Amazing scenes at every turn.
Great history that is part of life and not just a packaged experience for tourists.
The rhythm of rural life.
Mopeds everywhere and….
…the amazing things that can be done with them.
The architecture and heroic colours.
The mountains and…
…the mountain roads, that just…
…go on and on.
Good bye Morocco!!
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