10 to 17 December 2007
In the Spanish port city of Algeciras we took a 10th floor hotel room with a view over the busy port and across to Gibraltar. There are few things finer than a room overlooking a port. The constant movement of ships and the general hubbub and colour on the docks are always exciting. Waiting for our departure to a new country on a new continent they were doubly so.
Our 10th floor hotel room was over budget, but the view of the port was worth it.
We checked all of the ferry companies until we found a vessel departing at 0800 the next morning, purchased tickets for ourselves and the Elephant and then wandered the city to see what mischief we could find. Alas, with the countdown to Christmas, the best we could find was a local choir singing Spanish Christmas carols in the plaza so we adjourned back to the pub to watch the port and check our paperwork.
Spanish carollers singing up a storm in Algeciras
At 0700 on 10 December, we rode down to the docks, were waved through customs and immigration and rode onto our ship.
At 0800 we were underway and it was….
Adios Spain, and three hours later…
Ssalamu ‘lekum Tangier.
Not being entirely new to this part of the world, we hussled the Elephant into the melee around the Border Police post, paid a generous “tip” to get to the front of the queue and get the paperwork for the bike sorted, and rolled out onto the streets of Tangier in about 15 minutes. A quick stop for fuel and to change some money took only a few minutes more and we were off, romping the Elephant up the hill into the thick of the Tangier traffic.
As it is in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East where we have travelled, traffic here takes the form of a chaos in slow motion. Folks wander across the road without any regulation, cars and trucks drift across “lanes” and no one ever looks at their rear view mirrors. The unwritten rule is always: if I am in front, I have right of way.
We have only seen three mid-capacity sports bikes in our first week. There are swarms of trusty mopeds that do the same duties that the Honda step-through did in SE Asia.
The bikes here are mostly tiny mopeds and the cars are small and low powered so it all has a surreal feel for us. There is nothing of the lethal intensity of our own traffic with many more vehicles and ballistic speeds. Best of all, it all happens with good humour and the traffic manages to flow despite the best efforts of everyone.
We bustled through Tangier and found the Atlantic coast road heading south for the little village of Asilah. Tangier can wait until we are on our way out of Morocco.
Asilah locals ask all of the standard questions: how big, how heavy, how fast? To which the answers are: too big, too heavy and not bloody fast enough!
Asilah is a very pretty town, full of tourists in the summer, but almost deserted when we visited.
An overnight in Asilah allowed us to get our bearings in the new country. We had a couple of good meals, a good night’s sleep and then headed south again to Rabat, the capital city. Our route took us along the rural roads and away from the freeway that links Tangier with the great cities of the south and interior. We crossed inland over the vast plains of the Ouerra River Valley.
This area is many times larger than the Darling Downs and the soil is so rich you could eat it with a spoon. The river and a tributary are dammed up-stream and there is an extensive irrigation system providing water to some substantial agricultural enterprises (although we noticed that some sections of it were in disrepair).
There were some big farms with good levels of mechanisation, but there were also small farmers ploughing a few acres with wooden framed ploughs and donkeys. In many cases we saw lucerne being mown by hand; hard work for sure, but not profitable work.
As we travel south over the next week we are struck again and again by the richness of the land, but for every commercial enterprise there is 10 times the area given over to small cropping. The economist in me has a few theories about the influence of French agricultural models here, but we need to talk to more people and get to the bottom of this!
Rabat is a modern city of about 1.8 million souls. As befits a capital it has wide boulevards with modern cafes, a cosmopolitan population and sophisticated feel. We spend three nights in Rabat and, while we visit the old Kasbah and the Medina, our main purpose is to get a feel for modern Morocco.
The Kasbah in Rabat is mainly residential and has many beautifully kept streets.
Rabat is a place of contrasts with many new, often western, influences mixed with traditional Moroccan practice. The locals seem to blend the old with the new seamlessly; not afraid of the new, but always respectful of tradition.
Always Jo’s favourite in any souk, the spice seller’s stall is a blaze of colour and wonderful aromas.
Even in the modern city of Rabat, there is a good chance that your lamb tajine will be freshly butchered.
On our last day in Rabat we sought out the English language bookshop to replenish our reading supplies. The tiny shop was jam-packed with second-hand and new books and we thoroughly enjoyed searching through the stacks looking for books we would both read (we can only carry one or two books each at any time so we both need to read each one).
The English language bookshop in Rabat is so packed with volumes that there is almost no room left for customers. As always, we were desperate for new reading material.
As we were about to leave, we struck up a conversation with another customer, a Moroccan named Khalid Ammani. Khalid is an English language teacher working at a number of schools. His English is excellent and, like all Moroccans, he is a great conversationalist. Khalid invited us for coffee and then to join him with his Intermediate English class at a nearby language institute that evening. Not having anything planned (the story of our current lives) we were pleased to accept.
Jo, Kahlid Ammani and Mike.
Khalid’s class was an adult education group. There were two blokes and about a dozen women and they ranged in age from a 16 year old to several in their 30s. They were well educated and bright and, like adult education students everywhere, very clear about why they were studying.
We spent about 90 minutes talking about ourselves and our travels with the Elephant and asking them about Morocco. The word “codger” came up in discussion about our ages and it is such a great word to roll around the tongue, that I wrote it on the board and recommended it for used in polite company.
For us, the visit was a delight. We left reassured that if these young folk are the future of Morocco, there will be plenty of good things happening.
The Intermediate English class. All bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to take on the world.
Through these first few days, Jo and I had been settling down to Moroccan tucker. After the difficulties of getting fed in Spain (you can’t have tapas for every meal; can you?), we were pleased to be back in a snacking culture like our own where the food is available anytime, tasty and affordable. With the cool winter weather we especially appreciated the tajines. Our Australian friends will have all been exposed to these in the past, but here in the home of the tajine, they reach a different level of wholesome tastiness.
One evening Jo curled up in bed and complained that she felt uncomfortably full. I pointed out that the fact that she eaten a tajine for lunch and another for dinner may have had something to do with her condition!!! Finally, we were eating too well. Morocco gets a gold star.
In Rabat we also saw our first example of Moroccan political dissent. While enjoying coffee with Khalid in a sidewalk café across from the National Parliament, a demonstration formed in the street and started marching up and down and chanting slogans. Our inquiries found that they were academics and educated professionals who were protesting for more government jobs.
Khalid explained that the government is required, under the constitution, to provide work for all and these well educated folk felt that more of their number should be on the government payroll. A life outside the public sector was considered too uncertain for such highly educated folk. I gave Khalid a short burst on the evils of the French economic model and the need to get the talented folk into the private sector where growth and jobs could be created and let it go at that. There are obviously many impediments to private sector growth that outsiders like us could only guess at. Perhaps we would learn more about those things later. In the meantime we drank our coffee and enjoyed the show.
Packed up and ready to leave Rabat. Constantly packing and unpacking the bike is keeping us in good shape. In Rabat we had nine flights of stairs up to our room on which to get some codger exercise.
Casablanca was a three hour ride south on the back roads and a number of people had questioned the sanity of going there at all. With a population of 3.8 million it is a big city by any standards. It is a port and commercial centre with little of touristic interest and little interest in tourists.
With no GPS mapping and no paper maps of the cities (leave aside a page in LP), we ploughed straight into the centre of town and within an hour we had found a nice room in a quiet hotel, secure parking for the bike in the workshop of a local mechanic and had an omelette for lunch. A brisk walk around the city gave us the lay of the land and served as a reconnaissance for the way out of town on departure.
The old French cathedral, the stain glass window long since boarded up, has been turned into a general purpose hall. There is some discussion about what should be done with it in the long run.
Casa (you can only use that if you have been there) has some elegant and still beautiful administrative buildings dating from the colonial period but not much else of interest. It is noisy, smelly and rushed. We suspect that people only come to Casa to make money.
The High Court in Casablanca dates from 1925 and the French colonisation. It is still a beautiful and elegant building, understated and in perfect proportion.
Casablanca’s main monument is the Hassan II Mosque. There are no points in guessing which king built it at a cost of nearly $0.5 bil! It has in-slab heating, a glass section of the floor so that worshippers can see the crashing Atlantic Ocean below, and a retractable roof to open worshippers to the sky (yes Duncan, just like a football stadium).
The Hassan II Mosque. Built by…
The day we went we avoided the mosque’s underground car park and swung into the neighbouring suburb to park. We found ourselves in a pretty tough part of town where the road was thick with diesel-engine oil from local truckies dumping the contents of their sumps into the drains. God is clearly hanging with rough company in Casa.
Our delight in Casablanca was to come across an exhibition on the Summer Olympics at a city school. During our conversation with Khalid’s English class I surprised some of the students because I knew that a Moroccan (I didn’t know Hicham el-Guerrouj’s name at the time) had won the 1500m/5000m double in Athens. Here I found large posters of Morocco’s numerous middle distance heroes and promptly had a photo taken beside Said Aouita a 5000m champion from Los Angeles (84).
Sporting facilities are few and far between in Morocco but the country is football mad and every village kid dreams of playing in the big European leagues. Wherever there is a flat patch of dirt the boys have got a scratch game going. There doesn’t seem to be much for the girls, but traditional dancing is a common form of exercise.
Mike and Said (Mike on the left)
There was only one Australian poster. It showed Cathy Freeman striding over the line in the Sydney 400m final. It was accompanied by some well thought out and appropriate words on the importance of the event to national reconciliation. We felt that this was a good thing for Moroccan school kids to learn about our homeland. If only reconciliation was as easy as winning gold medals…
A Moroccan high school student considers a poster of Hicham, hero of Athens. The Moroccans we have met have been very proud of their country and its heritage.
After Casablanca we rolled south along the narrow coastal road waving back to the shepherd boys beside the road and stopping at El-Jadida and Oualidia. It was a lovely ride through this pleasant and fertile countryside. Along the road, forests of Australian eucalypts had been harvested for firewood. The brown topsoil runs right to the sea. In many cases, green pastures grow up to the edge of cliffs that drop into the surf below. Amazing!
Industrial Morocco south of Casablanca.
In the port of El-Jadida the fishing fleet tied up under the shadow of the 16th century Portuguese fort and we had whole grilled fish at a dockside café.
A communal oven in the old Portuguese City in El-Jadida where local housewives bring their bread (or anything else) for baking at set rates.
Jo in front of fishing boats at Oualidia. Same outfit different location!! Also note that Jo has taken to wearing a cap. Her hair is now longer than she has had it for many years and she has had no luck in finding a hairdresser. The helmet-hair gets worse.
We end our first week in Morocco enjoying the winter sun and watching the tide fill the Oualidia Lagoon. Our next stop will be Essaouira and our much anticipated Christmas with Mike and Sarah, but for now we are content to watch the tide roll in and think about grilled fish for dinner.
20 to 27 Dec 07
We rolled south towards Essaouira on Thursday 20 December with the fertile land tilled down to the edge of a placid Atlantic.
We quickly noticed that there was much greater activity in the villages than we had seen in previous days. In particular, there were many markets set up along the road with huge crowds and much excitement.
Market day draws huge crowds. Folks arrive by grand taxi, donkey, or just walk.
At the “parking area” opposite the market, the transport waits for the shoppers. It costs 1 Dh to park.
A difference in the time between the bike clock and our watches caused us to get to Essaouira an hour earlier than planned. This gave us plenty of time to have a good look around. We noticed huge crowds in the shopping areas.
By the time we had taken over the apartment at 1500, the reason for all the frantic activity had become apparent. The next day, Friday 21 Dec, was the Feast of the Sacrifice leading into a long weekend when nothing much would be open.
When the penny finally dropped we had only a few hours to get enough shopping done to last three days. At this point it started to rain. In most places rain is just rain, but it doesn’t rain much in Morocco and the streets are not plumbed to handle it. After an hour many streets were like rivers, the crowd of last minute shoppers like salmon fighting against the current.
I got back from three expeditions out for meat and vegetables, groceries and 20L of bottled water, I was soaked to the skin and cold and the stores were closed. Unfortunately, the alcohol shop had closed early and we were without a glass of wine.
Mike and Sarah arrived without drama the next day.
Over the next week we had a relaxed and enjoyable Christmas break with no great touristic adventures but lots of sleeping in and lazing about. The rest is just the detail…and the photos!
Mike and Sarah arrived before lunch on the 21st by which time Jo and I had scrounged a bottle of Moroccan red wine.
Our apartment was in the Medina up a narrow lane.
The narrow steps up to the third floor apartment were just the thing for codgercise when bringing back 20L of bottled water.
Despite the narrowness of the lane, the local kids managed to get a soccer game going and kept the lane alive with sounds of their play.
A large cardboard box was all it took to keep the local kids happy for hours one evening.
The main feature of the Festival of the Sacrifice is that families slaughter a sheep. Each of the families around us killed theirs on the roof. There was much shouting and a general good time had by all, except the sheep. In this photo, a seagull gets a feed from the sheep skin left drying on the roof-top clothes line.
Essaouira is known as Wind City Afrika. The wide bay and constant winds make it a haven for wind surfers and kite surfers.
The wide and relatively clean beach hosts thousands of European sun seekers every summer.
This is take-away Moroccan style. Two tajines were ordered from a hole-in-the-wall a few minutes walk away. We picked them up in a couple of old cardboard boxes and dropped the empty, clean tajines back the next day.
Under the lids were chicken with vegetables and “meat” with vegetables. Both hearty and delicious.
On another night, couscous with vegetables and chicken with vegetables, olives and preserved lemons filled us up.
Essaouira has an active fishing fleet with plenty of fresh seafood available around the docks.
Not everyone was hard at it down at the docks.
We had our Christmas dinner on Boxing Day at a modern restaurant called Elizir. The food and wine were fine and it was a nice finish to our week with Sarah and Mike. Jo and Sarah had grilled sea bass, Mike had a lamb and fresh pear tajine, while I had a fillet steak with dark chocolate and chilli sauce.
Our relaxing week was over too soon but we thoroughly enjoyed our chance to spend some time with Sarah and Mike. For them it was off to Marrakech before returning to chilly London. For us it was back to the road.
Our landlord Jeanne visited us each day to make sure we were comfortable and produced a bottle of red at a critical time.
We found the Elephant where we had left it in a local garage. (It had been cross breeding with mopeds.) The luggage was back on and by 1030 on the 27th, we were back at the office.
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……
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