Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Morocco 1: Fez to Marrakesh and a first taste of the Sahara

Cedar forests
The first shakedown part of the trip is over. From Fez we drove into the Middle Atlas mountains, through the cedar forests. A small map reading error (blame it on the GPS) took us to a camp site near the ski resort of Mischliffen, where we heard the same hysterical music booming over the countryside as we heard at Fez camping. Can people not hear the silence any more?

The Arid plains, on the way to the High Atlas
Berber tents in the Middle Atlas
We saw the first Berber tents here, some with sheep pens, and the children came running to wave at us as we pass by. For elevenses we stopped in Boulojoul, a rough little farming town near the aptly named Plaine de l'Arid. Arid it is! The plateau between the Middle- and High Atlas is vast, empty, and reminded us of the Karoo. Then the harsh, dry heights of the High Atlas confronted us. Bare rocky valleys, here and there a few Berbers who rush up to try to sell their honey, some goats, and little else happens here. Then, at last, we see the gorge open towards the Sahara.
Water! Life in the desert
Meski: The ruins of the old walled city
Er-Rachidia is a well-laid out town with a heavy military presence, since the Algerian border is not far away. For the night we stopped in Meski, a well advertised resort called the Source Bleu. And well attended by the local community as well. Let it be said that the consensus of thermometers was above 50 degrees, and we were bathed in sweat as we drove. So one could understand why everyone that could leave Er-Rachidia came to bathe in the waters from the source.

Most people left at sunset, but we had a number of fellow Moroccan campers, including many youngsters who spent most of the night sitting on the lookout point, just above our tents, sweet-talking each other. And the dogs of the village were also not keen to sleep in the cool of the evening.

The blistering heat convinced us to abandon plans to take a swing through the desert on our way west, instead we took the highway and headed for the Todra Gorge. At the beginning we noted the Camping Le Soleil, then ambled up this impressive gorge, verdant and lush in the aridity of the hillsides and surrounding desert. Many Moroccan tourists, and a few foreign groups, thronged the stopping places, and we stopped to admire the ever-changing scenery. Then we returned to the welcome shade and swimming pool of the Camping Le Soleil, where we washed away the memory of the heat in cold, sweet fountain water.
Imagine, of a sunset, pleasant company, looking out over the lush green
The next morning we left for the Gorge du Dades, which is totally different, narrower and much longer. Abandoned mud forts and lovely old buildings loom over the lush gardens, and one could imagine lolling in the shade with a harem of local beauties, smelling the orange blossoms. But then you may be the one slaving away digging in the gardens, while your girl was being entertained by the local lord up there ....
Lookout point at the top of the Gorge du Dades
Wash day in the Gorge du Dades
After the Vallee du Dades with its thousands of hectares of date palms sweltering in the incredible heat, Ouarzazate is the so-called stepping stone towards the desert. A city big enough for us to get lost in, looking for groceries. Then we left towards Marrakesh, and turned up a small road towards Ait Benhaddou. Here we camped behind a big door, in a courtyard, and left the next morning up the pass towards Telouet, imagining ourselves to be raiders from the wastes of the Hamada heading to the high valleys and the riches of Marrakesh. 
Camp in the Kasbah Defat 
Telouet in the High Atlas above Marrakesh
The central valley is indeed a garden, and one can see how the Glaoui lords controlled the southern approaches to the Imperial city of Marrakesh. Then down a vertiginous pass, down into the cool and green, past Berber villages where the women produce Argan oil, sought after in the beauty industry and also for food.
Cracking the Argan nuts.
Fortified village guarding against raiders.
Our GPS lady took us on a conducted tour around Marrakesh before a friendly Gendarme, manning a roadblock, gave us the directions to the well-recommended Camping Le Relais.

I am not a typical tourist, and had reservations about doing the Medina of Marrakesh. However, it was worth-while. There was less hassle, more space, less haggling, and, except for taxi drivers, not the feeling that you were being ripped off. On the Fnaa, the famous central square, story tellers, herb sellers, magicians, and trained pigeons vied for the attention of passers-by, and for the first time we saw many foreign tourists.
Dinner overlooking the Fnaa

Tall blondes (Danes?) a Dutch family with daughters loudly complaining because they were being dragged away from the shops. Metallic American accents coming from a few girls, a (Nigerian?) gentleman dressed in splendidly embroidered pajamas and leather slippers, veiled ladies and children in summer dresses gaped at the shows, or patronised the fresh orange juice sellers. At
Tourism in the Fnaa in Marrakesh
four dirhams a glass it was an essential relief, although it was only 45 degrees. Interesting, none of the sellers actually let you see them press the juice. They take the oranges from their displays, then work away behind the counter, to produce a jug and pour it into a glass before you. How much water goes in? Refreshing, nevertheless.

As we sit planning our next leg, based on information from travellers coming up from the south, allow me to muse.

Water takes on a new significance here. At home my wife has to nag me to drink three glasses of water, but here I have an anxiety on me to drink. On the drive to Ouarzazate I tried to limit myself to a few mouthfuls of water at a time, but when we got into camp I could not stop, and drank the rest of the two liters of water for the day. And drank more before going to bed. We all lament that we did not fill our tanks at the sweet fountain of Le Soleil, as the tap water here in Marrakesh is salty and not drinkable. At least we can buy water by the five liter bottle in the supermarket.

The terrible heat of the desert, and worse await us, is a question of energy management. I keep the speed of the Cruiser down, and watch the temperature gauge like a hawk, since I had doubts as to the integrity of the system, and it lacks an expansion tank. The air conditioner immediately sends up the gauge a few notches, so on the long climb out of the desert we sprayed water on each other, and toughed it out. After the descent I had to stop and check the car, as the temperature gauge actually showed cold! But all was in order.

I also had a leak of brake fluid, but Toyota in Marrakesh shook their heads and offered to import the brake kit from Japan. A backyard mechanic was going to dig through his several boxes of left-over brake parts, until he heard that we are going south, then he assured me that we will get the parts in Mauritania, because there are many Land Cruisers there.

Women from one of the villages
From here we will begin to head south, towards the Mauritanian border and the great desert.  

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