Over the Atlas to the Sahara

Picture stop somewhere in the Atlas mountains

Picture stop somewhere in the Atlas mountains

On Thursday morning it took a while until the drivers had ushered us into the right tourist busses in Marrakech. We seemed to have landed in the only group that was mixed with old and young people. A few German and Dutch people and an Italian/Polish couple. Then we were off on a long drive through the Atlas mountains. The highest point we passed was 2200m and there was snow too. It reminded me of pictures I had seen from Nepal. The highest mountain in Morocco is Toubkal with a little over 4000m. There even is a skiing region near Marrakech.

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We stopped a few times after narrow bends (dangereux virages) to take pictures. At one point I saw a truck with a huge dust cloud coming around the next corner. I thought it would be a good idea if we all slowed down a little. Which our driver did in the next moment when he stepped on the emergency break and we were all hanging in our seatbelts (yes, so far all the cars here had seat belts and they made sure you wore them too). For a moment we saw nothing but dust. The truck had passed us but when the dust was gone too we saw that we were about 5cm from the car in front of us. They hadn’t been as lucky and had crashed a huge hole into the car in front of them. We all started breathing again and when we were sure that everything was ok, we drove on. Apparently, we had lucked out with the driver we got again. We drove on to our first castle, Kasbah Ait-Ben-Haddou. The sight of this was awesome. A lot of cute built clay houses. They have to take care of these mud houses all the time that they don’t get destroyed by the weather. Again, a guide imposed his services upon us but at least this time he was friendly and so we learned some things about the castle for 25Dh. However, first we had to cross the river by jumping from rock to rock, which was fun (on our way back, we took the bridge). The houses pretty much had one goal, to keep the cold inside and protect from enemies. Therefore, it was quite chilly and dark in there. I liked them much better from the outside. Many movies like Gladiator and Prince of Persia were shot in this town.

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Later, Johannes and I had lunch in the shade of a building and then I walked around the small “modern” village to find an avocado juice. The people here were a lot friendlier and actually wanted to talk to you without getting money from you somehow.

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We drove on to Ouarzazate, the film mekka of Morocco. Unfortunately, the big part of my travel group was not interested in paying the 50 Dh to go visit the film studios. It would have been very interesting to see for example Cleopatra’s film set. Then we spent another few hours driving past a 1000 different kasbahs. I’m not kidding, there were so many. If you like castles, you have to drive through this area and look at all these amazing formations built out of clay.

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Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Here even the normal villages seem more proper than up north. I felt myself relax and think that here I would like to see more off. We continued through the pretty Valley of Roses and then entered the windy curves into the Dades Gorge. Luckily, our driver really seemed to know every bend and everybody in our bus appeared to have a strong stomach. Since we had booked the cheap tourist tour, I also expected that we would stay in a cheap hostel. Therefore, I was surprised when we stopped in front of a nice looking building and then even received a real hotel room with a private bathroom. We were surrounded by the walls of the gorge and always heard the splatter of the river that ran through it. After arriving, everybody was drawn to the warm fireplace in the dining room, where we hungrily waited for our dinner. First there was soup with a typical Moroccan taste, which we had to eat with a big wooden spoon. Then followed a huge pile of couscous with vegetable and chicken with a fresh orange for dessert. Everybody was satisfied and then we finally had time to get to know some people from our group a bit better.

 

Dades Gorge

Dades Gorge

Although there was a heater in our room and I had two thick blankets, I cannot say that I was exactly warm but I slept really well despite that since I wasn’t woken up by a singing muhezin or other noises this time. In the morning, it sounded as if it was raining but it was probably just the river. When I got up, I realized that it actually was raining pretty hard but that didn’t further bother us, while we were eating delicious Berber pancakes for breakfast. Again, we boarded the bus to wind our way back out of the gorge and soon there were blue holes in the sky and the warming sun came out. We drove past great plains, old volcanoes, goats and camels. Unfortunately, the sunshine didn’t last long and so at our first stop in the Todra Gorge, we got soaked with rain. I hoped that the clothes would dry until the evening, when we would spend the night in the Sahara. Before we could actually enter the gorge, we had to watch a demonstration of how they make carpets in a carpet factory. Then we finally went to the gorge across very muddy and slippery paths. The Todra Gorge with its high walls to both sides was an awesome place! I would have loved to stay there longer and in dry weather tried climbing (there was a via ferrata too) but of course then we were in a rush again and had to leave after about 10min.

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Then followed a lot more driving with a lunch stop at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. After that we drove to a camel farm in an oasis near Merzouga, the door to the Sahara. Everybody got their own dromedary and it lifted itself up in that funny way. Like a real caravan we rode into the sand dunes. It looked quite funny. The sand dunes looked beautiful, especially in the setting sun. We rode for what seemed like an eternity (about two hours), which was too long for my butt and my legs. I have to say that riding the elephant in Chiang Mai was much more comfortable than riding this dromedary. Plus, I had more confidence into my gentle elephant. These camels here didn’t like it too much when you wanted to pet them. Anyways, Jimmy Hendrix carried me to the Berber tent camp where we would spend the night.

On the high dune

On the high dune

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Firstly, we started climbing the huge dune that was next to the camp. That was hard work because with every step you took, you sank down in the sand again at least half way. But the view was amazing and it was cool to stand on what seemed like an almost vertical hill. I think it will take me years to get rid of every grain of sand that is sticking to my body now.

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We jumped down the dune in kangaroo jumps and then I tried myself at sandboarding for a while before it got too dark. I actually liked that much better than snowboarding, because you couldn’t hurt yourself in the soft sand. Unfortunately, carrying the board up the hill was extremely tiring.

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Luckily, dinner was served soon after that, since I was starving again. There actually was a nice tent with tables and guess what? It was almost warm inside the carpet tent. We had another chicken/vegetable tajine with rice and bread. After dinner, we enjoyed the stars. We could see the milky way, a few really bright stars and I saw two shooting stars but unfortunately it was a little cloudy. It didn’t match the amazing star filled sky that I saw in the Whitsundays. One of the Berber said that for the stars, the best time to come to the desert is August. After a cup of tea with the guides in the kitchen tent, we tried to get some sleep in our colorful 5 bed tent. The cots were rather hard and of course it got freezing again, so I didn’t mind that we had to get up early to ride back to the oasis during the sunrise. That camel ride was beautiful, since it can be extremely silent in the desert. But again, my body was glad when we could get off the saddle back in the oasis 🙂 We had another delicious breakfast with Berber pancakes and marmalade. Everything that has fruit in it here tastes amazing!!

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Then we were off on the looong drive back to Marrakech already. The different landscapes we saw were amazing! There were many green fields with palm trees, canyons and gorges in different colors. Of course we had to get back across the Atlas mountains and believe me, the windy roads on Swiss mountains are nothing compared to here. So many curves next to such steep cliffs and always up the hill and then what it seems, back down into the valley again. A motorcyclists dream. We were thinking about starting a fund for a tunnel. But our driver did a great job and after a lunch and a few toilet breaks, we arrived in Marrakech 12hours later. The plan was to go to Essaouira directly, however we moved this journey to the next day and enjoyed a good meal that wasn’t tajine or couscous and had one of the most needed showers of our lives 🙂

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Marrakech – the never ending street festival

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My trip to Morocco started the night before the flight. Luckily I could sleep at a friends place in Basel because the gates to my EasyJet flight closed the next morning at 6.20am. This was the first time I flew only with carry-on luggage. Luckily they didn’t check the liquids too exactly since I hadn’t put them into a sealed plastic bag yet but luckily they just let me pass.
On the plane I even could sit next to the window because my neighbors arrived last minute and just sat down on the isle seats. Three hours later and with 1h time difference, we landed in Marrakech.
I was surprised how cold it was when I stepped of the plane. When the sun shone it was okay but inside the rooms or under the roofs of the souk it was very cold since nothing had a heater. For the next time I know that for Morocco in winter, you also need warm socks and a winter jacket…
I should have waited until the city to exchange money since the rate was quite bad but I needed money to get to the city center. I took bus 19 which waited in front of the airport for 3DH and got off 20min later at Djemaa el Fna. The square is like I imagined Marrakech. Very busy and the first thing I saw were people playing with a cobra and many stalls where vendors sell freshly made fruit juice. With a cup of mixed fruit juice in my hand I felt like I had really arrived in this totally different place.

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I found the Rainbow Marrakech hostel without a problem thanks to the directions from their webpage. However, the alley that leads to its door I’d much rather not wander alone at night. I already saw myself getting mugged or raped until finally someone opened the door. There, I first received a pot of tea and some cookies. Everybody was really friendly. The hostel is in a typical kitsch Moroccan Riad style.
A little later, I went to explore the souk. Everybody wants to make money off you and you need to haggle when you are interested in something. At first I probably also paid too much. I got a bit lost but at least found delicious olives.
I then wanted to return to have real lunch but then got “kidnapped” by a friendly guy who told me about a Berber holiday that was going on in the tanneries and he wanted to show it to me. I thought “oh how kind” because I wanted to go visit them anyways.

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But when we arrived there, the guy hands me over to someone else who shows me the place where they treat and color leather. He talked a lot and I realized that I got tricked and would have to pay money for this. And of course he then felt like I didn’t give him enough. Then I really wanted to go back to the square but got even more lost. Again someone who was walking the same direction as me offered to show me the way since he was going there anyways. Again I believed that he just wanted to help me on his way to work but suddenly, he also wants money and I was nowhere near the square. I will not trust these people anymore. Finally, after walking for an hour and imagining many more scenarios how I could get killed or be forever lost, I found back to the square and first went to relax on the pretty roof top of my hostel.

Tanneries

Tanneries

I was glad when my friend Hedi arrived (she studied with me but lives in Essaouira at the moment and she is actually the reason why I decided to visit Morocco).
We went out for a late lunch in a restaurant at the square. I had a delicious poulet tajine with lemon and olives. Then we went back to the souk. It was exhausting again but more fun than strolling through them alone. Back on the square we had to watch out that we didn’t accidentally step on a cobra or monkey or got in between fighting men. Marrakech was a bit too much for me. I didn’t feel very safe but at least the hostel was a real place of refugee where everybody was very relaxed. You could always have a cup of tea and a good conversation and the wifi worked perfectly.
Later, we had a delicious dinner in a Moroccan/Mexican restaurant right near the hostel. I had falafel with French fries and a delicious sauce for 25dh.
Although the room was cold and the bunk bed not the most comfortable, sleep was possible with 3 wool blankets.

Park behind the mosque

Park behind the mosque

The next morning I was greeted with sunshine at the outdoor sink on the rooftop. It would be a warmer day.
At 11am I had a massage booked at salon Mains des Fees for 200 Dh instead of 280 Dh. The massage was good but unfortunately also in a cold room.
For lunch we had a Berber pizza for 10dh. Then we set out to explore some of the palaces and the gardens. On our 3,5 hour walk in the sunshine we saw many orange trees and part of the city wall. Then we found an alley where the souvenirs were a bit cheaper and there was a fruit juice vendor that sold avocado, strawberry, banana, date juice (nicely layered into a cup) for 50cents!!! I want one of those everyday please!!
We walked back to the hostel where I showered while the sun was still out since that with the hot water was still tricky and nobody had a hair dryer. Then, we had another delicious and cheap dinner in one of the restaurants.

Fruit juice :)

Fruit juice 🙂

Johannes from Germany finally arrived too. We met a year ago in Perth. I didn’t want to travel to Morocco alone and wrote a few lines on facebook and he replied that he would come too. A proof that facebook does help to keep in touch and meet again!
Djemaa el Fna was even busier at night. Loads of food vendors selling what looks like the same things everywhere and all kinds of other “artists”.
On Wednesday we rose at 7 to board a tourist bus to the Cascade d’Ouzoud for 200 Dh. We drove past rather rough scenery with a few rivers and countless donkeys. Lonely donkeys waiting in the shade of trees, donkeys with people or things or both on their backs and donkeys pulling carts. There also always were Moroccans walking alongside the road or trying to hitchhike. I have to admit that the sight of the villages we drove through saddened me. The houses were all cold looking concrete or clay blocks with wire on the roofs that they all looked like training sites for the army. In other words, it looked like villages at war time. 4 hours later with a stop at a gas station and an argan oil production site we pulled onto another parking lot next to a campsite and had no idea where we were, since our driver wasn’t a very talkative person. By now it was a beautiful warm and cloudless day. Right away two Berber people arrived who wanted to sell us their services as tour guides (because we wouldn’t be able to find the waterfall without them on the 3,5 hour return trip and we wouldn’t see monkeys). Still, we decided to go without the guides. There was a pretty square, probably only created for the tourists and then a concrete path with many souvenir shops and restaurants on each side. At least they weren’t as intrusive here as in Marrakech. After a 5min walk, we heard and then saw the waterfall.

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It was quite impressive, how suddenly big amounts of water fell over a huge clay cliff. We climbed up onto a small viewing platform, where already our first monkey awaited us. He seemed to also enjoy the view. We proceeded down the path, past more souvenir shops and arrived at the bottom of the pretty falls. They were quite a sight! We could have taken a small raft to get closer to the falls but decided against it and instead hiked back up to enjoy our lunch. However, when we took out the food, it attracted a group of cheeky monkeys and so we escaped back to the houses at the top and then had lunch near the path that was populated with more people and less animals. Except for a cute and loyal dog that found new friends in us and then followed us around for the rest of the afternoon. I called him Happy. We then walked to the top of the falls and enjoyed the view and afterwards followed the river upstream a little. Happy always happily wiggling its tail alongside us. We relaxed in the shade of a tree for a while and then went back to the village to enjoy a freshly pressed orange juice for 7 DH. At 3.30pm our group was back at the bus and we started the 3 hour drive to Marrakech. Happy knew that it was time to say goodbye and just trotted away.

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We arrived back in Marrakech exactly at the time when EVERYBODY was on the street. It was a driver’s nightmare but ours seemed to be a pro in not hitting any obstacles. I was amazed how we made it through the tiny alleys with all these people without a crash.

We hurried back to the hostel to drop off our things but then went right back to the market since we were fairly hungry. Hedi had gone back to Essaouira, since she wasn’t interested in doing the desert trip we would start the next day again.
On the food market, everybody wanted to pull us to their tables. We walked past the snail carts but eventually, we also let us pull in somewhere. As it later turned out, this had been the wrong choice. Our Tajine was tiny and cold and the skewers also small and without a sauce. And of course everything was overpriced plus I didn’t really enjoy the hectic atmosphere. However, later two Germans at the hostel told us that they just had a really good dinner experience at food stall Nr. 14 (squeezed between many locals).

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After dinner, we quickly walked through the souk to find some olives, figgs and nuts for our upcoming trip. Buying these was fun since all the colorful shops do look nice and food generally is really cheap.
Back at the hostel we relaxed with other guests on the rooftop and then I even figured out where the shower with the hot water was located 🙂 So from that point of view, I wouldn’t have minded to stay another night. However, other than that I was kind of glad that we would get out of Marrakech the next day. I do like busy places but New York or Kuala Lumpur kind of busy and not places where everybody wants to sell you something, even touches you to get your attention and then gets offended if you don’t buy anything. I’ll miss the delicious fruit juices though. I hope we find them along the way.

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