Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rock the Kasbah hits Morocco

Upon arising from a very special celebratory dinner in Tarifa the night before, we fare-welled the MacCormacks and the Stenings.

The group boarded the ferry for Tangier, the weather was once again a bit ordinary, with white caps across the ocean and winds building. We had been lucky the day before, and it was now another swimmers turn to wait out the conditions in Tarifa.

Our passports were stamped on the ferry for entry into Morocco, so only a cursory glance by an official as we walked up the gangplank into Tangier.
We were met by Mohammed our guide, Abdul our driver and Brahim the tour organiser.
We boarded our mini bus and off we went to see some of the amazing sights of Morocco.

 We detoured on our way to Fes to visit Meknes, Chechaouen then onto Volubilis, to see the best preserved  archeological site in Morocco. These Roman ruins were declared an Unesco World Heritage site and feature the most amazing mosaics preserved in situ from around the 3rd century BC.

We arrived early evening into Fes. We made a necessary ‘beverage’ stop at possibly the largest supermarket any of us had encountered. It was an introduction to the sensory overload that we were about to experience for the remainder of our trip.  

Our stay in Fes was in a traditional Riad on the northern side of the medina.  Our evening meal was served by the staff of the Riad. Sensing our groans at the never ending courses being served we were advised to eat sparingly of each dish. We all retreated to our beds to be woken in the early hours by the first of the many calls to prayer.

 The next day we took in some of the sights of Fes, and visited a ceramic and mosaic factory where some of Moroccos famous handcrafts are made. A tradition passed from generation to generation. 

Our afternoon was spent in a walking tour of the medina. It is the largest car-free urban environment on the planet. It is a total assault on the senses, a warren of narrow lanes and covered bazaars filled to bursting with aromatic spice stands, fruit and fish to sheep heads, craft workshops, mosques and an endless parade of people. 

Old and new constantly collide, with the main form of transport being donkeys and mules with the driver on his mobile phone. Then there is the leather district and the dye pits. Little has changed since medieval times, the donkeys labour through the alleyways laden with hides. Once again it is a family tradition with the workers born into the job. 

The processing  components of the hide are pigeon poo and cow urine with the colours added last. A sprig of mint held to the nose is very necessary when viewing this from above. That night we experienced a very interesting cultural evening, with some of the team getting quite involved in the performance.

We travelled [are we there yet] the next day through the Ziz Valley on our way to southern oasis of Erg Chebbi dunes in the Sahara. We rode camels in the setting sun to our Berber camp. By the time we arrived the almost full moon was rising over the sand dunes.  

Our camp consisted of 3 large Berber tents in a u shape with carpets in the centre, where we relaxed, ate dinner, drank some very smooth vintage Spanish sherry, enjoyed some French red wine and let reality sink in as to where we were and what we were experiencing. I think that we all had some very special moments. The next morning we were gently woken by softly beaten Berber drums in time to walk to the top of a dune [for some] to watch the sun rise over the Sahara. We traveled back by camel to the Auberge for a shower and breakfast.

Our journey today took us through the desert and into to the Todra Gorge. 
This is a massive fault dividing the High Atlas from the Jebel Sarho. It is only passable by vehicle for approx 15 kms where it narrows in some stages to just enough space for a person to squeeze through above the crystal clear water.

We arrived in Boumaine Dades and our hotel, where to the delight of all we enjoyed a swim in the pool. Such a contrast of settings to our previous nights accommodation.
Most of us enjoyed a hamman [Turkish style bathhouse, skin scrub and massage]

The next day we visited the stunning Dades Gorge.
Our journey took us past kilometers of adobe dwellings perched either side of oasis filled with date palms, fig and almond trees and  communal gardens. These are mostly worked by females and youths. The corn was being picked with the stalks cut and left to dry for building materials. We saw many laden donkeys and women carrying incredible loads. Most of the men are away working in the larger towns or in Spain. It is common for the men to only visit their families occasionally each year.
The road climbs and turns into some of the most amazing hairpin bends with wonderful views back down the Gorge. We all enjoyed walking back rather than traveling in the van.

Day six and we were on our way to Ait Benhaddou.
Along the way we had lunch and on exploration we discovered the only olympic pool [we think] in Morocco. Naturally some of the not so shy had to get in and test the water, so to speak.
We visited Ouarzazate the movie  capital of Morocco [Mollywood] where scenes from the films Gladiator, Jewel of the Nile and others have been shot.

Ait Benhaddou is a mud brick kasbah protected by Unesco, dating back from the 11th century. It has also featured in many films such as Lawrence of Arabia. It is largely uninhabited now, with the exception of a few locals

Our home for the night was a mystery to all as we travelled further on to a small village. The signs were very misleading with even the locals not able to give us proper directions.
Our frowns turned into smiles when we found our riad. It, like many in the larger cities have been taken over by foreigners and turned into splendid accommodation. This one was new, but still kept the Andalusian architecture and simpatico touches of traditional Morocco.
We dined on possibly our only taste of western style food from a Michelin rated restaurant.

Our drive today took us across the High Atlas Mountains, across the Tizi ‘n Tichka Pass and onto Marrakech. This is the highest point in Morocco at 2260m. It is a much travelled road as it is the only road from the desert to Marrakech. It would make for a very interesting drive in winter, where the pass can sometimes be closed due to adverse conditions and snow falls.
We were fortunate that it was early autumn and the only problem faced was wether to accept the offer of 8,000 camels for yours truly. Some people were heard to call ‘Sell Sell’
I have a long memory.....

Aahh Marrakech, we arrived at dusk to see the evening market being set up in the main square. Snake charmers with oboes serenading their cobras, chained monkeys and their handlers, henna artists touting their business. Orange juice sellers, magicians, balancing groups, belly dancers, healers, men sitting behind tables displaying jars of teeth.... and then the booths being set up for dinner.  Each displaying their wares of fresh vegetables, salads, meats, prawns, fish, sheep heads all clambering for your business.  Many Moroccan‘s speak quite a few languages, and they could easily pick up that we were Australians. We had many enjoyable encounters with them, they have a great sense of pride and personality. Our meal in the souk was an experience.
Marrakesh is a total assault to the senses, life in the square is frenetic with humanity at its most diverse.  An experience not to be missed.

The next morning we visited the peaceful and colorful oasis of Jardin Magorelle.
This is the garden given to the city by Yves Saint Laurent.  His ashes are scattered over the garden.  His instructions prior to his death, were that the gardens are
to be preserved and kept open to the public.

That afternoon we escorted 2 of our group safely to the train station for departure to Casablanca and their further adventures in Tunisia and Libya.
The next morning we all drove from Marrakech to Casablanca on the final leg of our journey. Some were homeward bound whilst others spent a very enjoyable few days in Amsterdam.

Our adventure and swim of a lifetime was a vision in the making for many years by Jon Attwater.  A few of us had heard him talk about swimming the Straits of Gibraltar over the last 5 years, so when he announced that it was on, early this year, very quickly ‘pick me , pick me’ was heard from a group of like minded adventurers.
Many hours of preparation and communication have gone into the swim, without even touching on the planning and coordination for our trip through Morocco. All this done with Jon’s unflappable calmness and dignity.

From all of us to you, Famous John The Legend, Thank you for letting us join you to Rock the Kasbah.

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