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Lot's of sand. Lot's of camels too.
After failing to cross into Africa during my European vacation I was determined to return and managed to talk two foolish house mates into accompanying me. We spent twelve days in Marrakech, the High Atlas, the desert and on the Atlantic coast soaking up the sun.
I flew direct from London to Marrakech on a new British Airways route designed to ferry the pasty-white British public to the heart of sunny Morocco.
Stepping off the air-conditioned plane into 35 degrees of Marrakech summer was only slightly less of a shock than stepping out of the stuffy British culture and into the warm and effusive culture of Morocco. The Arabs, renowned for their hospitality, are truly the most amicable people. They will greet you on the street as if you are an old friend and invite you into their home or shop to share some mint tea and chat.
But within the velvet glove of the friendly handshake comes the iron fist of 1000 years of trader-culture. The most abiding memory you will have of Morocco will be how everybody, and I mean everybody, tries to sell you a carpet.
Don't get me wrong - I bear them no malice, any of them. All of them - from the shoe shine boy who tried to polish my boots eight times in as many minutes, to the Berber who wanted to 'swap' my T-shirt for a $2000 carpet - were lovely, hospitable and charming. I just wish that, occasionally, they would take some time off.
My own experience of Moroccan commerce started with a bang in the souks of Marrakech. While this was a fairly overpowering introduction, it's apparently nothing compared to the tactics employed in the frontier port of Tangiers. One group of American students we met had literally been badgered into purchasing carpets by tactics that would have made the Gestapo proud.
In Marrakech they are a little more restrained.
They won't actually lay hands upon you, but they will use the entire handbook of hard sales in order to bludgeon you into buying some useless trinket. I can only presume that this practice is sustained by hordes of tourists who find a use for a copper ash tray in the shape of a blowfly, an imitation 14th century flintlock musket or a hand knotted carpet.
And before you convince yourself that you actually got a bargain by buying something at half the price you would have paid for it at home, you should consider where it came from. It probably came into the hands of the merchant from a Berber or Touareg tribesman who swapped it for something trivial but valuable, like food. The merchant is therefore making approximately five-thousand percent profit on your hard fought deal.
The souk in the Djemma El Fna in Marrakech makes a fabulous sight.
By day the square is filled with snake charmers, merchants, water sellers and a horde tourists. Around the edges are stalls where you can buy freshly squeezed orange juice and food roasted over coals. By night it is crammed with small groups huddled around the harsh light of the gas lamp of an acrobat, juggler or a story teller. Men play dice or cards on upturned fruit boxes, beggars roam and a line of beige Mercedes-taxis ferry more people into the square. From a distance the flickering light of the lamps reflects off the rising smoke from the barbecues and the dull, throbbing roar of the crowd gives the place an infernal aspect.
Marrakech is anything but dull.
The pace of Marrakech was starting to pall so we headed out into the countryside. Aided by a helpful, multilingual lady from the Hotel Ali (where we were staying) we organised a four day tour into the wilds.
The first night took us south across the High Atlas to the desert near Zagora. The Atlas rivals any mountain range in the world and although most of the peaks are not snow-capped, they are still magnificent. The highlight of the trip came at Tizni-Tichit, a col at 3000m. To either side the grubby flanks of the mountains dropped towards the valleys and the peaks rise another 1000m with the highest, Jebel Toubkal, at 4167m.
After the mountains we dropped down into a barren and stony plane which extends pretty much to the Mauritanian border, interrupted only by the Anti-Atlas to the south. Zagora lies in the middle, quite close to the border.
At Zagora we traded the minibus for a train of evil smelling camels and headed into the desert. Desert, in this case, being a relative term. To our eyes the stony landscape was a blasted wasteland, but compared to what we were to encounter later it was relatively hospitable.
That night we slept under the stars. Actually we slept very little, under the stars or otherwise. Our Berber guides were enthusiastic musicians and when someone produced a bottle of vodka it made for a lively party. We dropped before the guides did and they kept us awake, playing their drums until the small hours of the morning.
After breakfast we reluctantly boarded our truculent mounts and made the long, painful trek back to Zagora. There our cheerful driver, Mohammed, took in our sullen and hungover expressions and drove us west in silence, along the border to Merzouga.
Merzouga is a small town with its only attraction being Morocco's only Saharan 'erg' or dune. The landscape around Merzouga is a rolling plane of black volcanic rocks, as blasted and featureless as the surface of the moon. As we crested a little hill, we got our first glimpse of the Sahara.
The orange sand was stark against the bright blue sky. The largest dunes stood at least twenty storeys high and towered over the few buildings nearby. The sand spilled onto the black plane as though some absent minded giant had tipped over his bucket.
From the foot of the dunes we set off again on camel-back, this time into the true desert. For an hour we saw nothing but sand and our guide led us on a circuitous route to a cluster of black Berber tents at the edge of an oasis. We climbed a slippery dune in the failing sunlight and looked out across the endless sea.
Returning to the camp, we clustered around the fire and our guide dished up a steaming goat stew. We ate in a circle, the dish in the middle, and used wads of bread to dip into it (with the right hand only!). The stew was excellent and sitting under the pale moon in the midst of the rolling desert contributed not a little to the atmopsphere.
After dinner one of the men, an African rather than an Arab, taught us some songs to the beat of his drums. The solos were a little strangled but as long as there were more than three of us it didn t sound too bad. No one got off the hook, everyone had to sing.
Later we slept under the stars and an over-bright full moon which beat down like a frigid sun. Five small kittens, kept in the camp to deal with vermin, had discovered that the inside of sleeping bags were nice and warm. You could track their approach by the muffled curses which progressed along the line of sleeping figures as they prodded, poked, licked and purred the unfortunate recipient into wakefulness.
In the morning, another long camel trek awaited us and some of the party were reluctant to rise until our guide literally rolled them out of bed. After an excuciating hour on the camels we were able to board the bus and headed north out of Merzouga.
From Merzouga we turned west into the Draa valley and the Todra and Dades gorges. The Todra was first - a narrow gorge with sheer sides. A spring, deep in the gorge fuels a little stream which runs out into the plane and two hotels sit inside the gorge, at the source. The Todra is also a mecca for climbers.
The second gorge, the Dades, is larger and more populated. A small town (Boulamne) dribbles out of the gorge and into the desert. In the knobbly hills there are decaying 'kasbah' (fortresses) that make spectacular silhouettes against the sky.
We spent our last night in the wilderness in a comfortable hotel in the heart of the gorge. We arose in the morning to face the traditional breakfast of fresh bread, potent gritty coffee and apricot jam (this appears to be the only breakfast available in Morocco).
From there it was another long bus ride back over the mountains to Marrakech.
In Marrakech our group decided to hang together for one final celebratory dinner. We picked a pizzeria that was listed in the guidebook as being licensed, a rare and beautiful thing in Morocco. When we arrived however we were informed by a regretful maitre'd that they had lost their license two years ago. Someone had finally noticed that they were selling liquor within a stone's throw of the largest mosque in Marrakesh, the Koutoubia. However, there was a solution. One of our party was escorted in a taxi to a seedy basement store where he was able to purchase a case of beer and a bottle of wine so our celebration didn't have to go unmoistened.
The next day we split up, with some of us going some north to Fes, Tangiers and Spain and the rest to the Atlantic coast and the seaside resort of Essaouira. While Marrakech was baking in 45° C, Essaouira was a lovely but windy 28° C. The sea also offers the best attractions of Essaouira, seafood and windsurfing.
Essaouira boasts what is reputed to be Morocco s finest restaurant (I doubt it) - the seafood Restataurant du Port "Chez Sam". There is also a fantastic outdoor market where you can get fish, prawns, calamari and clams caught that day and barbecued in front of you. The market costs somewhere between 20dh and 60dh for a meal including salad and bread.The food was better than Chez Sam and less than a quarter of the price.
Our favourite haunt in Essaouira though was the Café Taros above the main square. The café was quiet, served good coffee and featured a smarmy, wise-cracking waiter whose only response when I inquired if he could tell me what the desert du jour was, was "Oui!".
We spent four nights in Essaouira before we went our separate ways. I was going home and back to work, most of them were staying in Essaouira and Gareth, with only a little effort, had been persuaded to go off to Fes, Meknes and Volubilis with the two American girls.
On our last night in Essaouira we were joined in the square by a rastafarian who edged his way into our conversation. After a while I noticed he was talking with a fairly broad Australian accent and asked him where he had picked it up :
"I m an Australian mate," he replied.
"Yeah right, where are you from ?"
Turns out he was from Perth, my home town. He'd spent two years playing soccer for the Perth Glory and surfing in Margaret River. He returned to Essaouira for a kite surfing competition.
It's a small world indeed.