Riding the Marrakech Express

Welcome to Marrakech
Marrakech, how do you describe it? It’s like no place we have ever been, it’s unpredictable, random and although many have tried, virtually impossible to navigate, you lose all sense of direction in the maze of streets and souqs within the medina.

Our first visit to the main square Djeema El-FNA is best described as overwhelming. Everywhere you look there’s something weird and wonderful happening. Snake charmers blast music on their oboes to calm hissing cobras next to men walking nappy wearing monkeys on a leash. Men clothed in bright costumes bang copper cups together trying to sell you water but instead scare you away while freshly squeezed orange juice vendors try to call you over to their stall by calling out “hey blondie” and “good looking couple”. On top of all of this you have to avoid the numerous scooters, donkeys and taxis that drive with no rules to guide them.

It may sound unpleasant and a bit full-on but once you get used to it you learn to love Marrakech, it’s a really exciting place that is never short of entertainment. At dusk numerous donkeys pulling carts descend on the square and their owners begin setting up mini restaurants complete with kitchen, tables and chairs. We ate there one night and it was one of the tastiest meals of our trip so far.

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Exploring the Souqs
While our first day in Marrakech was spent settling in whilst visiting a few old Moroccan palaces day two was all about shopping. The souqs are a maze of street vendors selling everything you could want/need from hand carved jewellery boxes to sandals and teapots. The shop owners however always try to sell you the ridiculously large rugs or call out to you “hey my friend come look at this copper bathtub”, how practical.

We spent a few hours navigating our way around buying a few small souvenirs along the way. There were many beautiful items that we would loved to have bought but they were just to impractical to carry on our trip through Africa. As we wandered around we discovered different sections of the souqs that specialised in areas such as leather, iron metalwork and medicinal herbs. After successfully not purchasing an iguana of an insistent shopkeeper we made our way to a roof top cafe for a traditional mint tea. They had limited shade so provided the customers with straw hats to keep the sun away. We had a great time up there taking in the view and listening to the call for prayer sounding out from the various mosques around the city.

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I’ve been through the desert on a horse (camel) with no name
It was an early start the following day as we departed Marrakech and headed towards the desert. We firstly climbed a steep road 2260m above sea level to pass through the high Atlas Mountains. We briefly stopped at the top to admire the view before continuing onto Ait Benhaddou an 11th century town that has appeared in over 30 films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. After lunch we climbed the many steps to reach the top of the Kasabah and admired the views over the stony desert.

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A further 32km down the road we passed through a town called Quarzazate (pronounced war-zazat) which is often used as a city-double in movies for the ancient versions of Tibet, Rome and Egypt. A stretch of the legs later and we were back on the road until just before dark when we stopped for the night.

The following day was mostly spent driving except for a brief stop for a walk through the incredible Todra Gorge which becomes so narrow at points that a human can only just squeeze through the rocks. We also stopped in a small village to learn more about the art of hand made carpets. The drive continued and only hours before sunset we arrived in a small town called Merzouga which is used as a base point for people like ourselves who want to spend a night in the Sahara Desert. Taking only what we needed in a small backpack we set of into the desert on camels lead by a group of local Berber men whose families have lived amongst the sand dunes for centuries.

This particular stretch of desert is called Erg Chebbi and is constantly shape shifting to reach heights of 160m however in the moonlight they appeared even more immense. The colours of the dunes change throughout the day ranging from rosé gold to orange, yellow, pink and purple depending on the sun. After 2 hours on the camels the sun had set and we were ready to dismount as a storm was brewing and even though our faces were covered the sand still stung as it whipped our skin.

We arrived at the Berber camp which consisted of simple tents with sleeping mats and blankets inside. There was a main tent with candles and this is where the Berbers served us dinner before performing some traditional music for entertainment. When the candles were out there wasn’t much left to do other then lie in the sand and admire the stars before getting some sleep.

We were awoken at 4:30am and back on the camels by 5am and as we rode we watched the sun rise slowly above the dunes The wind had settled down by now so this 2 hour camel journey was more bearable then the last but was definitely still long enough.

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Fez: The not-so-happy ending
After breakfast it was time to make or way to our next destination, Fez. Our tour group was heading back to Marrakech so we had to do some independent travel. After talking to the locals it seemed that a taxi was the best option. Although an unconventional way to travel 8 hours and 100’s Km the taxi driver said it was a normal journey for him and it was a bargain for us, only 45€! We shared the ride with a group of Brazilians from our desert camp so it was a bit squashy and there was a bit of confusion finding our accommodation in Fez but it all worked out fine in the end. We were staying in a beautiful old riad in the centre of the old town and couldn’t wait to explore the city to it’s fullest the next day.

Unfortunately that is where this particular story ends and it doesn’t have a very happy ending. Food poisoning struck us down. Matt recovered rather quickly but not Hannah. We spent four days in Fez and didn’t see any sites other then medical facilities and supermarkets. We had to cancel our plans to travel by train to Casablanca instead staying an extra night in Fez to attempt recovery. This meant catching an unplanned flight from Fez to Casablanca at 5am on Tuesday so that we could make our noon flight to Nairobi via Cairo. Not a good end to what started out as a brilliant holiday. It’s such a shame because up until getting sick we were really enjoying the Moroccan culture and food. With time we will forget the bad memories and focus on the good but until then we can’t even consider looking at, let alone eating another tagine.

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