Oh let the sun beat down upon my face . . .
Trip Start Mar 01, 2011
27Trip End Ongoing
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Oh, let the sun beat down upon my face, stars fill my dreams I am a traveller of both time and space, to be where I have been - Kashmir, Led Zeppelin
Editors Note: Although this song is called Kashmir, and we are all aware of the fact that Kashmir is located in Northern India, not Morocco, the title is fitting. Robert Plant wrote the lyrics to the song after the 1973 Led Zeppelin US Tour whilst driving through the Moroccan desert.
For Information purposes, AUD$1 is roughly equal to MAD$9.00
We arrived in Marrakesh via Casablanca from Barcelona. This was about four hours of flying with an hour and a half transfer at Casablanca airport
This was however, just the start of the festivities. Our accommodation for the night before the tour started was a hostel located down one of the myriad of streets that cannot be reached by car. So we would be dropped, and then have to walk. Hoping out of the cab, a dashing young Moroccan gentleman started jabbering away in French. When that didn’t work, he managed to put together some English into what was not really a sentence, but we gathered that he was going to guide us to our hostel. We began following him, mainly because we really didn’t have a choice. Beezel shouldered her backpack; I walked with mine in my arms. I was thinking that if we got led somewhere to be raped, robbed, murdered or a combo of the three, my ~20kg backpack would make a handy missile
So after more than a brisk stroll though downtown Morocco, our guide said here we are, pointing to non-descript door on which we could just make out the name "Equity Point Hostel". Oh joy! Then our guide proceeded to ask to be reimbursed for his troubles. Suddenly his English became quite fluent. Beezel had been aware of this Moroccan custom and gave him 40 MAD, insisting that was all we had (It wasn’t). However he wanted 200 MAD (He wasn’t joking) and was standing in the way of the door. This went on for sometime and I was still holding my backpack missile, and was getting close to telling this bloke that he either took the 40 and walked away, or he could continue to argue and cop a belting for his trouble. Then, like a voice from the heavens, an Australian accent drifted down from somewhere above, told us to knock on the door and tell the guy to get lost. We did that, and found ourselves safely inside the hostel lobby. It had been a long day.
I would like to tell you more about the hostel, but we arrived, passed out on the bed and awoke about I hour before we had to check out. Beezel did manage to score a photo of a random cat drinking from the kitchen sink tap otherwise it was uneventful. We then had to make our way from this hostel to the hotel where our tour would be starting
We managed to find the right street, whilst avoiding the motorbikes, scooters, donkeys et. al. Along the way some bloke chased down the street saying he had accommodation for 150 MAD. We politely told him we already had accommodation. He kept chasing us. It gets awfully hard, awfully quick to be polite to some of the locals. Like moths to the flame, we soon had our own little posse of men chasing us offering us accommodation, or offering to show us to our booked accommodation, or trying to sell us a few camels. Ok so I may have made up that last one. We really didn’t want anyone to show us anything, because they would want to be paid afterward
Whilst checking in, we meet one of our other tour members. Our tour group was made up of 13 people, 11 of them Aussie, balanced out with one Canadian and one American. We would all be exploring the Sahara and surrounds for the next 8 days. Since it was just the three of us for the time being, we went to score some lunch. Now, you may think this would be a problem for us vegetarians, but during our wanderings we had gone past a vegetarian/vegan café. On that note, our group was made up of 4 vegetarians, so we fit right in. For the Best family members who are reading this, 3 of the others on the tour were from Melbourne who all hailed from, that’s right Rowville. From what I could gather, back in the mid 90s I think we used to walk past one of their homes on the way to the bus. It’s a small world.
The tour started proper at 6pm that night, when we had dinner together and were introduced to our guide, Brahim
The next morning we all tumbled into our little bus and left the chaos of the Marrakesh streets to begin our crossing of the Atlas Mountains, the highest range in North Africa. This involved steep, winding roads next to sheer cliffs of the fall to your death screaming kind. Beezel and some of our co travellers downed Travelcalm anti motion sickness pills. No one appreciates being vomited on whilst on tour. Our driver for the tour had an unpronounceable name, so Brahim christened him Brahim II. Not that this really mattered; Brahim the Second spoke no English, save hello, goodbye (obviously a Beatles fan) and thank-you. He spoke great Arabic, Berber and possibly French. This didn’t help most of us. Tour members Will and Liza spoke some French, but we all spoke sweet FA Arabic and Berber
Some background on the languages of Morocco: The country is made up of two main distinct groups, the Arabs and the Berber. The Berber hail from the south of Morocco, up in the mountains and near the Sahara. The Arabs came from the north as they moved over from the Middle East. So the Berber speak Berber, in 3 different dialects. Everyone speaks Moroccan Arabic, whilst Classical Arabic is taught in school and also spoken. When the French decided that Morocco looked like a top spot to get a tan and annexed the nation in 1912, French became the language of choice, except for part of the south that the Spanish colonized. Is everyone nice and confused yet? Somewhere along the way, English started to be spoken by a lot of locals too.
Anyway, we were crossing the Atlas Mountains, reaching a maximum altitude of 2,200 metres above sea level. Photo opportunities abounded. Check them out. We made a quick stop at a shop/café that somehow managed to cling to the side of this mountain, where we drank Berber whiskey. You can’t drink the water in Morocco, so we all purchased water to keep us going. All manner of chocolate bars, chips and other junk food are available to purchase as well
The first day involved a lot of travel, as we had much distance to cover. So aside from crossing the mountains, and stopping for lunch (tagine) we did not do too much. We stopped for the night in the late afternoon at an awesome hotel built in a valley between cliffs. Better still, this particular hotel was not dry, so we downed “Casablanca” beer (rather wheaty & cloudy, 5.0%) and Casablanca wine (not offensive at all). The next morning, we kicked off with a walk through the local village and a hike up through the mountains. It is a strange landscape, bone dry with no vegetation to speak of, save some local flowers. But then you go into the village in the valley, and there is plot after plot of wheat, corn, potatoes etc., and everything is so green. Begin marching up into the mountains and this all vanishes and the arid landscape is back with a vengeance. We got some great photos from the top. Brahim then showed us a game that involved protecting your livestock from marauding wolves. He put a few rocks on top of boulders and said it was time to practice our aim. Personally, I was quite woeful at this game. Others tried with various levels of success. Brahim however was an awesome shot, knocking down the rocks on the first or second shot. It was then I decided that at the first sign of a wolf, I was handing Brahim a stone and cowering behind him.
Back in the bus, back along the winding roads and we found ourselves at the narrowest gorge in this part of the Atlas Mountains
Back on the ground, a local woman was strolling through the gorge with a few donkeys. A number of us turned to take some photos, to which she indicated that a photo would incur a cost. The photos quickly stopped, I believe Liza gave her a piece of gum. Someone said that was fair enough, the local lady doesn’t have much. Quote of the day had to go to Elise, who said, “She can’t to be too bad off, she’s got three donkeys, and I haven’t got any. For the money she wanted for a photo, I could buy my own donkey and take as many photos as I please.” Generally speaking, it is best not to take photos of the locals, or anything they own. They will nearly always ask for money. Some take this to a new level. Walking through the gorge, a local lad called me Ali Baba, and then wanted me to give him some money
The hotel for this night had the added luxury of Wi-Fi Internet, as well as the odd scorpion wandering around. Given Beezel’s phobia, I introduced the little fella to Uncle Shoe when she was out of the room. As far as the bathroom was concerned, we could see a distinct pattern emerging when it came to the shower. Hot water sometimes came through, but more often did not. Also, the showers seemed to be positioned in such a way that you flooded the whole bathroom every time you turned the water on. The cold-water issue didn’t bother me too much; it was not like the water was glacial.
During our merry travels, we stopped by a Berber cooperative carpet making shop. The cooperative is made up of a number of Berber families who generally lead a semi nomadic existence. During the spring and autumn, they will roam the country side and in summer and winter stay in villages or in caves in the mountains. The women work a maximum of 2 hours per day make the carpets. It was reiterated a few times that Berber carpets are “quality, not quantity.” And quality they are, one large carpet will take about 6 months to create, all from a mixture of lamb wool, camel wool and agave silk
It was around this time that the group started to suffer it’s first casualty. By casualty I mean of course, diahorrea. This was not Beezel or I, but over the next few days this particular unpleasant ailment made an appearance for most on the tour. But the first casualty was particularly ill timed; as we were now headed directly toward a Berber camp in the Sahara via a 1-hour camel ride each way. No one wants this particular ailment whilst perched atop a camel hump. It had been 20 years since I’d been on camel, and that had only been for maybe 5 minutes. One hour proved to be not particularly comfortable, but it was still a great experience. Both Beezel’s and my camel were very tall. The group was pretty much unanimous in naming my poor camel the ugliest amongst the group, and Beezel’s as having the most overactive digestive system
After the stroll through the desert, and it is proper, Hollywood movie looking desert, we arrived at the Berber camp. Funnily enough, the camp had a full flushing toilet that was in far superior shape to some of the toilets we come across on our way. It was now time to go and do some sandboarding. This wasn’t really Beezel’s thing, so she and some others stayed back at camp. The rest of us started climbing the dunes, an event in itself. Brahim pointed to a hill and we all gave it a go. However, the hill didn’t seem to allow much acceleration, so I asked if we could try out a somewhat steeper one. Brahim seemed a little reluctant, which I could understand. If you broke a bone out here, well I have no idea how close a hospital, doctor or even vet would be. Still, we all gave it a go and it was good fun. Aside from a grazed leg on Rhyss, and my somewhat bruised bum, it was all good. It would have been good to climb an even higher dune, but the ascent would have given me a heart attack.
Dinner involved, you guessed it, tagine. I have no idea where it was cooked; it magically appeared from inside a Berber tent
Next up, a fire was lit and the Berber gentlemen broke out the drums. The stars in the sky were unlike anything I’d ever seen. Lying there, we spotted a number of shooting stars, one of which was so bright that it lit up the landscape for a second or two
We all had to be up early to catch the sunrise over the Sahara. Now the night before the wind had started to pick up, but somewhat warmed by the vodka I had taken my shirt off before turning in. As testament to the temperature drop and wind sheer, during the night I had, whilst comatose put my shirt back on
A number of hours later we stopped for a clean up, and in my case, a nap on the lounge next to the pool. Then it was back in the van, until we reached our final destination for the day. Beezel and I did well at this hotel; we somehow scored an upgrade to a poolside room with a huge bathroom. Although our bathroom may have been massive, it suffered from that recurring problem in Morocco, in that it did not work. The water was hot, but the showerhead slid off the wall when the pressure got too high. So you kind of had to chase the water around the room. A swim was in order, but the pool suffered from a design fault, in that it was too bloody deep. At it’s deepest, it was 2.60m, and at its shallow end it was 'only’ 1.60m deep. But I could not stand up anywhere
The next day, we went to visit the “Hollywood” of North Africa. Amongst others, movies filmed here include: The Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy Returns, Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator. The guided tour was definitely worth the 50 MAD per person. All the sets remain standing and get reused for new movies as required. It kind of destroyed some of the movie magic when you see that all the Roman pillars are actually paper mache and wire with a nice paintjob. The same day, we visited a UNESCO site where a traditional mud brick village sits atop a hill and where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. People still live here now, in an effort to preserve the village by making it a productive centre
We now had to contend with the drive back to Marrakech over the winding, mountainous roads. Aside from being referred to as Ali Baba half a dozen times or so, it was an uneventful trip. We had 1 more full day in Marrakech before heading for Germany, and intended to make the most of it. A tour had been organized for the morning, which was good because generations of inhabitants of Marrakesh inadvertently created the greatest maze on earth whilst building the city. Beezel would not be coming along, as she was not feeling very well. So the rest of us set off, starting at the former Prime Minister’s residence. This guy had a pretty good deal going back in the 1800s. Four wives and 24 concubines. Also, it didn’t seem to matter how you looked back then. Our guide advised that although the palace was two storey, all the PM’s ladies lived downstairs with him, because he was too fat to climb the stairs. Then again, he was not allowed to get any of his concubines pregnant and he was strictly forbidden from ‘being’ with more than one at the same time
Moving on, we arrived at a traditional Berber pharmacy. Remedies for all ailments, all chemical free. There were herbs and spices for everything. Dry skin, stress, headaches, the flu. Special mention to the natural viagara, and the pharmacist saying that you mix a few drops in your tea and then you could ‘bojangle’ for days. A 200ml jar cost 200 MAD. When someone asked if there were small jars available, the bloke laughed and said it was usually sold in one-litre tubs, and that in the heat of summer, a lot of couples don’t leave the house very often. I’ll let everyone’s imaginations run wild with that one. As tempted as I was to give some of the herby viagara a shot, I didn’t purchase. Not even the female version parted me from my money. However, I did get 5 minute neck massage for 20 MAD, as well as some natural insect repellant and harissa (Arabic hot sauce powder).
Back at the hotel, it was time for lunch so we headed out to the square for a feed. We went up to one of the highest cafes available (4 storeys) for some good photos. Lucky the photos were worth it, because the food was average. Just on the other side of the square, we could see the cordoned off cafe where some silly bastard blew him/her self up, along with 16 tourists and numerous locals at the end of April
A final round of shopping in the souks, and I may have got the hang of bartering. Every second person called me Ali Baba, but I was used to that too by this stage. When shopping, one does not need to even pick something up; just looking at it is enough to garner unwanted attention. I grabbed a fez hat, immediately this bloke raced up, pointing and saying 150 MAD. I was never going to buy it, so said no. The price dropped to 100 MAD, I started to walk away, and the bloke abruptly said the hat was free. I nearly turned around, but I knew there had to be catch, so just kept walking. Beezel wanted some pants, so we came across a nice looking shop. The price was unacceptable, but I had spied something I wanted. After back and forth ‘negotiation’ I said “Look, I either buy just this thing for this price, or I buy nothing”. And it worked. Did I feel like a big man? You bet! Did the bloke still get the better of me? Almost certainly. Particularly when we bought the two pair of pants anyway, albeit at a lesser price
Later Beezel went to a spa for a traditional Moroccan massage. On the way, a funny little man offered to buy Beezel for 5 camels from Kate, one of our other tour members. Kate said she would need at least 5,000 camels for complete the transaction. Lucky I hadn’t been there. If they’d been good looking camels, we could have had a deal. Following on from this, when I was walking with a number of the other girls from our group, numerous local chaps said they were my four wives, and I was a lucky man. Funnily enough, whenever I was walking by myself, no one paid me the slightest notice. I guess I mixed in with the locals.
That was the last day of the tour. A final dinner was had and goodbyes were said. Breakfast the next morning was also to be included, but Beezel and I could not attend as we had a ghastly early morning flight to Brussels. So next morning we strolled down to where the cabs were. Brahim had advised the night before that a cab to the airport should cost 80 – 100 MAD. Armed with a 100 MAD note in my pocket, we went up to the cab driver and said Airport, 100 MAD, and the deal was sealed. I really do think we got the hang of the bartering by the end of our Moroccan trek . . .
Next Blog: Germany, specifically Hamburg & Berlin. Stay tuned.