Our Moroccan adventure began in mid-December, after one false start and some anxious moments due to Michael’s fractured ankle and then a last minute tyre blowout. Luckily we had helpful people to assist us in solving both problems. We found a fabulous English-speaking physio in nearby Torrox Costa and after only two visits she had Michael putting all his weight on the foot and walking well, if slowly. He could now drive, so we were all set to go to Morocco.
We started doing our chores in preparation – giving the camping car a good clean and doing some general maintenance, getting the tyres rotated, food shopping and the vet for Grubie etc. But while we were out and about we nudged a curb a little too hard and the tyre totally shredded. So back to the tyre shop and a three-day wait, before we could head off at last.
The friends we are traveling with, Claudia and Jürgen, decided to be the ‘advance scouts’ and left on the original departure date, sending us helpful hints based on their experiences. We were still a little nervous because our GPS doesn’t work in Morocco, but Claudia and Jürgen’s does. We headed to Algeciras and bought a ferry ticket from Carlos at Los Barrios, just as we’d researched. We shopped at the nearby Carrefour, buying an embarrassing amount of alcohol for our visit to a Muslim country. Grubie did her own shopping, loving the pet store we found. We stayed overnight at a car park where camping cars were allowed. There were probably 30 camping cars ‘overnighting’ there before catching the ferry the next day.
Sue had found a couple of blogs outlining the process for catching the ferry and it all went to plan. It’s a bit like ‘hurry up and wait’ and we spent several hours that day waiting in line for something to happen – often we didn’t know what! The ferry crossing was uneventful and took only 90 minutes.
When we arrived in the port of Tanger Med it was raining and grey and after getting some money and Moroccan phone/data cards we were on our way, with paper maps and Google at the ready. It proved to be quite simple. The roads were excellent motorways and quite well sign-posted. Our stay in France has helped because the two official languages of Morocco are Arabic and French and that’s all the signposts have.
We by-passed Asilhah, which we will visit on our return trip to the ferry, and met up with Claudia and Jürgen in Moulay-Brousselhem. This is a small village on the Atlantic coast and is a holiday destination for Moroccans in summer. It has a lovely estuary that is famous amongst ‘twitchers’ for its rich birdlife. The campground was extremely basic. Electricity and hot water were intermittent at best and the sanitary facilities were very basic, par for the course in Morocco we have discovered.
We have been surprised by the countryside in Morocco, at least in its great variety. The northern part was not at all what we were expecting. It’s very green and fertile and much cleaner than Spain, although there is rubbish near the villages.
The driving hasn’t been too difficult, with good motorways and even in larger cities such as Rabat/Sale, Fez and Meknes the traffic isn’t too bad except at the roundabouts, where anything goes! Once you get off the motorways the roads are a bit more challenging with crumbling edges, big potholes and a variety of users including huge tour buses, donkeys, large trucks, motorbike ‘utes’ and bicycles. In fact, the driving has been one of the most pleasant parts of the experience so far because of the gorgeous landscapes and interesting sights. There are shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats, donkeys being ridden and laden with everything from washing to steel pipes and motorcycle ‘carriages’ transporting the whole family.
Morocco is a very poor country. It has a per capita GDP of just $8200 compared to that of Australia at $53,799. There is high unemployment, especially among young people and an average literacy rate of just 67%, and much less in rural areas. We have been shocked at the hovels we have seen people living in in the countryside and we even saw people having to carry water from a village tap in some areas.
The poverty perhaps explains the number of people just hanging around watching the world go by or ‘counting cars’ on the side of the road.
The trickiest thing so far has been trying to find a good place to spend the night. This has led to lots of ‘adventures’ and some stressful moments. Our first problem occurred in Rabat/Sale where the place we intended to stay no longer took camping cars. We finally found a car-park which said it was ok to stay overnight, but we had just gone to bed when the police knocked on the door and moved us on to somewhere more secure but much noisier, by the railway station.
The horrible murder of two young Scandinavian tourists by terrorists in southern Morocco has had a huge impact on the country and even on our travels. There have been protests all over the country and we saw one of these protests up-close in Fez. There were many men holding posters of the girls and of the King and chanting their dismay that such a thing should be linked to Islam. Ever since the murder the police have been very vigilant with tourists and any parking that doesn’t have security has been discouraged.
Rabat and Sale are twin cities on either side of a river. Rabat is the political and administrative capital of Morocco and there is a lot of development there, unfortunately of the sort you would see anywhere in the world. It doesn’t have a Moroccan flavor at all. We visited the Kasbah and the unspoiled medina as well as the magnificent Mausoleum of Mohammad V, where the father and grandfather of the current king are buried. The day we visited was of special significance and there were many priests as well as media in attendance. The mausoleum has gorgeous marble, gold leaf, carved plaster and tile work as well as an extensive columned courtyard and fountains.
In our next stop of Meknes we found a secure place to ‘park –up’ near the gates to the Royal Golf Club, adjacent to the Royal Palace and less than a km from the famous Bab-el Mansour gate and the medina and covered market. We stayed for 2 nights and loved Meknes. The ancient city had three sets of fortifications that now make up the high pink walls of many streets, giving the city a lot of charm and visual appeal. It is a much more laid-back city than Fez and its possible to walk to all the sights. The covered market (food market) was incredible and we spent several hours exploring it. There was a street just for chickens - they were alive. You point to the one you want, they weigh it on the old-fashioned scales and then if you’re happy, they kill it there and then and put it on their ‘automatic plucking machine’ (they were very proud of that!). We walked down ‘Meat Street’ with camel heads and lots of goats hanging up and blood on the floor. Vegans beware, this is quite confronting! The spice and perfume street and the fruit and vegetable streets, were colourful and fragrant but the prettiest was probably Cake Street. Moroccans have a very sweet tooth and love their honey-drenched desserts and pretty cakes and biscuits.
In Meknes we also had a look at some lovely ‘riad’, the traditional medina house converted to a small hotel. If we weren’t snails travelling with our house on our back we would definitely stay in these.
Moroccan people, while very friendly, are pretty big hustlers always trying to get the maximum amount from the tourists. We’re on high alert, but God they’re so good! The faux guides are the hardest to pin down and deter. The tourism office does not approve them and often their commentary is very suspect. One example was the guide who took us around the underground ‘prison’ in Meknes, complete with tales of how many people were imprisoned there and where they were chained. It turns out that the place was a granary and never a prison at all!!
From Meknes we headed to Fez, where we had expected to stay for several days. We headed for a campground on the outskirts of the city, which is very spread-out. We were soon approached by a guide licensed by the Tourism office and negotiated a full-day tour the next day.
We began with a drive through the new town of Fez and the panoramic view of the city, which is spread-out over several hills. The cemetery was fascinating and on probably the best real estate in Fez. Cemeteries are simple affairs in Morocco with either simple white headstones or in older or rural cemeteries, just stones either facing Mecca for men or a slightly different stone shape set at a 90 degree angle for women.
Fez is the proud intellectual and artistic capital of Morocco and we saw some amazing artisans at work. Our favourite were the mosaic tilers, such a ritualized but clever craft.
Its just as well we don’t have a house, because we could have gone crazy with the beautiful lighting and brass-work. The pottery was also fabulous but would never get back in one piece.
The most fascinating stop was the famous Chaouwara leather tannery. They have been making leather here in the same way for 1232 years! It involves pigeon droppings, the high acidity of which makes the leather very soft. The local people feed the pigeons on the roof of their houses and collect the pigeon droppings, which they then sell at the Friday morning market for a very good price. When you enter the viewing area of the tannery you are given a bunch of mint to sniff, but we didn’t find the stench as bad as expected. The quality and prices are excellent so Michael bought himself a beautiful, soft blue leather jacket.
The medina and souq of Fez are extensive – even with a guide I felt lost! Some parts are being restored to their original glory and they’re just gorgeous, with tile floors, beautiful wooden doors for each stall and wooden ceilings. Inside the tiny winding streets of the medina and souq little donkeys are used both as taxis and delivery vehicles. There are some streets so narrow that donkeys aren’t allowed and deliveries are by pushcart.
There are many mosques in Fez but unless you are Muslim it is forbidden to enter them, so all you get to see is the doors. We are looking forward to actually entering the Grand Mosque in Casablanca. Every neighbourhood ‘block’ has it’s own little mosque and there are major mosques every few miles. We are woken every morning at around six am with the first of the five daily Muezzin (call to prayer) and some are better sung than others. The one in Tinghir (middle of nowhere) was one of the best.
Grubie thinks Morocco is fascinating. There are cats absolutely everywhere!! And then there are horses, donkeys, sheep, chickens and the occasional cow/bull wandering about – and that’s just in the campgrounds! Her new favourite is the dromedaries (camels). Unfortunately she has spent longer than usual in the camping car because medinas and souqs are too crowded and too dangerous for her. In the villages there are often packs of wild dogs. We tell her we are going ‘to the shops’ and will be ‘back soon’ and she seems OK. The worst day was in Fez when we left her in the car for 7 hours. We felt very guilty but she seemed happy enough when we got home and at least the temperature has been moderate. A good walk morning and night seems to do the trick, just like when we were working.
We’ve been very busy tourists in Morocco, moving fairly quickly and often changing our plans depending on who we have been talking to and their advice. In Fez Claudia and Jürgen spent a long time with a German couple that had been touring for a month in a camping car the same size as ours. They found out that we could drive quite easily to the desert and gorges.
Christmas Day is a perfect example of spontaneous plan changes. After such a long and hectic day of touring in Fez on December 24th we had planned a brunch with champagne to celebrate Sue’s birthday and then a lazy day for Sue & Michael while Claudia & Jürgen re-visited Fez on their scooter. The brunch did happen, but plans then changed because we were all feeling a little overloaded with medinas and souqs. So all of a sudden we had a new and much better plan - we packed up and headed off to the desert before the main tourist season started and the crowds arrived. Christmas is non-existent in Muslim Morocco, so we were able to go shopping in the Carrefour for basics and for alcohol. The alcohol is kept in a separate section in the basement and the prices were higher than we have paid in Europe. Morocco has several wine growing areas and we have found some very nice wine for about 7 Euros a bottle.
So we were off! First we headed to Azrou, only about 70km away. But now we were off the motorways and on single-lane national routes. Azrou was a really unusual town for Morocco, with stone buildings that have steeply pitched roofs. It was quite high and was a ski centre. It looked more like somewhere in Austria. We stayed in a very unusual place that was a fake castle. It was called the Emirates European Tourist Village and had a huge hotel as well as a camping area. The view was stunning as were the sunsets and (apparently) the sunrises.
The weather has been lovely. Very cold nights (2-6 degrees) and it takes quite a while to warm up in the mornings, but by lunchtime it’s warm and the afternoons are positively hot. Once the sun goes down it is freezing again, so people must ‘dress like an onion’!
Once we thawed out we continued on to Midlet. The drive was amazing. We started by climbing up through a big cedar forest then kept climbing to about 3200M above sea level. Afterwards we drove through a wide valley. Midlet was just an overnight stop on our journey and not an interesting town.
From Midlet we headed to just past Al-Rachidia through some high mountain ranges and a very long wide stony valley. We arrived in the village of Meski, (population approximately 2000) which is above the oasis Source Bleu. There is a ruined Kasbah on the opposite side above the oasis. What a find! We stayed in what they called a camping area but what we would call the yard of a restaurant. The electricity didn’t work, but the shower and toilet were sparkling clean and hot and there were only ever 4 camper vans there, so we were happy. It was run by a 30 year old man called Zaid who was licensed by Morocco tourism. He was an enthusiastic musician who played 9 instruments and was busy practicing for New Year’s Eve, which they celebrate in Morocco in a big way. Everyone staying in the campsite had a dinner in his ‘restaurant’ (cooked by his sister) and then sat around the fire listening to his music and crazy jokes about camels. The dinner was a tagine of turkey we think (they called it ‘big chicken’) with raisins and vegetables. The following night we had a dinner of couscous, which is not our favourite thing but was much better than the one we had in Fez.
Zaid took us on a tour of the oasis and the ruined Kasbah. It was built in the 12th century by the Berbers and was lived in by about 300 people. In 1916 there was a big battle here between the Berbers and the French and 800 people died. We saw the ‘cemetery’ – the rows of stones with no writing on them. Meski was wanted by the French because it was a major trading cross-roads and had lots of water. Morocco eventually gained independence from France in 1956.
Along the oasis they grew dates, olives and vegetables. It was very quiet and shady.
Michael took himself off to the local market and had an amazing time. He bought mandarins and dates from a man who took him to his house, introduced him to his wife and daughters and offered him mint tea (called ‘Morrocan whiskey’!) The inside of the house was so much richer than you would think from the outside.
In the late afternoon Michael and Jürgen walked 2 km to watch the local football competition, where Meski was playing against a nearby town. The ‘stadium’ they referred to was a badly rutted stony square complete with 6” deep tractor tracks and a small road through the middle! The occasional person on a donkey or bicycle wandered through the game but no one had a problem. The game was taken very seriously and was fairly fast - it was lucky no on broke an ankle in those conditions.
When we left Meski we headed to Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara. It was a slow trip but well worth it. After the usual drama about finding somewhere OK to stay we were settled in a camping ground right on the edge of the desert, literally metres away. The sands of the Sahara are like pale pink/orange talcum powder. It will take months to get it out of the camping car! The landscape of the dunes is set against a brilliant blue sky, with every shade of blue/violet as well – it is absolutely mesmerizing.
The next day we had booked a camel-trek into the desert. Our travel mates, Claudia and Jürgen, booked to stay overnight in a Berber tent in the desert, while we booked the shorter ‘sunset trek’ so we could return to Grubie and sleep in the warmth of the camping car. Claudia and Jürgen said that it was very cold in the desert and they slept with so many heavy blankets that they couldn’t turn over!
We loved out camel trek. It was a more comfortable ride than we expected and it was beautiful in the desert. The ambience was somewhat spoiled by the dreadful quad bikes that are allowed to roar around the Sahara, but luckily on the way back they were all gone and it was blessedly quiet. Sue walked to the top of a mighty dune and as expected, saw nothing but more dunes for as far as the eye could see.
Michael had dressed for the occasion in local Berber costume and was in full Berber mode, hanging out on the dune just looking at the world. We watched the sunset and then our camels Fatima and Ali-baba, returned us in time for a fantastic dinner. There were so many vegetables we were both in heaven – cauliflower, stuffed tomatoes, lots of rice dishes, green beans, and a magnificent carrot and date salad as well as a tabbouleh type of dish. Zucchini soup, lamb kefta, a lamb and a chicken tagine rounded out the savory section. Desert was simply mandarins, dates, bananas or a sweet pastry. The best meal we have had in Morocco so far.
We spent New Year’s Eve on the edge of the Sahara in Merzouga and had booked in to a banquet with music, dancing and fireworks at the same place we had eaten the night before. Unfortunately it wasn’t a success. The food was very nearly as good, but there were lots of tour buses there and Claudia and Jürgen didn’t enjoy it so we left early. The drumming and fireworks continued until 3:00am, so it’s obviously true that NYE is a big deal in Morocco.
We wish all our family and friends a healthy and happy 2019. Our New Year’s resolution is to continue our travels and make the most of every day. Carpe deum. Life is good!