On New Year’s Day we began the long trek back to the coast from the eastern desert. We had spent New Year’s Eve in Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara near the Erg Chebbi dunes. It took us five days of exhausting but fascinating driving to cover the 800km back to the coast. The roads were dreadful, with razor sharp potholes on the edges and they were so narrow that you needed to go over the edge if another car approached. Fortunately there wasn’t a lot of traffic, but the towns and their surrounds were complicated with buses, lorries, donkeys, cyclists and pedestrians. We were only achieving about 50km an hour – slow going! And the driving was so exhausting that we usually only did 150km a day. That was more than enough.
Our first stop was in Tinghir near the Todra Gorge. After a couple of false starts where the camping grounds had closed, we eventually found another ‘campground’ that was really the parking place of a family-owned restaurant. It was incredibly rustic, to say the least. We shared the bathroom with the family and had to wait until they lit the wood heater to warm up the water. The food was equally as basic but quite plentiful. They drove Michael into town to do some shopping in their clapped-out little car and took him all over town getting the best price for eggs, bread and alcohol.
The next day’s drive took us to Ouarzazate (pronounced Wah-zah-zat) and quite an acceptable camping ground. This area is the movie capital of Morocco – sort of a Moroccan Bollywood, except that it’s also used as a location by many filmmakers from around the world. Any movie that requires a desert, this is the place.
Sue and Claudia are foragers, loving to explore supermarkets and market food stalls. They walked for 40 minutes into the town, past the Kasbah and the Cinema Museum, to the one and only supermarket that sold alcohol. The supermarket itself was very disappointing so they caught a taxi (for 1 Euro!!) back to a much better one not far from the camping ground. The meat was very good quality and there was a good vegetable selection.
While we were in Ouarzazate we were lucky to witness the lead-up to a wedding that was to be held at the campsite. When we arrived the workers were erecting giant tents that they then covered in hangings. They laid felt on the dirt and then covered that with gorgeous rugs, ottomans and chairs and tables. It looked sumptuous by the time they finished.
Next, a great procession of the groom’s family arrived leading a huge cow. They stopped not far from our camping car and then proceeded to kill the cow by slitting its throat. As they did the deed all the women made loud ululating sounds. Blood went everywhere and the cow took too long to die. Once it was dead the young men proceeded to skin and gut it and cut it into large chunks.
That’s when the women’s work began. They spent hours that night and all the next day making use of every part of the cow. When we got up the morning following the killing there was not a trace of cow, blood or smell. Obviously they had done this before!
In the evening it was the Bride’s party. She arrived early then went with her girlfriends to change into the ceremonial costume. She looked gorgeous. The many guests arrived and were served tea and cakes. There was lots of music and dancing. Mostly those in attendance were female, although the bride’s male relatives were there. They kindly let us take photos, which isn’t at all a given thing in Morocco. We would have loved to stay and witness the wedding celebrations.
The drive from Ouarzazate to Taliouine was probably the worst day of all – the roads were just a patchwork of potholes and mends. We stayed in a decent campsite with a beautiful view and were so delighted to find electricity that actually worked (most of the time)! We are lucky with our camping car that has LPG and solar panels so we can be self-sufficient when needed.
Taliouine is a famous centre for saffron production and was full of saffron cooperatives and street hawkers selling the stuff. Claudia is a wonderful researcher and discovered a museum that would test any saffron you bought to see if it was genuine. We bought ours there and were surprised at the reasonable price – about 3.5 Euros a gram.
Our last day’s drive was long. We had been looking forward to some decent roads but when we got to them they were so crowded with crazy motorists that it wasn’t a lot better. It was a Sunday and it seemed every family was picnicking in the fields of trees outside of the towns, with their tents and ‘Berber whisky’. After travelling for about 3 hours we made a brief foray into the outer suburbs of Agadir to visit a Marjane supermarket. This is a Moroccan chain now owned by Saudis, so it no longer sells any alcohol but in all other ways it’s just like the other major European chains. We stocked up so we could spend a few days on the coast in out of the way places.
We eventually made our way to the tiny seaside town of Sidi Ouassai (pronounced Wasaye) to a campground set on a small beach. We had thought we had the GPS coordinates wrong for a while because we were driving through nothing, but we finally arrived to find 30 or 40 camping cars already parked. The view was stunning, the weather was warm and the beach was gorgeous. Grubie really enjoyed the chance to run about off-lead for awhile.
We settled in and relaxed in the sunshine and were just starting to bestir ourselves to prepare some dinner when the local restaurant came around selling bowls of Moroccan vegetable soup with dates for 1AUD a hearty bowl. Add a baguette and dinner was done!
We had been looking forward to visiting Sidi Ifni, which was the southern most point of our journey. It was the old capital of the Spanish Sahara and was only ceded back to Morocco after UN negotiations in 1969. We’d read lots about its art-deco buildings but most of them are crumbling away and are painted blue & white, so you don’t get much of an art-deco feel. Apart from the odd 'hola' rather than 'bonjour' we didn’t get that much of a Spanish vibe. It’s a surfing destination now and is definitely a lot less ‘hustling’ than other places. We enjoyed the respite.
A highlight in Sidi Ifni was a truly lovely meal at the Nomad restaurant. Moroccan with a really definite French twist and was one of the best meals we have eaten in Morocco. You do get sick of plain tagines after a week or two. This meal was 3 courses for 15 euros and included garlic prawns, wonderful beef and fish and then crème brulee or nougat ice-cream. It even served wine!
The other highlight of our stay in Sidi Ifni was the shower – hot water and lots of it. This was a pleasant surprise and put us all in a good mood for the day. Small things make you happy! Apparently small things also amuse small minds, as the saying goes. We found the fact that the top-selling toilet paper in Morocco is called ‘Bravo!’ very funny – like ‘congratulations on your poo’! This instructional sign in a male toilet we also found funny.
Leaving Sidi Ifni we travelled along only 73km to Tiznet and stayed in a huge camping ground up against the walls of the old town. Tiznet is famous for its silver jewelry, with a large part of the souq being alleys full of silver merchants.
However, we found jewels in Tiznet other than silver. Not long after we arrived came the hairdresser to see if we needed a trim, hairdo or shave. No thanks. Then we saw the “ding-mender” and researched all about that, but he was too busy to fit us in. A walk around town also found a specialist camping car upholstery business. Sue had wanted some covers made for the seats, instead of covering them with towels. So we had leather covers made to match for the driver, passenger and two of the ‘house’ seats. The leather is beautifully soft and the workmanship is superb.
Some of the workmanship can be a bit dodgy, however, especially in the area of OHSW. Our favourite example was the young man who replaced Jürgen’s gas bottle and then proceeded to check for leaks by using his lighter!!
None of the camping grounds have washing machines and we found a laundry that washed, dried, ironed and folded two loads for 8 Euros. What a bargain!
Our travelling companions, Claudia and Jürgen, decided that they wanted to see the nearby mountains, but we didn’t want to do another long drive on dreadful roads so we parted ways for a week. We headed just a short distance to the coast, to a village called Aglou-Plage, where we had a lazy week enjoying the sunshine. Moroccan camping grounds are full of French people so we watched a few of the afternoon boules competitions, although we didn’t join in. The Aglou ‘ding-man’ found us and did a brilliant job of fixing the various stone chips and tree scratches. The car looks better than new!
In Aglou-Plage there were three herds of camels wandering about. They are the funniest herd animals; it must be a real challenge for the cameleers. The camels are so curious and independent, confident to go everywhere – including sunbaking on the beach or investigating the yards of houses! On their way back from a walk along the beach Sue and Grubie had to walk through a herd to get home, almost pushing them out of the way. Grubie was very excited!
Claudia and Jürgen joined us in Aglou Plage and then we headed off to Essaouria, a three-hour drive. On the way we passed acres of Argon trees, where they harvest the nuts to make the famous Argon Oil also sometimes called Moroccan Oil. Like saffron, this is mostly women’s work. We had heard all about how in the traditional way the goats eat the argon nuts and break down the tough skins and then the women pick the nuts out of the goat shit and press them for the oil. We actually saw the goats climbing the trees to eat the nuts!
Essaouria is a famous surfing/windsurfing destination and apparently ‘Africa’s windiest city’. Luckily it wasn’t windy when we were there. Unfortunately, Essaouria has become a little unfriendly towards motor homes, with the aires in town shut down and the town camping closed. We were lucky to get a spot in a camping ground in a small and poor town about 20km out. Claudia and Jürgen went into town on their motorbike and we left Grubie at home and caught the local bus in for 5 dirham (50 cents) each, which was a new experience.
As well as the long, sandy beaches the city is also renowned for the quality of its medina and souq and for its very vibrant port. They have a big industry building very seaworthy wooden fishing boats that are sold as far as Spain and France. They also have a large fishing fleet and a big fish market. You can buy the fish or shellfish you want by weight and then they cook it for you on charcoal grills, similar to Bali except they don’t overcook it. We had a wonderful meal of grilled king prawns and a half lobster each, just like our Aussie ones, with all the meat in the tail. Absolutely yummy!
While we were there we had noticed a film crew filming around the town. They approached us while we were having lunch and asked Michael to speak on camera. He talked about where we came from, what we liked about Morocco etc. He felt like a film star but will probably end up on the cutting-room floor!
We spent a couple of hours happily getting lost in the medina and souq, where the quality of the artisan items was much higher than we had seen elsewhere.
We had intended to stay longer in Essaouria but the accommodation problems meant that we pulled up stumps and moved on to Marrakesh.
We stayed about 18km from the medina at a small hotel/camping ground owned by a German man and his Moroccan wife and it was lovely. It was a newly built ‘castle’ hotel of 20 rooms with hand-painted wood, Moroccan lamps, plaster carvings etc. Reinhardt and Aischa were wonderful hosts and we enjoyed their chef’s meals, particularly as we informed them that we had found Moroccan cuisine bland and liked a little spice. The gastronomic highlight was the beef and prune tagine, although all the soups and salads and main courses were delicious. After dinner each night we sat around the fireplace and shared stories with the hosts and their guests.
Reinhardt and Aischa organized a car to take us to and from Marrakech each day for only 10 Euro and it was worth every cent to avoid the dreadful Marrakech traffic. Of course we had to leave Grubie at home – medinas, souqs and large cities are not for dogs and especially not in overwhelming places like Marrakech!
We had all done our research on the city, so were expecting the assault on the senses and the very determined sales pitches in the souqs but we were pleasantly surprised. The people were generally very friendly and understood if you didn’t want to buy.
The first day we just wandered the labyrinth of the souqs and were quite proud of ourselves for only getting lost once. Thanks to Google Maps we managed to stop going in circles before we got too exhausted. There is something like 19 km of souqs in Marrakech and the lanes are so narrow and crowded. Add in the motorcycles whizzing through and it can be quite dangerous just to go shopping!
Once we got tired of the souqs we found our way to the Musee de Marrakech, which was a little oasis of calm and beauty. Housed in a palace of a former pasha (circa 1894) it showcased the artisans of Morocco from the past in ceramics, embroidery, jewelry and weaponry etc as well a really interesting display of contemporary artists. But the beautiful tile-work, hand-painted wooden doors and ceilings and carved plasterwork of the palace itself was as impressive as its contents.
We indulged ourselves with lunch and glass of wine in a roof-top restaurant, high above the Djemaa el Fna, with its proliferation of snake charmers, monkeys and henna tattooists. Of course there are also the street theatre troupes, which were entertaining but in Arabic (we were in Marrakech over the Moroccan holiday period). Our luncheon choice was pastillas, a filo-wrapped mixture of chicken, onion and almonds cooked with cinnamon and other spices such as saffron. It was a really delicious balance of sweet and savory. Our other meal was a vegetable pie, also wrapped in filo.
Our second day was spent chasing the more historical aspects of Marrakech, with a visit to the Saadian Tombs, the Bahia Palace and the Kasbah and Mellah (Jewish) areas.
The Saadian Tombs were built by a Saadian sultan in the late 1500s next to the Mosque and have beautiful Italian marble, plaster carvings, painted wood etc. Apparently they were walled up in 1603 after the sultan died and weren’t discovered again until 1917, when aerial photography revealed them. They are still being restored to their former glory.
The Bahia Palace was somewhat of a disappointment, being badly in need of restoration. The highlight was the beautiful painted wooden ceilings.
After much research and discussion with others we decided to give Casablanca a miss. The only thing to see is the Grand Mosque and it was just too dangerous to drive and too complicated to stay anywhere close. Local Moroccans told us that it is thronged with up to 5000 tourists daily, from the cruise ships that dock in Casablanca. The locals all said ‘don’t bother’, so we didn’t.
From Marrakech we drove back to the coast to Safi, an industrial city with a huge fishing fleet and a reputation for its grilled fish. The camping ground there had lovely views of the cliffs being pounded by the big surf, but it was a new low for Moroccan campgrounds with toilets and only one shower that were so filthy we wouldn’t use them and the electricity didn’t work either. But it did have a big flock of peacocks that kept Grubie amused.
We drove the scenic coast road for the 60km from Safi to Oualidia. The views were superb and reminded us of the Great Australian Bight, with red cliffs and miles of surf. The road was diabolical and it took us 2 hours to drive the 60km. The countryside was getting greener and they had water to use for irrigation, so there were quite a lot of vegetables being grown.
Oualidia is a resort destination for Moroccans from Casablanca and Marrakech on weekends and in the summer and is renowned for its oysters and shellfish. As well as an Atlantic beach it has a protected lagoon and is an important stopping point for migrating birds. There were men on motorcycles riding around selling and opening fresh oysters, clams and razorfish. We stayed the first night in an aire guarded by the military, where there were about 70 camping cars.
We did the research and picked a restaurant for our shellfish/fish binge. We chose L’Araignee Gourmande which wasn’t the cheapest but did have a great reputation for their seafood and a truly wonderful view of the lagoon and beach.
In Oualidia we decided to part ways from Claudia and Jürgen, meeting up with them again in Torre Del Mar, Spain. We spent a night in a lovely campground outside Oualidia with hot showers, electricity that worked and a beautiful view of the beach and lagoon before setting off bright and early for the 450km drive to Asilah, our next destination. We were a little nervous as we were now without GPS or campground information but managed just fine with paper maps.
Asilah was a beautiful city in which to end our stay in Morocco. It has a small, clean and beautiful medina with lots of art galleries as well as souq of traditional items. The old houses in the medina are painted blue and white and green and white and its very pretty. Asilah has lots of murals as well, painted every year for the festival in May. It also has a major souq for food. There is a long promenade along the beach and a small marina full of traditional fishing boats. We appreciated sitting in the Moroccan sunshine enjoying a fish meal and a glass of wine. We have found that it’s always possible to get wine in tourist destinations, but you do pay top dollar.
In Morocco taxis are often shared. There are two types of taxis, petite (licenced for 3 people) and grande, for more than three and much more expensive. It can sometimes be disconcerting when the taxi you are in suddenly stops and other people pile in. In Asilah we stopped to let an older lady in. She was very shy and didn't want to talk to us.
We ended up staying in Asilah for three days before heading to Tanger Med and the ferry back to Spain at the end of January, after nearly two months in the country and having driven over 3,500 km.
We arrived early at the port so they squeezed us on a freight ferry full of semi-trailers. That was great because it meant we could arrive in Torre Del mar in daylight. It was a surprise to us that we had no customs checks, just a brief look at our passports – perhaps because we were on the truck ferry? And after the trauma and expense of the rabies blood test no one in Spain or Morocco even looked at Grubie or her papers. The vet had told us this would be the case but we weren’t prepared to risk it.
There is a lot to love about Morocco and also much to cause despair. We admired the sheer grit of the people who eke out an existence in the rocky terrain and find some joy in their very poor lives. We can understand their boredom due to lack of employment and literacy. We loved the landscapes, the desert, the fresh orange juice, the excellent coffee and the internet access. And one of the best things is their winter weather. It rained the day we arrived and the day we left, but in between it was cold nights and warm days with beautiful clear blue skies.
We hated the litter and the poverty, the filth and the electricity that didn’t work. The people were friendly and helpful and their hustling for the tourist dollar is very understandable given their poverty.
Morocco was a fascinating country and an experience we’re pleased we had.