A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: hilarywh

Marrakech & Essaouira - Morrocco

Fri 18th - Tues 22th September


Marrakech, Morrocco – Fri 18th, Sat 19th & Sun 20th September

We arrived in Marrakech early afternoon and found Darren at Hotel Menara on a western corner of the Medina wall. The rooms were basic but with a balcony and the hotel had a large sitting and eating area around a pool. The smell of horse piss from the horse and cart ‘parking’ area in the street alongside the hotel was overwhelming most of the day.

Six of us strolled into the Medina, along the Cyber Park and passed La Katoubia mosque, it’s impressive minaret briefly illuminated by the glow of the setting sun. We head straight into the main square of Djemma el Fna which is a hive of activity as the evening food stalls are being prepared. There are fresh orange juice sellers all around the perimeter selling glasses of sweet refreshing liquid for 3 dirhams, just 30p. We stock up on bags of roasted salted almonds, dried apricots and dates before locating a restaurant with a roof terrace overlooking the square. As the sun sets, the day’s fasting ceases and the food stalls are a frenzy of activity. Ladies with hands and feet ornately decorated in henna try and entice us to sit on their stools and have ours painted. Young boys walk around with sorry looking macaque monkeys on leads requesting money in exchange for a photo. Men in straw hats with copper cups hanging from their bright red jelaba’s are selling chai, mint tea. Small groups of friends with musical instruments are having private jamming sessions in celebration of the forthcoming end of Ramadam. It’s hard to leave the nights festivities and make our way back to the hotel but we have 3 nights here and plenty of time to indulge in Marakech life.

The following morning involves a short walk to the Yves Saint Laurent gardens where cactus and other plants are beautifully presented in manicured beds surrounded by blue mosaics paths and brightly painted pots. Back in the Medina we get lost in the endless clean alleyways of the souks, neatly laid out and nowhere near the hassled experience I was expecting. The souk sellers engage in the usual banter and try and encourage us to look at their stalls but our wanderings mainly go unhindered. I wonder how the umpteen shoe sellers can make their living from so many thousands of brightly coloured leather slippers. I am taken with the red lanterns of stretched goatskin decorated with henna and, after some heavy bartering, succumb to a ‘matching’ pair! Unfortunately the post office is closed for a few days over the period of Eid so I stow them carefully on the truck until I can find an appropriate place to package and send, no doubt with a few other purchases.

The food stalls offer a range of tagines, brochettes (meat skewers), fish, salad and veggies at between 50p and £2.50 a plate. For the more adventurous there are steamed snails and head of goat (a delicacy apparently)! The atmosphere is fantastic with the constant hustle and bustle of the square is fascinating course of entertainment while we eat.

A hot afternoon wandering the Saadian Tombs, and the Palaces of Bahia and el Baha I was hot, sweaty and in need of a good scrub at a local Hammam. The boys head off in one direction and the girls head off in another as there are separate male and female buildings to be located in the narrow streets. These Hammams are the wash houses of the locals who visit here every day for a communal bathing experience. We are greeted by a look of surprise, but, with the help of an explanation from a young girl off the street, we are soon half naked being washed and rinsed by a bemused elderly Moroccan lady. An all round interesting experience.

Essaouira, Morocco – Mon 21st & Tues 22nd September

On the west coast of Morocco just north of Agadir the pretty fishing port of Essaouira is a pleasant blue and white building fortified town with an artistic feel. This is our last stop in Morocca before the long drive over the Western Sahara into Mauritania. The town is clean, pretty and fairly quiet as most of the summer tourists have already departed. Ramadam ended today so whole families are dressed up in their traditional jelaba’s going out for an evening feast with friends and families. We all use this as an opportunity to wander, relax, read and catch up on our washing, shopping and internet before a 5 day stretch of desert driving and bush camping.

Posted by hilarywh 09:13 Archived in Morocco Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Todra & Ait Benhaddou - Morocco

Tue 15th - Thu 17th September


Todra Gorge, Morocco – Tues 15th & Weds 16th September

Todra Gorge is literally like being stuck between a rock and a hard place, where the massive fault is just wide enough to let a crystal clear river and a narrow ‘road’ run through it. As we approach from the top of the gorge we are greeted by the stunning green of the palmeraies running along the valley floor. As we descend into the gorge itself the pink and grey rock feel like it’s closing in around us. In places the road has been washed away and the wheels of the truck literally hover over the edge on air. Camping le Festival is built into the rock face on the edge of the dried up river bed up in the Petite Gorge. All meals so far have been fab but tonight’s Thai chicken curry was excellent and has now raised the bar for future cook groups.
There are upgrades available so I decide to check into my own room complete with double bed and thick woolly blanket. 12 days into the trip and I have only pitched my tent twice and slept in it once! Not the intrepid traveller I once was but there will be plenty of camping during the next 4 months to make up for it.

We hire a guide the following morning and the majority of the group decide to walk to Tinerhir on an estimated 7hour walk over high passes and along windy rocky tracks. We pass a Berber village where 12 people live with their black goats under black woven basic tented camps in the steep slopes of the gorge. Zoe turns back after just 30 mins as it’s her turn for the sickness bug. The rest of us finally make it to the village at 3.30pm, 12km later and still the same distance to walk back to camp!!! Six of us decide to hitch a ride back to take the pressure off the showers and get dinner ready while the rest walk. We flag down the first vehicle which happens to be a mini van and pile in. Our lift costs 100 Dirhams, just 10 Euro.

We had Dhal and rice for dinner and there is enough Dhal left for the next 2 nights – I am on cook group with Jen tomorrow so we just need to supplement the leftovers – that has made our task very easy although we are very slightly disappointed not to have our turn.

Ait Benhaddou, Morocco – Thur 17th September

We drive through the High Atlas Mountains along the Dades Valley to Ouarzazarte where Jen and I do our food shopping. We spend just 120 dirhams out of the 500 dirham budget. Ouarzazarte is a pretty, laid back town with a great Kasbah although our wandering time was limited due to our shopping duties.

Next stop is Ait Benhaddou, home of a huge red brick Kasbah used for films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator. There are few remaining residents in the Kasbah on the shores of the dried up river bed and those that are left try to make a few dirham selling paintings and tagines or showing us round their homes. The village has a kind of fake stage set feel about it but the views across the valley are great and the cool breeze very welcome while wandering the narrow lanes to an old fortified granary at the very top.

We camped at Auberge de Jardin, literally in their very very small walled garden, but again, had the use of their kitchen and lounge to relax and enjoy dinner. Jen and I toiled in the kitchen, Zoe helped chop veggies while Luca hindered and the ladies of the Auberge watched. As we hadn’t had to do much for dinner this eve we attempted dessert of crème caramel (packet mix) and it was surprisingly good - it went down very well.

Posted by hilarywh 09:10 Archived in Morocco Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Atlas Mountains & Merzouga - Morocco

Sun 13th - Mon 14th September 2009


Atlas Mountains – Sun 13th September

We leave co-driver Darren behind in Fes as he has to get the train back to Rabat to sort out his Mauritania and Mali visa’s. He will be unable to catch us up in a few days due to the remote areas we are visiting so we wont see him again until Marrakech on 18th. Back to one crew.

Today is a fairly long driving day and the weather is very changeable. We are in the Atlas mountains which are barren and beautiful at the same time. The angry sky creates a moody backdrop for our regular photo stops and the temperature drops enough for us to get out the fleeces. Tonight is supposed to be our first bush camp experience (ie not on a campsite but in the middle of nowhere) and our interest is waning fast due to the weather. We are supposed to be camping alongside a lake but when a Hotel sign comes into view we decide to stop and see if we can camp in their grounds, or maybe even upgrade to a room! There is no one else staying there, it’s in the middle of nowhere and no one else is likely to be checking in now so they bend over backwards to accommodate us. We can set up in their kitchen, sleep on the sofa benches in their two large lounge rooms and eat in their dining room. The wine and nibbles are out again and the hotel owner and staff play drums with us after dinner once they have broken their Ramadam fast for the day.

Unfortunately around 11.30pm, several hours after going to bed, sickness and diarrhoea hit the ‘girls’ room... and it continues for several days!!! I am the first to get it and I feel dreadful but at least a few pounds will be shed. Maybe I will be able to get into my trekking trousers sooner than planned!

Merzouga, Morocco – Mon 14th September

The landscape towards the eastern border is now flat, rocky and sandy. We stop in Erfoud for supplies from the market consisting of mainly dates, hanging skinned goats and stray cats. Pretty town but no time to linger. We are headed for Erg Chebbi, the sand dunes that separate Morocco with Algeria. Our campsite is indicated by a lone sign post on the road side and we turn left across the soft sand towards the end of the earth. The camp ground is at the foot of the dunes and we pitch our tents beneath the few palm trees.

As I’m still feeling weak and feeble I decide to have a sleep while others swim or walk in the dunes. All of a sudden I am woken by the most incredible roar and the sides of the tent being beaten by a very strong wind. I open the zip for a split second but long enough to be sand blasted as the wall of sand hits like a Tsunami. Suddenly the sand turns to sand and rain and the wind is frightening. I am lying star fish on the bottom of my tent with arms and legs desperately trying to hold down the 4 corners while the sand and rain are whipped up and forced through the mesh windows, thoroughly covering everything inside, including me. I can hear shouts from the rest of the group as they battle with the kitchen awning and the semi-prepared food. Just as I become airborne and the tent finally loses it’s shape I hear Grant hanging onto one side of my tent while Jason is desperately trying to peg the 4 corners – they didn’t realise I was inside!

After a good 10 minutes battering, the storm stops almost as quickly as it started and we are exchanging our stories among the camp debris under a blue sky. After pouring the water from our tents we relocate all our wet possessions and the half cooked meal indoors to a very handy redundant ‘sun room’. You would never know it had happened apart from the spectacular electrical storm that continues to light up the distant sky for the rest of the evening.

Our sunset camel trek was understandably cancelled but 3 of our group had already left on camels for an overnight stay with the Tuareg. We could only hope they would be ok and will return as planned for breakfast the following morning. They did but had had to take shelter between camels and under thick Bedouin blankets when the sandstorm hit them in the open dunes.

Kasbah Tomboctou take pity on us and we sleep indoors again on the bench sofas in their lounge area.

Posted by hilarywh 09:11 Archived in Morocco Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Volubilis & Fes - Morocco

Fri 11th & Sat 12th September


Volubilis & Fes, Morcco – Fri 11th & Sat 12th September

This morning we have put aside an hour first thing for a quick truck orientation. Luca and Darren explain how life works on the truck, where everything lives, the padlock combinations for the main door and lockers. They also run through the 5 week itinerary, the list of daily jobs and the cook groups. The daily jobs include:
- packing and unpacking the back locker (where all our personal bags are stored) and not an easy job – one for the boys;
- truck cleaning (daily sweeping and washing the floor etc);
- bulk monitor & purchaser (food, cleaning products, toilet paper etc);
- environmentalist & green waste hole digger (recycling plastics, cans and disposal of green waste) - me!;
- kitchen set up and pack up (chairs, tables, gas cooker etc);
- jerry can monitor (ensuring they are constantly full of water for washing up etc);
- chief of security (windows never left open, door always locked after the last person, everyone present).
- esky maintenance (barman & sourcing ice)
- tents storage (stored on truck roof under tarp)

The meals are provided by cook groups, or pairs of people, according to a rota. Each group is required to come up with meal ideas, purchase the food and then provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for 16 hungry people on their allocated day. Couples are split up and males are paired with females (just in case). Each cook group is also on a washing up rota but it turns out that the entire group consists of a teamy bunch of individuals who are all very keen to muck in regardless of allocated task. No slackers here.

Volubilis, Morocco

After driving east through Meknes we arrive at Volubilis among the sweeping landscapes on the edge of the Middle Atlas Mountains. Achmed our guide talks with an American accent as his English has been learnt watching movies and listening to music. These ancient Roman ruins are the best preserved archaeological site in Morocco. The city used to home 20,000 people and still contains some well preserved floor mosaics.

Fes, Morocco

On arrival in Fes and our first campsite for the trip so far, we were welcomed by more rain and the early onset of darkness. Fortunately the campsite has an inside kitchen area so we offload all the food and utensil boxes inside. Those that hadn’t camped before were given a tent demo by Darren and anyone that could squeeze their tent into the kitchen area did so while the rest of us pitched on the hard rocky ground in the pouring rain. Fortunately we weren’t preparing dinner that evening and instead headed into town for a very enjoyable Moroccan feast in a beautiful building that was formally a palace. During the meal of salads, tagines and fresh fruit we were entertained by traditional music and dance.

The following morning we were picked up by Abdel for a guided city tour of one of the biggest Medinas in Morocco. It is so huge that getting lost is a given without a guide, and in our case ‘with a guide’!. Walking round the old lanes in the souk was crowded but fascinating. Every now and then a donkey would push past laden down with a very wide load – on one such occasion the load consisted of a huge pile of fresh animal skins being taken to the tannery. There were men making copper saucepans, mending shoes, weaving clothes to butchers selling camel heads, ladies making bread and selling sacks of spices, dried fruit and olives. The lanes were very clean and bustling with the daily activity.

Our final stop was at a tannery, where animal skins are dried in the sun, dipped in lime, urine, pigeon excrement and dye to produce a variety of leather products in every shade imaginable. The men have a grim job semi immersed in the vats, breathing in the nauseous fumes in the heat of the sun.

Our first big food shop for cook groups 1 & 2 is made in a fairly well stocked supermarket on the way home with everyone eagerly participating. Once back at the campsite the gin is opened and before dinner is served 2 litres have been easily polished off with a selection of the souk’s nibbles. Fortunately there are also 4 crates of red wine just waiting to be started. Our first proper camping evening is a huge success and we all sleep very well.

Posted by hilarywh 09:14 Archived in Morocco Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Casablanca - Morocco

Weds 9th & Thur 10th September


Casablanca, Morocco – Weds 9th & Thur 10th September

We take the afternoon train from Rabat to Casablanca once our passports have been collected. The walk to the station with approximately 30kg’s of luggage is a hot, sweaty and an all round exhausting experience. We have to fight our way onto the very crowded train which is not easy carrying so much luggage. During the journey a large rock unexpectedly comes crashing through our window with a loud bang and sending shards of glass far and wide. Fortunately the blind was down preventing the rock itself from actually hitting anyone. We struggle to get off the train at Casa-Port as people start pushing their way on board before we can offload. Loaded down with luggage, we end up descending down the train steps on the non-platform side and crossing the tracks in front of oncoming trains! Then we are crammed into umpteen ‘petit taxi’s’ for the mad drive across town in Ramadam rush hour traffic.

We are all kept awake by the mosquitoes and a loud thunderstorm followed by a torrential downpour which cuts short Ramadam night parties and our sleep.

All the non-Brits of the group (majority) head off to the Senegal embassy early the following morning to obtain visas and this time get asked to produce their Yellow Fever certs. The rest of us explore the Souks in the Medina in the pouring rain. Casablanca is home to the Hassan II Mosque, designed by a French architect, situated on a promontory looking out to the Atlantic. There is room for 25,000 worshippers and a further 80,000 can be accommodated in the mosque’s courtyard. The 210m minaret is the world’s tallest and the whole building is vast. Just a stone’s throw from the mosque is Casablanca port, one of the largest artificial ports in the world.

We finally find a place to eat only to be told again that 95% of the menu is currently unavailable! Back at the hotel we catch our first sight of the Truck, at last! Tortuga and Darren have made it to Casablanca and we will finally be making our first journey by truck power tomorrow morning with a full crew of two. I’m slightly concerned by the electric wires hanging loosely along the side of the truck but all in all she looks in good shape. Goodbye hotels, hello tents! Hope it’s not raining in Fes.

Posted by hilarywh 09:14 Archived in Morocco Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Rabat - Morocco

Mon 7th & Tues 8th September


Rabat, Morocco – Mon 7th & Tues 8th September

Rabat is relatively important to the textile, food processing and construction industries, owned by major multinational corporations and some operated by sweatshop labour. Tourism and the presence of all of all foreign embassies make Rabat the second most important city in Morocco, after Casablanca. The main reason for our stop is to obtain visas for Mauritania and Mali where both embassies are conveniently located in the same street. The visa application form for Mauritania was bordering on War and Peace with so many irrelevant questions - in French! Each required 2 passport photos per application form, our original passport plus a copy. Mauritania will process and issue the same day but they close between 11am and 2pm. Mali require 24hrs but they are only open until 2pm so we had to persuade them to stay open until after 2pm to avoid an extra day in Rabat. Some of us didn’t have passport copies and some of us may not have enough passport photos if every county in West Africa has the same requirements. Once back into Rabat city centre I hunt down a copy centre and photographic shop to obtain the necessary passport copies and photos.

Our Hotel Majestic overlooks the old Medina wall on a busy street right in the heart of the city. The Muezzin loud speaker in the Medina is level with my hotel window and makes me jump out of sleep at 5am when it blasts out the day’s first call to prayer. Like Chefchaouen, Rabat comes alive by night during Ramadam with people of all ages feasting in the streets until the late hours.
When the capital city was moved to Rabat in the 12th century, construction began on what would have been the world’s largest mosque. On the death of the ruler, construction stopped but the ruins still stand along with the Hassan Tower, providing panoramic views across the city. The beautifully decorated mosaic Mausoleum of Mohammed V is also housed here.

Sale is separated from Rabat across the mouth of the river and both cities are surrounded by large cemetaries outside their city walls overlooking the sea. Relatively nice beaches can be found a short walk from the Mellah (Jewish quarter) outside the Medina walls but only a small proportion of women are on the beach and only the men and children swim in the sea. We spend a few hours escaping the city and enjoying the breeze while people watching on the shores.

Rabat’s history began with a settlement, known as Chellah, on the banks of the Bou Regreg river in the third century BC. Romans took over the Chellah and converted it to the Roman settlement of Sala Colonia until it was abandoned in 1146. These ruins are still visible behind impressive fortress walls and well worth a visit. The mosquitoes are a nuisance and a large number of well fed stray cats hang around the ruins.

Posted by hilarywh 09:15 Archived in Morocco Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Malaga - Spain to Chefchaouen - Morocco

Sat 5th - Sun 6th September 2009


Malaga, Spain to Chefchaouen, Morocco – Sat 5th September 2009

Sat 9.30 am I met the group I am to travel with for the next 5 weeks through Morocco and Mauritania into Senegal. I arrived at the hotel slightly later than planned having ended up at the wrong hotel in Malaga – there were 2 Ibis hotels!

The group so far consist of 8 guys and 6 girls, an unusual ratio in favour of the boys. The age ranges between 24 and 60+. Dominated by 8 Aussies, plus 4 Brits, a Kiwi and a Chinese lady from Hong Kong. There are 10 single travellers, and 2 couples making up both the oldest members of the group (and very well travelled) to the youngest who are relocating to Ghana to set up a second hand bicycle ‘Recycle’ charity.

We are to spend the first 6 days more or less as planned but using public transport, taxi’s and a hired mini bus instead of the truck. Now I wish I hadn’t bought those extra boots! We crossed the Spanish Moroccan border from Algaceiras to Ceuta by ferry. Ceuta, the northern tip of Morocco is actually part of Spain. We had a lengthy wait outside in the blazing sun at passport control after being certified fit and well by the doctor residing in a makeshift portacabin next door. The health check consisted of having a light shined on our foreheads (presumably to see if we had a temperature) and amazingly we all passed despite 1 person being at the end of a heavy cold, 1 person just recovering from suspected Swine flu, another recovering from a week’s nocturnal partying in Ibiza and the rest of us suffering with heat stroke having carried our 20kg backpacks a few hundred yards up hill fully clothed in 35 degrees! We all passed with flying colours and they let us into Morocco!

Chefchaouen, Morocco – Sun 6th September

Our first stop is for 2 nights in the Rif Mountains, just inland from Tangiers and a few hours south of the border. Among a labyrinth of narrow lanes and stairways, the small picturesque town of Chefchaouen clings to the hillside. The houses and buildings rinsed in white and blue, a traditional colour from the Jewish population who sought refuge in the mountainous city after the Spanish Reconquista in medieval times. The pretty doorways are entrances to private blue dwellings and shops selling native handicrafts not found elsewhere in Morocco. The walls are adorned with wool garments, beautiful silk bedspreads and woven blankets. The locals wear traditional straw hats decorated with multi-coloured pom-poms.

This region and the countryside around has a reputation for being a prolific source of Kif (marijuana) and inevitably many of us are offered it within minutes of arriving. Morocco is believed to be the world’s second biggest supplier of Cannabis, after the US.

The town is easy to get lost in at first but it seems all lanes eventually lead back to the Kasbah in the medina’s main square, Place Uta Hammam. Chefchaouen’s mosque has the only octagonal minaret in Islam and the muezzin, or muslim call to prayer, originates from here 5 times a day. We are staying at Hotel Chams, centrally located and traditionally built with a roof top terrace overlooking the town and a good place to watch the sun set between the two mountain peaks that give Chefchaouen it’s name.

September is the month of Ramadam so food and drink aren’t readily available between sunrise and sunset. A siren sounds to signify the end of the day’s fasting at which point the town quite literally comes alive, and stays alive! At 4am a horn is blown and a trumpet is played around the noisy streets notifying everyone that nothing else must pass their lips until the day ends once again approx. 15hrs later.

It is in this small town that I try my first Moroccan Tagine and start my daily mint tea ritual.

Posted by hilarywh 09:15 Archived in Morocco Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Malaga - Spain

Weds 3rd September 2009


Malaga, Spain – Weds 3rd September 2009

On arrival in Malaga the taxi driver finally helped me locate the recently moved Melting
Pot hostel I had booked into, nicely located right on La Malagueta Beach just a 10 minute stroll along the promenade to the town centre. I had a top bunk in a female dorm with a balcony overlooking the beach and the noisy promenade road. It was very very hot. The hostel was small and friendly with a lot of other single travellers although mostly quite young. It had WIFI, a large terrace and provided a basic cooked meal in the evenings and free breakfast in the morning, all for Euro 22 a night.

I spent Friday exploring the city and the castle / fort on the top of a very big hill. By 3pm I was hot, bothered and very thirsty so loitered a while in the picturesque square right opposite the entrance to the impressive cathedral. Next stop was the beach until the sun finally disappeared at 8.30pm. I was quite surprised at the amount of litter left on the beach by the Spanish. The promenade was a dangerous place to walk in the early evenings avoiding the mass of joggers, cyclists and dog walkers out on their daily exercise regime.

Following a last minute email check I discovered that Dragoman had sent me 2 emails – ‘FCO Advice – Mauritania’ and ‘Change to start of trip’.
1. It turns out that we may not be going to Timbuktu as expected due to the current situation in the north of the country which Timbuktu is bordering. Our insurance becomes invalid if we go against Foreign Office advice but I’m disappointed as the boat trip up the Niger river to Timbuktu is supposed to be one of the trip highlights. This part of trip is still over 6 weeks away so who knows, the political situation may suddenly change in our favour.
2. The second, slight more immediate issue was an email referring to a truck problem – it had broken down on transit from Suffolk to Malaga and was in need of a new engine! Our crew, Luca and Darren, had split up and Luca was to meet us as planned in Malaga while Darren remains in Madrid waiting for a new engine to be driven down from Debenham, UK and fitted in a Madrid workshop. He hoped to be joining us in Casablanca 6 days later.

Posted by hilarywh 09:16 Archived in Spain Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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