World At Your Feet: Marrakech to Dades Gorge

Saturday 10th January
Some people fly and allow no time for the unforseen events whilst some allow for a bit of slippage. I always plan to arrive so early it’s often a wonder I’m not at the airport 24 hours before the flight. Normally because I am on one of the first flights out of heathrow and because the journey couldn’t be much more simple I don’t have to worry. Gatwick on the other hand…well that’s south of the Thames which to me makes the journey to Mordor from Hobbiton sound simple.

The flight at 12.50 was at possibly the best time I could have hoped for and so i aimed to be at the airport for around 10.00.  I still had to buy a train ticket and even though I’ve walked to Ealing Broadway 100s of times I got up and left the house much earlier than necessary and somehow convinced myself I was still running late. I arrived at Ealing Broadway but the district line (which i planned to take direct to Victoria) appeared to be running with delays so I jumped on the central line again planning to change at Oxford Circus.

Zoning out I tried to ignore (but still noted) passengers frantically checking the underground map and asking questions about where the train was going. “It is going East towards central London; the only station West is the one we just left, relax” – I wanted to say. There was a lot of crucial nap time before Oxford circus. It was only when I got to North Acton panic set in. It can’t be terminating here I thought. As far as the Acton area goes, North Acton is in the middle of no where without even a nearby taxi firm it turns out. What should have been one train from Ealing Broadway to Victoria, a journey I do every morning had become 1 tube, a bus and 2 trains. It ate hugely in to my time and yet once I was through security I still had time for a cooked breakfast, too much time to look at gadgets and books and enough time to write all of the above. Oh and to buy a pack of chewing gum.

I made my way to the departure gate and looked around. There were only 11 people and the plane looked quite small. I knew I was flying in the low season but I had still expected the flight to be half full. A handful more people arrived and then we started to board. Well they started to board. Having already been selected randomly for an explosive check I was now interrogated by a very serious looking man in a suit about why I was visiting Morocco and how much money I had. My response of “umm about £5” didn’t go down well and I had to clarify I had a return ticket and a bank account.

Eventually I was allowed to board and once on saw someone was in my seat. This worked to my advantage because I got moved and ended up with an entire row to myself but it was so empty that wasn’t difficult. As usual I slept from about 10 seconds in to the safety video and missed the food although this time I woke to find the tray down and the food ready for me. Along with a landing card.

The view of the planes wing was quite boring (apparently ‘my’ seat was meant to be a good view) so I went back to sleep. Eventually I completed my landing card checking I’d spelt my name correct – am i the only one that worries I’ll get something basic on that form wrong? By now we were coming in to land and over the wing as we tilted I got a fantastic view of the snow capped Atlas mountains. We landed and I had no issues at immigration, no issue meeting my rep and no problem with using the ATM. I arrived at the hotel and wondered on to the balcony before heading down to meet the group. They hadn’t arrived so I pottered around in my room in anticipation…

At about 7.50 I wondered back down and met an American called Jason who was on the tour before our guide Ibrahim arrived and took us to the table where we met the others; Allison from South Africa and Keith and Margaret from New Zealand.

We started with a tasty soup and huge bread roll before I had my first experience with a famous tajine dish. This was a mixture of peas, olives and potato with a whole chicken leg each. Those that know me well know I do eat meat but somewhat weirdly only if it doesn’t look like an animal. Chicken breast yes chicken leg no. But I didn’t want to offend the host and I was hungry so I tucked in and ate the whole lot.

None of us had room for dessert but took some fruit with us for the next day. After Ibrahim gave us s summary of the days ahead we went to our rooms. I was in bed and just drifting off to sleep when what sounded like a huge street party started outside the hotel. I looked out and there were a group of 10 to 15 people in the street singing. Morocco is a alcohol free country so I knew they weren’t drunk and I just hoped they were happy rather than protesting.

After maybe 30 minutes they left and I went back to sleep.

Sunday 11th January
I’ve started to use my fitbit pedometer to wake me up in the mornings but each time it still strikes as a bit of a shock. I got up fairly quickly made sure I was packed and after a hot shower headed for breakfast. I thought I was early but I was actually last down. Very quickly I’ve noticed massive bread rolls are popular here so I took one and had half laughing cow and half jam, a coffee (which took me back to my time in Australia) and one of the best freshly squeezed orange juices I’ve ever had. Returning back to my room I made sure I had everything and headed back down. I was 10 minutes early so I was shocked when I realised I was last again. Clearly we were all trying to give a good first impression.

We commenced the drive out of Marrakech where our guide Ibrahim provided us with lots of facts about the city and the Moroccan economy. Marrakech means Land of God in the Berber language however it is also known as the ‘Red City’. This was originally due to the mud used to build the houses and the co!lour it dried however now cement is used so houses are painted.

Casablanca known as the white city due to the colour of the houses is the largest city in the country with 5 million people. Unfortunately it is getting to big and too close to other nearby cities however in Marrakech the problem has been avoided. A new town has been built which is far enough away to be separate but close enough so people can travel in to city. This has helped to create construction jobs as the infrastructure is put in place and will once complete generate jobs for teachers and doctors. In Morocco people still try to own their own home however like most cities the centre of Marrakech is to expensive for most.

Agriculture big industry but because Spain produces similar vegetables it is alleged they sometimes try to prevent the produce entering Europe even though Morocco has a contract to supply the European union. Agriculture is obviously risky because it is dependent on the weather so the Moroccan government are moving towards industry. The country is well positioned geographically because it is the link between Europe and Africa. Tourism has also always been a big industry, especially in Marrakech and they want 20 million tourists annually within 10 years.

As we drove through the city on a Sunday morning we saw lots of groups playing football matches on any of the empty gravel spaces. Apparently the sport is very popular and it seems a great shame that their request to postpone the African Cup of Nations due to the Ebola outbreak wasn’t granted and instead they were kicked out of the tournament. But then common sense doesn’t exist in football now – only money and sponsorship deals.

From the moment we left the hotel we couldn’t escape the majestic site of the distant but dominating snow covered Atlas Mountains. The highest peak Toubkal is 4167m above sea level which makes it the 3rd highest Africa and the highest in north Africa. The highest we would drive would be 2260m which still sounded quite impressive considering Snowdon is 1085m.

Sometimes I get the image I have of a country very wrong and I have to admit from the moment I came in to land and until this point I was surprised at how green the part of the country I had seen so far was. Ibrahim explained it is green on the northern side of the mountains and desert on the south side. This is because the High Atlas mountains are a natural obstacle which prevent rain from Europe in winter reaching the south and dry heat from desert in summer reaching the north. That also explained why it was colder than I expected despite the fact I had thermals on.

Our first photo stop gave us an opportunity to marvel at the view below and of the Tichka road which was a great feat of engineering showing how routes can be forged. It was designed by the French during their occupation so they could get to the southern side in order to access natural minerals like copper and silver. Unfortunately it was built using Moroccan slave labour however from a personal point of view I was glad the UK wasn’t the bad guy on this occasion especially after my experiences in Australia and New Zealand.

Dams in Morocco have helped to irrigate the land and reduce risk of floods but people always try to build on rocky place and during the drive we saw why as a recent flood had washed the road away. The river in question now just looked like a small trickle but the flood plain was clearly extensive. We passed through a small village where there was a local market. Whilst there were lorries we also saw people using donkeys to transport their produce. It was very busy with lots of people from surrounding villages and we were told when we pass back through on Thursday it is likely the village will be empty.

We stopped off for some Moroccan tea, which was jokingly referred to by our guide as Moroccan whiskey because most do not drink alcohol. I had the sugar version which was very sweet but I could taste the mint and it wasn’t unpleasant. We continued to drive up and over mountain where we had another photo stop. By now we were in the ice and snow but the roads were clear and still better than those back home. As we passed through a small village we got pulled over by the police. They seemed to be joking with the driver and after opening the back of the bus and looking at our bags they seemed satisfied so we were allowed on our way

We drove through an area used in the horror film The Hills Have Eyes where they had to build a fake service station and brought in a lot of American cars for filming. We also passed Atlas Studios where a number films such as gladiator have been filmed and where we would be returning on Thursday for a tour. We stopped off at Les Jardins de Quarzazate for lunch. The portion size was big and it was another 3 course meal, first a salad followed by a beef tajine and a fresh orange for dessert. We were told that portion sizes are big because it is a sign of respect if you have enjoyed the meal to leave some. This went against my habit of seeing a big dish and accepting the challenge to eat it all. But in honestly I couldn’t even if I’d wanted to and, if my a miracle I had the bus wouldn’t have made it over the mountain.

After lunch we took photo of the original fortified part of Quarzazate that people lived in. Some families still live there however the town grew bigger outside of fortified area due to French occupation becoming a military base and the administrative capital of the region so businesses grew up. Ibrahim explained that 500mw of electricity is produced from nearby solar power panels which is the largest project of its type in Africa. Eventually Morocco will be self sustainable and maybe even able to export it’s energy  which is important because the country has no natural fuels to export.

Although the country doesn’t produce any natural fuels it still has a good economy in comparison to other African nations and it is the only country to export Phosphate. It is also one of the main producers of Argon oil which is used in a variety of ways and is more expensive than olive oil as trees only grow in some areas. Unsurprisingly after a big lunch and knowing we had a big uninterrupted drive ahead I fell asleep.

I woke up in the type of desert terrain I had expected from the start. Soon we stopped and I got a coffee to wake myself up but I didn’t really enjoy it. A little boy tried to get us to buy a petal but I knew from my time in Egypt the key was to say no and to keep my hands in my pocket. Our guide brought him a bar of chocolate but he was still a bit persistent and tried to look in the open mini bus though probably more out of curiosity than anything more sinister.

Next we drove through the rose valley, famous for growing roses allowing those who produce it to create hand crafts and to add it to water. Even though the settlement appeared quite isolated it was clear from the houses that this was one of the more wealthy areas. As we passed through Keelat M’gouna there were monuments of roses on the roundabout and we were told during the 1st week of May there was a roses festival.

Finally we made our way to Dades gorge and drove up a v windy road to get a famous picture and to look down in to the most narrow point of the gorge. Despite the cold and cloud which hadn’t shifted all day it was still spectacular. We drove back down the road and arrived at our hotel for the night.

I was quite pleasantly surprised when I opened my door though I suppose this was because I had another double bed to myself. The room was cold but had a heater which I quickly turned on before heading on to my balcony. After having a quick nap and use of the WiFi I made my way to dinner and ordered my first beer of the trip ‘Casablanca’. Dinner was the biggest meal yet. Soup followed by chicken and lamb skewer with chips, a cous cous dish with chicken and then a lovely French type pasty for dessert. By 8.30 we were all ready for bed and I assumed I would sleep well.


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