Catch the Wind: Marrakech

Thursday 15th January
As we drove back in to to Marrakech rush hour seemed to be in full swing though there weren’t any traffic jams just a lot of beeping of horns and chaos at the roundabouts. In reality it was no worse than any other city and certainly not as noisy or crazy-busy as Cairo or Delhi. The only real difference was a lack of crossings for pedestrians and as zebra crossings were ignored by drivers most just stepped out in front of cars as and when they needed to cross. Unfortunately as we drove on it appeared this general chaos had caused a fight between a truck driver and a motor cyclist but it was unclear what it was about as no one looked injured and neither vehicle was damaged.

We arrived back at the hotel we had stayed at on the first night and as I knew I had two nights I let my bag explode open causing myself to wonder why I’d packed so much or rather how I’d travelled around Australia with so little. I suppose 6 thick jumpers were always going to take up a lot of space but the 3 unused t-shirts and sun hat were an optimistic waste of space.

That night we had free time to get our own food but as we were a small group that had all got on well we met in reception to find somewhere together. I’ve loved Moroccan food but I was glad when I saw the restaurant we chose did pizza, pasta and burgers. After dinner we made our way back to the hotel where unfortunately the WiFi kept cutting out as it had on the first night. After a while I gave up trying to update the blog and just went to bed in a slightly grumpy mood which in hindsight I acknowledge was a bit of a pathetic thing to get grumpy about though it highlighted how flawless everything else had been.

Friday 16th January
I had woken up 15 minutes before i had to be and I felt a bit lethargic when I finally got up. I made sure I was packed for the whole day ahead before going to breakfast. It did however look like everyone had finished by the time I arrived. For our final day we were having a guided walk around the city to the main sites within the Medina and then in the afternoon I planned on having a massage and a Hamman experience. Getting a massages on holiday is slowly becoming one of my traditions though I’m pretty sure the Russian one will never be beaten in terms of uniqueness.

As we walked towards the Medina (the old city) our guide explained he had lived in Marrakech all his life and that the city had changed a lot in his life time. He told me how many years but I’ve forgotten and I never clarified if he felt it had changed for better or for worse. I was surprised at how close our hotel was to the Medina and once we were through the gates to the old fortified part of the town our first stop was outside the La Mamounia Hotel. This is where Winston Churchill regularly stayed and a night in his suite apparently costs €8000.

We carried on towards the Koutoubia Mosque and once there we could see the ruins of an old Mosque. This was the result of a war in the 12th century between the Almohads and the Andalusians. The Andalusians were eventually victorious and so demolished the old Mosque building a new one next to it in a symbolic gesture. This style of Mosque was the first of its design and the style was copied in Rabat and Seville. It has always had its name due to a souk selling books outside.

One of the laws the French had introduced during the urbanisation of the city was that no building must be taller than the Mosque. It is therefore a constant reminder of how important Islam is to the daily lives of those in the city. Our guide also explained about some of the Islamic traditions, for example the flag pole on top of the minaret which pointed East to Mecca and which had 3 Orbs symbolising the current life, the judgement and the after life. He also reminded us of the 5 pillars of Islam

After leaving the Mosque we made our way to the Palaus de me Bahia which like Ait Benhaddou was also used in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Unfortunately the part used is currently closed for renovations however the part that was open was still pretty impressive. The palace was built in the 19th Century by Si Moussa and named after his favourite wife. Later it was used again by Abu Ahmed who had 4 official wives and 24 unofficial wives. There were 4 sections to the palace and in the ‘entertainment’ section we were told he’d pick one to be with every day on rotation until he died in 1900. The palace was then abandoned until used by Pasha Glaoui in 1908 and then by the French as a garrison in 1911.

We finally made our way to the central square the famous Djemaa el Fna Market. I had seen pictures and film footage of this and if I’m honest had prepared myself for an experience I wasn’t going to enjoy. Thankfully a mix of it being out of season, mid day on a Friday and poor weather meant it wasn’t very busy. We passed through the square towards the souks and our guide pointed towards where my Hamman would be.

As we wondered down the narrow winding streets I had three troubling thoughts. How do I find the Hamman? As its general location had only been pointed to me and I knew it was downstairs I wondered if I’d walk in to the right one (I had no leaflet on me to remember the name). Next I was so disoriented by all the walking I wondered how, even if I found the Hamman how I’d get back to the hotel alone. Again I had failed to mark it on a map or to keep the address on google maps. Perhaps the most immediate thought though was how I’d make it through the souks without being hassled.

It actually turned out I didn’t need to worry about the latter. The shop keepers weren’t pushy and it wasn’t as bad as the Aswan markets in Egypt. Again perhaps visiting out of season on a Friday helped because some of the industrial sections were closed and it was much less busy than I’d expected. The streets are narrow so it must be horrendous when it’s hot and busy especially as our guide told me it was as popular with locals as it is with tourists.

Carrying on in to the depths of the souks we stopped off at a Berber Pharmacy which with the big jars full of various products reminded me of an old Victorian sweet shop. Some of the creams and oils even smelt edible due to the fruity flavours. The cooking spices were particularly nice however ultimately I didn’t buy anything.

We passed a section of tin crafts where the guide explained the symbolism was of Berber origin (predating Islam) and which is meant to protect against the evil eye. The symbolism is not celebrated and is now more for decoration. I’d have easily got lost in the souks alone as there is no organised planning to it. I wonder if tourists just wonder around aimlessly until they happen to stumble upon a stand selling something they like or they get tired of walking. As it was I’d done over 10000 steps by the time we emerged back out in to the Djemaa el Fna at midday.

After leaving the others the guide kindly led me to the Hamman. I was early so I went up to the men’s waiting room where I had a Moroccan tea and waited for my massage. My lack of other language skills always makes me feel awkward. This is particularly true if the person I’m talking to speaks English very well, doesn’t quite understand my English and then apologises for theirs. This happened here and I used my ice breaking line “your English is better than my *insert relevant language*” which made us both smile and laugh.

My hamstring has really been causing an issue for over a year now when it rotates in certain motions and because the physio wasn’t concerned and whilst running/stretching appeared to have resolved the issue a few months ago it hadn’t in the long term. I hoped a massage using the Argan oil would help. The guy giving the massage was certainly very strong and It was all going along without anything dramatic or particularly funny. The only thing I found remotely unusual was my hair (not head) was occasionally massaged/ruffled but I assumed that this was meant to be relaxing.

When my back was done I was told to roll over which i did obediently. As he started to massage my stomach he started to (what I can only describe as) jiggle my belly before saying “cous cous”? I laughed with humiliation as I realised despite my attempts to hold my stomach in it was still undeniably obvious that a lack of exercise due to the hammy, December and a week away had given me a food baby hump. “to nice and to much” I agreed.

Leaving the massage area I went to the Hamman, and was covered in a black soap substance before again being told to roll over where I somehow managed to move my hamstring the one way it doesn’t like and unfortunately it instantly reminded me it was not healed. I was then led in to the steam room where I couldn’t see anything.

It wasn’t long before I started to wonder what I was doing. What if I was forgotten, would I just assume I was meant to stay in there and that i would slowly steam to death without realising it? I started to feel like a animal does when it knows it’s been fattened up and is ready for slaughter. These thoughts didn’t make it the relaxing experience it was meant to be.

Eventually I was fetched and had a bucket of cold water thrown over me before I was covered in the black soap and given a thorough scrubbing that meant two slight recent scars disappeared completely and one I’ve had since my Grandparents cat scratched me roughly 25 years ago also pretty much vanished. My skin had never felt softer. Sadly the scrubbing experience had not removed my belly nor sorted the hamstring.

I was put back in the steam room and this time I enjoyed it slightly more but I wouldn’t say I was ever relaxed though I was perhaps more energised as a result. After I was collected the second time I was given more Moroccan tea and told to lie down and relax which I was doing very well before I was suddenly told to get changed quickly because it was women’s hour.

I left and successfully made my way through the souks to the mosque and because I had time decided to go around the gardens to reach the Medina gate. I successfully navigated my way there and made it to the main junction walking down the correct road because I recognised the tall palm trees that were actually mobile phone masts. Despite the long walk that morning it all seemed very close. I thought I’d done the hard part so patted myself on the back.

After walking 10 minutes I finally turned right down the road I thought my hotel was on but after another 10 minutes I hadnt seen certain landmarks I’d noted that morning. I carried on anyway because the sun had come out and I figured I wasn’t far away. Eventually by chance I was able to access some free WiFi from someone or somewhere called SMC and located where I wanted to be. To my shock it was roughly 30 minutes away and it meant by the time I arrived I’d done a big 40 minute loop out of my way. At one point I worked out I was only a block away. I’d felt safe the whole time and the extra walk had meant I’d seen more of the city than planned even if they were just mostly hotels and a new shopping mall under construction.

I had plenty of time before meeting the others for dinner so just relaxed. Eventually it was time to go down to reception and I realised it was raining again. We walked to Djemaa el Fna and then me and Keith quickly made our way through one of the souks to collect some laundry he and Margaret had dropped off. Ibrahim shortly arrived and took us to the restaurant which was outside in the square but covered which was lucky as the rain wasn’t easing.

Our final meal was a true grand finale and as big as any we had eaten any other night if not bigger. As usual we had some olives, bread and chili followed by a soup which was the best of them all. Next we had a plate each with chips, fried aubergine (egg plant), potato and spinach. I was stuffed and I still had my main to come which was the mixed skewers 2 chicken, 2 beef, 2 mince meat kebabs and 2 mini sausages. My only regret is I ordered a coke and not a lovely fresh orange juice. Sometimes when food is included you don’t always get value for money but I have always returned home a full, very content, bordering fat when returning from onthego tours.

We made our way back to the hotel and after completing our evaluation guides and saying our goodbyes it was time to admit the tour was over. Except for Jason who would be continuing to the coastal town of Essaouira alone with Ibrahim. I’d had a wonderful time in Morocco, the 30th country I’ve visited, it had far exceeded my expectations and I was sad the trip was already over.

Saturday 17th January
Eventually getting up I made my way downstairs where Alison and Jason had already started. I asked for a coffee but when it arrived I wasn’t really in the mood to drink it, the milk didn’t look that great and so I favoured the lovely orange juice.

The hotel still appeared empty and so Ibrahim had been able to extend my check out time to 14.00. In hindsight I could have returned to Djemaa el Fna to see it busy and in the sun but after 6 days ‘on the go’ pardon the pun I was ready to relax.

Unfortunately the poor room service lady didn’t know I was still around at entered the room shortly after 12 when I should have been checked out. She didn’t appear awfully pleased with the way I’d left the bed. She’d clearly spent time the day before tucking everything in as they do in hotels and immediately I’d untucked everything. Now we had the awkward moment when she got to see who it was who undid her hard work. She didn’t speak English but eventually I remembered how to say ‘departing 2’oclock’ in French and she left.

At 14.00 I went down to reception and waited for my taxi which was booked for 14.30. After about 15 minutes a man approached me and asked if I needed a taxi, unfortunately for the first time i had a proper language barrier issue as I tried to explain I’d already booked one. Eventually the hotel confirmed it was mine and arriving at the airport I dropped my bag off, went through security and had none of the issues experienced at Gatwick. We actually departed early and I was first on the plane (such was the small number of us on the return flight) both which were firsts for me. As the drinks and snacks were brought round there was an absolutely stunning sunset that even the flight attendants commented on.

My travel bug that had been simmering throughout December especially since catching up with Gabi and Keili (and meeting the latter’s Australian friends) has been satisfied for the time being I’m not ready to settle down yet. Travel and experiencing other cultures has become my escape, my second life, I even enjoy the challenging, uncomfortable, unenjoyable bits. Until next time…


Rockin’ All Over The World: Sahara Desert and Ouarzazate

Wednesday 14th January
I had a bit of a sleepless night but it wasn’t because I was cold or uncomfortable. There was one stage when the wind picked up and seemed to channel between my bed and the tent but I just pulled my djellaba hood over the back of my head and my sleeping bag hood over my face. The blankets were thick and I doubt I’d have been much warmer in the tent anyway.

I woke properly when Alison walked by confirming it was 6.45 and as we were leaving at 7.00 I got up without protest. I quickly made sure I had everything and moved my mattress back inside the tent before we all headed over to the camels. Mine was better behaved this time not standing up whilst I was still getting on.

After Ibrahim took some pictures of us we were off though he walked in front and eventually took a different path. It was quite relaxing though rather quickly the ‘pressure points’ from the day before started to ache. I started to list left as it felt more comfortable though perhaps looked a bit unstable especially on the down sections. Eventually I corrected myself because I was concerning the guide but it meant I felt numb by the end. It was totally worth it though and I knew I just had to grin and bear it knowing it was all part of a quite unique opportunity.

When I saw the base in the distance my feelings were one of relief (that my ‘pressure points’ would be relieved) and sadness (that our desert experience would be over). The building gradually got bigger and eventually having got down I realised one of the camels had taken a liking to my sleeping bag case. We had breakfast (omelette, pancake and bread), before boarding the mini bus and commencing our journey back across the gravel road towards the main road.

We passed back through a village/town which I assume was Rissani. There were lots of children around, I saw two riding a bike at the same time with one sitting on handle bars and neither holding on, another two were racing again neither holding on and I was impressed with their great balance. We also saw a group sitting on a plough with what looked like an instruction manual. It was a bumpy road all through the town and a number of buildings were either being built or left to fall down.

After about an hour we crossed over another river where the bridge had been washed away and we had to cross through a shallow bit of water. Ibrahim explained that during his 7 years of doing the tours this was one of the first when water was flowing. Apparently there had been no rain for 5 years until recently so once the floods had subsided the villagers immediately planted palm trees. We stopped off for a short while before commencing our journey across the barren gravel desert like valley flanked by mountains either side.

We drove for about 1 hour 30 minutes when we came to our lunch stop. The staff seemed to like my djellaba and when we were being served the first course he gave me Berber name ‘Hamel’. He then tried to teach us some Berban as he gave us the food so the starter was ‘zit’ (olives), zitoun (olive oil) and of course large ‘aghroum’. Take a guess. The second starter was a lovely salad with some lentils (we often tried to guess what we were having so we were all right) and the main was beef skewers and chips. Dessert was a apricot yogurt.  Someone at work had said I’d put on weight out here and I’m sure I will by the end if I have not already done so. There was a cat that wanted feeding but I think it got the message I wasn’t going to relent but I did get a great picture of it looking quite angry at me.

30 minutes later we stopped in the Draa Valley famous for producing dates and where if we were interested we could go to a market stand to buy a fresh packet. First though we had a stroll across a bridge over what was once the longest river in Morocco before a sand dune blocked its route to the Atlantic Ocean. The river had flooded fairly badly recently which had destroyed many of the crop fields and whilst the land had dried there were still stagnant pools of water.

Ibrahim gave us some information about Agdez which was one of the stops for the old caravan routes and is now mainly a tourist stop. As it is also one of the bigger town in the area it is one of the main places where dates and date products are sold. At some point I fell asleep only waking up when we stopped off for a photo of the gorge below the Ait Saoun mountsins (Hard Mountains) and were named due to the difficulty caravans had crossing them.

We finally arrived back in Ouarzazate and it turned out we were sleeping where we had lunch on the first day. We had about 2 hours free time but unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your view point) WiFi was only available in reception so it was only just before dinner I connected with the outside world. Dinner here was a choice I went for salad followed by meatballs however I was full after the salad which was a shame because the meatballs (as with most food here) had some lovely flavours.

After dinner we chatted and Margaret (who I shall I appoint as my sub editor) read snippets of the first blog. I returned to my room which was now more toasty and finally sorted the pile of desert clothes I’d thrown on the floor almost as soon as I’d got in earlier in the afternoon.

Thursday 14th January
We were given a bit of a lie in as departure wasn’t until 9.00 but unfortunately I forgot to reset the time on my Fitbit so it still went off at 7.15. I started to go to sleep before my phone briefly connected to WiFi. Once the signal had gone it was to late to go back to sleep so i decided to start the day. It seemed everyone else already had and after filling ourselves up on bread, pancake and a croissant type pasty we left for our final day outside Marrakech.

The first stop of the day was to the Atlas Corporation Movie Studios which officially opened in 1983 and has been famous for movies such as: Gladiator, The Mummy and Kingdom of Heaven. It is still actively used and sets from it will be seen in 2016 when ‘King Tut’ is released.

We had a tour given to us by one of the locals that has worked on some of the films as an extra and as an interpreter. He said he’d been doing them a number of years but it was only recently he had a mobile that could take pictures and I was glad I asked as he seemed keen to show. Outside of the sets we saw a stunt car which is used in explosions, a boat from Astrix and the Obelisk: Mission Cleopatra and a non working plane used in Jewell of the Nile.

The first set we saw was used in the Gladiator slave/market scene but it has now been adapted for other movies. I’ll have to watch the film again to see if I recognise it. Carrying on we passed through an Egyptian temple used in Cleopatra and to an Egyptian palace which I believe were also used in ‘The Mummy’ and ‘King Tut’. The pillars looked so authentic and yet when we tapped them they were just made of wood and plaster.

We passed through other in door sets used in various films including the 2009 version of Ben Hur. One of the sets was apparently the location of a famous mistake after an extra had forgotten to remove a watch. Leaving the indoor sets we emerged outside in to a street scene set for a film on Moses. Looking one way it appeared to have a lot of depth and much bigger than it was. Walking behind it was interesting to see all the wooden supports and to see that these had just been covered in a picture of plaster and straw to create such fine details on the walls especially the bits that were meant to be crumbling.

Carrying on outside we saw the entire set of a replica of the City of Jerusalem in the distance used in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. All the buildings were full size and it looked enormous but then I suppose it had to be. To the left of that was a replica of Karnak temple with various siege weapons lying around it. This had been used in a Astrix film and either intentionally or not bits were looking a little worse for wear. Normally bits are only repaired if they are to be used in new movies and that’s when additions are made. This did however mean sets used in ‘older’ films like gladiator weren’t that recognisable.

We had seen some camels in the distance and during the time we’d been outside they had come over. They are specially trained and were very placid so I was able to stroke one without fear of being spat at. It was very soft and if I ever have to buy myself a new rug I may come back to Morocco. Finally we saw a set of Tibet used in Kundun which reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was quite a short tour of the studios but I found it quite enjoyable and it has encouraged me to see some of the other movies the studio helped produce.

We boarded the bus and travelled 30 minutes down the road to Ouarzazate so we could have a brief walk around the famous Ait Benhaddou. By now the sun was finally out after hiding for four days so I removed my djellaba. Ibrahim explained that village was built on the caravan route because it was the first town after the mountains and last town before the desert. The village was fortified to protect it from invaders.

Made our way up winding street with lots of handmade products and paintings on sale for tourist. We appeared to be the only ones. One of the busiest places in southern Morocco in the high season. We stopped off about half way and Ibrahim explained what a Kasabah is as we looked down on a good example. Kasabahs were a place for the local leaders to live and because they had high walls, 4 towers and very small holes for windows they could be used as a defence when a city was under attack. Ait Benhaddou with its fortified walls outside certainly seemed to me to be well protected.

Ait Benhaddou Was UNESCO heritage listed in 1987. Ibrahim explained that it has been decided that the best way to ensure that the village is looked after is to allow a small number of families to live within the walls. They live in the Kasabahs and still repair the buildings using mud and straw when they are damaged by rain. Unfortunately however there is no electricity for the people living there and whilst it to expenses to put cables in underground they are not allowed overhead cables. A number of movies have been filmed there including classics such of Lawrence of Arabia and more recently Prince of Persia. Ibrahim told us that during filming the families are paid to move out to.

When we reached the top there was a small building called the Granary which was surrounded by another wall. This was where the villages most valuable items would be stored and would be protected by everyone. Whilst individual homes would be protected at least if they fell to the enemy the centre and their most valuable items could still be protected. It was also here that fires would be burnt if the city was under attack so people in nearby cities would come to the rescue.

On our way back down we stopped off to see one of the local artists. First he used a magnifying glass to burn a picture in to a piece of bamboo wood. Next he took a piece of paper and taking a tea substance and a saffron substance he painted a picture. He then lit a gas cylinder and holding the painting over it the colours slowly changed and as if by magic it transformed in to a lovely desert scene of a camel caravan in front of some sand dunes. This was the traditional way of painting in the village and the results were certainly very impressive.

As we made our way back down we could see a very large group of tourists crossing the river and they looked like a mini invading army. As we got towards the bridge another group arrived and it was clear that staying in the town overnight and the relatively early start had beaten the rush.

We had our penultimate lunch together in a nearby hotel. Bread with a lovely chili paste and olive oil, followed by a salad. When I think of Moroccan food I normally think of Moroccan lamb but this was our first meal where we had any. Apparently lamb is only served as a speciality in the mountains. I’d eaten to much by the main but I still tried a bit and as expected it was very nice. The only real issue was for poor Alison who ordered an English tea with milk that came as milk with a tea bag. If this is how it’s served it’s no wonder it hasn’t caught on with the locals.

We now had a four hour drive back to Marrakech that would only be interrupted by a brief stop at a place selling Argane oil. I looked out of the window before falling asleep waking with a jerk as we went over a bumpy bit of road. Looking out of the window we were now back on the twisty road in the heart of the High Atlas Mountains.

Our final stop before Marrakech was to see a place where Argane oil was produced and sold. First we were given a very brief demonstration of how the oil is made before we went in to the shop. I tried the oil (like olive oil), peanut butter and honey but wasn’t convinced to buy either before I had a aftershave rubbed on my wrist which I could still smell two hours later. I had to buy Lucy my travel buddy from Jordan some and whilst everyone had said how expensive it is because it is only produced in Morocco I was still stunned when I did the conversion. It must be good stuff so I brought myself a small bottle.

Just as we were done a big coach of tourists arrived and the shop was swamped and I got out just in time. It was going to be weird being in a city full of other people.

Asleep in the Desert: Todra Gorge to the Sahara Desert

Monday 12th January
Despite my heater being set to 30 degrees the room never reached a temperature I would describe as warm but it was no worse than the attic in Ealing I’d got used to. Having got up I made my way to breakfast where they had the crêpe style of pancake. I had mine with jam and what i assumed were blueberries. It was only when I took a bite I realised the blueberries were in fact black olives. I sent a couple of quick emails and returned to my room to ensure I had everything. I was last again and stepping outside decided it was marginally warmer than inside.

We left our hotel and had to back track slightly before taking another spectacular winding road towards our next destination Todra Gorge. There was a big cloud that seemed to follow us and the blue sky or rather lighter coloured cloud always seemed to be around the next corner. We passed through a town that links the Rose valley and Dades valley before it appeared we were out of the mountains and on a long flat road. There were however more mountains in the distant.

Eventually we stopped so we could have a walk around a local market. Our guide said because we were in a slightly poorer and rural area it would be used in a very traditional way in comparison to the way the markets are used in Marrakech. It was organised chaos summed up when a tuk-tuk which had successfully battled through the crowds then came face to face with a giant tractor. I had feared there would be meat alive and dead everywhere generating the awful smell there was in Bangkok but there wasn’t. In fact judging by the size of the oranges, carrots, onions and peppers the food section was a vegetarian paradise. The market seemed to sell everything; beds, bikes, mobiles, toys, spanners, drills… You name it someone probably sold it.

We drove along a little way before we stopped off to take a photo of a stunning valley. It was quite a sight because there were towering dry sandstone rocks with no vegetation either side of the valley and yet in between it all there were lots of palm trees. We jumped back on board the bus for less than a minute before we jumped off again so a local could take us through the valley to our hotel. It was a nice touch and meant I really felt like I was interacting with my surroundings and not just passing through them.

Within about 5 minutes of the walk the sun suddenly came out and almost instantly I had to ditch layers. I had been wearing 4 including a layer of thermals (I knew it would be cold, I had not expected that cold) and when I was done the one jumper I had left was still a layer to much. It was a pleasant walk, not strenuous but after a day on the coach it was nice to move the legs again. Plus it was a start of a new Fitbit challenge so I needed to keep my step rate up.

It was really interesting to see the channels that have been dug in the field to keep the land irrigated and to see the effects a recent flood had on the community. Quite a sturdy looking bridge had been half washed away. Eventually we arrived at our hotel and whilst I no longer had a double it was very nice. We went on to the tea terrace for lunch where we had a very nice lentil soup for starter (and customary big roll) followed by a Berber omelette cooked in a tajine. This was absolutely wonderful and it was the first dish we as a group completely finished off.

Next we drove a short distance to Todra Gorge where Jason and I were doing rock climbing. We walked through the most narrow section and saw two abandoned hotels where again the bridge leading to them had been washed away. Other than that they both seemed very smart and a lot of money must have been used to build them. Initially it was unclear why they had been abandoned and then we saw. They were at the bottom of the cliff and during a particularly bad storm a boulder had dropped on to the roof of the restaurant. Luckily no one had been inside because they had already been evacuated due to the floods.

Whilst we waited for our rock climbing guide I climbed up some steps for a better view and on my way back down passed a nomadic family leading a donkey and horse up. As I reached the bottom I realised our guide was there. It was time to rock. I have a vague recollection of doing it at some point in a indoor centre but as far as I was concerned this was my first real go.

I was excited, I didn’t feel nervous because I knew I just had to trust the the guide. I am not agile, I am not strong and I am not tall. But I was not going to give up and slowly and then a bit more quickly I got used to where to put my hands and feet and scrambled up. I won’t be racing spider man anytime soon but I loved it. Jason went after me and made it look a bit easier before Ibrahim went up and made it look like he hadn’t even needed the rope. The guide then set up as new course for Jason but I was happy just watching.

After rock climbing we went back to the village to see carpets being made. Perhaps if I had my own place already by now I would have collected furniture from different countries I’d been to. It seems a nice idea and I was a bit tempted but I’m not at that stage yet. We had more mint tea before the demonstration and Allison who had been looking for something did buy a carpet which packed down in to a very convenient size. On the way out I brought myself a blue scarf for the desert and then we had a couple of hours free time at the hotel before dinner.

Dinner like lunch was wonderful. The starter was again soup and big roll but it was the main course that I particularly loved. Beef kofta meat balls with rice and vegetables. Dessert was apple and banana with yogurt. We went to our rooms about 8 and I spent a bit of time communicating with the outside world before going to bed.

Tuesday 13th January
For some reason I’d had a bit of a sleepless night possibly because my body probably isn’t used to so much sleep but I still felt refreshed when I went down to breakfast. I was first and they quickly brought me a fried egg, pancake, fresh orange juice and a coffee. I had loved every meal so far but the food at this hotel was my favourite and it was in a lovely location so I was sad to leave but the desert was calling my name.

We left the hotel and passing through the village had a photo stop of the old village in the valley below. It appeared that children outside the nearby school gates were protesting due to their chanting and a banner but no one including the teachers seemed that worried. Maybe they were just Pink Floyd fans singing ‘We don’t need no education’.

After staring out of the window for about an hour we arrived at a garage / toilet stop. We were used to having places to ourselves so were surprised when a big coach arrived. I’ve travelled on both types of tour but for a country like Morocco where I want to feel like I’m connecting with the scenery and culture I definitely prefer a more intimate experience.

Jason and I wanted to buy djellabas for the desert so we stopped off at a shop in a small town. It was a bit more than I hoped to pay but it felt very comfortable and I could tell it would keep me warm. I probably should have attempted to haggle but I’d forgotten my French, I didn’t really have the energy and figured the amount I’d save would be the cost of 2 bottles of water.

As we left the town Ibrahim told us that it was the Berber New Year and that the students we had seen earlier were protesting because they didn’t want to be at school. We weren’t yet in the desert but we were in a very remote area and he explained that any nomads in that area would have a very tough life. The government encourages them to leave the children in the towns during the winter and when the children are are older many leave to work in the cities.

As we carried along the road to the desert we started to see sand dunes however we then approached a settlement with a lot of vegetation. It was explained that this was one of oldest irrigation systems in Morocco built in the 11th century using a technique from Persia. Wells were dug 20km from mountain along with a network of tunnels so water didn’t have to be carried. The wells are no longer needed because the villagers can use machines to dig 100ft to reach water if it is required especially in the dry season. The system has allowed the village we passed through to grow palm trees, to produce dates and also to grow barley and wheat. It also appeared vegetation had started to grow on some of the sand funds close to the village making them more stable in the process.

We stopped off at Kasbah Ennasra a lovely looking building for another huge lunch. Olives, olive oil & bread, followed by a cooked salad with rice, then a chicken leg with vegetables followed by a crème brulé. Throughout different meals we’d had to take one for the team to eat a bit more food and it was Allison who duly obliged on this occasion.The food had been delicious so far and I’d over indulged so much I was concerned the camel would be unable to carry me.

After leaving we passed through a gate to enter the town of Rassani which was one of the oldest settlements in the area. Originally it was a commercial centre for Caravans from Fez but now it was one of the army bases as it is the closest town to Algeria. Tourism is now a big industry because it is the last settlement on the route for those going to the desert.

Gradually the vegetation was less and less and then in the distance we could see the sand dunes that were our destination. There was quite a bit of cloud but the sun that did shine through gave them a pink colour. Eventually we turned off the main road and on to the desert track. It wasn’t long before we felt remote and for the first time there was little of anything except the odd shrub and patch of desert grass. I am however always surprised at how much gravel and stones there are in deserts, they very rarely just consist of nice bright yellow sand.

The dunes grew bigger and after many twists and turns we eventually came to a stop. After getting off the mini bus I had a mini wardrobe change swapping my jacket for my new djellaba whilst Ibrahim helped me to put on my turban. Whilst we waited for departure we took a couple of pictures in front of the sand dunes and camels. A couple from Lithuania had also joined us though they were on a separate camel train.

The journey to our camp site was about an hour so there was plenty of time to appreciate our stunning surroundings even if the sun was refusing to shine through. There are many deserts in the world but the first I ever heard about when growing up about was the Sahara so camel riding through a dune to reach a destination in part of it was pretty special. I held on firmly with my left hand whilst taking the occasional picture with my right. I didn’t have a watch so I’m not sure at what point various ‘pressure points’ began to rebel but it meant I certainly developed a whole new level of respect for the great explorers and locals that travel on them.

As we reached the top of one dune we could see a camp below. Going down hill always felt a bit more unstable so holding on for one final time my camel slowly plodded down the dune. When it was my time to get off I have to admit the overriding feeling was one of relief. Having dumped my overnight bag in my tent (which was nearly as big in width as my room at home) I went back outside. It was time to give sand boarding another go.

Those that read my tales in Australia will know my failed attempts to get a picture of me doing it there so I was quite excited about the chance to have another opportunity. It was however only when I reached the top of the dune I realised this was a different type of sand board. This was one I’d have to stand on and as I’ve never skied or any type of winter sport (besides sledging if that counts) I was a bit nervous. The first go was pretty pathetic but at least I hadn’t actually fallen over or broken anything.

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately no pictures were taken so I stepped up again and this time glided all the way to the bottom. It wasn’t as fast as sitting down in Australia but standing felt a bit more dramatic and perhaps most importantly I finally had my picture. Sand boarding done, Keith, Jason, Allison and I went for a walk to explore the dune which was 20km by 5km.

It wasn’t particularly windy so sand wasn’t blowing in to our faces and whilst the sky was still overcast ensuring we wouldn’t get sunburnt Jason and I had our turbans on anyway. Eventually we reached the bottom of two ridges. I took slightly longer than I should have resting and taking pictures and when I turned I saw Jason and Keith were already a quarter of the way up. Allison started to turn back. I looked up. They were on their hands and knees. I gulped. Reminding my self I had conquered a steep dune in Jordan…But this was far steeper.

I set off setting myself mini challenges. First shrub, second shrub but eventually there were no more shrubs which also meant the sand was loose. Initially I was able to stand up right by using their hand and feet prints but gradually that became impossible and every step forward seemed one back. Keith and Jason disappeared over the top. I gave my self a few minutes and then with a burst of energy I scrambled up on all fours until the top was less than 10 feet away before the sand gave way and slowly I was making no progress. I turned and sat admiring the view. I gave it one more go but realised even if I reached the top I wasn’t at the actual peak so admitting defeat I trudged back occasionally turning to see where they were.

I’d built up quite an appetite whilst walking and as I had perhaps 1/4 of the way to go I saw them at the top before they came running (whether on purpose or carried by momentum) down the ridges and I suddenly realised there was a chance I’d get overtaken. I reached the bottom and appeared to have collected half the dune in my shoes so emptied them out before we sat with the Lithuanian couple whilst we waited for dinner. Unfortunately it was still cloudy so there was no grand sunset.

Dinner was very nice and I keep being surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it though I’ve probably eaten my chicken and beef quota for the rest of the month. Starter was a cooked salad with chicken skewers the size of which would have been a main in any other country. The main itself was beef with vegetables and thankfully as we were all so full dessert was just fruit. A fire was being prepared outside and once ready the music would commence.

There is something special outside in the middle of nowhere with a proper fire. The drum music was very lively and as the clouds slowly parted we had the stars up above which really finished off the scene. It reached absolute perfection when Ibrahim gave us a skewer each and pulled out a pack of marshmallows. How he’d kept that a secret as we’d discussed them at dinner I don’t know.

The clouds covered the stars again and gradually people started to go to bed. The stars came out again and I used the opportunity to grab some pictures. It wasn’t as cold as when I did the sane with Lucy in Wadi Rum but the pictures weren’t as good either. Jason and I had made a decision to give sleeping outside a go and once I was in my sleeping bag I looked up to the sight I’d last seen from the same sleeping back in Flinders Ranges. I forced myself to stay awake until I’d seen at least one shooting star and catching one before it disappeared behind a cloud I was satisfied I could sleep.

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.