Update 4th January 2007
Southern Morocco
BikenFireworks

The open air concert in the desert in Merzouga was exactly that. And what a spectacle it was. With a mainly French crew of one hundred and fifty, it seemed no money was spared on production and effects. Though the attention drifted at times as Jean Michel Jarre got a bit poppy with his songs, or pontificated on the value of respecting water use for the benefit of the TV audience – the show was being televised live in Morocco, and recorded for international release – his arrangements for the sixty strong Moroccan musicians on stage was at times exhilirating. On one side of the stage was the classical National Orchestra of Morocco from Casablanca, the other the Folkloric Ensemble from Marrakech, augmented at times by a powerful male, then female lead vocalist. It really exploded for the finale, literally, with a massive fireworks display illuminating the huge Erg Chebbi dune in the background. I could only wonder what some of the desert nomads who made up part of the mainly Moroccan crowd made of the excess. It would be true to say most present, including myself, were awed by the production and setting.
Breakfast

The next day after a leisurely mint tea and bread (the standard breakfast I was finding) in the desert warmth gazing across the mighty dunes it was onwards to Ouarzazate, along the east or continental side of the Atlas mountain range. Back through Rissani and Erfoud, this really was a desert culture, livelihoods based on the local water sources, channelled to groves of date palms or irrigating small cultivated patches.

Chebb_Dunes

Apart from these settlements, there was nothing – just bare expanses of sand and (seemingly) lifeless earth. A memory of passing a teenage with not a dwelling in site for miles carrying a tray of artifacts! Stopping at Tineghir, one oasis town, for lunch, road weary and off guard I lazily fell for the guided tour trick
ghosting
. “Today is women’s market across the road. You go to see?” asks the waiter. Well why not wander across and take some photos I thought. Of course I had company, Mohammed, who I mistakenly had assumed was a customer idly sitting at one of the tables. Mohammed was a guide, spoke good English, and actually turned out to be not to pushy after the first, “This is my brothers shop. Just take a look. Not buy!” didn’t work. I explained with the motorbike I wouldn’t be buying anything. The market wasn’t the attraction, the medina was. And that was where I was led, into a warren of passages and tiny alleys almost in darkness shaded from the sun’s heat. This was the old Jewish quarter, the Jews I was told largely gone from Morocco since the creation of Israel. It was all adobe or mud built sometimes three or four stories high, lived in continuosly for hundreds of years. I found it incredibly atmospheric and authentic, with little evidence of anything touristy. Missing out on these types of experiences was one of the fallouts of being destination driven. I was conscious of having to make up time.

Haddou1

Ouarzazate has the image of being a desert outpost fort, developed by the French in colonial times as a gateway to the desert. The reality was a little different. An international airport and a number of big hotels, along with the town’s increasing affluence due in part to remittances sent home from France, has altered most of any previous character it had. I visited Chez Dmitri, a renowned restaurant founded by a Greek in the nineteenth century and haunt of the French Foreigh Legion back in those days. Dmitri’s great grandaughter Stephanie now runs it, between looking after ‘riads’, or guesthouses in Marrakech. She explained the history of the place, proudly showing me the photos on the walls of various Hollywood stars over the years who had visited while filming locally. The nearby Ait Bin Haddou kasbah, a nearly perfectly preserved small fortress, is the draw and used as a set in many films. In fact when I visited the following day, I was shown parts that had been rebuilt for various Hollywood movies. “Brad Pitt was in here last year”, Stephanie proclaimed, naming a movie soon to be released.

Hugh-biking3

My next destination was Marrakech over the infamous Tizi-n-Tichka pass, a cold, grey and windy 2,300m. The descent was spectacular, a road that was an incredible feat of engineering by the Foreign Legion over a seemingly insurmountably steep mountain. It was thrilling throwing the bike round severe switchbacks down to the seaward side of the range. This was my most enjoyable ride on the bike yet, as with more experience with the load, with my weight forward I found I could ride with some aggression round the tight bends. I was buzzing after the total focus needed as I made my way into Marrakech, the rose coloured city, now the second largest in the country.

fruits

I checked into the Hotel CTM on the Djma el Fna, the main square, the same place I’d stayed twenty five years previously, and it was just the same! Clean, simple and cheap and a haven from the energy and animation outside its doors. Possibly the world’s largest outdoor market, the Djma el Fna has been civilised a little, though still full of activity particularly in the evening when from nowhere, hundreds of food stalls are set up selling everything from steamed sheeps heads, delicious fresh seafood up from Agadir on the coast, and one of my favourites a spicy lentil soup with bread - to the range of dried fruits colourfully displayed, the ubiquitous mint tea (the best I’d tasted), and various skewered animal parts over charcoal grills. The smoky smells wafted across the market mixed with that of the mainly cumin dominated spices, cinnamon and ginger tea and those of the performing monkeys! Visually there’s fortune tellers sitting cross legged awaiting their next customer, groups of performing tumblers, musicians sitting with a chanter – their’s and the audience’s faces atmospherically lit by the yellow of their gas lamps, games for a couple of cents entry (throw a hoop over bottle tops), the huge area fringed by the souks and stalls selling their wares well into the night. And all underpinned by a constant tattoo of drumming.

dunes
Oasis
After a few days of a catch up it was now time to make a push south, with the intention of getting to Mali for the beginning of January. Time had passed, as it does, without me realising. Morocco is accessible and not too far from Europe, and I knew I would be back to explore it in a little more depth the next time. It really is great biking country – cheap, desert and mountain scenery, exotic culture, and the roads are excellent and not busy outside the cities.
Desert-eve

Over the eight days – I’d seen so much it felt longer – I had grown more comfortable with managing on my own. A fairly experienced traveller, I was interested to see how it was on my own on a bike and hadn’t really known what to expect. It was fine. And it culminated in that fantastic ride down the mountain to Marrakech. My comfort and confidence levels were settling well as the ‘real’ journey lay ahead!

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