Driving through Morocco

16-03-2016

It's not often I post about holiday's or travel but occasionally certain trips, like the transsiberian ride can be quite special and interesting. Morocco is is the first country on the African continent I've been to and as such, is quite a culture shock. It has an interesting history, the architecture is very eye-catching and the culture both different and the same. Starting at the beginning though, Morocco is an Islamic Monarchy with some powers passed to an elected assembly. Unlike the remainder of Mediterainian Africa, it has remained quite stable. It's handling of the Arab Spring resulted in some concessions being made and although it has human rights issues in its past, things seem to be moving in the right direction. Morocco could be described as developing; it has many of the features you'd expect from both rich and poor countries. Some cliches about the place (such as being hassled to buy carpets) are true but others are not. There has been a big push to encourage more tourism in the country, along with quite epic solar power projects, so many things seem to be changing here.

A typical moroccan town

Morocco used to be a French Protectorate and that legacy is really quite striking here. French is pretty much the second dominant language, before English, with Moroccan Arabic being the main language. It's assumed you are French if you are white, so having a partner who speaks French is a definite asset. More subtly, pastries and patisserie is quite a thing here, with 'Cornes de Gazelles' being a Moroccan delicacy. Islam is, of course, a major player in the culture. As a tourist, it makes it's presence known through a lack of alcohol, being woken at 5am by a call to prayer, head-scarves and public displays of affection being frowned upon. Some places have a liqour licence but it's expensive. I believe only 3 types of beer are brewed here: Casablanca, Flag and Flag Special. Wine is more popular though don't expect to see it offered on every menu by any means. The 5am call to prayer can be quite alarming when you've not heard it before. In many ways, it's just like a church bell, only it sounds a little more rough, depending on how well the chap can sing and how good the loudspeaker is. Head scarves are popular though in the cities, you'll see women wearing them with Jeans and Ugg Boots as often as not. Dressing modestly is strongly advised though there is a compromise that can often be reached.

My partner has been to Morocco before and is quite well travelled. That, coupled with the fact we like to explore, means we head straight from the airport to the Atlas mountains, in a hire car. I get to add Morocco to Norway, Sweden and US; the list of places where I've jumped off a plan only to get straight onto an unfamiliar road in a strange land. At least this time, the wheels arent locked solid with ice and snow. Our first port of call is Imlil, which lies about a third of the way into the Atlas mountains. The Atlas is one of the major mountain ranges in Africa, with the Jebel Toubkal being the tallest on the continent. It's here where I first see one of the major contrasts: in the sun it's warm but in the shadow there's snow. Morocco has one weird climate. Temperatures in the mountains can often be below freezing but below in the foothills and plans (which aren't that far from the peaks) the temperature soars. In March, things are a little cooler generally but the contrast is really striking. Bringing warm clothes definitely a good move.

Mountain Villages

From Imlil, we drive through the Atlas to Skoura - an actual, genuine Oasis town. The mountain pass winds up and down, through what appears to be Martian and Lunarscapes; cold grey rock one minute, red sand and stone the next. Working through the pass, you see many small towns built on the sides of mountains. Most building here are made from clay and mud, although modern buildings tend to use breizeblock underneath. Morocco has a reputation for red and peach coloured buidlings, which is definitely well deserved. It's a long drive to Skoura, punctuated by a run-in with the law. The police often put up 'police check' signs where you are expected to pull over and stop if they don't wave you through. Apparently, if you overtake a car and miss the sign, then pull over, it's a 700 Dihram fine. However, when you act like the dumb tourist you are and your French is pretty bad, it rapidly becomes more hassle than it's worth for them - we got lucky that time. Now, as every check-point, we slow down and we are waved through. I'm actually quite impressed with drivers in Morocco. If they flash their lights at you, it's usually to warn you there is a police checkpoint ahead. Beeping the horn usually means 'be aware, I'm here' rather than the negative connotations it has in the UK. Some parts of Marrakesh are quite insane, driving wise but like the UK, drivers tend to be more aggressive and risk-taking in the cities rather than in the rural areas where we are.

We make a brief stop-over in Ouazazate, where all the films are made. Morocco has a strong connection to a lot of films. Gladiator, Prince of Persia, Laurence of Arabia and many others were filmed here. It's also plain to see where George Lucas got his inspiration for the Jawas. The Jellaba, a gown with a pointy hood, worn by a lot of Moroccans is quite common here.

broken kasbah

From Skoura, we drive out to Tinejdad, to a small museum hotel, outside the main town. It's an old Kasbah that has been restored and turned into both a hotel and museum. The displays are mostly of Berber objects and tools. The Berbers are a people that have lived in Morocco for quite some time. Morocco today is about 60% Berber but in times past, they've been heavily persecuted. Today, they seem to be more celebrated. The Berber script appears in quite a few places here, the designs feature heavily in carvings and rugs and the Berber Flag can be seen on various buildings.

Erg Chebbi is what you might term 'Sahara Proper'; large rolling seas of sand with nothing but dunes as far as the eye can see. Nearby is the town of Hasselabeid. In actuality, it's a small area surrounded by scrub desert but it's large enough to get lost in. Week the cliche but immensely fun thing of riding a camel out to the dunes and spending the night out there in a tent. It's one of the darkest places I've been to. Morocco has quite clear skies which are excellent for star gazing and astrophotography but being out in the desert has the extra advantage of no light pollution. I end up attempting a panorama of the milkyway whilst being sandblasted by since coming over the dune I'm sitting on. I know I'll be cleaning out sand from my camera gear for weeks. Luckily I have a set of cheap protective filters and a rain cover that does a great job of keeping out the sand. My face and tripod are another story. This is the toughest environment I've photographed in. I return to the somewhat surreal scene of our Berber guide testing my partner on her Arabic.

In the Dunes

My Lawrence of Arabia impressions all done with, we head for perhaps the oddest location - a hotel called Sahara Sky run by a German in a manner that reminds me of Faulty Towers. All the money and thought has gone into the telescopes on the roof. The hotel was built in the 90s then taken over in 2004. All the money since appears to have just gone into the telescopes and nothing else. The hotel even comes with its own Belgian Astronomer called Patrick who is quite a smart chap and the most nerdy, obsessed star gazer I have ever met. He's lovely and a little eccentric which somehow fits. Using their gear I realise astrophotography is basically solved. I'll write up more about astrophotography in another post but I learned a lot and went through many batteries.

We leave very early for our drive back to Marrakesh, through the mountain pass again. The drive takes eight and a half hours, and is quite hard going. Marrakesh is a classic tourist destination being a picturesque large city, and is quite different to the rural areas we've travelled through. Marrakech is full of 50cc motorbikes and mopeds, taxi drivers, donkey carts and tiny, tiny alleyways that appear to cause no problems to these aforementioned road users. The inner Medina area is full of twists and turns, souqs and markets, riads and repair shops.

It's in Marrakesh where some of the cliches live. Haggling is most definitely the thing. You'd be a fool to accept the first price you are offered. While there is a fixed price shopping area in Marrakesh, haggling is by far the most common way of dealing. I have two tips for this. Never give your price unless you are definitely going to buy and secondly, bring a lady from Yorkshire; their bargaining powers unrivalled except perhaps by Berber woman (apparently). You'll be constantly asked if you want carpets, t-shirts, bags or juices. Being British I find it quite hard to ignore people but even if you act polite and respond that gives them an in.

Wool in Marrakesh

In the more rural areas you may come across local kids offering their services as guides or throwing small trinkets such as camels woven from palm leaves at you, then demanding payment. Having a good sense of humour and Street smarts is a definite advantage here. I managed to diffuse one such situation with a joke or two but it can be hard work if you're not used to it. It's easy to by sympathetic though. The average Moroccan income is pretty low and there is a big disparity between urban and rural, to the point where it has been suggested that rural tourism is much more beneficial to the local population. Pickpockets can be a thing in the larger cities, and I was forever carrying all my camera gear, passport and wallet with me, rather than leave them in a locked car.

Food! Of course I must mention food. Again a contrast. Most of our meals were tagines - a meal made in a pot with a pointy lid. My partner, being vegetarian therefore had mostly steamed vegetables for most of the trip. I didn't see one big chain anywhere we went. No Starbucks, no maccy-dees. I actually quite like this because despite the lack of choice the food was honest and tasty, with Berber eggs being quite the awesome thing. Coffee is passable and the fruits are some of the best I've tried. Orange juice is fantastic here! Dates and olives are delicious, cheap and plentiful. Biscuits and chocolate can be had and the Berber bread is quite tasty and often made fresh. Marrakesh has more choice including Meshwi - a whole pile of roasted lamb basically! If you love food you'll like it here. Just know it will be different.

So, this being a somewhat nerdy, compsci blog I should talk a little about the internet and such things. I failed to get a sim card on arrival as the airport shop looked dodgy and the one assistant seemed to be busy taking a tourist's phone apart. I'm told that mediatel are the best with the government run Maroc telecom less good. Mostly the WiFi in various places was fine. I had the most trouble at the airport and oddly, at the sahara sky place where I couldn't get a connection out to my VPN. A good old socks tunnel seemed to work fine in the latter case but the airport was more problematic. More work needed on tunnels, iPhone security and VPNs needed before the next trip i'll wager.

A small amount of research revealed only one hackspace quite far south, near the disputed Western Sahara border. Given what I've seen, heard and read I'm becoming increasingly of the opinion that hacking, tinkering repairing and making as a hobby, movement or craft is a purely Western thing. In many countries it's simply a necessity. Walking around Marrakech I see examples of all of these things, but they are ways to make a living. Perhaps it's true that 'making' in the Western culture is the new hippy-return-to-nature. Who knows? Regardless I failed to tap into any classic scenes like a computer club or radio group though I'd be surprised if they didn't exist here.

Two ways the internet seems to penetrate here is through mobile phones and trip advisor. I'm sort of assuming the former as 3G coverage seemed pretty good through most of our trip. You could see large masts perched in the most precarious of mountain passes. Tripadvisor certificates seem to appear in almost every guest house and restaurant and we were asked several times to write reviews and say nice things.

Koutouba Minnaret from the Jemel al Fnaa

So, some practical advice then. A guidebook really is a good idea. We tend to buy them in advance, read them on and off, then take them with us. Warm clothes, lightweight shirts and long sleeves are all good ideas along with a good hat (I chose a trilby of course). Sunglasses for driving and a way to play podcasts on the car sound system ( an iPhone radio adaptor never fails particularly with older cars you tend to get from hire places). We invested in about 3 maps - one was the maps.me program on the iPhone, the second a Michelin road map and the third a book called 'Morocco overland'. We ended up needing all three as none were perfect. The Michelin map had a road marked that didn't exist according to the book but it did say which roads were paved.

Most locals we met speak at least three languages so yet again, I'm embarrassed. It goes with the territory I guess. If your living is selling to rich tourists then knowing English and French is pretty much required. It definitely helps to know some French though. I'd have not made it out of a couple of scrapes had I not been travelling with a french speaker.

It's been over 20 years since I was in Gibraltar and thought "what must it be like over there?". Morocco is definitely a bit of a shock to someone like me who has mostly travelled in Europe, North America and part of Asia. It's great to move slightly out of your comfort zone and despite really looking forward to a mug of tea and an honest London pint, I'd recommend getting lost in Morocco to anyone.