Morocco September 2013
Arriving in Marrakesh:
I arrived in Marrakesh at about half past eight in the evening and as I got off the bus at the main square, Djeema al Fna, I found myself in the middle of a huge bustling square with no idea how to go about finding my hostel. I managed to get some vague directions, in French, from a police man who pointed me in the right direction. Wandering down a very busy winding alley, a teenage guy who spoke English offered to take me to my hostel and so, with no other way of knowing where I was going, I set off with him, feeling just a little apprehensive. We ended up down an empty alleyway outside a signless door which he promised me was my hostel and promptly asked for “a little present” for helping. The door was answered by a small Moroccan lady who spoke no English but showed me to a room and so I had to simply hope that I was in the correct place!
It seems that I am the only person staying in the entire hostel! I was hoping to start making friends with fellow travellers straight away but as it is, I was left in a hostel which I wasn’t even sure was mine, completely alone and with a huge language barrier between me and, seemingly, everyone! I went to sleep feeling more than a little concerned that maybe solo travelling wasn’t for me.
I woke up in the morning feeling rather unsettled. Arriving in the middle of the bustling medina at night, unable to communicate with anyone properly or even find my hostel had knocked my confidence and I was beginning to feel as if I’d perhaps made a mistake in coming to Morocco at all. I decided to take things one step at a time and that my first task would simply be to try to get to the bus station and find out if I could get a ticket down to M’Hammid for the next from where I was supposed to be taking a three day camel tour. I found the process a lot simpler than I had expected it to be. In my mind, I’d built it up to be an impossible task for some reason but all it involved was hopping into a taxi from the main square to the bus station and back again! Feeling triumphant after my mini success of achieving anything at all, I began to feel a little more comfortable with the idea of spending two weeks out here and decided to explore the city a little. I have to admit, I didn’t get very far; several times around the main square simply trying to get my bearings and down a couple if market streets until I found myself at a little roof top café where I sat enjoying the view across the roof tops of Marrakesh whilst sipping on a glass of mint tea. I always expected not to like Marrakesh, seeing it merely as a necessary stepping stone to get to the other places I had planned, and so told myself I’d be more relaxed once I got out of the city.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Marrakesh doesn’t have any charm. The little winding market streets are enough to keep me entertained for hours, even without the desire to buy anything, and the square is full of captivating sights such as snake charmers, camels, horse and carts and towering palm trees. Virtually all the buildings are a soft pink, creating an extremely pretty effect. I think if I went there with someone else I would feel braver about venturing out further to discover the place better but I guess that is one of the down sides of travelling alone.
After finally tearing myself away from the charming roof top café, I spent the rest of my day in Marrakesh doing much of the same; wandering aimlessly around the main square and sitting in cafes. I relaxed a little but, as hard as I tried, just could not fall in love with the city and felt like I was simply killing time. I ate dinner in a little vegetarian / vegan place called Earth Café. The food there was good but with an unusual mix of flavours that was not overly palatable. I was keen not to be wandering around the back roads after sun down and so, relieved to have got through my day in the city, I returned to my hostel directly after dinner and spent the evening reading.
The next morning I head off for M’Hammid and my desert adventure! The bus journey to M’Hammid, although painfully long (ten hours), was incredible, travelling down the Tizi n’Ticka. The views were completely spectacular the entire way. It is beyond my capability at the moment to describe the stunning scenery, but I have taken a plethora of photos that capture the beauty far better than words ever could and yet still do not do justice to the real thing.
Towards the last couple of hours of the bus journey, I began to become quite tense again as night fell and I had no idea where I was or where to get off the bus for my hotel. A Moroccan man started to talk to me and told me that he was in fact one of the managers of Sahara Services (the company with whom my accommodation for the night and my desert tour was booked). He told me he was going back to the hotel and would show me the way. I was extremely apprehensive, as can be expected, but with the choice of either following him or taking my chances wandering around own my own in the pitch black, I decided the best option would be to take him at his word. As you can tell, I lived to tell the tale! He took me straight to Kasbah Sahara Services where I was greeted with friendly, English speaking faces and shown into quite a luxurious room. As in Marrakesh, I was the only person staying in the hotel that night, which I think is why they gave me a better room than I had expected: a large double room with ensuit and aircon in which I slept very well. The next morning I head out for my two nights in the desert…
We drove for maybe two or three hours through the desert by 4X4. My guide’s name was Yahiya, unfortunately I do not remember my driver’s name but he was an incredibly friendly and welcoming man who exuded joy. The drive was, to be expected, incredible; passing through a landscape completely alien to me, of open plains, cassia trees, sand dunes and, here and there, the odd roaming camel or donkey caravan. We stopped off for lunch at a purpose built resting point where a few other tourists were also stopping off. We had a lovely lunch of salads, bread and fruit, but then afterwards we were left to wait around for a further 4 hours with no indication of when we would be leaving. The other tourists took a long nap and so I was left to read and became increasingly bored. Finally, at 5pm, the camels arrived. However, there were five of us in total and only two camels so I was told I wouldn’t be able to take a camel that day and would be continuing into the camp by 4X4. I was extremely disappointed and dejected, wandering what indeed I had spent my money on if not to ride camels.
Twenty minutes later I arrived at the camp in the dunes, still feeling low as I was the only person there. However, after a short while a few more people started to arrive and I soon found myself sitting enjoying a ‘Whiskey Berber’ (Moroccan tea – very, very strong green tea with an unfeasible amount of sugar) and a shisha with the Berbers and a couple from Washington D.C called Valarie and Aurey. They were keen to take a walk in the dunes and very kindly invited me to go with them.
As soon as we began our walk, I immediately forgot my earlier disappointment as I found myself in the middle of the most picture perfect desert scene. Once again I am not going to attempt to describe the beauty of Erg-Chigaga as I will not be able to do it justice, but, as you may well expect, I took many photos! Suffice to say that watching the sunset over the Saharan dunes is an incredible experience.
Back down at camp we were served a dinner of soup, chicken tagine, and melon under the unfolding starlit sky. After dinner they switched off all the lights in the camp so we could more clearly see the stars, or Berber Television as they rather charmingly referred to it. I’ve been to a lot of places where the night sky in incredible but I have never seen anything quite as astounding as that. It was absolutely mesmerising. Just as we were all thinking of heading to bed, our Berber hosts brought out their instruments and began to entertain us with some traditional (as well as some less traditional!) music, and they soon had us all up dancing round the camp site with them. We each had a big mud hut room to sleep in but they brought all our beds outside where it would be cooler to sleep and so I fell asleep under that incredible star-filled sky in complete disbelief at how amazing an environment I had found myself.
I was awoken at half six in the morning by one of the Berbers so that I could go up into the dunes and watch the sunrise, so off I went on my own with my camera too sit in the cool of the morning amongst the dunes and watch the sun come up over the distant mountains.
After breakfast it was finally time for my camel ride!
Heading off across the desert by camel is a unique experience. I went with Yahiha and a man who led the camels whose name I don’t know. Whereas the day before there had been no camel available for me, today I had two! I rode in front on a camel called Shirlee and another followed behind laden with my bag and plenty of water for the journey. It was a long ride; three hours, and apart from my legs becoming fairly achy towards the end of the ride, the journey was pretty comfortable, if a little hairy descending the dunes when my camel liked to break into a run! I had assumed that we would be returning to the stop-off point of yesterday but instead we ended up at a small nomad house near the base of the mountains. I was sent inside a small stone built hut to sit with the nomad family of the man who had been leading the camels. Being unable to communicate with them (the family speaking what I presume is Berber), I felt rather awkward sitting in the middle of their house and wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. The family consisted of a husband and wife, two teenage children, a girl of four, a boy of three and a small baby, as well as the grandmother. The two young children were very interested in me and sat pretty much right under my nose for most of the day. After attempting to read for a while, I took a nap before exploring the tiny settlement. It consisted of very little: the hut that I had been sitting in with the family, which I presume was their main living and sleeping area, a small mud brick structure that served as their kitchen but had no equipment in, and a tiny shower cubical which I attempted to use but discovered a dog sleeping inside which refused to move.
It was a rare and interesting experience staying with the nomad family, especially as I don’t think it was really a part of the tour (more of a convenience for the camel owner I think) but after spending five hours there I was glad to finally get back on the camel and head back in the direction of camp. I was glad, that is, until I got back on the camel! The journey there had been reasonably comfortable, but the five hours rest at the nomad house had given my muscles a chance to stiffen up, making the journey back virtually unbearable, especially in the heat of the desert. Eventually, after a few stops to rest under the shade of a tree and cool off, we made it back to camp where I promptly collapsed in a heap of exhaustion.
The evening was spent in much the same way as the night before; eating, being entertained with music and watching ‘Berber Television’. I got talking to a Swiss mother and daughter called Judit and Anita and the next day, after returning to M’Hammid by 4X4, they kindly offered to give me a lift to Zagora as they were passing through on their way to Ourzazate.
The drive to Zagora from M’Hammid went pretty quickly and Anita was kind enough to drive around town in search of my hostel. After successfully finding my hostel, I dropped off my bag and the three of us set off for a quick look at the ancient Kasbah. Before we had even stopped the car we were swamped by children and young men eager to take us around the Kasbah and refusing to take no for an answer. One in particular was impossible to shake off and so we had little choice but to let him show us around, listening to his rather ill-informed explanation about the history of the place. When we eventually convinced him to take us back to the car, he demanded 100 MAD from us for his services and got rather vocally aggressive when we refused to give him so much. Amidst much shouting and children hitting the car, we made our escape and I was dropped back off at my hotel, Riad Dar Raha, where I said goodbye to Anita and Judit.
My experience of Zagora had so far not been overly pleasant and I had been wandering how I was going to cope for two nights there. As soon as I arrived in Dar Raha my troubled thoughts melted away as I found myself in a peaceful haven in the friendly hands of Antoine and his staff, Mona and Mustaffa. The riad itself is vast and extremely comfortable, containing various salons and terraces to explore and relax in. It is a beautiful, traditional mud covered building with stunning views across the palmerie. I felt immediately relaxed and at ease.
I spent the remainder of the day around the riad, reading and napping. Dinner was served in the courtyard where I sat with Antoine. I really appreciated his company as, once again, I was the only person staying in the place and eating alone is never enjoyable. Antoine makes extremely good company, having excellent knowledge on a number of subjects, and the following morning he explained some of Zagora’s history to me as he showed me around the ancient Kasbah (this time minus the demanding children and inaccurate information). The Kasbah and its history is immensely fascinating and I was very disappointed not to be able to take any photos (my camera had suddenly broken, I suspect it fell victim to the desert sands. Unfortunately this means the photos stop here).
That afternoon Antoine arranged for a man named Mustaffa to take me on a walk around the Palmerie. For about two and a half hours we explored the oasis while Mustaffa, rather than giving me an account of the area and its history, told me about his philosophies on life, love, politics, religion and money! The oasis really is a fascinating place and I would love to return one day and explore further. Dinner was once again taken with Antoine in the courtyard where we chatted about everything from literature to cats! Some of my fondest memories of Morocco are of my experience at Riad Dar Raha and I would encourage anyone passing through the area to stop off there. I challenge you to find a nicer host than Antoine! I can say that I was certainly sad to be leaving there the following morning.
The journey to Skoura was a long one. It began with a petit taxi to the centre of Zagora, and from there a grand taxi to Ourzazate, (“Ourzazate Ourzazate, Ourzazate Ourzazate!” as the taxi drivers seemed to endlessly shout wherever in Morocco I went). They really like to pack you into a grand taxi with two in the front seat next to the driver and a further four in the back, (bearing in mind a grand taxi is just a normal size car), and, knowing it was going to be a two and a half hour journey, I decided to pay for two places so that I could have the front seat to myself and have a little comfort, (a great tip to remember if you are ever getting a taxi in Morocco). The journey was pretty uneventful and I spent it drifting in and out of sleep as I watched the barren landscape blur past the window.
From Ourzazate I took the CTM bus to Skoura. It was only a twenty minute journey and luckily I was able to avoid going all the way into town as I spotted a sign for my Kasbah at the side of the road and managed to get the driver (with some confusion as we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere) to stop to let me off there. I headed off in the direction that the sign pointed, assuming that the kasbah would be a little way down the road. It wasn’t. Luckily during my random wanderings in search for the hostel I passed by a little shop called Abdul Services and a man outside, Abdul himself no less, offered to give me a lift there on the back of his scooter. Naturally I was a little apprehensive about getting on a scooter with a strange man, (literally everything my mother had ever warned me about), but the only other option was to continue wandering around in the desert in the vain hope that I would somehow stumble upon the kasbah. Needless to say I accepted Abdul’s offer. It was a good job too as we were soon zipping in and out of little winding roads and it was clear that I’d never have managed to find the way on my own.
Arriving at last at Kasbah Dar Dmana I was greeted by the smiling Mohammed and his lovely wife Fatima. Mohammed made me feel very welcome, telling me that the place is his family home and so I should feel like one of the family and make myself at home. After such a long journey it was a relief to find myself in such a warm and friendly environment. The Kasbah itself was absolutely beautiful with several terraces that offered stunning views across the oasis and distant mountains, a quaint little courtyard with a garden and characterful, big, comfortable rooms with ensuit.
I spent a total of three nights at Kasbah Dar Dmana doing virtually nothing but enjoying myself immensely. Skoura, or at least the outskirts of it where I was staying, is incredibly peaceful and I spent my days there reading and staring out at the gorgeous views trying to imprint them permanently on my memory. Here is one place that I really did feel sorry that my camera was broken, although a suppose that a camera never really captures the true beauty of a place and so maybe it is for the best that the view lives only in my mind. Views across the oasis of orange sand broken only by mud built houses, towering palm trees from which small lime coloured birds flit in and out of. And then there are those distant purple mountains, at times blending with the clouds so it is impossible to tell where the Earth ends and the heavens begin.
During my stay Abdul came to visit me. Chiefly I think he came to persuade me to hire him to take me on a tour of the area, however we had good long chat on one of the many roof terraces. Aside from being concerned that I would get railroaded into agreeing to a tour with him I enjoyed our conversation. There was a little issue with language, him not speaking any English and my French being really rather rusty, but somehow we managed to make ourselves understood on the whole and wiled away a good couple of hours discussing life, the universe and everything.
Dar Dmana was one of the few places I stayed where I wasn’t the only guest, and although mostly the other guests were couples and seemed to prefer to keep themselves to themselves, on my last evening there I got talking to a man from Israel, (unfortunately I didn’t catch his name). I had been enjoying my own company in the tranquillity of the oasis but I was glad to have some company at last. We spent a pleasant evening chatting about travelling and life in general before I got an early night I preparation for my departure the next morning.
After breakfast the following morning Mohammed very kindly offered me a lift on his motorbike into the main part of Skoura. Although I was sad to leave the oasis I was also eager to see what the next place, Taroudant, had the offer and so was excited to get back on the road again. But first I had to get there. After waiting around for about twenty minutes for a grand taxi there was a mad rush to get a seat when one finally arrived. Luckily the man in charge, noticing that I was a tourist who quite clearly didn’t have a clue about fighting for a place in a taxi, held back the crowds and ushered me into the car. I ended up squeezed into the front seat with a man but luckily it was only a twenty minute journey and so the discomfort was just about bearable, I wouldn’t like to do that for a long journey ever though.
I arrived in Ourzazate (Ourzazate Ourzazate, Ourzazate Ourzazate. For a place I didn’t plan to visit I seemed unable to escape it) over two hours early for my bus to Taroudant and so went and sat in a nearby café to read and people watch for a while before heading off to the bus terminal. Once again the bus journey offered up some spectacular views across the Moroccan countryside. The main thing that sticks in my memory is the colours – purple rocks, pink sand, orange stones, blue mountains and bright yellow-green plants. I had been reading C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet and it reminded me of his descriptions of Malacandra: every colour from a watercolour paint set. And yet, if I attempted to paint those views and used every colour in the set I still wouldn’t have even a tenth of the colours that were really there. Looking across this foreign land I could really imagine that I, like Ransom, had landed on another planet. Also like Ransom, now that I have left those views it feels so unreal that I sometimes half think that I perhaps only dreamed them. Everywhere I looked I could imagine as a film set for some sci-fi film; everything just looked so alien and out of this world. It makes me sad to think that one day those views will fade from my memory and I will be left only with a vague sense that I once experienced something so beautiful that no artist could ever capture it.
As we drew further away from Ourzazate and closer to Taroudant the scenery beagn to change dramatically. Everything became much greener and more lush with signs all around of agriculture. As a back drop to all this greenery the Anti Atlas Mountains in their soft blue and purple hues stood tall and proud like a protective wall around the land. I had not expected the change in scenery and felt excited to be spending four nights in such a lush and open area. As we pulled into Taroudant my excitement continued to grow: wide open streets lined with palms, water fountains, people going for a peaceful evening stroll and, of course, those famous ramparts guarding the old medina. I felt I was really going to enjoy my time here and could see myself taking relaxing walks and reading in cafes for the next few days.
As I got off the bus my heart sank. The part of the city I had become so excited about spending my time in was only a very tiny part by the gates to the medina. The rest of it was quite something else altogether. Where I found myself was in the middle of a large, dirty, smelly carpark that served as the bus station and grand taxi stand. After unsuccessfully trying to find directions to my hostel I entered the medina with my guidebook in hand and attempted to find my way through the labyrinth of winding, nameless streets. The place was heaving. Pedestrians, motorbikes, cars, cyclists, donkey carts and horses all jostled for position down the tiny, pavementless roads and within minutes I was lost. While I had experienced none of the unwanted attention from men in Morocco that I had been warned about, suddenly I was inundated by men wanting to talk to me, stare at me and simply make strange grunting noises at me. Naturally I was attracting unnecessary attention to myself because I was walking around with my Lonely Planet guide in my hand, quite clearly a lost tourist. Eventually I found a man who offered to show me to my hostel and walked me all the way through the medina and out to my hostel. It was about a twenty minute walk and I was worried I was going to have to pay out rather a lot of rupees to him when we arrived. He didn’t however accept any money and only wanted to promote himself as a tour guide to me. This might have been a good idea given the complexity of the medina alley system and my ability to get myself lost but unfortunately my money situation was reaching critical and so I was not able to take him up on it.
When I arrived at my hostel, Chambre D’hotes Des Amis, I found the place completely empty. After ringing the doorbell several times and calling out for someone to let me in, I finally rang the owner, Said, who came back shortly. This was a sign of things to come as after he let me in and showed me to my room I didn’t see Said again. He had a friend who served breakfast every morning but after about nine each morning the hostel was completely unmanned I had had the run of the place to myself. I often wondered how many tourists had turned up looking for a room only to have to go in search of another place. The hostel itself was ok. Small and tidy with nice bedrooms but a pretty atrocious bathroom that meant I ended up using it as little as possible. I also got bitten to pieces by bedbugs but I don’t know for sure that didn’t happen in Skoura. Overall you can probably tell that I’m not going to be recommending this hostel to anyone in a hurry!
After dropping my bag off at the hostel I set off into the medina in search of food, (it turns out the hostel doesn’t do food – one of the many mistakes in Lonely Planet’s guide to Morocco). The main square was full of cafes but all of them were either completely full or weren’t serving food. Luckily I found a table a Place da Assarag, a cafe that Said had recommended as having great food. I took a seat, (feeling a little on the uncomfortable side as I seemed to be the only woman in any of the cafes in the square which made me feel a little exposed), and ordered myself a vegetable couscous. I was hugely disappointed with what I was presented with. Not only was the food rather bland and nasty, but of the cutlery and crockery was absolutely filthy. I gave up on the food and feeling rather miserable returned to the hostel where I resigned myself to staying as much as possible during the rest of my stay. Back at the hostel I got chatting to a couple of girls from England who were surprised to hear that I’d managed to find anywhere to eat at all. They had been too self-conscious to go into the seemingly men only cafes and had been buying bread and tinned fish to eat back at the hostel instead. This seemed like a much more pleasant way of eating than tackling the medina, (and indeed much more sensible given the state of my bank account), and so I decided to follow their lead for the rest of my time there.
I suppose it was inevitable that I wasn’t going to particularly enjoy being back in a busy city after the peace and tranquillity of the desert and it’s oases but I really was rather disappointed with Taroudant. I would have left Taroudant altogether after a day if I hadn’t had to pay Said for the room upfront. I made the most of my time there however, going out for walks in the mornings to explore the city and then retreating to the hostel to read and nap on the pretty roof top terrace. I paint a pretty grim picture of Taroudant but I don’t wish to put any one off going there. There were some lovely bits too and I’m sure I would have enjoyed myself more if I hadn’t have been on my own. The city ramparts for example are really quite magnificent. They are not architecturally beautiful, indeed they are rather rudimentary and in places in need of extensive repair, but they are exceptional nonetheless. For me the fascination was because they resemble a giant sandcastle, slowly eroding over time. Castles Made of Sand. Nearer the city gates the roads open up and are palm lined, drawing attention to the splendour of the ramparts. This really is the best place to view the ramparts from and you can even climb up onto them here to experience the medina without having to get down into the grittiness of it. I did even actually develop a fondness for the medina once I got used to it and began to find my way around a little. I enjoyed my daily trips in to buy fresh bread and during the week days it was much quieter and therefore more enjoyable to take a stroll through it. One of my favourite things about Taroudant was the call for prayer. The hostel was right next door to a mosque and so three times a day I would hear the call for prayer echoing out across the medina. I’ve always found the call for prayer a very peaceful sound and really enjoyed listening to it, especially whilst relaxing on the roof terrace in the afternoon.
Good Bye, Morocco:
And so concludes the end of my trip to Morocco. I left Taroudant and travelled back to Marrakech, enjoying one last mint tea and people watching session in the square before returning to the airport for my flight home. I had a truly amazing time and would one hundred percent recommend others to go there. I will certainly be returning in the future to see more of the country. The landscape is truly spectacular, the culture is fascinating and the people are kind. I can’t think of much more you could ask for from a holiday. And my thoughts on travelling alone? I’d definitely do it again. When I told people I was going to Morocco on my own I got nothing but warnings and horror stories. “You’ll be harassed everywhere you go” “The men can’t keep their hands off women” “don’t talk to the men” and even “try not to get raped!” Needless to say I felt completely safe in Morocco and aside from half an hour when I arrived in Taroudant looking very much like a lost tourist I received absolutely no harassment, staring or untoward advances whatsoever. Indeed no one even batted an eye lid at me. I spoke to a lot of men and all were absolutely lovely and respectful, often going out of their way to help me. I did see women getting a few stares in Marrakech but these were women who hadn’t covered up appropriately (no, a knee length skirt and short sleeved t shirt is not covering up) and in a country where all the native women are covered this is bound to attract a few looks.
Whilst I sometimes felt that I would have experienced more if I’d had someone with me, (for example I might have felt braver to wonder further afield with someone by my side), I enjoyed the freedom of being able to go where I wanted when I wanted and being in charge of my own decisions. Having gone away on my own I now feel far more confident in my own abilities and will certainly consider solo travelling again in the future.