PART ONE – ATLAS MOUNTAINS & OTHER MASSIVE EXPERIENCES
Saturday | Tour Day 1
We’re up at 6:30am and depart the large wooden doorway of the Riad like a well trained army troop by 7:30am.
Breakfast is cooked by Moussa and includes a range of different Moroccan breads – some sweet, most flat savoury, an omelette to share and you guessed it a mint tea poured from lofty heights into our small drinking glasses.
Our tour driver’s name is Mohammad and we are on this tour as a group of seven so really it’s our own private tour for our family. Great value at 800 Dirham each (A$108) for three nights and four days of safari touring. Mohammad has been in the driving business for 24 years and in tourism for 20 of those years. He’s a professional and knows these roads like the back of his hand.
The touring van that Mohammad drives is clean and roomy and there’s air conditioning. That’s an important aspect when travelling to the desert where the temperature will easily reach close to 50 degrees Celsius. We soon discover that Mohammad is a very happy and cheerful middle aged Moroccan man with a funny sense of humour and adventure. We depart Marrakech passing through the bustling city and the high orange sandstone walls of the Royal Palace.
Climbing The High Atlas Mountains
We are journeying to the High Atlas Mountains. I really don’t know much about this mountain range so it’s all going to be a new discovery for all of us. Soon enough we see that the mountains of Morocco are unique. Shaped differently, the one thing they all have in common is that they are mammoth and impressive to gaze at from the van windows. There are many a-h-a and wow moments as Mohammad glides around the smooth corners and hairpins and yet again before us is another amazing mountain, seemingly better and more impressive than the previous. If the size of these mountains is impressive, the colours of the mountains are are even more so – a wonderful array of differing hues of brown, pink, and even purple. Mohammad pulls over on the side of the road so we can grab a photo or two to officially commence the tour as well as the millions of photos I am about to take of the Moroccan scenery these coming few days!
After a few hours of driving we stop off at a café where Ash and I enjoy a coffee on the top of the cafe’s rooftop viewing platform (it’s a delightful view and coffee) while the others buy cool drinks and some snacks. The sun is out and it’s hot up here, but nevertheless we‘re completely enjoying the tour and absorbing the amazing landscape that unfolds the further we climb up this mountain range.
The mountains really don’t look real. These stone structures seem to rise up out from the earth in a way that is both bold and breathtaking. The mountains are often covered with rocks or shrubs or cactus and what’s especially interesting are the hillside homes built within the rolls of the mountains. These villages completely camouflage in with the brown and arid environment.
Further up on top of the mountain ridge local vendors set up makeshift crystal shops for tourists. There’s one shop on the side of the road with a welcome sign to the Atlas Mountains and inside sparkles with rocks and crystals mined from the mountains around here. There is a shelf that hugs the curve of the edge which is made of wood that showcases a range of crystals that are for sale.
The winding road shows sign of wear and tear too with obvious car-knocking into the protective steel barrier along the edge of the mountain. It’s in a state of brokenness. We stand on this mountain outside this little crystal shop on the side of the road while Dacey and Jarrod, who love crystals, look inside the rocks and discuss the varieties with the man selling them while I’m wandering down the road with my camera snapping away at the looming hills and Charlie is doing hand stands in the middle of the road!
Major road work construction is happening along this mountainous road too with plenty of large trucks and diggers making a huge mess of dust and soil. The road is narrow and the rocks and erosion are obvious which is causing havoc for motorists along this road. Unfortunately, Ash and I experience feeling car sick while sitting in the very back of the van, due to all the winding and dizzying turns. It doesn’t help that the air conditioner has been turned off while climbing the steep slopes and the stop-start nature of the journey means we need all the power we can get in this van to climb up. The air feels hot and heavy, and the further we climb the air becomes thinner and I’m experiencing tingling in my hands and that awful feeling of sickness in the pit of our stomachs. Mohammad stops on the side of the road as Ash and I jump out white and fragile. We both have different ways of handling car sickness – mine is to walk around, even jump up and down a couple of times getting the air to every part of my body, whereas Ash prefers to sit down and still and zone out on the side of the road.
We are on the side of the road on a slope in the High Atlas Mountains at an altitude of 2,260m now, but there are even higher mountains that reach 4,167m (which we don’t visit on this trip).
We two decide to sit in the front of the van with the driver while Steve jumps in the back. There are two seats next to Mohammad with seat belts. It works out a lot better for us in these mountains. Luckily we only have a short distance to travel; before we stop again for a photo opportunity at a look out over the magnificent valley below. We are admiring the view with a gander of other tourists who are journeying along the same mountain route. How amazing is that view!
The Hollywood of Morocco
This city should really be called Mollywood. If America has Hollywood and India has Bollywood, then it follows that Morocco’s Hollywood could be called Mollywood. This is Ouazazate City where all the movies are made for both the Moroccan and Hollywood film industries.
We drive along the long road in and out passing the large movie sets with impressive gates and walls around their perimeter. It’s home to many castle and medieval movie with its perfect landscape.
We arrive at our lunch stop and choose lunch before an hour long tour of the Ait Ben Haddou where many movies – past and present – have been filmed. I think the kids need an energy top up of food before walking on a tour in this heat. It’s got to be close to 40 degrees and there’s a warm breeze. The conditions hit us hard departing the coolness of the air conditioned van. We enjoy the set lunch even though it’s quite expensive at 120 Dirhams each (A$16) and this quickly adds up when there are six mouths to feed! We each order our own meal, but vow to share expensive meals like this one next time.
Walking Through Ait Ben Haddou, Ouarzaz
Our guided tour of Ait Ben Haddou in Ouarzaz costs 20 Dirham each. This township that sits on a mountain was first created as a Jewish settlement and then when the Jewish people left, the area and the settlement was handed over to the local Berber families to inhabit. Walking across the dry riverbed towards the settlement of homes spread out over the mountain is another moment in amazement – mud clad homes blend in with the environment.
The films that many of us know that have been made here include:
- 1954 Ali Baba
- 1961 Lawrence of Arabia
- Jewel of the Nile
- Game of Thrones
- And many more.
There’s a heat warped and sun bleached list of the movies pinned to a board near the entry to this brown and dust enveloped city.
Our guide informs us that the movies filmed here always require extras and lots of extras. So the payment for playing an extra in the films is given to the local people who live here and in turn this payment has assisted many of them being able to move out of the old dilapidated brown city and into the new city where they enjoy a better quality of living.
Our young tour guide shares how he was also an extra in many of the movies and tells us that he was paid 300 Dirham per day plus food allowances on top of that. It’s a good paying job for people around here! Our young guide is currently studying Engineering at university and wants to get into the field of solar energy. He wants to do something different and solar makes sense here with this sun.
The tour takes us into the heart of the old brown city, walking up the clay clad steps and through the passageways and past homes and quaint shops. We stop inside one shop where a man demonstrates how secret messages were disguised and sent from city to city using tea in the old days. He lights a small gas bottle and the flame flickers and he hovers a piece of thick white paper over it until the top of the paper starts to change colour. And at the end of moving the paper in a continuous circular motion over the heat, ensuring not to burn a hole through any part of the paper, we see an image appear on the paper. This one is a painting of a landscape that appears on the paper just like magic.
We leave his art shop without a hard sale placed upon us and wander through the winding maze like lanes of the old city until we reach the very top. Our guide sits down on a ledge as we wander up to the top to check out the 360 degree views. Billie and Dacey must have taken the acting vibe around here seriously as they are both acting out that they are dying in this brown and hot city. Their tongues are hanging out like dogs and they don’t make it to the top. Instead they find a shady place to collapse and wait for us to return. I think I should get them into acting school.
The 360-degree view is quite overwhelmingly glorious. The wind crops up, and we watch small dust storms whirl around the base of this city and move across the barren landscape collecting more dust along its path. Jarrod loses his cap and it goes flying off the side of the hill, but he manages to climb down and back up against the wind’s force.
We walk back down much to the relief of Billie and Dacey. Our hour long tour must be coming to an end, as our tour guide is calling for us to hurry up. We follow our guide through the back streets of the town. Jarrod is preoccupied talking with local shop keepers and getting too involved in what they’re selling. There are some amazing items that are for sale at these shops – old world wares like voodoo dolls, silver compasses, pots, saddles, leather goods, colourful bags and clothes. I think I could spend a day here just fossicking around the place and admiring the old world charms on offer.
But the guide is walking faster than we can keep up. Jarrod, Charlie and I fall behind and we end up losing the gang. We finally find the others with the help of our guide and Messenger (oh how we love Messenger app while travelling). They’re inside a small shop as Billie and Ash are trying on scarves that they can wear to The Sahara. We’re told they’re much cheaper here (of course), and we purchase two scarves for the next part of our intrepid journey.
We finish the tour back at the restaurant where we enjoyed the over priced lunch. There we see our driver Mohammad who has changed into a flowing kaftan himself and we don’t recognise him! Things must be about to get very hot where we are heading to the way he’s now dressed.
Rock The Kasbah
We follow the longest roads into the land of sand dunes and watch the roaming nomadic camels with their one hump, aka dromedary, wander across the vast flat landscape and the road. Mohammad mentions that we are moving through different provinces every time we pass through a set of stoned gates along the road.
*insert camel crossing road here*
In the distance to our right we pass a large fresh water lake that Mohammad taunts us by saying we’re going to the beach after the desert. He is always making jokes and laughing with us all in the van which makes the trip so much more enjoyable.
The old kasbahs and scattered ruins are a rich brown just like the earth is here. The seemingly forever-ness of the brown hills and rocky mountains keep me enthralled in the van as we keep moving towards The Sahara. Grand rocky plateaus with green patches spread out under the painted blue sky while this bitumen road goes on forever and ever into the future. We pass heaving trucks with full loads, hay trucks over stacked so much that they have a gradual lean to one side. On the side of the road are shops selling hundreds of clay tagine pots and a variety of other pottery and ceramic goods.
But we do not stop at any of these. Ash has got her jack cord in the car’s stereo and we are all bopping away to music. Currently listening to Billy Idol’s White Wedding and longing for our final stop of the day, our hotel. We drive through a built up town and Mohammad stops the car at a viewing platform and we step out to stretch the legs and admire the view. When we ask Mohammad how much longer we have driving, he is full of jokes and funny remarks. We are not sure what is real with him any more as almost everything is a joke. We peer across a sea of homes cradled by the valley and see a myriad of colourful buildings and homes. It’s another world here and so very intoxicating to the eyes.
After we take our photos we clamber back in the van and funny man Mohammad drives up about 10 metres and parks the van next to the Kasbah Hotel and announces, “We’re here!” We are all pleasantly surprised, and yes he had us completely fooled that we had much further to travel.
We all enjoy separate rooms here at the Kasbah Hotel. There’s no air conditioning nor fans in any of our bedrooms, but more importantly there’s an amazing in ground swimming pool for us all to enjoy tonight. It doesn’t take long for the kids to get into their bathers and meet us poolside. I look out the screened window of our bedroom and watch a young goat herder bringing his flock up from the valley below.
There’s a group of other tourists also sitting and relaxing by the cool, refreshing pool. The pool is large enough for everyone to be in it at once, and at one end of the pool there are a row of fancy spurt mechanisms tossing water out that forms an arch of water over part of the pool. The sound of trickling water is instantly relaxing. the dive into the pool is lovely. Instantly refreshing and cleansing to be in water after all that heavy driving today. It’s nice to change it up for the kids as well and they are thoroughly enjoying their opportunity of being in water.
After the swim, we head back upstairs and enjoy a dinner of three courses: starter is a vegetable soup with bread, main a chicken tagine and for dessert cut up watermelon. It’s a lovely hearty meal. They even sell beers here! Are we still in Morocco? Charlie and Dacey decide to jump in the pool one final time tonight as we sit poolside and enjoy the stars. We don’t stay up late, as it’s an early start in the morning. Unfortunately, it’s so very hot in the rooms that falling asleep is more difficult than expected. The rooms are more akin to a steaming room than a sleeping room. The girls resort to wetting a towel and placing it over their bodies so they can fall asleep easier.
Make sure you continue reading my next blog post titled Days 216-218 | Five: PART 2 Moments of Morocco Atlas Mountains and Sahara | 22-24 July 2017 that completes this amazing tour in Morocco’s mountains and desert.