On Monday morning we left our camp at the beach in Gibraltar, without seeing any monkeys on the rock (Lis in particular found this very disappointing). We had been told that the best way to get tickets to Morocco was to go and see ‘Carlos’ by the LILD supermarket, this proved more difficult than we thought. After driving to three different LILD’s we finally found Carlos, but it was well worth the effort! Only 200 euros (200 euros cheaper than the cheapest price we could find online) for an open return ticket, all of the necessary paper work to get us through customs and they even sent us away with a bottle of cider and a chocolate sponge cake, service!
We stocked up on some supplies and headed for the ferry terminal where we encountered our first scammer – some guy trying to charge us 20 euros to validate our tickets and make sure we got on the next ferry. Luckily we had read online about these sought of ‘helpers’ and after a bit of bamboozling and confusion we just decided to keep on driving. The actual ticket lady at the counter was great and we were on the ferry within 20 minutes of arriving at the terminal bound for Africa!
It turned out that getting in to Morocco was somewhat more challenging. We arrived in Ceuta which although in Africa is still Spanish territory and after driving nearly every street in Ceuta we finally found the Moroccan border. This was utter chaos. There were people everywhere with totally ridiculously overloaded cars that would never come close to being warranted in NZ (the yellow submarine would have been a pretty modern ride). There are three steps to customs and luckily we had read online about what these were and what we needed to do – there was an abundance of non-official helpers everywhere which we managed to avoid. We drove right through the initial police check point trying to escape a particularly enthusiastic helper but luckily the official customs people were use to first timers like us and we found one police officer that was quite helpful. Unfortunately most of the customs officers were a little grumpy and spoke no English they worked on early 90s computers and made what seemed like a simple process sound extremely confusing and complex. After at least half an hour of interrogation in French, lots of head shaking, stamping and writing random numbers on multiple pieces of paper we were in to Morocco. The chaos didn’t end there. It was a crash course in tooting, driving in the centre of the road, avoiding people trying to sell us stuff or hitch a ride or random children just running out on the street to wave. We drove down the coast for a couple of hours and ended up at Asilah in probably the strangest campsite we have stayed in yet. We were unsure of where exactly the camp ground was but as we drove through the township we were chased down the street by a waving Moroccan man who directed us in to his camp ground. We were the only campers and the campsite looked as though it hadn’t been used for the last 20 years. One block of showers had no taps or shower heads and when Andrew went to use the shower in the ‘good block’ the shower head fell off in a cloud of rust when the tap was turned on. We had a good dinner of fried fish on the water front the owner (a great laugh and who went by the name of Abdul Fish and Chips) even chased a couple of the local kids down the street when they started to try and eat the food off our plate. The next day we found a really helpful guy at Maroc Telecom who had us a sim card and internet connection within 10 minutes of walking in the store, so far the most reliable and cheapest internet on our trip! From Asilah we headed south to Rabat, we stayed off the motorways which was an experience in itself. During the drive we came across people riding donkeys, horses, 3 wheel motorbike trucks, trucks piled ridiculously high with hay bales, cars with atleast eight people in them, all sorts of road side stalls and some of the most entertaining and hair raising driving so far! There seems to be a huge police presence in Morocco, particularly on the roads and at round abouts, police check points seem to be every few kilometres.
The two camping grounds in Rabat we had planned on staying were either no longer in existence or shut for Summer so we drove south to Mohammedia, a resort town that seems to have fallen on hard times. The camp was a step up from Asilah, it was on the beach and there were two other campers at the site. The next day we caught the train to central Rabat. Rabat is Moroccos capital and third largest city but doesn’t seem to be too touristy. The Medina (old walled part of town) was a rabbit warren of Souks (markets), merchants selling leather, ceramics, spices and herbal potions, carpets and rugs and street food. We had heard the merchants in Rabat weren’t as pushy as those in other centres so it was a good place for us to practice our negotiating skills. Haggling is a way of life for the Moroccans which strangely often involves sitting down for a nice cup of very sweet Moroccan mint tea. We visited the Kasbah where we sat down for a cup of tea and got suckered in by a couple of woman who grabbed our arms and gave us henna tattoos even though we were quite clear that we did not want them. It was a great scam because once they finished they charged us a ridiculous fee, our kiwi politeness meant we just paid and left angry at ourselves for being such suckers. They have become our reminder to be a little more street savvy. The Kasbah itself was quite stunning with blue and white walls and a great view over the ocean, river and city. We also checked out the Mohammed Mausoleum which was an interesting place but was also full of quite devout Muslims so we felt a little out of place. There is also a guy who stands on the first floor of the Mausoleum who recites the Koran aloud.
The next day we drove to Marrakech, this time along the highways, which had surprisingly low tolls, and were fast to drive along, but weren’t quite as colourful as the back roads. It was a hot drive. The van didn’t much like going uphill in 38 degree sunshine. We had to have the heater up full to avoid the engine overheating, so by the time we arrived at our campsite, we were sweltering and stoked to see the pool.
We spent the next day in Marrakech city exploring the souks. The taxi ride into town was pretty crazy, controlled chaos with lots of tooting, lane changing and hand signals out windows. We were glad someone else was doing the manoeuvring. Marrakech was a chance to hone out haggling skills, and we came away with a couple of beautiful ceramic bowls and some leather. The main square in the market was huge, and had monkeys, snake charmers, and ladies doing henna tattoos! People seem to be trying to make money any way they can here, they offer to give you directions, but lead you into shops where they get commissions, they tell you streets are closed for 'prayer' or that you are going the wrong way when you know you are not, expect tips for giving advice and are constantly badgering for you to go into their shops “just for a look” then barricade you in by blocking the exit. They are all about haggling to achieve a “fair and democratic price,” and all seem to have the same lines they use on tourists. A day in the markets is pretty full on, especially in 40 degree heat, and we left for camp that night exhausted.
We knew we had a bit of a drive ahead of us the next day, so got up early and headed west through the High Atlas region. The scenery was stunning, incredible geology, high mountain peaks, green valleys with palm trees among sheer red rock, where not even grass grew. We saw a farmer with a herd of goats in a tree eating the leaves, but weren’t able to stop for photos. Even out in the middle of nowhere there were people standing on the side of the road trying to sell us everything from quartz rock which they had dyed different colours to pottery and fossils. We stopped at Ait Ben Haddou, an old Kasbah which now only 8 families live in but is beautiful. It has been used for filming lots of different movies over the past few years including Gladiator and The Mummy, and is also used to film Game of Thrones.
We stayed the night in the Todra Gorge, again a ridiculously cheap camping ground with restaurant and swimming pool, with us as the only campers.
The next day, we headed for Merzouga, a town on the edge of the Sahara desert. It was our 4th day in a row of over 40 degree heat, but felt easily hotter than the other towns, and was probably around 50 during the drive with the heater on full blast to stop the Sundance overheating. The guy at the Todra Gorge camping ground had recommended his cousin Ali for a tour into the Sahara desert that night. About 3 different people stopped us on the way by standing in the middle of the road and tried to convince us to take their desert tour instead of going with Ali, but we stuck to our guns and were happy we did. Ali owns a hotel and runs tours into the desert. He gave us a room to use while we were waiting for it to cool down enough to venture into the desert, and we had the run of the place as the only guests. We cooled off in the pool, had some mint tea, then met Mohammed our guide, and our camels (Lis was very disappointed that they didn’t have names, Andrew was more disappointed that they only had one hump) and ventured into the Sahara. Mohammed was a Berber (the tribe of people in Morocco who were here before the Arabs), and grew up as a nomad in the mountains with his family. We spent about an hour on camelback and saw the sunset, before getting to a mini tent city in the Sahara. Each hotel owns a group of tents for tourists to come and stay in, and can be accessed by camel or 4WD. Mohammed and another guy cooked us a delicious Moroccan meal of soup, tagine and melon, we had a little walk around then headed to bed in our private tent. In the height of tourist season 40 people from Ali’s hotel stay in the same place we had to ourselves. There were a few other tourists with different groups, but we were lucky that things were quiet. The next morning, we got up at 5.30 to climb a huge sand dune behind the tent city to watch the sunrise, and had the dune to ourselves. It was a tough climb, and took about 40 minutes, but was totally worth it. The sand in the desert was a beautiful gold colour, and so vast. We climbed back on our camels and rode back to the hotel, where we were told we could stay as long as we needed, had showers and breakfast. The whole experience cost around 50 NZD each. Amazing and unforgettable.
So far, Morocco has been unique. There is such an amazing array of scenery, delicious food and some really amazing people. Our water intake has been through the roof - we must be averaging about 4L per day each. It is a very poor country, and you sense that a lot of people are desperate for any little bit that they can get, which does make it quite a tiring place to be in at times as a tourist. We have never visited a muslim country before, and find that we are constantly being singled out as outsiders, with strange looks, especially in the country areas where there are not many tourists. Every night, there are loudspeakers that drone with music and chanting from the towers of mosques which go on until about midnight.
This week, we are going to be heading to northern Morocco to finish our tour, before heading back to a different kind of chaos in southern Spain.