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Rock the Kasbah!

Community Highlights Africa & The Middle East Rock the Kasbah!

Far away from that land down under we call home, there’s a place where the Arabian nights of Aladdin meet the adventures of Indiana Jones. Located in the far north-west of Africa, bordering the Sahara Desert and yet still only a stone throw away from Spain lies the most culturally saturated country we’ve encountered on our journey so far… Morocco!

Morocco hadn’t always been on the itinerary but, as luck would have it, not more than 5 days before we were due to farewell the Brits and cross the European border in search for warmer pastures, Joel stumbled across some interesting information regarding the immensely complicated ‘Schengen agreement’ and low and behold a few days later we found ourselves here, wandering the souks and soaking up the sights, smells and customs of this incredibly fascinating place.

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For those who are familiar with the term ‘Schengen’ you’ll know just how much of a head f*ck it can be, for those who aren’t I’ll try to quickly summarise… Most of Europe, as I’m sure you all know, is border free ie. No checkpoints, stamps in the passport or need to obtain multiple visas; this is because of Schengen. The Schengen agreement allows Australian’s (and other nations) to travel visa-free between any country under the agreement (which covers most of EU), for up to 90 days in any 180 day period, which is great, unless you plan to spend 4,5,6 months lazily meandering along in your camper exploring Europe. Unfortunately the Schengen agreement denies you this freedom and along with a hefty fine if caught plus a 3 year ban, your overstay is also recorded resulting in difficulty entering many other countries (the USA in particular).

So, our grand plan to spend 4+ months travelling Europe was shattered and days before we were due to leave UK we found ourselves madly searching the net for nearby non-Schengen/European countries to visit to buy ourselves enough time on our Schengen visa to allow us to travel through til the end of August, (hope that all makes sense?!)
We’d spoken about visiting Morocco a few times in passing and as it turned out Aussies are granted a cost-free 90 day visa on arrival, sold!

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True to the hopelessly unorganised Joel & Renée fashion, we booked a ferry to Spain literally hours before its departure and piled in the van (damp towels flapping in the breeze) to make the 3 hour journey from London to Portsmouth to leave the UK in our wake. Docking 24 hours later in Santander, we spent a few days exploring Spain before flying out from Madrid, (more on that later).

Before arriving to Morocco I had no idea what to expect. I imagined dusty streets, souks filled with all coloured silks and spices, women dressed in burkas and possibly a few camels thrown in for good mix! Turned out Morocco was just about that! The biggest quandary I had before arriving was what to wear!? I spent hours reading up on the expected standard of dress for foreign women visiting Morocco, and, if I were to believe everything I read on the internet, I’d be dressing myself in a large hessian sack and hiding myself from all the spitting, hissing, name calling and tomato throwing that would be coming my way if I wore anything less. I settled on packing a few long skirts, hippie pants, baggy singlets and a scarf to cover my head and/or shoulders and hoped that would do.

Walking out from border control at Marrakech airport we were immediately greeted by dry heat, cactus gardens and wide dusty roads leading in every direction away from the airport. We piled onto one of the public buses and made our way for Marrakech’s main square, Djemaa el-Fna ساحة جامع الفناء.
Within half an hour of arriving I’d seen it all; turbaned men, crowded souks, old mosques, terracotta buildings, camels, donkeys… even snake charmers! It was like walking into a scene of Aladdin! I reckon I could have turned around and gone home then and I would have been pretty satisfied.

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The people of Morocco are lovely. Everywhere we went people would ask us where we were from to which when we replied ‘Australia’ they would say “You are very welcome, be happy in Morocco” or “ahh Kangaroo! Welcome to Morocco”.
Turned out I was fine in wearing what I’d packed too. I was able to walk around in a long skirt and loose fitted singlet with no problems in the more touristy areas, (I saw many travelers wearing much less, tut tut), and after encountering one uncomfortable experience where Joel and I wandered a little too far out of the medina and I was hissed at by a few men, I made sure I always had my shawl tied to my bag ready to put on for moments when I needed to be more conservatively dressed.

We met a lovely Chilean couple (Veronica & Sebastián) and a Canadian girl (Ashley) on our second day in Marrakech and made plans to take a tour to the Sahara desert together a few days later.

We passed much of our time in Marrakech wandering the colourful maze-like souk streets and sampling the local cuisine while people watching in Djemaa el-Fna, (the main square). By day the square is sparsely decorated with little more than a few donkey & cart, the drone of snake charmers and little OJ stalls selling the most delicious freshly squeezed orange juice for only 40¢ a glass! Come sundown however the place comes alive with night markets and rows of open-air food stalls & restaurants. It’s smoky, crowded and full of commotion and cheer as each and every stall fights for your business as you pass them by. Each of the stalls sell an array of delicacies from the traditional tagines and couscous to a bbq’d sheep’s head for the adventurous… um Joel! If you’re lucky enough you might even find yourself hanging out with the likes of David Arquette while sampling snails and being filmed for an episode of his upcoming documentary ‘Mile High’…might be Joel and Sebastián’s small claim to fame later this year, watch this space.

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Fast forward 2 days and we’re aboard a minivan with our newly made friends, winding our way through the Atlas Mountains; destination Sahara desert! On our way we passed large gorges, remote Berber villages, donkeys pulling along heavy loads and many herds of sheep, goats and camels. We stopped to visit a few Berber villages along the way and explored Ait Benhaddou آيت بن حدّ – the Kasbah where Gladiator and a number of other movies were filmed.

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We drove for hours through barren lands and scorching heat, (it literally felt like a large hairdryer blowing in through the windows), until finally we could make out large sand dunes over the horizon where our camels were patiently waiting our arrival!

Arriving to a small outpost in the middle of nowhere we shared a pot of mint tea (or as the locals call it “berber whiskey”) then loaded up the camels as quickly as possible keen to set off into the dunes. From our harrowing -40 degree trek across Mongolia on horseback earlier this year we were now halfway across the world riding camelback through the scorching +40 degree heat of the Sahara desert... talk about extremes! We trekked about an hour and a half before stopping the catch the sunset, then jumped back on our one humped camel friends for a short ride to camp. Camel riding is not at all comfortable, nor is it graceful. My bum and legs were in so much pain by the end of the trek but oh how much fun it is anyway and the camels are so cute... in a smelly, spitting, constantly pooping kind of way. Me and my mate Norman became the best of friends :-)

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Come nightfall our Berber hosts prepared tagine for dinner then serenaded us with Moroccan song and congo drums for the next few hours. We slept the night on rollout mattresses, in the middle of the sandy desert, gazing up at the stars – it was pretty magical.

The next morning was an early starter getting up at 6am (this is unheard of for Joel and I these days!), to drag our sleepy eyed selves up the dunes to catch the sun rising up over the Sahara. I thought sunset in the desert was beautiful but sunrise was even more breathtaking!

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With the morning sun high in the sky we raced and rolled back down the dunes, jumped on our camels and made the trek back to the outpost where breakfast awaited us. From there we faced a 12 hour journey back to Marrakech… 12 hours of non-stop spiraling and zigzagging around some of the most precarious and nauseating and roads I’ve ever been on. Our driver flew around the bends ignoring the steep cliff edges to our right and chunks of missing barrier from previous cliff accidents before us – it was frightening!

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As if that wasn’t already making us hold onto our seats in fear he started overtaking loaded trucks at a decent pace around completely blind corners! The worst part was our driver spoke only Arabic and French and couldn’t understand, (or chose not to listen to us), when we asked him to SLOW DOWN!
We arrived back in Marrakech, (in one piece thankfully), around 8pm and crashed back at our riad for the rest of the night.

The next day we caught a train to Fez accompanied by our Chilean friends (whom we ended up teaming up with for the rest of the trip). Fez فاس is famous for its ancient walled city which happens to be the world’s largest medieval medina and car-free urban zone; the only forms of transport you’ll find in these old cities walls are donkeys and motorbikes. We spent hours getting lost in the myriad souk streets of the medina and met a nice man who showed us through the fascinating and unforgettable tanneries.

The tanneries of Fez date right back to the 1200’s and the process of tanning the leathers and turning them into soft colourful slippers, handbags and jackets has remained virtually unchanged from when it began over 800 years ago. Our friendly ‘guide’ happened to have a friend who conveniently happened to have a shop right next to the tanneries offering an amazing viewpoint from its roof terrace. The catch to this of course was that after enjoying such a view we would be haggled to buy something from his friend’s leather shop afterwards, but what does one expect from a free guide ;-)

The tanneries were a beautiful sight; loads of clay tanning tubs, each filled with rainbow colours of the earth – saffron yellow, cobalt blue, fresh mint green, and men (much resembling leather themselves having worked in the sun all those years), standing knee deep in the tubs soaking and kneading the animal hide through the dye.

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What I won’t be forgetting for a while however was the smell.. it was AWFUL! As we entered the shop we were warned of the stench and offered a bunch of mint leaves each with the advice to firmly plug the leaves up our nose to help mask the smell. Even still, I was not expecting it to be so bad! To make the animal hides nice and soft they are first soaked in limestone tubs filled with a pungent mixture of pigeon poop and cow urine before they are ready to be dyed. The mint did next to nothing to mask the smell and though I tried to be tough the smell was so offensive it made me dry-wretch so much I vomited in my mouth a little… twice!

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Our next stop on the map was Chefchaouen الشاون‎, a small blue-rinsed town situated against the beautiful backdrop of the Rif Mountains. Everything in the town in blue; the streets, buildings, taxis… I even saw a little girl holding a baby chick that had been dyed blue (hmm). The tradition of the blue buildings and alleys of Chaouen was started by the Jewish population who sought refuge in this mountainous town back in the 1930’s. Since we weren’t going to have the time to visit the white and blue washed buildings of Greece this holiday we decided a visit to Chefchauoen would be the next best thing.

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Along with its cobbled streets and blue washed walls, the town also boasts a rather large mull plantation, the likes of which the current King frequently visits – apparently he even has his very own plantation in the area, though I was told this by a crazy Dutch hippie whom tried to set up camp on my already shot-gunned mattress (ignoring our stuff already there), then stayed on my bed for a good hour at least reciting his very strange, (very contemporary?) poetry to me and showing me his ‘art’ which he was planning to sell on the street to earn a bit of extra cash. The next day I saw this guy leaving the riad asking people if they had any money they could give him because he couldn’t afford the 40DH ($4) for last nights stay… what a dude haha.

We slept on the rooftop terrace of a cheap little riad which pretty awesome falling asleep each night staring up at the night sky, (even if I did get crazy allergies from all the dirt and dust up there).

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We spent our 3 days/nights in Chef just relaxing on the rooftop listening to music, meeting new travelers and staring out to the incredible view. We also wandered the blue streets, we ate, oh and we also went on a full day trek out to a massive waterfall.
Most people we spoke to about trekking it to the waterfalls advised us of a few things:
1. It’s around 3hrs return journey to the big waterfall;
2. You'll be fine to get there without proper walking shoes; and
3. The water is very warm to swim in.

None of the above was true. Firstly it took us near on 5hrs trek to the big waterfall and back, which included 8 river crossings, many wrong turns, several busted plugs (mainly due to the fact both Joel and I had opted to wear thongs as opposed to closed shoes – stupid Aussies), and for Joel as he so nicely put it: “severely shrunken testicles”. The trek on the way there alone took easily 3 hours and when we finally reached the beautiful waterfall we realised it was in a gully that saw only 2-3 hours of sunlight a day, and was therefore colder than the arctic waters surrounding England in winter.
That said it was an experience we'll never forget. Nothing can describe the solidarity of trekking without a guide through a country 10,000 miles away from home with friends that you have really only just met :-)

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Desperately in need of some sun, (or at least somewhere we would be allowed to let the sun see our skin), the 4 of us left the haze of hash smoke and blue-rinsed walls and made a dash for the beach. We researched a few nice beaches along the Mediterranean coast and decided on Tetouan, though in the end it turned out that chilling on the beach for a couple days was a more impossible task than we’d expected. Arriving at the Tetouan coast (a 10km taxi ride from the city centre) was less then underwhelming; a pretty baron beach, no hostels and a distinct lack of anything that was remotely interesting.

A quick walk around saw us flagging down the closest taxi, (which the driver managed to pile 7 people into to make more money for the one journey), and made our way back to the cities centre where we found an incredibly scabby hotel room and chilled there for the rest of the night huddled around Joel’s laptop watching Indiana Jones.

From Tetouan we caught a bus to Tangier where we spent an entire day lugging around our packs waiting to catch the overnight train back to Marrakech that night. We found a little beachside restaurant that served a nice meal for lunch and even sold alcohol! (Btw alcohol in Morocco is near on impossible to find and obscenely expensive if you do!) Having nowhere else to go we spent most of our afternoon there watching the camels chill out on the beach and looking out across the water to the south-coast of Spain!! We were so close to Spain in fact that my mobile (with a Spanish sim card in it) actually received enough reception for me to get a cheeky fix of facebook ;-)

At 9pm sharp our train rolled away from the station and set off for Marrakech. When buying our tickets we were given a choice of two tickets; the seater cabin – upright seats in an open cabin at 175DH each (app. $17.50), or the sleeper cabin – a 4 berth cabin with two bunk beds at 375DH (app. $37.50). Having travelled on a few buses and trains by now and knowing what 12 hours feels like in transit I convinced Joel we should pay the extra $20 each for a more comfortable journey. Our Chilean friends opted for the seater cabin ticket which made me doubt my choice and feel guilty for wasting money on a luxury when I probably shouldn’t have. That said my guilt was short lived. I quickly fell asleep to the lullaby of the subtle rocking of the train and slept fairly well right through til morning, ahh. Our Chilean friends however (as we found out on our arrival to Marrakech), hadn’t had even a wink of sleep all night between keeping constant watch over their bags and having numerous people coming in and out of the cabin including some really strange guy having a crack smoking session in their cabin. I concluded it was probably $40 well spent… though at least they’ll have an interesting story to tell!

We were back in Marrakech for one last night, which we spent chilling back at our riad, smoking shisha and drinking expensive beer. In the morning we’d be flying back to Madrid, picking up our Jasper and hitting the road again :-)

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Bismillah

Renée

This featured blog entry was written by Joel-Renee from the blog The beer is better when backpacking.
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Travellerspoint has a map of budget accommodation in Marrakech that can help you find a place. Or read up in the travel guide on things to see and do.

By Joel-Renee

Posted Thu, Aug 16, 2012 | Morocco | Comments