An African-Arabian Adventure in Marrakesh & Ouzoud
Where: Marrakesh and Ouzoud. Morocco, Africa.
When: February 2010
What: Camel trekking through Palm Groves, Ouzoud Waterfall, Barbary Apes, Souks, Jemaa el Fnaa, Moroccan mosaics, The Saadian Tomb, Majorelle Cactus Gardens, Koutoubia Mosque, Kasbah Mosque, Moorish Architecture, Snake Charmers, Mahgreb mint tea, Tagine cuisine.
How: Flights, Grand Taxi, Taxi,Camel trekking, Walking.
Country counter: +1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Surviving a ride in the Moroccan death taxi with its steaming engine, broken doors and distinct lack of seat belts; having a very close shave with a local thug in Ouzoud.
This was a week-long adventure in Morocco taking in the cultural heart of Morocco, Marrakesh, and a trip out to the geographical heart of the country Ouzoud - home to the famous waterfalls at the start of the Atlas Mountain region. This was my first taste of the African continent and it proved to be rather different from anything I had experienced as a traveller up until this point. The Kingdom of Morocco, to give it its formal title, rests on the northern edge of Africa and is made up of large chunks of mountains and desert. It borders the much-troubled Algeria to the east and Mauritania to the south. Morocco does not have the most glowing of reputations abroad, and this was borne out by anecdotal tales from friends in the run-up to my departure. Only a few years previously a friend was compelled to abandon his hitch from London to Morocco because of a spate of tourist kidnappings. He only made it as far as the tip of southern Spain and had to turn back. It was just not safe.
Poverty and desperation were evident in too many of the faces I saw, making Morocco a confronting and humbling place in which to be a traveller. Expect to be badgered, expect people to grab your arm and try to lead you away, expect to face a level of aggression borne out of frustration and poverty. This is a desperation which is tangible: it is in the waiters demanding tips, in the loitering men offering to be your "guide", in the overworked and mistreated animals you will see by roadsides. I found adopting a dismissive, almost rude persona, when dealing with some of the characters who approached me was the only way to effectively communicate that I was not interested. Indeed, it has to be said that this is a difficult balance to strike: be too rude and your aggression will be me with aggression. Being able to speak French, as well as a few basic Arabic phrases, helped to convey the impression that we were not as green as we actually were. There are additional dangers in travelling to Morocco which go far beyond annoying hawkers and aggressive touts. A restaurant we frequented on several occasions in the Jemaa el Fnaa, the Argana Café, popular with tourists because of its central location and view of the square, was blown up by a suicide bomber working for al Qaeda a mere 14 months after our visit. Seventeen people died. The majority were travellers like me.
It may be a traveller faux-pas to say you didn't like a place but, to be honest, I didn't really like Morocco. I think part of the problem was me - I just wasn't prepared for it and entered into Marrakesh like a lamb to the slaughter. Had I been a little more experienced and well-informed I may not have responded in the way that I did. Morocco: an adventure, definitely. Enjoyable? Possibly - but, I would argue, a place for the seasoned and experienced traveller only.
We arrived in Marrakesh in darkness. It was around eight in the evening when we fell head first into the blackened chaos of the Jemaa el Fnaa. The main square was an assault on the senses, an unholy confluence of petrol fumes from youths zooming on motorbikes mixed with the smell of smoke from fires mixed with the wafting vapours of the sewer. The whole scene was illuminated by yellowy daubs of light smeared in the sky by street lamps mounted onto the minarets of nearby mosques. A cacophony of beating drums, revving engines and chaotic chatter acted as a discordant soundtrack to this, my most intimidating travel experience to date. The new holiday clothes I'd packed in my rucksack were swiftly sidelined, to be replaced by the comfortable, by the practical, by the less conspicuous. Such first impressions had me convinced that the trip would not pass without incident; Morocco is definitely not a place for the novice traveller which, at the time of my visit, I clearly was. The Jemaa el Fnaa was a rather brutal and unsavoury place which felt only marginally safer during the day.
Trying to locate our traditional riad amid the night-time chaos was impossible in the poorly-lit and nameless labyrinthine backstreets. A stroke of luck meant that we had the telephone number of the riad's owner who, following our frantic phone call (once we had worked out the telephone codes), came in person to collect us. We simply would not have found our way out of the square without him. I have no embarrassment in admitting that I have never been so happy to see a complete stranger in my life. When we realised who it was approaching us (initially thinking it was yet another hawker), we both breathed a huge sigh of relief: we were being safely escorted out of the madness and into a warm and inviting riad where, hopefully, a better phase of our trip would now commence. Our little riad was located at the end of a winding alleyway off of the main square and accessible only by wandering through the souks themselves. We were definitely at the heart of the action but I could have done without the potent smell of sewage in our room and the mould-covered walls hidden by beautiful-looking coloured fabric. In Morocco all is not what it seems. The Call to Prayer, however, created a wonderful sense of place; I love destinations where you are completely surrounded by the culture, where its intensity is overwhelming and its culture inescapable. This, surely, is the whole point of travel in the first place? I don't think I will ever understand those who spend a small fortune travelling to a place but who then, on arrival, spend a similar amount in trying to escape it by staying in a luxury hotel on the edge of the city a world away from anything worth experiencing. Staying local is the only way to go in my opinion. Even in Marrakesh.
We decided to escape the freneticism of central Marrakesh by booking a half-day camel trek in the Palm Groves, some twenty kilometres outside of the city. It was sufficient a distance as to help us pretend we were a world away. We spent our day with two Americans, a guide who spoke no English but whose smile made up for it, and a camel called Ali Baba. This leg of the journey revealed a more tender, easy going side to Morocco which I would not otherwise have seen. Lolloping through palm forests in the Moroccan countryside on camel back was a wonderful way to while away the best part of a day, stopping only to enjoy some Mahgreb mint tea served, notably, by a characteristically high pouring position. Our American friends headed back to their five star hotel on the edge of town with cable TV...and we headed back into the Jemaa el Fnaa. Admittedly I was a little envious of their luxury but we had made our choice to keep it local (and budget) and had to stick with it. I would have killed for a hotel room with a few modern conveniences and hot running water. A room without mould on the walls would have been awesome too.
... Arriving, miraculously, back in Marrakesh safe and sound after our trip out to the High Atlas Mountains the next task was to find our second riad in Marrakesh. The telephone system was not working and so the only way to get to our accommodation was to find our own way there. It was in an area far worse than the last one in which we had stayed. There were people weaving fabrics in their ground floor box rooms, hooded men grouped on corners surveying us suspiciously as, all the time, motorbikes zoomed along and donkey carts pushed lazily past us. It was grim and unnerving but a slice of authentic Moroccan life as anyone can hope to witness. In a last-ditch attempt to get to our riad, we hired a taxi for the benefit of buying some local geographical knowledge. However, the car could only take us so far and came to a grinding halt when the alleyway became too narrow to drive down. The driver enlisted the help of three local children who took over the navigation and who then demanded payment for their services. They were paid with a £1 coin - completely useless in Morocco, of course, but I think they were pleased to get a coin from a foreign land which, I mused at the time, they will probably never get to visit themselves. With that, the door opened and the riad's owner beckoned us in. Once again, a beautiful little world of colour, arranged around a small interior garden area, greeted us. I never ceased to be amazed at how the Moroccans manage to create such exquisite, miniature paradises comprised of pottery, mosaics, fountains and colourful cushions mere meters away from slum-like poverty and deprivation. Stepping into a riad is like stepping into a magical little world of beautiful things. Riads really are something special.
We whiled away our final few hours in Morocco in the beautiful Majorelle Cactus Gardens which, like the riads themselves, were a welcome little oasis of calm in an otherwise confronting place. Owned by Yves Saint Lauren, the French fashion designer, Majorelle is a botanical garden brimming fascinating varieties of cacti strategicallyset against walls and pergolas of vivid yellows and blues. Even the worst of photographers can leave this prickly ten acres with photographs to be proud of. Along with the magical world of the riad, the Majorelle Gardens were a highlight of our trip to Marrakesh.
A minaret peeks between the arches and palms.
The Koutoubia Mosque with its distinctive Moorish design.
The Kasbah Mosque replicates key traits of Moorish design such as its band of tiles.
A stunning example of Moorish architecture: rose plater with scalloped window awning.
The rose-coloured architecture of the Saadian Tombs.
The hustle and bustle of night-time Marrakesh in the Jemaa el Fnaa. The vivid colours of the local crafts on the stalls, the night lanterns' yellowy pools of light and the blur of evening tourists.
Marrakesh: the pink city. In the centre I'm standing outside our first riad - beautiful by day, a nightmare to find at night.
A more Moroccan door you will not find.
An obligatory photograph of a snake charmer luring tourists in the Jemaa el Fnaa.
Camel trekking in the palm groves outside of Marrakesh.
We travelled 165 kilometres north east to Ouzoud in the Azilal province to see the famous 110-metre, three-tier waterfall. Our journey in the misnomered Grand Taxi out in to the mountains went without a hitch. We zoomed through the Moroccan countryside, a scorched rosy red earth topped with luscious greenery. Passing small settlements and curious Arabic markings on hillsides, we arrived in Ouzoud four hours later. We stayed at a wonderful little riad called Riad Cascades Ouzoud, run by a helpful little man who was willing to make us welcoming hot drinks on arrival; we had seemingly left the hot weather behind us in Marrakesh, swapping it for a distinct mountain chill. Travelling off season, the riad was virtually empty and so we had the wonderful upstairs lounge area to ourselves in the mornings and in the afternoons; perfectly quiet and perfectly idyllic. Like many travellers making it out to Ouzoud, the main focus of our visit was the waterfall. Seeing the Barbary apes made a chilly trip down hillsides to see the falls that little bit extra special. Casually scratching their backsides, they surveyed us suspiciously as we made our descent. This was the first time I had seen a monkey in the wild and so this was a rather special moment for me.
Our journey back to Marrakesh was spent in the world's most dangerous taxi cab, a death trap on four wheels which was endeavouring, by defying the laws of physics and engineering, to take us back to Marrakesh. It lacked handles, seat belts and window levers: I thought we'd never make it. Within ten minutes of setting off, the bonnet had steam rising out from underneath it. The driver had clearly anticipated engine problems, having stashed a huge ten litre bottle of water in the foot well of his driving seat prior to departure. Pulling over, he lifted the steaming bonnet and poured the water all over the engine so that we could be on our way. In doing so, the engine fizzed, popped and steamed even more as if in protest. Half way into the journey, he pulled over once again: this time to swap with a driver who was passed some of the Dirhams we had paid. It was clear our first taxi driver's car wasn't going to make it all the way to Marrakesh and thus had arranged the switch with a friend. The changeover would have been fine had we been warned. The driver's lack of English probably prevented him from making this known to us. We were unceremoniously bundled into the back of another taxi. Driver number two wore an all-in-one dark brown hooded smock called a Djellaba - the national dress of men in Morocco. For a moment we thought we were being ambushed - rich westerners out in the countryside on their own are at the mercy of what these drivers want to do to them... Stories of abductions and kidnappings in Morocco resurfaced in my increasingly paranoid mind... But arrive back in Marrakesh, safe but rattled, we did...
Cascades D'Ouzoud: 110-metre, three tier waterfalls in the province of Azilal.
Standing precariously at the top of the Cascades D'Ouzoud.
Stopping for refreshments at a rudimentary cafe near to the waterfall.
The awesome view from our riad lounge.
travel tips, links & resources
- Avoid feeling like you have to engage with the hawkers and scouts in the Jemaa el Fnaa. Be polite but firm by saying an emphatic "No" and swiftly walking off.
- Being able to speak in French, as well as a few basic Arabic phrases, helped us greatly in appearing more travel savvy than we actually were. Learn a few key phrases before you embark on your Moroccan adventure.
- If arriving late and, like us, you are staying in one of the local riads in the warren of streets, make sure you know how to find your way there. If not, ensure you have the riad's phone number with local code included. Parts of Marrakesh old town are very poorly sign posted. Many of the warren-like labyrinthine streets do not have names and, if they do, are known only to locals. At the time of our visit Google maps displayed the streets but with anonymous blanks. Prepare accordingly.
- Taking photographs of any of the poor little creatures in the Jemaa el Fnaa, including pythons, grass snakes, monkeys and rabbits requires immediate payment to the handlers. Non payment triggers a swarm of locals around you - some of whom think nothing of manhandling you.
- Camel-trekking in the Palm Groves is a nice way to escape the frenetic and sometimes overwhelming Jemaa el Fnaa. For this reason alone it is well-worth building an excursion like this into your itinerary.
- Not wishing to be alarmist, but it helps to be aware of what's around you in Marrakesh - keep your eyes peeled in busy restaurants and places where tourists gather as these types of places have fallen victim to bomb attacks in the recent past.
- The key focus of Moroccan hospitality comes in the form of Mahgreb, or minted tea, served in small glass cups. Make sure you experience drinking this most Moroccan of refreshments.
- By a similar token, ensure you try a selection of Tagine dishes, a traditional Moroccan dish stewed in a large earthenware pot with a lid. As a direct result of my visit to Morocco we now own a Tagine pot to recreate this most Moroccan of dishes at home.
- Take time to savour Moroccan Moorish architecture, known as Moroccan pink but more accurately best described as an apricot colour, which gives Moroccan towns and cities their distinctrosy glow.
- Ensure you stay in a riad for at least a couple of nights. These are exquisite little spaces which go a long way to soothing your rattled nerves and offer an opportunity to experience and delight in authentic Moroccan culture. You'll also be supporting a local family business.
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