MOROCCO – The Trip

LONDON TO GIBRALTAR
This winter’s trip promises to be my biggest adventure yet – Morocco to Cape Town overland – 16 countries over 5½ months – most on the dodgy side. I met a young guy in Jakarta 2 years ago who was very excited about a trip he had just finished – this one. Because of all the logistical difficulties of traveling through West Africa, I had always wondered how I could see them. As soon as I heard his travel stories, I knew this was for me. Because I would need a new passport for the trip and mine at the time was only one year old, I decided to use it up and travel the Silk Road in 2015-16 with plans for Africa in 2016-17.

I booked the trip with Oasis Overland (www.oasisoverland.co.uk), a British company that specializes in overland trips in Asia, South America and Africa. They use trucks built in their plant in Somerset designed for land travel over any terrain. I flew from Vancouver via Calgary to London on West Jet ($375C + baggage and food) and stayed at the Hilton Gatwick Airport on some old British Air miles. I had little interest in seeing London for a day and simply caught up on my sleep. Having not left the airport, I did not add the UK to my country list.

On Nov. 13, the whole group boarded a Monarch Air flight to Gibraltar. With a 100-mile tailwind, it was a fast flight. Gibraltar Airport must be one of the more interesting. It crosses the entire width of the British colony, traffic and people are stopped when a plane is landing or taking off, and then you walk across the runway. At the carousel, you could recognize my future travel mates with all the sleeping bags and pads hanging off their packs. It was a tough pack having to bring a sleeping pad, sleeping bag and a tent and everything needed for 6 months of travel. Basically we are camping and cooking our own meals for the duration.

The crew from Oasis Overland met us and we got the first taste of the truck. These are Renault vehicles custom built by Oasis in their facility in Somerset England – huge yellow things, diesel, 4 WD, and many outside compartments for all the cooking gear and fire wood (all meals are prepared on a grill fueled by wood). There are 24 comfortable seats (10 on each side facing each other and four elevated ones at the front known as the “beach”). The plastic windows roll up and the roof rolls back at the front to make it as airy as you want. Lockers under the seat held all our stuff. The floor boards lift up to reveal large storage areas where all the food supplies are kept.

There were 3 Oasis employees at the start of the trip: Katie normally works in the office, has been our main contact since signing up and is here until Marrakesh. Jim is Australian, lives in France and was supposed to be the guide but had to cancel because of health problems, and has come along for the beginning. And Steve is now the driver and guide. He has lost track of how many times he has done this trip but has had malaria 35-40 times. Steve is 61, tall, thin, has longish grey beard and a typically wry British sense of humour. He has been doing overland trips for 40 years – initially driving a bus from London to India and then for various overland companies. Beside two trips in South America and a few others in Asia, all his time has been in Africa. I have no doubt that we have the most experienced person in the world for this trip. He also is available for private trips and not infrequently works for individuals who need vehicles moved from odd locations. He once had to rescue 2 vehicles left in Congo. Along with all his experience, his immense amount of common sense make him ideal.

Passenger Manifest
Before your trip prepare a passenger manifest using Excel or similar graph that lists: Name (surname, first and other names, Sex, Nationality, Passport #, Country, Date of birth, Occupation, City of birth, Issue and Expiry date of passport, City where passport issued, Parents first names, Profession and Visa number for country in. Ideally the headings should be in the language of the country traveling through. Make many copies (5-10 per country) as they will hugely simplify travel. This manifest is requested at every police/military checkpoint and embassy.

The group has 21 guests starting the trip with three leaving at Accra, Ghana, two at Cape Town, several in Nairobi and the rest doing the entire 40 weeks to Cairo. The nationalities are Britain – 8, Australia – 3, Canada – 2, India -1, Denmark – 1, New Zealand – 1, Sardinia, Italy – 2, Lithuanian – 1, and Japan – 1. Ages range from 19 to 67. Two are retired, several are students between or finishing education and nobody has a job. There are 3 couples. Nobody knew anyone else beforehand.

After crossing into Spain and obtaining a Schengen Visa, we drove 17kms to a campsite (Lacasita) for two nights. The next day, we had 4 hours in Gibraltar. Many climbed to the top. I’ve done it before and had some shopping – an E-cigarette with enough supplies and nicotine for 6 months for 115£, a very cheap and healthier way to continue my addiction. One of the fellow travellers is keen on doing yoga, so I also bought a mat. I know the trip will be awesome and my main goals are to lose weight, stop smoking, develop a yoga routine and become a more tolerant, less judgmental person.

We were up at 5 to leave at 6 to catch the ferry to Morocco at Algeciras, Spain at 10am. The ferry actually lands at Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Africa. At least 7 car and passenger ferries travel this route. The Balearia ferry we took was gorgeous with sofas and a large protected deck at the back. The Mediterranean was wild because of the high wind for the 1½ hr ride. Gibraltar presented progressively better views.

CEUTA
Jutting out east into the Mediterranean, this 20-sq-km peninsula has been a Spanish enclave since 1640. Its relaxed, well-kept city centre, with bars, cafes and Andalucían atmosphere, provides a sharp contrast to the other side of the border. Nonetheless, Ceuta is still recognisably African. Between a quarter and a third of the population are of Rif Berber origin, giving the enclave a fascinating Iberian-African mix.
Ceuta makes a good alternative entry point by ferry from Spain to Morocco. Its ferry port is west of the town centre. Ceuta’s main attraction is its Royal City Walls. You’ll find good restaurants around the harbour. Remember that Ceuta is on Spanish time and uses the euro.
After an hour wait, we passed through Morocco immigration. Huge numbers of mostly Muslim women with massive tied bundles on their back covered the beach and in a single file were entering Ceuta to sell their goods.

MOROCCO (pop 33 million)
Why Go? For many travellers Morocco might be just a short hop by budget airline, or by ferry from Spain, but culturally it’s a much further distance to travel. On arrival, the regular certainties of Europe are swept away by the full technicolour arrival of Africa and Islam. It’s a complete sensory overload.
Tangier – that faded libertine on the coast – has traditionally been a first port of call, but the winds quickly blow you along the coast to cosmopolitan, movie-star-famous Casablanca and the whitewashed fishing-port gem Essaouira. Inland the great imperial cities of Marrakesh and Fez attract visitors in droves; the winding streets of their ancient medinas hold enough surprises to fill a dozen repeat trips.
If you really want to escape from everything, Morocco still has a couple of trump cards. The High Atlas Mountains seem custom-made for hiking, with endless trails between Berber villages, and North Africa’s highest peak to conquer.

Capital. Rabat
Government. Authoritarian with elements of a constitutional monarchy.
Population. 33.3 million
Languages. Moroccan Arabic (Darija), French and Berber.
When to Go
Mid-Mar–May: Morocco is at its best in spring, when the country is lush and green.
Sep–Nov Autumn is also good, when the heat of summer has eased.
Nov–Jul In winter, head for the south – but be prepared for bitterly cold nights.
The timing of Ramadan (the traditional Muslim month of fasting and purification, which varies) is an important consideration when planning your trip to Morocco, as many restaurants and cafes close during the day and general business hours are reduced.

MONEY
Moroccan dirham (MAD, Dh). Sept 2016 exchange rates: 1US$ = 9.74 MAD; 1€ = 10.9 MAD. We have been generally getting about 10.5Dh to the Euro at money changers.
It’s forbidden to take dirhams out of the country. The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla use the euro.
ATMs (guichets automatiques) are widespread and generally take international bank cards. Major credit cards are widely accepted in the main tourist centres. Australian, Canadian and New Zealand dollars are not quoted in banks and are not usually accepted.
Tipping. Tipping and bargaining are integral parts of Moroccan life. Practically any service can warrant a tip, and a few dirham for a service willingly rendered can make your life a lot easier. Tipping between 5% and 10% of a restaurant bill is appropriate

VISAS
Visa-free. Most visitors to Morocco have visa-free entry and are allowed to remain in the country for 90 days on entry. Schengen member states, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Chile, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Republic of Congo, Guinea, Hong Kong (30 days), Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Libya, Mali, Mexico, New Zealand, Niger, Oman, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Singapore (30 days), South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Venezuela
Exceptions to this include nationals of Israel, and most sub-Saharan African countries (including South Africa). Moroccan embassies have been known to insist that you get a visa from your country of origin.
Extensions. Simplest to leave (eg travel to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla) and come back a few days later. Your chances improve if you re-enter by a different route. The Spanish enclaves have the same visa requirements as mainland Spain.
Visas for Onward Travel
Algeria. Although Algeria has now emerged from over a decade of civil war, the border with Morocco remains closed and visas are not being issued.
Mauritania. Everyone, except nationals of Arab League countries and some African countries, needs a visa, which is valid for a one-month stay. These are issued in 48 hours at the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat (apply before noon). Visas cost Dh1,450, with two photos and a passport photocopy. An onward air ticket to Nouakchott is not required. Get to the embassy well before the 9am opening time, and be prepared to fight for your place in the queue. They do not keep your passports.
Mali. This is a very friendly embassy – it issues visas in an hour for 250Dh.
Guinea. Visas take 2 days and cost 750Dh. Need 2 pictures.
Cote d’Ivoire. Rabat is the best place to get this visa. Takes 2 days and considerable bureaucracy – everyone in our 22 person group entered individually, were photographed and fingerprinted and picked up the visas in 48 hours. They keep your passports. We paid for our visas online (68 euros) and printed out the receipt to give to the tour leader.

MEDITERRANEAN COAST & THE RIF
Bounded by the red crags of the Rif Mountains and the crashing waves of the Mediterranean Sea, northern Morocco’s wildly beautiful coastline conceals attractions as diverse as the cosmopolitan hustle of Tangier, and the superbly relaxing town of Chefchaouen.
We drove south along the Mediterranean, then climbed high above the water and turned into the Rif Mountains. This truck had much more power and we arrived at Chefchaouen by 4pm and set up camp in a campground high above town.

CHEFCHAOUEN (pop 50,000)
Set beneath the striking peaks of the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen has long been charming travellers.
Chefchaouen’s medina. At its heart is the cobbled Plaza Uta el-Hammam which is dominated by the red-hued walls of the kasbah museum & gallery and the Grande Mosquée (Plaza Uta el-Hammam), noteworthy for its octagonal minaret. Inside the kasbah’s gardens is a modest ethnographic museum where the photos of old Chefchaouen are the highlights.
Steve bought food for the night at the new market and most of us separated into groups to explore the medina. One of the prettiest towns in Morocco, its old medina is one of the loveliest in the country, with blinding blue-white hues, red-tiled roofs and a strong Andalucían flavour. Narrow lanes wind over the hillside converging on a delightful square. A few of us walked across the valley to a closed mosque and a viewpoint of the town from a different angle.

IMPERIAL CITIES & the MIDDLE ATLAS
The rolling plains that sweep along the base of the Middle Atlas are Morocco’s breadbasket, dotted with olive groves and expansive wheat fields. Several important cities have also taken root here, including ancient Fez, Meknès and the Roman city of Volubilis – Morocco’s most interesting archaeological site.

VOLUBILIS
In the midst of a fertile plain about 33km north of Meknès, Volubilis (Ouailili) are the largest and best-preserved Roman ruins in Morocco (and the breadbasket for Rome). Established in 25BC, the Romans left in 265AD. The Madrid earthquake of 1755 destroyed much of the ruins. Of a total of 50 acres, only about 15 have been excavated, initially by the French in 1915. 120 olive presses and 60 grain mills have been discovered.
Volubilis is best known for its mosaics that, despite being exposed to the air for 2,000 years, are in remarkable condition. The huge patrician’s houses have entry courtyards with a pool – one in an unusual scalloped pattern for sun bathing in different directions. The “column house” has fluted and very unusual spiral columns with Corinthian, Doric and Ionic pilasters.
One of the country’s most important pilgrimage sites, the lovely whitewashed hill town Moulay Idriss, is only about 4.5km from Volubilis.

FEZ (pop 2m)
At 1200 years old Fez is Morocco’s spiritual heart. Its medina (Fez el-Bali) is the largest living medieval Islamic city in the world. A first visit can be overwhelming: an assault on the senses through bazaars, winding alleys, mosques, workshops, people and pack animals that seem to take you out of the 21st century and back to imagined Arabian Nights.
Founded in 808, Fez was settled for 3 reasons 1. Water – many springs existed in the town and the Middle Atlas Mtns at 3,300m have snow in the winter and are the source of the river that flows through the medina. 2. Clay to make bricks and pottery and 3. Wood especially cedar trees in the Atlas Mtns. The first families were 850 families from Andalucia on the east bank of the river and 200 families that settled on the west bank to form the origin of the Medina.
We spent 2 days exploring Fez and the Medina. A guide has worked for Oasis on several previous trips so he herded us around for the two days. He was invaluable but we visited several businesses to which he likely had a connection.
South Borge (fort). We stopped at this fort originally built in anticipation of invasion from the Ottoman Empire, which never happened. Now it is a great viewpoint to see the entire Medina. Holes in all the town walls, originally for scaffolds, are now are homes to millions of swallows.
Pottery & Mosaic Factory. We went to a business that manufactures mosaic tiles and pottery. We were guided through the entire method of mosaic tile production. Patterns are traced on the cement floors. Each individual mosaic tile requires two men, one cuts the basic tile shape and the next cuts bevels on all sides. The tiles are placed in the design face-down and either cement (for local use) or a fiberglass polymer (for international transport) is poured over the entire piece to construct the rigid mosaic. It is a labourious process. For fountains, electric motors to recirculate water are included in the cement/fiberglass mix. The mosaics are also used to make furniture and mosaic walls. The firm also makes all kinds of pottery and we were taken through the entire process of throwing the pieces on a wheel, hand painting, glazing and firing. The tours ended in the obligatory showroom where everything was for sale. Bruce bought a lovely tagine.
The Medina (Fez el-Bali)
Within the old walls of Fez el-Bali lies an incredible maze of twisting alleys, blind turns and hidden souqs. Navigation can be confusing and getting lost is a certainty, but this is part of the medina’s charm: you never quite know what discovery lies around the next corner.
Each “neighborhood” has its own fountain, funduq (hotels dating to the 14th century with the bottom floor for animals and rooms above – people from the surrounding hinterland come to sell their wares stay here) and Koran school (for children aged 3-5 years old).
Kairaouine Mosque. The Kairaouine Mosque is Fez’s true heart. Built in 859 by refugees from Tunisia, and rebuilt in the 12th century, it can accommodate up to 20,000 people at prayer. Non-Muslims have to be content with glimpses of its seemingly endless columns from the gates on Talaa Kebira and Place as-Seffarine.
Medersa Bou Inania. Located 150m east of Bab Bou Jeloud, the 14th-century Medersa Bou Inania is the finest of Fez’s theological colleges. The zellij, muqarna (plasterwork) and woodcarving are amazingly elaborate. This is supposedly the oldest university in the world.
November 18, a Friday, was a National Holiday and the Medina was virtually empty. We returned the next day to a complete transformation with all the thousands of tiny shops open – many people, donkeys, mules and carts carrying produce through the narrow lanes.
The medina is in the process of a complete restoration. Heavy plank scaffolds hold the walls apart in the places to be restored. Every shop has its own wooded awning and a metal door – both are being replaced with new decorative awnings and wood doors, all made of cedar. The trellis over the narrow lanes is replacing the scaffolds. The new stuff looks rather sterile.
Tanneries. The tanneries are one of the city’s most iconic sights (and smells). Head northeast of Place as-Seffarine and take the left fork after about 50m; you’ll soon pick up the unmistakeable waft of skin and dye that will guide you into the heart of the leather district. Hides are soaked in lye for 4-5 days to remove all the hair and wool and then dyed with natural dyes. Men stand in the round vats moving leather around producing every color of the rainbow.
We saw two tanneries from the upper floors of leather stores (jackets, purses, footstools) – and then had to deal with the hard sell.
Carpet Stores. One cooperative had 1300 artisans contributing carpets in every style known in Morocco. I don’t really like any of the styles, but for hand woven carpets, they are relatively cheap and can be shipped all over the world. The view from the roof over the medina was nice. It was next to a large reconstruction project.
Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts. Located in a wonderfully restored funduq (caravanserai for travelling merchants), with a host of fascinating exhibits. Photography is forbidden. The rooftop cafe has great views over the medina.
Fez el-Jdid (New Fez)
Royal Palace. Only in a city as old as Fez could you find a district dubbed ‘new’ because it’s only 700 years old. It’s home to the Royal Palace, whose entrance at Dar el-Makhzen is a stunning example of modern restoration; palace grounds are closed to the public.
Jewish Quarter. In the 14th century, Fez el-Jdid became a refuge for Jews, thus creating a mellah (Jewish quarter). Now no Jews live in the Jewish Quarter, but a Jewish community of 200 live in newer part of Fez. The mellah’s southwest corner is home to the fascinating Jewish Cemetery & Habarim Synagogue. The many unmarked graves are 300 years old dating from a malaria epidemic. So many people died that there was no time to inter individuals.
Hamman. These Turkish style baths are all over the Middle East and N Africa but each country’s function differently. For 50 Dh, a massage was included. Sexes are separated and everybody keeps their bottom underwear on. There isn’t a pool to sit in but 3 large cisterns for cold, warm and hot water. The bath man mixes large buckets of water from the warm and hot cisterns, you lie down on your stomach on the heated floor and he washes everything but the extremely private parts, contorts your legs and arms in all sorts of difficult positions, rinses, scrubs with an abrasive glove, massages again and then gives the final rinse. We then went into the cold room for a cold-water rinse. Very nice.
Restaurant Al Fassia. Nine of us went to this optional dinner/entertainment evening at a restaurant on the other side of Fez (250 Dh). The sumptuous meal consisted of soup, several tapas/Moroccan salad, a tagine of beef and prunes, another tagine and dessert of oranges and macaroons. Throughout the meal, we were serenaded by a small quartet, 2 belly dancers, two groups of drummers, a magician, and an older woman who moved her breasts in all sorts of ways. The food was delicious and copious.

MEKNÈS (pop 690,000)
Morocco’s third imperial city is often overlooked by tourists. Quieter and smaller than nearby Fez, it’s more laid-back and less hassle, but still awash with the winding, narrow medina streets and grand buildings befitting a one-time capital of the sultanate.
Meknès is also the ideal base from which to explore the Roman ruins at Volubilis and the hilltop holy town of Moulay Idriss, two of the country’s most significant historical sites.
The heart of Meknès’ medina lies to the north of the main square, Place el-Hedim, with the mellah to the west. To the south, Moulay Ismail’s imperial city opens up through one of the most impressive monumental gateways in all of Morocco, Bab el-Mansour (Place el-Hedim) . Following the road around to the right, you’ll come across the grand Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, named for the sultan who made Meknès his capital in the 17th century. Both of these have been closed for the last 2 years for renovations.
Dar Jamaï Museum. Overlooking Place el-Hedim on the north is the 1882 palace that houses the Dar Jamaï Museum. Exhibits include traditional ceramics, jewellery, rugs and some fantastic textiles and embroidery.
Medersa Bou Inania. Deep in the medina, opposite the Grand Mosquée, the Medersa Bou Inania is typical of the exquisite interior design that distinguishes Merenid monuments.
We parked near the huge main square. Several groups of snake charmers had drawn small circles of onlookers. Two small macaques monkeys were dressed in football uniforms and available for pictures along with several horses. Everyone wandered around the medina, went for coffee and eventually had lunch at one of the many sidewalk cafes lining the square. After 4 hours we drove to our first bush camp outside of Rabat. Some policemen visited (camping is not common) and ensured we were following the “rules”.

THE ATLANTIC COAST
Morocco’s Atlantic shoreline is surprisingly varied, with sweeping beaches and lagoons, the economic motor of the urban sprawl around the political and economic capitals of Rabat and Casablanca, respectively, and the pretty fishing ports/tourist drawcards of Essaouira and Asilah.

RABAT (pop 1.7 million)
Relaxed, well kept and very European, flag-waving capital Rabat is just as cosmopolitan as Casablanca down the coast but lacks the frantic pace and grimy feel of its economic big brother. Its elegant, tree-lined boulevards and imposing administrative buildings exude an unhurried, diplomatic and hassle-free charm that many travellers grow to like.
Barely 400 years old, Rabat’s medina is tiny compared to that of Fez or Marrakesh, although it still piques the senses with its rich mixture of spices, carpets, crafts, cheap shoes and bootlegged DVDs.
The Kasbah des Oudaias sits high up on the bluff overlooking the Oued Bou Regreg and contains within its walls a 12th-century mosque. Enter through the Oudaia Gate with its ornamentally carved frescoes. The southern corner of the kasbah is home to the Andalucían Gardens, laid out by the French during the colonial period. The centrepiece is the grand 17th-century palace containing the Musée des Oudaia. Walk through the winding alleys with their blue and white painted walls, ornamental doors and pots of flowers. At the north end are fantastic views of the river, multiple breakwaters, the Atlantic Ocean and surfers.
Muslim Cemetery. Just west of the Kasbah is a mammoth cemetery.
Le Tour Hassan. Towering above the Oued Bou Regreg is Rabat’s most famous landmark. This 44m unfinished minaret was begun in 1195; the beautifully designed and intricately carved tower still lords over the remains of the adjacent mosque – a sea of stone columns.
Mausoleum of Mohammed V. The cool, marble Mausoleum of Mohammed V (and since 1999 Hassan II), built in traditional Moroccan style with intense zellij (mosaic tiles), lies opposite the tower. This is a magnificent building. The domed ceiling has stained glass and typical Islamic decoration.

We were in Rabat primarily to get visas. We had our first bush camp a few kms east of the city and arrived at the Mauritania Embassy at 9am. There is often a big line waiting but we were fortunate and Steve was hustled in with no wait. Over the next 3 hours, we went in one-by-one, sat before two very stern-faced men, were fingerprinted, paid 1,450 Dh and were told to return with our passports the next day to pick up the visas. Steve immediately went down the street to the Mali Embassy and had all our visas in less than an hour for 250Dh each. After a several km drive, we arrived at the Cote d’Ivoire Embassy and over the next 5½ hours, we each were photographed, fingerprinted and after 15-30 minutes watching them scan all our documents and one-finger type, were told to come back in 48hrs to pick up our passports. It was a long day waiting around the truck and we arrived at a bush camp out of town in the dark, cooked dinner and were lucky enough to set up the tents and avoid the rain. In rainy weather the truck becomes the social centre with some playing backgammon and others sitting around talking.
It rained heavily throughout the night. I had not staked my tent out completely so my fly sagged and some water capillary-actioned through the mesh and I had a small pool of water on one side. But that was all made irrelevant as I had to take it down in a downpour and pack it soaked. Because the camps are in the bush, we took them down each morning and re-erected them at night.
The forecast was for rain for the next several days, and as we weren’t needed, four of us elected to go to a hostel for three nights. There was a problem – to register in any accommodation, one needs a passport and the Moroccan Visa number. It was a good 30-minute walk to the tourist police office, then a confusing shuffle between several offices, and long waits to get approval.
The Augergue Jeune is next to the big market in the medina so we were close to food and things to do. The staff were lovely, the place was very clean and the showers hot. It was perfect. The large central courtyard had overhangs over the benches lining one wall, so it was a great place to hang out.
On November 23, Steve picked up our passports at the Cote d’Ivoire Embassy, went to the Mauritanian Embassy, got the visas and took everything to the Guinea Embassy for our fourth visa in Rabat. We toured the medina, explored the Kasbah and cemetery and hung out in cafes all day. On the 24th, we went to the Mausoleum and Hassan Tower.

CASABLANCA (pop 4 million)
Many travellers stay in ‘Casa’ just long enough to change planes or catch a train, but Morocco’s economic heart offers a unique insight into the country. This sprawling, European-style city is home to racing traffic, simmering social problems, wide boulevards and parks. The facades of imposing Hispano-Moorish and art deco buildings stand in sharp contrast to Casablanca’s modernist landmark: the enormous, incredibly ornate Hassan II mosque.
Central Casablanca is full of great art deco and Hispano-Moorish buildings. Get the best taste by strolling the area around the Marché Central and Place Mohammed V. This grand square includes the law courts, the splendid Wilaya, the Bank al-Maghrib and the main post office. After that, explore the slightly dilapidated 19th-century medina near the port.
Hassan II Mosque. The Hassan II Mosque is the world’s third-largest mosque, built to commemorate the former king’s 60th birthday. The mosque (and its 210m minaret) rises above the ocean on an outcrop northwest of the medina, a vast building that holds 25,000 worshippers and a further 80,000 in the squares around it. To see the interior you must take a guided tour.
I did not go to Casablanca (along with the four of us in Rabat in the hostel), but on the Thursday of the week in Rabat while the group waited for our passports from the Guinea Embassy, everybody else drove the 100kms to Casablanca and back for the day.

CENTRAL MOROCCO & THE HIGH ATLAS
Marrakesh is the queen bee of Moroccan tourism, but look beyond it and you’ll find great trekking in the dramatic High Atlas, and spectacular valleys and gorges that lead to the vast and empty sands of the Saharan dunes.

MARRAKESH (pop 2million)
Marrakesh grew rich on the camel caravans threading their way across the desert, although these days it’s cheap flights from Europe bringing tourists to spend their money in the souqs that fatten the city’s coffers. But Marrakesh’s old heart still beats strongly enough, from the time-worn ramparts that ring the city to the nightly spectacle of the Djemaa el-Fna on the edge of the labyrinthine medina.Horse carts ply the streets and medina.
Djemaa el-Fna. The focal point of Marrakesh is a huge square in the medina and the backdrop for one of the world’s greatest spectacles. Djemaa el-Fna comes into its own at dusk, when the curtain goes up on rows of open-air food stalls smoking the immediate area with mouth-watering aromas. Jugglers, storytellers, snake charmers, musicians (typical ensemble consisted of a banjo, violin and several drummers), acrobats and spectators fill the remaining space.
Southwest of Djemaa el-Fna is the 70m-tall minaret of Marrakesh’s most famous monument, the Koutoubia. Visible for miles in all directions, it’s a classic example of Moroccan-Andalucían architecture.
Ali ben Youssef Mosque. The largest and oldest-surviving of the mosques. Dating form the 12th-century, it marks the intellectual and religious heart of the medina. All mosques in Morocco prohibit entrance by non-Muslims. The ancient sign on the door read: “Cette mosque est reserve exclusivement au Cette Musulman (Privé) Merci”.
Ali ben Youssef Medersa. Next to the mosque is the 14th-century is this peaceful and meditative place with some stunning examples of stucco decoration. You can wander anywhere through all the students rooms, bathrooms and hallways. The students actually studied in the mosque.
Gardens. Marrakesh has more gardens than any other Moroccan city, offering the perfect escape from the hubbub of the souqs and the traffic. The rose gardens of Koutoubia Mosque, in particular, offer cool respite near Djemaa el-Fna.
Palais de la Bahia. Located near Place des Ferblantiers, La Bahia (The Beautiful) boasts floor-to-ceiling decoration begun by Grand Vizier Si Moussa in the 1860s and further embellished in 1894–1900 by slave-turned-vizier Abu ‘Bou’ Ahmed. The painted, gilded, inlaid woodwork ceilings, doors and shutters still have the intended effect of subduing crowds, while the carved stucco is cleverly slanted downward to meet the gaze. Marble jali windows adorn many rooms. These were as good as La Hambra in Grenada, Spain (but without the fountains and grounds.
As enjoyable as the palace was a Mind the Earth photo exhibition (www.mindtheearth.org) with about 100 fascinating direct over-head aerial views demonstrating environmental issues concerning transportation, cities, manufacturing, global warming. Some of the more interesting were: Copenhagen (bicycles); Japan (least energy/person in world); UAE (highest CO2 emissions/capita in world much due to desalination and air conditioning), Ulan Batar, Mongolia (most polluted city in world as less than 0°C for 9 months of the year; most homes are poorly insulated yurts; electric coal generation; in valley); Barcelona (1/7th the CO2 footprint/capita compared to Seattle as very walkable, dense, small apartments, local food markets); Ivanpah Solar facility in California; Boneyard in Arizona with 4,400 parked planes; meltwater rivers on glaciers in Greenland; 400,000 people migrate each year into Dakha, Bangladesh. A book with the 100 photos and text is available.
Saadian Tombs. Long hidden from intrusive eyes, they were discovered by the French in 1917 along the south side of the Kasbah Mosque. The Saadian Empire (1517-1659) extended from Tangier to Timbuctou. Sultans, princes, statesmen, and many women and children are buried here under marble stones sized for the person, each with individual mosaics. Many are outside but several are in rooms. The six sultans tombs are large, raised and ornate, most in the spectacular Chamber of the Twelve Columns. The ceilings in all rooms are spectacular. There was a small photographic exhibition.
Jardin Majorelle. In the Ville Nouvelle, the Jardin Majorelle is a sublime mix of art deco buildings and psychedelic desert mirage. Yves St Laurant is the benefactor. I did not go here.

In Marrakesh, we stayed in a campground (Camp Ferdaous +0524304090), 13kms north of the center on the highway to Casablanca. We all went for about 3 hours on our first afternoon, about 9 hours on the second day and another 3 hours on our third day before departing for Essaouira and the coast.
The truck often parks a few blocks from our destination and I paid little attention to the route on our first day. When we were to return at 6pm, I couldn’t find it. I didn’t have my passport so could not stay in any accommodation. I eventually found one of our fellow travelers in the square who remembered where three others had stayed late to watch English football. They had left but the manager of the restaurant had the phone number of the campground and I eventually got a ride back with them – an amazing sequence of luck – or I would have been sleeping outside (the best would have been to go to the police and they could have looked after a place to stay – the jail!?).
On the second day, I walked all over the medina and bought a few odds and ends including our “secret Santa” gifts. There are some great deals here especially for leather goods. Prices for leather jackets, originally quoted at 3,000Dh rapidly came down to 500-700Dh. Expressing any interest was dangerous as the salesmen became relentless. Over another morning, I saw the Saadian Tombs and Palais de La Bahia.

Between Marrakesh and Essaouria, are large groves of argan trees, the only place these exist. The nuts are made into an oil used cosmetically.

ESSAOUIRA (pop 70,000).
The port town of Essaouira has long been a favourite of the travellers trail: laid-back and artsy, with a 3km long beach (condos, hotels, resorts) and picture-postcard ramparts. It can be swamped with visitors in summer, but many are day-trippers. There’s more than enough space to relax and just soak up the atmosphere.
The narrow winding streets of Essaouira’s walled medina are a great place to stroll. Its late-18th-century fortified layout is a prime example of European military architecture in North Africa. The easiest place from which visitors can access the ramparts is the impressive sea bastion Skala de la Ville (closed for renovations, Nov 2016). There are no views of the ocean along the entire wall until the harbor with a large plaza, fishing boats and the Skala du Port with picturesque views of the ocean, walls, rocks, surf and the Île de Mogador.
A round extension from the wall had a great art exhibition with some very desirable pieces.
We bush camped for two nights east of town around several old cement buildings and cisterns. On the drive to Agadir, a famous spectacle is the goats that climb trees to access high branches.

AGADIR (pop 680,000). Levelled by an earthquake in 1960, Agadir rose from its ruins to become Morocco’s main beach resort, with a glitzy marina. Rebuilt into a neat grid of residential suburbs and wide boulevards, the town feels strangely bereft of the sort of bustling life often associated with Moroccan cities. Its lure, however, lies in its huge sandy bay, which is more sheltered than many other Atlantic beaches.
Mufi, one of our fellow travelers had been here for almost a week to see a football game and rejoined us here.

South of Agadir, it was about 1 ½ days drive to the border of Western Sahara. The landscape turned drier and rocky. The Anti-Atlas Mountsins formed a distant backdrop.. We passed through the city of Tiznet and after a hilly and very rocky stretch, descended a long canyon to bush camp just a few kms north of Boulzakacne. It was basically a flat gravel plain, but for the first night of the trip, I was able to put away my tent dry. It was warm with low enough humidity to prevent dew.
On December 1, the drive continued south through more barren country, rocky sand with sage brush.

Some Observations on Morocco
Morocco has had no terrorism, is viewed as safe and is connected to Western Europe with cheap airfares, and thus has seen no decline in tourism like so many Middle Eastern countries, Tunisia and Egypt (where tourism is all but dead). Even in late November, tourists were common and everywhere. We by chance had poor weather with lots of rain, making camping less enjoyable.
I was surprised by the huge amount of cultivated cropland farmed with large machinery like in North America.
Moroccan Women. This is a moderate Islamist country and all versions of female dress are seen. Many 20 somethings wear no headscarf at all. But maybe more women wear headscarves. There are few full veils but one sees them most days.
Mosques. Apparently because the French army wore their dirty boots in mosques in the early 1900s, no mosque allows non-Muslims entry. But we are still woken up to competing muezzins at 5:30am when in towns.
Islamic Architecture. There are some stunning examples most noticeably the Palais de La Bahia and the Saadian Tombs in Marrakesh and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat. The Gate of Oudais in Rabat, the 70m-tall minaret of Marrakesh’s most famous monument, the Koutoubia Mosque and Le Tour Hassan in Rabat are outstanding examples of Moroccan architecture.
My favourite medinas were easily the Kasbah des Oudaias in Rabat and Chefchaouen’s lovely medina – both pastel blue and white, small and still looking like they may have for hundreds of years. They are more like neighborhoods than the much more famous medinas of Fez (whose reconstruction is removing anything that looks old) and Marrakesh.

The Trip.
This would not be an enjoyable trip for many Westerners. Close quarters with 20 strangers can be stressful. Camping and sleeping in a tent every night would eliminate 90% of most Western women (and quite likely many men too), especially those over 40. Campgrounds have been about as common as bush camps with no facilities. And bush camping is only going to become more common as we move into countries with virtually no tourism like Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Liberia.
All food is cooked over a campfire. Wood has been available at many camps so far but will become much less common. Care must be exercised whenever one picks up the fire pots as everything gets black with soot.
The only thing I am a little disappointed is in is our lack of input in food purchases and menu choices but we trust that Steve’s experience in purchasing food trumps our personal choices. Margarine or butter is unknown. Coffee and dry flatbread with jam and peanut butter is generally breakfast. Marmite is popular with the Brits and Aussies but has little appeal for the rest of us. Porridge, corn flakes and poor quality muesli sometimes make an appearance and eggs are unknown. Vegetable stew is getting a little tiring. I have been making an effort to jazz up the meals with sweet and sour, curry and good pasta sauce. We have been purchasing the majority of lunches in towns and food is cheap and good on the street.

Some Observations on Morocco
Morocco has had no terrorism, is viewed as safe and is connected to Western Europe with cheap airfares, and thus has seen no decline in tourism like so many Middle Eastern countries, Tunisia and Egypt (where tourism is all but dead). Even in late November, tourists were common and everywhere. We by chance had poor weather with lots of rain, making camping less enjoyable.
I was surprised by the huge amount of cultivated cropland farmed with large machinery like in North America.
Moroccan Women. This is a moderate Islamist country and all versions of female dress are seen. Many 20 somethings wear no headscarf at all. But maybe more women wear headscarves. There are few full veils but one sees them most days.
Mosques. Apparently because the French army wore their dirty boots in mosques in the early 1900s, no mosque allows non-Muslims entry. But we are still woken up to competing muezzins at 5:30am when in towns.
Islamic Architecture. There are some stunning examples most noticeably the Palais de La Bahia and the Saadian Tombs in Marrakesh and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat. The Gate of Oudais in Rabat, the 70m-tall minaret of Marrakesh’s most famous monument, the Koutoubia Mosque and Le Tour Hassan in Rabat are outstanding examples of Moroccan architecture.
My favourite medinas were easily the Kasbah des Oudaias in Rabat and Chefchaouen’s lovely medina – both pastel blue and white, small and still looking like they may have for hundreds of years. They are more like neighborhoods than the much more famous medinas of Fez (whose reconstruction is removing anything that looks old) and Marrakesh.

About admin

I would like to think of myself as a full time traveler. I have been retired since 2006 and in that time have traveled every winter for four to seven months. The months that I am "home", are often also spent on the road, hiking or kayaking. I hope to present a website that describes my travel along with my hiking and sea kayaking experiences.
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