Carl Turner has adventured with us many times in the past in Europe and has contributed a number of articles for us previously. This time we invited him to guest blog on PhotoBeast to retell his Marrakesh Adventure…
Day 1 22/11/15
Today’s the day I travel to Morocco and I must admit I’m a little nervous and at the same time very excited. You see this is the first time I have travelled abroad alone, but I have a hunger for travel and this is a good test to see if I have what it takes. It’s all down to me… the planning, the execution… everything.
It’s 09:30 and I’ve made it to Marrakesh in one piece. The flight was pleasant enough, we landed 20 minutes ahead of schedule. It’s now time to go through passport control. I have to fill in a piece of paper and give away all my personal details, passport number etc. then queue up and wait to be let into the country. Security is super tight because of the recent terror attacks in Paris, so you can imagine this took some time. Once through I met my transfer driver, waited for the other passengers to arrive and after 30 minutes or so we are ready to be escorted to our Riads / Hotels. The taxi set off and I got talking to the passengers. With me was a couple from London, Chanan, her husband and a young Chinese girl. We began talking and sharing the decisions we had made that got us to this point in time. Chanan and her husband were very interested in my plans and they became inspired by what I had planned over the next 5 days. After a short drive 20 minute drive or so we are now close to central Marrakesh. It’s quite apparent this is another world. I can see very old mopeds, cars, and push bikes everywhere, appearing not to be sticking to any rules. There are more two wheeled vehicles here than 4 and I can see why. It’s busy, noisy and a little hectic. The first drop off was for the Chinese girl. Next it was me… The taxi pulled up next to an alley, we both got out, the driver pointed in one direction… Hmmm…
I could see there was no way a car could get down there so my only choice was on foot, so it was on foot I went. The alley was long and narrow. I was a little nervous.
I wondered aimlessly looking for my Riad, 56 Le Plain Sud. The buildings were orange in colour and the doors very small with tiled frames and steps. After some searching I couldn’t find it. I came across a young boy so I approached him with a piece of paper pointing to the hotel name and praying he could help! Thankfully he knew where I needed to go and so led the way. We started talking but he was speaking French. Luckily he was asking basic questions, some of them I remembered from my school French lessons such as my name, age, where I’m from and so on. After a couple of minutes we arrived at the Riad. I felt the need to give this little boy some money for his help so I gave him 20 Dirhams (about a quid). After I gave him the money some old man came out of nowhere mumbling something at the little boy and then he said something to me with a hint of frustration. I think he was trying to say I gave him too much money! The little boy then ran off waving his 20 Dirham note while laughing as he ran.
I am now at the foot of my hotel door. I was let in and I entered a very small reception room and was presented with a curtain. “Through here I asked?” “Yes yes,” the Moroccan lady said. Beyond the curtain was a beautiful courtyard.
I instantly felt at ease. The check in service wasn’t like your normal style of hotel service. Here I was shown to a table. Most of the communication was done with gestures as I didn’t speak Moroccan or very good French.
I sat down and the lovely lady served me mint tea and biscuits and gave me a form to fill in. I instantly fell in love with the mint tea. The check in service felt relaxed. After devouring the mint tea and cookies, I was shown to my room and I unpacked, made myself familiar with the environment and then locked my door and headed down to reception.
I introduced myself to the man at reception, his name was Akim. He kindly gave me a map and some directions and I headed out in to the unknown to explore! I have to admit I immediately felt intimidated. I have never been anywhere like this in my life! The streets are narrow, buildings tall, motorcycles everywhere, mules a popular choice of transportation! I walked about a mile until I came to the start of the souks! A souq or souk (Arabic: سوق, Hebrew: שוק sūq, also spelled shuk, shooq, soq, souk, esouk, suk, sooq, souq, or suq) is an open-air marketplace or commercial quarter in Western Asian and North African cities.
I was taken aback by the smells, the colours, the stalls!! Men and women crafting and making things on the street! Wood, jewellery, leather, lots of pretty things to look at.
After 30 minutes and walking up and down through the maze of souks, I was beginning to worry about getting lost so I tried to stick to a straight line but the streets were a huge maze! I also had the feeling that I stuck out like a sore thumb, white male, backpack, camera. Not good! I kept looking out for the other tourists and we nodded to each other as we walked past. It was kind of comforting. I was overwhelmed but I kept walking and all the time I was being harassed! Strange men would start walking with me uninvited and trying to redirect me to different places but I refused to go… As hard as I tried to not get lost, it happened! I didn’t panic, I stayed clam and started to walk back the way I came. Luckily I didn’t get too lost and it turned out I had walked back to my Riad the correct way but accidentally walked past the street I needed to turn down. Error corrected I now found my way and heading back to the Riad.
After a quiet nap back at the Riad I headed back down to reception. I wanted to go out and experience the medina but after my initial experience I felt wanted a guide. So my new pal Akihm made a few phone calls and got me one, his name was Elkherchi, Elk for short. Elk was a tall muslim man and spoke with a very clam relaxed tone. His accent was like the character Ali G played in the movie Borat. We took to the streets and headed to the Medina. We had a good chat along the way and while dodging the mopeds, bicycles and chaos. We arrived at the Medina and it was bustling with life! Entertainers, colourful markets, food stalls. We spent 2 hours exploring the narrow walk ways and souks. You can literally buy anything here, handbags, jewellery, shoes, rugs, meat…just about anything.
Marrakech centre itself was a baptism of fire, a mixture of rip-off tourist traps and locals who can be testing; pushing and probing for every scrap of your money. But you have to embrace it.
He took me to a jewellery store, here they stocked hand made rare items made by the Berber people. I wasn’t here with the intention to buy but I found an item I was interested in and after some very hard bartering I bought a very nice item for a Xmas present. I spent more than I wanted to but hey it was an experience. We spent another 2 hours walking between the market stalls, before heading back out into the main square. My guide bought some Almonds and raisins from the market and we snacked on these while I waited for my lift back to my Riad. It was now 21:00 dark and getting a bit cold, luckily I had prepared for that and was wearing my North Face fleece. After 10 minutes or so my lift to the Riad arrived… It was a moped! So I climbed on the back and the driver set off. I was now one of these crazy people weaving in an out of the traffic and dodging the people. I quite enjoyed the lift back, it was fun.
Day 2 : 23/11/15
8:00am Before I left the UK I had pre booked a couple of trips and this one was a visit to Atlas Mountains and Imlil village. My driver picked me up at 8:00am and after an hours drive I could see the mountains in the distance and I was really looking forward to climbing them. After 1.5 hrs and some really bad winding dangerous roads we made it to Imlil village, which is in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It is 1,740 metres (5,710 ft) above sea level. A portrait of Imlil and the problems and prospects of Morocco’s mountain populations appeared in 1984 in the book by James A. Miller called Imlil. It is close to the mountain Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in Northern Africa. Imlil makes a good base for attempting to summit Toubkal. We parked up and I met my mountain guide a local Berber – an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa.
He showed me a map and the route we were going to take, asked me if I had my equipment. We started our little adventure into the Atlas Mountains.
We hiked for about 2 hours up steep hills and very rocky terrain, the weather was warm and the sun bright! It was hard work and my guide seemed to struggle more than I did. We stopped a few times for a quick drink to take pictures and take in the view. I love being up in the mountains, it’s calm and peaceful and it was nice to get out of Marrakesh.
We hiked to an altitude of about 3000 metres above sea level. We climbed a peak but it was nothing compared to some of the summits. I wanted to keep climbing but we didn’t have the time so disappointingly started our decent into the village of Imlil. This is the village where my local guide was born and currently lives. He invited me into his home, the home he built with his own hands, and this is where he made me mint tea and I met his family! They had a sitting room, kitchen and toilet, running water. No TV or electrical items. It was very fascinating to see how these people live.
After we finished our mint tea we hiked bit more and my guide lead me to a waterfall.
It was a little disappointing to say the least. Along the way I bumped into another Englishman and like myself he had his own guide. His and mine knew each other and so for the next 30 minutes we walked the same route and talked a lot. It was nice to bump into someone English.
We then parted ways and I was taken to a few of the local shops, these shops sold argan oil, fossils, amethyst stones, trilobites. It was interesting to see how Argan oil is made and it’s claimed to have many health benefits. Argan oil is a plant oil produced from the kernels of the argan tree (Argania spinosa L.) that is endemic to Morocco. In Morocco, argan oil is used to dip bread in at breakfast or to drizzle on couscous or pasta.
We headed back to the starting point and this where I had lunch. At the restaurant I met an English couple, we had a good chat and shared some interesting experiences and thoughts. We were sat on the terrace and the views were stunning, it was so calm and peaceful. Here I ate lunch, some salad and bread, once the first course was finished a huge tagine was put before me! In it was chicken, couscous, potatoes and veg, with eggplant on top, washed down with mint tea. It was a huge portion and I could only manage half of it. The meal was included in the price of the trip and I believe it was great value. After 40 minutes or so the couple I just met had to go so it was time to say bye again. Once I was finished my driver came to get me and we got back in the car and headed back to Marrakesh to my Riad. On the way back home we were stopped by the police. This was a tense experience. The driver handed all his documents to the policeman and then the officer looked in the back of the car towards me and spoke in English, it was a word I understood very clearly “Seatbelt!” You see I wasn’t wearing one because I didn’t think there was one! I hurried around and found one on the floor under my seat. I quickly put it on but it was too late. My drivers face said a thousand words. He left the car and went and spoke to the policeman and then came back. He said “we must pay the policeman”…I could tell he wanted me to pay the fine of 300 dirhams; this is about £20, but I felt that it wasn’t my fault so made the excuse that I didn’t have any money. It was a tense several minutes as my driver left the vehicle and tried to talk his way out of it with the officer but it was a wasted effort. My driver paid the police and off we drove. During the trip back I felt sorry for him and gave him half the money back 150 dirhams. It was at this point my driver admitted it was his fault and that he should have made sure I was wearing my seat belt. After about 1.5 hrs we arrived back at my Riad. I decided to spend the night in and get some rest ready for my trip to the Sahara the next day.
Day 3 24/11/15
Today was the start of my 2 day trek to the Sahara. It started the same way as Monday, my Riad kindly got up early to provide breakfast at 7:30 rather than the normal 8am schedule. I had a pancake with Butter and Jam, lots of toasted baguette slices and mint tea. My driver arrived at 7:50 pick me up. Unfortunately it’s impossible to be picked up directly from my Riad by car so we had to walk the distance to his 4×4 through the narrow streets dodging the mopeds and bicycles while choking on the exhaust fumes. He parked the car right near the outside wall! This wall surrounds the entire perimeter of the Medina – the “old town”. I questioned why this wall is up and I’m told it is because it’s the “main town”. Once you get beyond the wall it’s almost normal. Beyond the wall is the new town and here you can find nice hotels, restaurants, banks, wide roads, people obey the laws; a little. I have yet to explore the new town. Inside the wall is a stark contrast. Chaotic, claustrophobic, polluted. I compare this wall to that of the wall from the Game of Thrones. The people inside the wall are the Wildlings! The red walls of the city, built by Ali ibn Yusuf in 1122–1123, and various buildings constructed in red sandstone during this period, have given the city the nickname of the “Red City” or “Ochre City”. Marrakesh grew rapidly and established itself as a cultural, religious, and trading centre for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa; Jemaa el-Fnaa is the busiest square in Africa.
Once in the car my driver announced the next stop would be to pick up another couple who would also be joining us for the trip. After some driving around and a number of phone calls we finally found the hotel for the next pick up, it is here I met an American couple, Peri-anne and Mark, they are from Washington DC. We all introduced ourselves; our drivers name is Hassan, Hassan was born and is from the Sahara Desert, he rents a flat in Marrakesh. At this point in time none of us really new the itinerary in detail so Peri-anne began to interrogate our driver. Hassan explained we had a 10 hour drive, and later on in the day we discovered this was the first leg of the journey. So the adventure begins. The first 1.5 hrs we chatted and got to know each other. After a 1.5 hrs drive we hit the beginning of Atlas Mountains and quickly became fixated by the beautiful scenery. The roads are very narrow with steep cliffs on one side, not for the faint hearted.
We drove through a number of very small isolated villages where the people live very simple lives. As we gained altitude we stopped a number of times to take photos and just admire the scenery. At each stop we were approached by the locals trying to sell us things like amethyst stones, and trilobites. It’s strange how so many of the locals managed to get hold of an abundance of rare looking rocks and fossils. I later learned that the majority of the goods they sell are fake. Every time we stopped I joked with the Mark and Peri-anne about buying some painted rocks, it became one of those jokes that never got boring. We took a short cut off road through the desert and at 13:00 we stopped just short about a mile away from Ksar Ait Ben Haddou. It was here we got a high vantage point to take pictures. We couldn’t take pictures from the normal spot Hassan suggested because a team was filming for a movie. It was quite exciting to know I was there while a film was being shot.
Hopefully I can find out what movie was being filmed a little later on. Hassan filled us in on a little history and told us it had been built around the 11-14th century. Aït Benhaddou (Berber: Ath Benhadu, Arabic: آيت بن حدّو) is a fortified city, or ksar, along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech in present-day Morocco. Most citizens living in the area now live in more modern dwellings in a nearby village, although there are 4 families still living in the ancient city. This giant fortification, which is made up of six Kasbahs and nearly fifty ksars which are individual Kasbahs, is a great example of earthen clay architecture.
Many films have been filmed here including Laurance of Arabia, Babel & Gladiator just to name a few. Once we had finished taking pictures we got got back in the car and pulled up outside a restaurant close to the site. We were given the choice to have lunch or visit the site first. By now we were all quite hungry and unanimously decided on lunch. After lunch Hassan told us where we needed to go to get up close and take a look inside the site. We walked through the narrow streets and up the steep stairs until we reached the top.
We took many pictures and from the top and watched the actors and directors filming this mysterious movie.
After 45 minutes we headed back to the car and continued the journey. After 2 more hours of driving we arrived at the town of roses. We stopped here for a break and Peri-anne purchased some rose oil and other goodies. Rose oil is big business here, and this stuff is the real deal – it takes around 3000 kilograms of petals to make one litre. The fragrant scents are matched by the beauty of the setting at the heart of the Dadés Valley, dotted with almond trees and a thousand mudbrick kasbahs, with the river glistening in the valley below.
By now the sun was starting to set and the temperature was dropping but the skies looked beautiful with a full spectrum of colours, oranges blues and purples. After a short break we got back in the car and drove some more, after 10 hours of traveling by 4×4 and the skies now dark, the moon very bright a prominent in the night sky, we pulled over… Finally we arrived at our Riad “Babylon Dades” for our overnight stay.
We were greeted by men in traditional clothing and served mint tea and nuts to snack on. After filling in our paper work we were told dinner was at 7pm and then shown to our rooms…or so we thought! Instead it was “A” room…It appeared I was sharing a room with my new found American friends. They had a double bed and a few steps away through an arch way I was sleeping in a single, no door between us and sharing the same bathroom. We didn’t expect this? But to be honest we had just shared a car for the last 10 hours and we were very tired. A short while after one of the guys came back and asked us if the situation was ok?… We said we were expecting 2 rooms not 1!! Luckily they had a second option and offered me a room in the Riad just up the road. I accepted. My new room was very nice, and it had a heater!! Well needed as the nights around here are cold and fresh!! So I checked in and then left the room to meet my new American friends for dinner.
Day 4 25/11/15
The next morning we woke up at 7:30 in Dades gorge and had breakfast and at 8:00am we headed out for the Sahara. Our driver Hassan was now dressed in traditional clothing. Along he way we stopped at various beautiful locations to take pictures and admire the view.
We left the road for some wild off roading! I’ve never experienced this before and it was great fun, I commented on how Hassan seemed drive faster off road than on. We all laughed a lot because it was very true. The truck left a nice dirt trail in the desert, Hassan was very proud of his dirt trail! We weren’t on the dirt for long before returning to the road, the cabin smelt of the desert dust, and after leaving the dirt for the tarmac we opened the windows and let the dust out. After more driving and a stop for lunch we headed back onto the road. After a short drive we were stopped by a police road block and made to pull in. The police man asked Hassan a few questions and then his attention turned to Peri-anne. He wanted to know where she was from and Peri-anne replied “America”. He then asked me the same question and I said “England”. He asked Peri-anne if she liked Morocco, her response was “I love Morocco” trying to smile as much as she could. After my first experience with the police I was feeling a little nervous to say the least. Luckily we were all wearing our seat belts this time around. The police officer asked Hassan to get out of the vehicle. Hassan got into the the police officers car and they were there for some time. After several minutes Hassan came back and we drove off. We asked Hassan what just happened? It turned out this officer was corrupt and he wanted money! Luckily Hassan managed to get us out of the situation without paying a penny!…After another short drive we stopped at a place where they sold fossils.
Here they explained how and where the fossils are found and demonstrated the process for extraction. Trilobites (/ˈtraɪlɵbaɪt/, /ˈtrɪlɵbaɪt/; meaning “three lobes”) are a fossil group of extinct marine arthropods that form the class Trilobita. Trilobites form one of the earliest known groups of arthropods and were among the most successful of all early animals, roaming the oceans for over 270 million years.
Once the demonstration was over we headed inside and they had some very impressive pieces of furniture, from tables to sinks all made from fossils.
Beyond this room was the shop where they sold smaller items, including trilobites. Although they demonstrated impressively how the items are found and produced, my scepticism was high. They had some genuine articles for sure, but they also had a lot of fakes mixed in. I purchased a couple of things I liked the look of, I wanted to buy a lot more but I only had hand luggage and it was already stuffed to the brim.
After buying some fossils we headed back on the road, and after a short drive we could finally see the desert in the distance….
Finally after several more hours of driving we arrived at a hotel on the edge of the desert. The edge of the desert is built up with hotels ready to accommodate the tourists. We got our things out of the car and headed out to meet our Camels.
The camels are our mode of transportation to the camp site where we would be staying for the night. If you’ve never rode a camel before it’s a unique experience. It’s easy enough to climb on when they are sat on the floor, once you are on you are told to lean back and hold on. The camel rises his back legs first lurching you forward and if you’re not holding on and leaning back or paying attention you’re off! All three of us went through the same process before heading out into the desert on our 1hr ride to the camp.
After 45 mins we stopped near a sand dune to watch the sunset.
We then got back on our camels again, and after a short 15 min ride we made it to our camp.
We were shown our little tents for the night and then offered Mint tea and almonds to snack on.
We met another English couple Stephen and Kirsty who were also staying in our camp the same night, they were from Southampton. After a good chat and getting to know each other I decided I wanted to have a go at sand boarding even though now it was dark! I climbed the sand dune and set off. It was harder than I was expecting but I managed to get halfway down before falling off and cartwheeling down the sand dune. I got back on and tried again! It was really fun but tough. I ended up with sand in every pocket, shoe and just about anywhere else it could get. but after 15 minutes it was to dark to carry on so I decided it would be best to stop and continue in the morning.
We were told by the Berber hosts that dinner was ready, and we were led to the tent where dinner was served. To start we had a Moroccan noodle soup, followed by chicken tagine and It was very tasty. Over dinner we all got to know each other a bit more and shared stories from our adventures of Marrakesh and beyond, we laughed a lot, and some more.
After dinner one of the hosts came to get us to join them around the camp fire where they played traditional music on their drums around a small campfire under the bright stars and very big and bright full moon.
After a couple of local tunes it was our turn to join in and I was handed the drums to play. I hammered the drums while Mark made up a song called Africa! Very, very funny. We all had a go and a good giggle.
By now we were all getting a bit tired so it was time for bed!
I didn’t sleep very well. I laid there listening out for signs of animal life in the desert… Wait I thought… Whats that noise?… A deep base tone hit my ear canal… What was it?…It was Mark farting! Nice! And that continued into the night along with his snoring!
I awoke at 1am freezing so I got out of bed and grabbed the blankets from the other single and tried to go back to sleep. I managed a couple hours more but that was it.
We were awoken the next morning at 6am by one of the Berber men, it was time to watch the sun rise. I brushed my teeth grabbed my camera and climbed the largest sand dune just to the right of our camp. The climb was really tough going but I managed to get to the top in about 15 minutes. I set my iPhone up for time lapse and balanced my iPhone in the sand. My fellow camp buddies were close by, and Stephen and Kirsty came and sat next to me. We talked a bit and then watched the sun rise from behind the distant dune. As it began to rise the horizon glowed beautifully in oranges, purples and blues. We took plenty of pictures and in between just paused to watch the spectacle. It was so peaceful and beautiful.
When the sun was high in the sky we headed back down. I have to say I preferred the way back down! I grabbed my bag and headed to where the camel was parked. Perri-anne and Mark were already at the camel by now and waiting. The local Berbers were calling me but not by my name! They kept calling me carroot because of the colour of my jacket. I was wearing my bright red North Face jacket. If it wasn’t carroot it was English or England. “Come on Carroot” the Berber man would shout. It was their accent that extended the vegetable from carrot to caroot.
We got back on our camels and took the 1 hour ride back to the hotel where we started.
My hands were freezing and almost about to fall off by the time the camel journey was over.
We got back in the car and headed back on the road the way we came and 10 hours later I arrived back at my Riad. I exchanged details with my fellow American friends and ended the journey on a high…