Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Moroccan Pin (incl. Western Sahara)

MOROCCO & WESTERN SAHARA (Tuesday 29 May - Monday 25 June 2012)

The pins: Tetuan, Chefchaouen, Rabat, Mehdia, Fes, Azrou, Gorges du Ziz, Merzouga, Gorges du Todra, Agoudal, Tinerhir, Gorges du Dades, Ait Benhaddou, Ouarzazate, Marrakesh, Essaouira, Tan Tan, Boujdour, Dakhla
Very early in Tuesday morning we set foot in Africa! But, on European soil since the Spanish have made sure to keep a mini tax heaven on the other side, Ceuta (and Melilla further east). Even the directions to Morocco are in Spanish. Within half an hour we finished with the bureaucratic stuff as for EU citizens, visa is not needed to entry in the country. We got a bit delayed for the car documents but nothing special (you suppose to have the “Carte Grise” which is the car’s ID but we did the same job with the Carne). The classic touts that pretend to be from the Ministry of Tourism started pressing us for help but we pushed them away immediately. Imagine that this happened in our entire trip within Morocco, so we have to get used to it from the very first time. 

Chefchaouen was our first destination in the Rif Mountains though we arrived with a small delay. As we headed south while crossing Tetuan, a small town, a Moroccan tout on a bike started talking us about a bazaar in the town’s Medina where also Touareg people were taking part (Medina is a city in Saudi Arabia where Prophet Mohamed found shelter. Symbolically, most cities in Morocco have their own Medina that is the ancient city which is surrounded by high walls, are labyrinths and a big number of the population lives inside). We did not stop but continued our way. At the next traffic light, he came again next to us and offered him to show us the way to Medina. We decided to go, just to see what’s around even we asked him twice if he was a guide or something but he said no. We walked within the ancient town that is an UNESCO Worldwide Heritage Site (as most of the Medinas in Morocco), we saw all the markets with vegetables, fish, meat, textiles, clothing stuff, shoes etc and he explained us a couple of things about people, ethics and daily life while we ended up in a carpet store where at the end we realized his real “job”.  By enjoying the classic Moroccan mint tea and even under hard pressure, we did not buy anything from the “cooperative” and we managed to get out of it after a while mentioning also the effects of Greek crisis as a reason. 

However, we enjoyed a nice and free demonstration of local pieces of art –all handmade- including the story of making as well. Off course, the tout was really pissed off that he did not manage to make us shopping even we gave him a small pan as an exchange (no money off course). We were also a bit frustrated for our first adventure. Even we knew about the way they work, we did not manage to avoid him at the end. We were only two hours in the country and we did not like that a stranger made us following him for no reason. All in all, we decided to be more careful and have our eyes open.

Notice: The classic story that all Moroccans sellers are used to say is that their store is a part of a “cooperative”, that only there you can find unbeatable prices and that you're the first customer of the day so you will bring them luck if you buy anything etc.

After all, we arrived in camping Azilan, in Chefchaouen.  This camping is a classic passage for many overlanders and we decided to spend the night there before getting further in Morocco. For 8 euros per night and free wifi, it was fine even the toilets were totally disgusting. Luckily the restaurant was nice. We tried typical Moroccan plates like cous cous and tajine. 

A lot of stress and thoughts. Where are we going? How are we going? What shall we do? Where to stay? Europe it’s so easy to move around and it is safe at the end. That was our first time outside Europe, with a car and everything seemed to be quite different. We had several notes (for campings, tracks etc) but again, theory is far different than practice. The good thing about Morocco is that it’s made according to the French standards. There is a roundabout everywhere and all roads lead to the city center. 

Next day we headed to Rabat in order to get our visas for Mauritania and Mali. Rabat is the main destination for these kind of job even the guides promotes Cazablanca, Fes and Marrakesh more.  Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Rabat and we started looking for Camp Rabat. After 3 hours and 100 km we did not manage to find this camping and totally pissed off, we decided to stay in a hotel. As we learned next day, there was no camping in Rabat the last 20 years. Next day we visited the two embassies and we managed to get the visas for Mali for 70 euro. Mauritanian embassy was closed so we decided to try the next day. In the meantime, we met Mr. Kostas Pistikos, the President of the Greek Community in Morocco who offered us to stay in his place for a couple of days. We enjoyed the Greek ad German (because of his wife) hospitality and we had a great time with them. Mr. Kostas and Mrs. Metta gave us a lot of advice and information for Morocco and they seemed to like us. We were really lucky to meet them, indeed. 

Next day we applied for the Mauritanian visas and headed back to Mehdia, a small village 40 km away from Rabat to spend our weekend. Georgia enjoyed fish and I only enjoyed shrimps. What is more, we’ve got some of our best photos of a sunset on Sunday afternoon. Awesome scenery with the Atlantic, the sun and the ebb to be in the right time, in the right place. In Mehdia, we also met Manfried and Barbara, a German couple with a Toyota Hiace who were travelling in Morocco as well. Barbara was planning to get the plane back to Germany at the end of June but Manfried would go south like us. We exchange all our contact details and decided to try passing the Mali borders together. 

On Monday noon, we’ve got at the end the Mauritanian visas for 68 euros and headed east to Fes. No camping in Meknes, so we decided not to stay there. We found a nice camping in Fes (Diamond Vert) within a huge complex of bungalows, piscines and full of sade. Apart from the toilets that were disgusting for one more time, we had a nice time there, we did our laundry, we cooked hot dog and met some French overlanders as well. 

We visited also the famous Medina of Fes El Bali that was really amazing. Fez was the capital of Morocco until 1912 and was a major commercial center for many years. The Medina of Fez el Bali is believed to be the largest urban area without cars in the world and about 80 percent of the population (1 million total) resides in Medina. About 9,000 alleys create a magic labyrinth of markets of bread, meat, vegetables, fish, textiles, carpets, silk, leather stuff, bridal outfits, wedding items and anything else you can imagine. The medina is divided into squares and each square has a portal that any time could be sealed so as to protect the population. Symbolically, the five outstretched fingers of the hand of Fatima, a symbol of good luck, represents the 5 points of reference within the Medina. A Koran school, a mosque, a bakery, a water source and a steam room exist within each square. Trademark of the city are the tanneries. Any leather stuff you can imagine (bags, jackets, sofas etc) made from cow, lamp, goat or camel leather all handmade. Awesome! Usually, you cannot stand the bad odors and especially during summer. Local people make humor of it by saying that is smells like Channel No5 or Camel No5 and Channel No10 for hardcore situations. 

After Fez, we headed south east to Merzouga with two short stops in Azrou (Eurocamping) and Gorges du Ziz (Camping Jurassique). Definitely, a very interesting route through the Middle Atlas. Eurocamping was a brand new camping with all the amenities while the Jurassique camping was a kind of parking with toilets rather than a camping. 

In Merzouga, we spent a weekend of psychoanalysis because Georgia realized that she always needs more time to adapt in the new places, situations and at the end in our new life. We played a bit within the dunes that were so close to the camping, we took some nice pictures and on Sunday night, we decided to go more south east to Taouz, cross the desert and get to Tagounite. Unfortunately, a Moroccan tout asked for 75 euro in order to give us some directions for the piste and a river that was full of sand that none 4x4 can go through, as he said. We evaluated the cost and the information (sometimes you do not know if you can trust or not such people and information) and we decided to go back. All Moroccan people do the same thing and you just have to get the right decision for yourself. But, in this case we did not want to take the risk in the middle of the Sahara. At the end, we feel that we took the wrong decision to trust this silly man. After Merzouga, we decided to visit the two famous Moroccan Gorges, Gorges du Todra and Gorges du Dades. 

After spending a nice time in camping Atlas, under palm trees within the Gorges du Todra, we crossed it the next day and headed to High Atlas. There was a piste from Agoudal to Msemir and finally to the Gorges du Dades and we wanted to go off road for the first time.  After 6 km in a quite easy rocky piste, the back of Zikos hit on the ground and stopped. In the middle of nowhere. We did not manage to make anything and we decided to walk in the closest Auberge that was 1 km away from the broken car (we had seen a stone sign). After 100m, we met two British guys (God sent them!!) on motorbikes, Tim and Alfie. Tim Cullis is an off-road veteran and Morocco guru and he is writing a book on Morocco off road adventures this period. Thanks to them we got back to Agoudal (we had decided to take the wrong route as the next Auberge was in 3 km in 3.000 meters high) to the Auberge Ibrahim. The owner of the Auberge, Atman, was the Moroccan Scrooge. He managed to find a truck so as to pull the car back to the village for 50 euro. We did not even think of bargaining. 

Next day, with the help of the Greek Embassy, we made a new deal for the truck that would transfer the car back to Tinerhir, the closest city with many garages. We paid to Atman 110 euro but we learned that the truck driver only got the 70. Totally pissed off him, we managed at the end to fix the car. Moroccan garages and engineers can do everything! Despite of the car problem, we spent a nice time to Agoudal surrounded by Berber people. They are great people and their moto is “Live for today”. We ate traditional tajine, they played really nice berber music and we shared a lot of experiences and thoughts. They did like us and –apart from Atman- we have the best opinion for Berber people. 

So far so good. We had our first real adventure and we had managed to get out of it with great success. That fill us with confidence and plenty of positive thinking. 

Next day, we crossed the Gorges du Dades and Dades Valley. A scenic route full of turns in a narrow tarmac road and overloaded trucks trying to make it. Quite dangerous but really interesting to see them struggling but succeeding at the end. At the afternoon, we arrived to Ouarzazate, a famous city for its film studios. We stayed in a miserable camping where we met a Belgian couple that was going to live in Bamako (Mali). Nice people with a nice plan, indeed. Next day, we visited Ait Benhaddou, a very small village 20 km from Ouarzazate which Kashba (Kashba: Fortress- Ancient city) has been used in films like “Gladiator”, “Jesus of Nazaret”, Lawrens of Arabia” etc. 

Through a scenic route up to the High Atlas again, we arrived late in the afternoon to Marrakesh. With a short stop to Merjane (kind of Carrefour where you can find everything.. even alcohol), we fill up the car with the essentials and went to the camping. We stayed in “Le Relais du Marrakesh” that was kind of small resort with piscine, jakuzzi and toilets that smelled like flowers. There, we met an Italian couple, Piero and Oriela with a Mercedes Unimog. Great people, great adventures, great trips. They had travelled a lot with their truck and they had a lot of things to share with us. Along  with two more Italian families (they were visiting Morocco with their caravans), we spent a great night in the camping talking about everything. How many common things we share with our neighbors! We really love Italian people! 

What is more, we visited the Medina of Marrakesh with Piero and Oriela. It is so nice to have some company with you when you travel. That was our second time -after Vladimirs in Granada- that we felt so nice. Marrakesh’ Medina is so wonderful full of colors, food stuff, shoes, textiles and anything you can imagine. We even found some teeth sellers. However, the fore and foremost attraction is the snake charmers who only charm the cobras only if you pay them! Henna tattoo artists were everywhere and they tried on your hands for free as a sample. Quite interesting experience that you should not miss if you ever be in Marrakesh. 

Claus speaks with his bike
Next day, we headed south to Essaouira so as to attend the Gnaoua Festival of music. We stayed in a camping that was totally full of locals in the first day of the festival. We met some nice people there and got some useful information for our trip. We met Claus, an Austrian that was travelling with his bike all around Europe for 12 years, Jacques, a Brazilian who had spent last year working in Mozambique, David, an absolutely crazy South African who was traveling by his Defender for three years all around Africa and Andre, an Italian man who owned a huge Scania truck-caravan and was visiting Morocco for second time. What an international company! Really, we had so many things to talk about.  We also had a great time in the first day of the festival. Gnaoua music is a mixture of Sub-Saharian, Berber and Sufi music and rythms that also includes choreography and songs may continue even for 20 minutes. 

After Essaouira, we did 1.700 km in 4 days so as to cross Western Sahara. We stayed in several campings in Tan Tan, Bojdour and Dakhla only to get some rest. It was not too hot but dust was everywhere. Great time of our trip so far is the fact that we met a French traveler, Ghislain with an Africa Twin right in the Tropic of Cancer. All of us did not see the old sign and turnaround to get some photos. We travelled together till the Moroccan/Mauritanian borders and after crossing them, we headed to Nouadibou. Really nice guy who quit everything  in Paris –like we did- and decided to travel all around Africa. You can follow his trip in his blog

We liked: Everything in Morocco is handmade, diesel is very cheap, Moroccan food (fast food or food in restaurant) is splendid, the sunset in Mehdia was a lifetime experience, our international company in the Essaouira camping was just perfect and finally Moroccan melons are the greatest melons we have ever tried.

We did not like: The Moroccan Scooge (Atman) in the Auberge Ibrahim who did not respect the fact that we were just travelers in trouble rather than tourists who wanted to visit his camp. 

We saw: Brand new tram in Rabat, incredible development in the suburbs of big cities like Fes, Marrakesh, Ouarzazate etc and finally schools everywhere even in the most remote areas. 

Driving in Morocco: If you compare it to Cairo, it is a paradise. But if you compare it with a middle-class European city, it is a mess all around. Even in the big cities, you could see cars, people, carts with donkeys or horses all together. However, it was a bit funny but not dangerous. In any case you need to respect the speed limit within the villages since there were police blocks everywhere. Only in the Western Sahara we have been stopped 8 times in order to give them the classic “fiche” (a copy of your details) or a copy of our passport. We have been asked twice for “Caudeaux” but we avoid them with success. The profession of teacher helped a lot and it a quite respectful job in the Islamic world. What is more, all road network, both province and autoroute, are of high quality and there are safety signs everywhere regarding alcohol drinking or fastening your seat belt.

Average price for diesel: 0,74 euro

Local currency: Dirham – Exchange rate: 1 euro 10,5 dirham 

Vehicle: We managed to repair the low pressure fuel pump replacing it with a new one. Other than that, no more troubles. The fuel consumption keeps at the same levels (9,5-10 lt/100km) while in Western Sahara we went faster than usual. It helps a lot that the car engine is Peugeot and that makes easier to find spares and parts. North and West Africa are full of French cars.

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