After a few days in Rabat we left the bicycles behind and boarded the 1:30pm train to Marrakesh, marvelling at how simple it is to catch a train without two fully loaded touring bicycles.
Our taxi dropped us off at Djema El Fna Square, and with the help of several shopkeepers and our trusty iPhone we made it to Riad Layla Rouge without too many problems, no mean feat in Marrakesh which, similar to Fes, is a myriad of criss-crossing alleyways and dead-end streets. And of course Layla Rouge doesn’t have a sign.
We were very lucky that the main part of the hotel was full, as the owner has another dar just meters away which was completely empty (and much more tastefully decorated), so we got to have the whole place to ourselves!
The Medina is a bustling maze where we enjoyed several days getting lost, having our chakras realigned by a reki healer (we are still not quite sure how that happened!), being hotly pursued by men selling brass door knockers, lamps, fabric, shoes, key rings, cats, silk and of course, the ubiquitous carpets — all the while avoiding high-speed motorcycles and precariously over-loaded horse carts.
Perhaps the most well-known spectacle in Marrakesh is the Djema El Fna Square after dark — every evening 100’s of men come out of various nooks and crannies in the medina and set up rows and rows of food stalls, by 6pm it is a cacophony of sights sounds and smells. You can’t walk through the square without being accosted by eager Moroccans wanting to sell you a plate of merguez sausages a steamed sheeps head or a glass of orange juice each assuring you that theirs is the best. This is also the spot where snake charmers, henna tattooists, musicians and shoe polishers choose to pedal their wares.
We spent three days exploring Marrakesh, on the fourth we rented a car to journey south-east through Ouarzarzate and Zagora to Mhamid which is quite literally a town at the end of the road. Departure was (as usual) slightly delayed, this time by a sudden and pressing sushi craving which surprisingly ended up being pretty good. Cravings satisfied, we negotiated our way out of the city and onto the N9 which would carry us up winding passes through the High Atlas then down to Ouazarzate made famous by it’s role in Cassablanca and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
About 50kms before Ouarzarzate we were stopped by a man who’s car had overheated and needed a lift the rest of the way to town — it turned out he came from a family who spend six months of the year traveling in a caravan of camels trading with the Berber nomads of the desert — at least that’s what he told us. And whaddaya know it also turned out that his cousin/uncle/brother takes tours into the desert. Over the next few days we saw several people with a similar trick — they would rush into the middle of the road holding up an empty water bottle, gesturing for us to “stop, we need water, this is the desert you know!” and no doubt eager to tell us about THEIR uncle/brother/cousin who also takes people into the desert. We never did figure out if our guy was legit (I mean he did have a broken down car..?).
From Ouarzarzate we slightly backtracked to go and see a small oasis several kilometres out of town, we followed directions and after driving on a rocky track for several minutes (and collecting a child who was on his way home from school) we found a bent sign pointing to our destination. After several moments we had a guide who was very eager to show us around his tiny village perfectly situated on the bend of a picturesque river surrounded by (delicious) date palms.
He first showed us the cave where Jesus of Nazareth was laid out after being crucified (we got to roll back the fibreglass stone!) and then took us to his home and introduced us to his wife. We were lead across the river (which can only be crossed by about 20 small and wobbly stepping stones — I am still puzzled why someone doesn’t just put in some larger, non wobbling stepping stones) and showed us the rest of the village of houses made from red-mud bricks. The tour complete, we parted with some Dirhams and said our goodbyes. Off again, speeding through the rocky landscape — we had a date, with a DROMEDARY.
We arrived in dusty Mhamid at about 11 the next morning, it is literally a few buildings at the end of the highway which trails off to 4WD tracks and camel paths. We met our guide and went with him to his uncles home for lunch before we set off into the desert – it was a really amazing meal, enjoyed by the entire family sitting on cushions gathered around a small table eating with chunks of flat bread as cutlery from the huge communal fish tangine. Delicious! The family were very eager to hear all about where we were from, happy to ignore the language barrier, we chatted on into the afternoon.
After lunch we parked the car and got into a dusty and squeaky 4WD that had clearly spent its formative years clattering across the rocky desert. We sped across the sandy landscape that was dotted with fresh patches of beautiful rocket that had popped up since the recent rain. We arrived at our camp in the early afternoon, our berber tent (more like a hut), had a camel hair roof and red mud brick walls which were very warm in the desert sun, perfectly designed, we discovered as the heat radiated back into the room during the very nippy night. After dumping our bags we were introduced to three dromedaries who were less than thrilled to take us for an expedition through the dunes. It was a beautiful experience, our guide once again very keen to hear about our lives in Australia.
After watching the sun go down to the tune of spaniards sand boarding on neighbouring dunes we went back to our camp and joined our hosts playing drums and singing some Berber tunes. Dinner was a grand affair — enough food to feed twice as many people — which we happily digested lying under the massive dark sky counting the innumerable shooting stars. I think it was about midnight when we crept back into our lovely warm house.
The next morning after watching the sun rise over the dunes, we ate our breakfast and bid farewell to our new favourite friend Nasima the cheese-eating cat, said a heartfelt goodbye to the lonely donkey and thanked our host for an amazing evening.
By mid-morning we were back in our own car and heading towards Marrakesh and the beginning of the end of our time in Morocco. There are lots more photos from this part of our trip here.