Our European counterparts may not have as easy access to unpopulated lands as the Australian local, but WOW! – With Morocco just over that narrow gap of sea between continents, they do have outstanding opportunities to test their cultural comfort zone!
A few hours drive and a car ferry and you could well be on Mars! Such a contrast in lifestyle and culture…
Can’t recall the last time I camped whilst Bedouin nomads lit a fire within metres of our camp and spent the evening observing us like we were an episode of “Neighbours”, before hinting that we could unburden ourselves of anything we didn’t need in their direction, including our dinner! Returning at dawn, they sat amongst the dunes for one final episode and with some fossils and trinkets to sell, they made some cash before the entertainment disappeared through the sand dunes with a puff of black smoke.
It’s an odd experience! You may well be on Mars, but to these locals you’re the Martian!
So for the European 4×4 enthusiast it’s no surprise that Morocco is their “Mecca” and beckons their return time and time again.
Now for Morocco!
90 minutes on the ferry and Spain slips away! With Gibraltar hazily visible on the horizon, the first challenge is negotiating customs! It was weirdly refreshing to once again dodge scam artists around the port and receive mixed instructions from officials without much in the way of a streamlined process!
“You don’t have the right signature!” (Well I think that is what he said!) “Go back that way somewhere” is suggested with a wave through 90 degrees of the hand to get the extra signature. As expected there was no one back in that general direction to provide any form of mark on the confusing piece of paper! No wait – there he is, he wasn’t at his control station because he was hungry/tired/angry just as the ferry arrived!
To be honest though, Morocco was the height of efficiency compared to many of the Central Asian border crossings…
I expected it to take a little time readjusting to life beyond Europe but was comfortably surprised to feel quite at home from the off!
Whilst Morocco has it’s share of modern town infrastructure with golf courses and the like, they are certainly aimed squarely at the tourist and very, very few and far between.
Within metres of leaving these towns, you’ll not see anything remotely touristy, it’s back to mud huts, donkeys for transport, poor quality infrastructure and butchers with the day’s carcass swinging in the breeze on the sidewalk.
Cities such as Fes and Marrakech absolutely ooze Moroccan character with the medinas (old town) and souks (markets) virtually unchanged after hundreds of years (except maybe for the infiltration of Chinese plastic goods!) Particularly so in the case of Fes – the medina and souk there contain the famous tannery that literally oozes not to mention the marvellous miasma of fumes that tends to emanate from such places. You can actually pass out whilst walking and wake up a few metres further on without breaking step so I discovered!
If you could bottle it, you’d surely outsell pepper spray as a personal deterrent!
Following some GPS track files passed on to us by our friends back at Globe Camper in Narbonne, we found our way easily and quickly into areas of Central Morocco that were wonderfully eye catching with friendly people and terrain loaded with perfect camping opportunities. We wasted a few days just wandering the landscape enjoying the sensation of wild camping by ourselves again. One day we only moved 8kms!!
Low mountains in the mid north of the country are loaded with interesting outcrops of granite interspersed with wonderfully attractive forests of cedar trees. These give way to the Middle then High Atlas Mountains, still with a smattering of snow in Autumn – lovely scenery that reminded me why we love to travel.
Heading south the mountains began to relinquish their hold as the atrophy of millennia has ground away the geography to create stunning river canyons before dissipating into the stark beauty that is the Sahara Desert.
As the track files ran out, we gravitated back to our usual style of route finding. Morocco is loaded with off road tracks so it’s not at all difficult to plan a journey to suit.
Travelling through the Atlas however was a little bitter sweet. One of my most memorable interactions with the locals north of the Atlas, was a farmer and his family stopping their tractor in order to welcome us to Morocco and provide us with a swag of delicious fruit they had just harvested. Once in the midst of the Atlas however, I was close to being put off the country completely!
Of all of the countries, people, customs and practices that we’ve experienced during our travels, this was the first time we’ve had rocks thrown at the Patrol, Jen hissed at by devout women for not being completely covered as we drove by and horses ushered across the road in an attempt to force us to stop. Large rocks rolled in front of us whilst under way, groups of young boys on hilltops with rock laden slingshots aimed at us and being abused as you travel thorough a village slowly so as not to either run over someone or cover them in mud.
I’ve no doubt this behaviour is as a result of well meaning tourists travelling the backcountry in and out of relatively poor villages handing out swathes of first world stuff such as lollies, cheap souvenirs and probably the odd cash/coin hand out as well! Possibly feeling they have descended on the tribe as the missionaries of an era gone by, they broach the differences and befriend the indigenous folk with trinkets from the north, thus providing themselves with a warm glow and tales of the exotic beyond the seas to tell late into the night upon their return.
However, this behaviour only instills in the children that the distinctive foreign vehicle is a source of easy income and goods for a family living off the land and suddenly schooling is abandoned (along with any future that it may provide) in favour of begging and ambushing tourists. So it goes without saying that when you travel through one of these villages without spewing forth such items, you are then the target of their anger and frustration and the aforementioned rock throwing begins!
As it’s becomes worse, no doubt some travellers may fold to the pressure in order to avoid the friction, dents and broken windows that may ensue but ultimately that will encourage the behaviour, as children will pursue what yields results!
The lower agricultural lands have an obviously higher standard of income and far less, if any, begging was experienced. The problems encountered were only in a localized section of the Atlas Mountains and a few hours driving saw us clear to engage and enjoy local hospitality once again!
We did cross this area again on our return northwards with similar behaviour experienced but we were a bit more proactive the second time, thanks to some sound advice from a French overlander. Slamming on the brakes and pulling out the camera in order to mug shot the perpetrators proved remarkably effective in dissuading rock throwing.
Yes, you will be punished if you’re caught on film with such intention and Jen leaping from the car, camera in hand, to leg it after the culprits also proved to be a hilarious deterrent!!
No doubt, tourism is the big earner for Morocco and stopping for any length of time, and on occasion even when camped in secure compounds, your subjected to the usual barrage!
“You want to see Sahara my friend?”
“You must have me as guide! I can do this for you!”
“What do you mean? “no – you don’t need a guide!””
“You can’t drive the Sahara alone!! You will die without my skills!“
“OK OK! Maybe you want buy genuine Berbere carpet (for a ridiculously exorbitant amount of money!) or jewellery maybe? My uncle he makes himself!”
Yada yada yada…
It’s continual and predictable, but easily overcome!
Another Moroccan oddity is the Bedouin! Nomadic and wandering every nook and cranny all over southern Morocco, it’s almost impossible to expect a night of solitude.
At some point, just as you relax into your calming beverage, the sound of approaching goats lets you know they are on their way. You will be visited and eventually met with a request for food, clothes or other, again most likely driven by their past experiences with tourists doling out their discards. Generally speaking, these people were not necessarily poor by Moroccan standards, more so opportunistic, but in a way that was not confronting or off putting. They would eventually wave and wander off with a smile to relocate their herd of goats!
On quite a few occasions, souvenir sellers would suggest whisky or wine as a universal currency able to be traded at substantially more than its face value for nearly anything, which surprised me considerably given the non drinking religious status of the locals!
We felt that the more remote nomads to the southeast had a better handle on the tourist. In the middle of nowhere, rather than beg, on many an occasion they would have a little trestle with some homemade camel souvenirs or maybe a collection of locally found fossils for sale. They were not pushy or aggressive and as a result we purchased quite a few items from such enterprising locals, frequently children. We can only hope these lessons spread further to the north and penetrate the thinking there for I fear it won’t be long before some areas within the Atlas region will find themselves devoid of tourists and the cash injection they bring to the community in general.
Enroute to the Saharan dunes of Erg Chebbi, we met up with a Swedish family travelling solo and, as we were heading in the same direction, ended up spending a week together before parting company! It was nice chatting away into the evening with other independent travellers with there own interesting stories.
Over extremely harsh, rocky tyre smashing terrain we descended off the plateau and into a more Saharan landscape and discovered our first true Saharan Oasis! The stunning backdrop of shifting dunes overlooking a grove of date palms loaded with yellow fruit and a Bedouin pulling water from a hole was really just as you would expect it look!
The dunes of Erg Chebbi really are stunning and sunset is when the colour palate expands and the red sand becomes a canvas on some huge imaginary easel. The striking scenes change within seconds as darkness descends and the desert night sky reveals its bright pin pricks of light from horizon to horizon. It’s so encompassing that you could be forgiven for ducking your head to avoid colliding with a star!
With tyre pressures lowered, we just had to sample the great dunes, however, I’ve no doubt that with an uncontrolled spike in adrenalin you could find yourself quickly on your lid amongst these grand sandy peaks.
Across the border into Algeria, the Erg (sand sea) and palm tree spectacle continues for another 1000km or so… However, setting foot into the Algerian Sahara comes with it’s own risks; not returning with your head attached being one of them!
Along Morocco’s southern border with Algeria we travelled in and out of sporadic villages whilst picking up clouds of bull dust (locally called “feche feche”) as heavy as anything I’ve ever encountered in Australia. Hence, we were very happy that dust sealing had been such a high priority in our camper design – without that feature, it would have been the same powder dust experience inside as out without doubt!
With a strong military presence along the border we found ourselves being stopped consistently for passport checks. It’s all a little “Keystone Cops” really as checkpoints are many km’s apart and you can roam in any direction without ever being spotted! It was made all the more humorous when, within site of one outpost, we wandered north into Moroccan territory for a few km’s, very slowly in low range, with the aim of looking around some small valleys that looked rather interesting – something we’d been doing all along this route.
All the while we were clearly visible to our military protectors until the last 50 or so metres when we parked in a small valley! Ten minutes later and there they were, camouflage uniforms, flip-flop sandals and a custom LandCruiser that rarely touched mother earth, it was going so fast!
Honestly, I think they were just bored and looking for some excitement, as they seemed disappointed when we were just tourists! Radio calls were made to report back the results of their scramble to action and every checkpoint after knew that we were the “Australians” on the radio!!!
Anyway it was nice to have them looking out for us!
We ended up camping just outside a small military compound that night. One of the troops provided us with some vegies for dinner with the obvious ulterior motive of engaging Jen in what bordered on inappropriate conversation! Sick of having goats to keep them warm at night I guess! Nonetheless it was an experience!
Turning northwards, we visited Ait Ben Haddou and its famous Ksar then headed via Tata and Tafraoute where we experienced some of the most stunning drives we encountered in Morocco before we popped out on the Atlantic Coast near Agadir.
Making our way north, we visited Essaouira and it’s famous fish market! The town although rather touristy, still managed to charm us with a great vibe, narrow streets and interesting views along with a wind whipped sea crashing into the old town’s sea wall!
From there it was finally to Marrakech and despite some mixed opinions from other travellers, we really enjoyed the souk experience and wandering around the old medina. We were expecting to be harassed by relentless touts offering to be our guide and stifling crowds, but instead found it to be a much more pleasant experience. I suppose it all depends on your expectations and the extremities of your comfort zone.
A slow doddle north via a mix of geography including another stint in the High Atlas, the Roman archaeological site of Volubilis and a few more days relaxing on the sea, we arrived back where we’d started at the Port of Tanger Med. Nearly 5000km of Morocco behind us we crossed back to Algeciras and straight into a Lidl Supermarket! Ahhhh it’s amazing the things you miss…
Gibraltar, Spain and the dash across Portugal next time!