In the shadow of Mount Toubkal

The most challenging part of my travels around Morocco was the homestay with a Berber family, who live tucked away in the middle of the High Atlas Mountains. 

Most of the group had bailed, put off by the thought of a tough uphill hike at altitude, followed by basic overnight living arrangements during an icy Moroccan winter.  Instead, they headed for the creature comforts of a 4-star hotel in Marrakech, but I was determined to give it my best shot.  Authentic adventures in a foreign country aren’t designed to be comfortable, but they are very real.  So real that at the highest point for the day – 2 260m above sea level – my feet felt like blocks of ice.

My wiser travelling companions paid 100 Dirhams to hire a mule in Imlil (below) rather than hike, but I forged ahead (with my camera bag on my back!!) on foot.  For a while two other mule handlers hung around as I battled uphill, hopeful I would change my mind , but they gave up halfway and disappeared.  Short of breath from the thin air and sweltering under the 4 layers I was wearing to stave off the cold, I resembled a puffing beetroot, but I made it to the Gite* on foot, stripping off a few layers of clothing along the way.

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The tiny village of Imlil is the centre of mountain tourism in Morocco, a base for those wanting to summit Mount Toubkal, which is the highest mountain in Morocco and North Africa. In Imlil you can hire virtually anything associated with snow and the mountain.

But we were headed for Aremd near the ski resort, which looked delightful covered in a sprinkling of snow.

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And then the end was in sight where the dirt road stopped.  It really was one of the most arduous things I have done, but I’m glad I persevered.  I survived the walk into the hills and then the cold by piling blankets on. It was in fact the bed that was the bigger killer – two bases on top of one another rather than a base and mattress. The hardest night’s sleep ever ever 🙂 🙂  Little wonder that none of us showered the next morning and couldn’t wait to get to Essaouira on the coast for some warmer weather and some seafood – without couscous 🙂

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* guesthouse

Doors across Morocco

Morocco is a photographer’s dream.  There is so much to capture, especially the architecture that reflects Morocco’s rich cultural and historical heritage.  The French, Moorish and Islamic influences are very evident in doors across the country, whether they are heavily embellished horseshoe arches or simple wooden doors with peeling, decades-old paintwork and simplistic latches.

In Ait Benhaddou:

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And in Casablanca:

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In El Khorbat in the Todra valley:

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In Fes:

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From Marrakech:  The first, brightly coloured door is in the Jardin Majorelle, the twelve-acre botanical and artist’s landscape garden, owned by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé.

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From the hillside hamlet of Moulay Idriss:

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And I haven’t even got to the port city of Essaouira yet 🙂

Aït Benhaddou

As an unabashed Game of Thrones fan, I had been itching to photograph the earthen clay architecture of Ait Benhaddou, the famous Kasbah town along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech, which has also formed the backdrop of blockbuster greats such as Gladiator, Alexander, The Sheltering Sky and Black Hawk Down.

But even without the impressive CV, tucked away in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas mountains in Ouarzazate, the movie capital of Morocco, Ait Benhaddou is gorgeous.  The russet clay houses huddle together within the defensive walls which are reinforced by corner towers, and are a striking example of the architecture of southern Morocco and days of yore.  Interestingly, eight families still live within the city walls.

But first the snake man who holds court about 5km from the most famous and photographed ksar in the Ounila Valley, who makes a living posing for tourists adorned by snakes.  He was most upset because I didn’t pay to photograph him. The truth is I’d left my bag on the bus otherwise I would have.  That aside though, only minutes before a travelling companion had very generously lined the snake man’s Djellaba pockets with Dirhams, moved in close and handed me his iPhone to capture the encounter. My photos were basically an extension of that photo op, but the snake man unleashed a vitriolic stream of Arabic in my direction as I boarded the bus.  Tourists, I knew by now, are fair game at every possible opportunity.

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From a rooftop terrace overlooking Yunkai * (Ait Benhaddou in real life), it’s easy to fall in love with everything about this picturesque place and while it was remarkably cold, the snow on the High Atlas Mountains added to the charm.

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And then we crossed the river on stepping stones, entered the city walls and climbed to the citidel atop, where the sweeping views were equally breathtaking.

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*   Yunkai is the smallest of the three cities in Slaver’s Bay in Game of Thrones.  Scenes from Pentos, the biggest of the Free Cities, were also filmed in Ait Benhaddou.

 

Nightfall in Casablanca

The sky resembled a mammoth bruise as night fell on my last evening in Casablanca.  A city that is nothing like the 1940’s movie of the same name, Casa instead resembled many of the cities where old stands comfortably juxtaposed with new.  Here the 5-star Hyatt Regency vies for the title of downtown landmark with the Clocktower at the busiest entrance of the old Medina.  I know which I prefer 🙂

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Postcards from the Todra Valley

Captured in the Todra Gorge, a canyon in the eastern part of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco and in El Khorbat, an ancient fortified village in the valley.

In the Gorge, massive, sweeping cliffs surround small family allotments filled with birdsong and fig, pomegranate, olive and almond trees, alfa alfa and vegetables. Nearby the women were washing clothes in the river while goats nimbly scaled the cliffs overhead. Lunch was broad-bean soup and Berber pizza – a flatbread with mince filling which made for a very different Christmas Day:-)

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It was icy in the Gorge in the mornings. With three tour groups staying in the hotel at the same time, they did good business selling bottles of red wine to the tourists in the evenings and some of my travelling companions were noticeably absent from breakfast first thing in the morning.  Even those that were always ravenous ones.

One morning we took a two-hour walk in the date Palmeries along the river so no surprises that there were dates for breakfast.

By then we were halfway through our travels around Morocco and most of the group couldn’t face another Tagine or more couscous. The fresh orange in the morning was still very welcome though and the coffee is quite good wherever you go In Morocco. Consequently the other South Africans hijacked one of the hotel kitchens and the smell of Durban curry filled the air:-) 🙂

The Leather Tanneries of Fes

They hand you a sprig of mint to take the edge off the odour as you enter the building, but nothing, in my view, can disguise the smell of Fes’ tanneries.

You first get a sense of the magnitude of this industry as you approach the tannery complex – literally hundreds of damp and recently dyed hides laid out to dry in the sun wherever there is free space.

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But the real action is in the dyeing pits in the Medina, the subject of many photographs from travel books on Morocco, where dozens of men stand knee deep in the pits of pigeon poop and natural colors in the hot sun, dyeing hides before they are fashioned into jackets, handbags and other commercial products.  Work in the tanneries hasn’t changed for centuries and this is the place to go if you want to experience the real authentic Fes.  Be warned though – the stench really does take your breath away.

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And all around the tanneries, that all too familiar sight – the satellite dish 🙂

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Trekking in Merzouga

It’s a few days before Chrismas, I’m in the middle of nowhere and my transport for the next 24 hours has a top speed of about 20km/hour when in a hurry. The tag on his ear identifies him as No. 2588 and I’m grateful for the warmth his body emits after the initial shock of being catapulted back and forth when he gets up and down. Apart from that, the ride is pretty rhythmic and exciting.

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I’m camel trekking from Merzouga to a sea of wind-swept dunes call Erg Chebbi, undulating crests and valleys of orange sand, and a camp about 8km from the Algerian border where I will overnight in a simple tent with nothing but blankets to keep warm.

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Unbeknown to me, I’ve decided to visit Morocco during the coldest winter in a decade.  It is icy outside and the wind whips around the tent all night, flapping at the entrance and keeping me awake, but I have seen more stars in this remote part of Morocco than I have ever seen anywhere else at one time.  Think Sossusvlei in Namibia meets Sutherland in South Africa’s Northern Cape.  Outside the camels sleep on the open ground, their grunts drowned out by the whistling wind.

Before daybreak I force myself from the pile of blankets to watch the sun rise and am treated to small trains of camels on the dunes in front of me as the sun’s rays tickle the earth – the photographic highlight of my trip so far.

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The Sahara is cold but exhilarating and although I’d give anything for a bath right now, I am ever so grateful for this amazing experience which I won’t forget in a hurry.

“Balak, balak” in Fes

Said to be the spiritual heart of Morocco, Fes is one of the world’s best preserved and captivating medieval cities.

Our walk started at the Gates of the Royal Palace located by the Jewish quarter.  Built in the 17th century, this palace is still used by the king of Morocco when he’s in town, but it’s closed to the public, so visitors have to be content with the outside.  There is plenty of detail to photograph, from the ornate metal doors, arches and delicate mosaic work.

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Equally intriguing was the Bab Sammarine, a gateway into Fez el-Jdid (New Fez), dating back to the 13th century.

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And then on to the souks in Fes’s ancient Medina…..

In short they are exhausting. A winding labyrinth of damp and dark alleys that never seems to end,

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with laden mules and donkeys passing by where you can barely swing a scrawny cat, their owners yelling balak, balak” – move out of the way or “watch out”.  The first two balak’s are a caution – on the third “balak” you are practically bowled over as the stream of traffic through the narrow alleyways forges ahead.

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Inside the souk, the harassment and banter alone leaves you feeling like you’ve done a triathalon. The camel’s head dangling from the eaves in a butcher’s shop took my breath (and appetite) away and, and so did the strench of the leather tanneries where pigeon poop is used to fix the dye. And then a co-traveller ordered pigeon pie for lunch, can you believe?  (I didn’t photograph the camel’s head by the way – I hurried past as fast as the oncoming stream of jellaba-clad merchants with carts of oranges or heavily laden donkeys would allow).

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Founded in the 9th century and home to the oldest university in the world, about 1.1 million people live in Fes, where the ancient Medina has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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The Roman ruins at Volubilis

A day trip from Meknes and about 3km from Moulay Idriss, Volubilis was one of the Roman Empire’s most remote outposts.  Developed from the 3rd Century BC, extensive remains of this archaeological site survive, surrounded by a fertile agricultural area.

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Included in these is the Arch of Caracalla, situated at the end of what was the city’s main street.

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A breeding pair of storks that has taken residence atop one of the columns and the moody winter skies made for great photographs.

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The hillside hamlet of Moulay Idriss

Although Moulay Idriss is an important religious site in northern Morocco, what I loved the most is the way the town tumbles down two hills and how, traversing a winding labyrinth of alleys that lead to spectacular vantage points from the top, it appears that life in this picturesque little hamlet hasn’t changed for centuries.

The town is the final resting place of Morocco’s religious and secular founder, Moulay Idriss el Akhbar, a decendent of the Prophet Muhammad who brought Islam to Morocco. It is said that five pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss are the spiritual equivalent of one to Mecca, earning it the nickname the poor man’s Mecca.  Until 2005, non-muslims were not allowed to spend the night in town.

Here, as in many other hillside settlements where space is tight, the humble donkey is the only way of getting things up or down the hill.

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Moulay Idriss is an easy day trip from the Imperial city of Meknes and close to the Roman ruins at Volubilis, an archeological UNESCO World Heritage site.