The rest of the day involved getting a bus to Fez which was held together by cardboard and tape (no joke) and which stopped constantly to cram more people on and to acquire more furniture. Every town a new table or chair would be piled into the luggage hold. Either these guys were exceptionally good at Tetris or the bus was like Mary Poppin’s handbag, how they got it all in I’ll never know… Midway through the journey in the middle of practically nowhere I departed the bus to relieve myself and was almost left behind. I had to run and jump onto a moving bus (again no joke). We arrived late into Fez and struggled to find a hotel. I managed to track down the local youth hostel and we all had a comfortable room, a nice dinner (recommendation of the owner) and a shower. All in all a truly mad first day in Morocco. There was a very friendly cat at the hostel whom we named Helen and as a friend put it, “was an affectionate cat that had quite an interest in Jon and its own bum”. Picking up a cat that has just cleaned itself is like trying to handle a damp rug. Lovely.
The next day was spent exploring the old markets of Fez. We were totally being ripped off by the guide, but without him we would have got lost and not seen nearly as much as we had. We learnt all about the culture, while seeing the mosques, the bakeries and even a university. Religious buildings are painted green and when we were taken to the local tanning pits we had a chance to rise above the Medina and get a bird’s-eye view. We were also taken to a local carpet store and were asked in the nicest way possible to “open our hearts and our wallets” when we were browsing. Inside the Medina, the assault on the senses was at its greatest, the aromatic smells (among others) rose to greet us as the sight of numerous brightly colored spices surrounded us. All the while impressive glass and metal work twinkled overhead. There are over 12,000 streets within the Medina and although we were lost in the shadowy underworld, hidden away from the sun, many of the streets had wooden awnings with intricate designs that allowed patterned sunlight to fall on the street below. If you’ve ever played Assassins Creed, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. That said, it’s not just spices, glass and metalwork for sale, there are art shops, clothing and carpet weavers and other food stalls selling everything (and anything) from dates, nuts, fruits and meat. Honestly, vegetarians and those of a queasy disposition should be prepared. Chickens are killed in sight of the public and a display of Goat’s heads, plus entrails and all other manner of animal parts will come into view regularly; as will the flies. There were flies on everything. There are also other stalls selling snails (a national delicacy it would seem), these snails were kept in open top containers and so the snails made the stall their own, expect snails on the floor, walls and ceiling! The noise of bartering and donkeys and just general day-to-day activities was a cacophony of noise here. It was something that one could lose oneself in easily. I thoroughly enjoyed Fez. It was a rushed whistle-stop tour but it was packed with culture, history, new smells (both good and bad), sights, tastes and experiences; and if you try one new thing here then I thoroughly recommend the mint tea!
Although we had decided to pass through Fez our end destination was Marrakesh, since this is where we were flying out from. Here we again had problems finding accommodation, until we somehow found a roof terrace where we could sleep outside under the stars. It was just off the Jemaa el-Fnaa, or the central market place in the city and cost a cool £3 a night. In this market the mint tea of Fez is replaced by freshly squeezed, ice-cold orange juice (30p a glass!) and there are stalls selling all the same stuff as in Fez. Snake charmers that were straight out of Aladdin, henna artists and monkey tamers also made their living here. A word or two (or three) of caution, be careful with taking pictures, ask for permission first. From our experience, people can get quite aggressive and demand money if you don’t. Also keep a good distance from the monkey tamers, unless of course you want to part with money to have a monkey removed from your head and finally girls, beware exposed skin – one it is an Islamic country for the most part and both men and women should be dressed appropriately but two the henna artists may start drawing on your skin (and seemingly target females) without your permission then demand money for their services. This happened to one of the girls in our group who didn’t have the greatest reaction to the ink. The reaction was nothing serious but still. While you’re in the city I’d recommend seeing the El Badi Palace. It’s not far from the Jemaa el-Fnaa and is rather old. It doesn’t cost much to get in (I can’t remember rightly how much) but there are old tunnels and cave like places to explore below and the walls to explore above it. Big stalk like birds had made their homes high on the walls which is cool. There are also numerous parks and gardens that one can explore if old palaces don’t take your fancy. After a long day of exploration, make sure you head back to the Jemaa el-Fnaa at night. This is when it comes alive. The snake charmers and monkey tamers are gone, replaced by food stalls and music. From our vantage point on the roof you could look down on the hustle and bustle. We ate at one the stalls and got a bowl of meat that we later found out to be Goat’s head. Literally a head with everything still there, just cut into edible sized pieces. The guy who owned the stall was opposite us as we were eating and when we pulled a suspicious piece of meat out of the bowl, he simply smiled and pointed to his eye. I can now add Goat’s eye and tongue to my list of tried and tested cuisines. For me the highlight of Marrakesh was sunrise. When you’re sleeping on the roof of a building, you are one of the first things that the sun hits, it warms your soul. The other thing it hits is the caps of the snow-covered Atlas Mountains that make up the skyline. It is a bit weird being surrounded by essentially desert with snow-capped mountains for a back drop, but the magical part of this is the call to prayer. The same time every morning. The Jemaa el-Fnaa has the largest mosque in Marrakesh (La Koutoubia). This would begin the prayer call, and then other smaller mosques would join in. I’m not a religious man, but it was beautiful and was in the perfect setting.
Naturally (pun intended) while we were in Morocco we wanted to explore what the natural landscape had to offer us as well as the cities. If there are two things that you absolutely must see when you are in Morocco, then make them the Sahara Desert and the Cascades at Ouzoud. We went to the latter first. The Cascades are a series of three waterfalls that fall a cool 110m. There is swimming and boating in the lake at the bottom and plenty of trails to be had to walk around. I went into crazy climbing monkey mode and took everyone the seemingly most difficult route up the rocks that I could find. We all gained injuries of some sort. The view from the top was awesome though. A rainbow stood sentient in the cool mist below and everything was silent but the singing birds and the roar of the water. Three of us took a route walking across logs at the top of the falls, which in hindsight was rather stupid, I don’t recommend you do it… we did come unpleasantly close to one of us nearly falling in and barreling over the top of the falls. Not cool. The name Ouzoud which is the area where the falls reside (they are called the Cascades d’Ouzoud) literally translates into “the act of grinding grain” in Berber (thanks Wikipedia!) and there are apparently a lot of old mills around, though I didn’t see any. There were a lot of dandelions floating around near the top of the falls though and this just added to the uniqueness of the day (it is still one of my all-time favourite memories). We spent dinner attempting to trade the girls for camels, which in our defence we thought was a joke at first, but turns out the guy, which happened to be the owner of the restaurant, was deadly serious. We made a hasty retreat to our accommodation. Now, I wasn’t sure at the time, I’m not sure now and I’m guessing I never will be sure, but the place we slept in was a half built but fully operational (go figure) establishment. What we were confused about was what kind of establishment it was. The consensus was brothel. The girls were popular again and were offered a bed in the room with two other ladies, whose room we were sleeping outside on a balcony from. One claims to heard noises during the night that were, they were sure, “not from a donkey.” All in all, though it was a brilliant two days and although we were sad to be leaving we knew that our Moroccan adventure was not over yet. In fact, the “grande taxi” (you read large taxi, I thought large taxi, you get standard size taxi) that was to take us back to Marrakesh was not so grand in either size or function and it broke down somewhere between the Cascades and Marrakesh, cue us men dramatically changing tires and working out what was wrong with the engine. I jest, in all realism, the driver knew what he was doing and his attempt to communicate with us for help was met with blank stares – how well we must have played that ignorant tourist role. We did eventually make it back. The general rule of thumb here is if you want fast and expensive (by Moroccan standards) then get the grande taxi to and from Marrakesh. It saves you a three-hour bus ride to where you get a shorter grande taxi ride anyway. After we got back to the city we booked tickets to the Sahara Desert and then myself and another of my group got verbally and I guess you could say physically assaulted, the man grabbed him at least, when trying to buy some traditional clothes. The look on a passing tourists face was priceless. We crashed for the night in a very weird place of accommodation, where the toilet turned into the shower – I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself.
We were up early for our journey through the Atlas Mountains (gorgeous) via Ouarzazate to as far south as least Zagora which is less than 100km to the Algerian border. Honestly I don’t remember; we might have gone further south than that for our destination. I had been looking forward to this for the whole two-week trip and in truth was one of the reasons I decided to hitch here in the first place and of course Sod’s Law kicked in and I developed a fever – I was not pleased; trust me to develop a fever in the desert. When we finally arrived at wherever we were, we rode camels. I called mine Bartholomew, another was called Ball Crusher; by moonlight to the camp where we sat around a Berber fire and listened to traditional song and dance. The stars were clear and it was truly beautiful. I felt pretty rubbish by this point and another with me also felt a little under the weather so we retreated to the Berber tent and passed out for the night. The other three sat out in the desert, two of them ran in their boxers through the night and then one was attacked by something inside the tent… and then we all awoke to watch the sun rise over the fringes of the Sahara. Even though I was ill, it was still one of the highlights of my trip. After a traditional breakfast while the sun continued to rise we then began our long trip back to Marrakesh – the camels were less crushing on the balls than before which was good, but now everything was in daylight so it was nice to get a different view on things. It is an exhausting two days but it is totally worth it. On route back to the city look out for out for the palm tree forests; these are very cool.
NB: OK, turns out my memory is better than I expected. We did indeed go as far south as Zagora. I’ve just found the leaflet for the company we used called ItinerancePlus which is based in Marrakesh near the Medina.
I mentioned that one of the guys was attacked by something in the tent – he wrote an epic tale worthy to challenge the words of Virgil or Dante as their heroes embarked on a dangerous mission. Read the word for word epic tale below!
“The Battle of the Scorpion in the Night” by Jeremy
It was 3.42 in the dead of night & whilst Max and Helen slumbered in the harsh desert outdoors, Jon & Jo were making love sleeping in the nomad’s tent. The wind whistled through the doorway as I silently crept in like a panther stowed away on board a boat. It was as dark as the darkest place ever imagined. Gliding elegantly across the nomad’s tent, I located the resting positions of Jon & Jo, however, I had not taken notice of the evil terror that lurked in the darkness. Jon (aroused in his sleep) asked for a blanket so I lept across the tent. It ’twas here that the battle commenced; when the monster made it’s move.
All of a sudden, I felt a surge of lightning pain in my foot. I yelled out a manly roar of rage and looked down to see a scorpion with its stinger buried deep in my foot. The beast was approximately 6 foot long with a stinger like an army of snakes and pincers the size of an elephants trunk. I quickly jumped back, pulling the stinger out of the foot; blood was gushing from the wound. I felt faint through the loss of blood, but knew I would require all my senses to defeat this terrible foe. The scorpion attacked again and tackled me to the ground with its pincers shear millimeters from my face. Whilst Jo & Jon lay asleep, I wrestled with the scorpion. I managed to pin its pincers down, though it continued to struggle, taking repeated attempts to fatally sting me.
I was too quick for this most evil of evil creatures and I soon managed to grasp its stinger and & bend it until a mighty crack sounded and the deadly weapon broke in two. The scorpion screamed in pain & turned towards the tent door, but had not taken account of the perseverance of its new predator; I started after it & pinned it down again. I punched it numerous times in it’s side and it continued to writhe in pain at each of my thunderous blows. I eventually took pity on the poor demon of the night and allowed it to flee. It jumped through the doorway and made its way under the moonlight, leaving a trail through the sand marking its retreat.
I was left panting & faint as the scorpion’s poison was taking it’s affect on my body. Jon mumbled once again that he needed another blanket so I handed it to him. I then lay down in quiet contemplation and gently drifted off into a pleasant slumber; dreaming of vast oceans filled with bright coral reefs.
NB: No scorpions were harmed in the making of this story and there are many contested ideas, such as was Jon aroused or was he roused from his sleep? Was Jon really that in need of a blanket? and where was Jo? Was she really the scorpion? and what happened to the scorpion? There is so much mystery to this epic tale of valor, but sadly we shall never know the answers.
But to sum it all up Morocco is a mad country and is definitely one worth visiting. There’s a huge amount to see and do and frankly I barely scratched the surface. Aside from the manic but generally friendly nature of its populace it is filled with some of the most fantastic natural beauty I’ve ever seen or indeed seen since. the Cascades, the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara Desert – you name it. It’s a stunning country and if you want to see a little bit of Africa, that is easily accessible from Europe then Morocco is the place to go!
Cover Photo: The Tanning pits of Fez.