Thursday, March 10, 2016

Assalam Aleikum! Azul!

I am being bumped along in the back of a minivan, looking out towards the front windscreen with about 15 women in headscarves in front of me, several men squashed into the boot behind me, a roof full of bikes, panniers, baskets market-bound and an assortment of other bags. It is a van full of all ages, 2 babies, there’s friendly Arabic and Berber banter going on between the customers and the driver – the customers demanding a ‘direct’ route to market, and the driver continually stopping for yet another passenger. The music is pumping – it’s happy days!

We’ve just biked 30km up a stunning valley following the advice of Yousef, a man who welcomed us to pitch our tent on the roof of his guesthouse. One week in, the kilometres still feel hard-won, and we are proud of distances covered over the undulating hills and gorges. Both of us are suffering from sore knees – me especially, so we are trying not to overdo it, or bike further than what is necessary.  It is with laughable frustration, that after being ripped off a bit by Yousef this morning when it came to paying for his hospitality, we now find ourselves at the turn off to a road which he assured us was “a very good plan for you and your bicycle”, which in fact is a very rough, steep, bumpy road. A man on a donkey, who only speaks Berber and some French, conveys that it is indeed a bumpy, gravel road for 14 km – further than what we have the energy to push if it came to it. There would be no rescue, no water, and no friendly locals on this road. So, embracing the outcome of our time with Yousef, we resign ourselves to a new Moroccan experience – the minivan!

As we whiz back along the road we have just biked, I am actually pretty content. We had some amazing late evening and early morning light, a quiet road with little traffic, and we are now a bit wiser in the ways of Morocco!!

Back on track, we set out again, this time up the Gorge du Dades – a river valley which is famous for its stunning rock formations. We have settled into a campground run by a family – the youngest girl, Fatima is able to speak some English which makes life a little easier. As I write this, she is enjoying my colouring book (a late purchase from Auckland Airport) and the few colouring pencils I have with me. We are pretty excited about spending a day or two here, recovering, slowing down, and letting my knee recover somewhat.

The road here has been hugely varied – we left Marrakach, with nervous anticipation as we settled into life on the bike. Our first two days led us over the Atlas Mountains and Tizi’n’chika pass – a road resembling a NZ ski road winding its way up and over the mountains. Almost every car that passed up tooted, flashed their lights, yelled out “Bonjour, ca va?!” or mimed encouragement which was appreciated as we wound our way up and over.

The fir covered slopes starting to wind up the Atlas

Miri cranking up to the top of the pass over the Atlas

Going past one of the many red-mud-stone villages carved into the sides of the gorge
That second night we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere as dusk fell, so decided it was as good a time as any to test out the wild camping experience! After a slight freak out that we would be moved on in the night by a group of local nomadics, we settled in for a freezing, tent-flapping windy night – an average first camping experience (sleep-wise) albeit a stunning wakeup location in the morn! We biked off; hopeful our bodies, the camping and the weather would improve.

For several hours we biked through a stunning gorge – the red outcrops of rocky strata visible high above the river below. We passed seemingly empty villages – unsure whether they were in fact uninhabited, or whether everyone was sleeping, gardening or someplace else. We tried asking for some tea at what was maybe a school, however, with no language in common and even our attempted Arabic, left both parties confused and wondering who the heck the other one was! We carried on, reflecting that we must look so strange with our bright orange and yellow paniers whizzing by.  With some more asking, we were pointed in the direction of a cafĂ©, which I wonder whether it was actually a house. We were invited in, given tea and bread by a young girl, who then refused payment of any sort. We shared some biscuits as a way of saying thanks, which she accepted.  Ahh, this is the famed Berber hospitality we’d heard of.

We then arrived at Ait-Ben-Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site which was crawling with European campervans. It was a shock after being alone on the road for a few days. As we slowly biked through town a friendly berber man called out in English “Ah, you are looking for my hotel I think?” That was welcome enough for us, so after some negotiation we settled in for the night, and on his advice, set off to wander around the ancient village at first light – a special time of day to be alone in a ruined city, wondering about the people who have lived here in centuries gone by, the spices and goods they may have traded and wondering what bought the end of its era – presumably electricity, tourism and new roads.

Our second camping experience was no better than the first! This time in a municipal campground in Ourzazate (essentially a parking lot for campervans).  We pitched the tent in a howling wind, and soon discovered the mesh that makes up part of the tent inner is a terrible idea for camping in a windy, sandy environment. Within minutes, a thin film of sand was covering everything – eyelids included! I had a “woe is me” moment and we decided against a rest day here as planned and headed out early the next morning, bound for somewhere better.

De Lux breakfast after a sleepless night with Omelette, bread and the Moroccan Mint Tea

Classic village across the Gorge with the contrasting vivid green against the baran red landscape

Travelling on the sweet, newly asphalted roads adjoining the more arid valley landscape en Route to the start of the Dades

Tent site night 1

And so, here we are, finally resting after a very full first week of new experiences, new landscapes, language challenges and interesting interactions with locals and tourists alike. This truly is a fascinating country in terms of cultures mixing, ancient traditions, Arabic culture and a developing tourism sector. It would be immensely helpful to be able to speak French here.   We have found great satisfaction in simply finding and buying food and negotiating a place to stay! 

Bissalama (Goodbye)

Miri (& Andy)


  1. Interesting reading Miriam.....enjoy all the new experiences and stay safe...��

  2. Good to read about your adventures guys.

  3. So amazing, wow! Definitely jealous, especially as I once thought about a desert trek from Ourzazate but one day...Glad you're getting to know the place and people, and hopefully haggling at the markets etc. If you do happen to want any pointers in French let me know - - "avez-vous du the?" (pronounced avey-vu-do-tey) is "do you have tea?".

    Cheers, Chris

  4. Nice, Miri. Onwards, ever onwards, my dear :)

  5. Your creative tour on bikes through the Atlas reminds me of a tour with local people from Marrakech to this region. We, some photographers from Holland, drove on the roads from the city of M towards the Atlas until there was no road left at all. Walking on the cobblestoned paths near a river we met many Fatima's and women who were washing clothes in the river. I hear from you that you even cycled on these trails. Wonderfull! Yes, it's a pity
    you can't speak English with the friendly people over there. Most of them speak French because this area has been a protectorate of France until 1955 or so. You can still see the influence of this period on some travel signs aside old roads that show french and arabic texts as well. They reminded me of the signs in France in the sixties.
    I wish you both all the best in continuing your wonderful trip. And...when you arrive at our home at the end of next week, we can offer you - if you wish so - a place to shelter on our roof, like Youssef.
    Greetings from Paul Geels (and Jany Westdijk)

  6. Great blog! I particularly love the direct quotes you've included from people you've met! Keep them coming they are brilliant! Already can't wait for next installment.