Morocco is a fascinating north African country. We are repeat visitors, the best testament on how much we enjoy this part of the world. Our most recent trip included overnight stays at Chefchouan, Fes, Rabat, Casablanca, Todra Gorge, Ait Benhaddou, Marrakesh, Essouria and the western Sahara. The sights, sounds, and smells of the medieval medinas are unforgettable, and one of our most memorable seafood meals (for a bargain) came in the lovely sea town of Essouria. Sand dune rolling races (you’d have to be there) in the dunes of the western Sahara were another highlight, and the blue hues of hauntingly beautiful Chefchouan are forever seared in our memories. No one should miss an evening in the main square of Marrakesh, which comes to life with snake charmers, magicians, story tellers and street food stalls. We have many more wonderful memories of Morocco and won’t hesitate to return back to explore more of this alluring destination.
7 Nov: Our 10 month TransAfrica trip starts today! Who knows if we’ll love or hate this but we sure are excited! The folks drove us from Lisbon to Gibraltar today, and we had several close calls on the road as dad was paying more attention to the Tom-Tom than the highway…we absolutely didn’t want to start the trip with an accident on our minds so we yelled every time our overloaded rental car came close to swerving next to another car on the road. Eventually, we pulled into Gibraltar where the parents happily deposited us off at the arrivals section of the miniscule airport. We had a few hours to spare before meeting our tour leader (Nancy) and truck driver (Chris) and the rest of the group. At 1830, the plane from Luton arrived, and we met everyone which included Nancy (USA), Chris (New Zealand), Tim (Ireland…overlander for numerous years), Mike (American from NY), Craig & Melissa (New Zealand), Sean & Sara (UK), Katherine (Ireland) Kendra (Ireland), Bree (Australia), George (UK), Marie (UK), Pam (UK), Norma (UK), Matt (UK), Lars (Norway), Franz (Netherlands), Lucky (Australia), Chris (UK), Ruth (UK) and Craig (New Zealand). We were led through customs where the Spanish officials waved our entire group through (our massive packs looked too daunting) and saw our bright yellow truck in the distance. Chris showed each one of us our lockers where our luggage was to be stored. Little did we know it would be such a tight fit. A small, tight rucksack is definitely best as it has to squeeze into a compact compartment. After loading up, we headed over to Camping Casita, a 20 minute drive away. Happily, Nancy and Chris had already set up tents for us (yeah), and we ate boiled hotdogs (not the best meal) for dinner and got several group briefings. First impressions are that it seems like a neat group as we all chatted over a cooler of beer (courtesy of Nancy and Chris).
8 Nov: We ate breakfast at 8 am, and departed Camping Casita at 9. Our first agenda this morning was to head to the Carrefour near Gibraltar, as it was the last big shopping center before the crossing to Morocco. We spent 200 Euros getting such essentials as chocolate, pillows, toiletries, cases of beer (a bonus at only 24 cents a can), 1 Euro boxes of cheap red wine, head lamps, and other such items. Packing it all into our tiny space proved a challenge, but we finally got everything to fit. Everyone had the afternoon free in Gibraltar and Nancy had us sold on some awesome “fish and chips for only 4 quid” in the town square. The meal ended up costing 5.5 quid, and in retrospect, we would have preferred the BK joint which was next to the recommended restaurant. We tried to find an ATM that dispensed Euros (no such luck), but did find an internet café where we were able to set up our automatic payments (joy). We had planned to hike up the rock but ran out of time as everyone had to be back on the truck by 5 pm. Since the duty free prices for alcohol in Gibraltar were so reasonable, we attempted to smuggle 4 bottles of alcohol across the border (only 1 liter per person is allowed) and Robby immediately got flagged. However, we were able to confuse the officials with some sleight of hand movements and were eventually given all of our alcohol to take across without a penalty…lucky day. Since we were a bit paranoid that the customs officials would catch us on our second attempt, we only brought the allowable limit (and of course they waved us all through without a second glance!). Dinner tonight consisted of nachos, cheese, tomato, onions, lettuce and beans…who knew such a simple concoction thrown together in a few minutes could be so tasty? Tomorrow we would cross over to Morocco and everyone was in a buzz of excitement about finally reaching Africa.
9 Nov: Today we had breakfast at 8:30 and departed our campsite at 9:30 am. Everyone packed their tent according to Chris’ demonstration yesterday and surprisingly, everything fit as it was supposed to…much easier doing it with two people than with just one! Robby was surprised by a tarantula under our tent, which Sean fearlessly picked up and examined. Our drive to the ferry was short, and Chris had enough time to give everyone a truck lecture on the truck rules and expectations. Nancy coordinated the ferry tickets for everyone, and we slept on the 90 minute crossing, waking up to lunch on our pre-made sandwiches from breakfast this morning. We arrived to Cueta (still a Spanish enclave) and drove towards Chefchouan’s Camping Azilin campsite. It was pouring when we arrived so we hurriedly set up the tent in the dark. Dinner consisted of a hot pot of rice and veges…good to eat since lunch was a packed meal of sandwiches eaten about 8 hours before. Luke had Robby give him a number 0 haircut and everyone had a good laugh. Happily, we had the ability to charge batteries here so we decided to take advantage of it.
10 Nov: Chefchaouen is beneath the Rif Mountains and is set in a gorgeous location. We had a free day today to explore the city on our own (yes!). We had breakfast, put our spare passports in the “fridge”, and headed downtown. None of us were sure which direction to head so Becky asked a local in Arabic and he pointed us in the right direction. The medina is set in a really pretty area, and there were loads of goats grazing at the top of the mountain. We went with Lars and Matt and found our way to the old medina, where we instantly were mesmerized by the pretty blue hues of the city. Our first mission was to find an ATM where we were able to take out 4000 Dirham (400 Euros). Afterwards, we walked over to the main square, Plaza Uta el-Hammam, the heart of the medina. Our LP guidebook described the square as a shady, cobbled plaza dominated by the Kasbah and the Grande Mosquee which is noteworthy for its unusual octagonal tower. We paid 10 Dirham (1 Euro) to enter the Kasbah which had a nice ethnographic museum with pictures of old Chefchaouen and a nice tower to take panoramic views of the city. We ended up splitting from our group after running into Tim who recommended that we take a short hike out of the medina towards the old mosque for pretty views of the city. We headed that way but were unnerved by a local who was stalking us. He kept stopping when we stopped, staring at us and backtracking when we did as well…very weird. We ended up lunching in the Plaza Uta el-Hammam, enjoying a delicious lamb tagine and lamb couscous. The price was surprisingly reasonable, the ambiance was perfect, and we absolutely loved Chefchaouen. Sara and Sean joined us and we liked talking to them…chatting with them for a while before heading out to explore the medina again. Around 4 pm, decided to head back up to the campsite and saw some schoolboys having a race with each other. Since there was nothing going on, it was the perfect time for us to download some photos, and chat with the group before enjoying a good meal tonight from cook group number 2 (Craig, Bree and Lucky) of pasta and meat. The campfire was nice and warm, and everyone stayed up late chatting.
11 Nov: We had breakfast at 0730 and departed at 0830. Today we were headed to Fes and had a long drive day. Since we were all playing musical seats, everyone sat in a different seat, making for interesting truck mates. Some folks decided to play asshole which looked like a fun game. Lunch was a brief stop and consisted of salad sandwiches (better than it sounds). Franz had us take a group photo and it came out looking great. We pulled into our campsite earlier than expected so our local guide, Callum, recommended that we head into the Fes medina today as tomorrow was Friday and the medina would be more subdued. Fes is the oldest living medieval Islamic city in the world, and we visited the Fes el-Bali (the core of the medina), where we were led around the labyrinth for obligatory stops at the leather tannery, carpet shop, spice and natural cures shop (we bought air freshener for our tent for 50 Dirham, to be shared with Pam and Norma). Throughout the medina, we had to give way to donkeys laden with wares, making for a picturesque afternoon. The tannery was dismal compared to what Becky remembered seeing about 10 years prior when she visited with Larry and Francisco. Callum brought us to the Kairaouine Mosque, built in 859 by refugees from Tunisia, accommodating 20,000 people at prayer. We learned that there are a total of 320 mosques in the medina of Fes. At the tannery, we were given mint leaves to sniff (the tannery smells really bad) while watching as the craftsmen dipped the leather into their individual colored well. Yellow leather carcasses were finished drying in the sun and a worker was collecting and transporting them, making for some good photos. Luke ended up buying a leather belt for 30 Euros which he instantly regretted later, feeling as if he didn’t bargain well enough (the initial asking price was a ridiculous 85 Euros but he realized he wouldn’t have spent 30 Euros for the same belt back in the US). At the carpet shop, we enjoyed mint tea and Bree bought a blanket as did Chris and Ruth. It was dark when we drove back after 6 pm and cook group 3 (Pam, Norma and Franz) made dinner which was good (couscous and lamb, yum). All of us enjoyed piping hot water showers and electricity at this camp site (yeah), which earns two huge thumbs up except for the numerous stray cats hanging around. The campsite has a French name meaning green diamond. The camp goose is friendly though, so it makes up for the pesky cats.
12 Nov: After breakfast, we all loaded up on the truck to meet with Callum for our city tour of the Jewish section of Fes (known as the mellah) and the Royal Palace in Fes el-Jdid. The Royal Palace has 7 bronze doors which the workmen were cleaning with lemons. We wandered through the Jewish quarter and visited the cemetery before heading over to a panoramic lookout point for a nice view over the city. From there, we visited a ceramic factory, which was actually quite interesting and full of beautiful souvenirs. We didn’t buy anything, and asked to be dropped off in the Ville Nouvelle where we intended to have lunch at the Clock Restaurant in the Medina (the camel burgers are supposedly the best). However, none of us realized that today was Friday and hence everything in the medina would be closed! So instead, we wandered around until we found a restaurant serving up cheap chicken and burgers, and Lucky, Bree, Luke, Craig x2, and Lars joined us for lunch (Mike opted to eat by himself). Afterwards, our group split into two with us catching the number 17 bus back to our campsite (Camping Diamant Vert) for 3 Dirham each and the other group in search of internet and ATM/exchange kiosks. We had to wait about 30 minutes for a bus but had no problems returning to the campsite where we immediately did a load of laundry and started an early campfire (Robby and Lars searched for wood). Dinner was turkey gyros which were yummy and we enjoyed chatting with everyone by the campfire. Luke and Becky did an ab-ripper X workout in the tent.
13 Nov: We had breakfast at 0830 and heard Tim was going to revisit the Tannery so we asked if we could come along. It ended up being Luke, Robby, Franz, Becky and Tim (5 of us) and the petit taxis are only allowed to pick up a total of 3 passengers. We were picked up by a nice guy with a van who drove us partway to where there were a bunch of taxis and it only cost us 15 Dirham to get to the Blue Gate (Porte Bleu) where we linked up with Franz and Luke. Tim’s GPS was spot on and in less than an hour, he led us 1 KM through the winding labyrinth to the tanneries. The lighting was OK (but getting more dismal as the day wore on) but there were far more leather tannery workers dipping their leather pieces into the wells, making for a really picturesque photo. We saw that there were probably a total of 5 balconies overlooking the area so we headed over to another leather shop that gave us a different vantage point. The tout suggested that we had to pay 20 Dirham as “entrance” fee when it became obvious we were not going to buy anything but we immediately laughed that off. It obviously doesn’t hurt for them to try that scam with tourists! A brief stop for some mint tea was in order (5 Dirham each) and we strolled out in search of lunch afterwards as it was nearing noon. It was too difficult to find the Clock Restaurant, so we ended up eating street food (a merguez sandwich for Becky and “mixed” sandwiches for the boys came out to 60 Dirham total…Tim parted ways with us once he heard us mention meat as he is a vegetarian). Lunch was good, fulfilling and Franz bought us bananas and oranges for our fruit intake. We stopped by an internet café where dealing with the Arabic and French keyboard was driving us insane! But we ended up hitting a series of keys and all of a sudden, had an English keyboard again so we are sure that we’ve ruined that keyboard for the next person. Afterwards, we caught a taxi back to the campsite (cost was 25 Dirham) and got caught up on trip notes and photos. Dinner tonight was scheduled at 7 pm so we had to rush to take showers and freshen up before heading out to celebrate Robby’s birthday (a night early). The two vans for dinner arrived shortly before 7 pm and we headed off to downtown Fes. The interior of the restaurant was quite impressive, and we occupied the first 3 tables, wondering when the rest of the restaurant would fill up. We shouldn’t have worried, because shortly afterwards, a large group from Turkey arrived and the entire room filled up. Dinner was ok, consisting of Moroccan soup, lamb with prunes and almonds, and a bunch of appetizers. The best part was when the entertainment arrived (a mediocre magician, belly dancers…one of whom put her breasts on top of Luke’s head much to his delight, Robby was put in a “wedding ceremony” with 4 women to culminate the evening’s entertainment and everyone surrounded him a circle singing him happy birthday). Overall, the consensus was that the 250 Dirham price tag was too much (especially since the wine cost 120 Dirham for the cheapest bottle) However, it was a fun night out and a memorable birthday for Robby! Tim opted out of the dinner and Lars was not able to go because he was our first victim of bubble gut.
14 Nov: After breakfast, we packed up and went shopping for groceries at a massive Fes supermarket. Becky was part of the cook group tonight (cook group 5 consisting of Tim and Ruth) and collectively, we were given 260 Dirham to spend. With Tim’s calculator and our prudent shopping, we managed to spend 258 Dirham, picking up peppers for a stuffed peppers menu for dinner. Afterwards, we departed Fes towards Volubilis Roman Ruins. We helped Nancy create a quick lunch of salad sandwiches and ate in the parking lot of Volubilis. The entry cost 10 Dirham and was well worth it, as the mosaics were fabulous. The ruins were great too. We were given lots of free time and had until 4 pm to explore. We used up almost all of our time admiring the ruins and then afterwards, filled out visa forms for Mali and Mauritania. We made our bush camp near Volubilis and there were two friendly locals who had hashish pipes who immediately helped us chop wood. Dinner was a 3 course meal consisting of tomato soup, stuffed peppers with turkey, and sautéed oranges for desert. Norma brought out a card signed by everyone and a beer with a lit candle for Robby and everyone sang happy birthday. The locals were a bit drunk on 4 beers so everyone retired early, especially after hearing that we had to depart at 6 am sharp tomorrow to get to the embassy on time to submit our visa applications. With the upcoming national holiday, we had full expectations of being delayed up to several days while our visas were being processed.
15 Nov: It rained throughout the night so it was a muddy mess to pack up the tent in the morning, especially in the dark at 5 am. We were able to tear everything down and leave on time, and it sounded like Chris had a difficult time getting the truck out of 4WD. Everyone caught a bit of shut eye on the 2 hour drive and we arrived to Rabat around 9 am where we pulled into the Mauritania Embassy and Nancy and Chris left to submit our visa applications. Good news, they were told the visas might be ready at 2 pm, so if all went well, we could try to submit for Mali as well. We drove onward to a nearby supermarket, and it was 11 am when we were given until 4:45 for free time, but the caveat was that we had to pull truck guard. Chris and Nancy left to submit our visas for Mali and we volunteered for the middle shift, from 2-3 pm, so seeing Rabat was out of the question. Since we were in the parking lot of the Marjane, we headed to the massive supermarket to get some lunch, picking up a roasted chicken for 30 Dirham. We picnicked in the nearby grass and read our books in the sunshine before taking over truck duty. Afterwards Robby headed to the Internet café by himself while Becky opted to finish some last minute shopping at the Marjane. The group was back on board by 4:45 and we had to wait for Chris and Nancy, but when they returned just after 5, it was with good news that we had been able to obtain both visas (for Mali and Mauritania), which was better than anyone could have hoped for. We headed off to our nearby bush camp and set up our tent before enjoying a dinner of 4 sausages and mashed potatoes (bangers & mash). It was a cold night for bush camping.
16 Nov: Since we had obtained the necessary visas from Rabat, Chris and Nancy decided to push on to Casablanca so that they could submit the Senegal Visas for the Aussies, New Zealanders and Lars. We had free time but Robby and Luke had to depart for cook group shopping. So Becky checked out the massive mosque of Hasan II Mosque on her own, while the boys went shopping. We met back up at lunch and Luke joined several others on a quest for Pizza Hut while Becky and Robby decided to eat leftovers and sightsee. We picnicked by the sea and had cheese, bread, juice and dates. Afterwards, we headed over to the Hasan II mosque. Craig joined us and we eventually wandered over to an internet café where we were able to check email for only 2 Dirham (30 minutes). Craig had truck guard so he went his separate way in search of food. We wandered off towards the medina and found a seamstress who was able to fix Becky’s broken fleece zipper for only 10 Dirham…bargain. The medina was full of happy Moroccans purchasing their last minute sheep for the festival tomorrow (apparently tomorrow will be the biggest day of the festival). We wandered around taking photos and eventually backtracked towards the mosque and boarded the truck before 4 pm. Nancy and Chris arrived shortly thereafter with the Senegal Visas and we were off to our next campsite, which was about 30 KM from Casablanca. It was called L’Ocean Bleu and had free wifi, warm showers and a nice campground…bonus. We had fajitas for dinner and stayed up by the campfire talking. Breakfast tomorrow was late (9 am) so everyone could sleep in late.
17 Nov: Today was Eid-al-Adha (the festival of sacrifice) and we awoke to a nice sunny day. The cook group (Chris, Kendra and Katherine) had to make breakfast which consisted of pancakes (yum). After breakfast, Becky did a huge load of laundry (it was windy and sunny out….good day for it) and afterwards, we went over to where a Moroccan family was slaughtered and cleaned a sheep on the camp ground. Very interesting! We watched as the women grilled the skull (a delicacy) and gingerly separated the skin from the main body of the sheep. Everyone joined in and took photos. Afterwards, we hopped onto free wifi and checked email before lunch of spaghetti. Since today was a lazy day and several people were now suffering from bubble guts, Becky took a nap and read in the afternoon. Luke and Robby had cook group (Mike wasn’t feeling 100%) so Nancy joined in and helped them. The Moroccan brought over some food that they prepared (sheep liver kebabs, sheep stomach and some mixed veggies). The liver did not go over very well but the stomach was actually quite tasty. Dinner of lamb stew prepared by Robby & Luke was delicious and plentiful, with some people helping themselves to seconds and thirds afterwards! It was a nice low key day and perfect to chill or laze about with nothing to do.
18 Nov: Bad day for Becky…she had forgotten about charging her camera battery and it rained all night, so her charger might be fried. No way to tell until we can let it air out and try it at another campsite with power. Since Robby was on cook group, Becky had to tear down the tent all by herself, which was actually manageable to her surprise. After breakfast, we packed up and departed L’Ocean Bleu and headed back towards Casablanca, where we had about 2 hours of free time. We headed down the coast to get a different angle of the Hasan II Mosque (as seen from the waterfront) and then backtracked to the Medina, which was far more subdued in the day after the feast. Several entrepreneurial butchers were conducting brisk business selling lamb, and locals were lined up to bargain over the choicest bits of meat. After heading back to the truck, we had lunch on board (salad sandwiches with the added bonus of salami slices, yum) on our drive towards Rabat. Lucky for us, several volunteers took truck duty leaving us with free time to explore this city, so we headed up to Rabat’s most famous sight, Le Tour Hassan (Hassan Tower), which according to our guidebook was built in 1195 by the Almohad sultan Yacoub al-Mansour who wanted to build the highest minaret in the Islamic world. Guarding the site (entrance was free!) were horseback guardsmen carrying a miniature flag of Morocco in one hand and a weapon in the other…very cool. In the same complex, we visited the beautiful mausoleum of Mohammed V, which is a gorgeous, marble site full of beautifully patterned mosaics. Afterwards, we headed over to the walled medina to visit the compact Kasbah des Oudaias which sits high on a bluff overlooking the Oued Bou Regreg and has the oldest mosque in Rabat. There were nice views of surfers riding waves from the lookout point, and we backtracked our way to the Andalusian Gardens, which was built by the French during the colonial period, with a grand 17th Century palace containing the muse des Oudaia (closed when we arrived). Instead, we wandered around and admired the views from the tea houses, before realizing that we had to head back to the truck for departure time. Becky managed to squeeze in a last minute visit to the Marjane for a bathroom stop, while Luke picked up some yummy looking icecream. Once everyone was on board, we headed to our campsite (the muddy sight were we had been to previously) where we set up our tent and huddled by the campfire. The fire boys (Lars and Robby) were successful in scrounging massive dead trees so our fire tonight was amazing. The entire group laughed for hours at Matt’s IPOD (his music selection was hilarious) and he was quite embarrassed, causing Nancy to dub every Thursday night “IPOD hall of shame”.
19 Nov: Today was a drive day (we ended up driving over 400KM according to Tim’s GPS). We left our campsite and stopped at a super clean gas station (fantastically clean toilets stocked with toilet paper and soap), where we filled our water buckets and discovered an outdoor hose to scrub our dirty feet. After continuing on, we had a brief stop for lunch in a freezing plain, noticing a sharp difference in temperature given the altitude change. Surprisingly, the day went by quickly and it was about 3:30 when Chris pulled off the road to our campsite, which was gorgeous, set beneath a spectacular mountain plain (perhaps the beginnings of the Atlas Mountains). Two locals came up to inform us that the nearby village was famous for its scalding hot thermal bath, which cost only 5 Dirham for 2-3 hours, so after pitching out tent in the rock hard ground, we changed into out bathers and headed that direction with Lars. The spectacular sunset had already faded and we needed our torches to light up the path to the nearby village. Unfortunately, the thermal bathhouse was already closed by the time we arrived, but a friendly local named Saeed led us to the nearby river, where hot pools of thermal water were located nearby. Becky must have surprised a local in his underwear with her voice (there were no other females in the area) and he streaked past her in his undies. However, after a few minutes, the locals must have felt comfortable enough, as some of them walked past stark naked! We enjoyed the heat of the waters (pure bliss) and headed back to the campsite in time for dinner, which was hot and delicious. Despite the scarcity of trees or wood, the boys (Robby “Goodwood” and Lars “Bushmaster”) managed to scrounge up enough of the thorny bush nearby to form a raging, hot fire. We spend a few hours huddling around the campfire for warmth, before crawling into our sleeping bags to gain extra heat. Some local was playing loud music well into the wee hours of the morning, which was slightly annoying but we managed to sleep through it.
20 Nov: It was cold outside when we got up. Thankfully, we had a bit of a lie-in as breakfast was at 0730, departure at 0830. Unluckily for us, we noticed a bit too late that the weekly peanut butter jar was out, and almost all of it had been devoured by the time we were ready for breakfast. Today, we were driving onward towards Todra Gorge, stopping for the cook groups to do some shopping at the Marche Municipal (town market) to stock up on some food. Once everyone was back on the truck, we drove onward towards the gorge, stopping at a nice warm sunny spot for lunch which consisted of potato salad, tomatoes, cucumbers and bread. Becky ate some of her dates (1 KG for only 25 Dirham, about 2.5 Euros) for desert and we piled back on the truck for the short drive to Todra. According to our guidebook, the “spectacular pink canyons of the gorge are about 15 KM from Tinerhir at the end of a lush valley thick with stunning palmeraies and Berber villages”. The view along the way was mesmerizing, and we buzzed Nancy and Chris for a photo stop but unfortunately, they were unable to oblige. Once we got to Todra, we pulled up into a hotel called “Hotel Jasmina” where Nancy coordinated one large room (the dining room, actually) for everyone to sleep in. We had a brief truck cleaning session where all the overhead stuff was cleared or reclaimed by all others, and unfortunately, Franz was not present to claim his stuff (he was busy coordinating a private room for 18 Euros a night). So Chris threw his stuff onto the ground and Franz eventually claimed it much later. We decided to break from the group and hiked around the gorge, taking in the beautiful vistas. The gorge rises hundreds of meters on either side and we saw mountain climbers in one section. As we hiked along, we realized the rest of the group was just chilling at the hotel but we were happy to break free and do our own thing. Once the sun set, we finally returned back to camp where we charged our batteries and took advantage of the electricity that kicked on after 5 pm. The cook group tonight was slow, and by 7:30 pm, dinner was still in the works. Tonight’s dinner was a salty rice and lentil veggie meal, and we sure did miss the taste of meat! But it was all good because we had already down a couple of rum & cokes just before dinner. We went to sleep just before 10, watching “The Office” since we had electricity to power our gear.
21 Nov: Cats took their revenge on us during the night as they assaulted us in waves, meowing up a storm and attempting to get into our sleeping bags. Happily, the restaurant-cum-sleeping area was super warm and toasty, so we all slept very well during the night, and couldn’t even hear the snorers! (Franz had booked his own private room and Norma said she didn’t sleep well). We managed to take cold showers in the morning (room 11 was for the girls and room 12 for the boys but somehow Craig ended up in the girl’s shower so Becky joined Robby in room 12). Breakfast was a simple affair and we tried to eat as much as we could before our hike in the Todra Gorge. Luke had mentioned horseback riding but to our surprise, he ended up joining the group, led by Hasan, our local guide (30 Dirham per person). The hike through the gorge was scenic, and interspersed along the way were locals, who asked for money for portraits. Pam, who had been ill the past few days, was a hard charger, making her way slowly but surely up the gorge much to our amazement. Goody helped her by carrying her pink backpack and held her hand coming up to the summit of the gorge…what a nice guy! We took a couple of group photos and soaked up the sun’s rays. Overall, Tim’s GPS tracked us as having walked a total of 10.45 KM, and we returned shortly after noon where we enjoyed lunch of salami, tomato, cucumber sandwiches and leftovers. After lunch, we took a small siesta, and Becky got caught up on some of her TV shows while Robby socialized with the group. Dinner consisted of a vegetarian meal and since there was only electricity from 5 pm to midnight, several folks took advantage of our splitter to recharge their batteries. We headed straight for the restaurant after dinner and crawled into our sleeping bags to warm up and crash.
22 Nov: Today was a drive day in the direction of Marrakesh, and we packed up and left the pretty Todra Gorge region and headed towards Dades Gorge, with a brief stop at Boumaine du Dades so that Becky’s cook group could gather some ingredients for dinner, breakfast and lunch. The market was easy to navigate, and most of the ingredients were reasonably priced (with the exception of meat, hence a vegetarian meal tonight). We had only an hour to shop so it was rush, rush, rush and back on the truck before we knew it. The rest of the truck group had scoped out the town and obtained snacks (yummy bread for Luke and Robby and chicken sandwiches for Craig, Bree and Lucky). We drove onward until our lunch stop and then had a stop at Ait Benhaddou, a picturesque village located about 32 KM from Ouarzazate. Our LP guide describes the site as “one of the most exotic and best-preserved Kasbahs in the entire Atlas regions. The site has been used as the backdrop for such films as “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Gladiator”, and “Jesus of Nazareth” and it is a UNESCO world heritage sight. We paid 10 Dirhams each to enter and enjoyed walking around this picturesque town. The campsite tonight was nearby and Robby set up the tent by himself as Becky helped Tim and Ruth prepare dinner (boiled potatoes with garlic and onions served with a pumpkin-vegetarian stirfry mix). We got good reviews from hungry passengers and after doing our cook group duties (clean up and stowaway), ended up sitting by the campfire and celebrating Kendra’s 22nd birthday. Some funny photos ensued, making for a hilarious and risqué night. Everyone crashed around 1 am.
23 Nov: It was rough for Becky to wake early for cook group duty at 0630 am, but after stumbling down a cliff (while attempting to squat-pee), she finally got her act together and joined Tim and Ruth for breakfast duties. Today we were serving up “eggy bread”which was a delicious concoction of bread soaked in eggs and fried up…yum. The truck headed towards Marrakesh, and we stopped at a large Marjane for shopping. Since we were about to hit the dry part of the trip, we stocked up on alcohol (16 bottles of gin and vodka) and various other necessities and loaded it onto the truck. Our campsite was nearby and had warm/hot water, electricity, and internet. We immediately set about rearranging our locker, and then proceeded to shower and do laundry before an excellent dinner of turkey chili. After dinner, we shared a few laughs with everyone looking at the silly photos from last night and showed Goodie how Picassa can do face recognition so we can easily export photos for each person on the trip. Everyone was tired from the previous night’s festivities so it was an early night.
24 Nov: Free day in Marrakesh! Since breakfast wasn’t until 0830, we had a chance to have a “lie in” and get caught up on sleep, but like clockwork at 7 am, we both got up and decided to check out the internet at the reception (slow but reliable). After breakfast, we left at 0930 for a drive into the city, and we volunteered to pull the last truck guard shift (1 – 2 pm), giving us the morning to explore Marrakesh. We wandered first to the Djamaa El Fna square, where we immediately saw that the rest of the group had been lured in by the snake charmers who happily positioned their snakes around everyone’s neck and then tried to extort 100 Dirhams for the privilege of doing so (they only ended up getting 5, ha). We saw photogenic water sellers (dressed in red with their metal cups adorned on their body), drummers, orange juice sellers, monkeys, snake charmers, musicians and magicians. The square was devoid of the food stalls that miraculously spring to life each night, but the atmosphere was perfect. We wandered the alleys of the souq and ended up buying some cotton pants (50 Dirhams), cotton shirt (50 Dirhams for Becky and 55 for Luke), two cotton handbags (or as Luke calls it, his “man purse”) for 120 Dirhams, and earrings (35 Dirhams for two pairs)…lots of bargains to be had but we quickly learned we had to bargain hard as the initial prices were absolutely laughable and ridiculous. Since we had truck guard, we had to grab a quick lunch beforehand so we stopped at one of the cheapest restaurants we could find on the square (restaurant Toubkal) and then relieved Chris and Ruth so they could explore for another hour. Everyone else decided to head back in towards the campsite but the three of us as we wanted to explore this lovely city further and watch the sun set over the square at night. After agreeing to meet the group at 7 pm at the “Le Grand Balcon du Café Glacier”, we headed back into the heart of the medina, soaking up the atmosphere and lively sights. Colorful spices, carpets, handbags and shoes caught our eye, and while there were plenty of bargains to be had, bargaining had to be fierce and ruthless. The vendors have had years of experience and know exactly how to get the highest Dirham for their merchandise. As the sun was setting, we headed up to the balcony of the Café Glacier, as it had the best views over the city. The food stall vendors had already overtaken the massive square, and wafts of smoke drifted upwards and tempted us to partake in the local treats. The cost to enter was a minimum of 10 Dirhams (buying a “drink” was mandatory) and we had a nice bird’s eye view of the sights below. After linking back up with Luke, we enjoyed the view until the sunset, and then headed back down to enjoy the fresh squeezed orange juice (4 Dirhams for some of the sweetest OJ ever) mixed in with our own bottle of gin. After several rounds of drinks, we were all feeling quite toasty and jovial, which was perfect timing for the rest of the group to join us. Our large entourage found a food stall stand that could accommodate our large group and dinner was soon underway, consisting of kebab skewers of chicken and turkey. Post dinner, we tried to find a lively bar but our spirits were dampened when we were led to the rooftop of a hotel to be served 30 Dirham bottles of miniscule beer. We quickly realized it would be a much better deal to drink back at camp, and cheaper too! So, someone placed a call to Mohammed (the driver that our campsite had coordinated) and for only 10 Dirham each, we were quickly shuttled back to camp. Good night overall.
25 Nov: Happy Thanksgiving! While we checked internet, Nancy made scrambled eggs for everyone (she’s awesome). Becky got teased for being a bit inebriated last night and everyone enjoyed rehashing the previous night’s festivities. Mohammed had been requested for a 10 am drive back into the city, but he committed himself to arrive at 10:30. By 11:30, everyone was grumpy and tired of waiting, so tempers were high when he finally showed up at 11:45. Lunch was on everyone’s mind, and we tried to find a place mentioned in Craig’s guidebook entitled “Lamb Alley” where the meat slow cooks all morning to melt of the bone by lunchtime…of course it was a fruitless effort as the map was impossible to read and the locals had no earthly idea what we were referring to. After wandering the streets, we finally settled on a tagine restaurant which was mediocre and expensive. The remainder of our afternoon was spent in search of secret Santa presents, where we tried to keep our budget under 100 Dirhams. Robby picked up a knitted cap and scarf, Luke bought a backgammon set and Becky scored some pillow covers. We were happy that our shopping list was complete, as we had the remainder of the afternoon to simply enjoy the souq. Craig (Dowley) joined us and he managed to get 3 nice shirts for 200 Dirhams. We bought Nancy a box of treats to thank her for slaving away on our Thanksgiving meal, and headed back to the link up point for our 5 pm ride back to the campsite. An ice cream stand next to the waiting point served delicious icecream for only 10 Dirhams (served in a freshly made waffle cone), making for quite a nice treat. There were over 20 of us and we managed to squeeze into one van, with 7 of our group stopping at the marjane for shopping (cook group and stragglers). Dinner was ready but we had to wait for the Marjane folks to return, and when they did, we were thrilled to discover that Chris had shaped the turkey meat into what looked like a whole turkey…what a wonderful treat. We enjoyed green bean casserole, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and turkey. Nancy had whipped up a wonderful meal over the campfire and everyone stuffed themselves silly. It was really great to spend Thanksgiving in the company of friends in wonderful Marrakesh.
26 Nov: The day after Thanksgiving was a rather low key event. Becky opted to hang at the campsite (shopping was done and she had already seen the city’s main sights on her previous trip here), and Luke wanted the morning to sleep in, leaving Robby to explore the city on his own. He joined several others in visiting the Saadian Tombs (next to the Kasbah Mosque) and enjoyed two lunches, arriving back to the campsite by 2 pm. Since we still had half a day, we opted to do a quick P90X workout (Plyometrics), finishing up just before dinner. To our dismay, we discovered that there was no hot water in the showers and very little cold water (it ran out after a minute) so babywipes came to the rescue. Dinner was good, and we tried to update our website but there were far too many simultaneous users, so we figured we could try again first thing in the morning. It was an early night due to the rain, which poured down all night long. We were quite happy that we had set up our flysheet.
27 Nov: Our 7 am alarm sounded too early, and we were up to take cold showers and check on internet before packing up the tent and having breakfast. Our morning treat today was Almond butter, which looks like a darker version of peanut butter. After getting ready to go, some of our group bid farewell to Roger, the adopted cat from the campsite with a fantastic personality. We were on the road today, driving towards Essaouira with a bushcamp tonight and campsite the next night. But first, one last stop at the Marjane where Robby and Luke had cook group duty, leaving Becky to stock up on the alcohol (12 bottles of vodka and gin), 5 Liter bottles of water (in case we got stuck without water in the desert), and chips (or “crisps” as the British like to call them). It was raining cats and dogs outside the Marjane so it was a chore marching towards the truck and offloading the groceries into our storage space but mission accomplished. 30 bottles of booze successfully on board! McDonalds was beckoning, so Becky joined a huge throng of Oasis folks in the restaurant, savoring every bite of her McChicken meal…yum. By 1130, we were all back on the truck and headed to our next stop, with a brief lunch break enroute. Essaouira was not a long drive, and as we pulled into town, we all admired the beach (the brownish waves were a bit off putting), and the walled city. Essaouira has earned UNESCO world heritage status, and it seems like the thing to do is wander its lovely streets and check out the colorful fishing boats in the harbor. Our campsite tonight was a bush camp, and Robby, Luke and Mike made a fried rice turkey stirfry mix which got good reviews from everyone. Entertainment post dinner included building up the bonfire to a height higher than the truck (accomplished in about 3 minutes after the dare was made), and drunk dancing initiated by Ruth and Lars. Becky listened to Lucky sing the lyrics to almost every song perfectly and she crashed around 11 pm, leaving Robby and Luke to their late night festivities (the photos the next morning capturing the action is absolutely hilarious).
28 Nov: Robby must have drunk set his alarm because it went off at 6:30 and he didn’t have to get up for another 30 minutes for cook group breakfast. Becky managed to pack up all the gear and break down the tent (with Bree’s help), and enjoy a decent breakfast which included melon, almond butter, apples, and bananas in addition to toast and tea. Today’ s truck drive was short as we pulled into the Essaouira’s Camping Sidi Magdoul by 9 am, seeing an AfricaTrails truck in the lot with their passengers conducting an early morning yoga class (we really wanted to join in!). Apparently, they have a diverse group consisting of 7 Americans, and a multitude of European nations. They had a full truck too (25 passengers plus one driver/tour leader), and we found out that they were continuing on the same route (Mauritania and Mali), opting to ignore the FCO guidance and hire an armed escort for the dodgy parts of their route. We took showers, stored the funds needed from Capetown to Cairo in the secure safe, and did laundry before setting out to explore the town, which was a 20 minute walk away. The weather today was brilliant (what a nice break from yesterday’s torrential downpour) and we walked by the wide open beach and were accosted by horse and camel guides who wanted 100 Dirhams for an hour (and quickly dropped their prices as we walked away). Locals were playing soccer on the beach, and we soon entered the city walls of Essaouira in search of lunch. The kebab/fries meal looked tempting but luckily we ran into Nancy, Craig and Melissa, Lucky and Bree and they recommended we try the local fish market where we could have fresh grilled seafood. We were so happy they pointed us in the right direction as our lunch of grilled shrimp, fish, squid and fresh bread, tomato and onion salad and drinks came out to only 50 Dirhams each (5 Euros for all you can eat seafood…awesome!). Lunch was a highlight and we were totally satisfied afterwards, wandering around the colorful harbor and checking out the fishing boats. The cats in Essaouira must feel like they have died and gone to heaven, as there are heaps of fish parts for them to consume. We saw plenty of fat cats! Despite being full, there is always room for ice cream, so with cones in hand, we explored the alleyways of the city and walked around until 3:30 when we decided to head back to camp. Our muscles were aching from the P90X workout the day before, so we figured that we would do a P90X ab ripper and stretch session, with Dowley joining us for the full thing, and Mike and Bree joining us for the stretch portion. It was nice to stretch our muscles and everyone agreed that it was a good (albeit long) workout. Bree mentioned she had a 30 minute pilates workout which we are keen to try. Cookgroup tonight was Marie and Nancy and they prepared a delicious meatball meal, one of our best dinners yet. Everyone was pretty wiped from last night’s festivities, so it was an early night for all of us. Ruth and Chris didn’t emerge from their tent all day as they were still recuperating from yesterday’s partying!
29 Nov: The wind was howling ferociously in the morning, and we awoke to find that breakfast consisted of frying or scrambling eggs to our desire. Poor Robby underestimated the power of the wind, so it knocked his frying pan over and sent the egg yolk to the dirt. We managed to take showers and wash laundry before heading out into town. Since we had no real agenda, we figured we’d just stroll around town for a bit and grab lunch of seafood at the same seafood shacks as yesterday’s luncheon. Our initial group consisted of Ruth and Chris (who hadn’t seen Essaouira yet), Dowley, Goodie and the missus, Luke and the two of us. However, we soon lost Ruth and Chris who were shopping, and the rest of us wandered around, checking out the fish section of the market before eventually splitting for lunch (MJ doesn’t care for fish so Goodie and her were on a quest for something else). We headed to the fish section, bargaining down the restaurant owners down to a price of 180 Dirham for 4 people (drinks included). Afterwards, we hiked up on the city ramparts which had cannons facing the oceanfront. We ran into Sara and Sean (Sean had been to see a dentist about his tooth) and separated from the group, with Robby searching for a barber to cut his hair (40 Dirhams). Walking back to our campsite was a nightmare, with the sandy wind blowing directly into our eyes, pelting us relentlessly for the long walk back. We happily got on the truck to wait for everyone else to return before heading back to our original Essaouira bushcamp site. Unfortunately for us, it was raining cats and dogs by the time we reached it, and we hastily erected our tents. Getting the cookgroup’s firewood was the next order of business, and we worked to break down the wood into smaller pieces. The rain kept coming down, and we were all soaked beneath our rain jackets, but finally had enough wood. Cook group tonight was Dowley, Bree and Lucky (with Nancy assisting) and they had bought two massive fish to be served with fried rice. Unluckily for them, the rain put the fire out, so cooking took forever in the adverse conditions. The folks who refused to get wet or assist with the effort quickly became dubbed the “truck dwellers” and Luckily gleefully kicked them off when it came time for truck cleaning duties. There really wasn’t enough room for everyone under the tarp, so the group separated once again until dinner was served around 8:30 pm. Everyone ate quickly and escaped from the rainy conditions, seeking refuge in the tent by 9:30, making for another early evening for all.
30 Nov: The rain eased up momentarily for us to tear down our tent and pack before breakfast at 0730. We took advantage of the lull and had everything stowed away before diving in to the peanut butter toast for breakfast, managing to get some before the jar was emptied out by the other peanut butter lovers. By 0830, everyone was packed and loaded and we started our drive from Essaouira to Agadir, which we hoped to reach by lunchtime. Nancy had mentioned that today’s stop would be at the last McDonald’s restaurant before South Africa, and everyone was keen on getting their big Mac and fries fill. We opted for a boiled egg, tomato and cucumber sandwich and split a supersized McChicken meal, spending all of our Dirhams in the process. After lunch, we stopped by a Marjane so that cook group could go shopping, and scoped out any last minute purchases before the Western Sahara. Next stop was at Agadir, a seaside resort town. The weather was overcast and after about 45 minutes, began to downpour so we quickly made our way back to the truck where we happily discovered free wifi, giving us a chance to check our email briefly. Cook group tonight consisted of Pam, Norma and Franz who made a delicious potato soup (there was even enough for folks to get thirds!). The rain thankfully had eased up during the late afternoon, and the sky actually cleared up to become a beautiful starry night. Our campsite was near a cliff leading to crashing waves, an absolutely beautiful sight.
1 Dec: This morning we had a beautiful sunrise. Breakfast consisted of eggs your way and we took some pictures of the ocean before packing up and heading back towards Agadir, where we had one final stop at the Marjane for the next three cook groups to stock up on supplies. Our group decided on curry, and since Tim was in charge, he recommended a delicious vegetarian recipe. However, we were aware that the carnivores were going to be lusting for meat and did manage to squeeze 30 Dirhams worth (.75 KG) of turkey to add to the curry. There was free wifi in the parking lot, so everyone frantically checked email before we loaded up the truck and headed towards the western Sahara. After a few hours of driving, we pulled over for a lunch stop of salad sandwiches supplemented by laughing cow cheese. To ease the boredom of life on the truck, some folks started playing asshole (card game), and Robby decided to be an instigator by sticking hand sanitizer down Luke’s butt crack (Luke had been blissfully snoozing on the beach minding his own business). The nasty side of Luke came out when he viciously kicked Lucky in the head in a rage, but Lucky handled it well. Our campsite tonight was again beautiful, and everyone was enjoying bush camping.
2 Dec: After breakfast, we hit the road and took a photo opportunity at a camel monument roundabout. Since we were making good time, Nancy and Chris decided to surprise the group by pulling off to a beach for an extended lunch stop. Everyone threw on bathers except for Luke who decided to go skinny dipping (Becky opted to skip out on swimming as the water was a bit cold and it would be days before we could take a shower). Lucky teased Luke relentlessly about his decision to swim in the buff, and tried to steal his pants away from Norma (she had kindly agreed to hold and air dry Luke’s pants for him). The truck decided on having a truck party at 1500, which was our unofficial crossing into the western Sahara. Everyone got in the festivities, drinking up a storm and in a merry mood when we pulled in (early) to our evening campsite. Becky was on the evening cook group and our curry meal was OK except for the addition of cardamom, which Goodie described as “exploding shit” when he took a bite of it. Since tonight was Thursday night, it was deemed the IPOD night of shame for Lucky, which started some late night partying. While Becky was cooking dinner, Luke and Robby were busy making very bad photos on George and Kentra’s cameras (the truck party did start at 1500, which apparently was way too early). The late night revelers partied loudly until 2 am, attacking Matt and Lar’s tent (they flipped the tent fly on backwards, ha).
3 Dec: Becky’s cookgroup made fried tomatoes for breakfast (in reality they more closely resembled soggy tomatoes but they did taste good), and several people were severely hung over today (including Luke who joined Ruth in becoming Chucky II, with two sessions of puking. While Robby was packing up our tent, he discovered a large scorpion which luckily did not strike. Another drive day, with a stop at a small town for the next three cook groups (groups 6, 7, and 8) to shop for supplies. After pulling into another beautiful campsite, we did a quick ab ripper X workout and finished in time to watch a gorgeous sunset (the sky turned beautiful hues of pink, purple and orange) by hiking up a small hill overlooking our campsite. Goodie, Sara and Matt surprised the group by preparing a kick ass mac and cheese meal (they had the foresight to buy the cheese back at the Marjane). Dinner was excellent and extremely filling, and a perfect evening. After everyone pigged out, it was an early night as many folks were recuperating from last night’s partying.
4 Dec: Today we crossed the Tropic of Cancer! We made the obligatory photo stop next to a pitiful looking sign post (which according to Tim’s GPS was actually about 500 meters off, since he is accurate to +/- 4 meters), and pulled into a nice beach spot for lunch. A stranded yacht, a shipwrecked vessel and a pristine sea awaited us, but first we had lunch, filling up on pasta and bread. With our stomachs bulging, we hit the water where we had about 45 minutes to swim and enjoy. The boys decided on doing backflips, and Matt got some serious airtime but fell incorrectly and actually descalped himself in the process, getting three hideous cuts on his forehead and losing a huge chunk of hair. After lunch, Becky, Goodie and Bree sat on the beach and Becky learned all about the outdoor activities of Australia and New Zealand, which start compulsory for all children and seem to become engrained in the national psyche of the adults. Our campsite tonight was beside some gorgeous sand dunes, which was loads of fun. The boys immediately started doing man hug bear rolls down the dunes, and soon 4 man team races ensured, ending in boys versus girls (the boys had plenty of practice so they kicked our butts but it was all in good fun). We hiked over to a nearby massive dune and watched the gorgeous sunset, reveling in the company and atmosphere. Great day today!