Amateur Emigrant #2 Imperial cities, eternal desert

Having left the craggy heights of the Rif mountains, we now headed toward the ancient city of Fes, home to one of the most intact medieval medinas in the world. Our route took us through undulating farmland and scattered villages, underlining the value of agriculture here. At the beginning of the modern era, the Roman city of Volubilis had been the centre of the Imperial bread basket in North Africa and still fulfilled much of that role today, as the landscape became more alive with tractors and people. Large, clanking trailers were crammed with farm workers being ferried to and from local markets with produce and livestock jammed in underneath or between scarf-wrapped, dust-blown families.

How it started

A tractor and trailer chugs down the road with the family aboard
A tractor and trailer chugs down the road with the family aboard

Rippling sheets of cereal standing in fields chequered with polka dots of olive groves, bright green patches of vegetables and herbs soothed the eye after the sere craggy hills of the Rif. Having decided not to visit Meknes, we followed back roads until we reached the remains of Roman influence in this area at Volubilis. On an earlier occasion I had met an American guy with a compendious fascination for Roman mints and outposts; his knowledge of that period had brought the broken colonnades and buildings to life for me. Here an image or inscription had been chiselled away when the imperial management changed, but the outlines of the now empty shops and barracks, (the upper courses now plundered for building stone) still evoked a sense of large scale industry. On the other hand, on another visit, when I asked my brother for his thoughts, he simply said I couldn’t expect him to be impressed by a place built on slavery. In all, it turned out to be only mildly enthralling for the Pranksters, and there are certainly more impressive remains in other North African locations. We stayed overnight in the shadow of Roman influence, pondering the fact that we slept on the same terrain that centurions and emperors had experienced before us.

Four Seasons mosaic at Volubilis, Photo credit

Fes was younger by several hundred years than Volubilis, but showed all the vigour of an important trading and cultural crossroads. Originally a collection of Berber villages, it was founded as a city in 859 BCE, and quickly came under the influence and control of the expanding Islamic world, both from Tunisia and curiously, from Spain. The landscape we had been passing through had a strong resemblance to areas of Andalusia, and many shared architectural and agricultural characteristics can be seen. The city remains a duopolis, with the original settlement quite different to the new, which is nowadays redolent of a provincial French city.


The space of current boulevards and squares is a breathtaking contrast to the tight, shadowed thoroughfares of the medina. In fact, it can feel rather claustrophobic to some, especially when you are unsure of direction, and the disorientation may be compounded by the sweet and sour smells of spices, decay, donkey droppings and open butchers’ shops. All these and more, assail the senses as you weave a tortuous path through a seemingly continuous stream of oncoming traffic, human and animal. Any resident of Fes will tell you proudly that there are people who spend their entire lives in the medina, having everything they will ever need nearby. It is certainly true that you would be hard pushed to name a commodity that is not available here, but there are also schools, both religious and secular, mosques and parts of what is one of the world’s oldest universities too !

Washing before prayer; the entrance to one of the small mosques in the Old City of Fes
Washing before prayer; the entrance to one of the small mosques in the Old City of Fes

We puttered our way through the modern streets to land in the municipal campsite which was a large open area, criss-crossed by access tracks and walled all round for security. Uniformed watchmen wandered around from time to time, often twirling a baton, but mainly just enjoying a stroll in the open. We hemmed in an area with the two campers and put tents vaguely between them, leaving room for a open kitchen area. We settled to a routine for much of the time in Fes, getting washing done, doing vehicle and tent repairs, nominating each other by turns to fetch the morning pastries from a nearby bakery, and forming plans for onward travel. We did, naturally, attract the attention of would-be guides (even though the camp guards discouraged them) as soon as we stepped off the site. We decided that one sounded ok, and would maybe be handy for keeping the others at bay. A slightly optimistic view, as the other followers would pick off one or other of us at opportune moments to visit some ‘relatives’ shop for brass, mint tea, fabrics, minerals, anything at all really. It has to be said that Morocco has a high level of hassle from touts who sadly can feel oppressive after a while of suggestions and importuning. I recall a mounting sense of frustration with one youth who, though I knew the city, just would not shut up and leave me to wander. He too was frustrated and asked abruptly “what you want to see ?” to which I replied equally abruptly “I want to see more space around me !” and, amazingly, he disappeared !


The reader may have gathered by now that we were quite poor at tourism. We rarely visited anywhere we had to pay to see, in fact, the entire journey was much more about experience in a cheap warm climate, and with only a passing interest in buildings and monuments. What Philistines we were ! But we left Fes with one of the most enduring memories of Morocco, that of a visit to the centuries old tannery quarter. By its nature, the tanning process is not for those with a delicate disposition,, as the recently flayed skins of animals are scraped of remaining flesh and hair by repeated washing in odious concoctions, some including dog or pigeon faeces, urine, lime and dyes which leave indelible stains on the workers whose job it is to swirl and saturate the skins through a process that has everything of the medieval about it. The mere sight and smell of this age-old industry reminds me of a line by one of the Liverpool poets; “a systematic derangement of all the senses”. That sums up the experience, and I guarantee it will stay with you for many years.

Men treating and rinsing animal skins in old tiled vats
The ancient way of tanning leather still in use in Fes

A very different series of experiences refreshed our minds and bodies as we headed southward again. The hills we were approaching, growing to modest mountains, were the Anti-Atlas, a continuation of the much higher terrain to the west. Wooded valleys crept up the slopes to where a tree line had been established by grazing animals and by colder drier climate. Huge trees bordered our route – we thought they were cedars or some variety of pine, and the alpine feel was emphasised by clonking cowbells, and signs for ski resorts ahead. We had never imagined there might be ski resorts in Morocco, but there is obviously a demand from chic wealthy city people to indulge in skiing, even if the main focus is on conspicuous consumption and après-ski !

Pleasing though the scenery was, we had come a long way south to escape the cold, so we continued through and over the ever drying mountains. I recalled a strange event that came back to me as the road reached a plateau, when a fast approaching black cloud had caught up with the Marrakesh Express minibus I was driving. The torrential force of the ensuing rain had a couple of people shouting to dive out of the vehicle, clutching a bottle of shampoo and giving their long hair a thorough froth-up, as the rain was warmer than the showers back in Fes !Our next port of call was the large town of Er-Rachidia, with a significant military presence, as the southern border with Mauritania was not too far away. We stopped to re-stock for our destination – a small oasis called Meski.

Random stones picked from the riverbed make a beautiful patchwork wall in Meski
Random stones picked from the riverbed make a beautiful patchwork wall in Meski

Invisible from the road southward, the campsite among the palms was the epitome of desert experience for most of us. I of course had stayed there before and was aware of both its charms and its limitations. A rocky outcrop hung above where a spring fed a sizeable pool, which was not for swimming in because on closer inspection, it was teeming with fish. A small building housed the guardien’s ‘office’ and a series of steps at the side of the site perimeter led down to some pretty noisome hole in the floor toilets. This was a small trial, but to be expected in an out of the way location. We loved the experience of pitching up under date palms that afforded the luxury of shade and atmosphere when the days became too hot for us. Stevie, in particular found a great source of wonder in the bird and insect life here, seeing species like egrets, kingfishers and bee-eaters, even the dazzling dragonflies for the first time. Across a scrubby dry riverbed stood the remains of the old town of Meski, mostly destroyed by storm floods and erosion of the mudbrick buildings. It was evident that the mountains we had left behind to the north had collected and fed the intermittent streams and rivers that maintained life in the desert to the south, but also threatened it at times. The river Ziz flowed more or less, throughout our southward route from the mountains, with a scattering of villages nearby.

Water courses south of the Atlas follow the same pattern of habitation and intense agriculture
Water courses south of the Atlas follow the same pattern of habitation and intense agriculture

A newer settlement had been built on higher ground, surmounting the outcrop. This one was made from concrete blocks, or from a mixture of mud and cement, called pise. The textures in the landscape entranced us – something as simple as a wall built from rough stones, or the thread like tracks worn across the riverbed by foraging goats. Small children escorted the livestock, brandishing a long thin twig, or more emphatically with a slingshot hurling a pebble to dissuade any errant bid for freedom. We could observe these comings and goings all day, just taking breaks to spread tahini or a spready cheese triangle on a chunk of baguette. As the days heat faded, the colours in the sky changed, often quite dramatically with under-lit clouds that left us literally breathless and wide-eyed. I don’t think I’ve seen cloudscapes like that anywhere since then, the heavens were afire !

Spectacular underlit clouds at sunset over the ruins of an old village
The developing sunsets seen at Meski were simply breathtaking

From time to time some schoolchild would appear presenting a local curio, an old coin, a fragment of mineral, or a captive scorpion that had been disarmed with a sharp rock slicing of the tail sting, poor creature. A few of us took up the offer to take a meal (couscous, veg and maybe a boiled egg or two) when invited by an older child, and found the people to be very friendly, and happy, too, despite living in what to us were reduced circumstances. The visit was most often a prelude to some half-hearted attempt at trinket sales to which we readily succumbed. We learnt the difficulty of acquiring schooling was limited by relatively small amounts of money, and let’s face it, any such expense was not outside our capacity to meet.

A regular at Meski, the heron pauses and surveys his larder from the top of a date palm
A regular visitor at Meski, the heron pauses and surveys his larder from the top of a date palm

After a few intrusive visits by the local officers of the Gendarmerie Royale, the National police force, eager to exercise some power in a far-flung posting, we decided to head further to the sandy desert further south. I had spent quite a few tranquil nights at a place called Merzouga, right at the edge of mountainous dunes. The seeming emptiness of the landscape was a bit of an illusion, as a tiny village lay just a few kilometres beyond, but the sensation was there, for sure. A half built structure provided an excellent spot to spend the nights, cooling breezes descending from the high dunes, clear skies and vivid imaginations all at play. Inevitably, a couple of village youths would come over the horizon to play tam-tam goatskin drums as somewhere to get away from the parents, mix, (and try their luck), with more cosmopolitan company. Mahmoud was one of the lads.

The author stands on a sand dune slope with vivid blue sky behind
Bob being a bit arty in the dunes at Merzouga

Shooting stars and skies alive with twinkles would gradually lighten in the east, prompting a trek up the firm edge of a high dune nearby to watch the sun rise and clamp the landscape into stillness under rapidly growing heat. In the earlier half-light you could follow the night-time tracks of a dung beetle, rolling its prize up the still firm dune or the wider meandering tracks of a scorpion out hunting. Rarely you could spy a series of S-bends isolated in the sand, and instantly move away from the place where a viper had wriggled itself beneath the surface. I never saw any night hunting birds but I did have the joy of attracting swallows, darting around, clipping my ears in their aerobatic search for flies attracted by my sweat.  By 9am it was already too warm to spend long out of the shade wherever you could find it. It quickly sucked the energy from all of us and after a couple of night we had exhausted the attractions of the sandpit.


Driving back out from the dunes we reflected on the terrains we had been seeing. Although the archetypal desert scene is made up of sand, it only makes up less than a third of the Sahara, this is called ‘erg’. The rest is composed of bare rock, ‘hammada’ and broken rock, gravel etc ‘reg’. The terrain I was concentrating on was filled with a maze of tyre, camel and donkey tracks (Steve’s van following at a distance to allow time for the dust to blow by). After a bumpy ride over recent ruts, we spied the tops of mudbrick buildings and the tv aerials sprouting from them. We entered the small town of Rissani, en route to the place Mahmoud had arranged a welcome meal for us, but on the way we passed  large open area that was the out-of-town donkey park ! Such a racket of braying, biting and kicking up dust – sadly all the pictures I took were so bleached out by bright light that you just have to imagine it. We reached the specified place to be welcomed inside with mint tea and snacks. Mahmoud’s relative was in the textile business and loads of wall hangings, floor coverings and numerous items of clothing were on display. As these things go, it was pretty low key and we enjoyed the ‘dressing up’ for the most part

Our group are seated, drinking mint tea all-roads-lead-to-the-carpet-shop
All roads lead to the carpet shop ! Cast list here L-R Roland Butler, Rachel McBride, Mick Skinner, Andromeda McGregor, Theresa Baker, Stephen Baker. On RHS Mahmoud and his ‘uncle’

We took our leave after a while, laden with a few purchases, made with our scant personal resources – I even part exchanged a spare tyre for a camel hair floor covering which I still have. Our onward route now went north almost to Erfoud where we had begun our dune excursion, and then turned onto a much smaller road to lead us back toward the mountains. There was a tiny road which had excited our imagination, leading across open desert all the way to Zagora in the Draa valley, but the possibility of stranding there was a step too far for us, and we probably could have also expected increased interest from the border patrol people. We therefore set our gaze and expectations toward our next major destination, Todra Gorge, a little to the North of the town of Tinerhir. Late in the day we skirted the town and started a tortuous climb on crumbling tarmac toward a massive blank wall rising ever higher as we approached. I, with Marrakesh Express, and later, by motorcycle, had stayed here on a number of occasions and we looked forward to staying in actual rooms, with a welcome from the brothers, (Hassan, a local veterinary worker and Hashmil, the manager) who ran the hotel Yasmina, nestling at the foot of a 1000ft rock wall where the river flowed out from a gap in the mountains. We were now in a place where we could totally relax, in between forays into the mountains, following some hair-raising goat tracks up the canyon walls for our daytime excitement !



Two VW campers parked in front of a hotel at the foot of a huge rock wall
We reach the little paradise of the Hotel Yasmina at Todra

Next time;

At the seaside for Christmas, and Marrakesh in the New Year


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