Our Stay in Todra was blessed by a brilliant combination of rest and recreation. Good simple food and a room or roof to relax on was a salve to the constant driving we seem to have done. Our scrambling and hiking up the steep sided gorge behind the Hotel Yasmina provided ample excitement and the occasional jolt of adrenaline as we tried to follow the sinuous tracks that the local goats and shepherds followed.
From time to time we noticed the stream bed broaden as a result of unseen rain in the mountains behind us. The gorge itself, of course was the work of that now insignificant flow – something which continued to amaze us, demonstrating the passage of time at a geological scale. From time to time we took the winding slalom of a road down to the nearest town, Tinerhir, where we could indulge ourselves with minor luxuries like chocolate, or refill our dwindling supplies of olives and jam. Why, we continually asked ourselves, could we never find any jam other than apricot ? To be fair, we didn’t have demanding diets, and these were usually amply met by the prevalence of spready cheese triangles (the Laughing Cow brand), tinned sardines in oil or tomato sauce, and eggs in every permutation imaginable
By and by, our stay in Todra came to an end as we wanted to explore the Dades Gorge, too, a few hours drive to the West before heading to the coast for Christmas. With slightly heavy hearts we trundled off in hopes of getting a couple of days hiking in the new gorge. Arriving in Boulemane du Dades, we took the small trail leading into the hills, until we came to a hostel cum campground where we parked ourselves. Everyone noticed how chilly it suddenly felt, then also noticed we were at some 5,500 ft which accounted for the drop in temperature and, (though only an inconvenience), shortage of breath. The sudden chill encouraged some to take a room in the empty hostel, and blankets of dubious heritage appeared along with the offer of heating from the kind guardien. This proved to be a mixed blessing later in the evening as it was necessary to close the window against the descending cool air from the heights behind us.
Not long later several people started coughing and feeling even more short of breath. The heat which had been brought into the room was a large clay bowl filled with glowing charcoal and it became obvious that this was the source of discomfort, and it was removed. We later realised that the carbon monoxide from the charcoal could have caused us great harm if we hadn’t removed it and retreated to the sleeping bags and blankets.
Although things took a turn for the better after our narrow escape, the incident had left a number of folk feeling a bit weedy the next day, and the blasting wind from the snowy interior did nothing to encourage any hiking plans. So we contented ourselves with well ventilated heating, reading, writing up diaries, a few vehicle repairs after miles of rocky roads and enjoying the rather more colourful landscape around us.
Our second night passed without incident but we were so hankering for some warmth and sunshine that we set off early to head down to the lower land and the western coast. Our next major port of call was to be the delightfully named Ouarzazate, where the main road to Marrakesh branched steeply northward over the Col du Tichka, busy with buses and heavily laden trucks weaving around fallen rocks and the occasional broken down vehicle. The town seemed very militarised, which would be expected in such a strategic location – a main road south ran through the Draa valley to Zagora, where camel trains of old set out for or returned from the fabled city of Timbouctu. Having scoured the market for fresh supplies and fuel we continued westwards.
In truth, nobody’s diary, and no-one’s memory can retrieve where we stopped off after that re-stock, but it might well have been Talouine, a small town surrounded by patches of industrious horticulture, powered by hand and by donkey. As ever, a small town where most people drive though to more important destinations, reveals a gentler side to the communities living alongside the busy routes. No incessant pleas for money or pens, nobody trying their best to sell you anything they could think of and no sights to see.
Our route now flanked the highest part of the Atlas mountains to the north, although we meandered on steadily improving roads through Taroudant and discovered the vast plantations of orange groves in the region. I believe that much of the industrial production here goes for juice, or cordials, since the best eating oranges seem to come from other areas and other countries. The large town of Taroudant offered some quite fancy accommodation in the fortress, (I stayed here in a slightly less luxurious and expensive hotel at another time), and a large market with everything under the sun, but we were headed with a sense of anticipation to the coastal city of Agadir as our next stop.
The entire town had been destroyed in an earthquake but massive help from around the world had rebuilt it as a modern city, and boosted its place in the accessible resort market, even cheaper than Spain or Cyprus. So, there were upsides for the population and transient visitors, but that beach appeal wasn’t for us. We did, however, take advantage of the expansive campsite facilities for washing and general tidying up after some rough days travelling. In one of our diaries it was noted that i went out and bought some meat and rustled up a curry – something that we all enjoyed but found no sign of Asian takeaways anywhere in the country !
We stayed a couple of nights amidst the bustling streets and scantily clad tourists from northern Europe, a bit overwhelming after the mountain and desert quiet, but we also met up with a few other winter travellers, some in converted buses, others in the ever-familiar VW campervans. We discussed our onward plans with some returning from the south and hit on the idea of heading to a place I’d visited briefly before, some distance south from Agadir, the quaintly named Sidi R’bat, the site of a shrine to a local holy man, or marabout. There was a small white painted shrine on the headland, with a basic hostel for pilgrims and visitors, and an ample walled parking area for the likes of us, with access to water, toilets and if we chose, simple meals at the hostel.
We teamed up with a couple of other people in a VW and headed south for the secluded beach only to discover a couple of other British camper vans installed there; when our wee convoy arrived in Sidi R’bat I imagine their hearts sank a little but everyone did get on well without feeling intrusive. A friend flew in to Agadir on their school holidays, and they joined our gang to enjoy the carefree days of sandcastle building, beach campfires and simple meals, swimming in the shallows – we were warned of a strong undertow if we swam out too far. Theresa and I decided that the dense covering of mussels on the near-shore rocks should be exploited, and we carefully picked a bucketful. After giving them a brief boil, and strictly only using those that opened, we feasted on the large inhabitants of the shells. That night both of us were gripped by explosive diarrhoea and stomach pains – we had clearly picked up some bug or poison that struck us down for a not good 24 hours. Only later did we consider that the currents running down the coast could have carried any number of noxious chemicals and effluent.
All too soon, our lazy life had to come to a close and we headed north to visit the renowned bustle of Marrakesh. We could have taken the coast route but there was yet another untested mountain road we yearned to travel on. The much frequented Col du Tichka ran between Ouarzazate and Marrakesh, but would have been a long backtrack, so we chose the much smaller route via the Tizi n Test pass. En route we passed a dying forest, being thinned out by goats clambering in the trees to strip every bit of greenery – we’d thought them to be merely a tall tale, but there they were ! As the ground rose, we started to thread our way along a narrowing valley on a deteriorating road.
As we climbed, we encountered light rain, turning to light snow, causing some trepidation among the troops, especially as there were few options other than onwards. From time to time, both Steve and I got out of the vans to assess the hazard in front, sometimes just very broken ground, but at times extensive puddles which could have stranded us, and we tested the depth carefully. I think the relief on reaching the top was contained in a collective sigh, realising that the country’s highest peak, Mt Toubkal, was but a few kilometres to our right, and our route now lay downwards.
As the reader can see, our little convoy, now back to two vehicles, arrived safely in Marrakesh where we indulged, yet again, in a flurry of washing clothes and getting the desert dust from our vans.
We enjoyed the hurley burley of the Dj’maa el F’naa open market, often observing the ebb and flow of commerce and life from an elevated terrace of a cafe for an hour or two at a time. Where the medina of Fes has been quite a jarring experience for some of our party, the melee of Marrakesh was by now easily taken in our stride. Our pace northward quickened after a few days in Marrakesh, stopping only briefly on our route back home through chilly Spain and France.
As we often find in accounts of extended road trips, there is a point reached where fulfilment has been reached, senses saturated, and it becomes difficult to sustain our initial enthusiasm. In retrospect, it feels a little sad, but a tipping point is reached where our focus is simply to get to a familiar setting. To go to a shop or cafe and buy what you want without fuss, bargaining, extra offers and diversion. To sleep in your own bed, give your brain and body a rest, and the time to absorb all that you’ve seen and done for the times when memory needs to serve you well.
As it has for this Amateur Emigrant, now grounded.