Last updated: Apr 2007

Lyn wanted an out-of-the-ordinary 50th birthday (perhaps an out-of-the-country one too) and, picking up a Ramblers Hiking brochure, chose Morocco as our arbitrary destination.

So it was that in February 1997, we flew to London and, after making a couple of side trips, joined our arranged flight from Gatwick Airport. A couple of hours later we were crossing the coastline of the African continent.

Educated by Hollywood, we vaguely expected to find Morocco covered in sand and criss-crossed by camel routes, so our first glimpses from 35,000 feet of a steady green tableau of olive trees and farmland was surprising. More startling was the sight of the impressive bulk of the Atlas mountains—capped with snow! This is Africa? At the airport, Brian, our cheerful Ramblers tourleader, greeted us and showed the crowd of 20 of us to the waiting buses.

Marrakesh at ground level was closer to what we’d imagined. We passed through the gates in the walls surrounding the city and found ourselves in streets crowded with cars, cyclists, pedestrians and various bestial forms in some Brownian chaotic movement...and honked our way to the hotel.

Chez Nous—L’Hotel

(…after all, French is the official language here)

The buses disgorged us in front of our hotel, which faced onto a large square filled with shady trees. We made our way inside; the interior of the hotel looked like something straight from set of Casablanca—certainly not yer standard tourist/Holiday Inn, but neither so “local” as to make us feel uneasy. We found we were only minutes from the infamous Souk, or Marrakesh market.

We were shown to our cool room, had dinner...and were awoken at 5am the next day by the call to prayer at the local mosque.

First outing/general impressions

One of many mosques After failing geography the first day, we failed sociology on the second. I’d imagined a third world city, filled with people hostile to the infidel, ever ready to lead us down dark alleys. We'd arrived in Morocco with a full dossier of such charmingly naïve subconscious impressions that I was quickly forced to reject—this after weeks of preparing for the trip.

Lynda, with John in this catching drag number Our first walk through the city the next day corrected most of that. A guide took us on a tour through one of the older areas of town, right across from the hotel. True, the square in front of the hotel only gave palpable form to our worst beliefs: the nearby Soukh attracts tourists and tourists attract touts.

Our guide did indeed lead us down dark alleys. But no sooner had we plunged off on a side street than the hassle, paradoxically, subsided. We found ourselves in quiet, narrow streets, walking past clean houses and shops; the only threat was from a steady stream of crazed motorcyclists— the local form of rapid transit. As we progressed, streets narrowed into alleys (which only seemed to increase the traffic of mules and cyclists), yet we could still look into the houses on either side and see clean, well lit habitation. People nodded politely but seemed disinterested in us…until they recognized our guide, who seemed to be related to most of Morocco.

The duties of a guide in a city like Morocco are similar to those of politicians in that they are tacitly indebted to the influential people who help them achieve their elevated position. We were “introduced” to a number of merchants along our way, including one who owned a carpet shop and another who owned a large clothing store (see picture at left). But these proved to be interesting and unpressured introductions to the mercantile; as you can see, Lyn and I were tempted (that's Lyn on the left, me on the right) but didn’t buy…

We imagined there would be iniquitous dives where dark fellows engage in drug deals and bouts of frenzied drinking, from which, if we were not careful, we’d no doubt be smuggled into servitude in some goat infested wilderness. Unfortunately, alcohol, the usual intoxicant from which such dark fortune springs, is prohibited according to Moslem law. The ubiquitous green tea served in nightclubs and cafés alike appears to stimulate nothing more sinful than arguments about soccer and politics. (Later in the week I did manage to find a "den": a local café filled with local people quietly watching a flickering TV). Skeptics might point to the fact that the death penalty--the punishment for dealing in drugs--has dampened enthusiasm for certain career choices popular in the West but another view is that this is an Islamic country and people actually practice their religion here.

Morocco may not be as representative of arab culture as other countries (nor should that be taken to mean that my quaint preconceptions are more likely to be true anywhere else). It is an ex-French colony and the common language is still French. It retains stronger Western influence than other arab countries might, and seems keen to maintain those ties. Yet another surprise: women, far from being openly relegated to an inferior role, seem to hold—at least in many cases— a dominant role in many aspects of Moroccan life. We saw women riding motorscooters, quite unafraid to be as aggressive as any man. However, the chance that the woman one is about run off the road might be the wife of an influential prince could make one hesitant to risk future hospitalization. Some in traditional costume and some not.

OUR HIKES

On each of three later mornings, we picked up by a couple of mini-buses and driven out of the City to a destination in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The drive seldom took more than an hour, yet we ranged some way up into the valleys, each hike a little more strenuous than the last but none particularly taxing for a reasonably fit person. We were not completely spared the blazing heat on occasions but neither did we suffer unduly: this being February, the sun wasn't too much more than that of a hot summer’s day up here in the North.

We walked over dusty, rocky paths with little shade, and on open ground so we were not completely spared the heat.

Each of these hikes was not directly led by our tour leader. Ramblers hires local guides both for their specific knowledge of interesting routes and because it buys goodwill in the community. On our first morning, Brian admitted to us that he hadn't actually heard from the chap we were hoping would guide us on our first day for a couple of months. But as we approached the designated meeting spot, there he was resting in the shadow of a wall at the side of the road.

Our first day was an easy walk—more of an introduction. We headed out along a stony road that wound its way slowly up into a small valley in the low hills, passing a small village and odd clusters of houses. Our guide for the day was a polite young man with some English, so as we hiked, I passed some time in stilted conversation with him about such topics (he introduced it) as his marriage ambitions (saving up for the huge expense of the marriage cerememony) and the life of his parents (Berbers, who continued to ride camels along the Saharan trading routes on the other side of the Atlas mountains). Normal experience for him felt like some exotic tale to me. But then perhaps our lives were as dreamlike to him.

We ended our outbound journey in a small gully where some trees offered a little shade. This also presented an opportunity for the guide and his brothers to present some wares: small jewelry items and knick-knacks. Our group was mildly interested but it was too early in the trip to begin investing in trinkets of unknown quality, and sales must have been low. Our hesitance obviously disappointed the brothers, who remained sullen on the trip back.

On our second hike...

we ventured further afield. The minibus came in along a high hillside that eventually narrowed to a mountainous valley following a river. The area had been devastated by recent flooding and even a couple of upscale villages (obviously an enclave of the well-to-do) had not escaped punishment. The melting Spring snows here have an effect similar to the rain in Mexico, creating flash floods that flush rapidly down the steep and dusty ravines. There's no topsoil or vegetation to absorb some of the moisture and slow the runoff. Melting snow or rain gathers in the merging ravines and quickly forms torrents that gouge their way along the lower valleys (where, of course, the people live) and cause flooding and damage.

We stopped eventually and parked on the outskirts of a respectable village (less opulent than some we’d seen earlier: no BeeMercs parked in front of fortressed houses here). We were almost at the end of the valley, with steep hills closing in on both left and right. We hiked into the town, stopping in at a local café for a refreshment, no doubt fulfilling the guide’s obligations to local businessmen. We then literally toured the town, crossing the river first and making our way behind the houses, while the guide pointed out the features. High above us, a pipeline crossed the valley, apparently taking pure water for the men’s baths.


Re-crossing the river, we admired the carefully structured farmland that took advantage of the river’s first entry onto flatland. Almond and other exotic trees were routine here. The trail began to zig zag up the slope at the end of the valley. High above us on the hillsides, we could make out goatherds and their sometimes noisy charges. One of the hikers actually saw a goat slip and tumble a hundred feet, an unnerving sight for those of us less nimble.

It was a hot day, but we climbed quickly and were soon in sight of the Atlas snows, which didn't seem that far off from our vantage pont, and of the valley and village we'd just left. We eventually stopped for our sandwich lunch and a rest. There were plenty of walks in the vicinity, and after lunch we hiked along for a view along the valley beyond ours.

The hike ended with the usual ramble back, a quick refreshment at the local pop shop, and the drive back into town. Yet we still had time for other activities or local walking (see my notes further down).

Last Day's Hike

This, as was the custom, was to be our biggest hike: to the top of a nearby hill, from which there were supposed to be great views.

The drive on the way in was interesting enough, as we skirted low foothills, and passed villages where there was much activity. We eventually began the climb into the foothills, and stopped at a cafe for what we now recognized to be the tithe for using the locale. The trail leading off the main road was nothing more than a dirt road leading to the wireless station at the top. It only took us an hour to grind to the top. It was stinking hot and I had not brought enough water. Fortunately, there were patches of fresh snow at the top! And the views of the Atlas and of the lowland behind us were indeed worth the effort. We hiked down a slightly different route and came out by a pottery, where Lyn and I bought an urn.

Other Attractions

We both probably remember this trip for the variety of activities we undertook in addition to the hiking. Lynda, for example, joined some of the other women members of the group in an escorted trip to the local baths [ladies only] one evening after our day of hiking. She describes the casual way in which the local women accepted nudity as being natural, and of how the young women would groom their elders. Perhaps as interesting was the reaction of our bunch of middle aged Brits to the idea of lying around naked in public and being massaged by someone's granddaughter.

The Soukh (local market)

On our return on our first day, we had been given a guided tour of the condensed and jiggled maze of shops that make up the infamous "Soukh" of Marrakech—only five minutes from our hotel. The dark alleyways thread backwards and forwards through small clusters of trades—metalworkers here, carpets there, art shops, etc. Lyn and I foolishly opted to return to do some shopping on our own, and that proved to be a lot tougher. A local tout (one of several) tried for ten minutes to appoint himself as our guide, following us around in spite of attempts to chase him off. John almost had to come to blows with him in order to press home our lack of interest. But from that point we were not hassled very much and spent a pleasant hour looking for bargains.

Essouria

For a break on our third day, we took a two hour bus trip to the coast and a visit to Essouria. Those up on (Jimi) Hendrix Trivia would know this village as a hippie haven during the 70's. It is still a favourite tourist port-of-call and offers the advantage of shops and shopping areas that have adapted to the shopping preferences of the tourist, a respite from the aggressive barrage of the Marrakech Soukh. After a pleasant few hours browsing, we stopped in a local cafe and were approached by this young lady of about 12, who was developing her own line in hats. I easily haggled her down from $200 to $185 for this skull cap and felt badly afterwards for taking advantage of her primitive negotiation skills.

On our return route, we stopped for a "rest break" about half way and were amused to see that some goats had somehow managed to ascend into the branches of nearby trees to chew on the leaves. Two small boys were apparently tending the goats and offered to let us take pictures. However, to our chagrin they were apparently not impressed by the meagre payment we offered and we were reluctant to part with our tour bus so the deal fell through.

La Mamounia--Winnie's Favourite Hotel

On one of the days we had sufficient time to take a horse-drawn carriage across Marrakech to visit to the Mamounia Hotel, where Sir Winston Churchill stayed frequently. The gardens were of great interest; we managed to arrange a cup of tea in a pleasant colonial style room where we could look out over a gaggle of ancient hotel guests shambling around the grounds of the ancient hotel.

Lyn's Birthday

Thursday, February 24th was, of course, the big day: Lynda's 50th. It so happened that a parallel Rambler's tour ended its week at our hotel that night, and following Rambler's tradition there was to be an evening of entertainment for all of us anyway. At dinner the two groups were splendidly entertained by snake charmers, dancers, singers, and all manner of eats and drinks...and finally, Lynda's birthday cake

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