Beer and Clothing in Marrakesh

THERE are three things likely to provoke squeals of delight and excitement among an overland travel group – wi-fi, showers and access to alcohol.

If there are power sockets available, the chance to do laundry and it is not raining, it really is the perfect spot.

So imagine our delight as we emerged from the downpours of the Atlas Mountains to find the sun finding a few gaps in the cloud and shining down on all of that checklist.

There is an awful lot more to see and do in Marrakesh, but first things first – fill as many sockets as possible with charging kit, find the spot by the main gate with the best wi-fi, rush to get clothes clean and drying before the rain returns (or pay somebody else to do it, which is basically what the guys did the next morning) and wait eagerly for reports of whether the showers were hot or not.

They were. Sporadically.

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Under one roof – The packed confines of Marrakesh’s medina

Finding beer in Morocco is not the easiest task – and will get progressively harder and then impossible in dry Mauritania – so finding a campsite selling cans out of their fridge should have had us reaching for our dirhams and filling the eskies (the coolers which keep our drinks and, less often, meat cool while doubling as footrests and card tables on the back of the truck).

Instead, those in need of a drink (pretty much the entire group) clambered back onto Nala as Steve took us in search of a bottle shop which Karla had heard of while chatting to one of the trolley guys at our supermarket stop (trust a Kiwi girl to find directions to beer).

What we got was an impromptu city tour as Gilly’s off licence proved beyond our navigational skills and a second visit to Ercham in the supermarket car park, from where two of our number were despatched in a taxi with orders for vital supplies.

Their efforts, together with the campsite stock, made for a very convivial (and, courtesy of the showers, clean) evening.

Which put us in good spirits to tackle our biggest challenge of the trip to date the next day, exploring the labyrinthine delights and excesses of the Marrakesh medina.

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Mission accomplished – The successful search for beer draws a crowd

Medinas – basically, market places in the heart of old towns selling pretty much whatever you might need and an awful lot of stuff you don’t, but which they will work hard to sell you anyway – have been a constant throughout Morocco.

Rabat’s was compact and got our feet wet in the world of medinas, Chefchaouen had plenty of charm (and got rather more than our feet wet), while the warren which is Fes left us thankful for Callum’s expert guidance and clutching plenty of bags.

Marrakesh takes it all to another level.

Personally, Chef and Fes were more up my street (as was arty Essaouira, but we’ll get to that), but there’s no denying the sheer energy and assault on pretty much all of the senses as we spent the bulk of the day exploring the narrow lanes, fighting off (with mixed results) the insistent sellers, shopping (in my case, another addition to the collection of bracelets around my right wrist which could take on epic proportions in the next nine months) and arguing with a snake charmer who insisted my arty shot of the main square and minaret was actually of him and his cobra.

Tea leaves - A Moroccan tea gets a little bit congested
Tea leaves – A Moroccan tea gets a little bit congested

His request for money fell on deaf ears, but only after he’d seen the contentious picture and finally accepted my argument that he was only in it because he was storming towards the camera.

There were more arguments as the search for beer took hold again around lunchtime, a helpful local steering a group of us down several shady-looking side streets and into an expensive-looking restaurant we declined to enter.

Much to the annoyance of a guy on the door, who took exception to our impromptu guide leading us off elsewhere and started punching him. As a nearby policeman joined in the brawl, we beat a hasty retreat and took refuge round the corner with a few pizzas.

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Changing scene – Marrakesh after dark

The search for beers was more successful later as, teamed up with Karla and Joanne (that’s me, a Kiwi and an Irish girl, how could we fail to find booze?), we settled into a rooftop bar for happy hour which, thankfully, overlooked our agreed meeting place in another, dry vantage point and we were able to draw the rest of the group our way by waving a few beers in their direction.

By the time we emerged into the evening, the main square had been transformed by the arrival of a string of open-air eateries, each complete with one or more people determined for you to eat at their particular stall.

For some reason, they seemed to think my ability to eat might be worth attracting to their tables, quoting Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare at me before one finally lured me in, not by his insistence that Rick Stein and Antonio Carlucci had eaten there, but so had Jamie Oliver who he dismissed as “a right plonker”.

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True blue – Michael, right, and I model the latest in Tourag chic

A good decision as tent mate Michael and myself wolfed down an excellent, cheap meal and headed back out in the melee, dodging food sellers only long enough for another of the traders to extract money from me for a traditional jacket.

By this point, the constant attentions of the sellers had got too much and there was only one place to take refuge – back in the bar.

We were not the only ones to come to that conclusion, so by the time the belly dancers appeared just before our taxi time, several more happy hour beers (and at those prices, it needed to be happy hour) had been sunk and one or two other bellies were swung around in some form of dancing.

Guilty as charged.

NB: The rain which has hit Morocco in the last week or so has been classed as the heaviest for 50 years, had locals flooding out to watch the rivers rush by at previously unseen levels and, so various reports have told us, claimed the lives of more than 30 people.

They would return to make our lives a tad more difficult, but that’s another story…

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Blanket Coverage

HAPPINESS, sang John Lennon, is a warm gun.

He obviously never spent much time overlanding or he would know happiness is a warm blanket.

Planning this trip, one of my major concerns was surviving nights under canvas – something which has been avoided for many years and on my last overland trip was abandoned after a couple of nights in favour of sleeping on our converted bus.

That is not an option this time and so much thought was put in to making life as comfortable as possible after dark – a blow-up mattress and a sleeping bag, albeit opened out as a quilt, working together to keep me warm and relaxed.

It didn’t exactly work on the first few, largely sleepless nights, but things have improved (although doubt anyone was predicting me rising before sunrise and the allotted breakfast time on a regular basis) with the addition of a pillow.

By royal appointment - Joe and the rest of us treat the palace in Fes with due dignity
By royal appointment – Joe and the rest of us treat the palace in Fes with due dignity

And last night our tent took on the appearance of a showroom from the Ideal Homes Exhibition with the arrival of two new Moroccan rugs.

Tent mate Michael (you can work out why we were paired together and why our fellow campers are so keen to know where our tent is pitched each night) opted for sprawling his across the floor, while mine is folded neatly (for now) along my mattress and topped off with the quilt.

Very comfortable it is too, although stiffer, colder tests lie ahead in the next few days.

The rugs were a result of a day in the labyrinthine medina of Fes, our latest stop on the journey around Morocco.

Having left soggy Chefchaouen just as the sun was finally emerging over the picturesque scene, the day’s drive to Fes was fairly subdued on the back of the truck.

What scenery we saw was well worth the pictures we took and staying awake for, as was the thrill of being chased around the mountain roads by a string of cars full of men trying to sell us hash.

But, sorry to say, most of us ignored tour leader Joe’s pleas for us to enjoy the passing countryside and spent much of the day catching up on sleep.

Our arrival in Fes brought us face to face with a second Oasis truck and a second, smaller group of travellers heading as far as Cape Town five days behind us, albeit via a slightly different route through Morocco.

Real leather - The colourful scene at Fes' tanneries
Real leather – The colourful scene at Fes’ tanneries

Much of the evening was spent chatting to what could have been our truck mates – all of which, allied with a restocked drinks chiller, proved a little too much for one of our number. Not only did he somehow entrust Joe with a pair of clippers on his hair, but he needed three goes to find the right tent.

We waved farewell to the other truck in the morning before meeting up with Callum – our guide and fixer, who knows seemingly everybody worth knowing in Fes.

He led us around the city, to the Jewish Quarter, King’s Palace, a pottery workshop and a scenic overview before heading headfirst into the medina, supposedly the largest car-free urban area in the world.

Dating back more than 1,200 years, the medina is vast with people on every corner and in every nook and cranny finding a way to make a living. There really does seem very little you cannot get in there if you know where to look.

But knowing where to look is an art, given the puzzle of finding your way around. Every time we thought we had some vague idea where we were, Callum would turn a corner, duck down an alleyway, through an arch or up some stairs and emerge in some new area.

All, of course, giving us plenty of opportunity to spend money at the various stops.

None was spent at the tannery (which did provide a fascinating, if pungent, view over the work being done on the leather round the back and the question of the trip so far from a passing American: “Are these wallets real leather?), and not so much at the pharmacy (a few spices and oils) or at the weavers (where a masterclass showed those who opted to buy turbans how to tie them).

But plenty was spent at our lunch stop – the carpet shop.

As well as feeding us – very nicely thank you with lamb koftas and more Moroccan tea, which is starting to prove a little too sweet – they gave us a quick show through their range and we lapped it up.

By the time we left, bags stuffed with rugs were tucked under arms and a couple of Berber jackets have been sported ever since.

My rug, evidently, is a aphrodisiac. May need to go for a lie down to check.

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I Love The Rain Down In Africa

THE mountain town of Chefchaouen is renowned for its beautiful blue and white-painted houses and as the hash capital of Morocco.

And while we saw enough of the blue houses exploring the enchanting, narrow confines of the old town and were offered enough hash to keep an army of hippies happy for weeks, the abiding memory from our visit was of one thing – rain.

Feeling blue - The soggy streets of Chef's old town
Feeling blue – The soggy streets of Chef’s old town

Our arrival in Morocco has coincided perfectly with the start of the rainy season which, our guide in Fes explained, only began after a special open-air prayer session but has made its mark on us and our laundry.

Downpour number one arrived overnight just outside Casablanca, turning part of our campsite into a lake, but that was outdone by the torrent which marked the end of our long day waiting for visas in Rabat.

Our bush camp was rather more compact that night as tents were set up under the tarpaulin erected off the truck and carried into position, while we took refuge on Nala for the bulk of the evening.

Thankfully, the tents remained dry – more than can be said for a lot of our clothes, which has made laundry and, in particular, drying something of an issue. Our current campsite in Fes has wet clothes hanging everywhere as the sun beats down on our first full free day of the trip.

But neither of those downpours could match the all-day cloudburst which took in our one full day in Chefchaouen.

No sooner had we packed up breakfast, showered and gathered for the walk down the hill into town than the heavens opened and did not relent until after dinner 12 hours earlier.

But has all this rain dampened spirits? Certainly not as it has been interspersed with the types of moments and places which will live long in the memory.

Knob gags - Insert your own here
Knob gags – Insert your own here

We arrived in Chef – let’s settle on the shortened version, getting all those vowels in the right order is a real pain – via a stop at the Roman ruins of Volubilis.

A lovely spot and a fascinating tour from our guide Abdul really should have been highly educational and informative. But what most of us will remember is the phallus emerging from a lump of stone in what used to be the town’s brothel.

Much hilarity and photo opportunities followed.

But the highlight of Volubulis came as we set up camp on the side of a hill among the olive trees with a spectacular view down and across the valley.

Unexpected bonus - Sunset over our bush camp near Volubilis
Unexpected bonus – Sunset over our bush camp near Volubilis

As we set about the task of collecting firewood, the landowner appeared from within the trees and welcomed us to “his mountain”, proceeding to help us get the fire going, chatting in a variety of languages and enjoying the spectacular sunset.

He was joined by another local, who also joined us for dinner – obviously not put off by my presence within the cook group – and voted in our first “Numpty of the Week” selection.

Best of friends - Martyn and Malcolm at the start of a beautiful friendship
Best of friends – Martyn and Malcolm at the start of a beautiful friendship

Awarded to the person who has made their mark in less than complimentary fashion throughout the week, the first (clear) winner was our Scottish traveller Martyn – not so much for getting locked in a supermarket toilet, but the gusto with which he recounted the tale and admitted he had simply not slid the lock across the door.

His prize was to be the first wearer of Malcolm the monkey, which must be worn at all times in public for 24 hours. Suggest we all may get acquainted with Malcolm at some point (although Martyn appears to be again leading the way for the next vote).

Spirits were high as we headed out of camp in the morning – complete with a big bag of olives our new friend had emerged from amid the trees to sell us – and off on the long drive to Chef.

Our first really long day on the truck was enlivened, with both sides rolled up, by some fabulous views as we wound our way through the mountains and a succession of small settlements – the arrival of a big yellow truck prompting amusement, surprise and plenty of waving from the locals.

And spirits remained high on discovery that our new campsite had the holy grail double of wi-fi and hot (well, sort of) showers. They got even higher among those who trekked down the hill after dinner to join in some form of festival and seek out a few beers (not all that easy to find in a Muslim country).

Those spirits, however, took a blow as the heavens opened the next morning, but undeterred we headed off into Chef to explore.

And, despite the conditions, it was a thoroughly enjoyable few hours, getting lost among the narrow, winding streets amid the locals going about their daily business – large chunks of which involved trying to sell us something.

But highlight of our exploration was a stop-off at Restaurant La Granada.

To call it a restaurant was being a little optimistic. It was essentially, three tables squeezed into two small rooms which also had to accommodate a kitchen and the one smiling gentleman who took our orders, cooked up some fabulous tagines for six of us, posed for pictures and even managed to stop for prayers behind his counter as we ate.

Congratulating ourselves on our find, our next move was not so clever (and may involve a group nomination to wear Malcolm) as we brushed aside the suggestion of getting a taxi back to camp and opted to walk back up the hill in the pouring rain, an idea we spent the afternoon regretting as the truck gradually filled up with returning explorers trying to get warm and dry.

In some cases, neither state was achieved until after dinner as those of us who had not turned in for an early night headed to a hotel along the roadside from the campsite and sought refuge in their very welcoming bar – complete with a singer and Botswana v Tunisia on the TV, although there was little in that to grab the attention.

The evening continued for some in the adjoining nightclub, while the rest of us took the plunge to find out if our tents had survived the downpour.

Warmer climes (much warmer), we are assured, are just days away…

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