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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Truck Riders On The Storm

WE may be an international group drawn from around the globe, but our travelling band shares one very British obsession – the weather.

Writing this with the sun beating down and the strains of Bob Marley drifting across our Marrakesh campsite, you could be forgiven for falling for the stereotypical view of long, hot African days.

But the last few days have been anything but predictable, providing glorious sunshine when we were prepared for whatever conditions the Moroccan winter could spring on us, then drenching us with a night of torrential rain and a howling gale that left us clinging to the side of a mountain.

Throw in the intervention of the local police, a hair-rising drive through the mountains and the torrents created by the storm, not to mention a real-life game of rock, paper, scissors (only without paper and with a genuine knife replacing the scissors) and it has been an unexpectedly eventful few days.

Back when you last left us in Fes, we were well aware of what might be lying ahead after tales of previous groups heading to Todra Gorge wrapped up in sleeping bags on the back of the truck to keep warm while snow slowed down progress.

As it was, we were treated to some spectacular views as we traversed the Atlas Mountains with the sides rolled down and only the odd jacket donned as a long drive day turned into night.

Towering - The view from our base at Todra Gorge
Towering – The view from our base at Todra Gorge

Even with blackness enveloping our new home, the towering silhouettes of the cliffs above the truck provided a tempting teaser of what lay ahead, while the news we would not need to pitch tents but were sleeping on the floor of a room in the adjacent hotel sent everyone scurrying for the relative comfort and an early night.

Opting out of the lengthy trek up a mountain path to Todra Gorge itself, my more relaxed day took me up the road through some still spectacular scenery and down the road for a less than spectacular lunch.

A chilled evening was rounded off with a competitive session of Uno – which has taken on epic proportions with a series of rule changes to be argued over and forgotten if you have not been playing total attention – and a new sleeping spot, tucked up on the Beach at the front of the truck as Joe gave up his normal position to allow a few of us to sleep on Nala (and give the rest a quieter night in the communal room).

We all would have put up with any amount of snoring the following night as we were forced to contend with the most extreme conditions to date.

The day had been fairly low key after a quick detour further up the road from the hotel to check out more of the scenery before we headed out on a two-day trip to Marrakesh.

Our one major stop of the day came at an old casbah at Ait Benhaddou, which has provided the backdrop to a variety of films, among them Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia. There is not an awful lot to see, but it provided an interesting change from the inside of the truck and one out-of-the-blue moment of drama.

As we pushed past the local children attempting to charge us to cross the bridge (well, sacks placed on rocks in the low-flowing river), a scuffle broke out on the far side – the elderly gentleman taking the money to enter taking exception to another guy’s suggestion we sneaked in the back way for free.

No exchange of words this, the older guy brandishing a knife while his younger opponent reached for a rock and two others did their best to keep them apart. They succeeded and, somehow, the guy had miraculously returned to his post to take our entrance money.

That, however, was just the start of the drama.

Far from still - The downpour leaves its mark on the road ahead
Far from still – The downpour leaves its mark on the road ahead

We eventually arrived at our bush camp for the night well after dark and a fair way up the mountain pass which will provide the high point of the whole journey (well, at least in Nala).

Up went the tents as the wind and rain threatened and cook group set about rustling up the evening meal. And then the police arrived.

Not happy with our choice of campsite, they suggested – nay, insisted – it was not safe and we should move to the car park of a guesthouse a little further down the mountain.

After driver Steve was taken down to check out our new digs – and discovered one of their number was a Moroccan rugby international – we packed up our tents in a hurry, rattled through dinner and headed down the mountain.

By which time, the storm had well and truly set in.

We have become dab hands at putting up and taking down our tents fairly quickly. Just not when being buffeted by horizontal rain and huge winds on the side of a mountain.

With the tents up and pegged down as securely as we could manage, there really was little option than to crawl inside, take refuge and listen to what the weather could rustle up.

Throughout a long night, sleep was patchy but thankfully so were the leaks as we waited until we had to brave the elements once more to take our sodden tents down again.

Remarkably, barring a small wet patch in one corner of our tent (nothing to do with an unwillingness to get out to go to the loo during the night), we survived largely intact. Especially remarkable as our tent was sat in the middle of a mini lake as we wrestled to pack it away.

It could all have meant a miserable, subdued morning, but warmed by a cup of tea by the owners of the guest house (and the use of their facilities), we headed off up the mountain in good spirits – albeit not for long.

We had already driven across one waterlogged section when we came across another, more ferocious torrent which even Nala could not just plough through – and which the couple in a car sat there waiting had wisely decided not to tackle as they sat out the night before hoping it would go down.

While they opted to head downhill – and even more issues – we waited long enough for it to subside enough to allow Nala to cross and head over the pass as the storm rolled on.

It all added up to a dramatic morning for those of us who spent it looking out at what little you could see – mostly just sheer drops just off to the side of the road and water rushing everywhere from off the mountain.

But as the road eventually headed downhill towards Marrakesh, the sky finally started to break and the sun peeked out on a whole new experience.

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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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