Table of Contents
Day 8: Fes; Monday 4 Feb
Today was a much needed admin day after a big day out in the medina of Fes yesterday.
The afternoon saw us jump on our bikes and head into the Carrefour supermarket. While we were out, we hunted down an electric fan heater as the nights are cold here and we don’t want to use our motorhome heating because we have to conserve our LPG to make it last two months.
The ride into town was thankfully fairly uneventful while we rode in with Kaz and Nik our camping neighbours. Unlike the great cycle paths we became accustomed to in Europe, here you are forced to use the roads, as even the footpaths are not suitable for bikes.
We headed back to the camping ground and lunch was now long overdue. As often seems to be the case with us, we couldn’t find any eating place en route that attracted enough of our interest to inspire us to stop. As we had plenty of food back in Betsy, that was no problem.
Tonight we have been treated to a cooking class and Nik and Kaz’ motorhome by our guide Wafi. He is making a beef and prune Tagine with fruit for dessert.
For the recipe click here.
The almost finished product
Day 9: Azrou; Tuesday 5th Feb
It was time to move on today and we pointed south to Azour. We had read ahead of time that they hold their souk (market day) on a Tuesday and we were hoping to arrive in time to experience our first one in Morocco.
On the drive to Azour we climbed high into the mountains. Being such a clear day we stopped at the top to take a photograph. Here we had our first of many experiences of roadside stalls with vendors selling all manner of fossils and mineral stones. The kind gentleman showed us several gorgeous specimens, which look like any ordinary stone from the outside but when opened revealed a hollow centre lined with crystals in vibrant silver, green or purple. I couldn’t resist and for €10 we came away with a lovely purple crystal stone and a polished quartz egg-shaped rock (we call this shape eggular). The seller wanted to swap clothes for his wares but Alan doesn’t have excess clothes so we politely declined.
We resumed our journey, climbing the steep mountain passes and inevitably came across slow-moving fully laden trucks. Picture the scene as Alan indicates to pass uphill. Betsy isn’t the most powerful of vehicles but we eventually built up speed. He pulled out to pass and halfway through the manoeuvre we heard a toot. A car is passing us… as we are passing the truck… uphill on a narrow windy road… with the straight road ahead rapidly disappearing! There was nowhere for us to go safely except to continue passing. The car driver did the same while fists appeared out from every window. We all passed safely (phew) and the car slowed down and appeared as if it is going to stop. The passengers in the backseat continued to stare at us. This could be an interesting situation developing and I cautioned Alan to not stop under any circumstances; thankfully the driver continues driving onwards.
That was a close call!
We arrived into the salubrious castle themed Emirates Tourist Centre (GPS coordinates 33.44348, -5.19062), a Camping ground of much visual grandeur (on first impressions anyway). It’s a pity they had no hot water, the men’s toilets were locked, there was no toilet paper, and both the reception and restaurant were closed. At 80 dirhams per night it was the cheapest we had stayed in so far but the lack of facilities wouldn’t have supported any higher fee. It wasn’t until we had a look around this camping ground that we realised there had been no cooking facilities available in any site we had come across to date. That won’t help with reducing our gas consumption. Luckily though, we bought a cheap stand-alone electric hot plate in Spain prior to catching the ferry so we can do most of our cooking on that. This is a good tip for anyone with the refillable LPG gas system planning on touring Morocco for an extended period of time.
Off come the bikes and we coast down the steep hills for the four-kilometre ride to see the town’s souk. Unfortunately for us we seem to have arrived as things were packing up.
We need cash and after trying two ATM’s we finally find one prepared to accept our Qantas Australia cash card and dispense some much needed cash. There are limits on how much the ATM’s can dispense at one time and although the menu offers options to request up to 4,000 dirhams, none seem to cough up more than $2,000 Dirham! Humph! It’s a bit annoying when your cash card provider charges A$2.50 per transaction but you can’t take out a decent wad of cash in one go. Never mind, we are in Africa and this is a cost of being here and is somewhat insignificant in the big picture. Another pro-tip – we tried our cash card in several bank ATM’s, all of which wanted to charge a fee in dirhams for dispensing our cash. However, the Poste Maroc ATM’s were free to use so we now look out for them. We had a similar experience in Turkey where the Post Office ATM’s were also fee free.
We bought a couple of pastries and bread then made our way back to the campsite. Our attention was taken by some delicious looking rotisserie chickens in a roadside restaurant and with fond memories of the succulent, crisp birds we were able to buy in Istanbul for a pittance, we enquired about the price. Maybe they quoted tourist prices or maybe they wanted to charge full restaurant prices but we decided that the price tag of 80 dirhams was too rich for us. Remember we bought a three-course meal for 45 dirhams in Fes just last week!
As we trekked back up the steep hill ever grateful for electric bikes, we thought back to the extreme hill-climb up to the Rock of Gibraltar where even with electric assistance we still needed to get off and push at times. These hills have nothing on that experience.
Back at the camping ground I settled down to write for the next five hours while Alan cooked dinner and cleaned up. What a great husband I have.
Day 10: Jurassique; Wednesday 6th Feb
Happy Waitangi Day to us. For our non-New Zealand readers, Waitangi Day is New Zealand’s National Holiday, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the indigenous people of NZ (the Maori) and England.
We left Azrou today, heading for Camping Jurassique in the picturesque Ziz Valley. Apparently the camping ground there has a free washing machine. Isn’t it funny how something so basic can attract many motorhomers to their site?
Our first stop was for diesel and then we were on the road again. We started climbing into the hills and Alan pulled off to the side to let the build up of cars behind us pass. We then realised we had an unwanted passenger! A young lad on roller skates had hitched a ride by hanging off the back of Betsy. Once we came to a stop, he had let go and was on his way back down the hill. Wow, that was somewhat frightening and now we are aware to look out for such unwanted company.
Our first stop was to view Barbary apes in the wild. They are located in the Cedre Gouraud Forest (GPS coordinates 33.4263 -5.1555). The narrow rough access road is lined with snow and meeting any on-coming traffic required one vehicle (usually us) to pull off the road to one side. As we pulled into the guarded parking area, an elderly toothless man asked for the 5 dirham parking fee and also if he can have Alan’s shoes. Nice try mate. We explain that Alan only has one pair and he accepted that graciously. Plus he would have swum in Alan’s size 11 shoes.
All manner of micro commercial enterprises have sprung up based around the ape hangout. Men have horses available for riding and a small Shetland pony is taken out from the back of an ordinary van like you would carry a dog. The owner wanted me to have my photo taken with the pony and I oblige. That’s how they make their money here. Another man wanted me to climb onto a horse that was stamping and whinnying and making a big fuss. No thanks! Further in, a man is selling bags of unshelled peanuts but Alan didn’t connect the peanuts with the apes and declined to buy some. Thankfully another family had come to feed the apes with their purchased peanuts, which brought them close enough for us to photograph.
The track to the apes is lined with what looks like a shanty town of stalls selling handmade cedar woodcrafts and also the usual (now) fossils and minerals. They make their stalls out of any materials they can find which makes for some interesting architecture.
We manage to avoid buying anything today.
Barbary Apes In The Wild
Alan wanted to take a road shown on Google Maps as a shortcut to save ten kilometres or so but one look at the road had us in stitches. Not even if our life depended on it could we get Betsy up that track!
Don’t Worry Betsy We’re Not Taking You Up There
As we arrived at the plateau the scenery continued to impress. Snow topped mountains in the distance stood tall and proud behind red soil in the foreground. The remnants of the recent snow lingered on the ground wherever it was shaded by trees or cliffs.
Life appears harsh up here. Housing is oftentimes in the form of makeshift looking huts or shacks. One had plastic and sticks for their roof. Intermittent roadside stalls sell whatever the locals have available, often eggs and fossils; there are plenty of those here.
The road took us through more townships, some enjoying their weekly souk and are generally in fair condition, but with sections of rough, potholed tarmac with crumbling edges. I was happy to have our tyre pressure sensor system to give us fair warning of a puncture or slow leak, as you wouldn’t want to have a blow out on this sort of terrain. A lot of
Virtually every day we drive we see an accident and today was no exception. An old Citroen car had rolled leaving his bonnet behind. People from all around were offering assistance as we crawled past the scene.
We had a few close calls today with traffic. Aside from the young lad who hitched a ride earlier, we then narrowly escaped a head-on – someone passing an oncoming car but misjudged the distance. Later, two vehicles overtaking a slow truck in front of us had seemingly
There is always something to see in these remote rugged roads, from flocks of sheep with their shepherds to donkeys carrying their owner as well as bundles of animal feed or twigs for cooking.
We left at 12.30 for a 211 kilometre journey. While our GPS said the driving time should have been y hours, it actually took us 5 hours 24 minutes due partly to the difficult roads and slow trucks, but also because the amazing and unique scenery compelled us to stop repeatedly to take it all in and capture the moments on camera.
We arrived at Jurassique Camping (GPS coordinates 32.15406, -4.37628) in the Ziz Gorge as dusk approached, with the last of the day’s sun kissing the brown dusty mountain tops.
Alan took the opportunity to throw on a load of washing which dried with no problem overnight despite the low temperatures.
I headed off to the showers and picked the only one where the shower rose is actually hanging on the wall. The water only trickled out warmly but I’m not complaining. We reckon that many of the houses we have passed on our long journey here today wouldn’t even have running water, let alone hot running water.
With us settled in for the night, it was time to make dinner and connect with family over Skype. The internet here is reasonable and enables us to keep in touch.
The Camping Ground It All Its Glory
Day 11: Erg Chebbi; Thursday 7th Feb
Last night’s camping ground had very little around it to keep us there for more than one night and we head off. We wind through the outstanding beauty of the Ziz Valley with constant exclamations at new sights of natural beauty or interesting buildings. The arid hills stand proud and tall while small townships blend into the countryside with their brown mud bricks which are literally made from the surrounding lands. These houses are not built to last and the rain and wind immediately start the process of returning the walls back into mud and sand. Everywhere we see a mixture of new buildings, partially decayed structures, and long abandoned remnants.
Over countless thousands of years, the Ziz river has carved out large canyons through the countryside. At times the river disappears entirely then emerges again allowing an oasis to bloom at the bottom of the valley. Civilisation grasps at this opportunity for life and mud-brick houses and townships grace the edge of the greenery. Date palms line up in groves and evidence of individual gardens can be spotted.
We came across a large supermarket (Acima, GPS coordinates 31.9305 -4.4529) and replenished supplies of meat and other hard to find essentials, such as glass cleaner. They stocked a good range of groceries and it was well worth a stop before heading further south where larger supermarkets are sparse. Their vegetables, however, looked somewhat secondhand so we gave them a wide berth. That proved to be a good idea as later Alan bought a whole bag full of veges and a loaf of bread for 13.50 dirham (€1.25).
Our planned stopping point tonight was at a camping ground that backed straight onto the Sahara Desert sand dunes at Erg Chebbi. Following the GPS coordinates in our sat nav, we were directed off the main road and across a barely made piste (compacted dirt and gravel) track towards the dunes. Betsy was not made for this sort of rough road and none of us enjoyed the deep ruts and sand. Tip – if you are venturing down here and your GPS tells you to travel off-road then carry on for a couple more kilometres to Mertzouga where you can double back on an asphalt road that takes you closer to the campsite.
As we got closer to the GPS coordinates on the sat nav, it became apparent that the roads shown on the screen did not actually exist and were actually a web of rough sandy tracks. We followed the directions as best we could until we faced an uphill incline of soft sand, which Alan refused to risk. I got out, had a look around and saw some motorhomes on the next site over so backed out in search of joining them.
A few more sand tracks later we arrived. Haven La Chance (GPS coordinates 31.13488, -4.01594) is a large site incorporating an Auberge (accommodation), a restaurant and a very large area for campers which extends into the sand dunes, and gosh how stunning is this place?
We were asked how long we will stay because they have a large group of Dutch motorhomers coming in on Wednesday 13th February. As it was Thursday 7th February, we knew we would be well gone by then. ‘Just a couple of days’ Alan said in broken French and all was good. The couple turned into six nights.
With a sense of excitement we nabbed the perfect spot overlooking the sand dunes so we could soak up the view in front of us. Never before had we been in such an unique location. We really felt as though we were in the Sahara desert, that nothing else in the world mattered. This stunning view had to be from a movie set. We walked into the dunes to assure ourselves that it was genuine and after returning with half an inch of sand in our shoes we can guarantee its authenticity.
Ali, the brother of Hamed the boss, is in control here and treats us to a tour of the site. Ali, according to his older brother, is ex military and displays his military efficiency when proudly directing each vehicle into exactly the right position, ensuring maximum happiness for the punters. There really isn’t a wrong place to park as the view is simply magnificent no matter where you look.
The facilities here are excellent with three large unisex showers big enough for two people and three European style toilets. They even have a very enticing full swimming pool, which would have been tempting to dive into had the temperature been a few degrees warmer.
The nights here are cool, about 6C and during the day it climbs up to 25C. The air is dry, the humidity is about 11 per cent. I could feel the parched air playing havoc with my skin, making me reach for the moisturiser regularly. My hair was frizzy with static electricity and my nails chip, crack and snap off at the slightest touch of something too hard. I wouldn’t have traded this for anything though, it’s a small price to pay for soaking up the winter desert.
Evening and morning are the best times to see the sand dunes as the light provides shadows giving depth to the valleys and crests. The clear air and total lack of light pollution result in a night sky bursting with stars which delighted us with a mixture of yellow, orange, pink and blue hues. The longer we look, the more colours expose themselves.
We can’t believe we are here, in the Sahara Desert, in all its glory. I stand in awe, jaw dropped and excitement in my loins.
I can now see why Ali was concerned that we might still be here when the Dutch party arrives on the 13th. Apparently is it common for people to plan on a short visit but then fall in love with the place and never want to leave. Most of our neighbours have been here for many days, some weeks and others even reported they had been here since November last year – four months and counting. It’s the perfect way to escape the harsh bitter northern European winters and why wouldn’t you?
Our View For The Next Six Days
Day 12: Still at Erg Chebbi; Friday 8 Feb 2019
Dawn’s first light appears about 7am and the sun peaks its head up over the dunes soon after 8am. Alan braved the cool morning air to shoot some stunning photographs of yet more sunrises. There’s something rather special about this one however – it’s the Sahara!
The morning sun gives colour to the sand like no other time.
Today was for relaxing and catch up on some downtime. There is a special stillness, peace and beauty out here that just makes you want to stop and drink in the experience.
Alan sent some photos onto our Moroccan Messenger Group (Zoe, Tommy, Helena & Harkin) and we soon heard back that Helena and Harkin are making their way to us and will be here tomorrow. After we all went our own way at Chefchaouen a week or so ago, Helena and Harkin headed to the west coast before now coming back across to the eastern side. We are travelling much more slowly down to the south of Morocco before crossing over to the west. Their impending visit has us excited to be seeing them again.
The evening sunsets are equally impressive over the dunes.
Day 13: Still at Erg Chebbi; Saturday 9 Feb
What better place to have breakfast than in the desert on a stunning, mild morning with blue skies over rolling sand dunes. Alan made us a yummy breakfast of local turkey sausages and eggs. The red sausage meat is highly spiced and absolutely delicious. Make sure you put this on your shopping list if you like sausages.
Check Out That Breakfast View
We heard some scratching sounds and looked to see a rather large dung beetle scurrying about his business. They make cool tracks in the sand behind them.
The town shops included quad bike rentals (although at 300 dirham an hour they aren’t cheap to hire), a couple of supermarkets, one selling telecom data recharge codes (phew), but no ice cream. What do you expect, Ruth? There are also cafes and restaurants offering tagines and mint tea. We stopped off at a fruit and vege shop to find old looking wrinkled aubergines that would be headed for the bin in most other countries, but out here where very little grows beggars can’t be choosers. The butchers shop had some variety of meat in his cabinet and other, fresher looking, veges that we take note of should we need a top up.
Every village has at least one mosque, usually with red or white minarets silhouetted against the crystal clear blue desert sky.
The roads in the town are compacted sand, the buildings a mixture of mudbrick and straw. Some of the newer constructions are smooth plastered, the exterior painted in shades of terracotta.
Everyone was friendly, greeting us with either ‘bonjour’ (French for hello) or the Arabic greeting ‘Salaam’, or occasionally the longer version Salaam Alaykum (which literally translates as ‘and unto you peace’) but also means hello. French and Arabic are the two main languages spoken with Berber coming in a close third. The Berber languages are spoken only, there is no written form and this is verbally handed down from generation to generation.
With wallet firmly intact, and shopping bags empty, apart from an internet data top up, we returned to the camping ground to find Helena and Harkin (as well as the famous Lovis, their adorable King Charles Spaniel and Poodle Cross dog) had arrived. It was great to see them again and they too were in awe of the impressive views before them.
Day 14: Yet again still in Erg Chebbi; Sunday 10 Feb
We’re still here, and can you blame us? Alan woke up early and put the new electric heater on to ward off the chilled desert night air. The heater, however, is struggling to put out much heat and the electric kettle is taking an age to boil water. A quick check with an electrical meter reveals another problem we had been warned about in Morocco – low voltage. The voltage at the plug hovers around 186V, which is the cause of the low heat output and slow water boiling. He also discovers that our fridge/freezer won’t run properly on the poor power supply and keeps switching back to using gas.
Apparently seasoned travellers to Morocco take with them a transformer, for about €60, which can transform the low voltage into a guaranteed 220V supply.
One of the reasons we stay in camping grounds is to conserve gas as there’s nowhere to refill our Gaslow LPG tanks. It appears, however, that there is usually enough electric supply for the fridge during the night and if we are not running anything else or having lights switched on. Welcome to Africa.
We had a laid back day again today, giving our weary travellers time to recover from a big drive yesterday. It’s not only long distances that takes it out of you when driving around here, but it’s also the mental energy of always being on the look out, navigating roads that range from excellent tarmac surfaces to crumbling edges to narrow one lane roads being used as two lanes. Then there’s the traffic, the dodgy overtaking, the slow truck and locals that drive seemingly head on not pulling over and expecting the foreigners to make way for them, or so it seems. Moving through small villages one always has to be mindful of people, cyclists, vendors with carts, donkeys and dogs wandering about on the road anywhere, anytime. We were brought up to think that roads were for cars, however here, the road is for anyone and anything and vehicles seem to have no precedence.
Interestingly enough the road toll in Morocco is about 3,800 per annum which equates to 209 per 100,000 vehicles on the road. Compare this with New Zealand which has 12.2 deaths per 100,000 vehicles and the United Kingdom with 5.1 deaths per 100,000 vehicles. These statistics put into perspective the dangers of driving here in Morocco and the discerning driver must stay alert at all times.
Onto more pleasant topics, Helena made a sponge cake to enjoy for morning tea and we sit in the warm sun chatting about life and winter conditions in Morocco. They heard from family back in Sweden that there is a foot of snow on the ground. We laughed while drinking our tea and tucking into another piece of freshly baked delicious cake.
The next decision we had to make, in our difficult lives, is what tour do we want to experience. We have three options from the campsite, a sunset or sunrise camel ride into the desert for 300 dirhams (€27, NZ$46) each, an overnight self-drive quad bike ride into the desert staying in tents for 500 dirhams each (€46, NZ$76) or a full day visiting several different locations in an air-conditioned fully enclosed vehicle with a driver for 1200 dirhams per vehicle (€111, NZ$168). We opt for the latter, not only due to the excellent value when split four ways, but also because of the variety it offers. Four of us, plus Lovis, can all enjoy a tour starting at 10am through to 3.30pm. We booked this in for the next day. Oh boy, are we in for a treat?
Stay tuned for our desert tour in next week’s blog and find out about Ruth’s driving experience in Morocco – I know right, especially after sharing the stats for driving here.
Costs for Weeks 1 & 2
As you can see there wasn’t a lot to spend money on in week 2 with diesel and camping grounds being the two biggest (if you can call them that) expenses. However with over 80% of our time spent wild camping, it’s unusual for us to exceed our €50 per month camping ground budget, until now.
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