Sunday, 16 February 2014

Land Cruising: March in Morocco

During our first 18 months of the cruising life on Spray, we have come to realize that sailing in Europe (including the Mediterranean) means that our live-aboard lifestyle will be limited to 6-7 months of the year.  Rather than resign ourselves to 6 months of relative hibernation with an occasional cold wet blustery sail to local areas already thoroughly explored, we decided to use our winter months to “land cruise,” to explore parts of the world not easily accessible by sail. 

And nothing says “opposite of winter sailing” like the Sahara Desert.

At the end of February, we will head off for a one-month circuit of Morocco.  Land cruising has a lot in common with sea cruising: stage planning, decisions based on weather, self-sufficiency and coping with surprises, managing long-distance and often troublesome communications, the excitement of discovery and a bit of anxiety about the unknown.  Let's hope it doesn't also include emergecy repairs to a diesel engine. 

For Morocco, we’ve been warned about aggressive hawkers, harassment, pickpockets, terrorists, corrupt police and their surprise inspections of tourists’ cars (looking for, and always finding, infractions), poor roads, infectious water, unsanitary conditions, and pedestrians who decide to throw themselves into the path of tourists’ cars in order to get an indemnity for bodily injury (payable on the spot).  I suspect this last one is a sort of gung-ho traveller’s legend, along with the one that warns of men who throw nail-studded planks under your car to burst your tires and then direct you to their cousin’s garage, conveniently located just around the corner. 

But we’ve heard far more compelling stories about the breathtaking beauty of the country, its historical and cultural marvels, and the legendary warmth and hospitality of its people.  Edith Wharton said it best: “One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.”  That’s gotta be worth a friendly bribe or two.

Our Morocco Circuit: starting in Marrakesh and traveling roughly counter-clockwise

We’ll begin our circuit in Marrakesh, a World Heritage site chosen for its masterpieces of North African architecture and art, with its labyrinth of narrow streets, bazaars and souks, palaces, gardens, ramparts, and squares, clothed in an overdose of colours, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations that our French guidebook calls “violent”.  We fully expect to be overwhelmed in both good and bad ways.

The Atlantic Coast
Leaving behind the bustle of Marrakesh, we’ll cross over to the Atlantic coast, stopping first in port city Essaouira, a World Heritage site also known as Mogador, the ancient Portuguese military and trading port that linked North Africa to Europe beginning in the 16th century.  Today Essaouira is a seaside tourist destination particularly appreciated for its beaches and ever-present winds (great for wind surfing), its medina (old city center) and fish market, and its art and North African music scene.  From here, we will wander up the Atlantic coast, taking in the beauty of the rugged coastline and making short stops in Oualidia (called the St. Tropez of Morocco by one guidebook) and Safi (known for its artisan pottery quarter) on our way to the historical fortified Portuguese port city of El Jadida, yet another World Heritage site.

Rabat and the Imperial Cities
Continuing up the Atlantic coast and circumventing Casablanca (saw the movie), we will begin exploring the Imperial Cities, the historic capitals of Morocco.  Along with Marrakech, Rabat, Fez and Meknes make up the quartet, with Rabat serving as Morocco’s current capital.  Rabat is also a World Heritage site, heralded for its unique early 20th century town planning that harmoniously mixes the old and the new, protecting the architectural treasures of the Maghreb culture in a thoroughly contemporary city.

Leaving Rabat, we will head west to Meknes and Fez, with stops in Volubilis (largest site of Roman ruins in Morocco) and Moulay-Idriss (holy city and sanctuary of the first Muslim sultan).  The medina of Meknes, a World Heritage site, will be a warm up for the World Heritage city of Fez, considered to be the jewel of Moroccan culture, not only for its rich architectural and artistic heritage, but also for its historic role as the birthplace of religious and intellectual thought and home to the oldest university in the world.

Middle and High Atlas Mountains to the Ziz Gorge
Having gorged ourselves on culture in the first part of our voyage, we will begin moving south, climbing over the Middle and High Atlas Mountains to explore the marvels of mother nature.  Our first stop is Azrou and one of the largest cedar forests in North Africa, home to both large populations of nesting storks and Barbary apes.  The next few stages will depend on the weather, as snow can still be a problem in the high mountain passes during late February and early March.  From Azrou, if weather permits, we will push on to Midelt at an altitude of 1488 meters. This altitude and a handful of gemstone vendors are the highlights of Midelt.  However, Midelt is blessed by its location along National Route 13, approximately 4 hours’ drive from Fez, which is the limit we set ourselves for maximum daily travel time.  From Midelt, we climb briefly into the High Atlas Mountains before beginning a slow descent to the Ziz Gorge area, nestled between arid desert mountains, palm oasis, and the river bed. 

The Southern Oasis Region to the Sahara Desert
Ar-Rachidia marks the end of the Ziz Gorge area and the beginning of the Southern Oasis route to Tafilalt, the largest oasis region of Morocco.  On the road map, this route is shown as a string of green valleys dotted with palm trees in a sea of arid desert landscapes.  At the end of this route is the town of Merzouga on the edge of the Erg Chebbi (Chebbi dunes), one of only a small number of dune systems of the Sahara Desert in Morocco.  We will stay one night in a family pension in Merzouga and then head off on camels into the dunes to spend a night in a tent village campsite under the stars.  We were warned that unaccustomed western butts can only take 2 hours of camel riding per day, so we will only venture out a little distance one day, back the next.

The Gorges to the Atlas Mountain Hollywood
From here we’ll head east along the High Atlas valley to two gorgeous gorge areas, Todra (night stop in Tinerhir) and Dades (night stop in Boumalne), continuing eastward along the serpentine route through the Dades valley to the cities of Skoura, Ouarzazate and Ait-Benhaddou.  After several days spent absorbing the dazzling natural splendour of the Atlas mountains and southern oasis region, Ouarzazate promises to be a complete change of pace.  It’s principle claim to fame is the Atlas Film Studios, a favourite Hollywood backdrop for desert-inspired films, including Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Man Who Would Be King, The Mummy, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, The Kingdom of Heaven, Kundun, and Game of Thrones, among others.  To avoid the shock of transition from natural splendour to commercial kitch, we’ll push on to the World Heritage fortress village of Ait-Benhaddou located along the ancient caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakesh. 

The Anti-Atlas
Leaving the valley (a relative term at over 1000m elevation) at Ait-Benhaddou, we will begin our climb up over the Anti-Atlas Mountains (weather permitting) through the Tizi-n-Bachkoum pass (1700m), past the town of Tazenakht (brief stop to visit the carpet weaving cooperatives), then east over the Tizi-n-Ikhsane (1650m) and Tizi-n-Taghatine (1886m) passes to the town of Taliouine, the saffron capital of Morocco.  Continuing eastward and down, we will head to Taroudant, the “little Marrakech” and the nearby palm oasis at Tioute.   

The Big Decision
From Taroudant, we have a big decision to make, depending on the weather, our level of fatigue, and our courage.  To reach Marrakesh, we have two options.  One is to take the highway east to the coastal port city of Agadir and then head west on another highway to Marrakesh.  The other option is to head directly up and over the High Atlas mountains through the Tizi-n-Test pass (2092 m), one of the most spectacular mountain routes in Morocco but also one listed on a web-site called “dangerous roads dot org”.  Friends have done it and said that if the roads are passable, this can be done in a basic rental car and is not particularly difficult if you have nerves of steel and liberally use your horn.  If the roads are not passable, there is a barricade system that officially shuts them down before you get too far down the road.  If we do make it over, we’ll stop at the 12th century Tin Mel mosque and spend a night either in Ijoukak or in the Alps-like town of Ouirgane.  Total driving time, depending on Patrick’s nerves, weather and road conditions, will be between 5-8 hours (225 km) with lots of stops. We may take up smoking for this stretch.  Otherwise, the mostly uninteresting tourist megapole of Agadir and its warm year-round beaches will be our last stop before completing the loop back to Marrakesh.         

We have no intention of taking a computer with us on this trip, so reports from the road will have to wait until we get back or for the occasional internet cafĂ© or connection from a hotel computer.  I’m excited about that aspect of being out there, disconnected and off-line, although we will try to be diligent about sending a little email home when we can to ward off the worries.