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Week 7 in Morocco


In Week 7 we crossed the High Atlas Mountains between Taroudant and Marrakech via the infamous R203 road over the Tizi N’Test pass.  The scenery was simply outstanding and the scary moments with other traffic were frequent.  Google Maps suggests this might take nearly five hours.  In reality, allow twice that.  Click to enlarge map.

As we climb the high passes of the High-Atlas mountains we experience new peaks of astonishment at the scenery around, then plunge to the deepest depths of despair and darkness at events half a world away in our home country of New Zealand.

We experience a roller coaster of emotions that have us loving Morocco and her people even more, but feeling that we should leave as soon as possible for our own safety.

While the events at home cannot be changed and forever scar our memories, we gladly report that any concerns for our safety are unfounded and we continue to feel safe, appreciated and very welcome here in Morocco.

The week’s post is different from previous chapters in that (apart from this opening), it is light on words and heavy on photos.


Taroudant to Tizi N’Test Pass – Climbing Goats and High Alpine Passes

The R203 road is known for being a little difficult.  Narrow and worn out, it winds sinuously up to 2,100 metres and guarantees the driver (and passenger) some interesting and hair-raising moments, especially when meeting on-coming traffic.  We are travelling together with our German friends, Roger and Andy, just in case either one of us runs into trouble.

Don’t just take my word on the R203 being a little suspect.  Here is a report from someone who is an expert on dangerous roads.

Soon after leaving Taroudant, we are privileged to see that ‘only in Morocco’ sight of a flock of goats grazing on foliage and nuts high up in the argan trees.  We saw this briefly once before, but this time we are able to get up close and take some great photos. If you want to read about argan trees, why they are so important and what is so special about argan oil then click here.

Haven’t you seen a goat before?

Getting close and personal with the goats

We ascend an unexpectedly good road with spectacular views back towards Taroudant.

The views as we begin our ascent

We spoke too soon about the good road and like the flick of a switch it deteriorates to a single lane of rough asphalt with some nasty drop offs.

The R203 deteriorates into a narrow strip of worn out asphalt

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Climbing higher, the views are even better but the air in the distance grows hazy, which often seems to be the case in Morocco due to dust whipped up by the wind.

High on the R203, the views are spectacular

There are a couple of places along the road where you can fill up with crystal clear mountain water. It’s worth taking this road with empty water tanks just so you can fill at this mountain waterfall.  The local man sitting by the side of the road was selling herbs for tea.

Some more great photos can be snapped especially where the rocks overhang the road.

Our motorhomes by the waterfall

Betsy under the overhanging rocks

The R203 – How long will that rock stay up there?

At 2,100 metres we reach the top of the Tizi N’Test pass and find our sleeping place for the night at Mustapha’s Auberge (GPS 30.86839, -8.37922), for 80 dirhams.  Mustapha apparently makes one of the best Berber omelettes in the business and after dinner, there are no arguments from us.

 Motorhome parking on Tizi N’Test Pass

Berber omelettes for all

In the early morning, the air clears to allow some photographs down both sides of the Tizi N’Test Pass.

Pink skies looking south from Tizi N’Test

Golden light as the sun hits the peaks

Looking north to the road ahead

Tizi N’Test Pass to Asni

Our journey continues from the Tizi’N Test Pass on the R203 which is still very narrow at times and with some nasty broken shoulders on both sides.  The traffic however is a lot heavier which means some careful passing is required.

As we continue, the evidence of long-ago geological events appear,  We suddenly have a rainbow of colours showing in the rocks and strata of the mountains around us.  It reminds me of the pink, white and chocolate ‘Neapolitan’ ice cream we used to buy in two litre tubs as kids back in New Zealand.

Neopolitan ice cream mountains

We wind down following a wide river valley, passing ruining buildings and seeing slashes of green terraced hillsides wherever the life-giving water has emerged for humans to exploit.

Abandoned restaurant – someone’s lost dream?

Terraced hillsides wherever water shows

Looking down the R203 and the green river valley

Bottoming out in a wide flood plain we look back up at the mountain range we just drove through.

View back up the High Atlas Mountains towards Tizi n’Test

The Tinmel Mosque, a short diversion off the R203, is a historically important structure.  With roots dating back to the 11th century, it is lovingly restored and well worth a visit.  (GPS 30.984639, -8.228157).  A small donation to the guardian for the mosque is expected.

Tinmel Mosque – now restored

The arches provide interest for photographers

As we follow the river Oued N’Fis downstream it gradually swells from a mere trickle to something substantial, finally terminating in a large hydroelectric lake.

The Oued N’Fis River becomes a hydroelectric area called Lake Ouirgane

We haven’t wild camped (read our general guide to wild camping here) much in Morocco, but tonight looks like a good time to give it a try.  We set our sights on a nice looking picnic spot from the App Park4Night.  Parking up, we gaze into one of the most awe-inspiring valley views we have seen. (GPS 31.185601,-8.064748 ).  However, sleeping here was not to be…..

Ouirgane – one of the most awesome views so far

Within 30 minutes, the local chief of police rolls up with an interpreter to explain that they cannot guarantee our safety and we can’t stay.  This spot is only about 16km from the area where two Scandinavian girls were murdered a few months back and the local police are now very cautious.

They fortunately offer to give us a police escort to a local auberge or hotel, ‘Chez Momo II’ which allows us to spend the night in their car park.  We were a little aggrieved at not being able to stay in our chosen location but on the other hand, we feel ‘looked after’ by the police and locals.

Chez Momo II is a lovely private auberge with stunning views and decorated with original Berber artefacts.  We find out the next day that ‘Chez Momo I’ was submerged nearly fifteen years ago, along with three villages under the nearby hydroelectric lake.

Betsy’s scenic parking spot

The view from Chez Momo II over Lake Ouirgane

Tragedy Strikes at Home

Today we are in mourning for New Zealand, Australia and Muslims around the world.

An Australian living in New Zealand murders 50 Muslim men, women and children in two mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Totally senseless and horrific, this event is touched with irony for us.  Yesterday we were being treated with the utmost respect by the local Muslims who were concerned about our safety.  Today, in New Zealand, Muslims were being slaughtered.  Disgusting.  We are absolutely devastated to hear this news and spend the day in a state of shock.

Our reaction is one of shame, and also concern that there may be some in Morocco with extremist leanings feeling that a revenge killing of New Zealanders would be appropriate.  We take measures to hide our identity by covering over the ‘New Zealand’ decals we have been so proudly displaying on Betsy. Maybe this is an over-reaction, but it is how we feel at the time.  We remove the camouflage a few days later.

Sadly de-identifying ourselves as ‘Kiwis’

We ask the manager whether it is okay for us to stay another night as we are too upset to drive.  Once again, the gentle Moroccan hospitality shines through as he commiserates with us and allows us to stay.

(Not so) Magnificent Marrakech

The R203 continues onto Marrakech but without the stunning mountain and gorge scenery we have been used to.  The river bed at Al Haouz with the view back to the snow capped peaks was worth stopping and admiring.

Al Haouz, with vendor stalls, horses and snowy mountains

We are looking forward to seeing the fabled city of Marrakech but having heard mixed reviews from other travellers, we are determined to make up our own minds.  We find some guarded parking (we wouldn’t recommend) not far from the Medina and take our cycles in for a look at the markets and souks.  We have to try a sugar cane and lemon juice drink – it’s just one of those things you need to do once in Morocco.  How cool is it when they run the sugar cane through the rollers and the juice comes out?  As we drink, we know that the sugar content is off the charts but the lemon juice keeps the sweetness down.

Clothes Market

Mouthwatering display of olives and lemons

A dentist’s dream – sugar cane drink

Some of the backstreets are very picturesque and it’s worth waiting for everyone to clear off so you can take an unobstructed photo.

Marrakech backstreet gem

Once we hit the UNESCO World Heritage site of the main Jemaa-el-Fna Square, everything is rather chaotic.  The square abounds with snake charmers, monkey handlers, fortune tellers, fruit juice sellers, people wandering around in their national costume and crowds of tourists.  However, it doesn’t take long to realise that most of the people have just one thing in mind – to separate you from your money.

Over the two days we wandered the streets and markets of Marrakech, at times we really enjoy the atmosphere and sights.  More often however, we are weary of the attention from beggars, the continual efforts to rip us off and the busyness, hustle and bustle.  It is in Marrakech that for the first time we had to put our bikes into guarded parking, as well as lock them up.  We couldn’t go to an ATM because there were very aggressive beggars hassling anyone taking out money (four of them)!  We eventually retire to the top floor of the L’Adresse Café where a bird’s eye view gives us ample opportunity to watch the action from a safe, unharassed distance.

Marrakech – Jemaa-el-Fna Square

We visit the El Badi Palace which is worth a look for the incredible painted woodwork, intricate masonry and extensive mosaics.  Try to get there early and avoid the crowds if you want to takes some ‘people-free’ photos.

El Badi Palace courtyard

Amazing intricate painted wood ceiling panels

The local car park tried to overcharge us for parking our bikes.  Then an elderly fruit seller first overcharged us, then didn’t want to hand over our change (we got our money back and bought elsewhere).  After two days of this type of thing, the level of annoyance with the negative experiences outweighed any positive feelings we had.  That was enough of Marrakech for us!

Sorry that this hasn’t turned into a ’12 Best Things to Day in Marrakech” blog but you can find lots of those on the internet.

Weekly Costs

Food, both groceries and eating out, expenses were higher than usual due to hanging out with friends.  We managed to taste all sorts of things that we wouldn’t have otherwise, which was fabulous.

Our running average cost of living for a week in Morocco is about €220 (NZ$365 or £188).

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Tune in next week as we leave Marrakech and visit the impressive waterfalls and monkeys at Ouzoud, the lovely town and medina at Meknes, and the unexpected extensive Roman ruins at Volubilis.

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