The geometric shapes and colours of Morroco catch the eye from the instant you step off the plane. In the dry warm night air even the facade of the airport is beautiful and arrivals is a dizzying collection of domes, diamonds and lattice work. This is handy as getting through customs takes a long time. We did arrive late on Saturday (after a 1.5hr delay – apparently Portugal didn’t have a radar?!) So there wasn’t a full contingent of officials, that plus the fact that queues seem to be preferentially chosen rather than obligatory and a large number of passengers looked at the customs form (which we had been given 4hrs previously) with genuine surprise that someone had expected them to fill it in.
Finding our car rental was a kalleidescope of cutural and language hurdles. Officials with machine guns are suprisingly helpful, men and women can’t touch but men wander around hand in hand, everyone loves the fact you are trying to speak arabic, will suggest improvements and then talk to you in French (I negated to try and learn French).
After a good start down the thankfully quiet if highly confusing main roads (lanes appear, like queues, to be used on a whim but are by no means obligatory) we entered Marrakech. We were rescued eventually, after the realisation that roads were not appropriate for cars, by two lads on a moto. The ensuing ‘haggle’ when we finally arrived at the Riad was made easier as it was enjoined by two additional lads who insisted that they had guided us the 30m from the car park and were quite put off by the GPS on my phone. After the slightly stressful arrival we were delighted/embarrassed/grateful that even though we were two hours late, Mohammed and Maria at Riad Konouz had waited up for us with a beautiful homecooked dinner. This was our first experience of the impeccable Moroccan hospitality we were to become accustomed to over the week.
Up early we walked into town to get Dirhams then back to the Riad for a simple breakfast of bread, egg, honey, jam and Amlou (an almond and argon oil based spread); this plus freshly squeezed orange juice and strong coffee also became a regular feature of our days. After we packed up we escaped Marrakech via a supermarket to stock up on water and goods for lunch – the climbing guide being a little vague about the ability to buy stocks once in the anti-atlas (we needn’t have worried but the 12 bottles of water were a worthwhile buy).
If you are heading out like this I would advise having a stock of water and the snacks were highly appreciated on the road, however the bread is best on the day and buying for lunches in advance was unnecessary. Fresh or at most a day in advance is easy – particularly if you’re happy with a simple lunch of bread, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and whatever tins of fish or pate are available from the little local shops. Fresh fruit is abundant, as are dates and almonds so for us this was perfect.
The roads out of Marrakech are of outstanding quality and the (what must be new) A7 to Agadir is smooth, well built and practically empty – the toll coming to around 72dirhams (5GBP). (We came back on the old road and the toll was worth the time on our first day). Kane drove 3.5hrs without a break and it was smooth easy driving – interesting and entertaining certainly on the trip out due to the nature of first time travelling the route.
You start out on a seemingly endless flat plane, dotted with the low growing almond orchards and olive groves. The clear horizon is occasionally punctuated by a single tall date palm. The orange yellow earth seems to stretch endlessly out, but then through a haze in the distance, we realised the clouds on the horizon were the tips of the High Atlas mountains.
The hills start to roll in front of you, greener than expected, unlike the green I am used to – it is more speckled, no less lush but the green is the light rich of the large Prickley Pear Cactus, silver to dark spikey green of the olives and tiny leaves of creeping ground cover. Then the hills on either side are dropping away to deep river gorges – dry stones silver white and yellow dust. And rising on either side are steep snowcapped mountains.
We barely touched the foothills of the High Atlas before we descended again to the astounding flat delta at the end of which sits the city of Agadir, between the mountains and the sea. At this point our navigation took us off the motorway and straight onto a tiny single track dirt road across the river delta. We’re not 100% certain but the fact that we drove through the day after the big Almond festival is probably the only reason the road was open as it did appear to be the main route for a large stone quarry. Either way it was a much more interesting route than going via Agadir and the various Goat farmers clearly thought we were hilarious. From here we joined the main road out of Agadir and it led again quickly into the mountains. The road quality descended from two track to single track tarmac not far from Agadir and the driving style took on a distinct ‘game of chicken’ flavour. Basically the road edge is a tad jagged and at spaces a good 5 inch drop to the gravel, so being slightly concerned about the quality of our hire car tyres we were worried about pulling over. This did not appear to concern the various oncoming locals in everything from 4×4, truck to ancient Renault with 8 passengers. Take it your own way – no one actually hit us although we definitely gave in more often than not. My only advice would be that if it’s a bus or coach get off the road as far as you are able – they do not care.
After passing families picknicing in groves of prickley pears, a field of Camels,
dodging donkey trucks well camoflaged by the 7ft high pile of herbs and grasses, dusty pink villages with their square flat roofs, we rose into the land we were looking for.
The quality and quantity of the climbing in the Anti-Atlas is evident early on – deep ridges and rifts split the mountains; there are distinct rocky crags and mountainous tops. Hairpin bends ensure you descend and rise the sharp edges of the deep valleys, gawping at the quality of the sparkling quartizte. Coming over the mountains to the valley in which the town of Ida Ougnif nestles we were confronted with our accomodation for the second half of the week – the Kasbah Tizourgane is a fortified medieval village (the meaning of the word Kasbah) and rises up out of the middle of the valley. It is breathtaking, but was not for the moment and we took the opportunity to overtake the three campers that stopped (clearly as amazed as we were) in front of it – the little traffic we had found. Over excited and desperate to climb we made our way down another tiny and bump ridden dirt track in Sidi M’zal, the area south east of the Kasbah, to climb a gorgeous route called Çirque de Soleil – one well worth it’s 3 stars. I will not describe the Crag here as we returned on our last day (last day best day). But it is enough to introduce it and to say that it was not 6pm when we set off again towards our base for the next two days – the tiny village of Tandilt. As Kane had spent all day driving and then led a route this meant that my first proper experience of Moroccan driving was playing chicken with the locals in the dark – in all honesty that lack of visibility was probably a good thing. If I could see the drop by the hairpin bends I was going around I would have found the whole thing even more daunting. We arrived in the Ameln valley in the dark to be greeted by Ahmed at Chez Djebel Rose, our tiny one rom apartment, over which (even in the dark) we could see the southern edge of the Jebel El Kest Massive rising steep above us. All this meant that by 8pm on Sunday – less than 24hrs from arriving in Morroco we had experienced hustling, haggling, hospitality, Tagines, fresh dates and olives, driving, climbing, camels, the mountains, the plains, the palms and the prickley pears. Sleep was necessary and there was still so much more to come.