Srinivas Annamaraju travelled to Morocco with Rickshaw in December last year. We were thrilled when he wrote us a blog about his trip and shared his travel photos with us on his return. Enjoy!
“So here I am, writing this blog sitting in a Bivouac in the middle of the Sahara at the Eastern end of the country, where the desert starts and spreads itself. A chance web search led me to an interesting sounding travel agency called Rickshaw Travel, who seemed to be different from the others in the trade, with their advisors being quite knowledgeable about the country, having been there and done that. They came up with an interesting 10 day itinerary at a cost that did not break the bank, after my brief to them to cover the hills, deserts, beaches and the urban confusion that are Moroccan towns and cities.
After a rather bumpy landing and brisk taxing, we were walked to the Marrakesh Menara airport arrivals. Taking off at 6 degrees cold from Gatwick at about 2 pm, just three hours of flight brought me to a different continent altogether, but one with very welcome 28 degrees weather.
El Fna Square stalls – here today, gone today. Back tomorrow.
I had asked for a Riad close to the famous El Fna square as it is quite magical in the evenings – a whole lot of food stalls are set up from about 4 pm in the evening, do their business till late, and in the morning they are all gone. The Square is taken over by snake charmers, monkey business guys, and all sorts of ‘artists’ doing tricks for mostly western tourists. After much soliciting by almost all stall owners, to be their guest, I converged at Stall 55 – comes recommended – so some sort of dinner completed here, I was back at the square to do some ‘checking out’ of whatever else was on offer. Suffice it to say you can buy pretty much anything you want in this square. From a Cobra (the real one, not the beer) to the beer, the famed Hammam massage to the ubiquitous Tagine of course.
Drive to Kasbah and Berber villages
The next day I got my rental car (with driver!) delivered and off went Aziz the driver and myself. We had a rather long trip — Marrakesh to Ait Bin Haddou to Zagora to Ourzazate back to Marrakesh – about 600 kms in all – up through the highest place in Morocco down to the Sahara desert and back up again to the Mountains.
Soon we were in Ait Ben Haddou. The journey to this place – a Unesco protected heritage site – was full of lunar landscape views. I was told by the friendly receptionist/manager/restauranteur Khalid that the kasbah at Ait Ben Haddou is about 800 years old. After breakfast on the “terrase panoramique,” my driver Aziz and I set out for Zagora, an oasis town about 80 km from Ait Ben Haddou. Zagora is a town in the Draa Valley in South-eastern Morocco, and is named after the Berber-named Zagura Mountain here.
The road to Zagora is thankfully not windy and as it was the ‘door of the Sahara desert’, a lot of sandy fields, rugged hillocks and beginnings of cacti. The grand plan was to reach Zagora, get some lunch, and then head out to a place called Ouled Driss, which is where I was to meet the Camels and the nomad guide who would be taking me into the desert for the night stay. A vegetarian tagine for lunch at Zagora and some fruit and then off we went another 80 km to Ouled Driss which is in the M’Hamid region, where the Sahara starts. Several warnings show up as we approach, asking for us not to waste water, not to litter in the desert and so on. I am happy to report back that the desert was by and large clean.
Being my first desert visit, I was quite looking forward to the region, still apprehensive of climbing onto the camel – and hoping it will be friendly enough. As it happened, my ‘caravan’ was quite grand – picture this: Mustafa the guide at the front, then my good self sitting on what was the biggest camel in the caravan, followed by another smaller camel to carry stuff, followed by the smallest of the camels – literally a baby camel all of 3 years old. The camel I was sitting on had an “attitude” – it would groan if it has to climb even a modest dune, would grunt if it has to move from its inertia of rest. Mustafa in his surprisingly good English said that this was one lazy camel! In contrast the smallest camel was bouncy, naughty and playful. But once it was put into the train, it behaved quite well.
We reached the bivouac – the place where the tents were there – in about an hour and half of camel ride. The place was at a place where it was fairly level, and had a separate tents for kitchen, dining and toilets, with the centre of the camp being a place to lie down and watch the night sky. It was closer to full moon night, but the stars were shining bright still. Imagine their collective power had it been a new moon night. It did get breezy and with that, fine particles of sand making it inconvenient to sit outside for long. Hamid, the cook cum caretaker at the camp rustled up some, what else, tagine and salad, and sat down with me to talk while I ate. A chap with hardly any formal schooling, he too had good English, which he says is something of an acquired learning, from nearly 10 years of speaking to tourists. At 24 years of age, he has been at this job from 14 years.
The winds became howlers, and it was getting colder. I went back into my tent and after some blogging, decided to call it a night. It was another story that I could not sleep for quite some time, with the tent flaps (quite a sturdy tent still), making ominous sounds. I also spied a rat flitting by on the floor, which after some inspection, seemed like an illusion – or so I convinced myself. Not a good company to be in – specially if it was a ‘palm rat’ – they are deadly.
Changing colours of the morning desert
Up early to catch the highly recommended desert sunrise, at about 6-ish, I found it was still breezy but not too bad, and the cold was also manageable. The sun was nowhere to be seen but was making its presence felt nevertheless. A few good photos later, the sun was out in its complete glory, playing out some good colours on the dunes and the hardy trees. I was getting a bit restive to get hold of my first coffee and both Mustafa and Hamid were still sleeping away. The camels were also getting restive for their breakfast – Mustafa had folded the front left leg of each camel at the joint and tied it up, to ensure that the camels don’t wander off in the night, with this, they were able to move around, but they had to hop around only on their three legs, hence making them manageable. A bit unfortunate, but the camels were coping well.
A spartan breakfast of some rough bread, egg and more Moroccan tea, it was time to get the camels ready. As expected, the Camel senior groaned at the thought of taking the walk back to the village – or was it at the thought of my weight? We said our good bye to Hamid, and a few photos later, headed back to the village. Mustafa led the caravan again as usual, and when he saw another caravan, he took a bit of a detour and to my chagrin (I am still on top of this ‘chameau l’attitude – camel of attitude – some French finally rubbing off on me), he left me and disappeared into his friends. Must have been for a smoke or to exchange some desert weather news perhaps.
My camel then started walking off briskly and since the other two camels were tied to it, I felt completely alone in the Sahara – and I did not like it. When Mustafa came back, the first thing I asked was why on earth was the camel in such a hurry? Leaving his master behind, the camel took me hostage for a full 10 minutes, but what seemed like an eternity – to be honest, I checked out the height to see if it is going to be tough to jump, if the camel continued to play rogue. If push came to shove, I could literally take the plunge; there was sand below of course, so I would just get away with some comic shock value). Anyway, he told me that the camel was hungry for his breakfast, which he is given only at the village after the tourist is dropped. So when he saw Mustafa gone for a few minutes, he just did not seem to like and had moved off in the direction of the village – ostensibly for his breakfast.
Once at the village, I found Aziz waiting with the car, and we said Bismillah and started off back to the town of Zagora. So the desert event was over. At Zagora, it was at Kasbah Sirocco, a beautiful Riad where I stayed. The Riad has a good swimming pool, gardens with lot of – what else – palm trees, and a couple of pets. There were a few desert bikers in the Riad as well, getting ready with their riding suits, and revving their bikes. The deserts mean different things to different people – these folk apparently from France, want to race these bikes – all sorts – quad bikes, dirt bikes, etc – inside the desert. I will know them if I see them in the Morocco Motocross rally!
A walk to the town centre was an impromptu plan – needed to stretch my legs. So I would have walked just about for 10 minutes, when a car pulled up next to me with a window rolling down. Not sure if I had any friends in this town, I wondered who it could be. It was my driver, Aziz. He offered to take me into the centre of the town, and like always, he does not understand my English, and I his French. So I gave up saying that I wanted to walk and got into the car next to him. I somehow convinced him to leave me at the town centre so I can do some walk about and then get back to the Riad – now about 3 odd km away – with my own wits. I managed this feat somehow and let Aziz go. I did manage to get back in time to the Riad for a FaceTime with my better half.
They do some serious film-making here
The next day meant a by now familiar Marocain breakfast and then hop into the car for the 90 km ride into Ourzazate (pronounced as ‘War-za-zat’). The claim to fame for this town, meaning ‘noiselessly’ in Arabic, is that it has two supposedly world class film studies – the CLA and the Atlas Studios. Some famous films have been shot here – Ben Hur, Gladiator, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Asterix and Obelisk, etc. Since that was the main attraction here, I decided to give it a go, and see if I can bump into perhaps a Brad Pitt doing a chase scene or a Ridley Scott directing a new movie. As it always happens, there will be no shoot going on when you would be visiting. So I had to be content with gawking at some props and wave making machines or the tank where Cleopatra had bathed in milk or whatever. The Belgian lady next to me did claim with some wonder about how many donkeys it would have taken for their milk to fill a tank in those days – but she mentioned that Cleo was one beautiful lady meaning in implication that all that donkey milk was well deserved!
It was the day of the long ride the next day – one of about 200 plus km back to Marrakesh to the not so impressive Riad Sherazade again. This ride was interesting – it had snowed overnight and you could see snow capped Atlas mountain ranges from some locations. Aziz kept bearing up with me every so often when I asked him to stop for a ‘photographie’. He was most kind. Once at Marrakesh, the El Fna square is always fascinating. Some more ‘photographie’ later with the food stalls, it was time to prepare for the visit to Essaouira the next day, this time by a Bus. Supr@tours, the bus company people, also seem to own the Railways in Morocco. The bus promptly left at its designated time of 8.30 am – thankfully, we covered the 200 odd km in less than 2 hours, with a 15 minute break at a roadside Inn in a market town enroute.
Essaouira: Sun, sand and art
Essaouira is a sea side resort to the North East of Morocco, well known for its Artists, Fish port and the Citadel. A former military fort town further established by the French for their military needs in the 1860’s, it today has a nice coexistence of the old fort ramparts with the new Riads, Hotels and broad roads. Lodged at Riad Casa Lila, which is situated bang on the narrow streets leading up to the Jewish part of the old town, I found it friendly, clean and spacious. Rashid parked me with some mint tea while he dealt with a guest checking out. The Riad is close to the souks and the many hole-in-the-wall shops. A walk of a half hour and you are at the sea front. The ramparts were not much to look at, nor was the fort, but the town has a relaxed feel to it. There are quite a few art exhibitions going on, the main one being at the Frederic Damgaard hall, where they only exhibit the art and sculpture of artists from this town.
I am nearly done with Morocco, at least for now. I hopped onto the car for the ride to the Marrakesh airport to Gatwick, and I would again be in familiar surroundings. We shall visit again, this time with better haggling power, more caution to the frauds lurking in the shops and for more Moroccan food.”