Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Wonderment and Wonderings in Morocco


Morocco has given us absolutely amazing riding and exploring joy; here are some of the scenes we've loved so far.

Marrakech is an ancient city, and the narrow winding lanes of its old city were built for foot traffic and maybe the odd camel to squeeze through. Nowadays they are dominated by a constant stream of motorbikes, giving the place a constantly noisy and full on feel. The foot traffic is still there though, and very well dressed, with men in their woven camel hair hooded cloaks and women in wonderful colour combinations of headscarves and dresses. 

Old town alleys of Marrakech

The streets of Marrakech
Another town scene, market day in Jorf

We crossed the High Atlas Mountains on a clear calm winter’s morning, with a dusting of new snow bright on the highest peaks. The road snakes up the bulky, stratified hills, making its crossing from the wetter and sometimes forested western flanks to the dry gorges facing out towards the Sahara.

The wetter flanks of the Atlas

Climbing Tizi N'Tichka Pass

Deep twisting gorges, the Dades and the Todra, coming out from the Atlas Mountains. As we rode inside them, I felt infused with the orange light that bounces off their walls. A line of palm trees, some patchwork strips of irrigated fields and occasionally the glint of a stream, give testament to the fact that this mighty passageway is indeed a watercourse. Along the sides of the gorge, and where it opens to more comfortable widths, villages are built from the earth on which they stand, now orange, now ochre, now brown houses clustered above their small green plots. 

In the Dades Gorge

The Todra Gorge

Villages in the Ounila Valley, Atlas Mountains

The upper Dades Gorge

Quiet, vast, ancient. We cycled out across the expansive dry landscapes that lie between the Atlas and the Sahara proper. Thorn trees, gravel, sand; flat topped strata outcrops, pieces of old plateaus, now tipped up, now scoured out by wind and maybe once, a long time ago, some water. 


There is a packet of biscuits. Round chocolate cream-filled biscuits, their open silver wrapping glinting in the bright mountain sunlight. At the base of this packet is my hand, holding on with determined if not slightly desperate grip. On the other end of the packet is a hand much more weathered and browned than mine, belonging to a nomadic shepherd of the Atlas Mountains, and he is also not letting go. For a few seconds we stand like this, in a very quiet but socially fascinating battle, until the nomad gives in and takes a healthy stack of biscuits from the packet instead, and relieved I move on to offer them to his mate, then Ollie and myself.

This would probably go down as one of the least successful cultural exchanges of our travels. I could try and explain my actions by saying that this was the only packet of biscuits I had for what was going to be a long tough day through the mountains. Or that when I offer an open packet of biscuits around even such an impromptuely gathered morning tea group, I consider it rude for someone to try and take the whole packet. But how much else is going on here that I can’t easily explain! Why was that his expectation? Is it indeed a reasonable one? What is a healthy way for our two cultures to interact now, and what about for the future?

This first meeting of the day had caught us by surprise, and as we continued to ride that isolated dirt road we got many other chances to adapt our response to the small groups of tough mountain folk who came out to meet us as we rode.  But we never settled on anything we felt totally happy with. Girls with chapped hands and ragged skirts tugged at my polyprop and gloves, saying clearly in any language, “Can I have these clothes for me?” Women with babies tied on their backs and no socks in their shoes tried to sell us small fossils they’d gathered in the mountains, or if they had none of these, to sell their photograph. This was no tourist gimmick, no dressing up poor to try and get some easy money, they were running to us just as they were when we appeared around the corner of their valley. If they had socks they’d wear them, the temperature was about 4 degrees.

So we did leave some extra clothes of ours there in the Atlas Mountains. As I rode down out of the mountains, I enjoyed thinking of the people who these socks and gloves have come from, Beth, Mum, Grandpa Yule, and the snug New Zealand wool they are made of, and hoped they would bring some joy and relief. But I was also unsettled, uncomfortable and very tired from the experience. Morocco has brought us more of these encounters than anywhere else we’ve ridden so far. Questions but not many answers. Attempts at genuine encounters, but realizations of huge inequalities not just in wealth, but also in the reasons that we’re each in that place at that time, and our expectations of our roles. 

With one of the nomadic Berber
Our track through the Atlas, between the Dades and Todra Gorges

More wonderment

In the huge orange dunes on the edge of the Sahara. The locals call them Erg Chebbi. They change in shape constantly, but are always there. Small groups of desert nomads still eek out a living amongst them, raising camels and goats. But with the Algerian border cutting through their traditional roaming grounds only 30km from here, it is now much harder. More of the nomads have now settled in villages on the edge of the desert, and many have found a way to continue in their beloved Sahara by working as tourist guides and hosts at the desert camps. A truly wonderful sea of sand, be it a little tracked out by tourist 4WD, camel and foot traffic. 


We've also had some wonderful meetings with some special people. With Youssef at his mountain auberge (hostel) where we were welcomed more like friends than paying guests; we were told to use it like our own home, and we shared our meals together: tomato pasta with Berber omelette; porridge with bread and home grown olives. 

Youssef and Ollie
With Barek and his nephews under the striking (Mount) Djebel Rheriss, where we spent the evening learning a new game with coloured pebbles, sitting around the fire, drinking mint tea and then sleeping in their tent made of camel and goat hair. African dream!

Anna, Abdul Ali, Barek, Hammad and Ollie

With Lessin and Muhammed one cold morning in N'Kob, where they invited us into the carpenter's shed by the local shop and we shared lots of the sweet mint tea, hot fresh bread and the Christmas truffles I'd just made. 

Anna, Muhammed and Lessin. Muhammed was serious about his tea making, and was determined that the photo would show him pouring the tea he'd been preparing for us!

A few other favourite shots...

Bonus track: The Ginger Beard!


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