Europe Blog – Part 41, High Atlas, Marrakech, Sahara
Desert, Anti-Atlas Mountains
I followed the coast southward to Agadir before
turning inland to Taroudant. Further east of Taroudant, I turned north, off the
main highway onto a less used secondary road, the scenic “Tizi-n-Test”. It felt
good to be back within mountain landscapes. The road became narrower and rougher
nearing the highest pass. I rode the final 25 kilometers on a broken up single
lane road before reaching Camping & Auberge du Col (mountain pass). The camping was rudimentary and overly expensive but the views were fantastic. It was a cold night in the
tent at 2200 meters.
High Atlas Foothills
Approaching the High Atlas Mountain Range
Waterfall in Arid High Atlas
The Auberge served a nice breakfast and strong
tropical sun warmed things up quickly. It was 16 degrees when I left, riding downhill
toward Marrakech. I passed Berber
villages that were scattered throughout the highlands. Their adobe structures
were often perched high up on rocky points. Dirt paths allowed people and
animals to move throughout the villages. The paths were often much too steep
for a car to navigate. No motorized vehicles were visible inside the villages
as many Berber people still lived in the old ways.
Sunset at the Col
Sunrise at the Col
The High Atlas
Hillside Berber Village
Descent to Marrakech
The Road to Marrakech
Satellite dishes became visible on Berber rooftops
as I neared the foothills and their lower altitudes. Wider and flatter tracks allowed cars and delivery trucks to pass within the villages. I rode
on to Marrakech with its modern feel. It had shopping malls and wide, European
boulevards. I did not pass through the historic centre on the way to Relais
Marrakech and would have to wait until the next day to see it.
In the Marrakech Medina
Complained When Tipped
Camping Relais Marrakech was modern and very clean.
Its restaurant was beside a beautifully landscaped pool area. It felt like an oasis.
I vowed to bring Isabelle to that lovely spot. I stayed three nights,
accomplishing a few tasks. One day was spent beside the pool preparing and publishing
a blog post as well as washing laundry.
Mosque inside Marrakech Medina
Visiting the historic centre, Marrakech’s medina,
was an intense day. There was action everywhere involving people, animals and
small vehicles. Everyone kept far to the right in the narrow pathways between
adobe buildings. Scooters and three-wheeled tuk-tuks zoomed and dodged around
thick packs of pedestrians, adding to the frenzy of movement. Touts approached
and pestered anyone who didn’t immediately fit in. They seemed impossible to
One quickly learned to ask the price of each item,
even a cup of coffee, before accepting it. Purchases were followed by “upsell”
offers that sounded free but never were. A tip was tailed by complaints of its insufficiency.
Faux Guides asked, “My friend, where are you from? Keep to the right for the
scooters! It’s this way to the Berber festival. Follow me.” If you fell for it
you would be eventually faced with an extended palm. Giving a tip would then be
followed by the customary complaint. It was all riotous fun!
Film Studio at Ouarzazate
The scenic road to Ouarzazate crossed over the High
Atlas Mountains. The surface of the road was excellent. Riding its tight
switchbacks was as much fun as riding those in the Pyrenees had been. Berber
villages were dug into hillsides in the highlands. Eventually the highway
crossed over flat desert lands that led to the outer edges of Ouarzazate. There
were several studios and filming locations in the desert town. Camping
Municipal Ouarzazate offered good value and very clean ablutions. The place was
half filled by European snowbirds in campervans. Berber singers and dancers put
on a fun show in the camp restaurant that night.
Taourirt Kasbah Courtyard
Image Inside the Kasbah
Inside the Kasbah
View from the Kasbah
In the morning I went sightseeing, beginning with
the Taourirt Kasbah (palace) in the centre of town. The Kasbah had been owned
and lived in until recently by a wealthy Ouarzazte family. The adobe palace was
electrified and had rudimentary plumbing. The visit was free but a man wearing
a reflective vest and sitting on a chair in the parking area came over and extended
his palm as I prepared to leave. He was good at looking official, his body
language seemed to say, “Surely you saw me here when you parked? I watched your
bike for you.” I tipped him; his customary complaint followed.
On the Way to Ait Benhaddou Kasbah
Desert North of Ouarzazate
The next item on my list was located 30 kilometers
north of town, Ait Benhaddou Kasbah. This ancient desert “service station” village
was instantly recognizable. I discovered that it had been used as a set in
numerous films over many decades. It’s more famous location credits included,
Game of Thrones, Sodom and Gomorrah, Jewel of the Nile, Last Temptation of
Christ and Gladiator. On the approach, I followed two tour vans when they
turned onto a dirt track, off the road to the Kasbah. I was rewarded with a
great view. The vans stopped to let passengers disembark at an overlook of
the valley that contained Ait Benhaddou Kasbah, the famous caravan stop on the
way to Marrakech. Tour operators always know the good spots.
View from Where the Tour Vans Stopped
Entrance to the Caravan Rest Stop
Inside Ait Benhaddou Kasbah
Street Scene in the Jewish Quarter
Ait Benhaddou Kasbah was declared a World Heritage
Site in 1987 and featured traditional Moroccan earthen clay architecture. Climbing
up and throughout the village-on-a-hill was fun and offered some good views
too. I was pestered by touts from the moment I parked my bike in the modern village
beside the World Heritage Site. Attempts at legal controls of the practice; hard
working local people despised targeted begging as much as tourists did, had met
limited success. A reflective vest wearing gentleman got up from his chair and flagged
me down as I was riding out of the parking area. I asked several times in
French but he refused to be specific about the price for parking. He simply
extended his palm and said in English, “parking, money.” He too complained, looking for
more after I tipped him.
Tifoultoute Kasbah Ruins
The next stop was a few kilometers west of Ouarzazate, the Tifoultoute
Kasbah. Like the Taourirt Kasbah, the Tifoultoute had been lived in by a wealthy family
until recently but had not been maintained. It also was used as a set in Game of Thrones. A late lunch in
town let me bump into a French couple I had met on the Algeceris/Tanger Med. ferry.
I rode to the south end of R9 the next day, to a village called Mhamid
near the mined Algerian border. I was excited at the idea of seeing the Sahara
Desert open up before me once I got past the final foothills of the Anti-Atlas
Mountains. Instead, I was greeted by a dirty brown and white curtain that blocked
all vision on the right side of the plain. As I drew closer to the left edge of
the curtain, the wind became stronger and stronger. Sand blew across the road
like drifting snow. An oncoming vehicle threw up a rooster-tail of red/brown
dust. I looked in my mirror and saw that my moto had sprouted a brown tail too. Fine raindrops joined sand particles, picking at my helmet visor.
Trying to Outrun a Sandstorm
Arriving after the Storm
By chance, the R9 skirted the edge of the sandstorm,
turning away from it at just the right time. I arrived at Camping Hamada du
Draa, just south of Mhamid, happy that my motorcycle’s air filter had escaped a
good clogging. The air inside the campground walls was still heavy with fine
dust. I spoke with a French snowbird couple who told of strong wind and sand so
thick they couldn’t see the end of their camper. My nasal passages began to burn from the
Dusty conditions persisted throughout the evening.
Fine sand particles penetrated the mosquito netting of my tent, contaminating
everything inside. The next morning there was a thick layer of red dust on my
sleeping bag and on the exposed tent floor. My nose was quite sore. I walked
throughout the village on the edge of the Sahara to research a camel trip into
the desert for Isabelle and me in the future. I considered taking a short trek
myself but gave up on the idea, preferring to share it with Isa and also because of my sore nose. I was
happy to leave Mhamid for clearer air in the mountains the next day.
Boys at Play In Taliouine
Taliouine Street Scene
Future Mt. Rushmore?
I rode to Taliouine in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. The
journey took all day. Auberge Askaoun sat on the eastern edge of town at 1200
meters elevation. The air was clear and crisp in the evening. My room cost $15
CDN and there was safe parking inside the hotel for my bike. Board cost $15
more. I stayed for three nights in the cool mountain air and my nose began to
Sahara Desert on the ride North
Washing the Sahara Out of Everything
On my last day in Taliouine I rode a remote loop
through the mountains to the north. The desk man at the Auberge recommended the
route. He promised in French, “All paved, no piste.” The winding and narrow single track
road led to a Berber village named Askaoun, at 2200 meters
elevation. The scenery had been unique and humbling. Switching off my engine allowed me to enjoy the
views and the complete silence on the deserted road. My bike drew a flock of young boys when I stopped at a café in remote Askaoun.
I rode to Tafraoute on some rough secondary roads.
There were some oudes (rivers) to cross during the final 70 kilometers. There
were no expensive bridges on that single track, remote road. Normally, a vehicle crossed a river on a thick
concrete slab. In wet times the road was either impassable or required slow
wading. The riverbeds were of course dry at that time of year but in some
places, the concrete fording had been washed out and left unrepaired. One of
them almost sent me tumbling.
A Real Bridge but Still Some Washing Out
I had forgotten to disable traction control on my
bike before going onto the loose surface. My rear wheel slipped as expected
when I climbed a steep rock-pile ramp. Within a few thousandths of a second, traction
control software cut power to the rear wheel. The bike slowed instantly and I
almost fell to the left, off the piled rocks.
Instinctively and unconsciously I applied more throttle and clutch. The
rear wheel found traction again and the motorcycle bucked hard. The only thing
that saved me was the same BMW software that had caused the problem in the
first place. This time, the bike’s computer gave anti-wheelie corrections. My
front wheel sat firmly down and I was allowed to use it to regain my balance.
Tafraoute seemed more modern than many of the towns
in Morocco’s south. I found a lovely apartment to use as a base camp for a few days.
Grocery shopping, writing and photo editing occupied the first complete day. The wifi was reasonable and allowed me to
publish this post.