Day 3
Tuesday, 13th October 2009

At 3am I stirred and just couldn't get back to sleep. It sounded like it was blowing a gale outside. I tried counting camels but it didn't work. The blustery noise turned out to be the air con and I just had to switch it off in the end.

We had to get up early for our day trip out so the alarm was set.

Breakfast was served up on the rooftop terrace. Aziz carried up a large tray filled with an appetising selection. We had amazing honey soaked pancakes. They were like a large home-made pikelet, perforated with holes on one side, drenched in a light fragrant honey, and folded over. Mmmm.

We also had fresh fruit, fresh yogurt, fresh orange juice, good coffee and a sponge cake we would call a Madeira. It was a really delicious breakfast.

We came down to the courtyard to wait for our taxi. Fattima came to wish us a good day in the Atlas moutains. She also asked if our shoes had good grips.

Riad Zolah, Marrakech
Riad Zolah, Marrakech

"Why?" asked Julie.

She had specifically asked for a day trip that didn't involve any trekking. Then when Fattima mimed the motions of scrambling up a rocky hillside I almost let out a huge laugh.

At 9:00am Aziz lead us to Bab Laksour where our taxi was waiting for us.

We couldn't see it at first, although I must admit we were looking for a silver Toyota 4x4 with essential air con but instead Aziz showed us to an old cream Mercedes Benz, one of the regular Marrakech city taxis.

It was a beautiful sunny day and we had a few hours ahead of us in this classic twenty year old vehicle with hot leather seats, no air con and windows that didn't open.

The driver introduced himself as Jemal. Our first words to him were "Hello, can we please open the windows?"

Thankfully it wasn't a problem as Jemal switched off the child locks and we were free to wind the windows all the way down to get some breeze into the back.

We drove down past Bab Agnaou and out through the Medina walls at gate Bab Er Rob, then followed the long straight Route de Barrage which for the majority of its length was lined with tall billboard fencing advertising the forthcoming Jumeirah Golf & Polo Resort & Residential Villas. That's going to be such a huge development.

Also along this stretch of road was the Oasiria Water Park. In one of the most water scarce regions in the world it could be considered quite offensive to use such a limited resource for tourists to have a bit of a splash about.

I suppose the six thousand tourist capacity of the city is also a drain on the water table and that big bath we filled last night didn't help.

We soon turned left and headed towards the High Atlas along another long straight road. This time however there were only trees and shrubs running alongside. No major developments, not yet anyway.

road to the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech

After a while the trees came to an end and we entered a barren landscape where only the camels were happy.

After about 20km we reached the town of Tahanaoute. There wasn't much of note here other than a noticeable change in the standard of the road. A row of ornate street lamps greeted us as the road widened to four lanes complete with pavements.

It was obviously a town with illusions of grandeur.

At it's centre, up on a hillside, we could see a large sprawling market. Jemal pulled over and asked us if we would like to visit the Berber market.

Of course we did! It was the reason why I chose today to do the Atlas trip. There's a Berber market in Tahanaoute every Tuesday.

We got out of the Mercedes Benz and crossed the four lanes towards the tented city on the slope.

Within a second we had already attracted the attention of several hawkers.

One didn't appear to be selling us anything, he was just making conversation. He sent the others away as if to say "Back off, these ones are mine"

We tried our best to ignore him, speaking Welsh and pretending we didn't understand English but he wasn't giving up. He tried to break the ice by offering four camels for Julie. We weren't amused. He said his name was Mohammed and he showed us his identity card pointing to his date of birth, 12th October 1972. He was 37 yesterday. We resigned ourselves to having a guide tour.

He taught us the arabic word for thank you "shukran" and no thank you "la shukran".

We then followed Mohammed up to the top of the hill, overlooking the market, to where all the donkeys were parked.

They weren't for sale, they were all tethered in what was the market's "car park".

There was a blacksmith up here shaping horseshoes. Mohammed explained the subtle difference between a donkey shoe and an ass shoe.

He then showed us his ass.

He led me down into the middle of them. Julie wisely stayed a safe distance away. Running through her mind was the popular statistic that more people die being kicked by donkey than die in a plane crash.

Mohammed proudly stood by one and said"This one is mine." Then with a mischecious grin he said "Listen to this" and made a really strange noise with his mouth.

He looked disappointed as if something was meant to have happened. He tried again, sucking air in through his teeth

His ass just stood there looking bored but the one next to him let out an almighty "Eyyore"

It set off a chain reaction as several others joined in, except for his. They were all getting quite agitated by all the comotion and the "more people die being kicked by a donkey" statistic was now filling my thoughts! They may have been tethered by one of their front legs but their hind legs were free to lash out.

I just wanted to get out of there quick but Mohammed insisted on taking my photograph.

I stood there, grinning through gritted teeth, speaking like a bad ventriloquist, saying "which one of us looks the biggest arse?"

As soon as the photo was taken we returned up the incline and continued our guided tour through more livestock.

I had by now realised that we would end up having to pay Mohammed for his services.

We began our descent past the herd of sheep and goats and into the tented streets of the market.

We had entered the food quarter as row upon row of traders had their fresh fruit and vegetables out on display in crates or just sacks on the floor. It was very busy down here. Mohammed even suggested that I should hold Julie's hand as we entered a crowded cross-section.

He had earlier said that women weren't allowed in the market but it was OK for tourists. He had misinformed us slightly as there was a sprinkling of females milling around in the shopping throng, although the ratio was extremely low.

I love milling around markets. It was absolutely fascinating to watch.

Unfortunately Mohammed was on a tight schedule and marched us through at a rate of knots. It all felt hurried and quite chaotic. With hindsight we should have dictated the pace.

It would have nice to have stopped and appreciated the aroma coming from an ancient cafe with its six clay tagine pots in a line heated by a charcoal fire.

Or to have smelt the spices at another stall selling cous cous by the sack load.

We continued to follow Mohammed as we walked down the hillside to other sections of the market.

One stall specialsed in large woven sacks that are place on the backs of donkeys to carry a heavy load. Another had a selection of small individual size huts woven from reed. "Berber shower" explained Mohammed.

He then promised to take us to have a look at a dentist at work.

As it happens there were none but we did get to see a Berber Barber which made us laugh!

That was it, our guided tour over. Mohammed ushered us to a secluded spot behind the Berber barber's hut.

It then all became a little shady. "Please look" he whispered as he pulled out of his rucsack a selection of different pieces of jewellery such as silver bangles, a snake arm band, a topaz earings, chunky necklaces.

I knew I had to by something to pay him for his 15 minute whistle stop tour of the Berber market so I pointed to a set of three bangles and asked "How much?"

He replied with a straight face "800 dirhams"

Well I almost fell on my arse with shock. "How much?" I was willing to pay him 100 dirhams for his time but I didn't want any silver plated bangles.

A Berber Barber

I offered him the 100 for nothing but he wasn't interested. He insisted that I bought something from him.

This was gradually turning into an unpleasant exeperience. He was getting more desperate and agitated, decending into French, bemoaning his life, gesticulating and shrugging a lot, "les enfants, les enfants".

He eventually wore me down as I began to feel sorry for him so I offered 100 dirhams for his time and 100 dirhams for the bangles. He turned it down.

"Well, sod you then" I thought and began to walk away. He physically restrained me from moving any further but he reluctantly agreed to the 200 dirhams. I loathed handing over the money, especially as he only handed over one tin pot bangle in return but we just wanted to get out of there. The situation felt very uncomfortable.

We made our way back to the taxi, popping into a petrol station for a welcomed bottle of ice cold mineral water each. They were worth every one of the 5 dirhams we paid for them!

Back on the road just on the outskirts of the town was an old mudbrick settllement, probably the original Tahanaoute. It looked superb rising from the red earth as if it belonged to the hillside.

It's a view famously connected to Winston Churchill as it was the subject of his last painting in 1958.

Jemal asked us if we wanted to stop here to visit an all female co-operative that produced Argan Oil. We were within touching distance of where the High Atlas dramatically rose up from the plains so we decided not to waste anymore time.

Before we knew it we were winding our way up the rugged landscape towards the Moulay Brahim Gorge. The road was quite precarious at times as it hugged the hillside.

It was surprisingly busy. We always seemed to meet on-coming traffic every time we went around a corner.

The drop down to the valley below was significant and for most of the time there wasn't even any protective barriers to stop you from careering off the end.

On occassions the road didn't feel wide enough for two vehicles to pass, especially the wider trucks which hurtled their way down. Several times they had to swerve out to avoid us and every time we turned to look behind us to see if they were still on the road or not.

Luckily they all managed to survive.

Whilst Julie was glad we were driving on the right and she was sat on the right hand side as far away from the edge as possible, she was already dreading the journey back.

Our attention was diverted from the road on many occasions however as we marvelled at the spectacular scenery.

We passed a few Berber villages just off the road. I think one was called Arguioun, the other larger village was Moulay Brahim, a revered holy pilgrimage site after the 17th century Sufi saint it is named after.

We were also distracted from both the road and the scenery when Julie noticed a white almost translucent spider walking over her legs.

"Oh my God, there's a white spider" she yelped.

"Where?" I couldn't see it anywhere.

"shit, I don't know where it's gone now!!!!" We couldn't see it anywhere and spent the next five minutes frantically searching for the ghostly arachnid.

"There it is" I said as it appeared, crawling out of Julie's bag. I went to brush it away. Then the most unexpectedly thing happened.

We both forgot ourselves and swore in unison, screaming profanity as the scary little fucker flew through the air towards Julie's thighs. The sudden movement heralded its end as I instictively lashed out and squashed the poor little fragile poisonous bastard.

I did feel slightly guilty but jumping spiders are far too alien and frightenning to be allowed to roam freely all over us.

By the time we had regained our composure the road and the valley below had gradually drawn closer as we reached a plateau.

When we arrived at the town of Asni the river Mizane ran alongside the road. It was only a trickle but you could tell by the width of surrounding shingle that it has another character when the winter snows thaw.

This area suffered flooding in 1995.

The only thing of note we saw in Asni were the pink rose coloured ramparts of a kasbah style building in the centre of town, outside which a market was being held.

It wasn't the full blown Saturday Souk. It was a far more modest affair than the one consdidered the largest in the Atlas region.

We didn't ask to stop, we just rolled through taking a left turn signposted Imlil 17km, our final destination, the base camp for North Africa's highest peak, Jebel Toubkal.

If we had carried on (to the right) we would have driven across the Tizi-n-Test Pass which is considered as one of the most perilous routes crossing these mountains.

The long straight road from Asni was a welcome respite but it didn't last.

In no time we were twisting our way up towards the 4167 metre summit in the distance.

If anything this stretch felt even more hazardous. There was a complete absence of any barriers, even at the extreme corners of the meandering road.

Despite the challenging journey the countryside was becoming increasingly beautiful as we travelled up the Ait Mizane valley.

Kasbah Tamadot, Sir Richard Branson's swanky hotel, was in a glorious setting jutting out on an outcrop surrounded by tall thin trees that gave it an uncharacteristic mediteranean feel.

We were certainly envious of the young newlyweds. The Kasbah looked gorgeous. A few nights here at the end of a frenetic few days in Marrakech would have been perfect.

Although I don't think the wallet could stretch that far on this trip. It's grace and elegance comes at a price.

We continued our way towards Imlil passing through some spectacular scenery.

It was strange to think how the view would differ throughout the seasons.

It was difficult to imagine in this heat how it would look beneath a blanket of heavy snow, when even this road becomes impassable.

Nor how the little stream could become a swollen river filling the valley floor.

At about 11:30am we finally rolled into town. With climbers setting off for their various treks it had the feel of a Nepalese village nestled high in the Himalayas, not that I've ever been to Nepal.

Jemal dropped us off at the post office and handed us over to a guy called Hassan who would escort us to Kasbah du Toukbal.

"Would you like a short 15 minute walk to the Kasbah?" he asked

"or a 45 minute walk through several of the villages to the Kasbah"

With Fattima's scrambling mime in mind we opted for the shorter trek.

We certainly didn't want to over exhert ourselves. We were here to relax.

We followed Hassan up through Imlil. He was obviously a well known and popular guy as everyone greeted him warmly as we walked past.
When the tarmac came to an end we followed a path which rose steeply uphill. Hassan set a perfectly sedate pace as we followed his footsteps weaving our way slowly up.

It was interesting to see how he didn't use the steps where there were some but chose his own more gradual route up.

We could have chosen to ride a donkey up but I don't think the thought ever crossed Julie's mind.

What with stopping to catch our breath and letting the many muleteers and their donkeys carrying supplies up to the Kasbah and the villages beyond it took us exactly the 15 minutes to reach the top. Hassan had obviously done this before!

We turned the corner and came up to the dramatic wooden entrance gates of the Kasbah.

It was once the summer retreat of a ruling Berber family called the Glaoui but as their powers waned they abandoned the kasbah and left it to ruin.

In 1996 Martin Scorsese descended on Imlil with a troop of Tibetan extras to film scenes for Kundun a movie about the early life of the Dalai Lama. (It's actually one of my favourite films!) After that it was renovated into the Kasbah du Toukbal the hotel and tourist centre we see today, winning several Tourism awards en route.

Hassan pushed open the heavy wooden doors and then lead us down the garden path to the main reception where we were greeted with a traditional Berber welcome.

We were offered a date and then instructed to dip it into a bowl of milk before popping it in our mouth. I wasn't exactly relishing the thought but I knew Julie would be dreading it.

I was expecting a bush tucker trial incident with lots of tears and gagging with her shouting out "I'm just a tourist, get me outta here!"

She hates dates and detests milk especially a bowlful of luke warm milk of unknown source.

My "It's probably camel's milk" joke didn't help. Despite all of this her desire not to offend overcame her loathing of the ingredients.

With date dipped and stone spat out we followed Hassan upstairs to complete our welcome.

He carried out a traditional hand washing ritual pouring cool rose water from a silver tea pot and drying our hands for us.

Now officially received Hassan left us to our own devices, arranging to pick us up two hours later.

We wandered about at a loss for a while before finding the ideal vantage point to take in the convergence of the three valleys on Imlil.

We sat upstairs in a shaded pavillion where the 360 degree views literally took our breath away.

It had an almost dizzying effect. Every which way we looked the perfectly framed panorama was spectacular. We stared in stunned silence.

It was wonderfully peaceful up here. When we regained our powers of speech we found ourselves talking in hushed tones as not to disturb the tranquility.

We sat in a corner gazing out towards the Berber village of Tamatert nestled at the bottom of the Tizi n'Tamatert Pass, at point where the lush greenery and the arid ochre earth met.

Targa Imoula, Tizi n'Tamatert Pass, High Atlas, Morocco Further up the pass and beyond we could see the peaks of Argouna and Jbel Oukaimeden. During January and February It's incredible to think that the snow fall is sufficient to transform Oukaimeden into a popular ski resort.

In the foreground was the village of Targa Imoulia, perched on an outcrop overlooking the Ait Mizane valley.

The nearest village (not too sure what it was called) was a very short distance away to the west, tumbling down the hillside.

The mud brick dwellings were fascinating.

mudbrick village, near Imlil, Morocco
They were typical of the houses from the many Berber communities who live in th High Atlas. Berbers were the original inhabitants of these parts and their remoteness has protected their culture which is now undergoing a strong revival.

Apparently the word Berber is a derivative of Barbarians but they proudly call themselves Amazigh, the free man.

We watched as the villagers went about their daily life pegging out the washing or carrying water.

It looked a harsh environment.

The activity in the hamlet was as lively as it got. We sat in silence absorbing the serenity, slipping into a meditative groove. It was the most relaxed we had felt in a very long time.  

To add to the contemplative spirit there were four inspiring inscriptions carved into the wooden frame of the pavillion.

To the East we had "There are many religions but only one God" and to the North was "Dreams are only the plans of the reasonable".

I didn't make a note of the other two but one said something along the lines of "We should all leave the world a better place".

Mantras to motivate the mind. Nothing however could be more inspiring than the view of the dramatic Jebel Tokbal.

Mountains undoubtedly have an aura, they imbue something magical into the air.

Imlil has developed into the base camp town for climbers who set off on their three day trek to reach the top.

Now whilst I enjoy looking at them I've never had any inclination to climb or even trek. I live near North Wales' highest peak and have only walked up once, and took the train the second time. I love the view though!

At the time I was unaware of it but a few weeks after we had visited Imlil my nephew Ian completed the trek up to the summit of Jebel Toukbal!

Aksar Soual (?), Morocco

There was another breathtaking view, in the opposite direction some distance down the Ait Mizane valley.

The astonishingly beautiful village of Aksar Soual blending into the landscape overlooking the greenery of a walnut grove.

We spent over an hour in this state of total calmness. It was almost a shame to interrupt it for lunch but we were getting hungry.

The tagines arrived and were placed before us. One in a smaller dish than the other. I had already mentioned that I was a vegetarian and the small dish was presented to me.

The lids were lifted to reveal great looking dishes, although that wasn't an opinion shared by Julie.

Both our tagines looked identical and to be fair the large dried figs and walnuts were possibly not the most attractive of ingredients. Although they certainly made for a more interesting tagine.

I immediately tucked into mine. Julie hesitated.

It had a delicious flavour with a great spicy kick to it. I was surprised why Julie wasn't tucking into hers.

I picked up her fork and rummaged around her tagine unearthing some hidden lamb chops. Her face lit up.
"I didn't realised they were there!" she said "I thought I had been given the veggie option as well!"

That actually made me worry a little about the credentials of my "meat-free" tagine as both dishes looked the same, only mine had the lamb chops removed!

After eating we had another half an hour of relaxing and digesting our food before Hassan arrived to escort us back down. As we left the Kasbah walking through the large wooden gates we bumped into a familiar face.

"Hello!" he said.

It was Ishmail on his day off from Riad Zola visiting the Kasbah du Toukbal with his wife. What a present surprise.

We walked down together chatting for a while before our lesuirely pace was too sedate for them.

"See you tomorrow" he said and youthfully skipped down the hill with his wife as agile as a pair of Berber guides.

Hassan brought us safely down the path into Imlil in our own time.

Without breaking into sweat we strolled down hill through the village to find our classic cream Mercedes-Benz taxi.

Jemal hadn't parked where he dropped us off so we had to continue to roll further down the hill. We found the car and him almost at the outskirt of Imlil, (which wasn't very far from its middle!)

Julie sat in the seat behind the driver. She had already worked out which side to be furthest from the edge. It didn't make the journey any the less fraught though!

The frightening drop was incredibly near and on several occassions we were forced outwards off the tarmac and into the gravel buffer zone, inches away from the precarious precipice. I have to admit that even I had my heart in my mouth as we defied death on almost every bend.

We trusted Jemal's skill as a driver even when he casually drove into the gravel with one arm resting on the window and the other hand busy holding a mobile phone.

With all the focus on the road and the immediate drop to the right we didn't notice much else on the journey back.

On the few occassions we looked up we did get mildly excited when we saw a herd of goats scrambling on the side of the mountain. Whilst technically livestock they were the first sight of any wildlife we'd seen in the Atlas.

Another sight of interest was a long rope bridge spanning the whole width of the Ait Mizane valley. It looked so out of place crossing the gentle flow of the river that could easily be crossed using stepping stones!

We were glad of some respite from the white knuckle ride when we reached the level plateau near Asni.

It was short lived however as we reached the Moulay Brahim Gorge. At least there were some barriers on this stretch of the road making us feel relaxed enough to admire the striking red colour of the rock.

If Scorcese wanted a location to double as the surface of Mars then he need look no further. It was sensational.

At the end of the winding road we descended from the Atlas and drove back across the plains.

It was donkey rush hour at Tahanoute as the Berber market was coming to a close. Everyone was heading home back up to the hills.

All we could see when approaching Marrackech was the wonderful sight of a minaret towering above all else.

At first I assumed it was Kotoubia Mosque but it was the minaret of the Kasbah Mosque, El-Mansour.

We were back a lot earlier than we had expected. It was only 4:30pm. Jemal delivered us back to Bab Laksour gate. We thanked him for getting us back safely and not end up at the bottom of Ait Mizane valley.

The journey back had taken a lot out of us so we made our way straight back to Riad Zolah and decided to have a siesta.

Three hours later we showered the days dust from our sticky hair and came down to the dining room for another feast. It was a repeat of the delicious meal we had on Sunday. Arguably better.

The salad course, the cumin aubergine, corriander carrot, lemon courgette, and small deep fried parcels of cheesyness was wonderful. Perhaps it was coincidence but we were impressed they had noticed that on Sunday we had only eaten the cheese parcels and had sent the chicken ones back. Tonight we only had the cheese variety.

Next up was the lemon sorbet which flushed our taste buds clear in preperation for the next course.

Omar was serving us again tonight and he proudly lifted the lids to reveal our bowls of Morocco's finest contribution to international cuisine, our tagines.

My choice was limited to the same ol' same ol' vegetable tagine but Julie had many more options on offer. Having already had a lamb tagine today (and last Sunday) she plumped for the chicken tagine. She was so pleased with her choice. It was one of the tastiest dishes she had in a very long time, even if it was a leg. She's more of a breast woman.

"The flavour is so intense." she said describing the tagine "I'm sure they've used a preserved lemon in here." We have had a jar of Belazu preserved lemons at home for over a year now but we have yet to use them. First thing we're going to do when we get home is to find a chicken tagine recipe! (after checking the Best Before date)

Dessert was different this evening. The poached peaches drenched in honey with a large dollop of creamy yogurt was also much nicer.

The young Americans weren't dining in tonight, we did however have company. A lovely couple, around our age although we'd like to think they looked older, had just arrive from the airport. We told them about our experience of the souks and the Jemaa El Fna square and about our adventure out into the Atlas mountains.

"Is it safe?" asked the woman who was obviously a little nervous and apprehensive about it all. I could honestly answer that it was perfectly safe although I warned that she will get pestered a lot!

After eating we retired to the roof top terrace where the view of the illuminated minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque was pretty exciting or at least it was to me.

With subtle and atmospheric lighting the whole ambience of the terrace was so relaxing.

We sat back enjoying the end of a wine bottle and talked about home.

We wondered what mischief Rory and Tyler had been up to today?

As last night we found ourselves drifting into sleep, eyes rolling, struggling to stay open and it was only 9:30pm! We did the sensible thing however and ordered another glass of wine!!!

We only survived another half an hour before calling it a late night and headed for bed.

Wednesday >  

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