Monday, 2 January 2012

Travels in 2007: Part 4: Mezourga and Demnate

world-map marrakech

Happy New Year!

And now that all the festivities are slowly drawing to a close, then it's time to add something new to this blog. Here is Part 4 of my 2007 travels, where my brother and I journey to the edge of the Sahara and thence to the High Atlas. This was our favourite part of our Morocco trip and all the places mentioned therein come highly recommended.

Thanks too for the comment from Your Morroco Tour. Although Rob and I did not use this company, a look at their website shows that they offer some very similar stuff to that we which did.

As always, the highlights of this post are the pictures by Rob. This week I got hold of the original sketchbook from the trip and scanned in a a few more so please have a look at Part 2 and Part 3 for some new - and stunning - sketches by the guy recently awarded the Golden Oatcake as Stoke-on-Trent's Artist of the Year for 2011!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Matt

Links to all the parts of this travelogue:

Travels in 2007: Part 1: Berlin

Travels in 2007: Part 2: Andalucia

Travels in 2007: Part 3: Tangiers and Fez

Travels in 2007: Part 4: Merzouga and Demnate

Travels in 2007: Part 5: Casablanca and Marrakech

That journey to Rissani was not one that we’d been looking forward to. Over ten hours in length and through the night meant that there would be no decent sleep and no decent views either. The only plus point would be that we were saving on the price of a night’s accommodation in a hotel.

Leaving Fez we passed through some modern suburbs that reminded me of the outskirts of Tel Aviv or one of the other new Israeli cities. Once again the similarities between the Arabs and their bitterest enemies were startling. Like the Irish and the English, what is it that most those most akin to you your bitterest enemies?

Vast olive plantations lined the road towards Meknes. As for that city, it was again another clone of Tel Aviv with the majority of the population living in vast grey apartment complexes, five storeys high with shops, laundrettes and banks occupying the ground floor.

Outside of the city the roads were empty and dark, the only other traffic that we saw being a police jeep that had stopped a rather rickety-looking truck. Indeed, the police presence on Morocco’s roads seems to be heavy with checkpoints in most villages although our bus was waved through all of them.

Soon after this I fell into an uncomfortable sleep but was awoken when our bus stopped somewhere near to Azrou. There was an appetising smell of kebab meat coming from the restaurant but neither the Sibling nor I were hungry. We did however, need the toilet and a stretch of our legs and so we alighted.

The bus station where we had halted was a strange place. It appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, a newish complex with a restaurant, shop, hotel and mosque all surrounded by a high wall. It was, I mused, perhaps the nearest modern equivalent to the ancient caravan serais of Arabia. I wandered from the well-lit front to the pitch black rear and found myself in a rather beautiful garden with a fantastic sculpture in the centre: a mountain of rocks with waterfall and scores of mosques perched upon the slopes. Impressed with this rather surreal piece of art I lifted my eyes to the heavens and there I saw it, the sight that always means ‘the desert’ to me.

I gazed upon a sky full of stars.

Everywhere in the world, unless there are clouds in the way, a man may gaze upon the stars at night. Living in the neon-soaked urban centres of modernity however, we forget just how many stars there are up there. From my homes I can see a few dozen pin pricks in the night sky. Away from the city, on the moor or in a forest, one can see thousands more. Only in the desert though can the full enormity of space be contemplated. The sky does not contain stars you see, more that it is stars, layer upon layer of them, sometimes so many that they form a light streak across the sky, uncountable, incredible. These are the stars that the ancients saw, the stars that inspired all the early faiths. Within an instant I was transported back to the first time that I’d seen such a display, riding across the Gobi Desert in a minibus en route to the dunes of Dunhuang, a phenomenon not dissimilar to the dunes of Erg Chebbi at Merzouga, our next destination on this trip.

I fell asleep again soon after the mysterious stop near Azrou but awoke sporadically throughout the night catching glimpses of low stone houses in mountain valleys that betrayed a most different environment to that which we had left behind in Fez. I did not wake properly however, until we were several kilometres away from Rissani and the sun was beginning to shower its rays over the earth.

The arrival in Rissani was a spectacle, almost surreal. It was still quite dark when the bus pulled up beside the city’s ancient kasbah, but even in that light it was clear that we were in a whole different world to that of Imperial Fez. A stillness pervaded the air; the streets were devoid of people and a sense of emptiness hung over the town. The mud-brick kasbah looked unchanged for centuries, gone was the grandeur and intricacy of North Morocco. This was desert simplicity and the dark-skinned locals spoke of a culture that was older, more exotic and more mysterious than that of the Arab. All around the town lay a desolate wasteland. This truly was the end of the road, the very limit of civilisation, the beginning of the Sahara.

We were met by a man in a 4wd who would only take us to his hotel and only there for an extortionate price. Crapgame’s mate had not turned up yet the Sibling and I were unsurprised. If he was anything like his comrade back in Fez, he would still be asleep.

We turned down the services of the 4wd man who promptly drove off. That’s when we realised that we were alone and that no one else would be coming. We were stuff on the edge of nowhere at five o’clock in the morning. That’s when the energy rush caused by our arrival faded. That’s when fatigue hit us.

We wandered towards the bus station and found a grand taxi but the driver refused to take us to Merzouga. In the bus station itself – a huge concrete shell of a building – we learnt that there may be a minibus going to Merzouga at eleven or possibly three in the afternoon. It was now coming up to 6am. We phoned Crapgame’s mate but there was no answer. Then a dark-skinned gent in traditional clothing came to us. He introduced himself as Mustapha and offered us a package: one night in a hotel with evening meal, a camel trek and one night in a Bedouin tent, also with meal, plus minibus to and fro Merzouga for Dh600. I immediately balked, but then, realising our predicament, tried to haggle. Strangely for a Moroccan however, Mustapha was having none of it and neither did he try to push the issue and so we parted company. Then, sitting in that bus station, the Sibling and I discussed our situation. What else was on offer aside from Mustapha’s package and besides, upon reflection, was the price that bad? Still, we and particularly I, resented being sold stuff that we hadn’t asked for and I for one was not really interested in a camel trek. We called Crapgame’s mate again but there was still no answer and then the Sibling stated that he actually did rather wish to go on a camel trek and that a night in a Bedouin tent would be cool and was this really the time to be penny-pinching. Dh600 was, after all, only about £40 and would we ever be in such a place again? I looked around me, thought of the other options (i.e. sitting in a bus station for hours waiting for a minibus that may or may not arrive) and wavered. I went out to Mustapha who was waiting by a minibus, tried to haggle again, failed again, asked to see the brochure he had earlier proffered for the hotel, thought that it actually looked nice and then accepted. In retrospect, this was undoubtedly the wisest move of the holiday and I am not too proud to say that I would perhaps have never done it if not for my brother. Travelling together can overcome some very silly, ingrained stubbornness.[1]

Two or three kilometres out of Rissani the palm-fronded fields stopped and a wasteland of black earth took their place. Every now and then a signpost pointed off across the desert advertising some kasbah-type hotel that could not be seen and that no discernible track led to. I began to understand the reluctance of the grand taxi driver in Rissani in taking us to the hotel of our choice. This was 4wd drive country.

Along the horizon to our left the dunes of Erg Chebbi came into view, smooth hills of golden sand. The horizon to the right was marked by a huge grey cliff, miles long.

The turn-off for the Berber village of Merzouga was discernible but only just. An unmade track that led off the main road at a right angle, it took us firstly through some scruffy cemeteries and then into the mud-brick village itself. From the main road nothing had been visible and one began to appreciate just how important stars were in desert navigation in times gone by.

The Nasser Palace was brand-new and empty. Built in a faux traditional style it looked like a Disneyland version of an ancient kasbah and one half expected Aladdin and Princess Jasmine to come floating out on a carpet. It its courtyard, instead of camels, was a blue swimming pool and a set of tables and chairs. We however, cared little for any of it. The lack of sleep at night had caught up on us and we both sank gratefully into our beds and a very welcome slumber.

The Nasser Palace

When we awoke the sun was at its zenith and we decided to explore our surroundings. We found that we were the only guests at the Nasser Palace and that our hotel was in fact, rather a cool place with plenty of pleasant terraces to sit on. That however, was for later and first we went into the village, a simple collection of mud-brick buildings inhabited by nut-brown Berbers who had little in common racially with the Arabs of the north. We dined at the village shop – mint tea with some cold, fried aubergine an potatoes – and decided to round things off with some sweets, but the penny chews that we bought were tasteless and so we kept them in our pockets and later they were distributed amongst the children of the Bedouin camp in the dunes.

Merzouga was poor. It had evidently been very poor but tourist money was moving in and things were changing. In the centre of the village was a building that housed a souvenir emporium, a restaurant and an internet café. The locals had realised that they could make money out of the travellers from afar, but they had not yet twigged as to just how much. The prices were ridiculously cheap compared with Fez and Tangiers and there was no pushy salesmanship or haggling. For the first time in Morocco, we felt relaxed. Although the tourist tidal wave was coming, the full force of it had not yet hit this simple village and we both felt glad that we were seeing something of the ‘real’ Morocco before it is ruined.

Whatever that might mean.

The ‘real’ Morocco however, was alas, uncomfortably hot and even our short stroll had drained us of all our energies. Realising that it would be much the same in the desert on our coming trek, we bought some scarves in a deep blue colour to protect us from the sunlight and then sauntered back to the Nasser Palace. On our way we passed a small caravan park and noticed that the plush camper vans parked there hailed from Italy, France and Spain. It had never occurred to me that people might drive all the way to the Sahara. The idea was an exciting and appealing one.

Back at the hotel I tried out the pool, (which was spinetinglingly cold!), and then we sat on the terrace and read or sketched. I continued with a book that I’d started in Fez – Anthony Beevor’s Berlin 1945: The Downfall – and as the sun set over the Sahara I immersed myself in the excruciating death throes of Nazi Europe, the last pained gasps of a dying empire played out amongst the streets and houses that I’d walked through and by but a few weeks previously. It was literally a world away from the serene stillness of the Moroccan sands.

The Sibling on the other hand, was fascinated by the dunes; how the intense colours changed from golds to deep pinks in the dying light. As the sun set a group of local youths played an impromptu football game on the flat ground, as now the air had cooled it was no longer energy sapping.

We had all but given up hopes of the evening meal that had been promised to us by Mustapha and were about to search the village for a restaurant when the proprietor called us and we were served a delicious feast of tagine and fresh bread in the hotel’s empty restaurant. Moroccan food, which had always been good, was getting better the further south that we travelled, although I suspect that this meal was so good because it was the same as the proprietor and staff themselves were eating in the next room. We were finally beginning to develop a fondness for this country that we had chosen to visit: it seemed that here in the desert the dishonesty, harassment, hassle and falsity that had plagued us ever since we set foot on African soil in Tangiers were unknown and at long last we found that we could trust people again. And it was with this trust that the full beauties of the country were revealed to us.

That night we climbed up onto the roof of the Nasser Palace and lay on it gazing at the stars. They filled the sky, layer upon layer, unbelievably beautiful. I remembered a day almost ten years before to the day when a Dutchman that I was sharing a room with in Kibbutz Revivim had climbed with me onto the top of a stack of hay bales and we had gazed at a desert sky very similar to this one. Before that day I had not particularly liked the guy, but as we chatted about life and all its intricacies watching the full beauties of the cosmos, a friendship began to develop. That friendship, with the Lowlander, my companion on my Trans-Asian trip five years before, still endures to this day.

The following day was similarly hot. In the Nasser Palace restaurant  I found an album of photos taken over the years. They showed the construction of the hotel, (as I’d suspected, there were breeze blocks under the mud walls), and grinning guests past. One set of photos showed some days of heavy rain with a flooded Merzouga and a car half-buried in the muddy sludge outside the Nasser Palace gates.

At two our camels arrived led by a thin Bedouin gentleman named Mohammed who had a basic grasp of English. One camel was noticeably grumpier and worse behaved than the other and his demeanour did not improve when this rather rotund English gentleman was placed on his back. His complaints however, were to no avail and very soon we were off.

The ships that took us into the desert

The first kilometre or so of the trek was across the flat black earth that surrounds Merzouga but when we got into the dunes it all got more interesting. The shadows cast by our mini caravan and the smooth sands were the stuff of legend and we could easily have been trekking across the sands five hundred years ago, headed for Timbuktu with the esteemed Leo Africanus by our side were it not for my Stoke City top and the faint drone of a 4x4 some miles away, jumping over the dunes filled with savages who prefer their kicks in an air-conditioned box.

Soon however, even that drone was gone and we were alone. It was incredible: the silence of the desert is something that cannot be explained, only experienced. It is beyond silence, it is spiritual. All over the world there are people who seek to “get away from it all”, to put civilisation behind them, but nowhere can this be done like in the desert. On a mountain a breeze blows or birds sing; trees rustle and insects buzz in the forest and water slaps at the sides of your boat on a lake or the sea. In the desert however, there are no plants to rustle, no birds to sing, no animals to scamper, no water and no breeze. There is nothing between a man and his Maker in the desert and it is this absolute lack of noise that makes the desert silence mystical and meditative. During our trek not one of us spoke, somehow it would have been wrong to do so, a violation of that holy place. Instead one gazes at the cloudless sky or smooth sands and loses oneself in one’s thoughts. As he plodded along barefoot in front of us, I thought about our driver’s namesake, the Prophet, who had trekked through deserts similar to this one thousand three hundred years ago, concentrating on the mysterious Allah, the only true god. And it was in a cave in the desert that God’s angel spoke to him the first words of the Qur’an, causing him to found a faith that still succours desert peoples across the globe.[2]
The religion of Islam fascinates me and has done for some time now. I read books on its history, the people that follow it and their culture and yet despite all of this, I could not understand it on anymore than a superficial level. I read an English translation of the Qur’an and I understood little more. Then however, I read a biography of the Prophet and suddenly it all seemed to fall into place. More than any other faith on earth, in Islam one has to understand the man to understand the religion. The biography of the Prophet was my key to the Qur’an. The desert however, was my key to the mindset of the Prophet.

As I rode along on the back of the camel immersed in the intense silence of the desert, I realised why God is encountered so easily – and so powerfully – in such places. I comprehended the visions of Abraham, Moses and Mohammed. I knew why Jesus needed to retreat into the wilderness for forty days and nights before he could commence his sacred mission. As I rode along I imagined the young Mohammed in a single caravan on a trading mission for his uncle. Whilst on such mission he often stopped the night with the Desert fathers and learnt off them much of their Gnostic Christian faith, but more importantly, during those endless miles of sand and stillness he had time to mull over, meditate upon and fully comprehend the message that those hermits proclaimed.

Crossing the desert

As if reading my thoughts, our own Mohammed suddenly stopped, unrolled a prayer mat, walked over a dune so that he was alone and began to pray silently. Some minutes later he returned and still without a word, rolled the mat back up again and we carried on our way.

Some time after his prayer, Mohammed suggested we try walking a little barefoot. The Sibling, who eagerly endorses any idea that involves unnecessary strenuous physical activity, jumped off his steed immediately and some minutes later I reluctantly joined him. My reluctance proved wise for barefoot dune walking was far harder than Mohammed made it look and within a quarter of an hour I returned to my camel shattered. The Sibling however, always eager to prove a point carried on walking and I chuckled as sweat streamed down his beetroot-red face.

The light was waning as we drew near to our destination: a Bedouin encampment situated beneath the shadow of Erg Chebbi’s highest dune. Mohammed stopped the camels and revealed to us that the idea was to climb the dune and watch the sunset whilst he got the tent ready. Unsurprisingly, the Sibling jumped at this excuse to tire himself out and stormed off up the dune. I was less enthusiastic, but gave it a go regardless as I figured that the views from the top were bound to be spectacular. About a third of the way up though, I was covered in sweat and my legs were giving way beneath me. The Sibling, with all the compassion of a mortgage consultant, was miles in front and showed no inclination of wanting to help. Not wishing to fail I gave it another try but when every centimetre up became a real trial, I sat down on the silvery sand and reconsidered my position. Why did I wish to reach the top? To enjoy a spectacular view or to prove a point? I looked out at the view before me which was already incredible and realised that it was the latter. Then I also realised that some things are not about succeeding or failing but instead finding where you personally are comfortable and then enjoying the moment. And there, half-way up the dune, I was comfortable, the view was amazing and I was alone. Up at the top I would neither be alone nor comfortable and so I stopped and actually enjoyed that view and as if to reward me for my common sense, the Good Lord sent a French family up the daughter with an exceptionally pretty daughter of about seventeen years of age.

As the sun set I prayed. I prayed the prayers that I know by heart yet there in the desert they felt strange. In rainy, lush England, the Muslims with their strange eating habits, baggy clothes and prayers in Arabic seem to me out of place and unnatural. It all appears a little contrived, as if they are just trying to make a point. Out on a Saharan dune however, the simple Anglican faith of St. Margaret’s with its yew trees and weathered sandstone graves seemed unnatural and forced. Out there one doesn’t sing ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ or ‘Jerusalem’ because out there neither pastures nor mountains green exist. Out there it seemed right to place one’s whole body in supplication and chant that there is ‘No God but God’ and so that is what I did and as the sun sank behind the distant mountains I buried my small offering in the sand.

Some months before the trip, whilst researching for my book on the history of Draycott-en-le-Moors, I had read a book on Pagan spirituality and how to practice it in modern-day Britain.[3] Whilst not a Pagan myself, I found some of the ideas interesting and so I emailed the author to clarify some points. I received a most thoughtful reply which included the suggestion that if one travels a long way one should always leave a gift for the gods/spirits that have protected you on your way and that dwell in that place. This apparently was a practice of the pre-Christian pagans of Britain and the gentleman suggested that a piece of quartz was perhaps the most applicable gift. Now whilst I am more a monotheist than a polytheist, the idea did have some merit in my mind although not the piece of quartz, (something that means nothing to me and that I don’t know from where to obtain), and so it was that I decided to leave something on the furthest reaches of my travels which were effectively half-way up that dune and so I took a British coin out of my pocket, said a few words and then buried it in the sand.

Running down the dune was a lot more fun than climbing up it although I must admit that it was less fun than I’d imagined it would be, (one can’t slide down dunes you see). At the bottom Mohammed was there to point us to our tent, a real Bedouin affair made from coarse black cloth and lit by oil lamps and candles.

The evening meal was cooked elsewhere, (by Mohammed’s wife or mother?), and brought to us. Our driver however, ate with us and talked of desert life whilst in the background drums banged – one of the other parties was evidently immersing itself in the local music scene. We were happy where we were though, with some mint tea and a large chicken tagine and once it was finished we fell asleep in a tent not dissimilar to the ones that Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Mohammed once slept in.

The journey back seemed to go far quicker and, as we’d seen it all before, it was all less interesting. The Sibling, to my astonishment, took out his sketchbook and proceeded to sketch the view from his camel of me, my camel and Mohammed plodding across the desert. I wondered at quite how he hoped to manage such a feat, (camels are lolloping animals and the ride is far from smooth), I was sure that I would be able to draw a stick man whilst riding a camel, let alone a masterpiece, so I awaited with curiosity his effort. When I saw it, I saw a shaky sketch quite unlike his usual etching yet attractive in its own way and sure proof that one should always be willing to attempt new… erm, positions.

Camels are strange animals indeed. In addition to their lolloping gait and grumpiness, their breath reeks and they slobber continuously. Worse still, they seem to excrete constantly, leaving a trail of brown pellets behind them wherever they go. Still, despite all their faults, they did carry us to and fro comfortably and so I for one cannot be too harsh on them.

Back at the Nasser palace we showered and then went into the village because I wanted to spend some of my hard-earned wages on a souvenir from Morocco and as this was the cheapest place that we’d seen so far I chose a lamp to go in my hallway, a snip at Dh150[4].

Around twelve we were picked up by an orange Mercedes Benz minibus ready for the journey back to Rissani. Both the Sibling and I were sorry to be leaving Merzouga as it was there that we had both first encountered relaxation and a welcome in Morocco. There, by the golden dunes, the pace of life was unhurried and I suspect that even after the full arrival of mass tourism it will not be totally spoilt. After all, you could build a hundred more hotels and the place would still be a largely empty wasteland and besides, in such heat little activity will ever be possible. I need not mention that neither the Sibling and I regretted taking the risk and booking Mustapha’s two-day tour. It had turned out to be the highlight of our holiday.

The Rissani that we returned to was a different place indeed to the one that we had left two days before. The streets that had been deserted at six in the morning were now choked with people and vehicles and the place was a veritable hive of activity. What surprised me was that unlike anywhere else we had been in Morocco all the women here veiled their faces in black cloth, many of them covering even their eyes. Doubtless this was partially due to such conservatism in the area or perhaps lack of development, (Rissani was the only town that we visited in Morocco that could be described as ‘Third World’ although it did have running water and electricity), but I suspect that it was far more due to the local climate. The desert sun is hot and indeed both the Sibling and I had covered our faces during the camel trek.

Upon arrival in Rissani Mustapha, (whom we came across in the main square), informed us that there was a bus to Ouarzazate, (the next stop on John Higgins’ route), at three but that this left from Erfoud, another town some fifteen kilometres or so to the north. Having some three hours to fill before then I decided to have a look around some of the delights that Rissani has to offer and so we got a grand taxi and headed off for the ruins of Sijilmassa.

Sijilmassa was once a bustling city at the heart of a prosperous Shiite principality. I was eager to visit its ruins as Leo Africanus had set out from there on his trips across the Sahara to Timbuktu and beyond, and thus I was able to trace a little more of that famous adventurer’s wanderings. However, I should have guessed that there would be problems when all the taxis offered to take us there for free providing that we also visited the town’s other main attraction: the Zawiya Moulay Ali ash-Sharif.

The Zawiya Moulay Ali ash-Sharif is the tomb of the founder of the Alawite Dynasty and as such, the fellow inside it is an ancestor of the current king. His whole mausoleum and the gardens that are adjacent got a makeover when that king decided to visit a few years ago and so when we arrived it was still rather pleasant.

Next door are two kasbahs one of which the guidebook said was once used to house ‘disgraced or unwanted members of the Alawite Dynasty’. We were shown round them by our taxi driver cum guide and to be honest, the diversion was a fascinating one. The first kasbah, unrestored and inhabited was a warren of pitch black alleyways infested with an overpowering smell of goat dung. Electric wires were draped lethally overhead whilst in one room a small school was housed with a class of nut-brown Berber children repeating lines said by a young female teacher.

“So what do you think?” asked our driver with a beam.

“It’s very nice but can we see Sijilmasa now?” I replied.

His face blackened for a split second before brightening again. “Sijilmasa… it is there!” he announced, pointing to some old stones in a field by the kasbah. I knew at once that he was lying as Sijilmasa was marked in the book as being some three kilometres away. I pointed this out to him and he replied that the old city of Sijilmasa had in fact been a very large old city and that indeed it did once stretch from three kilometres away all the way to this place and that those stones before me were all that remained of a once majestic city gate.

It was then that I realised that he was lying, that we wouldn’t be seeing Sijilmasa after all and that our gratis driver had a different agenda entirely. Our time in Morocco however, had mellowed us into accepting it all meekly.

And besides, all that the guidebook had to say on Sijilmasa was that there is “little to indicate its past glories except for two decorated gateways and a few other structures.”[5]

We followed the guide to the second kasbah which had been newly-restored and it provided an interesting contrast with its dilapidated neighbour. Unsurprisingly though, the best restored bit of all was the spacious and well-stocked souvenir shop which, of course, had been our guide’s final destination all along.

To be honest though, I didn’t mind too much. I’d long resigned myself to the fact that we would be led to a souvenir emporium sooner or later, and unlike many of the countries that I’ve visited, Morocco was actually full of stuff that I wanted to buy. There was however, one item in particular that I was desperate to purchase even before we had got on the plane, that being a nice shisha pipe to take home and smoke in my living room and in Fez I’d priced them up and estimated that I should be paying no more than Dh150. And so, when offered a world of souveniry goodness I indicated interest only in a shisha pipe and after stating my price I stuck to it. That’s when the game started – and I realised that it is a game and when one plays it in such a spirit, a rather fun one at that – he complemented one pipe, I erred over the colour, he came back with a Moroccan proverb, I retorted with one of my own[6], he told me that friends should help one another, I informed him that the Qur’an teaches against dishonesty. Then I walked out cheerily, he called me back equally cheerily, I walked out again, he called me back again and finally the deal was done.

That was fine but once the deal was done, our friendship was at an end and the shopkeeper had other things on his mind. Unfortunately whilst all this was happening our driver had disappeared and we were without any transport back to the centre and thus onto Erfoud. Just when we were beginning to get really worried, time being short, he reappeared with several other passengers, (including one very pretty unveiled young lady), evidently making sure that he got his money’s worth from the trip back.

Back in Rissani we caught a shared grand taxi to Erfoud, travelling a tortuous fifteen kilometres squeezed onto the back seat with three other passengers; an unpleasant experience in the extreme for the Sibling who got stuck in the middle next to a rather rotund Arab gentleman who took a liking to him and started to fondle certain areas where no fellow voyager should fondle.

Erfoud was a non-descript dusty town and we were hungry so we forgot any ideas of sightseeing and tucked into a veritable feast of kebab, chips and Moroccan salad in a small café by the bus station. Whilst we were eating we met a fellow Brit, a Mancunian named James who was travelling around the country for two months and had just returned from Merzouga where he had paid considerably more than we had for a very similar trip. James had just finished university where he’d been reading French and was about to commence a career in the army and he saw this adventure as an opportunity to learn some Arabic and hone his survival skills, (he had just done several days trekking in the Atlas Mountains), both useful in today’s British Army. Later on, when discussing the situation of our new-found friend, the Sibling suggested that the studying Arabic and the hardcore mountain trekking may have had a more serious purpose than just a bit of backpacking fun.[7] “What d’you mean?” I asked, somewhat stupidly.

“Well, he said he was joining the army after, didn’t he? I reckon that they’re paying for it all and it’s all some sort of training so that he can integrate himself into the Muslim World,” replied the Sibling, his eyes ablaze with the hint of a conspiracy.

The Sibling, I should note here, loves elaborate conspiracies. He thrives on them, the stupider the better. There were several that he formulated during our Morocco trip and this was not the most far-fetched. That honour goes to the theory that he formulated on the train to Fez when he reckoned that Ali had sent in the Cervantes student in order to soften us up before he launched his attack. The Sibling still believes in that one to this day despite the fact that I pointed out the bad economics of employing people to soften up randoms on a train who are not likely to buy more than a stainless steel teapot off you at most. Mind you, I can’t be so judgemental. After all, when I was living in Bulgaria I was convinced that the guy who ran the local branch of the British Council library was a clandestine James Bond because when war was declared on Iraq he mysteriously closed down the library for the day and was seen skulking around in the vicinity of the naval base.

The drive to Ouarzazate was longer that we anticipated but interesting as it passed through some spectacular – if eerie – scenery. The highlight for me came somewhere near to the town of Tinejdad where we passed through one of the most surreal landscapes that I have ever witnessed. For kilometres on the northern side of the bus, was a landscape of craters and mounds, mile after mile of them. I supposed that they were the remains of some old mines but this could not be confirmed.

James left us at Tinehir where he hoped to stay for a few days and do some more trekking. We almost wished that we were joining him as we were by this time fed up of the long journey and Tinehir looked like a nice place. However, unlike James, our time was limited and our experience of following John Higgins’ advice had so far been positive and the next stage of our journey was the one that I was most looking forward to.

We were travelling to Ouarzazate because according to John Higgins the road from that city over the High Atlas to the small town of Demnate is the most beautiful in all Morocco. Furthermore, John said that there was a bus that traversed the road every other day, going to Demnate one day and returning the next. That was the bus that we hoped to take and in doing so taking in some of the best views of the famed High Atlas Range. Looking on the map in the guidebook I was pleased to see that this famed road was not even marked: for the first time on our trip we were truly going off the beaten track!

But before we got to Ouarzazate there was another 200km to go. This was through a fascinating moonscape of bare brown rock, sparsely populated, dotted with ancient towns and mud-brown kasbahs. However, soon after Tinehir the darkness set in and little could be seen; all we could do was wait it out.

When Ouarzazate came it seemed like we had entered a different country. Just as the vegetation had been sparse for the last few days, so had the money. These were poor regions of a none-too-rich country and as soon as we hit Ouarzazate with its flashy airport and scores of plush residential developments, you could positively smell the money.

The source of that money is a famous one, in those parts at least, although without knowing it we have all contributed it to it in one way or another over the years. Ever seen a film that is set in the desert? Well, chances are that it was shot in the Ouarzazate Film Studios or countryside there about. Jesus of Nazareth, Lawrence of Arabia, Harem, The Last temptation of Christ, The Man Who Would Be King, Kingdom of Heaven, Hideous Kinky, The Jewel of the Nile, The Living Daylights, Kundun, The Mummy, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down are but a few. Ouarzazate is North Africa’s Hollywood and a regular substitute for Afghanistan, Arabia and the Holy Land. If you are looking for a desert to shoot a film in, then Ouarzazate is the place to come.

Problem was that we were looking for the bus to Demnate and that is far harder to find than a filmable desert. We asked at various booths in the bustling bus station but the answers that we received ranged from “There is no bus to Demnate from here, you have to go to Marrakech first,” to “Demnate?! Never heard of it!” Experience has taught me that in Third World countries, if people are not directly involved in something, then they know not of it. I doubted not that there was a bus, but what worried me was that if it were leaving the following morning and we couldn’t locate it in time, then we would have to wait two days in Ouarzazate before moving on, something that would seriously screw up our schedule and probably mean that our trip to Casablanca would be off.

Still, what could we do? In despair we headed out of the bus station to find a hotel, heading vaguely in the direction of the city centre where the guidebook said that the nearest one was. Several metres from the bus station however, we found one not included in the book, the Labaraka and when we enquired of the price we found it to be ideal at Dh120 per night. Being by the bus station I thought that I could continue the search for the Demnate bus on the morrow. Pleased with our choice, (and to be finally off the bus), we settled down for a mint tea with the friendly owner and some chatty local kids. That owner enquired of our professions and when the Sibling replied ‘artist’ he smiled and introduced him to a gentleman on another table who also painted. The Sibling, satisfied at being able to talk about art with someone else who was actually interested in what he said was sorted, but I was not: I still worried about this bus. “Excuse me,” I said to our hotelier, “but we wish to catch the bus to Demnate. Do you know if there is one tomorrow leaving from the bus station?”

My soul soared when I heard his reply. “Yes, there is a bus but it leaves from there, not the bus station.”


“Yes, there! Come!” And he led me across the road and round a corner to another café with an old bus stood outside where a jovial rotund man was sat drinking tea. “Here is the bus and there is the driver,” our host announced with a smile.

The man smiled. “We leave for Demnate tomorrow at seven,” he said. “I am driver. It is very beautiful road, many mountains. We arrive, maybe one, maybe not. You want come on bus?” We were saved! The schedule was ok and what’s more, I knew that he wouldn’t leave without us! Life was good and tomorrow we would be travelling along what John Higgins declared to be ‘the most beautiful road in all Morocco’.

The bus to Demnate was full from the outset and it remained that way for virtually the entire journey although, when we finally arrived at our destination, the Sibling and I were probably the only original occupants left save for the driver. It wasn’t just people that filled the bus either – sacks of vegetables, potatoes and other staples procured from the market filled the aisle and the roof rack all contributing to the squeeze.

For the first twenty kilometres or so our bus rumbled back down the dry valley that we’d travelled along the night before. Then we turned left and proceeded across the flat moonscape for another five kilometres or so until the mountains reared up before us and the fun began. From there on it was into first gear and the crunching, grinding, slow climbing began.

As the mountains approached, in the foothills a village of grey stone cottages was seen. In the centre was its with a squat rectangular minaret that looked like it belonged more to a mediaeval church than an Arabian mosque. For some reason the road did not pass through the village but instead wound its way up the hill half a kilometre or so away and alighting or embarking passengers did so at a deserted T-junction. Over the hours that followed we passed many villages and found that virtually all were like that, nestled away from the road between mountain folds, across a valley and many a time did we pick up a lone shepherd sat on some rock by the roadside. Only on two occasions did our road actually pass through a village.

The road all the way to Demnate was slow and hard-going, a seemingly never-ending succession of corners and climbs. The High Atlas are steep mountains of bare rock with little vegetation and some snow on the higher peaks. Human habitation is sparse as there is little to support people here, although by the sides of the fast-flowing rivers tiny fields were carved out of the thin strip of fertile land, tended by peasants who looked like they belonged to another century.

That feeling of being in the past came back again and again as we trundled through a landscape that had changed little over the centuries. What intrigued me was how un-Moroccan it all looked – the people, architecture and landscape all looked distinctly un-Arabian, more like the Balkans than what I’d imagined North Africa to be like. Then I realised why I liked it all so much; these mountains reminded me of the Rodopi Mountains in Bulgaria where the Muslim Pomaks live, but not the Rodopi that I knew but instead a Rodopi of a century ago when the women wore colourful folk dress, the men sported beards and skullcaps and all were still living off the land. Once again a trip to one place on this earth revealed the living history of a quiet alien other region and to me, that was wonderful.

But whilst anchored in the past the High Atlas might be, modernity has still made some significant inroads. Huge pylons provided electricity to every village and the road that we traversed, although virtually empty, (we passed three vehicles during the entire journey), was tarmaced throughout. Indeed, throughout the whole of our travels in Morocco we saw few unmade roads and not one village unconnected to the national grid. Third World it may be, but only just.

Around twelve o’ clock we stopped in a small village of incredible beauty for lunch and in that place did I witness the absolute incomprehensibility of the Sibling.

“Shall we go for something to eat?” I asked him, my stomach rumbling and some tantalising smells coming from the eatery that the rest of the bus’ passengers had retired into.

“Nah, I’m not hungry and I want to sketch this whilst I can.”

I looked around me. With quaint stone houses, pine-clad slopes and a stream of crystal clear water rushing through the fields beyond the village it was certainly a scene worth capturing although after several hours of sketching the interior of the bus I’d have thought that even he would have fancied a break.

I went into the eatery, a simple place that served only tagines, bread and tea, all cooked over gas camping stoves, and enjoyed one of the most delicious meals of my life, a heavenly chicken tagine of such melt-in-the-mouth, exquisite herby, erm… tastiness, (sorry but I am far better at eating food than describing it), all mopped up with some warm fresh bread and washed down with mint tea.

I left full and contented and stood by the road to admire the marvellous view. Then, I went over to the Sibling to see how he had captured it on paper. What I saw, I could hardly believe.

“What d’you think?” he asked.

I stared at him in disbelief. “It’s the bus,” I replied.

“Yeah.” He didn’t get it.

“But you’ve one of the most beautiful views in the world in front of you and instead you draw the bus!”

The Sibling looked up and took in that view of unparalleled magnificence. “Yeah, it’s nice I s’pose,” he said before returning to the bus.

“But you don’t even like buses,” I commented, still in shock.

Several minutes later the horn was peeped to encourage us all back onto that bus. As he climbed on board the Sibling announced, “I’m hungry!”

“But there’s no time for a tagine now,” I said.

“Shame, I just fancied a tagine. Can you get me something from the shop instead?”

The ‘shop’ was a shack selling the most basic and necessary provisions. Oh yes, and crisps. I bought him some of the latter along with a piece of cake and a bottle of water.

“Cheers,” he said as the doors shut and the bus pulled off.

“Bugger!” he exclaimed as we started to move. “These crisps are soggy!”

Just outside the village we passed by a mediaeval stone kasbah that looked more suited to Transylvania than Morocco and then we began to climb, up and up, out of the valley and towards Demnate. We reached that place around two, a small town situated where the mountains met the plain and enclosed by crumbling mud walls. We had traversed the High Atlas along the most beautiful of all the routes that pass through them and were glad. Once again John Higgins had done us proud.

Demnate is a small sleepy town on the edge of the Atlas Mountains. It has two hotels, both of which are shit, and one restaurant which is little better. Its only feature is its set of crumbling town walls which might, if situated in another, more developed and less historical country, be considered worthy of note. But in Morocco, where town walls are ten a penny, they hardly warrant a footnote. In short, Demnate is mundane, dull and utterly provincial. And that’s why I loved it.

To me, one of the highlights of travel is to go to those dull provincial towns – the Retfords, Nuneatons, Ketterings and Mansfields of Hungary, China, Thailand and Lithuania – and see what life is really like in all its bland and low-key glory.

Life you see, is built on the foundations of the provincial. Forget your big cities, they are merely the showpieces, how a civilisation wishes to be remembered rather than how it actually is. The money might be made in those grand showpieces but their lifeblood is sucked from the provinces, their success built on the toil of those who have moved to them in search of wealth and success. Dick Whittington was a provincial; only a provincial could have believed that somewhere the streets were paved in gold. A country’s soul always resides in its provinces.

And that is just why we both liked Demnate so much. We stayed there for three nights and during that time, in our own low-key way, we entered into the life of the place. We developed our photos, drank tea, strolled through the dusty streets, sent letters from the post office and went for a bath in the local hammam. In short, we slowed ourselves down to the pace of Demnate and felt much the better for it.

On our second day in the town we decided to make our way out to the area’s only tourist attraction, Imi-n-Ifri, a natural rock bridge over a gorge. We took a Grand Taxi out and then clambered down into the somewhat spectacular gorge. Down there we (unsurprisingly) met an unofficial local guide who showed us the way through over the rocks and pointed out some formations that looked like a young woman, a snake and a map of Africa respectively.

Once we had climbed back up the other side we decided that it was time for a drink in the small café at the top so we entered and ordered a mint tea apiece as well as a Moroccan salad. We were the only customers so Hafid, the chatty waiter, sat down with us and tried to start a conversation in Spanish and French. We succeeded, at a very basic level, in the latter tongue and things were going along swimmingly until a new set of customers arrived.

A French set.

Now unlike so many of my compatriots, (and millions more across Europe and North America), I do not have a particular problem with the French. It is true that there have been few that I have ever been close to; true to that their language is rather silly-sounding and true also that they have become intolerably lucky in major international football competitions over recent year, but even so one has to have some respect for the nation that produced Emilé Zola, Asterix and Obelix, the Mysterious Cities of Gold, Nicole out of the Renault adverts and a footballer that believes in headbutting opposing players in a World Cup Final. It is due to all of these reasons that I am prepared to give the French a chance, but this particular family, I am sorry to say, pushed my patience to the limit.

After curt introductions the old garlic-muncher on the next table said, (ostensibly to Hafid but more to us), “Ze European Union, it is zis. Ze English zey drive on ze left and Europe is driving on ze right and so when zey meet – boom!” Of course what he was really pissed off about I later learnt, was the fact that Morocco had previously been France’s exclusive playground; a holiday destination that wasn’t infested by the Brits who fill up the Costas and Greek Islands every summer. Last year however, when Easyjet started flying to Marrakech and Ryanair to fez, the tables had been turned and now in Morocco, like elsewhere in Europe, the Brits were pouring in and paying less for their tickets than the French airlines charge their compatriots. And as a result, the locals are now starting to prefer to parlez Anglais and not Francais. Oh la la! C’est une catastrophe, non?! C’est terrible! ‘Serves you right for being such an insolent and ignorant monsieur,’ thought the Sibling and I.

We decided to walk back into Demnate from Imni-i-Ifri along the quiet road. As we walked I mused upon how similar the scenery was to that of the Bible Lands and to fully capture the mood burst into a beautiful rendition of the Boney M classic ‘Mary’s Boy Child’. The Sibling was less taken by the moment but the singing continued and eventually degenerated into a faux rock version of Cliff Richard’s ‘Millennium Prayer’ which then caused us both to expound humorously upon the individual who is Stephen Finney.

Stephen Finney is the elder brother of a mutual friend of ours, Richard Finney. Whilst Richard is a pleasant, open and funny guy with plenty to recommend him to the wider world, his brother is the opposite. Since childhood however, Stephen has tried to counter his complete lack of personality and merits by adopting an attitude of unparalleled arrogance and a belief that he truly is greater than us mere mortals. All of this is perhaps best demonstrated in his magnificent career on screen and stage.

At school Stephen, who always considered himself a great singer, was apparently destined for a glorious stage career in the hit West End Musicals and so, upon finishing university, he ceased annoying North Staffordshire with his wailings into a microphone and journeyed south, a la Dick Whittington to the capital, his aim to piss off the inhabitants of that great city instead. Three years later however, he returned, tail between his legs but miraculously still as arrogant and obnoxious as when he left, announcing that he was going to change his career direction. And the sum total of those three years spent acting and singing in our beloved capital? No less than a role as a backing singer on ‘Millennium Prayer’, a song ridiculed across the land. Hilarious! And so fitting a tribute to the man that is Stephen Finney! And that day, the lower slopes of the Atlas Mountains rang with laughter directed towards him

By the side of the road to Demnate we noticed a strange symbol daubed onto trees and walls and we fell into a discussion as to what it could be as we had noticed it similarly painted at various locations along our route through the Atlas Mountains and also in Merzouga. I suggested that it may be a letter from the ancient hieroglyphic alphabet of the Berbers and indeed later research on the internet proved this to be the case; it being the character for ‘man’. That however, does not explain why it was daubed all over the place in the Berber lands that we passed through; some suggestions that the Sibling and I came up with were that it was the symbol for some Berber political movement or that it was to ward off evil spirits.

As we reached Demnate the children were all pouring out of the local schools and returning home. They were most surprised and curious to see two foreigners strolling through their streets and laughing at one of Cliff Richard’s backing singers and more than one brave soul ventured a “Hello!” and a handshake. What interested me was the difference in attitude to women here in the provinces. In Rissani not a female face was uncovered, yet here in Demnate no one wore a veil. Most girls did don headscarves though, and only a flirty few went about heads bare. Most telling however, was the fact that although most of the students were walking home in groups or pairs, all were without exception, single sex.

One of our first tasks upon arriving in Demnate had been to try out the shisha bought in Rissani. We had gone to the local shop and, after some misunderstandings, bought charcoal and tobacco, but then we were faced with the complex problem of trying to work out how the thing fitted together and functioned. Our first try was a disaster that ended in no smoke and a large lump of melted rubber. In desperation we turned to that oracle of all wisdom that is the internet and from we learnt that we had failed because we were missing a piece: a ceramic dish that should have been fitted on top of the (now useless) rubber fitting. So it was that we went on a mission to buy one in the shops of Demnate, a mission that proved unsuccessful until the very last minute, after we had given up, I spied a shop selling terracotta crockery which, when enquiries were made, turned out to be a shisha specialist as well. A ceramic dish and new rubber fitting were then purchased and the shisha duly christened. Incidentally, we also learnt from that shop that for some inexplicable reason, all shisha pipes in Morocco were sold minus the ceramic dish and furthermore, the Dh150 that I had paid was indeed the going rate for such an article.

We dined in the same establishment for every meal during our stay in Demnate. This was not because it was great, but instead because there was nowhere else to dine. The food at the eatery on the town’s main street was passable and cheap and the restaurant’s location was ideal for people watching. However, such things can work two ways and one evening a slightly-strange local named Mustapha Sarouf came to talk to us and the Sibling drew him. Mustapha was a schoolteacher by trade and he worked in Casablanca. He had an amazing ability to speak English well but understand little. Well, either that or he just wasn’t listening to us. Instead we were treated to a weird monologue that left us itching to leave the café and hit a hammam. After that first meeting though, he came back the following day and then again once more, this time at our hotel. It was then that we realised that it was time to move on.

Next part:

[1] Which reminds me of a friend of mine, Brian Connellan, who once travelled alone across Asia and Europe. Upon reading his journal, there incident after incident of him getting into a mess solely because of his inerrant stubbornness. I would criticise him for it except that I know only too well that if I’d been travelling alone, I’d as likely have done the same.
[2] I say ‘founded’ although Muslims believe that all he really did was renew the original faith of Abraham
[3] Walking the Mist by Donald McKinney
[4] Later checking showed that the decision was wise and that Merzouga was the cheapest place that we visited for purchasing souvenirs.
[5] Lonely Planet Morocco, p.337
[6] “Life’s not sugar, death’s not tea.” Actually not a proverb of my making but instead the lyrics to a DDT song. Effective nonetheless.
[7] Not that I regard any sort of physical exertion as ‘fun’ you understand, but I believe that some people do.


  1. Hey

    i went to marokko 2 years ago and i came in contact with some fellows who told me, that the symbol you are mentioning (..racter for ‘man’. Tha..)is indeed a symbol for man - almost. The further message of this illustration ist that men build the connection between Heaven (the semicircle on the top) and Earth (the one on the bottom).
    I stumbled across your blog via google picture search, cause i was looking for a template, to get this sign tatooed.

    I know its already 5 years but still.

    warm greetings from Germany!

  2. Nils,
    Thanks for your comment. I didn't the bit about it being about the connection between Heaven and Earth which explains why it is so popular. Thanks for letting me know and I hope that your trip to Morocco was good.

    Uncle Travelling Matt