First full day in Morocco and we are up and into it. Places to see and the bus is here waiting for us by 7.10am. Goodness knows why we're doing a tour because everytime we do I swear we'll never do another but here we are winding our way through the early morning chaos of Marrakech to another bus station with visions of the Sahara Desert in mind. I wished I'd had the video going to get an idea of the sights. I have a mental snapshop of people, scooters, donkeys, horses and carts, masses of bicycles and the odd mustard/rust coloured taxi all moving in every direction possible. Most people are walking with heads down, plastic bag in hand on a mission. Hair blown back with the speed he's going, a good looking young man dressed in a shiny new suit and tie stands out of the crowd as we whizzs along on his little motorbike that looks like a cross between a bicycle and 50cc motorbike. The dusty brown streets seem a foreign environment to see this dapper young fellow in.
It's predominantly men on the street this morning, not sure what the women are up to at this time of the day but feel sure we'll find out as the day goes on.
The streets are grubby with rubbish both dry and food scraps piled on the side. Lots of cats and kittens making the most the scapes. Not to smelly now but surely after a day in this 35 degree heat it'll be rank. It feels a relief to be leaving this thriving mass behind us and to be heading up into the high Atlas Mountains hopefully making it to see the Berber villages and a different part of Morocco.
Amazing just the time it took to get out of Marrakech. But with a population of four million people and buildings no higher than four stories, the city has become a sprawling mass.
Up into the Atlas mountains we head, on and on we go. We leave the green lush valley type of vegetation for the dry brown desert like conditions. Nothing pretty about this environment, it's harsh and basic and how they eek out a living here Is beyond me.
We see women down on their hands and knees cutting the grass all day, then stacking it up on the donkey and carting it to a drop off point in the next village. But not all were lucky enough to have that donkey and more often than not it was the women we saw laden down with a huge pile on their backs making their way along the roadside. I gather it's the women and children that live out here and the men that commute to the bigger city to try and make money, sometimes only coming home once a month. Living is tough and basic, definitely not for the faint hearted.
But we were delighted to see a number of new schools being built. The King of Morocco is passionate about education for all children and the schools we saw were way out on the edge of the desert where often the Berber children don't have access to good schools. One of the school teachers hitched a ride on our bus from just outside Marrakech as the regular bus wasn't running. He arrived at school at 9.30 - it's not the pupils being late they have trouble with over here it's the teachers!!!
The Tizi n'Tichka mountain pass that we head over reaches a height of 2260 metres and is the highest major pass in North Africa, wintertime it's often snow covered. It must have been an engineering feat getting this road designed and built but it's surely well used and the huge truck and trailer units that crawl up and over it are amazing. All the way we see basic stall type situations set up to sell something, sometimes they're virtually a lockup cupboard. If you stop to take a photograph you can be assured somebody will appear from nowhere and be wanting money for either their wares or just their lovely toothy grins!
Unlike the white villages of rural Spain that stand out the Berber villages are a reddish, ochre and mud colour that blend into the side of the hill. Even though they say up to 80% of the Moroccan population is Berber only half of those live that cultural lifestyle. And here in the Atlas mountains is where we find those the pure Berbers who live in the traditional housing, speak their own dialectic, and practise Berber music and art.
Our destination was Ait-Benhaddou a traditional mud brick city on the edge of the mountains. From first glance it looks picture postcard perfect and funnily enough it's been used on a number of films mostly as a replacement for Jersusalem so we could be forgiven for wondering if we'd made it too the Holy land. And our guide reinforced many times that it had been used in a number of films, his favourite Russell Crow's epic "Gladiator" movie.
We wandered down through a riverbed and up to one of the main entrances to stroll through the ksar, which is described as 'a group of earthern buildings surrounded by high walls'. The houses crowding together within these high walls are a great example of Southern Moroccon architecture. Even though it's now on the Unesco World Heritage List it has eight families still living in the ksar.
Next stop was Ouarzazate, a relatively quiet small town, nowdays a popular tourist destination and often referred to as the door to the Sahara. Another town which has attracted many film makers and international companies to their studios, even a favaourite of mine, 'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen' was made right here. Mainly inhabited by Berbers, but a strong French influence back in the 1920's when they turned it into a garrison town.
Sadly no sign of the much awaited Sahara Desert but at least we were closer than we'd ever been before!!! Those camels and sand dunes will just have to wait till another African adventure.