One of the roads out of Fes the next day led us to the Roman ruins (seems there were not many countries the Romans didn’t get to!) at Volubilis south west of Fes. It was a Unesco site but was a bit unkempt compared to their Italian, Greek or Turkish sites.
We spent some time exploring the site and then headed for Meknes via Moulay Idriss a charming hillside town. All along the road men were
selling pomegranates, figs and grapes. Near the larger towns there were a lot of large,brand new car dealerships.
In Meknes we found a parking spot aided by a man in a high viz jacket. These men are not official parking people but for about 50cents they will help you get in and out of a parking spot and make sure the car is not interfered with. Well worth the money!
We picked a nice corner cafe (one of the scores in town) and most cafes seem to still be set up on their old French model with the chairs all facing the street and the waiters in black trousers, white shirts and a black apron. They serve tea in lovely little silver coloured teapots and a small glass and the “cafe au lait” comes out separately. Mostly the coffee is brought out first and then the waiter brings the hot milk and fills the cup according to how much milk you want. Water is usually supplied with the coffee. The price for coffee (depending on the area) ranged from 7dirhams ($1) to 14dirhams and it was like a real Italian coffee. Their version of a cortado was a moitier or cafe casse – strong coffee and a dash of milk. Every small town had a multitude of cafes with
good coffee machines. We had never seen so many cafes anywhere and nearly all were populated by men sitting watching the world go by. Maurice was always the object of curiosity with his white hair and hat.
The scenery on the drive up into the middle Atlas mountains on the secondary roads was beautiful and there was a great diversity of landscapes along the way with forests, orchards of apricots and apples and many crops.
There were many riders of donkeys in the country areas for the tranportation of themselves and other goods. We landed in the late afternoon in one of the best campsites that we had stayed in. It was near the town of Azrou and was extremely well kept and beautifully set out and they even gave us free fresh bread in the morning. Camping in Morocco was much cheaper than in Europe and even in the best campsite it only cost us $11 for the night including electricity.
I invested in a Maroc Telecom dongle for my computer but unfortunately the man who sold it to me omitted to give me back the card with the PUK and Code so another visit to another helpful man in Azrou and new PUK got me into the internet for $30 for 8GB unlimited time.
We had wanted to see the famous cedar trees which grew in the middle Atlas especially on the backroads around Ifrane and from Khenifra to Zaida. We found their famous Cedar Gourand which was an enormous tree. There were several Barbary Macaques or commonly known as Barbary Apes which I had thought were only made famous in Gibraltar however I later read that they were imported from Morocco and Algiers. They were supposed to be somewhat agressive so I only photographed them from the van although locals were more adventurous. There were many camps set up in the forests, some tented and some sturdier structures. They appeared to be like scout or school camps.
We found the fairly rough small road which crossed across the middle Atlas and through the majestic cedar forests. Some of the forest and valleys looked very European and we were both surprised at the amount of lush agricultural land. The first part of the drive was fairly easy through some wide valleys but as we got further into the mountains the road deteriorated to a very bumpy one. We hardly saw another car except for three men who had no water left in their radiator and one man was
walking towards us and asked us for some water. We luckily had five litres spare and he was grateful to not have to walk back many kilometres to fetch water. The extensivie cedar forests (thousands of hectares) were very beautiful and it was a lovely drive until the road petered out to
gravel, stones and hardened mud and much of it had disappeared due to many mudslides and rockslides from recent rain. That went on for about 60 kilometres with very steep drops to the valley below where the very narrow path had partially broken away. We didn’t speak much and I took no photos. We were very glad to get to the end and back to not so bad roads but having said that the views down and across the valleys and mountains were spectacular. Back on the highway to Midelt we saw a lot of iron ore and the mountains there reminded us of the north west of western Australia.
There were many people in the rural areas living a very subsistence way of life by their poor dwellings and clothing.
The children would shout and wave and I had bought some sweets in Spain so gave them out to the kids as they came up to the van. Most of the adults waved to us and the ones that stopped to say hello all wanted to shake our hand. Those who helped us in cafes and on the street were all interested in where we were from and gave us a lot of helpful information. This was mostly in French.
The hats that a lot of the rural people wore made them look more like Mexicans than Moroccans. The typical Moroccan dress with peaked hood was worn by both men and women although they had different fabrics and colours.
In our first week in Morocco we saw only one group of Spanish tourists but no large tour buses and very few individual foreign tourists even in cities like Fes. Several people told us that tourism was down for August and the ISIS threat had the military out in force and many police check points along the highways. They always just waved us on when they saw the GB numberplate and Maurice’s white hair. We were obviously not a threat to anyone.
Most public signs were still in French even in Maroc Telecom which was surprising. My school and University French really came in handy as most Moroccans everywhere spoke French which they learn at school.
We reached the city of Midelt with it’s beautifully planted gardens and many fountains, well kept buildings and streets and many new buildings under contruction. The municipal campsite was in the city but we were the only campers there and it was a very quiet location.
We found Mt Blanc cafe which had only been open for 5months and had a good morning coffee the next day before setting off for the high Atlas (Haut Atlas) mountains and through the Ziz gorge which was incredible with steep mountains on both sides and a river or sometimes river bed running through the centre. In Erachidia we stopped to buy some Moroccan bread and happened to meet a lovely moroccan who was on holiday from Spain where he lived. He then walked us to a good local restaurant where we had lunch and then he took us back to his mother’s house for some lovely Moroccan mint tea and for his brother Abdoul who also worked abroad in Holland to give us some tips about where to see the “real” Morocco and told us which roads were passable and which were more scenic. We also met his lovely sister who lived in Germany and another brother who worked in Spain. They were all on their Summer holidays back home. Abdul kindly drove us out of town. The road let us to Erfoud via the stunning Ziz Valley, a huge band of green oases with escarpments on either side. From there we went on to the start of the Sahara desert and the dunes at Merzouga.
There were many shops and stalls along the way selling fossils and pods of semi precious crystals in all colours.
We arrived at the service station where it was a dry 43 degrees and Lho met us and directed us into the Dune area of the Sahara at Merzouga where we stayed the night at “Haven La Chance” campsite which was a short walk from the dunes and was pretty with pool and many date palm trees where we
could eat the delicious fresh dates from the trees. We were again the only campers there.
The wind started to blow and the sand and dust went everywhere including every nook and cranny of us and the van. Oh well it was due for a good clean but we thought we would wait until we were out of the desert. Lho the Berber guide for the camp suggested a walk to a local village in the morning which was an interesting one via the water channel to the water collection well for the village and then through the village which had been flooded in 2006 with over 20houses lost. These had been rebuilt but we could see where the damage had been done. We walked via the Berber Depot (a craft bazaar) to the campsite having bought a couple of lovely bright throws. We saw some domesticated camels (there were no wild ones left in the desert)in a large pen with goats and some load baa-ing sheep. We asked Lho how people survived with little tourism in Summer but he told us that if the household is not connected to water or electricity they virtually have no costs. They all have a plot of land and are subsitence farmers. A lot of the time the land owner just builds a
mud wall around his plot of land and when he has money he constructs the house.
The 26th August was cooler at 38 degrees but we did not want another sand and dust storm that evening so we headed off via the black Sahara desert (remains of volcanic activity thousands of years ago) to Goulmima to the backroad which took us into the high Atlas mountains again.