Magical Moroccan madness!

We woke at 6am in Tanger Med to a rainy and windy day… we were leaving Morocco via the Ferry Port and were feeling anxious because our arrival had been so traumatic. We needn’t have worried, as our exit from Morocco turned out to be one of the smoothest border crossings yet. Two weeks earlier we had arrived from Spain, excited at the prospect of exploring the North African country that we had heard such great things about. Within an hour of arriving in Morocco we were asking ourselves if we should just turn around and go back to Spain…

Our passports were stamped by immigration officials on the ferry as we crossed the Mediterranean Sea. On arrival in Morocco all we had to do was report to customs and obtain temporary import permits for our bikes and get motorcycle insurance for the duration of our stay. Having done this in 18 countries thus far, we were well versed in the process and expected no delays. We couldn’t have been more wrong in our assumptions…

As we rode off the ferry towards the customs office a young man came running past us from behind. He was laughing hysterically as he sprinted barefoot past us, clutching his shoes in his hands. With a huge grin he shouted at us as he ran: “Bon voyage!” It was the first of many bizarre sights and behaviours we would see on our journey through Morocco. Approaching customs we saw a number of young men climbing over the high fences which surrounded the port and customs area. Some men made it over the fences and ran across the freeway in escape, others were caught and chased back by officials. Many young men peered through the wire fencing, in poses of readiness, calculating their next attempt at a dash across the fences. It was obvious that they were trying to get in illegally, but none of it made any sense – we could not see where they had come from (the ferries?) nor understand why they were trying to get into Morocco. 

We were the first vehicles at customs, so the bike importation process started fairly quickly. The official was confused and barked questions at us in Arabic whilst pointing at our Australian number plates. Paul speaks a bit of French and with some Spanish thrown in we were able to communicate sufficiently for him to eventually prepare our permits.  The real drama started when he then directed us to the police office booth and without an explanation why. We could not find any police officers at their booth, because they were all busy chasing illegal immigrants scaling the fences. We pointed this out to the customs official who then demanded that we go to the maritime police  – again with no explanation as to why or even a clue as to where they were situated. A very long story short, we spent 2 hours literally running around or driving around, speaking to a number of officials in French, Spanish and some broken English, to firstly discover the reason for this strange request, as well as the location of the maritime police. When you enter Morocco you have a number stamped into your passport and we discovered that it is “the most important thing when travelling to Morocco!” For reasons unknown, the customs official did not ‘trust’ the validity of our stamped numbers and wanted the police to give the all clear. 

I can only describe the 2 hours that followed as “an amazing race, but without any clues or known destination”. We didn’t know where we had to go to …or why. In the first instance we struggled to find anyone who spoke any French, Spanish or English and everyone we were able to communicate with sent us in completely different directions! We literally rode around like idiots on an impossible mission, fast losing our cool. Eventually a group of 5 bikers from Spain arrived on a later ferry and joined us on our merry-go-‘round ride. One rider had been to Morocco many times and said he’d never had this experience before, so was just as perplexed and frustrated as we were.  Eventually we found the maritime police – who just laughed at us, saying it was all unnecessary! On trying to leave the Maritime Police building we discovered no way out! I kid you not, there was no way out and many officials demanding to know how we got in! Oh…and did I mention that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and the insane heat we had to endure during all this run-around?

Needless to say when we returned to customs after this ‘unnecessary’ 2 hour run around we were horrified to find literally hundreds of cars queued and waiting to get into Morocco ahead of us! We managed to squeeze our way near the front of the queue – expecting to have our permits now simply handed over as they had been prepared earlier… but this was not to be. The official was now totally frazzled, running around trying to process the sheer number of vehicles, then stopping every few minutes when he spotted an illegal immigrant scaling the fence, to give chase and shout reprimands… it was a scene so bizarre that we simply could not believe our eyes.  There was absolute pandemonium. Only 2 officials dealing with customs paperwork and a few assistants in fluorescent vests watching the fences and giving chase…

By the time we eventually got through customs it was incredibly late and we risked not getting to our hotel before dark. Our nerves were frayed and tempers short, but soon all the drama was forgotten as simply the most magnificent ride opened up before our eyes…we were in marvellous Morocco!

After a 2 hour, 125km ride to our first stop, which was Chefchaouen, we arrived exhausted, extremely hungry and relieved to get there, just before dark (about 9pm). After an incredibly long, stressful day without lunch we checked into our hotel with relief and the first thing we asked about was getting a meal. Our host looked at us and said: “Don’t you know it’s Ramadan? Everything is closed.”

I will never forget the expression on Paul’s face at that moment and I can only imagine what my face projected, such was our disbelief that the day could get any worse. We had many questions about Ramadan and our host explained that the day’s fast would end later that evening, there would be a call to prayer, people would break the fast with a meal and that about an hour after that we could expect restaurants and shops to start opening.  We could shower and go to bed hungry or shower and wait a few hours for a meal – we chose the latter and went to explore the popular tourist town known as “the blue town” because of its blue rinsed walls.

Chefchaouen was founded as a kasbah (small fort) in the 1400’s by a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. It was built to ward off Portuguese invasion but Spanish and French invaded in the 1900’s. Today the city is a marvellous mix of Arabic, Spanish and French history, culture and language. Our host, Mohammed, spoke fluent Arabic, French, Spanish and English and regaled us with delightful stories of the area’s history and interesting facts and sights. He introduced us to ‘Moroccan Vodka’, a sweet mint tea which is delicious. He was proud to also mention that the world’s best quality hashish comes from this region and we have since learned that is one of the reasons why the blue-rinsed town is such a popular tourist destination!

Our first cooked meal that day was simply delicious! We devoured the olives, bread and flavoursome tagine. Tagine is a traditional Arabic dish, cooked in a shallow earthenware pot with a cone shaped lid that looks just like a Basotho hat!  The slow cooked savoury stews fast became a firm favourite, however we were soon to discover that meals like these would be incredibly hard to find! We had made many rookie mistakes on our journey thus far, however travelling through Morocco during Ramadan was rated as our worst one yet…what we did not realise at the time, was that we would be making many more rookie mistakes on our journey through magical Morocco.

Breakfasts of dates, cheese, bread, eggs, olives and fruit became our staple diet and we laughed at ourselves, obsessed with finding food! We only booked at hotels serving breakfast, as we soon discovered that finding food was a major challenge. Morocco was like a ghost town – shops, markets, museums, palaces and tourist attractions were shut during the day, due to Ramadan.  We had a few cans of tuna on the bike, which kept us going until we figured out how to find places selling meals or supplies such as fruit and veg. On our third day’s riding we spotted a tourist van parked at a roadside cafe, so stopped to investigate. They were serving a delicious lunch of chicken tagine and despite it costing three times the going rate, we happily ordered what was only our second cooked meal in Morocco! We soon cottoned on to the fact that tourist buses knew where to find food, however it was a disappointing reality that tourist meals cost three times the non-Ramadan rate. 

Exploring Morocco was a remarkable adventure! It is an incredibly beautiful country with many friendly and some very strange people. Arabic and Berber traditions were fascinating but one habit of the men that equally perplexed and exasperated us was being followed around and ultimately fleeced of our cash! Walking around Meknes men kept following us, trying to ‘sell’ us guided tours. We have happily used guides in many cities, but I pointed out the fact that everything is closed due to Ramadan, so politely declined. They kept following us undeterred and sometimes argued amongst themselves quite heatedly about who ‘got us first.’ We found this behaviour very annoying, especially when they sat down to wait for us whenever we stopped. After this experience we decided to avoid visiting other cities like Fez and just focused on finding great motorcycling roads, making Morocco “all about the ride”.

We crossed the Atlas Mountains in the East, to get to the desert and this was an incredibly spectacular ride. Leaving the desert a few days later we crossed the Atlas range again in the West to get to Marrakesh but that part of the mountain range was not as spectacular. Along the way there were two magnificent gorges which were a highlight to visit – Todgha Gorges and the Dades Gorges. These rugged limestone canyons and gorges reminded us of the Grand Canyon and riding along their sheer cliff edges was both exhilarating and breathtaking. 

We spent almost a week in the Sahara Desert and our time there was a mix of awe and exasperation… We’d booked a low budget tent for our first night in Merzouga, but after a long day’s riding we struggled to find the location we’d received from our host. Each time we reached our destination according to the GPS-coordinates we’d been given it was simply a stretch of desert! Men would run in front of our bikes, trying to flag us down to stop us at restaurants or stalls selling trinkets, so we were dodging people as we tried to navigate. At one stage we ended up riding on a sandy road in the desert, battling to stay upright in the thick sand with our heavy bikes.  The insane heat did not help our fraying tempers, which we were losing fast. One man who had jumped in front of our bikes at a restaurant was so determined that he got into a vehicle and followed us when we did not stop! When we eventually stopped at a hotel to ask for help, he got out of his car with a friend. I firmly told him to stop following us but he smiled and said he was not following us, that we had stopped at ‘his hotel.’  I remember thinking “what are the odds?!” but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt… my mistake… He said he wanted to help. I was sceptical, saying he just wanted money. He replied that we could pay him ‘whatever you want’ and offered us his phone to call our host accommodation. We were irritable from exhaustion, sweating profusely, we were lost and my phone would not work. In the end he was able to help by speaking with the host at our accommodation and then directing us to the correct place (which incidentally was nowhere near where we’d been directed via our booking confirmation email). When it came time to ‘pay our helper’ we realised that we did not have any small notes or change, so ended up parting with what amounted to a handsome tip. To our astonishment, the man who helped and our host then got into a heated argument over who was entitled to the money! 

We were absolutely shattered but relieved to eventually be at our overnight camp and as we started to unload our bikes we asked Mohamed (our host) to show us our tent. He said: “The tent is in the desert.” He explained that the building we were parked at is a riad (his home) and that we could walk to our tent or hire a camel. I asked him how far the walk was and he replied: “About 2 hours!”  This is the moment when we realised that we had booked a bivouac tent in the middle of the desert and that our day’s journeying was nowhere near the end…

We’d already paid for the night in a tent, but correctly assumed that our costs were not ‘all inclusive.’ Mohamed confirmed that a camel would cost an extra 135 dirham each plus “if you want dinner it is another 90 dirham each”. Paul and I just looked at each other and laughed. The alternate was crying… as clearly our rookie mistakes were not over! We decided to go ‘all in’, booking 2 camels and dinners and seriously blowing our low-budget-night-in-a-tent! Soon our camels arrived and we were on our way across the desert…

The 2 hour camel ride across the dunes into the Sahara Desert was incredibly uncomfortable but as the sun set it was one of the most magical moments ever…the giant sand dunes turned to all shades of orange and it was simply one of the most exquisitely beautiful sights we’d seen. We were mesmerised, thrilled, uncomfortable, awed… and laughing! Never in a million years did we imagine our day would be ending like this…and it couldn’t have been a day that ended more perfectly…

We saw a number of camel caravans making their way into the desert and asked Mohamed if we’d be joining other groups of people. He confirmed that we would be well away from others, explaining that the best way to experience the desert was in isolation. The three of us eventually arrived at our bivouac and as Mohamed started to prepare the camp and evening meal Paul and I climbed a massive dune to watch the sun set. Climbing a sand dune is no mean feat, because you slide back down in the deep sand, more than what you are climbing. It sure is challenging enough, but trying to climb a sand dune after we’d been riding our motorcycles for 6 hours, then a camel for 2 hours was hilarious! Oh and yeah, you guessed it…we were starving! 

Our evening meal was magnificent! Sweet mint tea, served from a silver tea pot, poured into glass cups the traditional way – the tea pot is held up high whilst pouring, to make the tea froth noisily into the cups. We had sweet pastries, which reminded me of South African koeksisters.  Mohamed then served a Berber pizza which is like a roti, baked like a pizza, with a savoury topping. Our main meal was a chicken tagine with vegetables and then fresh fruit. All the tagine gravy was mopped up with fresh bread, so there was hardly any need for cleaning. We ate like we hadn’t eaten in days…which was not far from the truth…

As we shared a meal with Mohamed we asked about Berber culture and his family. It was fascinating to learn how Berber families live a nomadic life in the desert, farming camels and sometimes sheep. I commented that it sounds like a hard life and Mohamed said: “No, it is easy…living in the city is a hard life…” His conviction really had me thinking. We decided not to sleep in our tent, dragging mats out onto the sand after dinner, lying looking up at the magnificent night sky, holding hands without speaking until we drifted off to sleep contentedly. We will never forget the magic of that night in the desert. Unplanned as it was… it was just perfect. 

We had so many encounters with men following us or jumping in front of our bikes. On a dirt track in the Ifran National Park two young boys tried to wave us down as we rode. Paul did not stop, so they ran in front of my bike as I was following. The one boy stood right in my path and stuck his hand out, like a policeman signalling STOP, then shouted: “Bon bons!” I had no choice but to stop or ride over the child, but one exasperated toot of my bike horn had him scurrying in surprise. It’s strange behaviour and very irritating or at times quite confronting. In Merzouga I wanted to get a photograph of our bikes in the desert, with camels in the background. We had fun getting our bikes out into the desert and experimenting with deflated tyre pressures for easier riding. Unfortunately we soon had an audience and men following us, offering all kinds of ‘help’. We negotiated a ‘fee’ with a Berber man in traditional dress to hold a camel and stand by the bikes for a photo. It became a confusion of people standing around, all ‘wanting a piece of the action’. Long story short, we got our photos but then the real trouble started… the Berber man had 3 friends who opened their bags on the sand to showcase their trinkets, expecting our support. The first man explained that we could not support one man and not the other. We told them we couldn’t buy anything, because we’re riding motorcycles and can’t have any extra weight to carry. Long stories got told of how many children they all have and we felt obliged to at least look at their trinkets. I decided to buy a small fossil, which is an interesting keepsake of the region and light enough to carry. You guessed it…yeah, we got ‘bullied’ into supporting them all and what’s more, they chose which items to give us. Paul said sometimes we seemed to be paying people just to leave us alone. We have moments now where we might be riding along, say in Portugal or Spain, when one of us would start laughing… and then we start reminiscing about our motorcycle desert photo encounter…and then one of us will say: “Well, we always wanted a miniature tagine and an ugly, heavy stone camel to carry across Europe!”  

Morocco was such a magical place of interesting extremes. We had so much fun and laughter, despite the many moments of exasperation and hunger. We fully expected to have lost some weight after our first Ramadan fast, so you can imagine our surprise to find we’d actually put on a kilo! (It goes to show that starvation diets simply don’t work.) What will remain with me most though about Morocco is the memory of those young men trying to scale high fences to freedom… their desperation was palpable, their determination obvious… and I realise that the same was true for the many Moroccan men who followed us or haggled a fee…

 

2 thoughts on “Magical Moroccan madness!

  1. Amazing so graphic, you write so well. Thank you for taking us two old farts with you on your journey. Michele and I look forward to every posting from you. We first read about your latest adventure and then talk at length about you crazy kids. We must meet up in Sydney after your safe return. I guess you have been away around 16 months now, hope you have lots more ahead. Travel safely and enjoy life’s journey we are very envious. Lots of Love Phil and Michele

    Liked by 1 person

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