What can I say about Morocco? I’ve been there five times now….something keeps drawing me back.
Where else can you take a 4hr flight and step back in time hundreds of years? It isn’t the easiest of countries to travel around. My first 3 trips in ’89, ‘oo and ’05, were all undertaken on Public Transport over 3 weeks each time and always in the early Spring. They were exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. I love mountainous landscapes and Morocco has those in bundles. It’s a country of extreme contrasts too. From the manic streets and souks of Marrakesh to the hidden valleys of the High Atlas and beyond to the desert feel of The South. The Mid Atlas is another country again, with high rolling plateaus and the ever present semi-nomadic Berbers, Ceder Forests and Barbary Macaques. Apart from Chefchaouen, on my first visit, I’ve always stayed clear of the Rif mountains, with it’s immense Cannabis production and all that entails. It’s a shame as it’s also reputed to be a rather lovely part of Morocco. And then there’s the coast…
It’s the Berbers that have made my trips so special. On my first trip, I was out walking in the Mid Atlas whilst staying in Azrou and had lost track of time. When I realised that I had been walking for over 8hrs and the sun was about to set, I wondered how I was going to get back. I knew that walking back in the dark was probably not a good idea. Achievable but I was tired and didn’t fancy 8hrs walking in the dark. I had only seen a handful of vehicles all day but decided that hitching was the only alternative. I sat down by the roadside and started listening to a tape on my cassette walkman[now in a Museum]. I was in a glorious,wide open landscape and could see for miles. Eventually I saw a black Mercedes coming and tried to wave it down but it sped past me with it’s dark, tinted windows. Perhaps they weren’t the kind of people I should be trying to get a lift from anyway. Then something extraordinary happened. Out of nowhere, literally, about 6 or more Berber women and all their children appeared, with a silver tray upon which was a silver tea pot and glasses. They had seen me from one of their, all but invisible, dark brown tents on the horizon, and had come to rescue me. Having poured me some mint tea, I wondered how I was ever going to thank them. The children had spotted my walkman and so I offered them a listen. It happened that the next track was Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’… and so the party began. We all, the women included, started to dance in the road. By passing the walkman around, they all got the beat in their heads and it became a joyous celebration. After about 20mins of this, a Berber truck appeared on the horizon which they hailed down and I was whisked away, back to Azrou and my Hotel. I will never forget that wonderful encounter and it’s one of the many reasons I keep going back.
My fourth visit in 2017 was a complete contrast to the first three, insomuch that I went with my old chum Ed, who flew over from Canada. The other thing that also transformed it was that for my first time in Morocco, I hired a car and could afford to stay in some swanky hotels. It revealed a new side of Morocco for me and although different, just as amazing. Driving up to Ait Bouguemez on our first day out of Marrakesh was just wonderful. I’d ‘discovered’ this stunning valley on my last trip in ’05 and it epitomised everything I love about Morocco and then some. It’s way up in the High Atlas and until about 20yrs ago was very difficult to get to due to the lack of a proper, surfaced road and in winter completely cut off. My first visit was a complete gamble and really challenged me. I knew there was next to no accommodation and no public buses but I’d read that it was known to keen hikers and mountaineers and that it had a reputation of being a bit like the Himalayas. That was enough to encourage me to try and get there. The taxi ride, in itself, was hair raising and took nearly 2hrs to negotiate. The drive up was completely obscured by rain and cloud cover and completely disfunctional windscreen wipers. I spent most of the journey wiping the windscreen to gain any clarity at all. Terrifying! However, when we eventually descended into the valley, the weather was transformed and what was spread out in front of us was quite simply one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. It has become one of three ‘Shangrila’s’ that I have found on my travels. The other two are The Ihlara Gorge in Cappadocia, Turkey and Kausani in the Himalayan foothills in India. It’s lush in Spring and carpeted with wild flowers and abundant crops of every kind imaginable. The valley is about 15-20kms long and dotted with tiny villages. On that first trip, I was able to find a private house run by Atica [Her husband was away in the Army] and for three days I slept and ate in their beautiful adobe house in the village of Ait Imi. 12yrs later, Ed and I stayed in the wonderful La Casbah du M’goun in the village of Aguerd n’Ouzrou in relative luxury. The valley has now been called ‘Happy Valley’ by the tourist board and is very much ‘on the map’. Still very beautiful but be prepared to share it with other tourists. Not too many yet but get there soon before all that changes. The rest of our trip was wonderful, culminating in the very beautiful village of Tamdaght, a few km’s up the road from the world heritage sight of Ait Benhaddou. This time staying in the Kasbah Ellouze, with the best food I’ve eaten in Morocco.
I’ve just returned, Feb/March 2019, and explored yet another region I hadn’t visited before. I was seduced by winter sun and the notion of isolation and big skies so I did what’s called ‘The Tata Circuit’. The first thing to say, as I’ve said above, is that you are never as isolated as you think in Morocco. Even in the most spartan of landscapes, there are people. You can’t always see them but they can see you. This has two immediate effects on me…always behave yourself and if you get into trouble, be assured that someone will turn up sooner or later and turn a bad situation into a good one. One word of warning though… when I first visited the small town of Tafraout in the Anti-Atlas, it was a small place with minimal tourism and set in the beautiful Ameln Valley. Now, it is a very popular destination and, in my humble view, completely destroyed by said tourism. Morocco is changing fast!
On this trip I also stayed in some pretty swanky places and there is the evidence of that in my photo’s but the one that stands out is Maison d’Hotes Xanadu in Sidi Ifni. Patrick, the owner, is a gem and so is his Hotel. I also wanted to try and photograph more people than on previous trips but there are difficulties surrounding the photography of people [and not just in Morocco of course]. I’ve tried to either gain permission or found a way of retaining anonimity by not including faces. I just thought that my previous pictures of Morocco didn’t reflect the wonderful colours that the women wear and how those colours punctuate the landscape and lift it. I hope I haven’t offended anyone by taking those images.