El Chorro - Round Two

Sunday, May 31, 2009

After our seemingly endless adventure in Morocco, we finally got back to Spain. In Malaga, we battled with the hire car company for a few hours, who seemed determined to fail to meet any of our expectations. Reluctantly we settled for a different model to the one we'd requested. This was to be our home and transport for the next 6 weeks, so we wanted to get it right. In a repeat of last time, we made a quick visit to Carrefour to collect groceries and other items necessary for camp life and made a quick bee-line for El Chorro.

El Chorro, Frontal Sectors
The frontal sectors of El Chorro. It may not seem it, but these cliffs are over 300m high in places. There are numerous caves with hard routes, but plenty more easy single and multipitch climbs.

El Chorro, Frontal Sectors
The frontal sectors again. Our camping spot was just in the trees near the lake by the railway bridge. Lovely.

We've visited El Chorro before, but we were very keen to come back, as last time we only got two days in during our whirl-wind tour of Spain. El Chorro is one of Spain's premier climbing destinations, with incredible limestone walls, an amazing gorge, and the infamous Caminito del Rey.

Last time we were here there was no parking space, as El Chorro has the reputation for being the "winter-crag" of Europe. This time around, there wasn't anyone in sight. Our dissapointment soon turned to relief as we realized that free camping would be so much easier without the crowds. We found a great spot walking distance from most sectors and settled in for the better part of a week.

El Chorro - The Gorge
The Gorge itself, where the Caminito del Rey begins and winds its way along the walls through the Gorge. It's possible to traverse the entire gorge via the Caminito which takes about two hours.

Unlike many of the popular climbing destinations in Europe, El Chorro has plenty of easy and moderate grade routes, which suited us just fine since our climbing muscles had all but disappeared... And we dispatched some of the best moderates I've ever climbed.

Caminito del Rey
Here the Caminito del Rey is visible. A hairy bit of via ferrata is required to access the start of the walkway, as the authorities chopped off the start to prevent non-equiped punters getting killed on it.

On our first rest-day, we decided to attempt the feared Caminito del Rey. The Caminito is a concrete walkway built in 1905 but has since fallen into disrepair. It consists of rusty iron frames somehow attached 70m up, to the sheer vertical walls of the Gorge, and concrete and bricks to form the path. Fortunatley most of the walkway is fitted with "Via Ferrata" safety cables to secure yourself to while you traverse the path. There is no handrail, and in parts, the concrete has fallen out completely to reveal vertigo inducing views of the nothingness you are currently suspended over. We traversed two sections where there path was missing, only to decide to turn around a little further on.

Caminito del Rey, El Chorro
Looking back at part of the walkway we'd already traversed. Taking this photo, I was standing on a huge water pipe which bridges the gorge. Its visible in above photos.

Caminito del Rey, El Chorro
Dani crossing part of the Caminito where the concrete has decayed out completely. Looking down while you cross gives the individual a unique sense of being alive. We had safety on our minds first, and always had two points of attachment to the safety cables equiped on the walkway.

Caminito del Rey, El Chorro

Caminito del Rey, El Chorro

Dani's birthday also fell during our time in El Chorro. It also happened to be the hottest day yet, and proved too hot to climb. We drove around to the lakes on the north side of the Gorge and found a shadey spot to chill out and read books. Dani even mustered the courage to dip in the fridgid waters!

Dani's Birthday
Birthday girl! Isn't she pretty?

As a slight variation to camping at El Chorro, we spent a night in this wicked spot at Desplomilandia, a sector on the other side of the range from El Chorro. In the morning we did a few routes on the cliff in the background.

With the rest of our trip in the back of our mind, we decided to tear ourselves away from our time at El Chorro and head for Portugal. Check back for more stories soon!

The Algarve, Portugal - Sneak Peak

Friday, May 22, 2009

We've got a bit of a backlog of bloggin and photos to edit, but heres a little sneak peak of some photos we took on the South-Western tip of Portugal yesterday. Its great being around some dramatic coast lines like this, sometimes it feels too easy to take interesting photos!

Ceuta, Spain

I wonder how many people would know that Spain actually has two little bits of Morocco to call its own? I certainly didn't. Melilla and Ceuta are Spanish Enclaves, headlands on the Mediterranean coast with military and trade importance. They're both heavily fortified to prevent illegal immigration, as in 2005, thousands of Moroccans tried to storm the border at Melilla and 6 people died. They're also both sore points between the Moroccan and Spanish governments.

Ceuta is also a popular point to cross the Straight of Gibraltar to mainland Spain, which is why we're here.

Leaving Chefchaoen I think we got conned one last time by an overly helpful chap trying to make sure we got on this bus. The money we paid for our ticket went to the right place, but I'm pretty sure the money we paid for our baggage went into his pocket.

We will not be missing the touts, beggars, faux-guides and souq merchants.

We left Chefchaoen at 10am and managed to secure a bus all the way to Fnideq, a town just one 1km on the Moroccan side of the "Frontera" border.

A short an inexpensive taxi to the Frontera, and we exit the taxi to be engulfed by touts trying to sell us border crossing "departure cards". While the cards are legitimate, they're also free at the crossing. These touts insist you NEED this card to get across. One guy was so persistent as we walked away. "HEY LADY! HEY LADY!" A police officer smiles, waving us through, and tells a tout to leave us alone.

The border itself is a bizzare mishmash of concrete barriers. Its about 100m long on the Moroccan side and about 30m of the Spanish side. On the Moroccan side you walk down the same lane as cars and buses, and then you hit the Spanish side and you have a footpath, a xray machine and a McDonalds!

Stepping into Ceuta is like stepping from a developing nation into a developed nation, which is exactly what it is. Ceuta is like any other city in Europe, clean, modern, friendly and easy. It was so refreshing to not be hassled. We walked straight onto a bus to the town centre and found our hostel without too much trouble (despite not a single communicable word transmitted). After checking in we found a cheap place to eat and grabbed a tasty sandwich (aaah sandwiches!) and I even had a beer! (Mmmmm Beer! First beer in about a month)

Next stop, ferry to Algiceras and then a bus to Malaga for the night. Then we regain another level of independance and collect our hire car.

Note: This post is rather late, by now we've had the car for nearly two weeks and are currently in Portugal. More photos and stories from our adventures coming soon. Sorry for the lack of updates!


Its beautiful quiet little Medina is famous for its blue and white-washed walls, Andalucian influence, and is quite unique in Morocco. Here, Spanish is far more commonly spoken that French. On the whole, Chefchaouen felt signicantly less poor than many of the places we had already visited. Set on the side of a hill in the lush Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen has also attracted its fair share of the tourist dollar.

Blue and White
An image that is synonymous with the Medina of Chefchaouen. Blue and white buildings and uneven stairways.

As soon as we got off the bus, we were conned by a faux-guide. Faux-guides are totally unofficial, and often masquerade as innocent friendly locals, just offering some advice... but they always put their hand out at the end. Assuming he was just helping us with a Petit-taxi, I was surprised when he jumped in as well. In my ignorance, I figured he must live near Bab Suk (the gate to the Medina we were using). Sure enough he ended up walking us to the door of our hotel, and asked for money.

Reluctant, but admitting (to myself) he'd been helpful, I gave him 10 dirham - quite generous at nearly the same as the taxi fair. He complained royally that this was not enough. After nearly three weeks in Morocco, I couldn't be bothered with another argument, so I shut the door in his face. Unfortunately the hotel we had booked decided they actually wanted us to pay more that they told us, so we had to find somewhere else anyway. Faux-guide for nothing.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Later in our stay in Chefchaouen a different faux-guide tried to offer us some advice by pointing out the river and the mountain (which were plain as day to see). I politely said I had no money for him, after which he said I needed to give him 5 dirham. I said no and he gave me the finger and told me to !@#$ off! The next day the same man approached us in the main square, obviously not recognizing us, and tried his speil "Where you from? First time in Morocco?", to which I replied "You told me to !@#$ off yesterday". You could see the recognition click in his eyes as he backed off.

This is actually the first time we've had trouble with faux-guides in Morocco.

We were taking things pretty easy as we were both still recovering from our time in Fes, so we only explored the Medina and the broken Mosque, on a hill just outside the Medina.

Broken Mosque
Dani and the Broken Mosque, overlooking the Chefchaouen Medina.

Only late in our trip did we realise that Chefchaouen is also the "kif" and hash capital of Morocco. We were aware that the Rif mountains of Morocco are apparently the largest hashish producers in the world, but none of this had been noticable until now. Everywhere we went, someone would ask me "Something to smoke?" Or "You want some hash?". No thanks. Many tourists come here just for the hash. Most locals use it and on many occasions we saw even old men snorting little piles of brown dusts off their thumbs (which I can only assume is Hashish). As a result, Chefchaoen has its share of street bums. We saw one guy who must have had too much in his time, as he was perpetually wandering the Medina holding an invisible joint to his lips.

On three seperate occasions we saw disturbing displays of violence in public places. The first being the most alarming - two grown adults - one trying to stop the bleeding to his head with his tee-shirt, throwing punches at another man in the main square. Unrelated, and only minutes later two teenagers erupt into a fierce brawl right outside our restaurant. Prior to this we hadn't seen any violence in Morocco at all.

With all the hassle, sickness and the now the violence, I think it has only hastened our departure from Morocco. We've definitely enjoyed our time here, but we're also quite ready to leave. Dani commented today, three weeks in Morocco definitely feels like three weeks.

The authors going bonkers after three weeks in Morocco.

Festering in Fes

Monday, May 11, 2009

I guess we'd only been in Fes for an afternoon and a morning before things started going pear shaped. My bowels had been a bit funky for most of the trip, but this was starting to become a problem.

During the day I progressively declined, by the evening I had terrible stomach cramps, chronic diarrhea and a solid fever. By the next morning I had not felt that terrible since I had been for many years.

We considered our options, pharmacy, hospital, or doctor. The pharmacy was useless, but we managed to find an English speaking (in a way) doctor just around the corner. He felt it necessary to use all his fancy (1940's era) machinery including some kind of instant projection xray and an ultrasound. Why he did so, I think, had less to do with needing to, and more to do with charging us for the use of the machines. Needless to say, we felt reassured that he knew what he was doing.

Doctor Bennis Mohamed proceeded with the examination by barking orders in poor English. "Respire!" or "Closer!" and "Sit down!"

Result: nasty gastro-intestinal infection and a bucket load of antibiotics. We ended up wholed up in our pension room in Fes for 5 nights, and barely saw any of Fes.

Dani emailed my prescription to her Doctor Unkle Mark, and he came back informing us that one of the drugs I had been prescribed, was actually blacklisted in most parts of the world due to causing acute liver problems!

As my apetite slowly returned, and we did find a great English cafe called Clock Cafe. It had been recommended in Lonely Planet as a great place to eat when you get sick of Moroccan food, as pretty much everyone generally does. It was a heaven for us to eat anything that hadn't been cooking in a Tajine pot, but it's a little sad that some of the best food we had in Morocco wasn't particularly moroccan.

There we also made use of the free wireless and asked our parents to call off the rescue mission!

Taxi ride from hell!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

John and Kim very kindly drove us from Merzouga to Erfoud and dropped us at the taxi lot so we could avoid one more taxi ride that day. From there we secured two seats in a taxi to Er-Rachidia, which would be the next best hub to send us on our way to Fes. Already having a sore backside from riding camels and the seating conditions in a cramped taxi, we faffed around in Er-Rachidia for an hour trying to get a ride to Fes. The best they could do was to Azrou, at least in the right direction, so we departed.

This is where things took a turn for the worse.

Our driver periodically "snapped". He went from placid, normal driving to rampant, aggressive, simply life threatening driving. On the windiest section he was going around blind corners with his hand on the horn (I figure on the odd chance an oncoming car would get out of the way).

Despite strict speed control in Morocco, he was exceeding speeds of 130 in this rattling overcrowded Mercedes with no seat belts. Progressively each passenger in the car became more and more uncomfortable, until one downhill section he performed a high speed passing maneuver on a sharp blind corner. Everyone simultaneously erupted in frustration at the driver.

He simply laughed and kept driving at speed.

We had been keeping a close eye on distance markers and trying to calculate how much longer we were going to be in this god-forsaken death-taxi.

Again, our driver "snapped" into race mode. Another vehicle was trying to overtake us, and we were hurtling towards a sharp corner with about 10 rightward pointing chevron signs. Our driver was playing a game of chicken with this other vehicle by accelerating towards this corner to see who would back down first. Our driver won, but the result meant taking this corner at 130km/h. This again caused everyone in the car to errupt into desperate action. With her nerves frayed to the very end, Dani burst into tears, I was furious and joined in the verbal frenzy of anger with several choice swear words.

He was still laughing. I said "Wheres the !@#%ing joke? You made my girlfriend cry. SLOW DOWN!" This must have resonated with him, because he actually improved his driving. Later via translation from another passenger, he said he'd be driving taxi's since 1976 and including two years in Iraq. I wondered how many tourists he'd given horrible experiences too. I told him we'd never been so scared in our lives.

I couldn't actually conceive how someone could drive like that for four hours and NOT crash. We left that shitty Mercedes, shaken and truly thankful that we were still alive.

We were reluctant to get in another vehicle, but we had still not reached our destination of Fes. Fortunately this time the driver drove quite appropriately (by Moroccan standards anyway) and we finally arrived in Fes around 6pm, some lifetime after we left the desert, riding camels that morning.


Golden Sands of Erg Chebbi
Dani took this one, probably one of my favourite photos from our entire trip.

After our encounter with Mr Riad-owner, even stuffing ourselves into an overcrowded taxi was a relief. Unfortunately to get direct transport in Morocco, you need to fork out, so instead we had a three stage Grand Taxi ride to Merzouga for the next step in our Moroccan adventure.

Todra > Tinehir > Erfoud > Hassi Labied (Merzouga)

Tinehir and Erfoud are poor towns, and we spent far too long in dusty grand taxi lots trying to negotiate with unreasonable drivers trying the same money-grubbing tricks we've experienced a thousand times. After politely telling them where to put it, we got to our accomodation in Merzouga.

Merzouga is in the middle of no-where.

It really is. It's where a prominent river from the High Atlas finally gives up and disappears into the earth. The townships are dusty and poor and there is little agriculture, but what makes Merzouga such and incredible destination is the enormous golden dunes just east of the city. Some of the dunes are over 300m in height. This area is known as the Erg Chebbi desert, and its a much photographed and visited attraction in Morocco.

Erg Chebbi, Merzouga, Morocco
Dani getting dwarfed by the enormity of the landscape.

Beetle Tracks
The tell-tale tracks of a scarab beetle - one of the few obvious living things in the dunes.

We stayed at a choice little place called Kasbah Sable d'Or, which is run by a French lady and a Moroccan man, Isobelle and Rachid. Isobelle cooked up some amazing food, although I missed out because of tummy-trouble. Dani did report, to my disappointment, that it was the best she'd had in Morocco thus far. In the afternoon of the next day we departed on our overnight camel trek into the dunes.

Fellow travellers John and Kim from Oregon, US, were to join us on the overnight camel trek.

If my memory serves me correctly, I've never actually seen a camel in the flesh before. They are the most disgusting, improbable looking creatures imaginable. They have too many joints in their legs, and they ooze some kind of black sludge (which Dani's still trying to get out of her trouser legs). They can make a cacophony of disgusting noises from several orifices simultaneously, and they are horrible to ride. Despite having a saddle, the camel's hump jabs you right between your man-bits and your wazoo and it doesn't take long before you're wincing with every step.

Camel, Erg Chebbi, Merzouga, Morocco
Not as comfortable as they appear.

Our trip was an hour into the dunes. Once we'd established new thresholds for discomfort, we managed to enjoy the surroundings. There are thousand upon thousands of sand-dunes cascading into the distance. Apparently scenes from Star Wars - Return of the Jedi were filmed here and its not hard to see why.

We crested a dune to see our camp hiding in the trough between us and the next dune. We awkwardly dismounted our camels and attempted to walk normally for a few meters to our camp. As the sun set, we got trigger happy on the camera as the light created shapes of light and shadow all around us.

Erg Chebbi, Merzouga, Morocco

Erg Chebbi, Merzouga, Morocco

After sunset, I ate another dodgy tajine (Dani abstained, it was now her turn for tummy trouble) and chatted with John and Kim about subjects as varying as US politics and poo, and about how farts unite the world. (Kim has earlier that day shown some locals the "Fart App" on her iPhone which had them in hysterics). A good evening was had, it reminded us of an evening in the company of our friends at home, Gail and Dean!

John and Kim
John and Kim - good company!

Just after we went to bed, a nasty wind picked up and blew sand EVERYWHERE - in the bed, in our ears/nose/mouths and eyes. This coupled with an irrational fear of meeting a scorpion kept me awake for most of the night. We finally got some peace just before first light but then it was time to get up and take some more photos before reluctantly getting back on the camels to return to Merzouga.

Camping Life

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

So this one is a bit late - about 6months. Its a collection of clips from our time camping in France and Spain and some of the drama we went through. Despite all the hardship, there is something great about the simplicity of living in a tent.

Camping Life from Simon & Dani on Vimeo.

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge isn't far from Dades Gorge, but it couldn't be any more different. Here, a giant fault has let a river carve a sheer ravine 400 metres deep through immaculate orange limestone walls. We're here the for the climbing, but so far we're more impressed with the sheer magnitude of the place. Not a single photo we could take could really do this place justice (which is a fact I find frustrating, and Dani quite likes). One section of the Gorge barely sees any sun as the walls seem to close in over the top. In the middle there is two oddly placed hotels which cater to the masses, so we opted to stay in a guest house only 700m from the Gorge entrance.

Todra Gorge, Morocco
Dani's silhouette in the foreground is dwarfed by the enormous walls of the Gorge. We were climbing at a sector behind me (as I took this photo) which must have been a couple hundred meters high.

We've concluded that if this Gorge was found in France or Spain, it would be crawling with climbers. There are hundreds of routes, but so far we've only found a handful of other climbers. There is a small community of Moroccan climbers, few of which can afford the equipment, so most just free climb. They claim they have had plenty of practice before they climb on the rock, as they need to climb the palm trees to retrieve dates.

Todra Gorge, Morocco
The narrow part of the gorge where walls shoot up vertically for 400m.

Climbers in the gorge seem to be well respected and get a lot of attention. Vendors selling things in the gorge will see us with our rope and helmets and ask "Escalade?". Everyone seems to want to chat to us. We've been offered mint tea and tajine many times now, and even a musical jam session. Generally they want to offer hospitality and then show you some element of their business, but everything runs a bit slower, and is a lot friendlier this side of the Atlas Mountains.

Todra Gorge, Morocco
I received plenty of funny looks and comments from locals. I must have looked like a silly white boy standing in the middle of the river with my tripod and my pants rolled up. Being in the middle of the river didn't stop some kid trying to sell me something though!

We've managed to get a few routes in now and its been great to get back on the rock. The rock has super friction and cool features. There's not much overhanging stuff, so grades are around 5b(16) to 6c(22), which is perfect. Theres no shortage of rock, so routes are generally a half rope length, or in our case, slightly longer. Just about every route we've done has been over 30 meters (in New Zealand, finding routes this long in grades like this is very uncommon). The bolting is good (proper expansion bolts with hangers) and placed well for cruxes but there are frequent run-outs on easier terrain. I think climbing in Spain de-sensitized us a bit, as it's not bothering us too much!

There were three of these little fellas and a pregnant cat just roaming around in the guesthouse we stayed at.

There is also some spectacular multi-pitch climbing, with routes well over 300m in length. We were hoping to climb a five pitch monster, but we never quite got to it.

Our time in Todra slowly became tainted by a few events. Absence of hot showers, incredibly slow and reluctant service, having to make more and more excuses to avoid seeing someone's gallery, showroom, shop or riad. The night before we left, the owner of the riad, clearly stoned, was trying to offer me transport to Merzouga. After talking through the possibilities, I declined and suggested that we would make our own way there via a collective grand taxi (one we would share with others). He seemed to acknowledge this and we went to bed. In the morning, we packed up, and when it came time to leave, he told us our taxi would be here at 9am

- What taxi? We didn't order a taxi. How much is it?
- 900dirham (the equivalent of 90 euro, more than our entire days budget)
- What?! No, we are taking taxi collective to Tinehir, then taxi collective to Merzouga... we cannot take that taxi.
- No, last night you ask me to make you taxi to Merzouga
- No no no, really I didn't
- Yes, you said you would take taxi
- Now you must take this taxi, coz I have ordered him. He come from Tinehir to collect you, you pay him or I must pay him.
- I'm sorry we did not ask you to order us a taxi, and especially not at that price.

The conversation continued like this for a while, getting more and more heated, so we just payed him for the room and walked out. Not before him trying to charge us for four nights instead of three.

Out on the street we waited for a taxi we could flag down. Mr Riad-owner comes out to the street and mutters something in bad english then asks us to pay for the coca-cola we had with dinner, which are always included in the price. I suggest that he had smoked too much Kif. At this stage its clear he is just trying it on, so Dani tells him firmly "Leave us alone". He threatens to call the police, I suggest he should.

Fortunately not long after a grand taxi arrives, and we make the entire trip to Merzouga for under 300 dirham.

First bad experience with Moroccan hospitality, hopefully the last.

Decaying Kasbahs

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

I'm bailed up in a cheap hotel in Fes at the moment, sick as a dog. Been to the doc and have been prescribed a million meds for a gastro-intestinal infection. Dani has been a star at looking after me! In the meantime, here is some photos form the Dades Gorge of some decaying Kasbahs.

Dades Kasbah 3

Dades Kasbah 2

Dades Kasbah 1

Dades Gorge

Monday, May 4, 2009

We only had time for one night in Marrakech where Dani could recover a bit, then a big day's travelling to the other side of the Atlas Mountains. The road was incredible, as we went over the Tizi'n'Tichka (over 2500m), a famous pass for its adrenaline inducing switchbacks. To add to the action, the driver was maneuvering the bus as if it were a sports car. The five hour bus trip left us in Ouazazate feeling pretty sick. We were quite happy to leave the bus behind to share a taxi with four others to Boumalme du Dades, the closest center to the Dades Gorge.

Eleven People in a Grand Taxi - Morocco

We officially made a new record for number of people in a Grand Taxi - 11 people in a station wagon! Fortunately it was only a short trip - just the 30kms from Boumalmes du Dades to Ait Oudinar, where we stayed for two nights in the Dades Gorge.

Travel is cheap in Morocco, the whole eight hour trip (1 bus, 2 petit taxis and two grand taxis) cost us around 370 dirham - about 33 Euro for both of us. The Auberge we stayed it was very nice, despite having issues getting hot water, its the nicest place we've stayed at. Recently having a room to ourselves has been a bit of a luxury.

Dades Gorge, Morocco
The landscape in the upper gorge is mostly like this. Strata pokes through the surface everywhere.

Le Tortue
Called Le Tortue, named for its similarity to the shape of a Tortoise.

The landscape on this side of the Atlas in amazing - its definitely in the rain shadow of the mountains. The further east you go, the closer you get to the Sahara. Over the years the soil has been stripped back to the strata of the mountains, and the hillsides are striped in warped lines of ancient sediment. In Dades Gorge, its reminds me alot of some of the landscapes of Utah, or the Northern Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Like Imlil, the Berber people have cleverly manipulated the rivers to water their pastures. This is generally their sole income, and I think each community is self sufficient. There are also nomadic Berber people who move from the Sahara in Winter to the High Atlas in summer. In the gorges you can see what appear to be derelict cave-houses, which are still used every year.

We payed for a trip up the Gorge with a guide, Daoud, from our Auberge. He's very friendly and passionate about the region. Its a shame we don't have a limitless budget because he does some amazing trips in the Sahara.

Dades Gorge, Morocco
A famous section of the Dades Gorge road. If it looks familiar, a few years back a email was circulating that pictured some of the worlds most amazing roads; this was one of them.

Dades Gorge, Morocco

In places the Gorge narrows to just ten meters of so, enough for the river and a vehicle to fit through. Each time we stopped to take a photo, some children with a box full of fossils would come up trying to sell you something. Even if you were many kilometers from a village, there was someone with some fossils for sale.

Another 10kms in and the landscape has been cut deep by the river. The road doesn't look like it'll last many more years, and recent floods have already destroyed sections.

Poppies & Barley
Fields of Barley are dotted with the red heads of poppies.


In the afternoon we walked for two hours to an area known as "The Monkey Fingers" or as our guide, Daoud, would say in broken English "Fingers Monkey!". These bizzare rock formations are some of the strangest I've ever seen, and its not hard to understand why they're called Monkey Fingers. On the way there we walked through Berber fields of barley and poppy's, decaying 200 year old Kasbahs and mud-walled villages. Local Berber folk would often ask where we were from, generally guessing French, German or English in that order. We've noticed a dramatic increase in the friendly nature and hospitality since we've left Marrakech.

Monkey Fingers
The bizzare rock formations of Monkey Fingers.

Crumbling Kasbah, Monkey Fingers
Look a little closer and you'll see the remains of a crumbling Kasbah against the background of Monkey Fingers.

Crumbling Kasbahs catch the last light of the day.

Dades Gorge
Dani and I standing near Monkey Fingers for the obligatory couple shot.

After Dades we're off to Todra Gorge to go climbing for a few days - can't wait. Its been 5 months since we've been on the rock, so I'm sure we'll be a bit rusty.

By the way, there are more photos on Flickr. Simon's stream and Dani's stream.


Sunday, May 3, 2009

A little late on the update I'm sorry, but here's a brief synopsis of our time in the Atlas Mountains. On Tuesday we left for Imlil, a small Berber town in the High Atlas, at 1700m above sea level. Imlil is a popular town for tourists who are hoping to climb Jebel Toubkal, north Africa's highest peak (at over 4000m its the second highest in Africa, after Kilimanjaro I believe).

Opposites Attract
A land of contrasts. Start barren lanscapes juxtapose with lush green agriculture near Imlil.

Imlil is about two and a half hours from Marrakech. The most popular mode of transport for a trip like this is via Grand Taxi. The concept was totally foreign for us, apart from reading about it in Lonely Planet. We caught a Petit Taxi to an area where most of the Grand Taxi's congregate, and set about finding a car and driver heading to Imlil. After negotiating a rate per seat, we then waited for the other seats in the taxi to fill. Meanwhile our taxi driver shouts out "Imlil! Imlil!" to any arriving tourists that might be looking for a ride. Most taxis are Mercedes and at least 25years old, in varying states of disrepair. One taxi which left was push started by the occupants. Clearly there is no warrant of fitness in Morocco! Generally they put more passengers than there are seats into a taxi, so by the time we left, we had 6 passengers and a driver in a 5 seat Mercedes.

We were fortunate to meet a couple from India (who are living in the Netherlands), Krishna and Reena, who were also going to Imlil. The 4 of us sat crammed in the back seat, sans seat belts while the driver ripped up dodgy mountain roads and played chicken with oncoming traffic. At one stage an oncoming vehicle got so close it actually clipped the drivers wing mirror.

This Berber man is standing atop his mud-brick house, no doubt surveying his barley crop after a day's work in the field.

Krishna and Reena had very similar plans and timeframe as us, so upon arriving, we decided to pool our spending power and negotiate a trek and accommodation. Krishna's bargaining skills must have saved us a couple of hundred Dirham! A Berber gentleman called Lhassan arranged a mule to carry our gear up the hill to our Auberge, and for a guide to visit us that night to discuss the next days trek.

Imlil, Morocco
Imlil, taken from a pass some 700m above the valley floor.

Imlil is typical of the Berber villages we would see in the days following, with the exception of a paved road all the way in. While the region is very desolate, the Berber people have engineered terraces and water races, and the terraces are vibrant green with cherry trees, walnut trees and barley.

Berber Village, High Atlas, Morocco
Typical display of Berber mudbrick buildings. Every winter, more collapse and slide down the hill.

In the morning we met our guide, Mustafa, and our mule and muleteer (the mule didn't have a name, and we still don't know the name of the muleteer), and we began the arduous 700m ascent of a pass (a 'Tizi' in Arabic) above Imlil. With temperatures only mildly cooler than in Imlil, we stopped for a much needed break at the top. By this stage, Dani's bowels were beginning to cause some drama.

A land of contrast - High Atlas, Morocco

Descending the other side, we got spectacular views of more Berber villages and as far as the expansive plains that run out towards Marrakech and the sea. After four hours of walking, we stopped high in a valley above some villages where several streams run off the still snow covered peaks. Mustafa and our muleteer made us some lunch, and we dipped our feet in the freezing waters of the stream. Dani was feeling very unwell by this time, and unable to eat, she was losing energy rapidly for the three hour descent to the Berber Village where we would spend the night.

High Atlas, near Imlil, Morocco
High in the Atlas, we continued to walk up to a waterfall pictured center.

Berber Village, High Atlas, Morocco

During our descent, we traversed numerous Berber Villages. Only the later ones had road access, the rest being only accessible by foot and mule. Berber families have lots of children, so we got many curious kids coming up to us saying hello in bad french (Bijoux! instead on Bonjour - followed by "Stilo?" - asking to be given a pen). Around 5pm in the evening we arrived at the Berber Gite to sleep for the night. Although very basic, it was very well received as we were all feeling suitably shattered. Poor Dani had to deal with the turkish toilet while her sickness took hold. We powered into a plate of biscuits and mint tea, followed up by dinner of yet another Tajine. I think we've both eaten enough Tajine to last us a while!

Berber Boys - High Atlas, Morocco

Berber Boys - High Atlas, Morocco
Berber kids on a dusty trail at sunset.

Our guide - Mustafa
Our guide, Mustafa, and Dani.

Day two began with an easier ascent that the day before, and in less than two hours we were over the top. Descending again through more villages, we stopped at a Berber house for mint tea and some bread, oil and butter. We gifted the Berber man some dried fruit and nuts to say thank you for inviting us into his home.

Krishna chillin' out.

Reena pouring mint tea
Reena pouring mint-tea after our first days walking.

Mint Tea Tradition

It was miraculous that Dani had even made it this far - after walking nearly 20kms over two days without any food, she was desperately short on energy. The final descent to the valley floor was difficult, so we decided to get Dani back to the Auberge in a car for the last 4kms to Imlil.

Despite our accomodation being very basic, it was well received after walking all day.

We returned to Marrakech in style - a Grand Taxi split between four! We said our goodbyes to Reena and Krishna in the Djeema el Fna in Marrakech. We hope we will be able to see them in the future - Netherlands, India, New Zealand? Somewhere!