We met at the airport in Brussel. A group of 12 young adventurers boarding the plane to Morocco. We landed in Tangier where 6 Renault 4’s where waiting for us. 2 people per car loaded with camping equipment. The tour guide was a young Belgian student who actually had never been outside Europe. He managed, just in time, to get a passport. Fortunately, there was also another experienced traveler in the group who worked for Exxon. Together we sometimes sneaked away to get rid of the tail of travel companions following us through the souks in the larger cities. Once in Marrakesh, where we entered a small shop selling rugs and were sitting down for tea, we quickly left, leaving the others behind to deal with the salesman.
We arrived during the Eid festival. Goats were slaughter in the streets. The town, with its narrow streets and woman fully covered with a djellaba brought home to us that we had arrived in a totally different culture. Before completely emerging in into country and culture, we stopped at the Atlantic beach for a swim and a get to know each other exercise. We distributed ourselves over the cars and set course for Chechaouen in the south east. On the way we set up our first camp in Ichtal close to a mudbrick factory. In the evening we all sat around the open fire. After visiting Chefchaouen we drove on to the first of the 4 “King Cities” Fez. The city has a long history which starts in 789 with the building of a fort by Idris I on the banks of the Jawhar river. Idris II built another fort on the other side of the river. These 2 centers remained separate till in 1070 when they were united by bridges and a city wall around both centers. The city is well known for its madrasa’s (Koran schools), covered souk (1200 AD) as well as the leather tanning pits.
The city of Volubolis was originally a Berber city, but came under Roman rule in the first century AD till 285. It became rich from the trade in Olive oil. For the next 700 years it was inhabited by Christians followed by Muslims. When the seat of power moved to Fes in the eleventh century it was abandoned. After an earthquake in the 18th century, which devastated the remaining structures, the fallen stones were used to build the nearby city of Meknes. The old roads in the city are clearly visible. Some of the houses have beautiful mosaic floors.
The second king’s city we visited was Meknes. It also started as a military post in 1063. The city still has its city walls with decorated entrance gates. The Berbers are in the majority. The most important ruler, Moulay Ismail (1675 – 1728), upgraded the old city with several beautiful buildings like his mausoleum.
From Meknes we drove south east towards the Sahara Desert. Along the way we spent a night in a large Berber tent. It was the weekly lunch stop of a Club Met tour from the coast. The road snaked through the Atlas mountain range towards Ksar-es-Soul. In the dry landscape we passed some restored Kasbah’s (citadels) one of which we visited. Our camp was set up on the bank of a dried up river. Further up river was a large oasis full of date palms. Water was lifted from the spring by a handpump into channels which watered the different fields. The graded road into the desert from Rissani was covered with small sharp stones. In some places sand covered the road and our cars became stuck. That night we camped in the desert near Mezouga. We bought a goat, which the locals coked for us by hanging it above a fire in a closed off pit in the ground. On the way out of the desert we passed an abandoned lead/sink mine. I assume the mineral holding reef was mined out.
In Tinghir we took the road through the gorge de Todra and drove all the way up and over the mountain to drive out through the gorge de Dades. Local Berbers saw our caravan of car coming and ran to the road hoping to get money from us. I paid so was allowed to take a few pictures of them. The woman had distinct tattoos on their chin.
Before reaching Quarzazate a severe sandstorm came up. You could not see a thing so we moved to the side of the road till the storm had blown over. In the evening it became clear that we had lost one of the cars. In the sandstorm a local driver had driven into it. The poor girl had several bones broken and was lying in hospital. Fortunately, her father was a well know surgent in Belgium who arranged for a medivac back to Belgium. I later heard that she was recovering well.
Quarzazate has a large film studio. Many desert movies are made here like “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) or “The man who knew too much” (1956). The beautiful Kasbah Taoyrirt was the former palace of the el Gaoui clan. They controlled one of the southern caravan routes. The 19th century kasbah reached its current form in 1930. Only part of the 300 rooms are restored and accessible.
We took a narrow winding road up into the high Atlas. The idea was to climb the Toupkal mountain (4167 m). We started the climb at 4089 m with a guide. Over small goat paths moving up and down and passing several Berber villages we approached the final climb. We stayed overnight with a Berber family who provided as with a local meal. You need to get use to eating with your hands. The next day, after an hour or 2 walking, I had to give up. My knees were hurting. The guide arranged for a donkey to carry me down. I thought I was one of the fitter ones of the group, having climbed the Kilimanjaro several years earlier. Giving up was very frustrating. Out of the 11 of us some 5 made it to the top.
On the way out of the mountains towards Marrakesh we passed a salt mine. The whole nearby mountain was made of up of dark brown rock salt. It probably does not rain that much here otherwise the mountain would have been gone.
Marrakesh (1062) was the third “King city” we visited on this trip. It stands out with its large evening market (Jemaa el-Fnaa) where shows with monkeys are performed for the visitors/tourists. Chleuh, an Atlas tribe, show off their dancing skills. There are also snake charmers and herb sellers. The 19 km medina wall has 20 gates leading into a honeycomb labyrinth of narrow streets along which anything the tourist wants is sold. Some of the palaces can be visited. The rooms are well decorated with colorful tiles. The inner courtyards have fountains.
The last stop was the capital Rabat. Since 1912 the capital of the French protectorate which it remained after independence (1956). This 4th “King city” is more modern then the other 3 although its origin is much older. It once was a Roman colony. We only visited the grave of the last king (1961) and the Hassan tower (1195) with the remains of the large mosque destroyed in the 18th century by an earthquake. From there we took the plane back to Brussels.