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Western Africa

Morockin' the oases till I'm ghana!

I enjoy pretty much all types of travel, save for the all-inclusive variety and/or the staying-put kind.
But if I had to chose, the unexpected, the seldom trodded, the sparsely populated, the wilderness-y versions would be my top picks.
I have a feeling Western Africa can fulfill my curiousity in that regard, so....
I'm going to Western Africa!

Chèvres dans les arbres

Morocco Posted on Tue, December 12, 2017 14:44:43

One of the quaint little boni with overlanding is that you get away from the proverbial beaten path. Between Marracesh and Senegal, there’s not much to see or do, though. Towns are small and rundown, few and far between. There is, of course, the mighty Sahara desert, which is an impressive sight in its barrenness.

For the most part, it’s not the undulating dune sea of postcard and tourist brochure fame, but rather a flat, rocky wasteland with scattered low bushes, windswept and vast.

There are some parts that look more Tattoiinesque, though. One of the many bushcamps we did was in the shadow of an impressive sand dune, 1600 jawa feet tall.

The call from the ridge was clear, and we climbed, scaled and hiked up to the peak for a spectacular view of the sunset and the moonrise. The wind was playing wildly, though, and the sand and dust was pretty much everywhere. Leaving my camera in the relatively dust free truck below, I had to keep the view in my mind, rather than capturing it on sensor.

There is also the rocky Atlantic coast. Erosion has shaped the coastline into a jagged zigzagy denture, with razor sharp cliffs and the occasional sinkhole, waves unyieldingly tearing down the sandstone. Sometimes the cliffs, more often than not towering some 30 metres above the sea, give way to sandy beaches, and after a few days of bushcamping, a dip in the waves did a decent job of getting rid of some of the traveller’s dust, especially with the help of one Dr Bronner.

A welcome break from the long driving days and the camp dinners spiced with a not neglectable amount of sand, was the fishing town of Essaouira. Fresh fish, practically still flapping, was on offer at the many beachside eateries and grilled to perfection after having been chosen by the customer. A sit-down, non-vegetarian meal was like a feast, and

hitherto unbeknownst to me, was that freshly grilled sardines are tasty as.

Ever southwards, Nala the truck steamed on. If there ever was a doubt we were in Africa, any hesitation had left by the first sight of goats in trees and herds of dromedaries.

As quaint as a week of bushcamping is, with no access to showers, proper beds or toilets, a vacation it is not. How I longed for a bed and an ensuite! But alas, such luxuries are just that. In those circumstances, even a simple campsite is akin to a Four Season’s resort; to be able to set up the tents before sunset, to have time to relax, taking in the sun while the sleeping bags airs, to wipe away the sand from clothes, liners and tents without them being refilled immediately; such pleasures!

The first campsite after the long sequence of bushcamping still had its fair share of sand, even though it was located in town. But it had toilets, warmish showers and even a little lounge area, with an actual table at which we could have supper. And even though it lacked regular sheets and pillows (and obvs bathroom), the room upgrade for around €6 was an easy choice. So, I suppose one of the quaint little boni with overlanding is that after long enough time in the bush, the simplest campsite can feel like a Four Seasons resort.

Nous avons le meilleur des aliments

Morocco Posted on Wed, December 06, 2017 16:15:08

Perhaps the most touristy, and certainly the most vibrant city in Morocco is Marracesh. Known as the red city, it boasts a busy town square and a medina filled with restaurants, cafes and eateries amongst the many many souks. Plotting my plan on the digital map, I found a route that would take me to most of the sights in Marracesh.

As is on par for any Moroccan city, the sights include the medina, the mosque and most probably a mausoleum, presumably in memory of a king Mohamed or other. But Marracesh, being a former capital as well as a long-standing destination for the rich and/or suave, also boasts palaces and parks.

Having been dropped off at the direct vicinity of Koutoubia mosque, that seemed the obvious starting point. Not far away lay the top pick of Marracesh, some would say. The grand town square, named Jemaa el-Fna, home of hawkers, horses and hoodlums, was filled with life, sounds and smells. Berbers, dressed in traditional garb (minus the sneakers and the camera phones, of course), beckoned to have their photos taken. Monkeys in leashes, dressed in baby clothes, was used by their owners to lure in tourists for other photo scams, and defanged cobras was supposedly charmed for the victim’s amusement. Needless to say, I payed them little mind and fewer coins, and made my way through yet another medina.

The goal was the old palace of the viziers, Bahia Palace. Eventually I found the well-hidden entrance, and I could get away for a while from the hustle and bustle of the souks. A short stroll through small park led to a modest, yet intricately designed little palace. Well worth a visit, as well as the symbolic entrance fee.

The hunt went on, though the search for the larger, older, and supposedly more grandeuresqe El Badi palace proved preyless, since I couldn’t find it, even with the help of three independent apps.

Having finished my old town endeavours with a rooftop shawarma, I set course for Jardin Majorelle, Yves Saint-Laurent’s memorial botanical garden. A fair walk off, I fretted upon seeing the entrance fee of 70 dirhams (€7),but I had walked far, and eventually saw that they offered a student discount. As I actually am currently at uni, I promptly produced my student ID, and needed only to pay 35.

To be honest, that was about the right amount to pay for entry. Any more would have been overpricy. Though pretty and neat, the garden was small and with very little variety. The royal blue and distinct yellow pots and walls heightened the experience, though, and I do like most cacti.

Jemaa el-Fna is slightly different after sunset. The monkey men and snake charmers have taken a back seat to other types of scammers (cups games, coin tosses, fortune telling etc) and the during daytime surprisingly open square has been filled with street food peddlers, all shamelessly nagging you to buy their food specifically, not from any of the other 99 identical stalls.

Much as I detest being harassed (I’m perfectly fine making my own decisions, thank you very much!), I still needed to have a genuine street food in Marracesh experience. I chose the least naggy purveyor of shish kebabs and it was good.

Having booked my hotel (cheap, with a bed, four walls, a ceiling, a floor, a toilet and a shower, with no extra frills) in Ville Nouvelle, I got to see the more modern parts of the city as well, and it has all one could ask for as a Westerner wanting to explore the African (in particular the Saharan) culture and mystique, yet with relative ease retreat to slightly more familiar surroundings. Therefore, it’s no wonder that Marracesh, the most touristy, and certainly the most vibrant city in Morocco, is a long-standing destination for the rich and/or suave.

Allons enfants de la patrie

Morocco Posted on Mon, November 27, 2017 11:17:06

Wherever I go, there seems to have been an empire or other that has boldly been there before. More often than not it’s the British one, but sometimes the Mongolian, sometimes the Incan, sometimes the Chinese. But in Northern Africa, the Romans took hold, back in the first century, effectively kicking out the former colonial power: the Mauritanian empire.

Evidence of this can be found in one of many of Morocco’s Unesco world heritage sites: Volubilis. The archaeological site itself is a rather well preserved city, with whole sections of more or less intact mosaic floors and a still standing sun arch.

Volubilis, with its drainage and sewer systems, was just a quick stop towards our first bush camp of the trip, though. Well, bush camp is a bit of a stretch, seeing that we set camp in what was basically a park which, during the days, was visited by many a local picniccer. Sounds of the not too distant motorway filled the night soundscape rather than the noise of untamed wilderness, and burglars were the fear during the night, not lions.

Lions may not be found in Morocco, but probably in some of the countries for which we obtained visas. Rabat, being the capital of Morocco, hosts many embassies, including, but not limited to, Côte d’Ivoire and at least one of the Guineas. Passports and forms properly provided, we had a few days to kill, and so took of to that city of white houses, made famous by that Marx brothers film from 1946. After a trip to what might be the largest sports goods store in Northern Africa to replace my retired sleeping mat, and a quick stop for a beer at a rather shady bar, I arrived at what would be the main reason for going to Casablanca: a gin at Rick’s Café. The gang had arranged a shared minivan back to camp at 15:30, so when I got there at 15:05 I had plenty of time. Or so I thought. The fancy gin joint, modelled after its namesake in the 1942 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, closed at 15, and wouldn’t open until 18:30. Therefore I stayed back, got myself some tasty fish dinner at an up-scale place by the docks, and awaited the reopening.

It has all the sway of its Hollywood inspiration, and they make a very passable G&T. Posters for the film, and related movies (such as the Swedish documentary Jag är Ingrid) decorate the walls, and a few tv screens show the film on repeat.

Mission accomplished, I returned to camp via commuter train, and lay my head and body on my newly bought therma-rest.

The capital beckoned once more, and not only for shuffling papers and passports. I left the gang for a day and a night in town, upgrading to a room in a hostel in the middle of the medina.

Rabat is less hectic than Fez or Chefchaoen, and outside the medina there’s almost a European feel to it. I managed to take in the main sights, such as the mausoleum of Mohammed V and the Hassan tower, as well as the museum of contemporary art, before perusing the labyrinthine alleyways of the medina in search of a typical Moroccan restaurant. I found one, hidden away in some nook or cranny, and was welcomed like a French aristocrat. The staff were all very proper, bowing and curtseing in all their finery, and I soon understood why: the price for beer or wine was higher than in Sweden, and there was no á la carte, just a set menu, the smallest of which started at 500 moroccobobs (around €50). This was an expensive place, so I excused myself, crawled out of the medina and to a nearby ship that doubled as a restaurant.

Waking up the next morning to a sunny day with just the right amount of bustliness, I hauled myself to yet another embassy to rejoin the group. The Roman empire may only have reached as far south as Volubilis, but the French grasped forther down still. As such, our resident Canadienne was more than helpful during the days of embassy visits in Rabat, translating back and forth. Perhaps that helped getting our Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea visas comparatively smoothly, and off we went to Marracesh.

Un chien Andalou

Morocco Posted on Thu, November 23, 2017 18:00:07

The border crossing from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the African side went refreshingly smooth, and we were in Morocco. After a few money changes, Nala steered inland and upwards, taking us to Chefchaoen in the Atlas mountains. Known as the blue city, the houses and cottages lined the steep hills and caught the eye of whomsoever likes the combination of blue and white. The blue was mostly too light for my taste, but the city was wonderfully beautiful nonetheless.

A speciality of the Maghreb in general and Morocco specifically is the method of cooking called tajine, which is basically putting the ingredients in a ceramic bowl, attach a combined lid and chimney and heat it up. The result is a thoroughly cooked meat with all the flavours contained. Along with prunes and almonds the most significant meat of the region, lamb, it tastes yummy.

As if the sizzling plum-and-almond lamb wasn’t enough to remind me that I was in Northern Africa, the call for prayer that started pretty much the same time as my lunch was served certainly confirmed it. Through the megaphone speakers of the minaret came the so called adhan, reminding muslims that it was time to for worship. The practice takes place thrice during the daytime, once after sunset and once before sunrise, totalling five times a day. I can easily attest that the one an hour or so before sunrise is the most annoying of the lot. Moreover, if the muezzin (the man calling for worship) is accompanied by a pack of howling dogs, well that makes the alarm clock even more redundant. And unnecessary. And redundant.

One normally tend to think of Africa as a place where it’s always hot, and even moreso in the desert. Well, Africa is a huge continent, with heaps of different biotopes and climate conditions. Northern Morocco is not all desert, the Atlas mountains reach high altitudes, and mid-november in the northern hemisphere is still late autumn. So the warmth coming from the friendly rays of sunlight during the day quickly escapes back to space during the night, leaving the dark hours chilly, cold even. That would be a bad time to discover that my therma-rest had a tiny puncture, slowly deflating during the night, and leaving me flat on the cold, hard ground in the middle of the night. Finding the hole to fix it would be tricky without a pool of sorts, and buying a new one proved equally tricky. A yoga mat came to the rescue, and will hopefully suffice until we reach warmer lands.

The trading and handicraft hub of Morocco is Fez, and that was our next destination. Exploring the labyrinth* of narrow alleyways of the medina, the souks offered the usual spread of produce, meat, trinkets and pottery. But most specifically, leather. As Fez is the home of the largest tannery in northern Africa, the leather business is all the rage. After watching (and mostly smelling, because the odours from the tanneries ar so strong and foul that the wise person brings a bundle of mint stems to sniff occasionally) the leather getting soaked in concoctions of water, olive oil and pigeon poo and then dyed with poppy, indigo, saffron and the like, we were promptly offered to buy some quality leather goods for rather hefty prices. The gang, consisting of backpacking overlanders with little coin and even less space promptlier declined the offers of €2.500 for a goat leather bag, no matter how awesomely fireproof and soft it was.

The same went for the other major handicraft forms of the region. Intricate and beautifully made as they were, with meticulous attention to detail and undeniably skilled craft, none of us opted to purchase neither the €46.000 hand tied, 2 million knots carpet, nor the €4.500 mosaic dinner table. That would have been out of everyone’s price range even if the carpet would have been flying and the table would have been magical, setting itself with delicious and healthy food and drink three times a day. But at least shipping was included.

Camel skin and ceramic tajines aside, the one product that springs to mind upon hearing ‘Fez’ is undoubtedly the red, cylindrical, tassled hat made famous by Grunkle Stan, the Shriners, and the Eleventh Doctor. On most of my travels I tend to buy headgear that are useful and/or symbolic of the region, so the 30 durham (around €3) fez I bought felt like a no-brainer.

Freshly outfitted in headwear befitting the locals, me, Tony and Kyle navigated the maze** of the medina in search of the reputed monstrous camel burgers of Café Clock. Perhaps the camel they were made from was monstrous, who knows, but the burgers themselves were rather moderate, size-wise. Tasty, though (best camel burger ever!) and the place was cosy and atmospheric, with a nice view of Fez.

Having not spent €46.000 on a non-flying carpet, having bought a hat for about 1/5 of what I had expected and realising that these ten weeks travel are actually dirt cheap, leaving room in the budget for splurge, I decided to upgrade at the campsite. A bungalow, shared with three co-travellers, shouldn’t dig too deep into the wallet, and while camping is perfectly cromulent, a bit of variation is always welcome, especially when the therma-rest is wonky, the dogs are a-howling, and the cold that I’ve had since London is constantly on the verge of turning mannish.

Yes, the dogs from Chefchaoen seemed to have followed us, or at least their howling.

Perhaps they were Andalusian dogs, having crossed the border from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.

*) or possibly maze

**) or possibly labyrinth