Going South 2012

Mission completed. 4 weeks Morocco brought us in the corners of the country, we haven’ t seen last year and gave us the opportunity to spend again some time at our most famous spots at Plage Blanche (White Beach) and Erg Chebbi. The following trip report spiced with current impressions of the journey and adds up to the report “Marokko 2011″. All trails and roads were easily managed by the “Big Lion” , the dust has been settled and waits to be swirled up again. So enjoy reading and have fun in completing your overall picture.

Next to the wood pile

31.08.2012, Brussels, Belgium: Done! The Lion does not only shine in an new outfit but is also stuffed and packed with whatever needed for the next weeks. Tomorrow we will take off and via France and Spain again going to explore Marocco and further south into the Western Sahara. Whenever possible we will post the newest pictures and give an overview about our efforts. Comments welcome!

04.09.2012, Benahavis, Spain: 2200 Kilometers later! Intermediate target taken! We arrived in Southern Spain and met our friends who pampered us with “Steinburg Classic” beer ….typical German name but brewed in Valencia (and cold as drinkable as american beer….).

What happened so far? The usual traffic jam around Paris took us almost 2 hours, wild Woodworkers threw us out of our bed at 05.45 in the morning and the Spanish mountains (actually whole Spain is a tedious up and down – especially with 10 tons and only 168 hp) have made me almost mad. Little else. The Lion is purring again like a kitten, nothing more to add. Tomorrow the first day off before continuing towards Africa. Ma salama.

Medina in Rabat

06.09, Tanger Med; Marocco: The purchase of the ferry ticket to Africa (on the road to Algeciras near exit 177) has worked again with ease and for € 245 we bought an “open” return ticket. To the fact that we were too high for the 11 am ferry and thus could only take the 02 pm one, no problem. Even the customs in Tanger-Med where much faster this time (and even accepted – oh wonder – the online customs form for the Lion). Insurance policy (as always the expensive part, 4 weeks 250 €) bought and away we went. We took the much faster highway to the south (since we dawdled along the Route Nationale the previous year) and spend our first night beside the road south of Larache.

Mausoleum in Rabat

07.09, Rabat: Next morning we drive quite relaxed on the highway to Rabat (Arabic for: fortified town ‘), since 1956 the capital of Morocco and seat of government and the residence of the king. Rabat is next to Fes, Meknes and Marrakech one of the four Sultan cities of the country. The name derives from an Islamic frontier fort (Ribat) builed by the Zanata-Berber in the 10th Century on the estuary. In 1146, the Almohad ruler Abd al-Mu’min turned Rabat’s ribat into a full scale fortress to use as a launching point for attacks on Spain. In 1170, due to its military importance, Rabat acquired the title Ribatu l-Fath, meaning “stronghold of victory”. Rabat and neighboring Salé united to form the Republic of Bou Regreg in 1627. The republic was run by Barbary pirates who used the two cities as base ports for launching attacks on shipping. The pirates did not have to contend with any central authority until the Alaouite Dynasty united Morocco in 1666. The French invaded Morocco in 1912 and established a protectorate. The French administrator of Morocco, General Hubert Lyautey, decided to relocate the country’s capital from Fes to Rabat.

Horse Guards

The medina is surrounded on three sides by the 1197 completed Almohad city wall. Only east of the Kasbah of the Udayas a small piece at the edge of the cliff above the river bank is missing. Generously planned, a 5250 meters long wall crosses the medina as also a large part of the New Town to the west and south, where it encloses the garden grounds of the Royal Palace. The much smaller area of the medieval medina is demarcated against the French New Town by the Andalusian-wall of the 17th Century. The former Mellah lay on the river bank within the Andalusian wall.

The sightseeing tour is worthwhile and a nice introduction to traveling in Marocco.

08. – 11.09.: We continue south, pass Casablanca and reach El Jadida, where the motorway ends and turns into a beautiful coastal road to Safi and Essaouira. In Safi, after Casablanca the most important industrial and trade center of the country, we spend the night. Safi, under the name Safim (Zaffim or Asfi), is one of the oldest cities in Morocco and closely affiliated with pottery. Throughout the market vases, plates and other items are all made from clay.

Besides decorative and functional Ceramics, the green glazed tiles made from longitudinally split, slightly conical tubes, are produced here. They cover mosques, mausoleums and the royal palaces all over the country. We meet a nice moroccan fellow who explains the art of pottering – without asking for bakshis and with no intention to sell something…! Amazing. By the way: Safi gives its name also to the famous “Safi leather”, which is since the Baroque period one of Europe’s very popular leather from goat and sheep skins.

Fishing harbour Essaouira

Next stop Essaouira. The Medina of Essaouira (formerly “Mogador”) is a UNESCO World Heritage Listed city, as an example of a late 18th century fortified town, as transferred to North Africa. A collection of guns (bronze and iron) from the 17th and 18 Century stands on the sea-facing Scala de la Kasbah. During this time, the city built out its position as an important hub in the caravan trade and reached considerable prosperity. After the French occupation of Timbuktu in

Clock tower

1893, the city lost during the 20th Century its importance since the main trading links were broken. We stroll through the beautiful old town and enjoy the unique atmosphere of the city. After 1967 it was the target of many hippies (also Jimi Hendrix spend a few days in the area). The journey takes us past Agadir and back on a track we knew from last year already. We decide to spend a night at Wassay Beach in the Souss-Massa National Park and then follow the route along the coast down via Sidi Ifni to Foum Assaka and further on to the Plange Blanche. According to our map, there seems to be a dirt road that could make this idea possible…

Beach Foum Assaka

12.09.: Foum Assaka: Mission failed. The trail (see here) would probably being possible to drive with an ordenary 4×4 (partly ascent more than 45% and stone steps over 50 cm) but because of the extremly narrow turns with our Lion only after heavy manouvering at the edge. We were not in the mood to do so … We tried the track along the beach to find another way up the ridge and got stuck at the beach (in the truest sense of the word). Once again we had to dug free the truck, but felt in love with the scenery and the people and decided to stay the night.

Couscous

We enjoy the solitude, relax and have an amazing evening and as “welcome present” some home made Couscous.

Tan – Tan

13./14.09.: Back leads on another trail through eternal expanses of prickly pears always direction Guelmim and south to the Western Sahara. Often nicknamed Gateway to the Desert, Guelmim is a regional trade center and garrison town. Since the 11th Century the site was a trading center and the destination of large caravans moved through the Sahara from Mauritania and Senegal. They traded in slaves, gold, salt, and animal substances. Particular importance of the market gained for trade in camels. 20,000 to 40,000 camels were brought here by nomads which made Guelmin the largest camel market in Africa. Today its not really worth to stop…

After tedious drive we arrive in Tan-Tan appr. 20 miles inland and head back to the coast and drive along the Atlantic Ocean down to the south. Here we overnight near the spectacular coastline before we start the next morning to Tarfaya and therefore reach the old “Spanish Morocco“. Supraregional importance had Tarfaya, as in November 1975 near the town 350,000 people of the “Green March ” lived in a tent camp. The camp consisted of an area of 70 km² and 22.000 tents.

Dedicated to de Saint Exupéry
Baracks Tan-Tan plage

On the beach there is a Monument dedicated to Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the French aristocrat, writer and poet who was stationed here in the 20s of the last Century. Some miles further south we finally reach one of our aims, the Western Sahara. The line is actually only detectable because suddenly – out of the nowhere – a few gas stations appear … and offer tax-free fuel for 0.47 € / liter diesel. After the departure of former colonial power Spain in 1975, the territory was claimed by Morocco and mostly annexed. At the same time, Morocco and Mauritania, which had historical claims of sovereignty over the territory based on competing traditional claims, argued that the territory was artificially separated from their territories by the European colonial powers. Algeria, which also bordered the territory, viewed these demands with suspicion, influenced also by its long-running rivalry with Morocco. After arguing for a process of decolonization guided by the United Nations, the Algerian government under Houari Boumédiènne committed itself in 1975 to assisting the Polisario Front, which opposed both Moroccan and Mauritanian claims and demanded full independence.

Southward

In 1971, already during spanish colonisation, a group of young Sahrawi students in the universities of Morocco began organizing what came to be known as The Embryonic Movement for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro– the core of the Polisario Front, which is working for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco and the foundation of a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic

This led to the Western Sahara conflict. Since the ceasefire in 1991, the Polisario Front controls a strip to the east of the Western Sahara. A little further we reach Laayoune and shortly thereafter Layoune Beach or better Foum El-Qued, the “Riviera of the Sahara”. As always, we are the only ones on a huge camping area and also realize – as always – that there has to be done a lot to achive the proclaimed “Riviera status”.

Ghosttown

El Aaiún was founded in 1938 on the Spanish colonial region and became its capital in1958 . It grew rapidly in the 1970s by the economically lucrative phosphate mining at Bou Craa. “El Aaiún” is the Spanish transliteration of the Arabic name “Layoun” which means “the water sources”. near Saguia el-Hamra, an intermittent river and wadi which rises in the northeast of Western Sahara, some 30 kilometres southeast of El Farcya.

The oldest part of the former garrison climbs over several levels on the slopes of the southern riverbank. Here in the side streets and alleys, the average three-storey blocks are from the Spanish period. West of the central square of this district (Place Hassan II), which is bordered by the stucco facade of the hospital, lies the church from 1954 with its barrel roof of a concrete shell. It is consecrated to St. Francis of Assisi and was in 1950 – on General Franco‘s wish – designed together with the Church of Ad Dakhla by the same architect, who is also responsible for the Valle de los Caídos near Madrid.

In the Western Sahara

15.09., Western Sahara: We continue early in the morning to “dive” deeper into the Western Sahara. First destination is Smara to find out whether the trip further east toward the Algerian border is possible at all. The police in Laayoune was quite helpful but equally desultorily and has referred us to the Gendarmerie Royale in Smara. We enter the desert and arrive in Smara almost 3 hours later. The largest city in its province, Smara was founded in the Saguia el-Hamra as an oasis for travellers in 1869. It was made a capital and religious center in 1902 by shaykh Ma al-‘Aynayn, in what was then Spanish Sahara. The location of the city was intended to ensure its becoming a caravan trade hub in the sparsely populated Sahara desert. The enlargement of Smara was carried out by local Sahrawis as well as craftsmen sent by the Sultan Hassan I. Smara is the only major city in Western Sahara that was not founded by the Spanish. In the center of the city the remains of a stone fortress can be found, the Zawiy Maalainin, which enclosed a mosque. All in all, the city is very “quiet” meaning also the Gendarmerie seems to sleep. Only the UN Mission is present in the streets. After consulting Mohammed, a Sahrawi and UNHCR staff, we have rejected our plan to travel further east. Situation still unclear, the Polisario is still active and with a lot of refugee camps in the area also from this point of view not safe. Whether it’s true? We have not tried it and took the loop north, back to Tan – Tan. The road turns slightly uphill and through barren desert landscape. Suddenly out of the nowhere a dilapidated city of mud huts appears on the horizon – described in no guidebook – our space for the night.

Chameleon in shell collection
Welcome present

16.09. – 20.09., Plage Blanche: Back in Tan – Tan we decided to spend some days at the Atlantic ocean and went on poor roads (17 km – 2.5 hours, Movie here) down to our favorite spot at the mouth of the Qued Draa.

Sunset at Plage Blanche

Here we spend 3 full days, sunbathed, collected shells and unpacked the surfboard. By the way (almost) alone, only a few fishermen who from time to time appeared in the distance and provided us with fish. Once again, the Moroccan kindness has overwhelmed us, because “money for fish” did not fit in their attitute as hosts …amazing!

The Scout

21. / 22.09.2012, Tafraoute, Anti – Atlas: In order not to completely forget the time we have forced us back on the track after a few days and drove eastward passing Guelmim and Bouizakarne. We visited Morocco’s best preserved fortified granary (Agadir) in Amtoudi. The Agadir Id Aissa is a typical agadir with courtyard, whose age is estimated at about 800 years . The access site is secured castle-like, the valley side is wide and open with two towers in the corners.

Map studies with locals

In a Wall Ring of larger and smaller stone slabs, fixed together without mortar, various storage compartments of various sizes are set. It includes the peak and a rocky area of about 2500 square meters. In case of an attack of other tribes or wandering nomads, the villagers with their cattle were able to find protection for a few days. Food was sufficient, because in the storage chambers various foods (barley, almond, oil, dates, dried figs, etc.) were deposited, rainwater was collected in cistern and stored.

A composite of small stone slabs cell structure used to hold beehive.

From here we drive on an adventurous track (only a few centimeters along the abyss), then it leads through the mountains of the Anti Atlas to the north east to Tafraout. Tafraout is located in the middle of a magnificent granite landscape at around 3000 feet altitude. The most striking feature is the many polished rock formations formed by natural forces (wind and rain) , which ultimately refer to a volcanic origin of this part of the Anti-Atlas.

Pink Rock Tafraoute
Blue stones

We visit the “Blue Stones” by the Belgian artist Jean Verame who painted huge, granite blocks round from erosion with brightly colored paints. Even larger and also controversial art of the same artist you cand find in the Sinai, known as the “Blue Desert “.

23./24.09.: We continue our way. At the beginning the landscape is quiet interesting, then turns into a monotonous plateau at Taliouine and Tazenakht. We hit again the Wadi Draa, which accompanied us since the Atlantic and will show us the way to Merzouga, our next destination. On the plateau, the first rain arrives, which will follow us the whole way east to the desert.

Dune trekking
Sunrise at Erg Chebbi

25.09. – 27.09., Merzouga, Desert Hotel: Although only drops arrived the soil, but still one of the rare days of rain in the desert. After a decent breakfast this morning we went out for a desert stroll through the dunes – one of Michi’s favorites… Here’s a short movie from the foothills of the Moroccan Sahara. We use the day to relax a little bit, to lie by the pool and to update the site. The chaps in the Desert hotel are super friendly and we are, as always, the only campers. Since we have been exploring the area already last year hence driving the desert tracks via Taouz to the west, we take it seriously with the relaxation time …

Kasbah Meski

28.09., Meski: We follow the Ziz– valley oases to the north and camp at the “Blue Source” of Meski. The campsite is situated among palm trees at the source which has been expanded by the French Foreign Legion to a swimming pool. I explore the impressive but crumbling Kasbah high on the steep bank of the Ziz Qued and stroll through the beautiful oasis gardens. We meet Stefan and Angelika from Vorarlberg in Austria with their boys and a MAN. They assure us, even with our Lion the Todra Gorge and further north would be no problems (with his 3, 60 meters hight and some contradictory information in guide books, we were not quite sure).

Entrance to the gorge
In the Todra gorge

29.09. Todra gorge: We are slightly deviate from our plan and did a 300 km detour through the famous Todra gorge. It is at the narrowest point only 10 meters wide and 300 meters high and limited by bizarre towering cliffs. Here we finally also found the tourist stream, which we were previously “missing so much” . The way forward through the valley is almost as impressive as the canyon itself, except that the people are hardly not used to tourists . On single-lane road, it now gos into the morning sun to the very eastward corner of Morocco, Figuig. We spend the night next to a camel watering place in the “bush” near Gourrama and continue our journey the next day.

Oasis Figuig
The mosque

30.09., Figuig: We have reached “Land’s end” and are bordered by 3 sides from Algeria. This is also the staring point of the “Desert Highway”. For us more or less the final of our trip, since we now will start the tour north and to the ferry to Spain. The town is built around an oasis of date palms, called Tazdayt, meaning “palm tree” in the Berber language, surrounded by rugged, mountainous wilderness. Figuig is about 850 to 900 meters above sea level. The nearest major city is 372 kilometers away in Oujda (our next destination). We take a long walk through the huge oasis gardens, the wealth of the city and then relax for the trip north.

Nowhere!

01.09., Saidia: If we thought until now, to drive through the “nothing”, then the route from Bouarfa to Oujda has disabused us…. We follow the old railway line and complete this tedious passage with stoic calm. “First life” we meet in Oujda, the capital in the north-eastern Morocco.

Kirche Saidia

After a short break and some shopping we drive further on to Saïdia and its resort, Mediterrania-Saïdia. Here too, the season is over and we seem to be the only tourists. A lot of touristical infrastructure is going to be build in this area but in contrast to the other side of the Mediterranean, the Costa del Sol in Spain, a concept and construction with “brain” can be seen….

02. – 04.09., along the Mediterranean : We conclude our tour by following the Mediterranean Sea along the foothills of the Rif– Mountains. It is part of the Cordillera Bética that also includes the mountains of Southern Spain. The Rif mountains are not part of the Atlas Mountains but belong to the Gibraltar Arc or Alborán Sea geological region. The new and impressive road in a constant uphill and downhill along the cliffs. The little bays offer continious possibilities to rest and swim. With its 168 hp, it is for the Lion quite a callenging and for us a tedious affair. Even here we are again impressed by the hospitality of the people who not only offer us “Kif” (we reject thankfully) but also prickly pears (we accept).

The Mediterranean road
Sunset in the Rif – Mountains

The last night we stay at the campsite near the Hercules cave in Tangier before we leave to the ferry. With this, we used the last 2 holidays not only to cross Morocco but also surrounded it. A nice conclusion.

Always worth a trip!
Cheers!