Morocco (2016)

Of Gorges and Castles

We escape dinosaurs in a gorge, break with all decorum in Tinghir, learn all about fossils and discover a castle in an oasis. What more could you want from a single day?

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Today, we travel to the Todra gorge. We start off with a breakfast in the hotel’s large conference room (no music and dance this time, Allah be praised) before setting out. The weather was not on our side the day before, and despite the fact that it is still overcast, it is at least dry again. Geert had downplayed the gorge considerably over dinner, emphasising that it is only 500m long and has a paved road going through it. Nevertheless, or maybe precisely because of those low expectations, we were still quite impressed.

A concrete road wound its way through a deep and steep valley, flanked by the river that spent the past few million years carving its way down the rocks as the mountain range was pushed up. Sure, this is not a place to be entertained by for hours (unless you are a mountain climber—in which case this is, in fact, a rather popular place to entertain yourself for hours), but absolutely worthwhile to pass through. As we discovered a number of hotels in a curve in the gorge, we were actually quite disappointed that we had not been able to spend the night there, as it was an idyllic location. Then again, one of the gates looked like it could have come straight from Jurassic Park, so when something rustled in the leaves behind it, I decided that the place must have been overrun by velociraptors and that we were safer outside.

In Tinghir

From the gorge, we continued on to Tinghir, where we had the opportunity to explore the town. The fairly small center seemed fairly standard, filled with guide and taxi services to the Todra gorge, with men who wanted to lure us into their silverware shops, and with prior inhabitants of the Netherlands, as pretty much everyone had encountered some Dutch-speaking Moroccans; both Martin and we had encountered the one from Amsterdam West. We didn't need to go back to the gorge, and it is a good thing we were not interested in silverware—another couple had ended up going to a shop that was quite a while away and had, despite the silver mines being very close-by and the silverware being locally produced, quite high prices. The Dutch speakers taught us that the previous day of rain had been quite unusual: in fact, it had been the first rain since September. Imagine that: six months with no rain at all. We may sometimes wish for such good fortune, but it is a disaster for the farmers and food production here. Geert had already covered the low precipitation figures and reliance on irrigation in his lectures, but this was a rather pointed real life example.

Woman in the bar! Woman in the bar!

For the rest, Tinghir seemed to be rather uneventful. Probably the most exciting thing that happened that day, was Vonne and myself walking into what turned out to be a bar as she needed to use a bathroom, and I could see the fearful looks in the eyes of the all-male populace of the bar: “Woman in the bar! Woman in the bar!” As we managed to make it clear that she merely wished to use the sanitary services, however, a door was quickly unlocked and she was allowed access to a small bathroom. Whether it was hospitality or the quickest way of removing her from this male domain, I am unsure, but the situation was resolved and life could continue on as normal.

Fossils and the desert

Lunch was supposed to take place in Alnif, but Geert had a bit of news for us: the rain might have been a blessing for the local farmers, but it had also blessed the road to Marrakech via Ouarzazate in the form of destroying it in two places. That gave the Moroccan authorities two days to make repairs in order for us to return as planned, for the alternative route to Marrakech would be via Agadir: a slight detour of a few hundred miles and about six hours of driving.

Lunch consisted of the by now traditional picnic, at the café of the brother of Mohamed Bouyiri, a local geologist who regularly supervises international students, is regularly contacted by foreign media and is an expert on the subject of fossils. He also has a small shop where he sells fossils, which can be found in quite large amounts in Morocco. Apparently anyone whose profession starts with geo- enjoys giving lectures, for after following him to his shop, we received another lecture on the full geological history and different types of fossiles.

We then followed him into his shop, which soon pretty nearly contained more tourists than fossils. Nearly I say, for he did possess a very impressive collection, explaining in detail how to tell real fossils from the cheap imitations commonly sold all over the country. After his explanations, the group bought up most of the contents of his shop—Vonne and I chose to purchase the fossilised tooth of a mosasaur (I would rather have a fossil of something that could easily bite you in half, than of something that you would try to smack to death with a slipper if it were still alive) and a piece of mountain quartz.

As a ‘thank you’ for his presence and the customers, Geert was gifted a fossilized fruit bowl by Mohamed,* and we returned to the bus for the next leg to Agdz. This ride took us through an almost endless desert, which Geert emphasised multiple times, should not be associated with sand and camels, referring to the detailed explanation of the different types of desert in the travel syllabus.

We made three short stops along the way, sometimes prompted by calls from the bus, such as “Stop! Stop! Driver, can we back up a bit!” when a shepherd with a flock of dromedaries passed by alongside the road. Mahmed, cheerful as ever, dutifully reversed the bus so that everyone could get out and take pictures of the grazing animals while Geert subtly provided the shepherd with some monetary compensation. The other stops were also short and served to take more pictures of an oasis (also not the pool of water with three palm trees with a wise, old, bearded dervish sitting below that comics always promise), and to buy dates at a date stand.

Arrival in the Casbah Caid Ali

Despite these brief interruptions, we made it to our destination in good time and drove into Agdz later that afternoon, which must have had some of its vowels stolen in a surprise attack by nomads. Despite some initial reservations by Mahmed, he managed to skillfully steer the bus through the narrow gate of the Casbah Caid Ali. Upon exiting we found ourselves in the garden of a castle in an oasis! We were welcomed with cookies (cheers from my side) and tea on the patio next to the swimming pool (cheers from everyone else). Then, we were escorted to the former caravanserai, the guest quarters around the inner courtyard.

Martin disappeared through a wooden gate, mumbling to himself. We have not seen him since.

Proprietor Gaëlle had opened a number of the rooms so that we could choose who stayed where, but as it was a bit unclear which rooms were available and where (there were also some rooms in the tower and one upstairs along the ramparts surrounding the courtyard), this soon turned into chaos. Only after Geert commanded everyone who had found a room to stay in it, did order return and was it possible to assign the final rooms. Vonne and I ended up in a rather gigantic room spanning the entire width of the courtyard, which once must have been its entrance hall, with large wooden gates on both sides. The room was traditionally furnished with only tapestries on the floor, some matresses and a few pillows.

Martin was directed to a room in the keep, which turned out to be a gigantic maze of rooms, doorways, hallways and stairs on the inside. As we climbed some narrow stairs inside to have a look around, we found him wandering around dazed and confused—he was trying to find his room. We followed him up some stairs, through a door, and across a small yard, before he disappeared through a wooden gate, mumbling to himself. We have not seen him since.

Dinner was had in the restaurant next to the swimming pool on the other side of the palm-tree-filled garden. It was worth the walk, however, as dishes of amazingly good noodles with raisins, chicken and sugar were served that were quickly devoured, along with bowls of chicken broth. After dinner, several drums were dragged in, along with a beatbox (one of those wooden boxes you sit on and hit with your hands). It did not take long for Richard to occupy the latter, and for Youssef (the assistant driver) and Geert to be assigned places on the drums for a jamming session with some other Moroccan musicians.

On our way back to the room we spent some time gazing at the beautiful starry sky and attempting to photograph a dark brown building by night, a task which tested Vonne’s patience to it's considerable limits (“How many times will you be trying this? Is it still taking the picture? How long does it take? Alright, I am going to bed, I will see you when you finally have it in focus!”). Success was finally had, however, at which point it was time for bed, although the notion of peaceful sleep was somewhat disturbed as we saw a monster crawling in the garden that seemed to be a genetic combination of a spider, a bug and an elephant, and we realised that the doors to our room would not exactly provide the tightest of seals. Suddenly wondering what other creatures, such as snakes, scorpions and other critters, one might find here and which could easily fit underneath the doors, we hid beneath our blankets for—Insha’Allah—a quiet night.

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