Prepaid GSM
Getting around

Part 2: Marrakech, Dades valley, Merzouga

24.2: Munich -> London -> Marrakech
25.2: Marrakech
26.2: Marrakech -> Merzouga
27.2: Merzouga
28.2: Merzouga -> Fes
1.3: Fes
2.3: Fes -> Meknes -> Volubilis -> Rabat
3.3: Rabat -> Casablanca -> Marrakech
4.3: Marrakech -> Munich
Map of trip to Morocco

24.2: Munich -> London -> Marrakech
Grand hotel Tazi, Marrakech. 280 Dirham for a room with breakfast. Room is basic, four beds, telephone, TV, nothing else (no cupboard). A/C which doubles as a heating - good to have heating, because it is fresh at night. The toilet is so-so, but it seems that nothing is missing. Great location, three minutes walk from the Djemma el-Fna.
Weather: in Munich frosty in the morning, but the temperature rises quickly as it is a sunny day. Fresh and dry in the evening in Marrakech, probably not more than 15°C.

The alarm clock wakes me up at 7:40am. I get ready and leave home shortly before 9am, then catch the 9:10am S-Bahn (quite full of travellers this morning), arriving at the airport shortly before 10am. At the BA check-in counter there is a group of British female schoolgirls, so checking in takes some time. It's 9:40am when I finally check in. Looks like I've been upgraded to the Club Europe class. Is this business class? At 11am I board the plane after briefly checking my emails.

The plane takes off on time and lands in London Heathrow at 12:40pm local time. Then there are some weird security checks - weird because I've already been screened before boarding the plane in Munich (and where could somebody have passed some weapons or explosives to me, given that security is tight in Munich) and because only one bag per person is allowed, so I have to place the camera bag into the small backpack. This takes some effort, and in the end the backpack doesn't close properly. But ok, it's one bag and they accept it.

So after going through another security screening I reach a big hall where I wait for the flight (there are two and a half hours left). I manage to find a place with an AC plug, so I finish processing the Bratislava images and set up the gallery. There are several WLAN networks in the hall, but none is free. In the end I buy 30 minutes of airtime on one network for 3 UK pounds and download the emails.

At 2:45pm the boarding gate is announced. Some more waiting and finally the BA plane (an Airbus A320) takes off at 3:40pm, 25 minutes late. This time I'm in the economy class. The flight will first stop in Casablanca then continue to Marrakech after a 40 minutes break.

The plane lands in Casablanca around 6.40pm local time. Most passengers leave the plane. Then something needs to be done to the engine of the plane, and a delay starts building up. I wonder if the engine developed problems during the flight, or if it already had a problem in London and BA flew to Casablanca to have it fixed there, because Moroccan engineers are cheaper. At 8:25pm we are still in Casablanca. BA is not much of an airline. Finally at 8:30pm the plane starts rolling and at 8:40pm takes off - 1 1/2 hours late.

The plane touches down in Marrakech at 9:10pm. Then everything goes quite smooth and fast: immigration, luggage retrieval. The ATM in the airport does not work (apparently a communication problem), so I change 50 Euro at the money change counter. I walk outside, a bit nervous because now the touts should show up, but no, surprise, surprise, there are no touts. It's 9:35pm and outside there are just a few taxis waiting for customers. Small discussion, where are you going, I explain that I have no reservation and need a hotel, preferably near the old town square, the taxi driver understands, how much is the taxi trip into town ... 150 Dirham ... can you use the meter ... no fixed price from the airport. Hmmm... according to the LP guide locals pay 50-60 Dirham, but it's late and I'm not in a mode to start discussing about the price. Actually 150 Dirham is way overpriced for just 6 km.

The driver brings me to a hotel in town (Grand hotel Tazi). Nothing so special, but the room is good enough and quiet, and hey, before 10pm I'm in the hotel, who would have believed it. Actually this taxi driver is quite friendly and helpful. He is overcharging for the trip, but is very helpful. I managed to solve the hotel room problem quickly and painlessly.

After checking it, I walk out a bit to the Djemma el-Fna square. Wow, great feeling, full of people and activity. Not so many touts, or let's say, not so many touts harassing tourists. It's almost possible to walk around undisturbed - unbelievable, I will have to reconsider my view of Morocco, if it continues like this over the next days. Lots of stalls selling freshly squeezed orange juice, 4 dirham per glass, quite cheap. Lots of stalls selling delicious food. I'm then back in the hotel at 11pm.

25.2: Marrakech
Grand hotel Tazi, Marrakech. The shower sucks. The breakfast is buffet style, but with very limited choices.
Weather: sunny, cloudless blue sky the whole day. The air is not crystal clear. Quite fresh in the morning, it gets warmer during the day, so that you can walk around in T-shirt.

The alarm clock wakes me up at 8:30am. I get up, have a shower, then have breakfast at 9:30am. Around 10am I start exploring Marrakech. Since the Koutoubia mosque looks so near, I first walk there. It's actually not that impressive and you are not allowed to go inside either. There is a minaret and some ruins (at least what I manage to see). To the south of the mosque there is a small park.

At 10:10am I get back towards the hotel, because I need to get some cash and a telephone card and near the hotel there are lots of shops. The ATM withdrawal proceeds smoothly. Then I walk to the first shop which sells mobile phones and ask about a SIM card. I buy a SIM card of Maroc Telecom for 50 dirham, which includes 20 dirham of airtime. In another shop I buy a 200 dirham recharge, whose value today is doubled (I end up with a total of 440 dirham of airtime).

In the meantime it's 10:30am and I start walking towards the Djemma el-Fna square. Although it's morning, it's already very full with people. I stop briefly and take some photos, then I'm recruited by the guy of the orange juice stall who sells me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice for 3 dirham - delicious and very good value. Later at lunch in a restaurant I will pay 30 dirham for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice...

Passing by the snake charmers and other street artists, I head towards the souk. The idea would be to make a round trip through the souks to the Ali ben Youssef mosque and medersa, then get back to Djemma el-Fna for lunch. A medersa is a Koranic school, with an inner court and small roomsfor the students.

I try to follow the itinerary suggested in the Lonely Planet guide, but immediately get lost. Actually I'm not even able to find the starting point. The small alleys are not marked well enough and the tiny map in the Lonely Planet guide is essentially useless, because it is not detailed enough. I basically orient myself with the position of the sun and a compass and manage to reach the Medersa by 12pm. In between a guy stops me and tries to bring me to the tanneries, which I decide to skip, because I'm not that interested.

The Ali ben Youssef medersa is very nice. You have to buy an entry ticket to get in (I get the 40 dirham ticket which also covers the Marrakech museum). Inside there is a court and many rooms with artistic wall decorations and carvings everywhere. Quite photogenic and full of tourists.

At 12:35pm I walk to the nearby mosque. This is not impressive at all and is closed. The only thing you can see are the pink walls and the minaret. Never mind. I enter into the Marrakech museum, which was founded by a Moroccan businessman with close ties to the monarchy. The interior is quite nice, in Moroccan style with many pieces of art.

Around 1pm I start walking back to the Djemma el-Fna square. Despite navigating with a compass I manage to get lost in the souks and miss the Djemma el-Fna square. I end up after some time in a place which turns out to be the Kasbah. Was actually planning to go to the Kasbah after lunch, but if I'm already here it's ok. At 1:30pm I have a lunch in a cafe-restaurant on top of a building with a nice view of the surroundings. Good location, but expensive food.

While I'm in the restaurant I call Mohammed Lahlali of Atlas Maroc, the travel agency where I'm booking the car. I explain where I'm staying so that the driver can pick me up tomorrow morning. Mohammed says that travelling from Marrakech to Merzouga in one day is not really feasible, that I would spend 13 hours in the car and would not see anything in between. But I would prefer to stick to the plan, because my time is limited and I would like to spend two nights in the desert.

After lunch, at 2:20pm, I walk to the nearby Palais el-Badi, but before that I get lost again (turn left instead of turning right) and get adopted by a local guy who wants to show me the Jewish quarter, telling me that the Palais el-Badi is closed until 4pm today because it's Sunday, so I should visit first the Jewish quarter. The Lonely Planet guide instead states that the Palais el-Badi opens at 2:30pm and indeed the palace is open when I arrive there at 2:30pm (after having got rid of this guy). The Palais el-Badi is nothing special, actually there is nothing to see there, except for some ruins and walls. It's also just 400 years old, and I wonder how the Moroccans preserve their cultural heritage.

After this palace I try to make it to the Jewish quarter, but get lost again, then get adopted by some children who want to show me a synagogue, a guy joins us, we all walk together to a synagogue, they throw us out of the synagogue and the guardian locks the door, then we walk to the Palais de la Bahia.

The Palais de la Bahia is very nice, with some very impressive interior decorations with Islamic patterns and carvings. I spend almost one hour there, then at 4:30pm start walking towards the Djemma el-Fna square where I'm planning to take a rest in a cafe.

Around 5pm I arrive to the square, which is very full of people as usual. I go to a cafe with a roof view of the square and spend the next hour up there. After 6pm I have some dinner. In the evening I don't do much.

26.2: Marrakech -> Merzouga
Hotel Kasbah Le Touareg. 220 Dirham for a room, big enough, furnished (has a cupboard) and a big toilet. The price includes breakfast and dinner.
Weather: sunny, cloudless blue sky the whole day. Fresh in the morning in Marrakech and the evening in Merzouga (have to wear a jacket because it is windy).

Today in a 12 hours drive we cover the 600 km distance between Marrakech and Merzouga. I wake up at 7:13am, get ready and at 8:05am I'm down in the lobby waiting for the car. It's still not there and will in fact only arrive at 8:15am. We drive to the office of Atlas Maroc where I pay for the car, then to the home of Mohammed, the driver, where he picks up his stuff. We finally leave Marrakech at 8:50am.

After getting out of Marrakech we drive for a while in the plains, then start climbing the High Atlas mountain range. The scenery is breathtaking. After crossing the Tichka pass (2260m) at 11:30am, we arrive in Ouarzazate at 1pm. There we briefly stop for lunch in a restaurant, then continue the trip at 1:30pm. This time I'm driving the car. It takes a few minutes to get used to the car (a Fiat Palio) in this unusual environment. I manage to get caught by the local police when I overtake a very slow car where there is a countinous white line. Apparently it's a 400 dirham fine, but then the policeman settles for 50 dirham. Hmmm... yes, you are not allowed to overtake when there is a countinous white line, but this was a very slow car blocking the traffic and these continuous white lines are everywhere in Morocco, even where they make no sense and nobody seems to care about them anyway.

With a few photo-stops, we finally arrive at the stunning Todra gorge at 5:15pm. After shooting some photos, we leave for Merzouga, with Mohammed driving the car. We arrive in Merzouga at 8:15pm. We have covered 600km in 9 1/2 hours, which probably is a decent time on Moroccan roads. We could have driven faster but crossing the Atlas mountains cost us a lot of time.

Upon arrival we look for a hotel. A local, who happens to be a hotel owner, suggests to go to his place. I'm a bit skeptical and lean towards choosing a place mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook. We ask where the Ksar Sania is. The Ksar Sania got swept away by the flooding last year, he replies. Flooding in the desert - you really expect me to believe that? Later, after dinner in the Kasbah Le Touareg hotel, the employees confirm that indeed in 2006 a catastrophic flooding took place in Merzouga. A dam burst and Merzouga was covered by 3 metres of water. Since most houses are built with dry mud bricks, 25 hotels, including the Ksar Sania, collapsed.

Merzouga has completely changed since my last visit in 1996. Back then this was an underdeveloped village, with no electricity at night and only a desert track conecting it to Rissani. Now there is a paved road and electricity in the village. I settle down in the hotel, have some food, and have a chat with the local hotel guy. He suggests a trip by a four wheel drive car to the dunes and beyond for 800 dirham (3 hours) or 1200 dirham for the whole day from 9 to 5, covering a range of places  (black people village, touareg camp, mines, oasis). Somehow interesting, but expensive at 1200 dirham. Will think about it.

After dinner around 10pm I walk towards the dunes. Beautiful sky full of stars, but very windy and cold.

27.2: Merzouga
Hotel Kasbah Le Touareg. The  hotel is actually not bad. The only problem is the shower which takes some effort to get it running properly.
Weather: sunny, cloudless blue sky the whole day. Fresh in the morning and evening, warm in the middle of the day. Windy on the dunes, strong sun which changes the colour of my face to red.

Day spent in the dunes and relaxing. "Relaxing" is actually a relative term, as climbing up and down the dunes is very tiring, especially if you are not used to it.

I wake up at 9am, stay in bed until 10am, then get up and leave the room after 11am. After a brief breakfast, at 11:45am I start walking to the dunes. I'm wearing slippers to avoid getting shoes full of sand. I take some photos of the sand and use the grey card to measure the colour of the sand. Later, when I white-balance the image in the computer, I discover that the colour the real sand is a very strong orange - which is quite surprising because the sand did not look like that in the midday sun.

Getting on top of the dune (I head to the southern one) is extremely tiring. The distances do no look big, but this actually is an optical illusion. The dunes in fact are quite high and climbing on soft sand takes a lot of effort. Where the slope is steep, every step causes a sand avalanche which drags you down. It doesn't help that the sun turns out to be unexpectedly strong and roasts you like a shrimp. This may be February, but here we are quite far in the south and the sun is already very high in the sky.

At 1pm I'm on top of the dune. After 25 minutes on top, I start walking back to the hotel. Getting down is much easier and actually is fun to run down the dunes, sort of like skiing down a slope. Shortly before 2pm I'm back in the hotel room. There I take a rest until 3pm, then get out again. When I leave the room I meet the hotel staff and Mohammed, the driver. I'd like to eat a small thing before climbing again on the dunes (had no lunch today), but they no small things in the hotel. No ice cream, no cake etc. So Mohammed and I take the car and get into "town", i.e. the village of Merzouga. There even is a "supermarket", which in reality is quite empty. But they have some small snacks, which is what I was looking for.

We then get back to the hotel. From there I start walking again to the dunes. Since I'm already a bit sunburnt, I cover my head with a sweater, the way the locals do. Should have done so in the morning already, or better I should have bought one of those light cloths people here use to cover their head.

I head to the northernmost of the three big dunes (there is a group of three very big dunes near the hotel). This time it is easier getting on top, because the path has already been walked by several people and is overall less steep.

Around 4:45pm I'm on top of the dune. Together with me are some local children, who want to sell some fossile handicrafts and some other tourists, who also with great effort made it to the top of the dunes.

By the way, forgot to mention that everybody here speaks French. Most tourists are either French or communicate in French with each other. I speak French with the hotel staff, Mohammed, and the (few) other tourists I meet. There are not so many tourists in Merzouga at the moment. Among the non-French tourists I notice an English-speaking couple and a group of three Spanish-speaking tourists. In March there will be a desert rally and for four days, the place will fill up with hundreds of tourists.

I'm on the dunes until after sunset, walking to the middle of the three big ones and back shooting some photos every now and then. The sun sets at 6:15pm. After that I walk back to the hotel, arriving there slightly before 7pm.

Dinner in the hotel is around 8pm and is not too bad. It's with several courses and quite filling. The only thing is this hot dish of meat cut into small pieces full of fat and tendons. Doesn't taste bad, but it's just too greasy. After dinner not much happens. This evening there are four new French tourists. Some chit-chat, some drum performance after dinner.

Copyright 2007 Alfred Molon