Morocco; sun, snow and sand

posted in: Trip reports | 5

To complete my goal of skiing on all the continents I had to ski in Africa with Morocco being the most obvious place to do so. Skitouring in the High Atlas mountains was therefore automatically on the agenda, but what else had this country in Northern Africa to offer?

As I mentioned in my previous post about Turkey, I experienced some troubles with Iberia. Initially I had a flight from Istanbul to Madrid followed by Madrid to Marrakech on March 18. However, the Spanish Airlines decided to cancel the route Istanbul – Madrid, without notifying me in any way, which meant I eventually had to make a big detour to reach the African continent. Instead of the 7 hours it would have originally taken, it took me around 24 hours with my new itinerary on March 25: Istanbul – London; London – Madrid; overnight at Madrid Barajas Airport and finally Madrid – Marrakech. My new route was about to end in Casablanca because there were no seats available to Marrakech. Once at the airport in Madrid it turned out there were two flights to Marrakech within 10 minutes both having many available seats. Luckily I could still get one. Iberia, what the f@ck is wrong with you?

The main reason visiting Morocco was to ski on the African continent. When I arrived in Marrakech, I immediately doubted my chances of doing so. It was about 25 degrees Celsius. It is an understatement to say that the other tourists looked surprised to see me walking around with my ski bag! I arrived at the main square in the old city, named Jamaa El Fna and checked in at the Rainbow hostel. If you don’t want to sleep, book a night at this place as dorms are so cramped there is no room for luggage at all and other people’s feet are more or less in your nose. Add the likelihood of snoring with five people in a room and you have the recipe for a perfect night…

one of the many foodstalls at the Jamaa El Fna
one of the many foodstalls at the Jamaa El Fna

Luckily for me I left this awful place after two nights to start my trip to the High Atlas. A beautiful ride took me to Imlil, the starting point for trips to Toubkal. Jebel Toubkal (jebel is the Arabic word for mountain) is the highest mountain of Morocco with 4167 meters and is therefore the main attraction of the area. I had booked three days of ski touring with my guide Ibrahim. In order to get to the snowline we had to trek into the mountains for 4 to 5 hours to reach the mountain hut “Refuge du Toubkal – les Mouflons”. Luggage was carried by mules, so the trek was relatively easy although we still had to cover a change in elevation of about 1500 meters. The refuge is located at 3207 meters which made for a great base to reach the surrounding summits of just over 4000 meters.

The weather forecast looked really good for the next day for skitouring; not too cold, sunshine and no wind. This meant Toubkal was on the agenda because it can be extremely windy on the top which makes the ascent impossible so you better ski it whenever possible. Early morning the snow was hard and icy so ski crampons were required. The ascent was consistently steep but not too difficult. From the refuge to 3900 meters, Ibrahim and myself zigzagged all the way up before we left our skis in the snow. The last part of the ascent had to be done without ski’s. The wind had blown the snow off the mountain during the season. After 2,5 hours of skinning and another hour of bootpacking, I arrived at the top. Besides a few skiers, many Spaniards were around in the area for trekking in this beautiful mountain range. On the top I was therefore greeted with high fives of a bunch of Basque people. After enjoying the view for at least an hour, time had come to go down. Before clipping into our skis, first we had to walk down the upper part. What followed was a descent between rocks and ice on what had to be the last snow of the season. But the snow we skied was surprisingly good; real corn snow!

Next to the refuge there was a beautiful couloir which looked pretty steep and amazing. Regardless of how much I wanted to ski it immediately, I had to wait for the last day to ski the line. First, another peak over 4000 meters had to be climbed and skied. According to my guide the ascent included some ski alpinisme…

The peak to be climbed the next day was Ras Ouanoukrim (Ras means peak in Arabic), 4083 meters high. The first part of the ascent was gentle and easy towards the pass at 3800 meters. What followed was the technical section Ibrahim referred to earlier. With our skis strapped on our backpacks we started to climb the rocks with some interesting exposure here and there. It was new for me but a good experience. After 45 minutes we reached the snowline again and skinned our way to the top where we had a long break just like the day before. The temperature was nice, there was no wind and we had time, so why not?

The obvious couloir from the top could not be skied anymore due to the lack of snow but Ibrahim assured me he knew another nice couloir. We skied down a wide face from the top before reaching the entrance of the little couloir. It was the only skiable way down and it was pretty good, although short. A little hike lead us back to the top of the pass from where we enjoyed some more corn all the way to the refuge. Back in the hut I was treated by nice Tajine, one of Morocco’s popular dishes. The afternoon and evening were spent chatting to all the Spaniards and drinking mint tea…

The last day had to be the icing on the cake in terms of the skitrip. The ascent to Brèche des Clochetons made me a bit nervous because it looked really steep from the refuge but the reward had to be huge with an amazing descent. Estimation of the steepness of a slope from the bottom can be difficult as the view often is misleading, so I decided to just give it a go. Ibrahim led the way into the bottom of the couloir from where you could see all the way to the top. Step after step we created another zigzagging pattern in the High Atlas. Ski crampons were our best friends and the further we got, the steeper it became. Luckily the vertical to be covered this day was ‘only’ 600 meters. For the last part I put the skis on the backpack and used my crampons to bootpack to the top. The last section was probably somewhere between 35 and 40 degrees so nothing crazy. The ascent was nice and fulfilling and the reward had yet to come…

skiing the couloir from Brèche des Clochetons was pretty good!
skiing the couloir from Brèche des Clochetons was pretty good!

After recovering from the exercise we decided it was time to collect our prize; skiing down the couloir! The snow was absolutely perfect and there were no trekkers or other skiers to possibly spoil the vibe. Going to Morocco for skiing I expected crappy snow on flat slopes, not an amazing line down a nicely shaped couloir. It simply surpassed my expectations. The first part was relatively narrow and steep before it opened up a bit where larger GS-turns could be made. Finally we had to navigate our way back to the bottom which was directly at the refuge. A perfect example of Moroccan ski-in ski-out!

The majority of the afternoon was spent on the terrace outside the refuge looking back at the runs we had made. A big peak, some technical climbing and a great couloir made a good mix for a decent skitrip. Satisfied, I enjoyed my last dinner (together with some Spaniards of course) at the refuge. After a good night sleep I walked back to Imlil the next day where transport back to Marrakech was waiting. In Marrakech I would meet my parents the next day…

the Koutoubia mosque in the center of Marrakech
the Koutoubia mosque in the center of Marrakech

I picked them up from the airport and we exchanged stories during lunch. In the afternoon we walked around the Jamaa El Fna. The square is actually nothing more than a big tourist trap. Nothing is authentic about it and once you leave the square and dive into the surrounding souks things get even worse. At first the little alleyways give a great feel, as if you head back in time. After a while however, locals have been so annoying that you only want to leave.

My parents were in Morocco for a week so we decided we’d better make the most of it and not only stay in Marrakech. A trip to the desert was the plan. First we would explore the city for a day before taking a bus to Ouarzazate from where we would arrange a tour to the dunes. The next day we visited the Bahia palace, the Menara gardens and the Medersa Ben Youssef. The Medersa, which is a religious school, was by far the best sight. Walking around in the old but intact building, one can wonder around the former student rooms and classrooms all surrounding a basin. After a long day of sightseeing we enjoyed a dinner in le Bagatelle, which turned out to be our favourite restaurant in Marrakech.

The food in Morocco is interesting in a way, 95% of the restaurants have exactly the same menu. Couscous and tajine with either vegetables, chicken, beef or meatballs and skewers of chicken or beef seem to form the Moroccan cuisine. Some restaurants offer pastillas, which is a big pastry. Of course all meals are accompanied by a lot of bread and olives. These dishes are all pretty good but after a while you could get bored of the same menu every day. This happened to me and in order to find something else, you’ll have to look around for a bit. Le Bagatelle offered some nice French cuisine in a welcoming setting, it was more of a bistro than a restaurant. They served beer too which was a plus for my dad.

The busride to Ouarzazate was a pretty tough experience for my parents having never taken the bus for I don’t know how many years. They somehow managed to arrive in the relaxed city which is a starting point for tours to the desert. After two days they seemed to have found the travelmode and our private driver, Ali, had driven us to the first camp close to M’Hamid. Strong winds made the experience possibly a bit more intense than we would have liked. I still went for a walk with my dad, both dressed like bankrobbers (see pictures and you’ll know what I mean!). It was fun to walk around in an orange ‘no man’s land’. We finished the day with a great dinner together with two Italians who were really good company.

The following morning it was time for the infamous cameltrek. Actually the trek is done on a dromedary but people call it a cameltrek. Some things in life can not be explained… The animals were waiting for the locals to link every single one to a guest. We decided not to go to Merzouga, the most popular spot for visiting the desert, but went to the more remote Southern dunes in order to avoid the crowds. It paid off because we were with 8 people in total and didn’t cross any other person. The trek was easy, pretty comfortable and serene. I guess it’s something you have to do once when you’re visiting the desert. After a generous lunch we headed towards our next camp in the Chegaga dunes. A couple of hours driving off-road in a spectacular mixture of landscapes were needed to get there. On the way we saw many caravans, not referring to the mode of transportation popular in the Netherlands (campervans for you non-Dutch people…) but to the mode of transportation in the desert (yes, camels or actually dromedaries). The second camp was more remote and probably therefore felt a bit more special. The surrounding dunes were bigger and uninterrupted by trees. We went for a walk to enjoy the sunset on one of the dunes, a great experience!

that's me enjoying the sunset at the Chegaga dunes in Berber style...
that’s me enjoying the sunset at the Chegaga dunes in Berber style…

The next day we drove all the way back to Ouarzazate, but following a different and even more spectacular route than on the way towards M’Hamid. Our driver Ali was more busy talking to friends on his cellphone while we were trying to capture the surrounding landscapes. It changed almost every ten minutes but always consisted of mountains, sometimes with some snow on top, and many colours. Yes, the landscape of Southers Morocco is breathtaking!

Back in Marrakech we celebrated my 35th birthday. The best way to do that, is by enjoying some nice barbecue food, a ‘brochette de boeuf’ or beef skewers. After this proper lunch we paid our visit to the botanical garden owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent since 1980. Le Jardin Majorelle, as the garden is called, is very colourful and has a wide selection of cactus plants. Most of the other sights are inside the medina (the old part of the city) where you get hassled all the time by annoying locals whereas this one is located in the new city. This meant it was pleasant and easy to get there which was exactly what we were looking for. My parents also treated me on a night in the Riad they were staying at, the Dar Nakhla which translates into palmhouse. My birthday ended with a nice dinner at le Bagatelle and a delicious icecream at Gelato Dino. If you ever visit Marrakech, please make sure to have an icecream at this beautiful parlour.

the botanical garden in Marrakech has some beautiful cactus plants
the botanical garden in Marrakech has some beautiful cactus plants

My parents flew back home on April 9 and I boarded a train to Fes. The trainstation in Marrakech is really beautiful and once inside it is very peaceful. My second class compartment had eight seats, all of which were taken. After observing my fellow travelers I was convinced they knew each other because they were heavily discussing all kinds of topics. It turned out they were all independent travelers but it’s just the way it goes in Morocco. They talked to me too, both in Arabic and in French. My French is slightly better than my Arabic so conversations were impossible. One guy though spoke English and he became the designated translator. He even googled news about the Netherlands on his laptop. “Is the Dutch queen Islamic?” Uhhhh, nope. “Look, your prime minister is cycling through the country!”. That was something special. I helped another man, with a long beard and one whole tooth, with his luggage and since then I was his best friend. I could stay in his house every time I visit his country and I had to take pictures of the beautiful (in his humble opinion…) landscape. After skiing and visiting the desert this landscape was a bit boring…

All in all the true local people seem to be really friendly in contrast with the people focused on tourists. All the bigger cities have a so-called Medina, an old part with little alleyways and hundreds if not thousands of shops. The shopowners are friendly and polite but unfortunately the atmosphere will be ruined most of the time by really annoying young boys / men. They start talking to you in as many languages as they can until you answer in one of them and then you’re lost. They follow you regardless if you ask them not to. If you ask them to please stop, you can’t be surprised to receive a nice “Fuck you” or “I will wait for you”. You can of course beat the hell out of them but unfortunately they don’t act as individuals but as a group. If you value your life, you’ll have to accept the insults which is not my strongest point…

After paying extra again for my oversized luggage the taxi dropped me off nearby the Riad Verus, the hostel I stayed at in Fes. This must be one of the most beautiful hostels in the world. It was quite expensive for a hostel but this way I was hoping to meet some older and more interesting people than the regular backpacking crowd. Unfortunately my plan didn’t work out as I only met some typical hostel people; dinner is always too expensive but money for beer is no problem. Crying for discounts in public spaces like restaurants is pretty sad in my opinion, especially when you’re a lot richer than the locals…

The main reason for visiting Fes was to see the tanneries. This process of treating skins of animals to produce leather can be observed in both Marrakech and Fes but is supposed to be better in the latter. I had to walk through the whole Medina in Fes, which is the biggest of the country, in order to find the tanneries. I finally made it, even without getting hassled too much. To get a good view you’ll need to enter a shop or a house with a terrace on the backside. A local, who said he worked in the tanneries, invited me into his shop from where I could take some nice photos. He even explained the whole process without asking for money. I somehow still expect an invoice…

the colourful tanneries in Fes
the colourful tanneries in Fes

After visiting the tanneries I walked around the Medina and of course this time I got hassled. A restaurant manager wanted me to have lunch in his eatery. After having some tea it became clear to me he had different intentions. Phrases like “Abdul and Paul sounds great to me” and “When I see you I get warm feelings” scared the hell out of me and so I left. Then I got followed by a guy who I repeatedly asked to stop in a very polite way. Unfortunately that didn’t help and finally I had to fuck off to use his words. This guy was so bad that salesmen apologised for his behaviour. Isn’t traveling great?

After my enjoyable experiences in Fes I took the bus to Tanger. The 206 kilometers are covered in just under eight hours, it must be the most inefficient route on the planet. In Tanger I just had a dinner before leaving to Spain the next day. On my way to the restaurant, which was about a kilometer away from the hostel, I got offered hash about four times, got followed several times and got preached to in Arabic a couple of times. All of this without asking for it but that’s needless to say. At least I was happy to leave the country!

Overall I have to say the landscape and the scenery Morocco has to offer are truly breathtaking. From Marrakech to the South it doesn’t matter where you look, stunning vistas as far as you can see. The skiing surpassed every expectation. The refuge is nice and perfectly located to explore the surrounding peaks. The corn snow was a bonus. The food is good although choices are a bit limited. Most cities though offer some international cuisine in case you’re looking for a change. The biggest downside of the country are its people. The older locals, let’s say above 30, seem to be very nice but conversations are limited because of their poor English and my even worse French and Arabic. Most women won’t talk so that makes it hard to get to know them. Many people under 30 though are really really annoying. They make your “Medina-experience” a bad one. To be honest I don’t know what their goal is. Tourists are just annoyed by them so they don’t get any money. Perhaps they are just looking for a proper fight. Well, like I mentioned earlier, some things in life can not be explained… There is a big difference though between life in- and outside the Medina probably because of the tourists. Most of them only visit the Medina because that’s where the sights are located. Outside the Medina people seem to be far more relaxed and welcoming. After 2,5 weeks I have to say I’m really happy to leave the country and that has not happened before too many times.

Now I’m in Madrid for a weekend with good old friend ArJan Wille before flying to Geneva for some late season skiing in Chamonix and la Grave. Sometimes you’ll have to treat yourself…

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Morocco!

5 Responses

  1. Jan-Hein

    Wow wat maak jij mooie dingen mee. Ik ben schandalig laat, maar ook nog gefeliciteerd met je verjaardag! 😉
    Kijk uit naar het volgende verslag.

  2. Jelle

    Nice stories again Paul. I do agree with Abdul; it does sound nice in combination with Paul. There even is an American singer who has such a name 😉

  3. Anneke en Ries

    Hoi Paul,
    prachtig avontuur. Weer heel anders dan Vietnam, niet? Wij genieten van je reisverslag in Suriname.
    Ook prachtig land, maar niet om te skien……hi,hi…..
    Wanneer ben je weer in kikkerland?
    Anneke en Ries

  4. Carolien

    Mooi verslag weer Paul. En weer erg mooie foto’s!
    Have fun in Geneve!!!
    Groetjes van ons 4-en

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