Friday, February 2, 2007

in which we cross the High Atlas and return to Marrakech

from John:

We had asked about buses from Taroudannt to Ourzazate the night before and were told 10am in the bus park at the city gates. Could we buy a ticket? Get it on the bus, came the reply. We duly arrived 15 minutes early and waited at the appointed spot. Various blokes wondered past, looked us up and down and asked "Ourzazate? Ten o'clock." Ten o'clock came. And went. We spotted two more gringos also loitering in the vicinity and looking equally abandoned. Groups of Moroccans sat waiting in the shade. No sign of any buses actually going anywhere. And then a creaky old bus pulled in sudddenly, belching blue fumes and dust, and some of the men hanging around burst into life, waving and shouting at us:"Ourzazate!Ourzazate!Ourzazate!" People struggled to get off the bus and beyond an eager clutch of porters with wheelbarrows, whilst we zoned in on the Bus Man, all the while tugged and pulled by these men screaming in our ears "Ourzazate!Ourzazate!Ourzazate!" We purchased our tickets from the Bus Man, as the touts who had attached themselves to us clamoured for their cut. Our rucksacks were slung onto the roof while Gayle shoved aboard to find two seats at the back. The Bus Boy responsible for baggage demanded money for the rucksacks. I pulled a face and gave him half the asking price and climbed aboard. A few more boarded, searched for seats, got off, got on again. Bus Man and Bus Boy walked down the bus, checked every seat was occupied, shouted to the driver and we roared off in a bigger cloud of fumes and dust. Bon voyage!

The road ran parallel with the distant mountains of the High Atlas through a dry flat valley, everything looking brown and dusty. The driver put on a tape of someone half-singing a recitation from the Koran. It suited the landscape.

Ourzazate is a fairly sprawling new town that has boomed with some government investment and money from the film studios that operate here. Numerous Hollywood films have been filmed here, from Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator. Not much for the visitor to see, but a good place to break our journey. We carried on the next day to Tinehir, further east. It was cloudy and chilly and Tinehir had a shabby look about it. North of here lies a green fertile valley and the Todra gorge, formed by one of the rivers coming down from the mountains. We spent a quiet day pottering about the town, and finally headed up the green valley the following day. There were villages alongside both sides of a thick green band of palm trees and fields - a visual relief amongst the endless brown. We stopped at an empty hotel and then set off up the valley on foot through the palmery before lunch. It was sunny but not too hot, which was a good thing because our little walk turned into something of an epic.

The palmery was divided up into small plots of land, separated by irrigation channels. There were date palms on the edges and clover being grown in the fields. Higher up the valley it opened up a little and there were almond trees too. It reminded us of some of the valleys we had walked in Nepal - a very peaceful place. We passed through a couple of villages, threading a way through their labyrinthine streets until we came to the gorge, where the valley walls almost touched. They were maybe two hundred metres high and not much sun seemed to get in. Unfortunately it is spoiled by two hotels where coach tourist disembark for lunch. Stalls were set up selling all the usual Moroccan tourist goods. I think I preferred the palmery. We'd had an egg butty and then followed a brief description from our guide book for a two hour walk, climbing out of the main valley, looping back round over two high passes and returning to one of the villages we had passed. The description was a bit vague and once we'd reached the top, with great views across the rocky ridges all around, we dithered about the route down, but found a path that seemed well-trodden and stuck to that. We passed a couple of nomad tents, nestled high up in the crannies. These people were goat herds and had temporary shelters in quite high and very dry places. We finally reached a dividing point in the path and could see the descent down to the village. However, the other path was going in the direction of where we thought we would return to the main valley by our hotel, so we took that instead. The path had been marked with stones and there was evidence of mules i.e. mule shit, so we felt fairly confident. We descended a small valley for a while on a path above the dry riverbed, where we spotted some other gringos descending. Our path crossed the valley and climbed around a bend, finally reaching a pass appearing to go in the wrong direction. The path onwards seemed indistinct. We hummed and hawed. Down below us in the dry riverbed we could see the others, so we decided to drop down and follow them. We caught up with them trying to descend down a dry waterfall. There were two fellas and two women, and the women refused to climb down. I didn't even want to look! We talked, they looked tired and we were all conscious that the sun was dropping and we were running out of time. We suggested that we should climb back up to our path and have a look over the pass. The men were doubtful, but they hadn't even been on the path, so they weren't as confident as us. From the pass we looked down a steep drop to a wide flat dry riverbed. We did a quick reconnaisance, spotted the path continuing alongside the dry river and heading in the right direction so we took it. Eventually, after a long walk out, we emerged onto the road of the main valley right beside our hotel. It was six o'clock. The others had another three miles to walk to their village, but at least they were no longer lost.
Unfortunately out tagine that night did not do justice to the appetite we had built up. The chicken was one of those yellow rubbery comedy affairs. The hotel owner was a nice talkative man but in the morning we decided not to have breakfast and he looked as relieved as we felt at the decision. I guess cooking wasn't his thing.

We returned to Ourzazate where the grey clouds finally turned to rain. It rained for a whole day and night, and it left a layer of snow on the mountains to our north. After a day of pottering we then took the bus back to Marrakesh, on a road that wound its way up to a high pass through the snow covered valleys that looked beautiful in the morning sunshine. We then descended a busy and rather hairy stretch until the valley opened out onto a huge green basin. The bus finally reached the plain, and we trundled back into the big congested city. It felt lively and busy after all the small towns we had visited, but the familiar sights and sounds were also welcome. We returned to our little hotel on Cheap Hotel Alley, ready to recuperate.

Au revoir