Overland to Morocco - a travelogue

Click on outlined photos for full size image.

Thursday

After weeks of doing the "Webster’s Dictionary" joke to death, and only a brief delay at Dover when the bag x-ray man mistakes the Leki for a sword, we really are Morocco bound.

From Calais, a TGV deposits us in Paris with 5 hours to spare before our next connection. Time for a stroll along the Seine and a whistle stop tour of the Pompidou and Notre Dame.

Dinner on the TrenHotel

At 7:30 pm we board the "Trenhotel". Our private compartment is big enough provided you don’t want to swing any cats. It’s the sort of room where you take turns to stand up and the en-suite is a triumph of design over the apparent impossibility of squeezing toilet, shower and washbasin into an extremely small cupboard.

Three course dinner in the restaurant is actually very good, except chef forgot to do any potatoes with the main course. The wine is free too so it’s quite a relief to return to the cabin to find the attendant has magically converted the seats into bunk beds.

Friday

Sorry, I was looking for Atocha station, not the botanical gardens

An early wake up call averts disaster because I’ve forgotten to change my alarm to Spanish time. There’s just time for a leisurely breakfast before the train rolls into Madrid. We spend the morning in the Prado followed by a late lunch in one of the many street cafes.

Lunch was the first mistake. No sooner have we boarded the Algeciras train than lunch is served again – at around 3:30pm. I decide to call it dinner. Come 5:30 I am sitting back enjoying my after dinner malt (all free in "preferente" class) and feeling it must soon be bed time. An extended snooze later the train rolls into Algeciras at around 8:30 (not the 10:30 printed in some timetables).

The hotel is only a short walk from the station and is an impressive colonial style establishment. We collapse for an early night.

Saturday

A day of challenges. You cannot book Moroccan trains or buy currency outside Morocco. I am beginning to discover why the international abbreviation for Moroccan Dirham is "MAD".

We must cross the water, get cash, find a taxi and arrive at the station by 11:00. We get to the port at 8:45 and are told if we run we can just catch the 09:00 fast ferry. It’s as well we make it because the estimated 1hr crossing time turns out to be nearer two. The 2hr time difference is in our favour so we arrive in Tangier at the same time as we set off.

Pausing only to get Dirham from an ATM we make for the port exit, avoiding eye contact with the many taxi drivers hassling us as we go. I had been warned to get into the town first, where a taxi may be hailed for a fraction of the price.

At the station, the departures board lists trains to everywhere in Morocco all leaving from platform 1 at 11:00. It transpires there is only one train this morning. The first part of the journey is perfectly civilised with reserved seats in an air-conditioned compartment. Unfortunately we have to change trains at Sidi Kacem.

There is a large festival in Fez and it is the start of a holiday. The train company have sold twice the normal number of tickets but have not seen this as sufficient reason for laying on any extra trains. There are a number of basic concepts our fellow travellers have failed to grasp including "first class", "gangway" and "reserved seats". The train is complete chaos. The corridors are packed with people and luggage. One family of four have set up camp in the loo. It is 2hrs before a ticket inspector arrives and evicts the squatters from our seats.

"Marrakech Express" proves to be something of a misnomer. We finally arrive in Marrakech at 9pm after 11 hours on the train. Our driver meets us at the station and gives us a dramatic demonstration of Moroccan driving style, laying on a minor collision with a bus by way of entertainment on the way to our hotel.

Sunday-Monday

Marrakech. This town is something else and deserves a whole travelogue of its own.

Tuesday

After a couple of days absorbing the culture shock which is Marrakech, we are off again. This time by 4-wheel drive. We are picked up at 6:45am and head SE towards the edge of the Sahara.

We stop briefly in Ouarzazate where they shot Lawrence of Arabia (the film, that is) in order to repair a wing mirror shattered by another close encounter of the bus kind.

There is a lunch stop then later a toilet break. At the latter, the master of the house refuses the money we offer for use of the facilities (and the mandatory tea) but ends up selling us a tagine.

Is this really necessary?

We continue, in all, for 10 hours in the car but the journey isn’t over yet. For the last two hours we swap our 4-wheel drive for 4-hoof, through a brewing sand storm into the desert. All that can be heard is the howl of the wind, the plod of the camels’ feet and the occasional ring tone from the chamelier’s mobile phone.

Transport into the Sahara

Entertainment for the evening is a Berber beat combo featuring two drummers, a man with an extraordinarily loud toy trumpet and a lady whose main function is dancer but who can make the most amazing ear shattering noises just using her voice and tongue. It is soon made abundantly clear that participation in the dancing is not optional.

After a break for probably the best tagine of the trip so far the music, dancing and merry-making continue into the night. For video of Berber merrymaking (warning - large download), click here.

Wednesday

The wind has subsided and the sand returned to its rightful place on the ground. After breakfast and a photo session with a local gerbil it’s back to the camels. Today I make the important discovery that riding side-saddle goes a long way to alleviating severe (no) saddle soreness.


Our camp in the desert

Mercifully our return journey to Marrakech includes an overnight stay in Zagora, 24hrs being the minimum required to clean the sand out of every orifice.

Thursday

From Zagora we head back to Marrakech, stopping in Ben Ait Haddou to visit the ancient Kasbah and another excellent lunch.

Saturday

After a rest day we set off again for the Atlas mountains. It’s less of a journey – just a couple of hours by taxi then the last part on foot. We decline the option to ride on the mule carrying our bags because everyone feels sorry for it.

Sunday-Tuesday

Into the high Atlas

Three days of guided treks in the Atlas mountains. The air is refreshingly clear and alpine compared with the heat of Marrakech and the desert. The native Berbers are amongst the most hospitable people I’ve met. It is almost impossible to pass a village without being invited in for mint tea. It’s a land of poverty though. Our guide tells us that the men laying the power cables which will supply the next village work a 6-day week and earn about 70 Dirham a day (around 5).

They build and climb pylons, working without hard hats or other safety equipment.

A Berber shop

A local trader tells me that the government have sold them the line that tourism will bring prosperity to the area but tells me, sadly, that although the tourists come and look they seldom buy from the local craft shops and he doubts the mountain communities will exist for much longer.

I offer a token payment for a photo of him and his shop. He is happy to be photographed but too proud to accept payment.

Our accommodation is basic and rural but very comfortable. The food is superb. On the third night who should drop in but Steve from the office in Bracknell. What a worryingly small world.

Wednesday

Return for one last night in Marrakech.

Thursday

A mercifully less traumatic train journey back to Tangier, where we have a riad booked for the night.

Being a little wiser about Moroccan prices, I risk a quote from one of the hassling taxi drivers outside the station. I treat his 50 Dirham offer with the contempt it deserves. We walk a short distance into town, flag down a petit taxi in the street and are taken to our riad for the princely sum of 13 Dirham.

I am concerned about the morning because the time difference will work against us and we have to catch a 3:15pm train (Spanish time) from Algeciras. Our host says there will be no problem even though breakfast isn’t until 8:00.

Friday

Our host proves to be wrong on so many counts. We come down for breakfast at 8:00 and there’s not a soul in sight. Breakfast finally materialises at about 8:15. Further delays finding someone to pay mean we don’t make it to the port until turned nine.

Disaster. Because of high winds, all fast ferries are cancelled. There’s no central ticket office so we have to traipse round the many ferry operators’ offices to find the best option. The best we can manage is an 11:00 departure. If it sticks to the advertised 2hrs we will have 15 minutes to get to the train station but I’m not optimistic. Let’s hope the high winds are from behind.

It’s 11:45. The car deck doors are still open and we are still tied to the quay. All hopes of catching our train have evaporated. Moroccan ferry timetables are clearly best considered as works of fiction.

We finally set off just before noon. It takes just over two hours to cross the straight of Gibraltar (which doesn’t seem at all windy) then nearly as long to get off the ferry. There is only one gang plank, no concept of queuing and a huge melee of passengers nearly all of them, for some unaccountable reason, Arab women each of whom has slightly more luggage than they are actually capable of carrying.

We arrive at Algeciras railway station several hours after the last connection to Madrid. Our luck is improving though. Spanish rail convert our tickets to travel tomorrow morning at 8:30 for a nominal payment of just under €20 each. The hotel we stayed at last week has a room free although we’ve probably lost the deposit on our Madrid booking.

Saturday

Vertical garden, Madrid

Early breakfast in the hotel followed by a late breakfast on the train. Luckily Spaniards eat late so it counts as lunch. We arrive in Madrid at around 2pm. We were due to have a whole day here but an afternoon seems quite sufficient as it’s raining. We spend our time in the Picasso exhibition at the Reina Sofia.

A taxi takes us to Chamartin station in good time to catch the TrenHotel back to Paris.

Sunday

Although only travelling as far as Calais we have Eurostar tickets because they happened to be running a train at the right time. Another mistake. The train’s ultimate destination is the UK so we must go through UK immigration to board the train. It is complete mayhem. It also requires two busses to get from station to port because Eurostar trains don’t go to Calais Ville.

Slight hiccup getting onto channel ferry because the ticket office say one ferry has broken down and the next one is full. He will try to squeeze us on though. In the event he manages it. The ferry is one of the least full I have ever seen.

We finally make it back to British soil in the early evening, slightly dishevelled, financially poorer but culturally so much richer. It’s been a holiday never to forget. Morocco is a magical combination of sights, sounds and smells. A nation of contrasts and one not to be missed and I have learned a number of useful lessons on the way.

All I’ve got to do now is sort through the 350+ photos I took! Oh - and I've just discovered a 100 Dirham note in my pocket which I forgot to change back. If anyone else is going, drop me an email and I'll happily exchange it.

All text and images Copyright © Keith Sheppard 2008