Morocco: The coast to the mountains

November 1999


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I made an early start from the Hotel Ali and walked to the bus station that was just outside the city walls near the Bab Doukkala to catch a bus to Essaouira. The journey should of taken about 3 1/2 hours but I'm sure it was longer as it was a local bus and stopped at every town and village along the way. The scenery was again monotonous, much like the train journey from Casablanca the other day, endless fields and olive groves stretching across the plains. As we neared Essaouira we descended from the plains down to the Atlantic coast.

The bus station is in a dusty lot northeast of the old city. I walked down to the Hotel Smara on Rue de la Skala only to find it fully booked; it's the most popular budget hotel in town overlooking the city walls out to the ocean. I finally settled on the Hotel Beau Rivage just around the corner on Place Prince Moulay Hassan. The hotel was a pleasant enough place to stay and the square outside was relaxed, lined with pavement cafes and shady trees.

Essaouira is a small, rather laid back town in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh. The old city is surrounded by impressive fortifications built in a mixture of Berber, French and Portuguese styles, waves from the Atlantic swell crashed against them sending a spray over the old town. To the south of the town is a small but busy harbour. The docks were a hive of activity, fish being unloaded, nets repaired and traditional wooden boats built. Fish stalls, grilling the locally caught fish, where set up along the road leading to the harbour. The smell of the fish cooking on the charcoal grills was quite appetizing. The beach stretches away to the south of the town in a large arc. Where the town ends the sand dunes take over. This beach is very popular with surfers and you could see why as the giant waves smashed into the beach. It would have been impossible to swim in conditions like this, so the sea was left to the surfers to ride the waves.

Nothing happened too fast in this town and I was soon caught under its spell spending a couple of hours sitting outside a café drinking a pot of mint tea while watching life go by. Along the narrow back streets artisans worked away in tiny workshops carving thuya wood, an occupation that seemed to sum up this town. In the evening I strolled along the walls as the sun began to set out to sea; the fishing boats making their way back to port, surfing on the swell. How they managed to sail their boats through the swell and into the narrow harbour entrance was beyond me. I watched in fascination at their skill; any inexperienced skipper would of surely dashed their boat against the rocks. By the time the sun had sunk into the sea, the walls were lined with people watching this daily spectacle.

There was a small group of Australians staying at the same hotel as myself. I joined them that evening as they had managed to find a restaurant that served beer. I would have never found it on my own; it was one of the smartest restaurants in town, but would also serve you just beer at prices, that when compared with back home, were quite reasonable. It was the type of restaurant that was out of my budget for this trip.

The Australians had just come down from the High Atlas Mountains where they had been trekking. This would be my next destination as I traversed the mountain range into the Sahara desert to the east. The news was that there had been a flash flood in the valley below Imlil, the village at the end of the road and a natural base for trekking further into the mountains. This flood had washed out the road and apparently left a number of tourists, who had travelled in their own vehicles, stranded in Imlil. The Australians had managed to leave on foot and picked up transport further down the valley below the washout that had now become the terminus for all traffic up into the mountains.

The next day I walked along the beach to find a secluded spot in the sand dunes to spend a quiet day relaxing. Again in the evening we went back to the bar for a few beers and then spent the rest of the night sitting on the hotel roof chatting. It was the following morning that I first noticed that something was not quite right. There was a sharp pain in the front of my head and I was no longer feeling one hundred percent. I had decided the night before that I would today make my way up to the mountains via Marrakesh to do some trekking. I put my sudden feelings of impending illness down to the beer last night, even though I knew I hadn't drunk that much. I packed my backpack and by 09.00 was walking through the medina to the bus station.

After four hours travelling on a hot and dusty bus I was back at the bus station in Marrakesh, still feeling under the weather. I continued my journey up to Imlil in the mountains. I walked through the old city to Bab er-Rob, a gate in the city walls to the south of Place Djemaa el-Fna. Just outside the gate was a large parking lot where the grand taxis and mini-busses departed for the southern destinations. I needed to find a grand taxi to Asni, a town on the highway south to Agadir, from where I could find local transport to take me the approximately 15km to Imlil in the heart of the mountains. It didn't take long to find a taxi to Asni; the parking lot was busy mostly with people returning home from shopping in the markets. I squeezed into the back seat of a taxi and was soon on my way again. At this point I was still unsure whether the road to Imlil had been repaired and was quite prepared to finish my journey on foot.

Asni is a small roadside village. I only stopped long enough to arrange transport up the valley to Imlil. I found the man who operated the 'bus service' up the valley, or rather he found me. He was not going to leave for about half an hour, so I found a café to sit down and relax with a pot of mint tea. Asni is at an altitude of 1165m and already I could appreciate the cooler mountain climate than that of the coastal plains. Health wise I was feeling poorer, the pounding in my head had increased and I was definitely feeling weak and wobbly. The tea though was refreshing after a long day sitting in cramped taxis and uncomfortable busses. Presently an old battered Ford Transit minibus rattled up the dirt road to where I was sitting; transport had arrived. There were two other German travellers in the minibus with the other locals returning home to their villages. We did a short tour around Asni picking up some other passengers before turning left and up the valley. We left Asni behind in a cloud of smoke as the old transit spluttered its way back up the mountains. The tarred road soon disappeared as we wound our way along the banks of the Mizane River. The two Germans sat in the back of the minibus; they had obviously just bought a drum in Marrakesh, which they played and sung along to missing the odd beat as we hit a rut in the track. The imposing peaks of the High Atlas and Mount Toubkal loomed ahead of us, their snow-capped summits disappearing into the cloud.

The journey was slow, but the scenery was breath taking, forests covered the valley sides, the river cascaded over rocks and boulders and small villages clung to the slopes. Further up the valley we could see signs of damage that the flash flood had caused the previous week. Chunks of the track had disappeared into the river, which we had to carefully negotiate. Large earth moving equipment was parked up for the day alongside the river. We eventually reached the washout about a kilometre from Imlil, which had left the town cut off. A new track had been bulldozed across the bed of the river which we carefully traversed scraping the bottom of the minibus in places.

I had finally arrived in Imlil, the end of the road. To travel any further from here you had the choice of either walking or riding a donkey. Stepping out of the minibus the silence was deafening after spending the last 45 minutes listening to the engine of the transit straining to get us up to almost 1700m. The village clings to the banks of the Mizane River and the sides of the valley. During a flood in 1995 the Café Soleil by the village square (and car-park) had been washed away, today it has been rebuilt. There are a number of cheap hotels along the main track through the village, I checked into the Hotel el-Aine. In the early evening dusk I walked back up to the Café Soleil to find something to eat. There was not much left on the menu, omelette, salad and the last portion of chips for the day. I was not too concerned as I had now lost my appetite and only picked at my food when it eventually arrived. There were a handful of other travellers in the village; either just returned from a trek in the mountains or preparing to trek up Mount Toubkal. Unfortunately for them the half way shelter to Mount Toubkal at 3200m was closed for renovation so anyone attempting to get to the summit would have to spend a night camped on the side of the mountain. Heavy snow had now fallen on the summit and guides were advising to take crampons to make the final ascent. The way I now felt I knew I wouldn't be going anywhere for a while. Back at the hotel I could not control my shivering. The mountains were far cooler than the plains but the fever I now had seemed to make things far worse. I retired to my room early hoping to wake up healthier the next morning. I was still trying to kid myself that the symptoms I was suffering from had been exaggerated by the sudden change in climate and altitude.

I spent an uncomfortable night in my room, wrapped up in my sleeping bag with a blanket thrown over. One moment I would wake up sweating in the heat of the fever, the next moment I would wake frozen by the night air which had a way of creeping in through the gaps around the window and door. The paracetamol I had taken before I went to bed was having little affect on the battle now taking place in my body. I was a wreck by the time I found the strength to stir the following morning. It was about 11.00 when I woke from my night of fevered dreams and hallucinations. At least Imlil was a peaceful place to be ill in. The air was unpolluted and the village was quiet except for the odd vehicle making its way back down the mountain or a temperamental donkey making a fuss about carrying another load. Three days past before I felt I had enough energy to make it out of the mountains and back to Marrakesh to find a doctor. During this time the weather had closed in and on my first day laid up at the Hotel el-Aine a storm broke out, the thunder rumbled around the mountain peaks and the rain fell in torrential downpours for most of the day. The following day the cloud lifted for a while revealing the heavily snow-covered slopes high above the village. During this time I hardly ate anything, I did not have the stamina or the appetite to walk the short distance to a café.

On the morning of day four I drugged myself up with paracetamol and walked up to the village square to wait for a van to go back down the valley to Asni. Psychologically I felt better as I was doing something positive in getting back to civilisation, but physically I was no better, although the splitting headaches had now eased. The German couple, that were in the minibus on the way up from Asni, appeared in the square. They had just got back from a three-day trek in the mountains and were now also heading back to Marrakesh. We all crammed into the dilapidated transit for the slow journey back down the river valley. I counted 40 people in or on the transit. Is this a record? The German couple (who had now stopped drumming and singing) and myself shared a taxi from Asni back to Marrakesh with some other locals, so we did not have to wait long for the taxi to fill up before we left.

It was a relief to be back in the warmth of Marrakesh. During my time resting up in the mountains I was wearing a t-shirt, fleece and waterproof jacket and still felt the cold. Now I was back to wearing a t-shirt again without freezing. Accommodation in the city was a nightmare; the Hotel Ali was full and so were the next three hotels I tried. All I wanted was to lie down and rest and finally found myself booking into a cheap hotel, I think it was the Hotel Africa or Sahara or something like that, at the end of an alleyway in the old city. I was too tired that afternoon to do anything except rest. I managed to get out in the evening to a small café for my first meal in a long time. I regretted my choice of hotel by the following morning and went off in search of something more comfortable to be ill in. The weather had turned for the worst and it was raining steadily from a heavy overcast sky. After spending an hour room hunting I found a single room in a fairly modest establishment for a reasonable price. That was my first job of the day completed; the next was to find an English-speaking doctor to find a cure to this mystery fever I was still suffering from. The receptionist at the hotel gave me directions to find Dr Arrad who had a surgery just around the corner.

I arrived at the surgery to find Dr Arrad out to lunch. While waiting for him to return a nurse got busy taking my temperature and making an initial diagnosis. Dr Arrad arrived up the stairs while I sat huddled in the waiting room shivering again. He told me I was suffering from a high fever and gave me a prescription for some antibiotics and painkillers, which I could pick up from the pharmacy along the street. I thanked him and asked how much I owed, but he refused to take any money and wished me a speedy recovery instead. I walked slowly to the pharmacy to pick up my drugs and then returned to my hotel room for the rest of the day.

The next few days began to follow the same routine. The antibiotics began to work fairly quickly, but I was still feeling very weak. It took another four days for me to recover enough to once again start travelling. These days followed a similar routine, mostly arranged around eating. In the morning I would wander down to Place Djemaa el-Fna for a glass (or two) of freshly squeezed orange juice, always from the same stall where the owner recognized me every time with a big smile and hearty handshake. At lunchtime I would go to a café, next door to the pharmacy, for a kebab and in the evening a meal, usually at the buffet at the Hotel Ali. In between I would either listen to the World Service on my short-wave radio or read a book. One morning I bought an old copy of the Independent and read every article in the paper from front to back page. Sometimes I would spend these hours reading in my room at the hotel, but as I was getting better and the weather was once again improving I would wander off to one of the many parks and gardens in and around the city walls and spend the afternoon lying on a bench under a shady palm tree.

Continue reading this journey: East of the Atlas