Looking for an out-of-the-ordinary experience for her 50th birthday celebration, Lyn picked a hiking holiday in Morocco from the Ramblers brochure. So, in February 1997, we made our way to London and took our arranged flight from Gatwick Airport to Morocco.

A couple of hours later we crossed the coastline of the African continent and were over Morocco. Educated by Hollywood, we vaguely expected to find Morocco covered by sand and criss-crossed only by camel routes. Our first glimpses, then, from 35,000 feet of a steady green tableau of olive trees and farmland was surprising. More startling was the sight of the impressive white-capped bulk of the Atlas mountains looming above this! This is Africa?

Brian, our cheerful Ramblers tourleader, greeted us at the airport. The crowd of 20 of us boarded the waiting buses and made our way towards the city. Marrakesh at ground level was closer to what we’d imagined. We approached the city along a dusty road, and passed through the gate in the walls surrounding the city. We found ourselves in streets crowded with cars, cyclists, pedestrians and various bestial forms, all caught up in some chaotic Brownian movement. The driver honked his way to the hotel, apparently a traditional way of driving her.

Chez Nous—L’Hotel

The buses disgorged us in front of our hotel. It had a suitable facade, with the building facing onto a large square filled with shady trees. We made our way inside, half-expecting to have Bogey himself greeting us, but not so “local” as to make us feel uneasy. We found we were only minutes from the infamous Souk, or Marrakesh market.

We were shown to our cool room, had dinner...and were awoken at 5am the next day by the call to prayer at the local mosque.

Day 1: First outing; General Impressions

One of many mosques

We failed geography yesterday and sociology today. I’d imagined a third world city, filled with people perhaps a little hostile to the infidel. This and other naive impressions were quickly dispelled.

Lynda, with John in this catching drag number

On our first walk through the city, our guide took us on a tour of one of the older areas of town, right across from the hotel. True, the square in front of the hotel only gave palpable form to our worst beliefs, as the nearby Soukh and its tourists attract the unsavoury in the same way that cow pies attract flies.

But we were soon through it: no sooner had we plunged off, down a side street, than the hassle subsided. We found ourselves in quiet, narrow streets, walking past clean houses and shops. The mild threat here was only from a steady stream of crazed motorcyclists—the local form of rapid transit. As streets narrowed into alleys (which only seemed to increase the traffic of mules and cyclists), we could see into the houses on either side and and it was all clean, well-lit habitation. People nodded politely and seemed disinterested in us, but all were on familiar terms with our guide, who seemed to be related to all of them.

The duties of a guide in a city like Morocco are similar to those of politicians: they are tacitly indebted to the influential people who help them achieve their elevated position and repay this debt by “introducing” us to a number of merchants along our way, including one who owned a carpet shop and another who owned a large clothing store (see picture at left). These proved to be interesting and without unseemly pressure to purchase any merchandise. As you can see, Lyn and I were tempted (that's Lyn on the left, me on the right) but didn’t buy.

Alcohol is prohibited by Moslem law, and there is a corresponding absence of the occasional evils that arise from its consumption. In its place, Moroccans consume a ubiquitous green tea; it is served in nightclubs and cafés alike, which seems instead to generate arguments about soccer and politics. Later in the week I did wandered into a local café filled with people quietly watching a flickering TV. Skeptics might point to the fact that the death penalty—the punishment for dealing in drugs—has dampened enthusiasm for certain career choices popular in the West. Yet another view is that in Islamic countries, people actually practice their religion more faithfully.

Morocco may not be as representative of Arab culture as other middle Eastern countries. It is an ex-French colony (the common language is still French) and it retains stronger Western influences than other Arab countries might. It also seems keen to maintain those ties. Another surprise: women, far from being openly relegated to an inferior role, seem to hold a dominant role in many aspects of Moroccan life. We saw women riding motorscooters quite as aggressively as any man. However, any male driver annoyed by such maneuvers and tempted to respond, runs the risk that the woman he is about to run off the road might be the wife of an influential prince. Some women wore traditional costumes; some did not.

Day 2

First hike

Our first hike was an easy walk—more of an introduction. We headed out along a stony road that wound its way slowly up into a small valley in the low hills, passing a small village and the odd clusters of houses. Our guide for the day was a polite young man with some English. As we hiked, I passed some time in stilted conversation with him about such topics (he introduced it) as his marriage ambitions (saving up for the huge expense of the marriage cerememony) and the life of his parents (Berbers, who continued to ride camels along the Saharan trading routes on the other side of the Atlas mountains). Normal experience for him felt like some exotic tale to me, but then perhaps our lives were as dreamlike to him.

We ended our outbound journey in a small gully where some trees offered a little shade. This also presented an opportunity for the guide and his brothers to present some wares: small jewelry items and knick-knacks. Our group was mildly interested but it was too early in the trip to begin investing in trinkets of unknown quality, and sales were low. Our hesitance obviously disappointed the brothers, who remained sullen on the trip back.

The Soukh (local market)

Returning from our walk, we were given a guided tour of the condensed and jiggled maze of shops that make up the infamous "Soukh" of Marrakech. It is a five minute walk from the hotel. We enter dark alleyways that weave backwards and forwards through small clusters of trades—metalworkers here, carpets there, art shops, etc. Lyn and I foolishly opted to return on another day, to do some shopping on our own, and that proved to be a lot tougher. A local tout (one of several) tried for ten minutes to appoint himself as our guide, following us around in spite of attempts to chase him off. But, having seen him off, we were not hassled very much and spent a pleasant hour looking for bargains.

Day 3. Our second hike..

We ventured further afield today. The minibus came in along a high hillside that eventually narrowed to a mountainous valley following a river. The area had been devastated by recent flooding and even a couple of upscale villages (BeeMercs parked in front of fortressed houses: obviously an enclave of the well-to-do) had not escaped punishment. The snow melting off the Atlas range that we were approaching has an effect similar to the rain in Mexico: the run-off accumulates in streams that gain size and strength quickly as they descend down steep and dusty ravines. There's no topsoil or vegetation to absorb moisture and slow the runoff so it quickly forms torrents that gouge their way along the lower valleys (where, of course, the people live) and cause flash flooding and damage.

We stopped eventually and parked on the outskirts of a respectable village (less opulent than some we’d seen earlier: no ). We were almost at the end of the valley, with steep hills closing in on both left and right. We hiked into the town, stopping in at a local café for a refreshment, no doubt fulfilling the guide’s obligations to local businessmen. We then literally toured the town, crossing the river first and making our way behind the houses, while the guide pointed out the features. High above us, a pipeline crossed the valley, apparently taking pure water for the men’s baths.

Re-crossing the river, we admired the carefully structured farmland that took advantage of the river’s first entry onto flatland. Almond and other exotic trees were routine here. The trail began to zig zag up the slope at the end of the valley. High above us on the hillsides, we could make out goatherds and their sometimes noisy charges. One of the hikers actually saw a goat slip and tumble a hundred feet, an unnerving sight for those of us less nimble.

It was a hot day, but we climbed quickly and were soon in sight of the Atlas snows, now not far off from our vantage pont. The valley and village we'd just left lay below. We eventually stopped for our sandwich lunch and a rest. There were plenty of walks in the vicinity, and after lunch we hiked along for a view along the valley beyond ours.

The hike ended with the usual ramble back; a quick refreshment at the local pop shop; and the drive back into town. Yet we still had time for other activities or local walking (see my notes further down).

Day 3: Essouria

Kid with fez

For a break on our third day, we took a two hour bus trip to the coast and a visit to Essouria. Those up on (Jimi) Hendrix Trivia would know this village as a hippie haven during the 70's. It is still a favourite tourist port-of-call and offers the advantage of shops and shopping areas that have adapted to the shopping preferences of the tourist, a respite from the aggressive barrage of the Marrakech Soukh. After a pleasant few hours browsing, we stopped in a local cafe and were approached by this young lady of about 12, who was developing her own line in hats. I easily haggled her down from $200 to $185 for this skull cap and felt badly afterwards for taking advantage of her primitive negotiation skills.

On our return route, we stopped for a "rest break" about half way and were amused to see that some goats had somehow managed to ascend into the branches of nearby trees to chew on the leaves. Two small boys were apparently tending the goats and offered to let us take pictures. However, to our chagrin they were apparently not impressed by the meagre payment we offered and we were reluctant to part with our tour bus so the deal fell through.

La Mamounia—Winnie's Favourite Hotel

We had sufficient time to take a horse-drawn carriage across Marrakech to visit the Mamounia Hotel, where Sir Winston Churchill stayed frequently. The gardens were of great interest; we managed to arrange a cup of tea in a pleasant colonial style room where we could look out over a gaggle of ancient hotel guests shambling around the grounds of the ancient hotel.

Day 4: Last Day's Hike

This, as was the custom, was to be our biggest hike: to the top of a nearby hill, from which there were supposed to be great views. I regret that we seem to have no photos from this hike.

The drive on the way in was interesting enough. We skirted low foothills and passed villages where there was much activity but we couldn't make out what the activity was. We eventually began the climb into the foothills and stopped at a cafe for what we now recognized to be the tithe for using the locale. The 'trail' proved to be nothing more than a dirt road leading to the wireless station at the top. It only took us an hour to grind to the top. It was stinking hot and I had not brought enough water, but fortunately, there were patches of fresh snow at the top. The views of the Atlas and of the lowland behind us were indeed worth the effort. We hiked down a slightly different route and came out by a pottery, where Lyn and I bought an urn.

Day 4: Last Hike

This, as was the custom, was to be our biggest hike: to the top of a nearby hill, from which there were supposed to be great views.

The drive on the way in was interesting enough, as we skirted low foothills, and passed villages where there was much activity. We eventually began the climb into the foothills, and stopped at a cafe for what we now recognized to be the tithe for using the locale. The trail leading off the main road was nothing more than a dirt road leading to the wireless station at the top. It only took us an hour to grind to the top. It was stinking hot and I had not brought enough water. Fortunately, there were patches of fresh snow at the top! And the views of the Atlas and of the lowland behind us were indeed worth the effort. We hiked down a slightly different route and came out by a pottery, where Lyn and I bought an urn.

Other Attractions

We both probably remember this trip for the variety of activities we undertook in addition to the hiking. Lynda, for example, joined some of the other women members of the group in an escorted trip to the local baths [ladies only] one evening after our day of hiking. She describes the casual way in which the local women accepted nudity as being natural, and of how the young women would groom their elders. Perhaps as interesting was the reaction of our bunch of middle aged Brits to the idea of lying around naked in public and being massaged by someone's granddaughter.

Day 5: Lyn's Birthday

Thursday, February 24th was, of course, the big day: Lynda's 50th. It so happened that a parallel Rambler's tour ended its week at our hotel that night, and following Rambler's tradition there was to be an evening of entertainment for all of us anyway. At dinner the two groups were splendidly entertained by snake charmers, dancers, singers, and all manner of eats and drinks...and finally, Lynda's birthday cake

Diarist's confession: We have a strange anomaly here that I only noted some 25 years later. February 24th 1997 was not, in fact a Thursday: it was a Monday! Which means none of the dates above are correct. This is supported by the fact that Ramblers runs holidays from weekend to weekend. I suspect that what actually happened was that while the actual birthday was on the Monday, we celebrated Lyn's birthday on the Thursday.

Heading Home

Gathered group