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1999 April (Morocco) PDF Printable Version E-mail




Barry and Margaret Williamson

What follows are extracts from a diary we kept during our travels in mainland Europe by motorhome, bicycle and sometimes motorbike in the years since we early-retired in 1995.


In which we visit Laâyoune and buy diesel at 18p per litre

We drove 10 miles into Laâyoune after breakfast, where an optimistic traffic policeman tried to fine us 400 Dr (or 200 Dr with no paperwork) for (allegedly) failing to stop at a junction (untrue)! We dissuaded him and instead got his advice on safe parking, back at the airport (a handful of flights per week to Casablanca, Dakhla or the Canaries, plus military and UN air traffic). A mile walk back into the town through heat and dust, past the sterile new showpiece Place du Mechouar, a shiny palm-decked square nowhere near the centre of activity. We found a small supermarket selling expensive exotica for the UN personnel (Belgian chocolates, McVitie's biscuits, Quality Street, Kellog's cornflakes, Heinz ketchup) and, improbably, John West sardines in tomato costing less than locally canned ones, so these we could afford! (Probably rejected by quality control.) Maria & Donald, our Dutch neighbours, had asked for yogurts and apples and we got the first (where would they grow apples here?!) We didn't see a souq or the Tourist Office listed in our LP guidebook, just plenty of troops and UN jeeps, but an unexpected treat was a small hamburger bar with fresh egg & cheeseburgers and chips cooked to order. A taxi back to the airport saved us a trek in the afternoon heat for 7 Dr (46p).

On the way back to the Plage we filled up with tax-free diesel - 140 litres at 2.72 Dr (17.7p) a litre - even less than in Ceuta. We stopped at the village tap in Foum el-Oued to top up our water tank and filled the 20 litre carrier for Maria & Donald. Back at our base outside Moha & Fatima's garage-home we said our farewells and gave them a bag with tea, sugar, biscuits, sweets and small gifts for the children. We'll never forget the work that went into the daily bread and fish they gave us! Maria handed us some photos to deliver to the family running the campsite at Midelt (if we get there) and reported Donald recovering from his fever.

Margaret did some amateur sewing (converting her old blue cotton trousers into shorts now that the knees have worn through!) and Barry checked and prepared Rosie for the long haul back through the Western Sahara.


In which we visit Naila Flamingo Reserve and return to our favourite Gendarmerie

On the road by 7.45, through Laâyoune and a police check, driving north across the hamada. The road was busier today, the wind had dropped and the sand-drifts more or less drifted back to where they belong - in the desert. We passed a lorry carrying a surprised-looking camel and also a Landrover stacked with a family and all its possessions, including a pair of goats and their 2 kids, a TV and a pile of mattresses all tied on the roof! We stopped regularly to make drinks or take photographs. On the lovely coastal stretch beyond Tarfaya, where the Sahara drops abruptly over cliffs into the Atlantic, we carried our coffee mugs to the undercut cliff-edge by deserted fishermen's huts and felt quite giddy. A car driver stopped and asked us to fill his water bottle, an excuse to look inside. Noticing the video, he thought we'd like to show him one and perhaps give him something to eat, but he only got water. We marvel at Moroccan optimism and persistence, though it's generally non-threatening and good humoured.

About 15 miles before Sidi Akhfennir, just past a big chot with pillars of salt piled up, we took the unsurfaced side road to the Naila flamingo sanctuary at Foum Agoutir or Khnifiss Bay, 1½ miles away. We ate lunch by the edge of the lagoon and watched the tide come in and cover the reed beds - the only patch of green we'd seen for some time. It's a perfect day for travelling - the wind much lighter and the sun less fierce, with some cloud cover. We walked by the water and watched the flamingos wading daintily at its edge, then moved on at tea-time (camping is allowed with a permit from the police station but we preferred the security of the village). In Sidi Akhfennir we were greeted like old friends by the gendarmes we'd met on our way out, and 2 more packs of cigarettes ensured a quiet night outside their station, dining on fish soup made with Moha's sea bass.

140 miles. Free parking.


In which we see birds unknown in Europe on our way to Tan-Tan Plage

Light cool wind and cloud kept the temperature below 80º, good travelling weather for the lovely stretch following the coast. We paused at each of the 3 wadi estuaries we crossed to view and photograph their birdlife. At the first, Oued ez Zehar, the flamingos kindly took flight in dramatic flashes of deep pink and black, flying with necks and legs outstretched to land on their feet at the other side of the bridge. There were also a few birds swimming which may have been little grebe (we need Hassan again) and a big flock of black & white birds definitely not in our 'Birds of Britain & Europe' book - the shape of large geese but with a slender beak curving up like an avocet. On, past the 2nd new filling station since Sidi Akhfennir, to the Oued Chebeika, where we parked below the bridge for coffee and a walk across the mud flats. There were more flamingo and a small flock of spoonbill, with plenty of swallows catching insects over the water (though leaving a few to bite our legs).

At the last wadi crossing, before the shipwrecks of El Outia came into view, we saw a few more flamingo. On the far sand bank stood rows of another unidentifiable non-European species - standing upright like penguins, shoulders hunched like herons, walking on long awkward legs like ostriches, with a touch of vulture and the colouring of auks (or else we need new glasses!) And so to Tan-Tan Plage, where we parked on the sea-front near a single French camping-car and opened our last packet of bacon for an Easter Saturday lunch. Later we joined the local people enjoying the beach: lads playing football, little ones building sandcastles and paddling, the women always in a separate group, fully covered as they see to picnics and brew tea. Barry made some modifications to the solar panel regulator which involved buying 2 new switches from the souq and then rebuilding them until they worked.

56 miles. Free parking.


Easter Sunday, in which we drive through Goulimime to the oasis of Abainou

On the road by 8 am, we paused after 15 miles to walk round Tan-Tan, the last town in the former Spanish Sahara and the only settlement until Goulimime, almost 80 miles of desert highway later. Tan-Tan is simply a typical dusty, shabby, busy, workaday Moroccan town, devoid of any tourist trappings, but friendlier than Tarfaya - it was possible to park, look and make coffee without disturbance. Leaving the town we photographed the famous concrete camel arch over the road before the long hot drive to Goulimime. The one wadi, the Oued Drâa, had sea water but no birds. It's one of Morocco's longest rivers, which we were to follow later. It rises far to the north and east in the High Atlas, waters many fertile oases in the Drâa Valley and only rarely makes it across desert sands to the Atlantic at Cap Drâa, north of Tan-Tan.

The landscape became gradually less barren, the sand tilled and planted with wheat near a couple of tiny hamlets with even a few cows among the goats, donkeys and camels. Then the dusty crimson buildings of Goulimime appeared shimmering in a heat haze on the horizon and we were back in some semblance of civilisation. A couple of miles out along the Sidi Ifni road we turned off on a 10-mile rough single-track road to Abainou, the oasis village with camping and hot springs we'd found during our Fiat Uno weekend. The campsite is a tiny walled yard with one tap, a dodgy hook-up dangling from a tree, and one French couple in residence. The sun was now fierce, no wind, no cloud, no shade. After a late lunch the temperature inside was 98º, the humidity down to 25%. The water we filled the tank with was warm enough for washing up. There are 2 hot-spring-fed bathing pools nearby - the large one for men until 7 pm, after which it is mixed (in the dark!) The small circular women's pool, well screened from view, was packed with mothers and children. Other groups sat under the palm trees, resting or playing drums. Many had come out from Goulimime, on bicycles or in shared taxis. We exerted ourselves by swatting flies and making a trifle - it's far too hot to bake a simnel cake or hot cross buns (and the voltage is too low for the microwave).

We did find the energy to open the box of chocolates (from Lidl in Algeciras), saved under the bed for Easter.

105 miles. £2.30 inc elec.


In which we sweat it out in Abainou

Woken very early by a clamouring dawn chorus, which made us realise we'd heard no songbirds in the desert - they need trees! It's airless and very hot again - we should move back to the coast or up into the mountains. Barry washed the sand-dust off Rosie, who came up white again, while M did plenty of dhobi, drip-dried in minutes (the humidity had fallen to 21%).

After lunch Margaret tried the thermal pool, hot as a bath-tub and very relaxing, enjoying a conversation in English with the only other bathers - a woman from Calcutta (married to a French ex-pat working in Casablanca) and her 3 small daughters, on holiday over Easter. Meanwhile Barry checked Rosie's gas joints for leaks, in view of the vibrations and shocks from rough roads, but all was well (though the Black & Decker electric screwdriver has stopped working).


In which we drive through the Anti-Atlas to Tata and see camels dead and alive

Off early for the long hot drive to Tata. We paused in Goulimime to buy bread and saw the worst butcher's stall yet. We've got used to the sheep and goat heads, raw and bloody on the counter, but here camels' feet stood on the pavement, each with a long white leg bone protruding as if sawn off at the knees, and swarming with flies. The sight was somehow more distasteful because there were only 3 (presumably one had been snapped up before 8 am!) We've bought no meat since arriving in the country!

Leaving the main Tiznit road at Bouizakarne, we followed a newly surfaced, quiet, narrow road, climbing very gradually through the Anti-Atlas. It linked small oasis villages, like Taghjicht, whose buildings and people it was impossible to date. Long low rectangular walls of mud brick enclosed the various living quarters, roofed with palm branches or open to the sky. Between the oases lay incredible rock-strewn desert, with a backdrop of raw grey-black mountains and an enormous sense of distance.

Just past the village of Icht we were questioned at a police checkpoint and realised how near the undefined Algerian border lay (all pistes in that direction are closed). Soon afterwards, a large herd of camels (majestic as always from a distance) moved slowly across the landscape and we saw our first genuine desert nomads, several families (donkeys carrying their packs) walking with their animals and waiting while the baby camels stopped to feed. These single-humped Arabian camels appear to be used for wool, milk, meat or barter, rather than as steeds (except at tourist spots). Unlike Tunisia, we haven't seen them pulling small carts or ploughs in the fields. Akka was the only town we passed, near the site of some prehistoric animal rock carvings, but it had no camping or safe place for the night so we continued another 40 miles to Tata. The small municipal campsite, walled and guarded, has a good hook-up and tap for an all-in price of 20 Dr, shared with one French Hymer.

187 miles. £1.31 inc elec (cheapest yet!)


In which we walk and shop in the heat of Tata

Left alone on the campsite, we moved Rosie under the only tree for some shade then walked round the busy little town of Tata, keeping out of the intense sun as much as possible, under the colonnades which run in front of the stalls and workshops. We found a bakery, sacks of flour and logs for the ovens stacked in its yard, supplying its own shop/cafe and all the kiosks in the town. Hand-carts were loaded with hot round loaves and pushed along the crowded alleys.

One little shop contained rows of hens in cages, selling eggs and chickens (choose your live bird, which is weighed, killed and dressed on the spot). We just bought eggs! Fresh fruit and veg are hard to find in these desert-mountain regions, but we eventually found one stall and got cucumber, tomatoes and peas (with worms) in pods for a salad. In the afternoon Margaret used the microwave (and the last tin of condensed milk) to make a round of millionaire's shortbread and a tub of chocolate ice cream - forthcoming birthday treats.


In which we stay in the shade

Another airless cloudless day, temperature hovering around 100ºF and falling little at night! Margaret did some cleaning and dhobi, Barry read and planned, but the heat is energy-draining.


In which we move to the Hôtel les Relais des Sables: sa piscine, son restaurant

Another day of glaring sun, and the sychophantic campsite guardian came by to tell us that a convoy of 25 French outfits was due in the afternoon. The thought of 50+ French crowding into the compound and fighting for possession of the one tap and one toilet (for emptying cassettes, they're unusable for anything else) had us promptly packing. We'd seen one good hotel with a restaurant and a large car park on the edge of town, by the filling station, so after buying diesel we asked at the Relais des Sables if restaurant customers could park overnight. No problem, we could even use the little swimming pool free of charge!

We settled in a corner of their car park and put the gas bottle on to save our LPG reserve (the fridge is hungry in this climate and we'd no hook-up). Margaret enjoyed a cold swim, 60 lengths (of a very small pool!) After lunch we took a last walk round Tata and bought more bonbons for throwing to children on the road. For 10 Dr the old chap had to count out 100!

Dinner was a set menu for 100 Dr each (£6.50), eaten in the courtyard by the pool, along with a few hotel guests - excellent harira (lentil and veg soup); tajine of peas, carrots and a little beef; bread; crème caramel. A surprise was the appearance of a troupe of musicians - 2 men with drums, 1 with a violin, and 2 women who sang and did respectable covered-up belly dancing! They entertained us through pudding, then came round with the hat (or rather an upturned drum). We withdrew to the car park but heard them playing long into the night - those with a room opening onto the courtyard must have regretted it! It was a splendid pre-birthday treat for M.

Free parking.


In which we have a very long drive, climbing to the edge of the High Atlas

The first Birthday Surprise was to discover that the extremely old, worn, tatty towel which we wrap round the gas bottle when in use outside, to keep the sun off, had been stolen in the night! The elastic cord that held the towel on was still there and the bottle lay on its side. If only they'd asked, we would have given someone that desperate a much better towel! Or perhaps they were hoping to take the gas bottle but lacked the tools to uncouple it? It underlines what secure havens campsites are, guarded and locked at night.

We left by 7.15am for our longest drive in many months, which was to include 3 mountain passes. The first 40 miles were through barren stony waste, past an occasional village perched by the trickle of the Oued Tissint. At Tissint itself there was a barracks, a police checkpoint and the small Cascade Atiq. We parked, walked by the water, made coffee and continued on our longest day. We spotted a pair of large stork-like birds flying which might have been cranes, though it's not their normal habitat. At the town of Foum-Zguid the road turned northwards through a gap in the Anti-Atlas. We had seen only 6 other vehicles in 85 miles and 3 hours!

We could possibly have broken the journey here in the square by the police station but it was early enough to continue. The road now climbed more seriously, well made and well graded but very narrow. Meeting oncoming traffic means that someone (invariably us) pulls onto the stony shoulder. Leaving behind the oases, the camels, the broken stones, we now had glimpses of the High Atlas, still snow-capped, and the wonderful swirling strata of the rock faces. The road rose to the Tizi-n-Timlaine Pass at 1190 m/3927 ft and continued to the Tizi-n-Taguergoast at 1650 m/5412 ft.

Eventually the road from Agadir and Taroudannt joined our route and the traffic got a little heavier (though the road didn't get wider - we saw one lorry/car smash being cleared up). A final climb to the Tizi-n-Bachkoum at 1700 m/5610 ft. Here at last there was room to pull off the road, take in the view and breathe some cooler air while a goatherd moved his large flock past. The final 15 miles were along the main road from Marrakesh, wider and lined with souvenir shops - we've come in from the wilds. We crossed the tourist town of Ouarzazate, past the UNESCO-restored kasbah, to the walled campsite, near a little zoo and a stadium.

We'd made very good time on our longest day, a 50th birthday for M to remember, with one last treat. The campsite offered take-away food to eat in your van and we ordered the set menu (40 Dr or £2.60 each!) The cook brought us bowls of harira and bread, then reappeared with a tajine of chicken with prunes and almonds which was really good. We'd declined the 3rd course (mint tea) but he brought a plate of almond biscuits instead. With the addition of a long-treasured bottle of good German wine it was a feast. We slept well until the 4 am calls to prayer, nicely staggered between rival mosques.

195 miles. £2.42 inc elec.


In which we meet our first English since Spain, working as film extras

Barry washed Rosie down while M patched his shorts and did more dhobi - sweat and sand in everything! In a corner of the site we spotted a British Hymer with a pair of English legs sticking out from beneath the bonnet, and so met Kevin Griffiths and his Turkish partner Nurcan, who have been travelling for a year. Arriving in Morocco one week after us, they'd also met Bob & Pat, the New Zealand yachters, and Robert & Barbara, the ex-pats from Granada, and knew us through the A-Z in MMM, having returned to the UK over Christmas. A small world! They'd passed through Ouarzazate a couple of weeks ago, responded to a poster asking for 'Europeans aged 20-60 for work as film extras', and now returned for a week's work! It's a popular location, with a film studio in the town, and 'Lawrence of Arabia', 'Jesus of Nazareth' and 'The Man who would be King' among those shot round here (though 'The English Patient' went to the rival for desert scenes, Tunisia). Their film, 'Rules of Engagement', about Americans held hostage in a US embassy in the Yemen, was being filmed by an American company in the Taourirt Kasbah in town. 4 very large US Marines helicopters were flying low overhead all day doing the aerial shots and startling not a few people on the ground, in view of NATO's current activities. Our new friends begin work tomorrow and have to stay on call in a hotel in town with full board and a daily fee - what hardship! The film company has taken over all the good hotels and Club Med, sealed off the Kasbah (usually open to visit), launched the helicopters, and that's before paying the stars (whose identity is not known). We begin to see the money involved in the film industry. They said more extras are needed for another film in 2 weeks' time but M couldn't persuade Barry to wait for fame and fortune.

The afternoon was spent persuading the StarWriter to print the March diary (the ink had dried out), writing a letter to fax to Comfort Insurance to extend our Green Card by a further 2 weeks, fixing the wobbly legs on the new washing machine and mending the food processor. For the first time in a fortnight we got a signal on the mobile phone, though we couldn't retrieve any messages, so Barry rang Martin and Margaret rang mum, who'd left a message yesterday. After all this activity we relaxed with a video of 'Chicago Hope'.


In which we do business in Ouarzazate

We took a petit taxi into the town centre, a couple of long dusty miles away, and walked the length of the main street (Bd Mohammed V, as ever). A fax to England from a teleboutique was a standard 50 Dr (£3.25 - much cheaper than phoning) and the stationer's photocopied the March diary. The Tourist Information office had none and the pâtisserie was recently demolished, but 2 out of 4 is good work!

With mid-morning heat exhaustion imminent we rested at a cafe over fresh orange juice and coffee before shopping at the 2 small supermarkets. We found cheese (Dutch and French) for the first time in this country. (There is an airport with regular flights to Paris, and the first package tourists since Agadir, coming to see the oasis valleys of the Drâa and Dades or the High Atlas gorges.)

With perfect timing, we returned to the teleboutique just as Comfort Insurance's reply arrived, giving us a Green Card extended until 2 May. Another taxi back to the campsite for lunch (at local prices we don't need to walk for 1½ hours in the heat or risk loss of life and bicycle). Later we wrote to Vodafone to reclaim the £250 international barlift deposit, realising the initial 3 months were well past, and worked on the April diary. Time passed quickly, reading, planning, cooking, preparing to move on and talking to a French couple in a tiny van who keep meeting us (previously at Abainou and Tata.)


In which we drive to Aït Benhaddou Kasbah and along the Drâa Valley to Zagora

Off before 8 for a 20-mile side trip to visit the best preserved kasbah in the Atlas at Aït Benhaddou. A few miles of tarmac, off the Marrakesh road, follow a river to the village which featured in 20 films including 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'Jesus of Nazareth'. We parked in the hotel compound, made drinks (we were already hot and thirsty at 8.30am) and walked down to the bank of the Ounila riverbed. A couple of women were doing their dhobi in the shallows as we crossed on stepping stones, the kasbah rising impressively above. A lad who should have been at school with the others guided us round to the entrance for a few coppers (his dad probably moved the sign!) and we climbed up past the few turrets which had obviously been restored for close-ups to the crumbling heights. Contrasting views - the green palmery and village in one direction, the barren stony desert in the other, the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas beyond. Descending, we realised the buildings were inhabited, found a small courtyard where hens, sheep and a calf were kept, and climbed up the spiral stair of a mud-turret to look across at a stork sitting on its nest. Back over a second line of stepping stones and past a few low-key souvenir shops to the car park and another drink before returning to Ouarzazate and a fill of diesel.

Driving south-east across 20 miles of the Anti-Atlas we climbed to the Tizi n' Tinififft pass at 1660 m/5478 ft. We'd been warned not to stop for anyone as the route to Zagora is notorious for 'pretend' hitch-hikers and spoof car breakdowns, but risked parking at the top for lunch-with-a-view. We were joined by a Belgian motorhome we'd passed earlier and had no problems. 2 people were trying to stop foreigners in the vicinity of a broken down lorry; one of them got a fly-driver, but we nearly got the other one. Stopping 6-tons of American steel isn't easy, not when it doesn't want to be stopped. Descending to Agdz, a young man dressed up as a Tuareg also tried to stop us but he got out of the way in time - probably a carpet salesman! A little further, an oncoming car halted as we approached, the driver jumped out, opened his bonnet and waved. We waved back and continued, sad that such practices mean those in genuine need probably go unhelped.

Soon we joined the palm-fringed ribbon of the Oued Drâa and followed the lovely Drâa Valley through a series of Berber kasbah-villages growing dates and almonds, oranges and olives. A few hopeful kids held out baskets of nuts or dates at the roadside but we don't buy that way as they see us coming in every sense.

Zagora town is a recent French colonial creation, though there was always a small settlement at the oasis, at the end of the long caravan routes from West Africa bringing gold and slaves. (A famous old sign indicates 52 days by camel to Tombouctou.) There are 3 small campsites in Zagora and we squeezed onto the first, wedged between palm trees. The owner lost interest in us when we declined to visit his souvenir shop, book a camel trip or eat in his restaurant and we were left to cool down in peace. Later, we watched a video film 'Wish you were here', a very good evocation of the claustrophobia of domestic life in the 1950's.

141 miles. £2.62 inc elec.


In which we drive past sand dunes and over mountains to the end of the road

Wednesday and Saturday are market days in Zagora. A narrow archway off the main street led into a hot and dusty compound where the ground and a few ramshackle stalls held: fruit and vegetables from the Drâa valley (we'd seen none since Tiznit), herbs, hardware, handicrafts, timber tent-posts, baskets and rope made from palms, earthenware cooking pots, round containers made from old tyres, a whole yard with mounds of raw dates piled on the ground. All the customers were men and the only women we saw were selling the long black lacey garments and black headshawls, colourfully embroidered, which are worn throughout the region (in this heat!) Strange smells wafted out of the refreshment tents, where skewers sizzled over charcoal and men sat on mats drinking tea. The only other meat on sale was on the hoof, with sheep, goats and chickens changing hands in a noisy enclosure to the rear, where the donkeys were 'parked' in the shade of the wall.

Looking for a baker's on our way back we followed the aroma of fresh bread down a staircase to a dark cavern below the pavement, where a team of lads were slaving over blazing wood-burning ovens to produce stacks of hot round loaves. They sold us a dozen for 86p, which took all day to cool down! As we returned to the campsite, a young boy on a bike sold us a model bicycle, simply made from wire and bits of rubber, with no brakes or gears, the pedals catching and the frame out of line - just like the real thing here and an appropriate souvenir.

A hot wind was getting up as we set out for M'Hamid, the end of this road. We crossed the Drâa, below the Jebel Zagora mountain, and followed it south through Tamegroute, home of a famous religious sanctuary and library with illustrated texts from the 13thC - you can't miss it, an old man leaps into the road waving a sign handwritten on a cardbord-box saying Libraire as you pass! Leaving it to Arabic scholars and pilgrims, we continued past the first isolated dunes confirming our presence in the Sahara at Tinfou, with a tour bus by the Auberge Repos du Sable and a few intrepids walking up the sand. The road became narrower, and we regularly took to the stony verge as overloaded Landrovers and minibuses ploughed towards us. We wouldn't call it courtesy - just survival! We soon crossed the Drâa again, pausing to photograph the splendid sight of a herd of camels wading, swimming and drinking.

Across a stretch of bare stony hamada and over a low pass we reached the village of Tagounite, where we made lunch in the lee of a high mud wall (sheltering from both sun and strong dust-laden winds) before the final climb over the dramatic Tizi Beni Selmane pass at 747 m/2465 ft. Then a descent to meet the Drâa again at the oasis village of Oulad Driss and past the Carrefour camp, 4 miles before M'Hamid. Sun, wind and sand were all doing their best to persuade us to stop but we wanted to reach the end of the road today and so, iced water in hand, we pushed on to the village, from where tracks lead off into the dunes and sandy desert, with the ill-defined but closed Algerian border 25 miles away. We had covered 900 miles on narrow desert roads from Laâyoune Plage, now far to the south and west, and 2100 miles since we entered Morooco over a month ago.

A sandstorm was gathering strength, swirling its fine dust round the few shops and rooms. We walked across to the Drâa, now little more than a trickle as it soaks into the Sahara; it rarely reaches its possible exit into the Atlantic near Tan Tan.

We soon turned back as Rosie's alarm sounded - another set of small brown inquisitive fingers on her door handle. Taking cover inside, we drove back to the roadside Carrefour campsite. (2 or 3 others were indicated down narrow pistes).

Magnificently shaded beneath date palms and tucked behind a dune, we shared the camp with some Bedouin tents where a small group of French tourists were huddled out of the wind round low tables and tea-pots. Later 4 camels arrived, carrying baggage, and were unloaded and let loose. Those in search of the 'Genuine Bedouin Desert Experience' slept out under the many stars and were, thankfully, too tired for more than one chorus of Alouette! We had a more comfortable night altogether.

70 miles. £2.29 inc weak elec.


In which we watch the sun rise over the Sahara

Barry woke before first light, about 5.30 am, and we had the immense pleasure of seeing the dawn break over the sand dunes, fluffy white clouds turning pink above, as the sun filled the sky - all watched and photographed without getting out of bed! Their vicarious nomadic experience at an end, the French tourists were fed bread and tea and loaded into a couple of minibuses by their Moroccan keepers, and by 8 am we had the dunes to ourselves. The morning was pleasant (90º in the shade) but by mid-day the wind was again gathering strength.

M worked on the April diary and wrote a letter to mum and a card to Alan, while B checked under Rosie's bonnet and cleared the air filter of sand and dust. She is running superbly (Inch Allah), using no oil or water or any other fluids and thereby far outlasting any camel (and she is much better looking).

5 French couples in Japanese Jeeps (Toyota Landcruisers etc) arrived in the evening to share the camp.


In which we return along the Drâa Valley and turn east to Tazzarine

Off early after a second desert-dune-dawn, we retraced Wednesday's route to Zagora (the only way out except by camel!), over the Tizi Beni Selmane Pass to Tagounite, across the Oued Drâa, past the dunes at Tinfou and through Tamegroute. The heat built up but with only light winds there were no dust-devils or sandstorms. We took a break a couple of miles before Zagora in the village of Amezrou but the urchins soon took over, a crowd demanding to guide us round the Kasbah des Juifs, so we left with it unseen. (Jews lived here for centuries controlling the silver trade but are gone to Israel since 1948, leaving the Berbers to carry on the tradition. Indeed, one was trying to sell silver jewellery to Margaret at 7 am this morning!)

In Zagora we managed an undisturbed coffee break, then continued along the green defile of the Drâa Valley until the new road for Tazzarine and Erfoud turned off 20 miles before Agdz. Pausing at the junction for another drink, we saw we'd come exactly 100 miles by 11 am - must be a record! Along the way we'd noticed gatherings of people in their 'Friday Best' in several villages, flags out, stones painted white, signs of welcome parties. Checking our list of secular and Islamic holidays we saw that it is New Year's Eve, at the start of the year 1420 according to the lunar Hijra calendar, which dates from the flight of Mohammed to Medina in 622 AD. (Their years are about 11 days shorter than ours.)

Now came 40 miles of newly surfaced road to Tazzarine, wide enough eventually to warrant a white line down the middle! Still shown only as a track on many maps, it was blissfully empty, most traffic to Erfoud presumably taking the Dades Valley route from Ouarzazate, a much poorer road. Our route followed a river valley through the starkly beautiful Jbel Sarhro range, which continues the line of the Anti-Atlas: the Dades Valley and High Atlas to the north, the sub-Sahara to the south. The volcanic peaks were twisted by the wind into strange pinnacles, date palms and almond groves only occasionally marking the line of a wadi.

Tazzarine lies below the Bou Gafer hill, where the warriors of this wild isolated nomad territory made their last stand against the French in 1933.

The Hotel Bougaffer has recently built a Complexe Touristique annexe with camping in the yard, devoid of shade and with a hook-up which would barely run the fridge, but we were pleased to break the journey to Erfoud. Barry tested the voltage and found the nominal 220 fell to a weak 160 as soon as it was asked to do anything.

After a late lunch we walked round the small town and posted mum's letter and Alan's card, requesting the next Poste Restante in Gibraltar. We learnt that the preparations we'd seen today are to welcome those who had been on the Haj to Mecca, usually made in the 12th month of the year. A man returning to his village from the pilgrimage would be a great celebrity.

A video of a nicely scripted Anglo-Indian film, 'Bhaji on the Beach', about an Asian Women's Group outing to Blackpool, rounded off the day.

141 miles. £3.27 inc feeble elec.


In which we drive through Fossil Country to Rissani and Erfoud

Almost 100 miles of excellent, empty tarmac road through a desert(ed) landscape of plateaux and pinnacles. A group of nomads were on the move, with goats, camels and laden donkeys, probably moving camp to higher ground as spring advances into summer. After the village of Alnif the road climbed gradually to a pass at 839 m/2768 ft. We passed several huts and stalls selling local fossils and bought a 500-million-year (?) old souvenir at the most professional looking, where a couple of men sat outside splitting stones with hammers and a well-thumbed German reference book was produced. Stopping at the top of the pass for lunch, 3 lads soon appeared on bicycles to offer some, perhaps less authentic, fossils for sale but were unlucky. One showed us his 'pet', a large lizard he'd caught, a bright yellow/green. We've also seen turquoise ones in the road - the only wildlife apart from birds - here there are larks, wheatears and, today, 2 colourful bee-eaters.

Descending slightly, we chose to ignore earlier advice to bypass the town of Rissani (our annotated map had the stark warning Avoid!), surrounded by the Tafilalt palmeries, and we parked in the square. It was hot, dusty and had more than an average number of touts, offering trips to Morocco's biggest sand dune, Erg Chebbi, taking rough 4WD pistes to the tourist village of Merzouga. We were followed by a couple of pests dressed up as Tuareg tribesmen offering camel rides while we shopped for bonbons, bananas and biscuits. Barry tried to explain that we had already seen more camels than they had had hot dinners, but failed at the first hurdle - explaining the significance of the . Overall, we decided not to stay for the famous donkey market tomorrow (there's no campsite anyway) and drove another 15 miles to Erfoud. Here is a quiet, clean site with some shady trees (and shadier characters - for the first time, the fee was not displayed and had to be negotiated from 80 down to 55 Dr). The Oued Ziz, which runs through the Ziz Gorge to the north, has petered out to a dry bed of stones below us.

After dinner Margaret compared experiences and drank brandy with our neighbours, a friendly couple from Darmstadt on a 5-week tour in a small camper. They'd just returned from a night at Erg Chebbi, which involved driving with a local guide on board to avoid straying off the 10-mile piste once the tarmac road ended. They thought Rosie could make it, slowly, as far as the dunes but not beyond Merzouga. That would be far enough, but with the risk of a piste broken up by Landrovers shipping tourists to the Erg and blowing dust swamping her delicate workings, we'll probably forego that experience. This sensitive German couple could not come to terms with the Luftwaffe bombing Belgrade once again - they felt betrayed by their pacifist Green Party which now shares power with the Socialists.

Dates (the hygienic sort, vacuum packed and brought from England, from the Pakistani-run ex-cinema food warehouse in Huddersfield) were on tonight's menu, in the form of a date, apricot and walnut flapjack made in the microwave, with a hook-up that grimly maintained its voltage in the face of all demands on it. Locally, dates are used in what an Arab would find to be a savoury dish. We've noticed that camel droppings look remarkably similar!

111 miles. £3.59 inc elec.


In which we relax in Erfoud

After a windy night, we walked round the town and the covered market, buying fruit and veg in the busy and diverse souq and finding a piece of Dutch cheese in a little grocer's (a rare and expensive treat). The meat looked unsavoury as ever - follow your nose to the open butchers' stalls, for donkey hooves and goat heads. We had a pleasant hassle-free amble, glasses of fresh orange at a pavement cafe, admiring the balance of the passing cyclists - one with a small child standing on the crossbar, another carrying a large sheet of wood on his head. The star turn carried a bundle of grass at the back, topped by a baby lamb, its mother trotting alongside! Bales of grass were on sale in the souq, brought in from oases in the desert and carried off on the head, on a bicycle, on a donkey, in all directions to feed and maintain a wide variety of essential domestic animals.

After lunch we did some dhobi and watched a pair of elderly Belgian men arrive, travelling on what looked like 4-wheel drive lawnmowers. Barry wrote to Martin and Clare (who've become grandparents whilst waiting for their house to sell!) and Margaret updated the diary. With no grass-fed goat to supply our needs, we had to settle for Delia Smith's 'Risotto for Spring' - microwaved rice with vegetables and cheese sauce. A busy day off!


In which we drive to Meski and camp by a spring-fed pool

After walking to the post office with Martin's letter and sympathising with a Dutchman trying to withdraw money who'd been there since it opened at 8 am, we were on our short way to Meski, 15 miles south of Er Rachidia. The road followed the palm-fringed line of the Oued Ziz, climbing to a viewpoint where we stopped to make coffee. We passed the turning for Figuig, once a border-crossing point to Algeria, and soon came to a narrow road off to the left, leading to the abandoned kasbah and modern oasis village of Meski. Here natural springs have been channelled into a swimming pool (complete with fish) before flowing into the Ziz and a car park has developed into a simple campsite, complete with souvenir shops and a restaurant.

We wedged Rosie into welcome shade between the date palms and olive trees and settled in for lunch, appreciating the birdsong and higher humidity at 35% (still very low by European standards). A handsome pair of turtle doves patrolled our corner and deigned to pick up a few of the breadcrumbs the sparrows were squabbling over. The pool looked invitingly cool but remained the preserve of male Moroccan youth. We took a walk round the cultivation beyond the village, watered by a system of irrigation channels from the springs and the Ziz. Reminded of the Garden of Eden, we saw figs, almonds and olives, broad beans, wheat and clover, all on the edge of the desert and all worked by hand and carried by donkey. Local ragamuffins (they don't come much more ragged!) offered to guide us to the ancient kasbah, clearly visible just across a stream, or tried to sell things they'd woven from palm-fronds. We got a little straw camel each from the 2 smallest kids when we gave them lollipops. The lollies probably lasted longer!

We ate at the restaurant (4 items on the menu: salad, omelette, tajine or cous-cous) and the chicken tajine at 50 Dr each was a good choice. Sizzling hot, it came complete with carrots, peas and potatoes, and lovely fresh bread to mop up the juice. Finally we watched a complicated LAPD-type film 'The Usual Suspects', which Margaret might understand after a few repeat viewings!

35 miles. £3.27 inc elec.


In which we walk to the ancient kasbah at Meski

We walked along the stream, crossing it on stepping stones where the young women were busy with their dhobi. Friendly and giggling, they practised their French greetings and learnt some English ones whilst bashing the living daylights out of their linen before laying it on nearby bushes to dry.

At least they had zinc bowls, wooden washboards and small packets of 'Tide' to help, such is progress! We climbed up to the deserted, crumbling, timeless kasbah and looked down on the oasis gardens below, small figures and laden donkeys moving across our view. An hour's walk in the heat was enough and we returned (84º in the shade).

The campsite guardian asked if we'd anything for his children. 'How many do you have?' enquired M, reaching for the bag of lollies. After replying 'ten', he saw her consternation and brought it down to 'six small ones' as we had enough for 6! But later he brought us a bag of nice dates, an unusual gesture.

After lunch, starting for the first time to think beyond travelling in Morocco, we wrote to Rupert Humphrey, MMM's consultant on the Baltic Republics, and enclosed it with a note to mum, for posting via MMM to Latvia.

An early evening stroll above the modern village, to photograph the old kasbah at sundown, was accompanied by yesterday's 2 small boys plus an even smaller one, picking pungent herbs and offering them as 'hashish'(?) They got bonbons for their trouble and sang us a French song to prove they go to school. What they really need is shoes, clothes, and a ticket out.


In which we drive through the Gorges du Ziz to Midelt and buy crystals

We followed the Ziz to the garrison town of Er Rachidia, skirted the side of the large dam to the north of the town (its water level already low as the rainy months of February, March and April come to an end - it's been a dry winter) and through the Ziz Gorges past palm-fringed villages. After the short Tunnel des Légionnnaire, guarded by a soldier (toll = 1 pack cigarettes), the road bypassed the small town of Rich and climbed the Nzala Defile, gradually reaching a pass at 1907 m/6293 ft, a good coffee stop before descending a little to Midelt (still at 1488 m/4910 ft). Between the High Atlas and the Middle Atlas, overlooked by snow-flecked peaks, the air was fresher, the temperature pleasant in the 70's. We settled on Midelt's simple campsite, in a scruffy compound next to the town sports stadium and pool (closed) and recognised our only neighbours, the Belgian couple we'd met on the road from Ouarzazate to Agdz. They were suffering from heavy colds, so we kept them at bay. The guardian promised to pass the photos we delivered from Dutch Maria and Donald to their friends Moha and Zahra, now in charge of the stadium.

After a late lunch we walked into the town, capital of the mineral and crystal trade, and duly bought our crystals at the splendid shop near the Belle Vue Pâtisserie. Here the quiet, dignified owner left us alone to browse, then showed a few lovely examples of the type we liked, without any pressure to buy - a haven of peace compared with the energetic street vendors. Returning, we sent mum's letter from the post office, both of its chimneys topped by a stork sitting on the usual huge nest. 'Special Delivery' perhaps.

As we had a signal on the Vodafone again, we rang CGU to check that our buildings insurance renewal on Heaton Road was in order, verified by Louise.

100 miles. £1.57 inc elec.


In which we don't stay at Timnay Interculture, and get 2 invitations to dinner

Moha called round to thank us for delivering the photos from his Dutch friends and invited us to eat at his house. We said sorry, we were leaving, and indeed set off to spend a night or two at the Timnay Interculture Complex a few miles further along our route and described at length in our LP Guide as a pleasant, peaceful, well-equipped site with pool, ideal for bird-watching, set up by Belgian teachers to study Berber culture, etc, etc. On arrival, it was almost full with a French convoy, the pool was empty, we were shown a rough (and expensive) pitch with no shade and offered a variety of 4WD tours into the neighbouring 'untouched' Berber villages. With a strong head wind, we decided to return to Midelt rather than push on for 100 miles to Meknes, and were back on the Municipal for lunch!

In the afternoon we shopped for bread, eggs, biscuits (our staples) and bonbons (for our many roadside admirers) and looked round the souq, avoiding the carpet sellers. We gave our mini-kettle, which is no longer heating, to the man selling 2nd-hand electrical goods in case he could mend it (better than putting it in the poubelle) and were warmly invited to sit on cushions and drink tea with a gentle old man in the next stall (probably a relation), who sold battered 2nd-hand furniture from the depths of his dilapidated shed. We returned later to give him one or two unwanted items he might keep or sell (surplus tools and such) and were invited to dine at his house. Again we declined, having taken enough gastronomic risks with the sweet tea, but promised to visit him 'next time we come'. We're sure he'll still be there!

Our second night in Midelt turned out to be free, as the guardian did not come to collect and his house was locked. (Allah's reward for generosity down the souq?)

26 miles. Free night.


In which we drive over the Col du Zad to Meknes

A beautiful morning's drive with a back wind through the Middle Atlas, past Timnay Intercultures, to climb the country's second-highest pass, Col du Zad at 2178 m/ 7187 ft, closed nearly every winter by snow. The height was gained easily on a well graded road, passing the tents of Berber nomads who had brought their flocks up for summer grazing and cooler air. At last fir trees and spring flowers, streams and watermeadows, form part of the landscape as we leave the desert regions of the Anti- and High Atlas behind. Past a turning for a winter ski station, through a cedar forest reminiscent of Corsica's pines on the Col of Bavella, then gradually descending through the prosperous town of Azrou (no mud-brick buildings here). More forest and meadows until El-Hajeb, where we stopped for lunch, before leaving the mountains for the fertile plains and Meknes.

The signs for the campsite took us through the walls of the Imperial City and across the Royal Palace square, access which involved 2 low, narrow arches. The first was a tight squeeze, the second looked impossible but it was equally difficult to turn back so Barry edged through while M waved frantically. At last we passed through a 3rd arch onto the campsite, where our first priority was to find a way out which didn't involved retracing our steps!

The site was the tidiest yet in Morocco, with hedges, flowers and orange trees, good hook-up and individual waste water drains, but too busy. As we settled in a group of British Landrovers arrived, then a huge lorry from Gravesend with young Brits, Australians and Canadians on some overland expedition to Senegal. We kept away and had time for writing, reading about Meknes and relaxing with some favourite musical videos - Leonard Cohen and Andrew Lloyd Webber (strange composers of beautiful songs, both).

126 miles. £4.18 inc elec.


In which we cycle 15 miles exploring Meknes, ancient and modern

Meknes is the 3rd Imperial City (after Marrakesh and Fes), capital during the rule of Moulay Ismail from 1672-1727, then declining when his grandson moved the court to Marrakesh. My Ismail was the 2nd Sultan of the Alawite dynasty, which still rules today, and he left an enormous palace complex, 15 miles of imposing walls with monumental gates (not designed for large motorhomes) and his mausoleum, much of it built with marble plundered from the Roman site at Volubilis 20 miles away. The old medina lies behind the Imperial City, and the French new town a couple of miles away across the river.

The weather is now cycle-friendly and Barry cleaned a month's Saharan sand-dust off the bicycles while M did the same with the dhobi. Then we cycled to the Ville Nouvelle to find the Tourist Office (closed, of course) and a bank. The smart shops (even Yves Rocher) and general prosperity were a culture shock in reverse after the poverty in much of the country!

We rode back to the old town and felt more at home, drinking orange juice in the Place el-Hedim square opposite the impressive Bab el-Mansour gate to the Imperial City. With difficulty, we wheeled our bicycles through the extensive souq to shop at the fruit and vegetable market, past cheap Chinese plastic-ware laid on the ground, the areas for gold and jewellery, nuts and spices, carpets and musical instruments, slippers and haberdashery, and the curiously clad water-sellers. Covered markets filled the tiny side-alleys as we plunged further into the maelstrom. The Great Mosque, like all in Morocco, is closed to non-Muslims and we turned for home just before the cemeteries and tanneries beyond the town wall.

The campsite was a quiet haven for lunch, the jeeps all gone, until the arrival of the French convoy we'd avoided at Tata and Timnay, plus 2 German Rolling Hotels.

While M did some cleaning, Barry crawled under Rosie looking for the leak which is causing the air-suspension to lose pressure. Spraying a weak soap mixture and looking for bubbles (while suffering mild electric shocks since Moroccan hook-ups are not earthed), everything appeared sound until he finally traced a leak in the airline to the pressure gauge in the cab. Tightening it up and reinflating the air bags, it was a relief to solve the problem without having to revisit Wrexham where they were fitted in July 1996.

Later we cycled round the Imperial City, supposedly inspired by descriptions of Versailles and built by many thousands of slaves (Christian prisoners and other criminals). The gardens and palace are still an official royal residence, closed to the public, and only Muslims are allowed to enter the tomb of Moulay Ismail, but we saw the partly-ruined stabling for his 12,000 (?) horses above the Agdal basin, a small lake fed by the river used as the Sultan's reservoir. After checking Rosie's route out, through a larger arch, we returned to the medina and found Place el-Hedim much livelier than this morning, with people crowded round various itinerant street entertainers providing music or spectacle, such as a bare-chested man working himself into a frenzy (presumably on kif) and fastening a string of safety pins through his torso - we moved quickly on! The front row were all old women, peering through their eye-slits (like the crones knitting round the guillotine).

Compared with the single TV channel, this is first class entertainment! The best spectacle was the Food Hall, behind the barbers' shops lining the square on the edge of the old Jewish quarter, with beautiful displays of dates, olives, dried fruit and traditional medicines and potions. We resisted the dead lizards and tortoises, guaranteed to cure something, and got some raisins. We enjoyed the ride back to the campsite, swifts and swallows wheeling overhead and storks returning to their nests on the Imperial chimneys.


In which we visit the Roman site of Volubilis near Moulay Idriss

Rosie escaped the confines of the Imperial City, taking a 5-mile detour to avoid the arch she'd just scraped in by, and headed north for 20 miles to Roman Volubilis, near the Muslim pilgrim town of Moulay Idriss.

The largest Roman site in Morocco, Volubilis is less than half excavated, with a team of French archaeologists still working on it. A plaque records the visit of King Hassan in 1997, when it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the promised information panels, booklets and museum have yet to arrive.

A remote outpost of the Roman Empire, from the 2nd-3rdC AD, on an earlier Carthaginian site, it's beautifully positioned on a plateau above a wooded hillside. The treeless plains beyond were cleared for planting wheat (Rome's main interest in N Africa) and the city was inhabited until the 18thC, its population speaking Latin and practising Christianity until the coming of Islam. (A medieval female Islamic skeleton is the only find we saw labelled!) Noisy school parties of well-dressed children having picnics and sing-songs, and bus-loads of tourists clutching cameras and guidebooks, failed to disturb us or the families of storks nesting happily on top of the columns of the Capitol.

An impressive marble Triumphal Arch of 217 AD in honour of Caracalla stands on the high point with a wonderful view over the plains. The Decumanus Maximus (main street), lined with houses whose mosaic floors are preserved in situ, leads to the Tangier Gate in the city wall. A restored olive press looked more like a recent Moroccan version and we identified no temples, baths or theatre, perhaps yet to be uncovered?

We returned, past Moulay Idriss, which is named after Morocco's premier saint, a great-grandson of Mohammed himself and founder of the first dynasty, who fled persecution in Mecca and came to Volubilis in the 8thC. Since non-Muslims are not allowed to visit any of the mosques or shrines there, nor stay overnight (to which end there are no hotels!), we didn't stop! Half-way from Meknes we'd passed a small empty campsite behind a restaurant, where we settled in peace with a verdant view of wooded slopes, wheatfields and olive groves, even the odd cloud in the sky, temperature in the low 70's.

We rang mum to check the Gibraltar PR address had reached her and all was well. The eccentric hook-up (from 7.30 pm to 10.30 pm only), barely ran the lights and fridge, but we happily fried home-made pink-salmon fish-cakes and watched Part 1 of a grim video, 'Trial and Retribution'.

29 miles. £3.27 inc elec (evening only!)


In which we work, rest and play (without Mars Bars)

A cool breeze, a campsite to ourselves again, we're in no hurry to leave. Barry worked on the bicycles, removing and cleaning the chains and derailleurs in Thornton-bought pink paraffin, while M picked bitter oranges for the next pan of marmalade, updated the diary and made date & walnut cake and gingerbread (it's cool enough to bear lighting the oven again, using the 5 kg German bottle to preserve Rosie's own on-board LPG tank, not refillable in Morocco).

In the evening we attempted to watch Part 2 of last night's video but the wobbly electricity supply gave up the struggle after 10 minutes!


In which we drive to Fès

We returned 10 miles to Meknes, got money and diesel in the Ville Nouvelle and continued on 40 miles of very good road to Fès (there's also a new toll motorway linking Rabat, Meknes and Fès). Successively (but not successfully) chased by 2 'guides' on mopeds, we turned off before the old Imperial City, through the New Town and 4 miles south on the Sefrou road to a large new campsite, just after the stadium. Equipped with a modern restaurant, bar and swimming pool (empty) and even boasting hot water (a first in Morocco), we soon discovered why we were on our own - it's more than double the average price we have paid on 26 sites here so far! (There is another site further out on the Ifrane road.) We settled in for lunch and made use of the hot water to rinse Rosie and some dhobi. Asked if he had a town plan, the manager offered his taxi and guide booking service instead, claiming it was unsafe to explore alone! With over a million inhabitants, we wonder how many work as guides? We were to find out!

The electrical supply was good enabling us to finish watching 'Trial and Retribution'. The current World Service morning serial is 'Frankenstein'. But fact is currently more horrific than fiction, with NATO bombing Yugoslavia and Jill Dando shot dead in London. The weather has changed, with cooler north wind and dark clouds, and even a slight rain shower in the night, as a rare depression comes SW from Spain.

50 miles. £7.19 inc elec (most expensive yet!)


In which we cycle 15 miles into and round the Ville Nouvelle

No more rain, but very windy today. Guessing rightly that bicycles are the best defence against guides and touts (official and unofficial), we rode the 5 miles back into the Ville Nouvelle (as usual, the French had wisely built their administrative town well outside any ancient or imperial quarters). 3 staff in the empty Tourist Office had one glossy brochure in Spanish between them and that was kept under the counter. They had no maps, but could organise a guide! To ensure what they hope will be the tourist's total dependency on guides, all street names are in Arabic only, even in the new town (elsewhere, even the smallest villages had shown names in French as well) and there are no signposts. Annoyed, we persisted with the vague Lonely Planet map and our faithful, battered compass and found our way to coffee and buns at the Kairouan Hotel & Bakery, followed by shopping at the little supermarket near the station, where the owner tried to sell us a tin of Spam from under his counter! (not for us at his black market price!) Sadly the English Bookshop had closed down.

We made a detour back on the Ifrane road, pushing through the hills in a head wind, to look at the alternative campsite in a nicely wooded corner called Diamant Vert at Ain Chkef, with swimming pools, playground and restaurants. At 80 Dr (compared with 110 Dr at the International) it was still expensive and further out of the town, so not worth the trouble of moving for another couple of nights, but if we ever return to Fes (!) we'll use it. A link road took us across to the stadium without returning to town and we were home by noon.

The afternoon was still windy and we sheltered inside, cleaning, reading and mending loose cupboard doors. Later we watched part of BBC's 'Mrs Brown', the story of Queen Victoria and John Brown, nicely played by Billy Connolly.


In which we cycle 20 miles to explore the medieval Medina

Fès, with a population of about 1 million, is the oldest of the 3 Imperial Cities and the Islamic heart of Morocco, its spiritual and cultural centre. The medina of Fès el-Bali (Old Fès) is reputedly one of the largest living medieval cities in the Arab world, comparable only with Marrakesh, Cairo and Damascus. Interesting yes, beautiful no! We were to be impressed, disgusted, overwhelmed and really fed up, all at the same time.

We cycled in, skirting the New Town and crossing the hillsides on a dirt track of our own finding to arrive at one of the old town gates, the Bab Bou Jeloud. The narrow winding alleys and covered bazaars meant walking, pushing, squeezing past every kind of craft workshop and market stall, flattening ourselves to the walls to let donkeys, horses and handcarts by. We escaped into a small restaurant garden, a pleasant respite from the sights, sounds and smells, where we locked our bikes in the toilet and had the set (second) breakfast of toast, butter & jam, fresh orange juice and coffee for £1 each. Reinvigorated, we re-entered the labyrinth, passing snail-sellers with simmering pots, women carrying their bread to the communal ovens (the cloth-covered wooden trays balanced on their heads), kids winding yarn for the silk and brocade workshops, and all the normal fun of the souq. But it was decrepit, decaying, the buildings falling to pieces (we dared not look up in the covered alleys, nor think of what would happen in a fire). There is no beauty in such overcrowded degradation, men squatting in dim cellars working at their crafts, kids everywhere - in short, dire poverty, hardly a tourist attraction. The steep slippery cobbled lanes - 9,400 at the last count - are polished by the hooves and feet of centuries and life is in a sordid time warp.

The 300 or so mosques and other religious buildings, such as the Kairaouine University (one of the oldest in the world), are all closed to non-Muslims (ie foreigners) and nothing can be seen from the outside; the dyers and tanners use the river Fès, which is little more than a filthy stream.

The city is literally bursting at the seams, slowly falling apart. Apparently UNESCO is working on a cultural heritage plan but it seems too far gone to preserve anything of beauty amidst such ruin. The few tour groups we saw, closely following their guides with expressions of horror, appeared to agree! For the first time since Tunisia in 1992, we had problems with youths pushing at the back of our bikes as we rode along outside the souq. Again, like Tunisians, they demonstrated their one admirable quality - the ability to run really quickly when challenged.

We rode back to the New Town, skirting the walls north and west of the medina, past the crumbling old kasbah, breathing fresh air, free of the claustrophobia. The wind had dropped, the temperature risen again, did we dream the rain? Among the cafes and shops on the Ave de France we spotted a rôtisserie with pavement diners tucking into freshly cooked chicken, chips and rice, and had a welcome lunch for £1.60 each before riding the last 5 miles home, heads buzzing with a host of impressions, giving the moped hustlers short shrift.

Back at the site, the resident 'tennis coach' tried to interest M in a game, at a price of course. We shall not be sorry to leave Fès! We watched the second half of 'Mrs Brown' and prepared for an early start tomorrow, into the Rif Mountains.


In which we drive through the Rif Mountain 'Kif' country to Chefchaouen

A fine early start, driving east out of Fès then north to Ketama, climbing into the Rif Mountains and the heart of Kif country (one of the many names for hashish). Enough is grown in this region to supply one third of Europe's hash, with plenty over for local consumption and sale. The route through Tissa to Ain-Aicha wound through the foothills of the Rif, past new olive plantations and rough thatched villages, with Fès still visible after 15 miles, a great smoking blight on the landscape, goal of all the lorries and taxis on the road. After a steep climb to Taounate we made coffee before the spectacular mountain road began to wind its tortuous way to Ketama. We did not stop again as there was an astonishing number of Kif sellers lining the route. We soon learnt to recognise, and ignore, their sign language. Potentially more intimidating were the dealers in cars (ancient Renault 12's or large Mercedes), who overtook and then slowed down, lights flashing, but the description of a car chase in the LP book was wildly exaggerated. We felt no fear, just annoyance that it wasn't possible to pause to take in the wild scenery. We reached Ketama (Kif Kapital) after 100 miles and parked to make lunch opposite the police station, thinking that would stop us being hassled, but 2 gendarmes soon appeared to take down all our particulars. They warned us not to stop for anyone on the remaining 65 miles to Chefchaouen, but the growing, smoking and selling of kif is obviously tolerated quite openly in these parts.

Another memorable and dramatic road west along the spine of the Rif, took us through forests of cedar, holm oak and cork. There were only 2 small scruffy towns along the way, Bab-Berrett after a 1240 m/4092 ft pass and Bab-Taza near the end of the road. We had plenty more offers to buy Kif, visit the farms, or whatever - we didn't stop to find out. Leaving the road north to Ceuta and Tangier, we climbed steeply up to Chefchaouen (whose name means 'look at the mountains') and higher still to the campsite/youth hostel behind the Hotel Asma, overlooking the town in a lovely wooded setting, ringed by peaks, the air cool and clear.

It had been a long challenging drive and we were pleased to find the campsite but sorry that it has become (perhaps inevitably) the haunt of a large gang of German-speaking Kif-smoking New Age Hippies: all tattoos, battered vans, nasty dogs, and free-range children. We settled alongside the more respectable campers (2 French outfits) and made an overdue pot of tea. An elderly (T-reg) British Sherpa van soon arrived and after dinner we asked Jack & Sandy in for coffee. They are 3 weeks into their tour (after 2 previous visits on package holidays) and had come on the 38-hour ferry from Sete in France (costing £700 return!) Staying in the north, mainly Tangier, in the last 2 days they'd had rain and mist. A thunderstorm in the night brought the first serious rain we've seen in 2 months.

168 miles. £2.61 inc elec.