20/11/89

We were up before the sun reached the peaks surrounding the alpine meadow in which the Cafe d’Atlas stood and packed up our stuff while the little man (we never did find out his name!) cooked us omelettes with cheese, and coffee for breakfast.

The icy wind was still howling down off the peaks, rattling the windows of the hut and shaking the bare branches of the walnut tree outside.

We paid the bill, which came to 127 Dirhams¹ all up then left the little man in his little cafe in that windswept alpine basin and drove off down the steep, winding road. The views were magnificent, with brown, eroded hills cut by deep gorges, with high, snow-capped peaks above.

The wind continued to blast off the tops, making it damn cold when we stopped for photos or to look at little craft shops beside the road. As well as pottery and polished stones, the shops all sold beautiful examples of geodes: amethyst, calcite, agate and other minerals found in these hills. Some of the larger geodes had been painted bright green or orange to make ordinary quartz look like something more exotic. Mike had found out about this scam to his cost the previous day, having bought what he thought was a geode of amethyst only to find that the purple colour of the crystals rubbed off to reveal palin quartz beneath!

Pottery stall in the High Atlas.

As we neared the bottom of the valley, the individual crops growing there could be made out. vegetables, olives & walnuts were growing in the fertile soil at the foot of the pine-clad hills, and many small villages dotted the roadside. As always, the snowy mountains made a backdrop to the quiet and peaceful valley farms.

We stopped mid-morning for coffee at a cafe overlooking a wide, tree-clad valley then dropped down the last few miles of the High Atlas and out onto the plains near Marrakech.

We drove into the city through olive groves and orange tree orchards and found the Hotel de Foucauld, a palace of a place compared to the tents we have lived in over the last 3 1/2 months! The room Linda and I were in had a bath/shower, a SIT DOWN DUNNY² and 2 comfy beds. Two large wooden door opened onto a small balcony overlooking a park.

We settled in to all that opulent luxury for a while, then Rob, Pete, Linda and I walked over to the market. We had a fresh orange juice in the square outside the market, then entered the dim and exciting labyrinth of passages and streets that make up the Old Town of Marrakech, a place that has attracted travellers for decades.

Every new turn produced two more paths to choose from and from every door the merchants, some of them old and cheerful, others cunning and devious-looking younger men, called us to look at their wares.

It was too much to take in so we went and had a hot chocolate at a rooftop cafe with a view out over the central Market Square.

Marrakech Rooftops.

Later in the evening, we returned to the square to eat at the food stalls and have our pockets picked by vagabond kids.³ I bought a small set of Moroccan drums off a kid for £2-00.

The Market Square, Marrakech.

¹The Moroccan unit of currency is the Dirham.
² DUNNY is Australian slang for a toilet.
³I thwacked an urchin that had its grubby little hand in Linda’s pocket.

19/11/89

DAY EIGHTY-SEVEN We got up at around 8:00 and I had a hot shower to relieve the pain in my chest. I have started taking antibiotics to knock whatever infection it is on the head.

We breakfasted on bread, jam and coffee then paid the hotel bill with food kitty money¹ and took our gear over to the truck. We went for a walk up the gorge to a spot where some locals have a well-tended garden and run goats on the scree-slopes beneath the cliffs. It took a long time for the sun to reach into the depths of the gorge and by that time we were on our way.

The drive down the valley away from the gorge provided us with some spectacular views of oasis villages with their meticulously cultivated and irrigated fields nestling in the valleys with snow-capped mountains behind.

An oasis town in the uplands of Morocco.

We spent all morning winding our way across the hazy plains towards the foot of the Atlas Mountains and after lunch in a small town, we began following a river leading up into the mountains themselves. All along the banks of the river, plots of border-dyked² land grew crops of vegetables and olives. Trees wearing their autumn colours grew along the banks beside the rivers.

Oasis town in the highlands of Morocco.

It became colder as we drove higher and the road became more and more winding and steep. The hills were clad in scrub and mountain grasses and shepherds guided their flocks across the steep faces in the cold alpine air. There were patches of snow in the basins but most of the big fall that had occurred a few days before had melted. Sleepy villages nestled in little valleys with the late afternoon sun bathing the buildings, which were hung with bright red flags, in warm, golden light.

The High Atlas.

Higher and higher we climbed until we reached a saddle at 2,300 metres just as the setting sun was casting a pink glow on the tops of the peaks. About a mile down the other side we found a place to stay. A lovely little café called Café-d’Atlas stood alone in a high and windswept basin with only a few trees and patches of snow to keep it company. A little man in a gelabia³ ran the café and proudly welcomed us into the little 4-roomed building which was actually built in Western style, with a sloping roof and a verandah.

The owner of the Cafe d’Atlas.

He lit a fire for us in the stove in the room we would sleep in, and prepared us a meal of omelette and meat kebabs along with café-au-lait. He was obviously mad but he went out of his way to look after us as we sat drinking whiskey & Coke and wondering what the poor people were doing.⁴ 

We spent a very warm and comfortable night in that little shack at 2,260 metres, with the crystal clear stars shining on the peaks around us and the bitterly cold wind snarling around the eaves like dogs of war. 

¹The food kitty was, strictly-speaking, meant to be used to buy food for the whole expedition crew. But, as a number of ill-contented people had decided to go off on their own, we made the collective decision to splurge some of the kitty cash on our luxurious night in the Todra Gorge Hotel.

² Border-dyking is a form of flood irrigation widely used throughout the world. Water is allowed to run from a channel along the edge of a slightly sloping field which has raised “borders” at intervals across its width. The borders allow the water flow across the field. When one field has been irrigated, the outlet from the channel is closed and the outlet onto the next field is opened so the process repeats. 

³ The jalabiya (I miss-spelled the word) is a traditional Moroccan garment. It is a long robe knitted from heavy wool, with long sleeves and a hood. 

⁴Slang for feeling smug about one’s situation

FOOTNOTE: While we were at the Cafe d’Atlas I bought a pair of figurines carved by the little man who owned the cafe. To this day, they sit on a shelf in our house, one of the souvenirs of our adventures that I am most fond of.

18/11/89

DAY EIGHTY-SIX We were up before dawn cooking breakfast in a bitterly cold wind. We had showers in the open air shower block then left Meskie and drove into town for coffees.

On the road once again, we headed for Todra Gorge, about 300 kilometres away, taking our time and stopping for plenty of coffees on the way.

I was feeling pretty crook¹ with the beginnings of what felt like a chest infection so I missed a lot of the day’s scenery through being asleep.

At around 4:00, with the sun well down towards the horizon, and a real chill in the air, we were stopped by a police road-block at the mouth of the gorge. Their story was that a flood had closed the track up to the Gorge Hotel but it was obvious that a pay-off had been made by the owner of the hotel just outside the gorge to drum up more business. One of the locals went up to fetch the owner of the hotel up in the gorge. He came down and basically told the police to Fuck Off & we were free to carry on up into the gorge.

Todra Gorge, Morocco.
Todra Gorge, Morocco.
Todra Gorge Transport.

We drove up the river-bed in the centre of the gorge, down which flowed a stream of lovely clear water through which waded a procession of aging Italian tourists with their shoes off and their skirts lifted. 

On both sides, the walls of the gorge rose sheer for 200-300 metres and much of it was, in fact, overhanging, with the last rays of the sun bathing the topmost part of the cliff with bright yellow light. The hotel is built right in under the deepest part of the overhang. We parked the truck on the opposite side of the gorge and crossed the creek to see what delights were in store for us. We were assigned a comfortable room for all 7 of us to sleep in, but, best of all, there were HOT SHOWERS and HEATERS in the restaurant.

The hotel in Todra Gorge.

We had coffee in the warmth of the restaurant and took turns luxuriating in the very hot water of the showers – our first hot showers in 4 months!

Tea was a long-winded affair with salad, soup, stew and tahine (pronounced Tah-zhine), the traditional Moroccan way of cooking, served with couscous and vegetables.

After coffee and dates, a trio of locals played Moroccan music for us with drums and a banjo. Outside, it was a very cold night with only a small piece of the clear, cold, star-filled sky visible above the cliffs. We all slept well in the comfort and warmth of our room.

¹Sick

After four months on the road in Africa, half-starved and sick with a chest infection, your correspondent wasn’t looking his best!!

17/11/89

We got up with the sun and had porridge and toast for breakfast. Back on the road, it only took an hour and a half to reach the town nearest to Meski Oasis. We spent two hours there, buying some meat and veges in the market, drinking cafe au lait at a street cafe and getting some wine, bread and cheese to have for lunch at the oasis.

We left town and drove the 15 kilometres to Le Source Bleu du Meski which is a large and fertile oasis set down below the level of the surrounding plain in a gorge.

Meski Oasis, Morocco.

There is a good camping site complete with souvenir shops, a restaurant and a big swimming pool full of fish! The water for the pool flows out of the base of the cliff from a cave that the local women have turned into a grotto where they pray for fertility.

We sat in the sun and ate our bread and cheese and drank the fairly cheap-tasting wine, then spent the afternoon in various states of relaxation.

The ruined city at Meski Oasis, Morocco.
The ruined city at Meski Oasis, Morocco.

About 4:00 PM, pete, Rob, Linda and I crossed the river and walked up to the ruins of an old fortified town on the southern rim of the gorge. The fort dates back to medieval times and is a maze of narrow passages and rooms which are slowly crumbling as rain and wind takes effect on the mud and straw the entire fort is built from. We spent a fascinating hour clambering around in the ruins with the lowering sun casting intricate shadows over the crumbling walls. Several intact rooms and Muslim archways remain but most of the fort is just a mass of demolished walls.

Race Among the Ruins. Ferg in the ruined city at Meski Oasis.

We left the old town with its crumbling walls and silent passages as the sun was setting and crossed back to the camp through the irrigated gardens and date palm plantations of the oasis with a cold breeze behind us and the promise of a chilly night ahead.

Ferg and Linda

For tea, we cooked up a huge meal of steak, pumpkin, beans, spuds and grilled tomatoes washed down with a lot of Scottie’s secret recipe mulled wine.

Campfire Life, Meski Oasis, Morocco.

16/11/89

After a reasonably early breakfast, we left the frontier with only the most rudimentary look-over by the customs officials. By now, they were so used to us hanging around that they knew us by name!

Linda, Mike and Bron checked in at the Police Station to get their passports stamped then we drove out of town, stopping for water at a gas station on the outskirts.

The road was sealed but pretty rough with a lot of wash-outs from the recent rain and it wound through rugged hills of twisted and folded stone, brown and grey under the turquoise sky. A cold wind was blowing and with the sides rolled up it was pretty cold.

Alongside the road, shepherds moved with their flocks of sheep and goats amongst the rocks and small stream-beds where bits of grass and scrub for them to eat grew.

We made leisurely time all day, stopping at a small town at the foot of some rugged hills for cafe-au-lait and a sandwich then continued on across the plain.

Mid-afternoon, we stopped out in the middle of a wide, wind-swept basin surrounded by rugged hills and criss-crossed with little stream-beds, some of which were flowing. It was uncannily like the Mackenzie Basin [where I had worked as a shepherd back in New Zealand] on a winter’s day. We cut down some some old telephone pole stumps (the poles themselves had long since been pinched by the locals!) to use as firewood.

About 4:30 we stopped in another small town for coffees then camped the night about a mile off the road a bit further on.

15/11/89

After breakfast, Pete, Rob and I left the other 3 (Pullar, Russ and Jo have pissed off to make their own way and good riddance!) guarding the truck and walked the 5 KM into to town. We checked in at the Police Station where they stamped our passports with entry stamps then we went and changed money at the bank

The town’s shops had a reasonable selection of veges – spuds, caulis, carrots onions, etc – as well as such yummy things as Coke, yoghurt, chocolate bikkies and cartons of orange juice.

We had a snack at a cafe, then, laden down with goodies, we walked back out to our camp amongst the date palms at the frontier.

We cooked up baked beans for lunch over the gas cooker up in the truck out of the wind, then settled down to relax for the afternoon.

Scotty arrived back about midnight.

14/11/89

Somehow, in the confusion of borders and time zones out there in the desert, Tuesday November 14th, 1989, disappeared from my diary! The entry headings from the 15th onwards have been Twinked over and the dates advanced by one day. I suspect I did this later on, back in London when we were living at The Red Lion pub in Lambeth, the place where we worked for five months over the winter of 1989/90. Those adventures are yet to come. In the meantime, take a break for a day….our journey continues tomorrow!

13/11/89

DAY EIGHTY-THREE We were up before dawn to cook breakfast then packed up and drove off. The day was overcast and cold with a stiff breeze blowing.

It took about six hours to drive up to the border with our only stop being in a little town for coffee and cake to use up our last few Dinahs.¹

We got to the bleak Algerian frontier at 1:30 and sat round for 2 hours while the officials checked out our passports and currency declarations and searched the truck. One of the guards, as he was looking through our collection of books asked hopefully, “any sex?” 

About a kilometre separated the offices of Algerian Customs from the tents of Moroccan Customs. As soon as we pulled up a man asked to see the truck’s “insurance” and promptly pronounced it invalid. Scotty would have to take a bus up to the other Algerian/Moroccan frontier post at Oujda to buy some.

So, once again stuck in no-man’s-land between borders, we pitched our tents in the sand beside the road and spent a cold night. 

When scones go wrong!! Algeria/Morocco border.
When scones go wrong!! Algeria/Morocco border.

¹The Algerian currency is the Dinah.

12/11/89

DAY EIGHT-TWO After a tasty breakfast of fried spud, left over from last night’s meal of spuds, peas and frankfurters, we hit the road about 7:30. First stop was for repairs to the truck in a largish town, which took about an hour and which turned out to be no good anyway. The fault was in the oil pressure sender line which had a hole in it so when we stopped for lunch later on Mike and Scotty fixed it. 

Later on, as we neared a range of golden sand dunes, we stopped at a wayside shack that sold coffee and Limonade (lemonade). A little old lady with a face like tanned leather, dressed in bright red and green shawls, laboriously made us coffees and fussed around about how much we all owned, all the while keeping an eye on some ragged children playing beside the road outside.

Bogged in sand.

Half an hour on form the café we pulled off the road to look at some sand-dunes and got stuck!! The sand-dunes weren’t even very interesting , certainly not worth getting stuck for  for, but there we were!

It took about an hour to dig and sand-mat¹ it out and it was another experience, like getting bogged in the Congo Jungle, that no African trip would be complete without. 

Sand-matting.

We camped the night under a full moon a few miles further down the road.

¹Sand-mats are narrow steel panels, about two metres long and with round perforations in them. They are laid under the wheels of a stuck vehicle to spread its weight out over a greater area than the mall surface area of the tyres.

Hands-on Adventures. Sand-matting in the Sahara.
Hands-on Adventures. Sand-matting in the Sahara.

11/11/89

DAY EIGHTY-ONE The morning was bitterly cold as we had breakfast and packed up the truck. We bounced and jolted our way along the rough track stopping every now and then for piss-stops or to take photos. At about 9:30, with the sun up and warming us, we stopped at the top of a small rise beside the petrified remains of huge trees from a long-dead forest¹.

Petrified wood in the northern Sahara. (Photo supplied)

It was an eerie and mysterious place, there in the vast, empty desert, pieces of what had once been towering forest trees similar to those we had seen in the jungle. The grain and knots of the wood was faithfully preserved in stone that wind, sun (and passing tourists) were reducing to sand. In a few thousand years, not a trace of the forest will remain.

We moved on from the petrified trees and later in the morning we stopped at a wind-swept mill pumping cold, clear water into a tank. The windmill was set amongst the nothingness of the desert with only sun and wind to keep it company. The water was good.

Around lunch time we drove into a small town and had lunch at a café before pushing on northwards, once again on tar seal which Mike reckoned would last until London.

That night, we camped in a quarry for the first time in ages, stopping just before the sun touched the horizon. Scotty and I watched its passage out of sight: a shimmering ball which disappeared in less than a minute, leaving only the blue haze of dusk behind.

¹ For a description of how wood becomes petrified, you can read my story Forest of Stone, on my other blog, Travel Writer Life, about a petrified forest at Curio Bay on New Zealand’s South Island. Although the story is about a different place, vastly different to that forest we saw in the Sahara all those years ago, the processes which created the petrified wood are the same.