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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Friday, 15 Apr 2016

Location: Morocco

MapNight two was in a town called Ifrane, which couldn’t have been any more different than the night before. Unlike Chefchaouen, this Alpine village was only built in the 1930s, at 1600 meters, to capitalise on abundant ski fields in winter months. To cope with high snowfall, each house has a steep-sloped roof, giving Ifrane the apt description of “Switzerland in Morocco”. On the way to Ifrane, we stopped to explore the ruins of Volubilis, what was the southwestern-most outpost of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago. We drove through some spectacular hilly country, but as Mike explained, these were only the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. More, and even more spectacular, was to come.

Night three was in a region more than a town, Bin el Ouidane, and our hotel was perched on a hill overlooking an expansive lake that’s been created by the construction, in the early 1950s, of a large concrete dam. Firstly, we had to cross a mountain range, part of the Atlas mountains. We passed the hydro power station on the way up the mountain, and we followed the water pipeline going up. The view from the top of the mountain seemed to give a panorama of the whole of western Morocco. This country sure does have some seriously high mountains.

Night four was in a little village called Ait Benhaddou, near Ouarzazate (“wa-za-zut”). This area is known for film making, such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Gladiator”. But to get there we had to cross more of the Atlas Mountains, and it was a journey to remember. Being a motor cycle tour, we tend to take the road less travelled, providing riders with the thrill of windy roads and plenty of corners. Maybe not so easy, however, for passengers travelling in a van. Javier's van fits three people across the front quite comfortably, and the twisting, narrow roads may have had us rolling around the cabin, but the ever-changing view demanded our full attention. With a different outlook at each corner, we were mesmerised at every turn. Peaks in the distance were decorated with snow. Below were deep ravines and gorges, on an unimaginable scale, and we were driving through them. The United States may have the Grand Canyon, but Morocco has the grandest of them all.

Barren rock cliffs, with our road cut into its side, going on into the distance, darting in and out of ravines and out of view, before re-appearing a few kilometres on. And occasionally, we would spy a house, made of rudimentary mud and stone over a timber frame. People actually live here! The family car would be tethered at the front door, a donkey. This elementary lifestyle may be deceiving, however, as a second look would reveal a satellite dish on the roof. Fertile ground at the bottom of the canyon would always be growing a crop of some sort, with easy access to water. Access to the bottom, however, was never easy. What we were seeing defied our imagination.

Coming down from the mountains lands us in a barren, rocky desert. Our Ait Benhaddou accommodation was an authentic dar, a glamorous guesthouse in Morocco, made of genuine adobe walls – mud and straw mixed together. Arched doorways that you have to bend to walk through. Over the back of the hotel is the hillside palace, actual living quarters for people but also used in many movies over the years, including “The Living Daylights”, “The Mummy”, “Jewel of the Nile”. It looks like a magic kingdom from our window, and it was to roam through. And this place is in the middle of desert. This is such a long way from home.