Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Morocco 1: Marrakesh and the High Atlas

I'm not sure that it is altogether a Good Thing to be able to move from the burning sands of the Sahara to the cool grey dampness of a Cornish spring in such a short time, but here we are, enjoying a catching-up day in our self-catering "studio", more of which anon. We've just returned from 11 days in Morocco and all the experiences are still spinning round in our heads, but I will try to distill them in a post or three.

Our trip was arranged by Travelling Naturalist, a UK company that we used before, in Iceland. The tour was called "Spring in Morocco", but it quickly became apparent that it was a serious birding trip for most of the participants, who were keen to add various Moroccan specialities to their personal lists. This wasn't a problem for us, since we like to look at birds too, even if we don't keep a "Life List"; a tour like this takes us to places that we wouldn't find under our own steam and there was certainly plenty to entertain us while others were trying to sort out the Western Olivaceous Warbler from the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler.

The trip fell into three parts, the High Atlas, the desert and the Souss valley, so I'll probably do the posts that way, with general comments about that wonderful country and its lovely people as we go along.

Morocco, simply drawn.
We started in Marrakesh, west of the mountains, then Boumalne, Derkaoua, Ouarzazarte, Taroudannt and Agadir.

We flew from London to Marrakesh via Casablanca with Royal Air Maroc, arriving late in the evening and finding (to my relief) that our transport was to be a reasonably large bus, not the minibuses that I had feared (cramped, little luggage space, competition for best seats). The hotel was a tourist place in the nouvelle ville, some distance from the old centre of Marrakesh, but the patch of waste ground opposite was enough to get the birders out early, collecting new species.

Marrakesh hotel, where it all started.
Our bus wasn't as big as that one.

The first day took us more or less east up the Ourika valley into the High Atlas. I confess that hadn't realised how high, and how extensive, the Atlas Mountains are. It was hazy as we left Marrakesh, so it was a surprise when snow-covered peaks emerged ahead of us. We drove up the valley on increasingly narrow and winding roads getting higher and higher until we reached the ski resort of Oukaimeden, one of very few ski resorts in Africa (and I had to keep reminding myself that we really were in Africa). Here we were at the snow line and the highest peaks in the range were all around us.

The High Atlas.
Fabulous scenery.

The only African ski-field? Oukaimeden.
And those are Crimson-winged Finches on the sign (You knew that, didn't you?).

But this wasn't your average coach tour. You must imagine it punctuated at frequent intervals by cries of "raptor flying right at two o'clock!) and the bus stopping as quickly as possible. The leader, Arnoud van der Berg, is a gun birder with an amazing ability not only to see very small birds from inside a bus, but even to hear them! So our stops were rarely chosen for their aesthetic qualities and we often found ourselves dodging passing traffic while scouring the bushes for a bird.

Roadside birders.
And Rachid waiting patiently in the bus.

And not much of this was happening in the wilderness. Only at the very highest altitudes were there no local people; everywhere else there were Berber villages of mud bricks, apparently growing out of the landscape, many seen across valleys with no road access at all. The first impression was of the pictures I've seen of Afganistan, or even Tibet. There were foot tracks everywhere, and as we looked around we started to see people all over, walking on tracks, gathering fuel and forage for animals, or cultivating tiny terraced fields of alfalfa, barley, beans and fruit and nut trees.

Berber villages in the Ourika valley.
Yes, more than one. Look across the valley.

And wherever we stopped people appeared almost instantaneously to see whether we were interested in buying necklaces, minerals, fossils, scarves etc. Stalls were set up at the more frequently used stopping places, but there were many mobile opportunists on little motorbikes who were prepared to pursue a bus like ours for some distance. After my experiences in Tunis I was not looking forward to the attentions of these salesmen, but in Morocco it seems that a polite but firm "no thank you" (or rather "Je regret, mais non", since French is widely spoken) was always respected.

Roadside stall.
So many tagines for sale, but not suitable for our hand luggage.

Other people, mostly small boys, also turned up out of sheer curiosity. We saw several other birding groups as we travelled, but the phenomenon of adults spending a long time peering at something apparently invisible through very expensive optics is clearly still a novelty. One old man enjoying the sun outside his house watched us for a long time as we tried to locate Levaillant's Woodpecker in the nearby trees, then smiled and tapped his forehead. Amusement or bewilderment was the common response, but one group of young men in car blew the horn and shouted "Vous etes fou!". But generally everyone was friendly and many waved spontaneously as we drove past. Any eye contact or wave from our end was always met with a wave, even from women bent double under huge bales of fodder. The kids waved enthusiastically, and when I made faces they went into hysterics.

We returned to the hotel in Marrakesh, and although we'd had a long day we accepted an offer from the bus driver (Rachid, what a star) and Arnoud for a visit to the main square in the old town. Diemma El-Fna is a very large open square in front of the main mosque that fills up every night with food stalls, musicians, story-tellers, conjurors etc etc. It borders on the souks which are open at all hours, selling just about everything. We did a circuit of the square and a cautious loop into the souks (easy to get lost) and noted that les than 10% of the crowd were tourists, the rest all locals, of all ages.

Diemma El-Fna, Marrakesh.
Can't share the noises and smells, I'm afraid.

Our first day in Morocco was a mass of new experiences, but it all suggested that we were in for a great trip.


  1. Wow!
    Amazing scenery... can't wait for the next episode ;-)


  2. Great Papa,
    What an adventure and such steep mountains.
    Marty will be sad that there are no photos of you both, so it's lucky we saw you this morning!
    Will be waiting for the next post now . . .
    Love and miss you both,
    Jose, Jac (and the currently napping Roo)
    And the visiting Texan extended family

  3. Wow, the photo of the High Atlas particularly striking.

    To have to leave behind a souvenir tajine from its natural habitat....what sacrifice :)

    More please!


  4. Wow, the Altas mountains looked amazing! quite jealous!

  5. Off to a great start! What incredible scenery. Good thing you're into birds too! Love Britt. xo

  6. More great photos - and isn't the main square of Marrakesh so full of sights and smells and sounds that seem to Moroccan! Did you see the streets with cafes with coffee and cakes just like it could be Paris? Such a strange/suprising result - so African and French at the same time!
    The roads and travelling is definitely more African though.
    And the High Atlas mountains are quite breathtaking (and so high!)
    xx Kate