In the light of the Dades Gorge

It was beginning to look like independent travel in Morocco was just a plain bad idea. You can’t ask a simple question about direction without somebody wanting to take you there (for an overblown fee). You’re bait for hungry swooping fake guides. The two tourist offices we’d been in were completely disinterested, had nothing to say, nothing to show us, the man in Marrakesh annoyed we’d interrupted him reading his magazine. But it isn’t like Morocco doesn’t have tourism. Tourists are everywhere. They pour out of four wheel drives, guides in tow, ushering them every step of the way, herding them away, like a school of sardines, from the circling sharks.

We had a guide book that we needed to read round and round in circles, flicking back and forward to try and work out what it meant, wishing they’d cut the verbosity for more detail. It’s a guide book for driving tours, at best, but with its big reputation doesn’t need to let on it’s changed, that it’s aimed now at vacationers with wads of cash. We didn’t have a car. Nor that much cash.

Our venture along the Draa Valley had already gone sour, stuck in Agdz all day waiting for a bus, getting ten different stories at the same time. Knowledge is power. It costs. I guess that’s why people go on tours. You might as well. It was as if we were the only independent travellers in Morocco, we’d missed some vital information, like needing to have a larger budget.

The country took some getting used to, the aggressiveness and incessant money grabbing tiring. A German we met said he thought it was because it was a Muslim country, basing his idea on the fact he’d had the same experience in Java twenty five years ago. But it wasn’t that. Not a religious thing. We’d been in Syria and Jordan recently and it was nothing like that. The opposite. Sometimes locals wouldn’t let us pay. I thought it was to do with Morocco being so close to Europe. Like the west owes them, and maybe we do. At Tangier the continent of Africa and the Iberian Peninsula kiss. It’s a brush on the wet lips across the Straits of Gibraltar, but Moroccans must want to slip the tongue in.

We made it out of Agdz back to Ouarzazate, a nice town with good restaurants and an impressively restored kasbah. Sixty five kilometres had taken us most of a day so from there we tried the CTM bus, reputed to be the best, the one foreigners use, and arrived in Boumalne du Dades to the hustle of guides and restaurant staff. We’d looked at the menu before we had a tea and an omelette, knew the price would come to 50 Dirhams. The owner came out of the kitchen, said it was 100 – they just can’t help themselves, everything has to be worth a try.

A trekking guide insisted we go to his office. We were interested in going up into the M’Goun Massif. Our book had indicated treks start from Boumalne, but the one they described was on the other side of the Atlas, a five day hike away. It was as if the book set out to trick you, giving you a little Moroccan experience before you left home. Only we hadn’t read it before we arrived, expecting it to be full of facts, not a flowery overview to tempt you in a bookshop. We asked the price. The guide ummed and aahed, like he’d never thought about it before.

You want a cheaper or more expensive one? he asked.

Cheaper, I said. The cheapest you have.

Okay, he tapped his fingers on a table, poised with a pen, thinking.

Okay, 2000, he finally said. For everything.

I nodded, pretending it sounded reasonable. For both of us?

Each.

It was harder to pretend then. That’s the basic, the cheapest?

Yes.

Okay, we’ll think about it, I said, turning to leave.

How much you want to pay then? he shot back.

I thought it was supposed to be his best price. Let you know when we come back from the Dades Gorge, I replied.

You need a hotel, how much you want to pay?

Cheap, I said again, interested to know what he’d come up with.

One hundred and twenty.

Seventy would be cheaper.

Eighty?

Seventy would be better.

Okay, Seventy then.

Everything was a haggle. Nothing realistic.

We went to the plaza opposite the mosque to catch a mini businto the Gorge. A man came up to us.

It’s not Afghanistan, he said. You talk to people in Morocco.

We talk to people all the time, I replied.

Your wife, he said, indicating P, she’s reading a book.

She was looking for the name of the stop we needed. I decided to use a suggestion from the book.

Please respect our time and don’t disrespect my partner, I said to him.

It worked. He apologised, backed away sheepishly. They love an argument. But respect is a word they, well, respect.

The guide book wasn’t totally useless.

It was a one moment good, one moment bad kind of thing. A mix up of confusion between fact and fiction, reality and astronomy (astronomical prices – at least as in value for money). Knowledge is powerful and worth cash. A guide would be an advantage. I could see that.

When squeezed into the minivan on our way up the Gorge, the woman next to me smiled and chatted, the man behind pointing out sights. French would be an advantage, more so than Arabic, the Berbers speaking their own language, or French.

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We clambered off at kilometre 18, a collection of crazy rocks lying across one side of the gorge, weathered into long smooth shapes and symmetrical patterns, rising out of the ground like monolithic mushrooms, a bizarre location.

We bartered our way into a room on the top floor of a Hotel, our room a little turret overlooking what the locals called the Monkey Fingers. The sunset manipulates the colours of the rocks, switching them, chocolate, cacao, red, burnt orange, long shadows casting across the weird Daliesque landscape.


The next day we avoided a guide, which would have cost us as much as our daily budget, and sneaked off on our own into the Agouni Gorge. Besides, we wanted to go at our own pace. We had all day. We didn’t need to be brought back for lunch in the restaurant.

Walking behind the first layer of rocks and up into one of many gorges within the 27km long Dades, the going was easy for a while though we had to keep taking off our shoes to wade through pools to continue going up, squeezing through crevices. Twice we thought about turning back, but kept climbing, figuring it couldn’t be too much further. The narrow gorge was spectacular, smooth red cliffs, tumbled down boulders we had to wriggle under, crystal clear rock pools, some deep enough to swim in.

Eventually we made it to a near dead end. I wedged myself up against a fig tree, climbed high to a vantage point. I could see we could get out of the gorge, it wasn’t quite as clear how to get back down to the river. But then people emerged over a hill, revealing the track, and we climbed out, had a lunch of cheese and bread and sat in the quiet air, inhaling a magical atmosphere.

The next day we caught a mini van up to kilometre 28 where the Dades Gorge narrows and the walls rise vertically a hundred metres or more. A road snakes out to the north, a sharp series of hairpin bends. We walked back down along the river, under fig trees, through oleander patches, walnuts, peaches, the locals smiling, friendly, welcoming, until we reached the straw mud kasbah of Ait Arbi, in good condition near the river, the ruins of other kasbahs on the nearby hills. Excited Berber kids offered to be our guides, but were polite, non insistent, and just tagged along for a while. We crossed the river on a rickety bridge, three days in the Gorge had changed everything. Morocco was cast in another light.

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~ by Drifting, Rambling on October 30, 2008.

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