Morocco—strong odors, weak beer, laughing cows. Part 1

This is a tale of failing to get up 5.5 climbs, succeeding in buying fake saffron, eating camel steaks. Morocco is not for the faint hearted. We found a climbing guidebook claiming that there were routes up to 2000 feet long on impeccable quartzite. We flew via London, for what threatened to be our last chance to drink alcohol for some time.

man in robe walking in front of building

In Marrakech, we had arranged for the rental car company to meet us--with a sign--at the airport. But no one was there. We waited, waited, wandered around (of course this local company had no desk at the airport), finally, in the dark, took a taxi to the hotel. The taxi driver, smelling fresh tourist meat, quoted an outrageous price. We got our own back when, after several miles of near misses with assorted hazards both human and animal on unlighted streets, the hotel turned out not to exist; or did it? Our driver, undeterred, began knocking on doors and driving around in circles on vague dirt roads for maybe 45 minutes before finally finding something that might be our hotel.


Which was fantastic, except that we seemed to be sharing the room with a family of cockroach-like creatures "the size of mice." Yikes. They were polite, and kept their distance. They never tried to beg, or sell us any jewelry. We had to wonder how they located the hotel. Next day we discovered the rental car folks had the days mixed up; they apologized and they drove our car out to us at the hotel. Except they couldn't find the damn hotel either....

Eventually we head into Marrakech, me at the wheel. Traffic was fine, somewhat like Mexico driving, and I congratulated myself on mastering the traffic--until we rashly entered the city walls, and were ambushed by a crazy deluge of donkeys, scooters, pedestrians, taxis, hand carts, all flowing around us as if we were a mere rock in a river, the traffic a couple of nonchalant inches from imminent disaster. I turned around, fled back out and found parking outside.

marrakech streets


We walke back in and headed for the famous "souks" (markets).


The souks are a bustling world unto themselves. Endless, winding, everyone trying to grab your attention, noises of yelling, dogs, bartering; smells of saffron, harissa, argan oil, used motor-oil, exotic soaps, fresh-tanned leather, vaguely-sewer-related odors, fried chicken, all gloriously mingled, fighting for your nostrils' attention.

spice stall

carpet and clothes souk

There’s not much you can’t buy in Morocco....

marrakech souk trader

Southward, the souks dump one out into the big square, Djemma el Fna.

big square

square in evening

Djemma el Fna is a writhing mass of humanity, people watching people, people pulling teeth, people playing with snakes, telling fortunes, selling more spices and fresh-squeezed orange juice. French tourists march around as if they still own the place.

french women amid smoke

As it gets dark, the musicians come out, desert dwellers from south and east, Mali and Mauritania, darker skinned than the locals, wary but relaxed; chanting their ancient blues songs, accompanied by ouds, drums and curious crowds. Surreal, sublime.

The funny thing is there's no alcohol, both a drawback (because a drink or two can be nice) and an advantage (the huge nightly crowds are volatile enough already).

To make up for the lack of alcohol, there's damn good coffee! 

fran and coffee

From Marrakech we drove south over the Atlas Mountains via the main highway:

road in village

The main roads looked like this.

Most roadsigns look like this:

concrete signpost

It was a slow drive... with uncertain navigation. The "7 hour" estimate for the drive to Tafraoute took us two days. We stayed overnight in Agadir at the enticingly-named Hotel Rehab, where the creature the size of a mouse in our room was, in fact, a mouse....

It's amazing how, if one stops for more than, say, thirty-five seconds, anywhere on the roadside, a very, very friendly person will emerge from nowhere, brandishing necklaces or jewelry and a big smile--he wants to be your friend. There is a commendable entrepreneurial spirit--a single glance at an item counts as the official start to the bargaining. Away from the main tourist areas the people are more laid back and genuine.





 First few days it was in the 90s. We roasted, first day, on a low crag where the climbing was good; not great but certainly good. Though, the supposed multi-star VS turned out to be desperate. (Hmmmmm, I thought I understood these English ratings). And, finally at the top, I ripped my sweaty shoes off and collapsed in a sweaty heap amid spiky plants and abrasive limestone, poking about for a belay anchor. To be awakened, a minute late, by the a roar and then the sight of a swarm of bees. Tied in the rope, shoeless, surounded by desperately complex terrain, I was utterly at their mercy. Were they africanized bees? After all, this was, in fact, Africa.... They swarmed around me, I kept very still, and eventually they moved on. Fran comfirmed, by much swearing and yelling, that the route was as much a sandbag as I'd thought.


Next day, trying to beat the heat, we headed to a high elevation cliff, Adrar Asmit, to try a really easy (5.5/6) 6-pitch, north-facing climb. This was a distressingly steep hike in the 90-some-degree sun, but the climb was fun; somewhat shady, as promised, with perfect quartzite leading to a nice summit.


fran wild country

fran at top of climb

Next day was decared to be a rest day. Well, not exactly a restful day, as we hiked several miles in the blazing sun to visit the bizarre Painted Rocks, painted in 1984 by Belgian artist Jean Verame.

fran hike palms

blue boulder hiding

blue rocks and sheep

blue hoodoo

Next we tried clibing high up at a shady spot, the Dwawj slabs, and a 3-star classic Very Difficult (~5.4) called Serpent's Tale, or something similar. This climb has one of the prettiest approaches I've ever seen:

fran approach crag


But the climb was a different story. It started out OK, but three pitches up we were stuck between either dangerously runout friction slab face of indeterminate difficulty or, just right, almost off the slab itself, a hand-crack-feature filled with spiky plants and dry dirt that, if excavated, would instantly render the quartite unclimbable. Tails between legs, we rappelled three pitches. Failing to get up a 5.4—the shame of it.

Around the corner we found a 350-foot slab with a climb called Jewel in thr Crown, rated Mild-to-Middling Very Severely somesuch, with no stars and warnings about runouts. It turned out to be superb, with pitch 2 a full ropelength of intricate 5.7 with excellent (if intermittent) gear placements.

jewel in the crown climb

Next day, we took a 4x4 tour to the edge of the Shara to find some petroglyphs, via this eerie ghost town:

ghost town

Apparently, about five families still live here, existing on checks from relatives in the cities.

At one point the drive slammed on the brakes, and leaped out. What the hell? He found this:

baby chameleon

An impossibly cute baby chameleon, not at all afraid, quite tame

As we got closer to the big desert, life seemed to vanish. Yet the mountains seemed alive, with crazily tilted strata:

colorful strata

A good thing, because little else is alive, this close to the Sahara.

ukas trip scenic valley


more petroglyphs

The petroglyphs were in a gorge. Beyond the gorge opened up and the landscape became wide and desolate. This seemed like the end of the world.

desolate road near sahara

We slowly returned to Tafraoute. Next day, the weather mercifully plummeted 30 degrees, and became showery; much more pleasant for climbing. See Part 2 HERE  for more stories and photos.

jebel el kest and clouds