21 October 2013

Road trip to Fes - Tahanaout to Azrou

It was a storm unlike any other we had seen in Tahanaout - and we had it relatively easy! Marrakech experienced severe flash floods; several houses collapsed in the old medina, rivers swelled to cover roads, houses of friends were flooded out - thankfully, nobody we knew was injured. It was the next day, however, that we were due to travel the long and scenic route to Fes. Which way to go? Would roads in the mountains be passable after the heavy flooding? In fact, we questioned would the road still exist! (We have had a past experience in Morocco en route to Tata when we were diverted through several muddy fields - or should I say our car was pushed by several strapping lads through the fields - because the road had literally been washed away by flooding!) How would we find the route today?

Miraculously, the following morning, the sun is shining brilliantly and, in Tahanaout at least, all signs of the storm have vanished; it is as though it has never taken place! So off we set. Signs of the storm are all around us as we near Marrakech - palm trees sitting in fields still full of water, diversions for traffic - ignored by intrepid motorbike riders who insist that they will cross through the flooded roads! However, as soon as we reach the rural areas, we need worry no more, the roads have not been affected at all.

The route through the countryside is pretty. We are surrounded by fields, trees and nature, without the blight of heavy traffic. I won't bore you with the whole route, but I will pick out some of the highlights for those of you interested.

Our first day of travelling is not that exciting to be honest. We make our way into and through the city of Marrakech, then take the country roads leading to the town of Beni Mellal where we decide to stay overnight. It's a nice route, but with few unusual sights. It is on the second day, after a good night's sleep, that the exciting part of the journey begins.

After a hearty breakfast we set off, me marking off the names of villages and towns on my map as we travel...Kasba Tadla...Khenifra...until we see the sign we've been waiting for...'Sourses Oum Errabia', the source of the river Oum Er-Rbia, the second longest river in Morocco, 555km in length. To get there, we head off towards the cedar forests which cover large swathes of the Middle Atlas, a mountain range which is new to us, where I've been reliably informed the endangered Barbary Macaque apes still live in the wild.

The river is this way

Nice place to stop for our picnic lunch

I can see for miles

Mountain roads

As we draw nearer to the source of the river we begin to see signs of life...colourful rugs slung over walls and rocks to dry in the heat of the sun. Then we spot the women along the banks of the river itself, scrubbing away at these fine pieces of decoration, getting them clean and ready to adorn the floors of their small houses.

Colourful rugs drying in the sun

Washing clothes in the river

We follow the signposts and come across a large car park and are immediately surrounded by men and boys dressed in hi-viz yellow vests, all eager to look after our car and show us the way to the source of the river. Naturally, we have none of it and head off on our own in a direction that looks highly likely to be the route to the spring. Ahead of us we can see a group of Moroccan boys, a family with young children and a few girls - we must be going the right way. We climb up and up and find ourselves suddenly in the midst of a row of small shops...jewellery, scarves, belts all vie for our attention, but we are distracted by the distinct aroma of tagines cooking on burners which is wafting through the air. Moroccans never miss an opportunity to sell!

Makeshift shops

As we survey the scene from above, we can see that several families now seem to live along the bank of the river in small shacks. Their washed clothes are draped over a huge boulder to dry.

Housing along the riverbed

As we continue walking, we stumble across rocks and boulders which lead to a rickety bridge. There's no way I'm going to traverse this, so hubby stealthily makes his way over it whilst I enjoy the scenery of the valley. I say 'stealthily' but in actual fact he is clinging like an ibex to the side of the cliff as he contemplates whether to take the risk of dropping his camera in the river. He goes for it anyway. This is Morocco after all, so no surprise when yet another man appears from nowhere in a hi-viz vest asking for 10 dirhams to cross the bridge which leads to the spring. Amazing how people can charge for access to a feat of nature on no-man's land!

By the river


The clambering is all worth it in the end. The water cascades from the spring with incredible force, forming many rock pools which flow faster and faster downhill to form the river. It is indeed a sight to behold.

One of the stunning cascades

Bubbling waters

After eventually leaving the spring we encounter the one and only toilet for miles...I think I'll give it a miss!

Erm...no thanks

Off we go again, this time heading for the cedar forests and them there monkeys! I don't know about you, but I just adore monkeys. It all started with my 'Jacko' monkey I was given as a child, bought from my local Woolworth store (remember them?!) He was my favourite toy ever, a sleazy-eyed 3ft tall monkey wearing a red and white striped vest with light blue bottoms and a permanent smile, his 'hands' functioning very nicely in gripping the bar of the doll's pram I used to push around. Sometimes he even lay in my pram, giving well-meaning adults a nasty shock as they pulled back the covers to admire 'baby', much to my amusement :) That must also be where my wicked streak began ;-)

So now you know why I'm soooo excited to be here, seeing these wonderful creatures in the wild for the first time.

With trepidation we approach the forest, my eyes darting in every direction as hubby drives slowly along the winding paths. The trees are huge, spreading their branches to form a canopy over the 'roads'. But I'm just staring at the branches, longing to see one of these beautiful primates I've heard have made their home here. Every large boulder I see on the ground becomes a possibility; every twitch of a branch makes me think 'this is it!' It's not long before I am rewarded with my first genuine sighting. Another car has stopped on the road ahead and three teenagers are looking at something. We pull up behind - and before I know it, there right in front of me is a monkey sat on a rock eating the peel of an orange. In stunned silence I move my eyes to scan the horizon - several more monkeys come into focus, some on the ground, some swinging in the trees, others sitting on branches watching me watching them! My heart skips a beat. I am surrounded by these wonderful creatures.

NB I make no excuse for the number of photos below; reader, I fell in love....

Beautiful cedar forests of Azrou


I've 'ad an 'ard night, leave me alone!

Keep still!
We're watching you!

Got an itch

We love these trees

This is my best side!

Oy, there's a great view from up here!

Grass and sunshine is all I need

What ya doing over there?

In my own little world

I love eating the muffins you bought for your lunch on the roof of your car!

I'm concentrating

Playing in the road

Okay, you took my photo so where's the food?

Just swinging around

One-eyed Joe


Okay, so I adore monkeys...and therefore it's nearly 3 hours before we eventually leave the forest behind...oops! Soon we arrive in the town of Azrou, a popular stopping-off point for people like us who are en route for Fes. Our first sight on entering the town is the rock after which the town is named, azrou meaning 'rock' or 'stone' in the Berber language. It dominates the whole town and the summit is marked by a crown. A quick coffee and off we go again.

The rock at Azrou

Our next and final stop before arriving in Fes is in the interesting town of Ifrane. The reason I describe it as 'interesting' is because it is not like any other town we have visited in Morocco. Because of its altitude, lying at 1655 metres (5460 ft), one thousand feet higher than Ben Nevis, the town has an alpine climate, experiencing both sunshine and snow. The houses have therefore been built with sloping roofs and look remarkably European/Swiss in style, some of the hotels and restaurants even bearing names reminiscent of Europe such as Hotel Chamonix. The town is spotless and there are numerous gardens in which to stroll, resplendant with flowers. I feel as though I'm back in England in a beautiful country village rather than in a Moroccan town! The highlights of the town are an American-style university where learning takes place in English, Arabic and French, a Royal Palace and a stone carved lion! Yes, you read correctly - a carving of a lion takes pride of place in the town. Legend has it that the lion was carved out of limestone by a prisoner of the second World War (Ifrane was used as a camp for prisoners at the time). It is difficult to believe there were once lions in Morocco, right up until the 1950s so I hear! It is a long-standing tradition for visitors passing through to have their photos taken with the lion, so dutifully I oblige.

The Cotswolds? No, Ifrane!

Picturesque gardens

The Lion and I

Eventually we arrive in the city of Fes where more adventures await us...but that's a new blog post...