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The first trip abroad we took together was to Morocco in 1970. We took our VW bug across the straight of Gibraltar and traveled as far south as Marrakesh. We wanted to go back after so many years and combine it with a mountain biking trip.

We arranged for one for just the two of us which started south of Marakesh in the High Atlas mountains and took us down to the north end of the Sahara. Before the mountain biking trip we went from Marrakesh to Essaouira, Agadir, and Taroudant. After the biking trip we stayed a few more days in Marrakesh and from there continued on to our trip in Mali.

 

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We start this website with the photos of our mountain biking trip and end with the photos of our 5-day tour to Essaouira, Agadir, Taroudant and the sightseeing in Marrakesh. We started biking 2 Nov 2010 and returned from the biking trip to Marrakesh 9 Nov 2010.

 

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Our vehicle was a ubiquitous Toyota Land Rover that we’ve had just about anywhere else (China, Tibet, Southeast Asia, other parts or Africa). The bike rack doesn’t look very fancy, but the arrangement worked.

 

Our crew (except the local in red).

 

From left to right, our cook Hussein, our biking guide Mustapha, our driver Hassan, Yvonne, a shepherd we gave a ride to the town (a long way away), Juergen.

 

These men were all Berbers, the original inhabitants of north Africa, who make up about 60% of the population. While we were there they were happy that they finally have their first Berber TV station.

 

The Arabs arrived with Islam at the end of the 7th century and live in the cities.

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Taking down the bikes for our first ride…

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Our first stop was at the crumbling ruins of the Kasbah of Telouet. It is situated at 5900’ and was the seat of a once-powerful family. Most of the decorated interior is from the late 19th century.

 

Fortunately, the interior has been protected from the weather and we could visit.

 

There is beautiful detail everywhere inside.

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The Kasbah is now back in the hands of the Glaoui family and is being restored using local craftsmen.

 

Previously it was owned by the state and the money generated by entrance fees was apparently diverted…

 

This is one of the wonderful old wooden doors.

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The view from the Kasbah to the rest of the village.

 

 

A photo taken during our bike ride. It’s great fun to ride with such views along the way.

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View from our ”hotel” Kasbah Ellouze in the village of Tamaght (3 miles from Ait Benhaddou). Tamaght has Kasbah ruins as well.

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Our lovely hotel was in a restored building.

 

 

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Ait Benhaddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with crumbling Kasbahs. It was once an important caravan stop between Marrakech and the desert.

 

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The first night we stayed in a lovely restored Kasbah.

 

The next night we camped on the Sirwa plateau at 7500’.

 

When we arrived where Mustapha decided to camp (we cruised around off-road for a while) there was nothing but nature in all directions.

 

We also were close to the highest mountain in North Africa (Toubkal, 13,671’).

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What a wonderful place to camp!

 

At night it got quite cold. Our tent had ice on it when we got up!

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We had the small sleeping tent.

 

The guys decided to put up the big tent they use when they have large bike tours.

 

That was good because we could be all together inside as it was quite cold by the time dinner was ready.

 

 

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When we got up and looked around, the hills seemed to be “moving” due to several shepherds and hundreds of sheep and goats, which quickly came down and walked past us on the flat area where we were.

 

This shepherd asked if we could give him a lift to the town many miles away. As we were on bikes and not in the truck, there was room for him.

 

He had breakfast with us – he and Juergen traded caps for this photo.

 

He was very self-conscious, but curious and friendly.

 

We always had absolutely yummy meals…with wine!

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Our driver Hassan who has one son 9 years old. When we asked him why not more, he said that education is too expensive.

 

Mustapha asked us which countries we’d been to and we were listing some. The driver “only” knew Berber, Arabic and French, but he understood country names.

 

So he wanted Mustapha to translate and tell us that he wanted us to adopt him. He’d come to the U.S. and do anything we wanted him to do – his only requirement was that we took him when we travelled. He taught us how to say “my son” in Berber and said that was how we were to address him!  The guys were so much fun! My son : Gerba-nu

 

 

Leaving camp with the scenery now “cluttered” with many beautiful animals!

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The shepherd, Hussein, our cook and Hassan, our driver…their names were easy for us to mix up.

 

Whenever we talked about how hard Hussein had to work to make us THREE great meals a day he said it was fine – that when he gets back home his wife treats him like a king!

 

At the end of every day Hussein and Hassan cheered us with “Champions”!

 

They called Juergen “Ala Baba” and Yvonne “Gazelle.”

 

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Our biking was not all grassy meadows!

We went over several foothills in the morning before finally reaching our highest point (8300’). 

We were going down before lunch.

 

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It doesn’t look very hilly here!

 

 

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We soon got into tougher riding over hill after hill before we finally started down.

 

 

We biked all sorts of trails…

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This was the best part – getting to the top!

 

Mustapha would be on the other side of the hill on the ground to get these shots.

 

He said he’d learned from many photographers he’d guided.

 

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The driver Hassan and Juergen resting while the cook and Mustapha fixed lunch.

 

Note the last photos - this was the only shady place in miles and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

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When we weren’t camping our meals (and every lunch) were fixed outdoors. They always left every place as clean as they’d found it.

 

This place was at the edge of a planted field which was nice and green.

 

A wonderful Moroccan salad.

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There is practically no traffic where we biked except for the rare “bus” – a big van with people inside as well as on top and hanging on the sides. The road (shown here) was one lane wide. Yvonne got nervous about facing the van so slowed down too much on the very edge of the road…the front tire slid on the fine gravel and she went over the handlebars. She was wearing tights (by choice) because it was a Muslim country and was horrified that Mustapha insisted he clean up her knee. All the men from the van (it stopped) circled her and quietly watched. I complained so Mustapha made them get on the van and leave! Such experiences! Other than the abrasion I wasn’t hurt at all.

 

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We delivered our shepherd to Askouin, the only village in the area; unfortunately, the weekly market was breaking up. But we did get to see some activity.

 

Some people were loading pack animals for their trip home, lots of men used horses. The shopkeepers were packing up.

 

 

 

It was nice – no tourists – we were as different to them as travel were to us – the way we like to travel.

 

We didn’t want to go back to Morocco because it was too touristy. This certainly wasn’t!

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The next night we stayed in a house in a very small village (just a few houses). The house looked very poor on the outside, but they had fixed it up nicely inside.

 

We were given the living room to sleep in. They had a stack of carpets we could choose from to put under our sleeping mats. It was wonderful.

 

At one end of the living room was shelving that held many kinds of large pots – they must be used for village feasts!

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In one corner of the compound is the “oven.” Here she’s making the delicious bread we had with dinner.

It was so smoky in that room that we sat on the floor to watch – under the smoke - and didn’t stay long.

 

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Our cook made another delicious tajine for us.

 

This the son of the home’s owner is pouring our mint tea.

 

He has a food stand in Casablanca and sends money home to his family here; he was home for a week holiday. He says he misses home a lot – but there is no way to make money in the village (this is really just a cluster of houses).

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The house is built around an outdoor area. We had dinner there. Everything was extremely clean and swept.

 

This family grows Moroccan saffron. Here is a plate of the flowers – the stems are what is used for saffron.

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This is the house. We went in the entry at the top right. Just to the left of the doorway (reddish room) is the bathroom. It was very clean and consisted of a hole-in-the-floor toilet and enough room for washing.

 

They heated at least 5 gallons of water and put it in the room for our “showers”. We poured the water over each other and soaped up and rinsed off and had most of the water left over.

 

We were treated well!

 

Beyond that room, at the left is the side of the living room where we slept. Left of that is our van.

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Our loaded van was quite the sight. We were trucked out of the area and then started a long, long climb.

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We biked up that road. (We biked a lot of roads like this one)

Juergen biked part of it twice (that little white speck is Juergen’s helmet) as he missed the stop for lunch and hadn’t realized it yet.

 

 

Sometimes riding was more difficult because it was both hilly and had a rough, loose rock surface.

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Juergen at lunch.

 

 

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A new mosque in an old village along our ride; just a typical wonderful site as we rode.

 

There were many wonderful ruins along our ride. This one was next to a really spectacular restored Kasbah (like a boutique hotel) where we spent the night.

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Not many villages where we rode!

 

Here we’ve gotten to the Draa River Valley which is famous as the date basket of Morocco. They grow 18 varieties here.

 

Like some other ancient Berber oases, the Draa Valley was known for qatarra, a sophisticated system of ancient underground irrigation canals.

 

Another view above the Draa valley.

 

In six days we biked 125 miles and climbed a total of over 9000’.

 

The highest elevation we biked was 8300.’

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Beautiful area for biking!

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We had almost no vehicle traffic during our entire biking part of the trip.

 

We did have occasional “traffic” of other sorts…

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Biking through the crumbling ruins of a village near Zagor. Mustapha (our bike guide) ran ahead and squatted down to take these photos. He was great.

He has a French girlfriend and spends a lot of time in France. He’s basically a rock climber who got into bike guiding.

 

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Dar Raha Zagora (hotel) at the south end of the oasis.

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Biking along the palms in the Draa Valley.

 

There are about 60 miles of palms along the river. They are irrigated by a system of canals.

 

 

A larger view of the Draa valley palms and the road that runs along the side.

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More “traffic!”

 

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No load limits here.

 

 

 

…just a building along the ride…

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A view from our hotel down onto a roof where different types of dates are drying. The oasis is just beyond the house.

 

 

We stopped riding bikes and took to the van for our visit to the Sahara desert.

Mustapha looked for this guy as he knows him – and he found him in what seemed to us to be in the middle of nowhere!

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We were invited into their tent. On the left is a Moroccan school teacher who teaches in a special tent nearby. There about six (?) nomad families in the area and they take turns feeding her. She gets to go home for a few days every month. The government is trying to get nomadic families to settle down so they can educate the children.

In the tent live: the guy above; his unmarried sister in the orange/black scarf, his wife behind their little girl and baby. His mother also lives in the tent.

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His sister wrapped Yvonne’s scarf in “women’s” style (Yvonne prefers the “men’s” way, as it stays on when you move around.) His mother is behind Yvonne with the bellows, making us tea.

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This is the tent from the outside. We couldn’t see any other tent – or the teacher’s tent - from here. They have more animals than the photo shows. But this little tent is home for the entire family. They don’t have much, but they do have a solar panel!

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We drove to the local well and stocked up on water for our camping out in the dunes this night.

 

When we first came to the sand dunes in the Sahara, we saw where most of the tour companies have camps for their tourists and we told Mustapha we wouldn’t stay in such a place. There was one large dune and at different places along the dune tour companies had semi-permanent tents. The place was BORING.

Because we weren’t a large group, we drove along for a couple of hours farther to the west and came to this broad area of dunes. They looked for a flat place they knew and set up camp.

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Yvonne got to spend some time doing one of one of her favorite things: running down sand dunes!

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Love that desert!

 

Juergen loves that beer!

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Our camp was “somewhere” not on the map.

Of course, if we cared, our GPS knew.

 

Hassan was singing along with his iPod.

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Then he insisted Juergen dance with him. This didn’t last long!

 

Mornings are beautiful in the desert.

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Before the above bike tour, we took a 5-day (28 Oct – 1 Nov 2010) tour of cities to the SW of Marrakesh we wanted to see but had missed in 1970.

We went west from Marrakesh to the port of Essaouira. It has been visited since 5C BCE (by a Carthaginian) who established a trading post. A Berber king established a Tyrian purple factory which was used in royal Roman togas. ..and so on…

From 1760 to the end of the 19thC, it was Morocco’s principal port.

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We got up early and watched the fishermen unload their catches.

 

On the other side of the fortress at Essaouira is the old city. This photo was taken in the area where the fishermen clean the fish so there were many sea birds flying.

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This is a Dutch cannon made in 1744.

Essaouira started out as a coastal trading port for Arabs, Africans and Europeans. In recent times, hippies came first, but now it’s a very popular place for expats to live and other tourists to hang out.

We spent an evening and night here. That was enough for us.

 

We always check for a “green flash” when we’re on a sea. It’s difficult to photograph because it only lasts an instant. We’ve seen it in a variety of places including from the coast of Israel and across the water from Benghazi towards Tripoli in Libya.

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This is the fruit of the Argan tree which is endemic to Morocco. Argan oil (also known as Moroccan Oil) is delicious and we brought a little home – which didn’t last long! It’s one of the rarest oils in the world.

It’s also used in a variety of cosmetics – many salons have it in their hair products. We wonder where it all comes from as there weren’t unlimited numbers of these trees!

Argan trees are endangered and under protection of UNESCO.

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This was the traditional way Argan was harvested – by goats. So tourists can see this, the government allows a few herdsmen to “work” along the highways. These goats were a riot to watch, as they always are…

Earlier, the Berbers would collect the undigested Argan pits from the waste of goats which climb the trees to eat the fruit. It wasn’t possible to break through the outer shell so they had to use the goats for that part. The pits were then ground and pressed to make the nutty oil which is used in cooking.

 

The responsibility for production of Argan oil has been given to women and there are coops throughout the area where the trees grow. We visited one of these coops and got to try it.

The coops have been so successful and have improved the social status of some women that it has encouraged producers of other agricultural products to examine the co-operative model.

Some of these women walk miles across the hills to work every day.

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South of Essaouira is the fishing/commercial port of Agadir.

In 1960 Agadir was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake that lasted only 15 seconds but buried the city and the ancient Kasbah, killing about 15,000.

They started rebuilding in 1961, a mile south of the earthquake epicenter.

This is a “good-weather” destination for many, many Europeans who fly here to their mansions and who aren’t interested in the rest of Morocco. This was not our kind of tourism but it was interesting to visit for a couple of hours.

 

We were in Agadir off-season so the restaurants along the beach were all empty.

That meant the waiters were bored and were very friendly to us. That broad beach beyond would be full of people in high season.

Apartments here are over a million dollars. Agadir is beautiful but nothing about it is “Moroccan”. The only Moroccans we saw were waiters; all the rest were foreigners.

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After Agadir we drove inland to a place we really liked: Taroudant.

Even today it is surrounded by nice ramparts. Inside the walls there are touristic shops (like this one in the souq) but the majority of the shops sell items for locals.

After we purchased this scarf, the owner of this shop agreed to put it on Yvonne in the “men’s style.” The ends of the scarf were black and he did an amazing job. It never looked that good again!

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Morocco is famous for its wonderful spices. Juergen was always looking for peppers that were hot enough for him so he was trying them here and making a friend at the same time.

 

 

We rented bikes and rode around the ramparts.

These bikes had no brakes so we only rode as fast as we wanted to jump off. The problem was riding through the souq due to it being packed with animals and people and having very little room to maneuver.

It was crazy fun, anyway!

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Sunset and the ramparts of wonderful Taroudant.

 

On our way north over the High Atlas mountains to Marrakesh, we stopped at the UNESCO World Heritage Tinmel Mosque. It was built in 1156.

It is one of only two mosques in Morocco that are open to non-Muslims (the other is in Casablanca).

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Inside the Tinmel Mosque.

 

We spent a night in a restored picturesque Kasbah in the village of Imil in the High Atlas mountains.

This poor mule had to carry our bags up a very steep trail to the kasbah.

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In the morning we only had time a 2-hour hike through the little villages of the area. The fall colors were lovely.

 

 

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We were within hiking distance of the highest mountain in North Africa (13,671’). It has snow year-round.

 

We had a yummy candle-light dinner in the Kasbah.

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Back in Marrakesh after our biking trip we stayed in this wonderful restored riad. We departed Marrakesh (for Mali) 12 Nov 2010.

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Part of our room…

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Can you imagine?!?

They fixed this vegetable tajine, just for the two of us!

 

This is the courtyard of the Ben Youssef Madrassa (Islamic college) that was built in the 14th C.

This is the largest madrassa in Morocco and was one of the largest theological colleges in north Africa. It may have housed as many as 900 students.

There are 130 student dormitory cells; we walked into several.

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The other end of the courtyard.

 

 

These snake charmers are iconic for Marrakesh’s Jemaa el-Fnaa square, the busiest square in Africa.

It wasn’t tourist season when we were there this time so we saw fewer acrobats and the other entertainers that make the square famous. More interesting to us were the story tellers who were surrounded by people sitting on the ground (mostly) listening intently. We wished we could have understood so we could have joined them.

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Another snake charmer.

Around the square is a very large picturesque souq where leather, carpets, jewelry, metalwork, pottery, etc are for sale.

 

These guys are dressed like the tea or water sellers we saw the last time we were here, but now they only pose with tourists for money. We waited until they weren’t looking to get this photo…

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One of Marrakesh’s old gates, the Bab Agnaou. The ramparts stretch for 12 miles around the city and were built in the 12th C.

There are 20 gates and 200 towers.

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This is the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, which is the largest in the city and was built in 1199. Note the stork.

 

After this we were off to our next wonderful adventure – in Mali.

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