At five o’clock in the morning we had to endure the call to prayers again but thankfully they had turned the loudspeakers down from earthquake to only sonic boom level and it didn’t go on for nearly so long and I could only presume that this was because the full ensemble at maximum sound is only reserved for holy day on a Friday.
Breakfast is a good hotel performance measure and it was served on the terrace again but today there were different varieties of savoury pancakes and croissants and it was nice that a lot of thought was going into preparation of the meal and as the food was so good we ordered dinner for later.
After yesterday’s busy day in Marrakech today we were going out of the city and taking a trip south along the Ourika Valley and into the Atlas Mountains. Laurent had made the arrangements for us and had organised a car and a guide and shortly after breakfast he introduced us to Hassan who was to be our guide for the day. He led us through the streets to his vehicle and as soon as we were all comfortable he set off into the traffic and out of the city gate.
The Atlas Mountains are a mountain range across a northern stretch of Africa extending about two thousand five-hundred kilometres through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The Atlas ranges separate the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines from the Sahara Desert and the indigenous population are mainly Berbers.
It was a trip of about sixty kilometres and the first part of the journey was along a straight road that first passed a developing western European style out of town shopping centre, edge of town modern hotels and some untidy looking housing and then through some of the run-down southern suburbs. As we left the city behind we entered a long flat plain of red, bronze and copper coloured earth but with few signs of agriculture and little or nothing to get excited about. The road was straight and wide and had a good surface so it was a comfortable ride but all of this changed when we reached the busy cross roads town of Douar Ouriki where the quality of highway engineering came to a sudden and dramatic stop.
This was the start of the Ourika valley and on the edge of town Hassan pulled over so we could stop to take photographs of the lush green vegetation which was in complete contrast to the barren fields that we had just driven through because the valley is an attractive string of villages along the dangerous river that shares its name. The landscape is fresh and green, cooler than the city and in summer a popular destination when Marrakech is uncomfortably hot but in winter the river can be dangerous and floods sometimes destroy entire villages, wash away roads and tear up trees.
The problem with stopping we discovered was that it was inevitable that someone would quickly appear trying to sell us something, usually necklaces and jewellery but sometimes fossils, that were almost certainly fakes, and fascinating round chunks of coal with iron Pyrite crystals which they claimed were completely natural and collected from the mountains but in reality are manufactured in a workshop using a simple crystal solution. Hassan kept an eye on things and although he allowed them to approach us he stepped in if their sales technique became too robust.
After the first stop we started a gentle climb into the foothills of the mountains on a road that continued to deteriorate as we drove. On either side there were thick woods punctuated with ochre villages hanging from the hillsides and built high enough above the river to be out of danger of winter flooding. The road began to twist more dramatically as we climbed until we reached the second stop of the trip at a Berber pottery at a dog leg bend in the road next to a tourist camel train where Hassan stopped the car and led us inside.
It was a tourist trap of course and once past the old man working at the potters wheel we were drawn inside into an Aladdin’s cave of brightly coloured pots, cups and dishes, tagines, plates and jugs and with the pestering attention of the possibly the worst smelling man in Morocco this morning we were invited to peruse the items and select a purchase. Kim was up for this but she knew exactly what she wanted and what colour it had to be as well. To be specific it had to be a double condiment pot and it had to be black with silver trim. We found the item and it was available in every possible colour in the world except the one she wanted and despite the salesman’s frantic search he just couldn’t find one; he couldn’t talk her into an alternative either and he was the more disappointed of the two when we took the opportunity to get caught up in the tangle of a large tour group that had followed us in and left empty handed.