A Circle Within a Circle, Azrou, Middle Atlas, Morocco

Zagan the motorhome feels like he’s going in circles. He’s parked up overlooking the green foothills of the Middle Atlas mountains, which were still coated in sheets of snow when we arrived a couple of days ago. This is our third time here in Emirates Euro Camping (N33.443252, W5.190994). We’ve nicknamed this place ‘Disney Camping’ due to the improbable and incongruous over-sized castle theme used for the inexplicably mothballed tourist complex. The first time we arrived was back in 2012, and it felt like a safe haven; we didn’t even make it down into the town. The next time was in January of this year, and that time we did visit Azrou, including the fantastic Berber souk. This last time it feels European, like we’re home. We’re spending a couple of days here to rebuild enthusiasm for one final assault on the north of Morocco.

Blue skies and melting snow when we arrived at Azrou
Blue skies and melting snow when we arrived at Azrou

A choice presented itself for the journey here: the easy path or the difficult one. We’re 50-50 kind of folks, I think, when it comes to decisions like this. Sometimes we’ll choose the harder and more rewarding option (example: coming to Morocco versus staying in Europe) and sometimes we’ll choose the easier of the two (example: what we did to get here – coming north on the relatively straightforward N13!). Phil and Jules, to their credit and subsequent reward, took the more difficult road, swinging west on the R706 via Rich, and heading off up to the mountain village of Imilchil where they met Jurg and Margot in their MAN expedition vehicle and spent an ‘interesting’ evening as the focus of attention of the local youth in the village car park/football pitch/bus station.

The following day they descended back to the N8 via a piste cornice road. Think of the worst kind of road you can imagine, cliff drop on the left, cliff wall on the right, wide enough for a single vehicle, on dirt and rock with the sole concession to reason, a crumpled safety barrier clinging onto what’s left of the road edge, and you’ll have the perfect picture in your mind. Jurg did the same route later on and the MAN only just scraped through. Respect to all who did it, I just didn’t have the energy for two 8 hour rough-road drives, or for the begging kids either, thinking about it.

Looking south to the High Atlas from our last stop just north of Midelt
A last look south to the High Atlas from our last stop just north of Midelt
An Italian team doing the Tuareg Rallye arrived at our last site, leaving before we woke up for the last of 7 days of off-road racing
An Italian team doing the Tuareg Rallye arrived at our last site, leaving before we woke up for the last of 7 days of off-road racing
Lots of kit on the Tuareg Rallye bikes, most of which I guess is to help them navigate across miles of empty desert
Lots of kit on the Tuareg Rallye bikes, most of which I guess is to help them navigate across miles of empty desert. Expert riders also have to pay €2000 plus extra if they don’t want to sleep in a tent

Our road north took us across a broad plain, and as the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas receded in the background the lower hills of the Middle Atlas approached. The going, while never quite relaxing in Morocco, was easy, and we only had to wince once or thrice as the slow-down-for-no-man lorries bore down on us in narrower sections of road. Stopping alongside the road in a town (there is normally nowhere else to stop), Ju jumped out to buy bread and water. I sat in the driver’s seat and waited. Inevitably a chap approached, saying ‘welcome, welcome’. I acknowledged him and returned to the fascination of a finger nail. When he went to the next stage, asking ‘where you from?, where you from?’, I looked at him and let out a burst of sustained laughter. I’m losing it. I just couldn’t go through the long-stale, pretend-to-be-interested-in-you-then-ask-for-something ritual again. He stood and waited, said something in Arabic and walked off. Ju reported a pleasant transaction buying the bread and water, where the seller took extra care to clean the area outside his shop, treated her with respect and carefully wrote down the prices for her.

A Moroccan town north of Midelt. Driving through these places isn't particularly hard, but requires concentration mainly to avoid running into people
A Moroccan town north of Midelt. Driving through these places isn’t particularly hard, but requires multi-eyed concentration, mainly to avoid running into people who wander about in front of passing traffic

We didn’t know it, but snow had fallen on the passes above us. The first time we came here our friend Chris had to persuade us the passes would be open as we imagined ourselves stuck in snow, or worse, sliding off the road somewhere. Chris was, of course, right and the roads are kept safe. There are snow gates, which we’ve already seen are used conservatively when the white stuff’s about. Snow ploughs also sit alongside the route, one of which had a chap sitting in it ready to go, although the road was well clear when we passed and the sky was clear.

No snow yet! The N13 north of Midelt
No snow yet, well, not much! The N13 north of Midelt

Heading higher the sides of the road began to whiten as the road twisted its way upwards, sweeping bends here rather than the hairpins of the Alps. Being Africa you might imagine a certain lack of March snowfall, but here in the Middle Atlas folks were mucking about on rented sledges, just the same as the last time we passed this way back in January 2012. A little further on, at the edge of a cedar forest, fur-warmed Barbary Apes attracted car loads of locals as they sat relaxed and eating at the roadside.

Sledge and wellie rental at the roadside

Melting snow from the trees splattered across our windscreen as we slowly drove past the monkeys, in wet contrast to the parched desert landscapes of the past weeks. Quickly through the trees the road dropped down into Azrou and, taking the fork to the right, landed us here. We’d been given a heads-up that it was Phil’s birthday and they were slogging through the second long drive to catch up with us again. Out came a long-hidden bottle of Port to be wrapped and placed alongside our first (and last?) attempt to bake a cake in our Remoska oven. That evening was used listening to their tales of bonkers roads, and supping far too much wine. The bottle of Port, I’m sorry to report, was a late-night casualty of the men-folk, and not a drop remained yesterday.

Phil's choc-chip birthday cake in the Remoska. A bit dry, but edible, much like Moroccan cakes in general!
Phil’s choc-chip birthday cake in the Remoska. A bit dry, but edible, much like Moroccan cakes in general!
The wrapped Port. Yes, that cushion is the wrong shade of clean. As is much of Zagan after weeks in the desert. I've cleaned the sand and dust off the bikes and oiled 'em.
The wrapped Port. Yes, that cushion is the wrong shade of clean. As is much of Zagan after weeks in the desert. I’ve cleaned the sand and dust off the bikes and oiled ’em and Ju’s hoovered the van, but much remains to be scrubbed.

Yesterday Jurg and Margot rolled into the site and are parked next to us, making Zagan look like a Dinky. They’re waiting for the Tuesday souk here, and we are too, so Ju can have a look at it, as she was ill last time. The 12V system in the van is, presumably, still broken but as we’re on hook-up we’re not seeing the problem at the moment. We’ve a few options to try when we get into Spain, but we need to start with re-testing the batteries when they’re not joined together to see if just one of them is damaged. That requires removing the seats again though, which is easy for one seat but more difficult on the other, so I’m putting it off. Ju’s also trying to book us onto a return ferry to ensure we get a place, but again that’s not as easy as it might be and various emails are going back and forth.

The plan now is to have another crack at Meknes. Our last two visits to the place haven’t worked out well, but it deserves another chance. After that, we’ll head up to Chefchaouen in the drug-riddled Rif Mountains before finally heading up to the port at Tanger Med and back to Spain. We’re all feeling it now: the tours we’ve done of Morocco have been epic, eye-opening, heart-warming, annoying and confusing. Life here is, for sure, harder than in Europe, the people are harder, and you have to be harder than you are in Europe in order to endure. Being tough isn’t much in my nature, if I’m honest, and it’s gradually doing me in. I’m partly writing this to remind me how I feel at the moment, once I’m back in Spain and bored!

OK, that’s the lot, signing off, cheers, Jay

8 Comments

  1. Couldn’t help you with the 12v issue mate, sorry. Suggest n33.89050 w5.56590 slap bang in the middle of Meknes, 30Dh guarded parking. You may get hassled by ‘guides’ for the first 5 minutes, as you know, you don’t need one, try asking the car parking chap for a map. Massive market area. Best of luck. Kindest, Wayne.

    • Thanks fella. Surname removed. Meknes challenge is more the traffic light and roundabout beggars than the faux guides, but appreciate the heads up as ever. Cheers, Jay

  2. hi Jason i have sent you a email with the manual for the ebl 99 eclectic box I hope you find it helpful all the best happy travels Dave

    • Got it, many thanks. I’m putting off the problem until we’re sat back in Spain (too frazzled to think straight at the moment) but it’ll come in very handy once we get back onto it. It seems the EBL thinks the leisure battery voltage is too low, despite the pair registering over 13V. We’ve checked all internal fuses, need to check those in the engine bay next. Currently in guarded parking in Meknes with no hook up, so we should see the issue again tonight once it gets dark! Thanks again, Jay

  3. Hi gang. Bring you good news. Your article on the Batics just been published in this months MMM so money for repairs will hit the bank soon.!, others news after a lovely sunny weekend we have no revered to rain and 12 deg so can’t wait to get away. If you do aces the mag there USA free copy too which features our Xmas day poem to give you a little cheer. See you on the road maybe?

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