The End of the African Ski Odyssey

February 20, 2017 – 11:00 AM GMT

We’re getting all of our gear packed up at the Refuge du Toubkal and preparing for our ski and hike down to Imlil.  Today is the end of our ski adventure in Morocco, as we are heading out of the mountains and back to Marrakech.  We’ve arranged for a muleteer to meet us at snowline to help carry our gear back down to Imlil.

It’s been a fun few days out of the refuge here, and we’ve been fortunate to ski some really great lines, but the weather has deteriorated in the last couple days, so it’s time to pack it in – we’re cutting out one night earlier than we initially planned.  It’s probably for the best, we’re both pretty exhausted after 8 days in a row of skiing and climbing above 3000 m, sometimes above 4000m.

Three days ago we climbed Ras n’Ouanoukrim, one of the 4000 m peaks near the hut, and skied the northeast couloir.  A 900 m run all the way back down to the hut, which was really cool, and a few of the guides back at the refuge seemed pretty impressed that we skied it.  And then the day before yesterday we were able to climb Jbel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco, and in North Africa, at 4167m.  The weather wasn’t terrific, but we had the summit to ourselves and were able to ski right off the summit, all the way back down to the valley via the northwest face – about 1000 m of fun skiing back to the hut.

Jbel Toubkal is a very popular trekking peak, and there have been many guided groups coming through for a night or two to climb the peak, so the refuge here has been much busier than over at Refuge de Lépiney.  Hardly any others skiing though 🙂

Yesterday was supposed to be our last day of skiing in Morocco.  For the occasion we decided it would be fitting to ski down Brèche des Clochetons, a 700 m couloir just around the corner from the refuge that we had read about, and looked at in previous days.  It looked awesome.

We got a casual start to the morning, about 10:00 or so, and started the bootback up the couloir.  It was as we expected, and looked like a great run.  As we neared the top we started to notice some clouds rolling in, but nothing too concerning. Yet.  We hurried to ski the first 100 m or so of the couloir, but then the clouds completely socked us in.  A total whiteout and we couldn’t tell up from down. After standing on the side of the near 40 degree slope for almost an hour, waiting and hoping for the clouds to clear (they didn’t), we finally resolved to make our way down in the whiteout.  It wasn’t much fun.  Matt pulled out a short piece of rope and tied it to his ski pole to provide minimal depth perception down the slope, and we used some of the rock features to navigate our way down.  After another hour we were at the bottom and basically stumbled upon the hut, which was also socked in at that point.  It was kind of a bittersweet way to end the ski trip, but we could tell that the tank was empty and we were ready to head down.

For the rest of the day yesterday we offered up proposals and deals to each other on what it would take to ski another day in Morroco.  Yesterday was our 9th day of skiing, and I really wanted to get to 10, just to round it off nicely, despite the fact my legs were pretty much shot.  Just before bed Matt offered up the winning deal:  “if it’s bluebird in the morning, we’ll climb back up Brèche des Clochetons just like we did today, and ski it the way it’s supposed to be skied”.  I was sold.

So that’s what we did this morning.  I was wide awake before my alarm went off at 6:00, to see what the skies looked like.  They were clear.  At 8:00 we were out the door with skis on and starting back up the same couloir that gave us a beating yesterday.  The fatigue seemed to disappear as we started climbing with perfect weather and a few cm’s of fresh snow.  By 10:00 we were at the top and the skies were still holding nicely.  We wasted no time and quickly clicked in to the skis for our “very last” run in Morocco.  It was perfect – a little fresh snow to carve, beautiful views, and great turns all the way to the bottom.  Couldn’t have asked for a better way to end the skiing in Africa odyssey.  (Side note: a couple hours later, as we were leaving the refuge to ski down to the valley, the clouds started rolling in again.  When we looked back for our last views up to Toubkal and some of the other high peaks, we couldn’t see the top of the couloir we’d just skied.)

Refuge de Lépiney to Refuge du Toubkal: Towards the Highest Peak in North Africa

February 16, 2017 – 9:00 AM GMT

I’ve been a little worried about today since the beginning of the trip.  Today we are traversing from Refuge de Lépiney to Refuge du Toubkal, where we are planning to spend the next five nights.  Although the distance between the two huts is only a couple of kilometres (one main valley to the east), there is no easy way to get there.  Our guide-book describes three separate itineraries, none of which sound particularly appealing:

– the first route offers the easiest descent to the refuge, but to get there you first have to climb over two high altitude passes for a total of 1500m of vertical climbing, all above 3000 m.  Great.

– the second starts off the same as the first but skips the second pass and instead heads straight to a 45 degree, 600 m long couloir.  The couloir itself sounds like fun, but not while wearing a 50+ pound pack, at the end of a long day of skinning and climbing.

– the third traverse requires the least amount of vertical (a casual 800 m of vertical climbing, above 3000 m), but the descent requires “a good sense of direction and solid route-finding skills”.  Whatever that means.

We pulled out the map over dinner last night and asked Brahim for his thoughts, given that he knows these mountains a lot better than we do.  When we mention we’re thinking of Option 1 – via Tizi Melloul – he seems unimpressed.  “Tizi Melloul very difficult” he says.  After more conversation he convinces us that Option three – via Tizi n’Tadat – is the best way to go: maybe 5-6 hours to get to Refuge Toubkal.  Having seen the initial stages of the Tizi Melloul route in days before, we’re happy to take Brahim’s advice and take the Tizi ‘n Tadat route.

The first part of the traverse actually requires us to go down in elevation a couple hundred metres to get around a long ridge and in to a secondary valley.  Given the snowpack below the hut, or lack thereof, it’s hiking boots on to start with skis, boots, and the rest of our gear all on our backs.  Not exactly the makings of an easy walk in the park.

After a couple of hours we’ve gone down far enough, and back up to the elevation we started at, so we can finally put the skis on and start skinning up the 800 m we have left to get the pass.  We can see the pass in the distance; although it looks far, it looks like we’ll be able to skin the whole way.  The skinning is a slog and tedious, but the views are amazing and the sun is warm.  When we stop for lunch we realize that we couldn’t see the actual pass from the start – it was hidden around the corner from where we put our skis on. The “real” pass, which is marked by a large, distinct rock formation that Brahim referred to as a thumb, looks a little farther and a little steeper, but still manageable.  At this point I pull out the GPS to track our elevation and monitor how much farther we have left to climb.

The last couple hundred metres are a real pain, as I am putting in a fresh skin track with steep switchbacks, and our heavy packs are starting to wear us down.  Finally we arrive at the pass: it’s shortly after three o’clock (already six hours in to the day – shouldn’t we be there by now?).  Although I am relieved that the climbing part of the day is over, and there is only the run down to the valley that is left, I immediately panic when I look at what the “descent” actually looks like.

At first glance, there is no obvious way down.  As I stare down into the valley below, I am however relieved to see that the majority of the snow on the face/couloir we have to get down slid in an avalanche after the storm a couple of days ago.  At least we don’t have to worry about any avalanches today, since the whole slope has already gone. Matt and I walk up the ridge a little way and debate perhaps traversing on skis across a bit of a rock field and in to the main part of the couloir, but that looks pretty sketchy, and any sort of slip or fall would not end well.  Next we walk down the ridge but from the rock thumb we can’t see what’s below.  We think the route might be on the south side of the thumb, so we pull out the rope and I belay Matt around the east corner to see what’s there.  The rope isn’t long enough and Matt still can’t see a clear route down.  By now it’s starting to push four o’clock and we still don’t know how to get down, and all sorts of thoughts are beginning to creep in to my head – maybe we’re  just going to have to turn around and go back the way we came, sleep in a snow bank somewhere, and try again tomorrow?

We walk back to our packs for a cup of tea and pull out the supposed guide-book.  After a thorough read of the description we realize the route down is in fact on the south side of the rock thumb.  So we crawl around the opposite side that I belayed Matt on, and we finally get a good look at the way down.  It looks totally unpleasant, but manageable.  My  spirits begin to lift, knowing that we’ll be able to get down.  We crawl back up to our packs one more time, re-load, and then creep back around the west side of the rock thumb and step in to our skis. (Side note: a few days later a couple Spanish guys we met climbed up the same route we skied.  They said they saw all of our boot tracks at the pass and had no idea what we were trying to do at the time. Makes sense.)

About forty-five minutes later we emerge at the bottom of the 600 m or so couloir that we managed to navigate (refer to the red line on the photo above).  The skiing is a combination of side-slipping down 40 degrees slopes of hard packed snow, and short jump turns on concrete-like avalanche debris; one of the most miserable ski runs I’ve had in recent memory.  As I jump into one last turn before popping out of the couloir, my left ski ejects and I stand there and watch it shoot off down the slope a couple hundred feet further than I planned to ski.  I’m too tired to even care.  At this point we are down safely; I walk down the hill to grab my ski and re-join Matt who is waiting just below the hut.  We have just completed one of our hardest days out in the mountains. Ever.

Imlil to Refuge de Lépiney: Our First Taste of Moroccan Snowstorms

February 12, 2017 – 3:00 PM GMT

It’s been a quiet day so far today at the Refuge de Lépiney.  Not quiet in the sense that there isn’t a lot of noise, but quiet in the sense that we haven’t done much.  It’s actually really noisy – the winds outside the hut are gusting up to ~80km/h (according to the forecast we read yesterday), and every time a gust kicks up it kind of feels like a freight train is going by.  I think it’s starting to give me a headache.

Matt and I have dared to venture outside only a couple of times to see what it’s all about, mainly to go to the bathroom and shovel out the snow that is drifting up against the front door so that we can get out tomorrow.  At points the wind has been so strong that we have half-joked about using a rope to belay each other out the front door out of fear of getting blown off the tiny ridge the hut is built on, at 3000 m above sea level. Brahim – the hut caretaker – has had a slightly more productive day, as he has graciously prepared our breakfast and lunch, set up the running water to inside the hut, and repaired a window that smashed earlier this morning, thanks to the howling wind.  Apparently this is all supposed to blow through overnight and the sun should be out tomorrow, so the skiing part of this segment shouldn’t be far off.  Until then it’s the waiting game.

We left Imlil yesterday morning and we had checked the forecast before leaving so knew what we were in for, but decided to go on anyway.  The morning yesterday started out quite nicely.  Our host at the gite, Jamel, organized a muleteer for us who arrived at 8:30 or so and we set off from there.  The route to refuge here climbs 700 m up out of the village of Imlil, to Tizi n’Mzik at almost 2500 m elevation, then drops 300 m to Azib Tamsoult (azib is the Berber word to denote a nomadic village. Typically they are only inhabited by shepherds during the summer months).  From Azib Tamsoult the trail again climbs 800 m through a narrow canyon/gorge and up, out, into the head of the Azzaden Valley, beneath the imposing cliffs of the Tazarhart Plateau. As with our trek to Tachedirrt (and Imlil thereafter), there wasn’t enough snow to put skins on at any point, so we walked the whole way.

The sun was out to start the day and half way up to Tizi n’Mzik a shepherd joined the muleteer and us for the walk.  He spoke a bit of French and so we chatted along the way.  It seemed a little odd to me that the shepherd was not concerned about leaving his flock of sheep and goats lower down in the valley, but it all made sense when we arrived at the pass.  Shortly before we got to the pass the shepherd ran ahead and when we came to the crest he was preparing glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice in the little mudstone hut that he obviously uses.  How nice of him.  Of course it came at a price and the smallest bill we had to pay for the two glasses of juice was a 5 pound British note that I randomly had with me.  Pricey orange juice at almost 2500 m above sea level.

From the pass we could see the trail down to Azib Tamsoult and it looked to be snow covered a few hundred metres from where we were standing.  Typically the mules can only go as far as the snow line, so it was looking like we may have to carry the full weight of our gear for the first time of the trip.  Between the shepherd, who spoke some French, and the muleteer, who spoke no French, we agreed to go as far as the mule could take the gear and we would part ways then.  The only other option was to go down to the village of Tizi Oussem and up the valley from there, but that would likely add 3 three hours, and a few hundred more metres of vertical to the day. No thanks.

We started heading down from the pass and after about 15 minutes the muleteer had seen enough and indicated he was going no further.  A short days work for the muleteer, as he would be back in Imlil before lunch time.  We unloaded all of the gear and then re-organized it all to fit on our own packs.  As I hauled my pack onto my shoulders I once again felt a little sorry for the mule: with skis, boots, and everything else I was carrying,  my pack had to weigh at least 50 pounds.  And Matt’s was no lighter.  Our pace was about to reduce quite a bit, and we still had 800 m to climb!

About half an hour or so after leaving the muleteer we came around a corner and bumped into a Berber man who was smoking a cigarette while sitting on some rocks next to the trail.  We started chatting and soon discovered that he was Brahim, the caretaker at the hut we are now staying in.  As part of our booking at the hut – which is managed through the French Alpine Club – we requested full board.  Brahim would be staying with us for the five nights to look after things and prepare meals for us. (Packing our own meals for five days probably would have been impossible considering all the gear we already had).  Brahim had been in touch with the fellow at the club who I’d made the reservation with and was waiting to trek the rest of the way up to the hut with us.  A couple hours later I couldn’t have been more happy that he had decided to wait for us.

After a short lunch at Azib Tamsoult we started heading up into the canyon and then eventually up into the valley.  The clouds had started pouring in and then it started snowing.  Brahim was leading the way up and as the weather deteriorated it wasn’t long before the visibility was so bad that we were literally following his footsteps in the fresh snow (Brahim had gone ahead, presumably to get the hut opened up).  As we came out of the canyon it was obvious that we had been sheltered from the wind until then and once out into the valley we got to “enjoy” the full force of it.  The last couple hundred metres up to the hut were painfully slow thanks to the high winds and our growing fatigue.  It got to the point that we would stop to brace ourselves against the gusts, then walk as many steps as we could until the next gust kicked up or until we ran out of breath.  We even had to pull out our ice axes for some added stability while crossing a couple snow fields leading up to the hut.  It wasn’t exactly pleasant. Finally I looked up into the wind/whiteout and could see the hut!  By the time we stumbled in the front door and dumped our packs, Brahim had already prepared a hot pot of mint tea and he quickly shoved a glass into each of our hands.

And not much has changed since then.  We’ve drank a lot of mint tea, read some books, and played Uno with Brahim. Not to mention enjoy Brahim’s cooking.  Last night he whipped together a delicious chicken tagine, basically on a Coleman-type stove.  So we are doing OK today.  Assuming this storm blows through by tomorrow, as forecast, we’ll have three full days of skiing before continuing to Refuge du Toubkal in the next valley to the east.  After pouring through the guide book we have, it looks like there are about 10 great days of skiing to be had out of this hut, mostly in long narrow couloirs that come off the Tazarhart Plateau.  Fingers crossed for good conditions.

Oukaïmeden to Tachedirrt: Into the High Atlas Mountains

 

February 7, 2017 – 10:30 GMT

This morning we’re making our first traverse of the two-week trip, from Oukaïmeden, south over the Tizi n’Eddi and then south and east into the village of Tacheddirt.  (“Tizi” is the Berber word for pass).  There isn’t enough snow to ski and tour over, so we’ll have to trek.  The plan is to spend two nights in Tacheddirt as there are a couple of skiable peaks just outside the village.

I’m feeling a little under the weather today, so instead of loading up and carrying each of our packs with skis, we decide to hire a muleteer (and his mule) to carry our gear and lead the way across the pass.  One of the cooks in the refuge “knows a guy” and has arranged the whole deal for us. It works out to be about 15 bucks, and we’ll pick up the muleteer’s lunch as well.  When we head outside, the mule is tied up to a pole, solemnly waiting for the days chores.

I’m not exactly sure why I’m not feeling well, but there are likely a couple contributing factors that came up yesterday.

It started with our first lift ride up the chair in the morning.  We hopped on the lift (with far less of a calamity than the day before) and a couple hundred feet up the hill the lift stopped.  No big deal, chairlifts stop all the time, and besides it’s a beautiful sunny day and we can just watch people come and go.  Two hours later, however, we haven’t moved an inch and we’ve done a play-by-play of every self-extraction scenario we can reasonably think of.  It’s midday day at this point, and the hot sun is beating down on us.  As we sit there a couple hikers crawl up the hill to about where we are and we yell down to them to see what’s going on.

– “The power has gone out”, the man says in French.

– “Does a single person down there know how to fix it and how long it’s going to take?” I ask.

– “Nope, sorry”, the man replies and then goes slip sliding down the hill.

Thankfully the fiasco ends soon after and the lift starts crawling to the top.  It stops a couple more times but seems to have enough power to get everyone off (both up and down the mountain).  By the time we ski back down to the bottom the lift has been closed for the day, and we decide to go for a little tour up to a small peak southeast of Oukaïmeden.

The second run is a bit better – we even make fresh tracks all the way down – but at the top of the skin track I’m feeling exhausted.

Fast forward back to this morning and maybe a little over-exertion, combined with a little dehydration while sitting in the sun on the chairlift and a sub-par sleep last night, have resulted in me now feeling not at full strength.  In any case, the mule is packed, we’ve agreed on the route and fare for the muleteer and we starting making our way out of town.  Fortunately no one hassles us to rent a mule this time, because we already have one, and soon we are past the crowds and chairlift heading towards Tizi n’Eddi at 2960 m.

 Shortly after descending from the tizi, we get to a fairly steep and slippery section – there is some hard packed snow and a bit of ice.  The muleteer steps behind the mule and grabs it by the tail (apparently a common practice to “encourage” the mule along).  He mutters what I presume are kind words of encouragement to the mule, and I stand behind and watch.  As the mule starts moving through the section of the trail, I cringe.  First, for the mule, who can’t possibly be enjoying itself.  A close second for all of our gear, which in my opinion seems precariously balanced on the mule’s back, and with one wrong step on it’s part the gear could easily go bouncing off rocks to the valley floor a few hundred metres below. Fortunately our muleteer appears to be a pro, and everyone gets across the slippery section with no damage.  We all high five at the far side.

From there it’s smooth sailing down into Tachedirrt.  As we start to head more to the east some of the high peaks across the valley come into view: potential ski destinations for tomorrow.  The views are spectacular.

Walking in to the village of Tachedirrt is yet another sight to behold, yet in a very different way than when we walked into Ouka.  The village itself is a traditional Berber village, with very little infrastructure geared towards tourists (aside from a couple gites – one of which we are staying in).  At the edge of the village we cross a stream where a few women are washing their clothes and drying them out on the rocks.  As the muleteer leads us up the path along mudstone huts, I jump out of the way to let a flock of sheep and a cow go by, as a local villager is herding them down to one of the pastures for the afternoon.  When the muleteer knocks on the door of the gite, a man in long robes answers and welcomes us.  We are in a totally different world.

The gite we are staying in is beautiful. There is a huge patio that faces southwest, so we get settled in and enjoy the afternoon sun.  Watching the villagers come and go does not get tiring.  Men and women herd their flocks of sheep up and down the main path; others work in the terraced pastures where vegetables grow in the summer months, and kids kick soccer balls around in the grass.  All under the constant presence of the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains, that we are intending to ski off of.  The contrasts continue to amaze.

Marrakech to Oukaïmeden: First Ski Turns in Africa

February 5, 2017 – 9:30 AM GMT

As we go through our final gear checks, Hamid pokes his head in to our room to let us know that our driver has arrived.  Yesterday we arranged a shuttle with Hamid to take us out to Oukaïmeden (pronounced Oo-came-den), the site of North Africa’s highest chairlift and one of two official “ski resorts” in Morocco. Oukaïmeden is about a two hour drive south of Marrakech.

Once outside the riad with packs and skis, the driver jokingly asks in French if we’re planning to start skinning from right outside the front door.  We all laugh and then walk a few minutes to get to the van. As we head south out of the city, the contrasts relative to our pending ski adventure are endless: we drive along palm-tree lined boulevards, pass  kids playing soccer on dirt fields, and listen to, presumably, the local Arabic pop hits on the radio, mixed in with some bad Taylor Swift covers.  When we get to the Ourika Valley, traffic slows, the road tilts upwards and gets a little bumpier, and we start to catch our first up-close glimpses of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains.  Our excitement level rises with the elevation and the hairpin turns in the road.

By the time we get to the village of Oukaïmeden, we are sitting at a little over 2600 m above sea level – about 300 m higher than the top of Whistler.  Our driver drops us at the Refuge du Club Alpin Français, and we head inside to check in.  We are psyched to get our first turns in Africa, but our room isn’t ready yet, and we don’t really want to unpack and get changed in the lobby, so we decide to wander over to the base of the mountain to check out the scene.  Although we’re out of the city, the constant hassle of people trying to sell us something hasn’t gone away.  Before long one of the locals approaches to see if we need any rental ski equipment.

“I have parabolic skis”, he says.  Wow!  We politely decline, however, explaining in a mix of French and English that we brought our own gear.  “Will you leave your skis here when you are done?” the fellow asks. (Apparently most of their rental gear gets donated).  Again, we politely explain that, no, we won’t be leaving our gear here.  We kind of need it for a little while. Plus it’s expensive to replace.

The crowds at the bottom of the mountain are a sight to behold.  For many Moroccans, the concept of snow is a total novelty, and so children and grown-ups alike amuse themselves on sleds fashioned out of old skis, and many locals, some dressed in jeans and leather jackets, try their luck on a pair of rental skis from the top of one of the T-bars.  Everyone seems to be having a great time, while we’re doing our best to not get hit by people rocketing down the hill.

We have a quick lunch and then head back to the refuge to get changed into our ski gear.  The strange looks continue as we head towards the télésiège, decked from head to toe in flashy Gore-Tex and tinted goggles.  We definitely look out of place.  Because it’s after 1 PM we’re able to buy an afternoon lift ticket – for about 8 bucks each CDN.  The télésiège is at the far side of the mountain and so we walk over, declining several offers of mule rides along the way, and come around the corner to yet another sight to behold.  There is a massive line of people waiting to go up the lift, but the vast majority are simply going up to admire the views and then come straight back down.  We are relieved to see a shorter line to the side reserved for skiers, and quickly get in line.  The skiers in front of us, all locals, have their skis on despite the fact there is absolutely no snow at the chair lift loading point: the ski run ends about 10 feet away and most people seem to run out across the gravel track and then just side step into the lift line.  Evidently, the concept of core shots is a foreign one in Morocco.

We watch the skiers in front of us successfully load onto the chair with skis on, but we both refuse to do so, fearing even the slightest scratch to our skis. Before long it’s our turn to load and suddenly I am feeling very self-conscious.  I have skis and poles in one hand, a backpack in the other (as does Matt – plus he is fiddling with his camera) and we are about to get hit in the behind by one of those old-school double chairlifts that doesn’t slow down. In front of a crowd of 100 Moroccans.  What would the outcome be if the two hotshot skiers from Canada caused the lift to stop because they couldn’t get on properly?

Fortunately, no one will ever know the answer because we get on just like the regulars.  Ten minutes later the lift dumps us off at a little over 3200 m, and we have to run out of the way to avoid getting hit by the chair as it makes its way around and back down the mountain.  When the dust settles we look around and soak in the amazing views in all directions: north and west towards Marrakech and the plains leading to the Atlantic Ocean; south and east to the towering peaks of the High Atlas, including some that we hope to ski off of in the days ahead.

But unlike many others at the top of the hill, we didn’t ride the lift to admire the views. It’s finally time to ski in Africa.  There is actually enough snow at the top to put our skis on, so we clip in and traverse over to the top of the bowl that leads back down to the lift.  The feeling dropping in to the bowl is surreal, despite the fact I’m trying to hold an edge on the hard windblown slab at the top.  As we descend the snow quality improves:  it is firm (but no worse than say, Tremblant) and we can carve acceptable turns while avoiding the many rocks. The GoPros are on and we’re taking turns taking action photos and trying to capture every moment of this first run.  When we get to the bottom we are so excited that it could have been our first ski run ever. After a big high five I check my watch and we realize there is still time for one more lift ride up.  We ski back down to the lift, being careful to stop well before the gravel path, pop the skis off, and head back up the mountain to do it all over again.

Welcome to Marrakech: Our Gateway to the High Atlas Mountains

February 3, 2017 – 12:00PM GMT

After an uneventful, three hour flight from Geneva, we touchdown at Marrakech Menara Airport. As we taxi up to the gate and admire the palm trees and 20 degree sunny weather that is forecast outside, Matt and I both glance at each other with a “what the hell are we doing here?” kind of look.  The looks continue, albeit from strangers, once we collect our  massive ski bag and venture out of the arrivals hall and out in to the chaos of the taxi stand.

The drive in to the city is reminiscent of Delhi, and we are thankful for our experience there a few years ago to prepare us for the expected craziness of Marrakech.  Of course we overpay for the taxi ride in to the city, and then get fleeced by some punk kid for his five minute “guided” tour to our hotel (the street we are staying on is too narrow for anything except scooters and motorbikes to drive on, so the taxi driver dumped us in a parking lot), but we arrive at our hotel in one piece, with all of our gear in tact.  All part of the experience.

Many of the hotels in Marrakech are called riads: converted mudbrick mansions from centuries ago with an inner courtyard open to the outdoors. The guest rooms are set on multiple floors around the perimeter of the courtyard. Ours is no different, and it offers a peaceful sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the busy Marrakech streets.  We dump our gear and relax in the courtyard, and our host Hamid hurries out with a pot of mint tea to greet us.

Feeling refreshed, we are ready to dive in to the city.  Marrakech was first founded in AD 1062 and served as an important transit point on the ancient caravan routes through the Sahara Desert.  Over the centuries it was ruled by a series of royal families, but the centre of the city was built, and remains, within a fortified wall called the Medina. The Medina is a maze of winding streets, lanes, shops, restaurants and hotels, and based on the city maps we’ve looked at, does not seem to be laid out in any sort of orderly manner.

Our first stop is the Jemaa el Fna, the main square in the city, and so we hang a left out the front door with only a general sense of how to get there.  The streets turn this way and that and dead end with no warning, but eventually we arrive. In English, Jemaa el Fna translates to “assembly of the dead” – apparently the square was used for public executions in the 11th century.  When we spill into the main part of the square, it is anything but dead.  People coming and going in every direction in cars, on scooters, and on foot. Horse-drawn carriages carry tourists around, snake charmers play oboes to get their snakes to dance, and various characters offer to sell you just about anything, including having your photo taken with a monkey on your head. It is a lot to take in and after wandering around for a little while we retreat to one of the several roof-top terraces overlooking the square, order another pot of tea, and simply observe the seemingly chaotic activities below.

As sunset approaches the loudspeaker at the Koutoubia mosque, just west of the Jemaa, begins the evening call to prayer.  Morocco is a predominantly Muslim country and many Moroccans will pray five times a day.  Before long, what seems like every mosque within the medina has begun their call to prayer, which makes for both an eerie and beautiful chorus of prayer, throughout the city centre.

Meanwhile, back in the Jemaa, the crazy factor is picking up a notch or two as street food stalls are being set up for dinner. Soon smoke begins to fill the air from grilled kebabs, lamb chops, and various other dishes that are being prepared for both locals and tourists alike.  We head down into the guantlet of food stalls to see what looks good for dinner.  Each stall is different, but every one is the same.  At each stall there are hustlers angling for everyone’s business.  Without surprise, Western tourists are a prime target.  “Eat at 1-1-1-7 and you go to heaven” yells one of the hustlers.  Another tells us that it’s the exact same food at every stall, so we should eat at his.  Yet another offers us free tea if we stop in there.  At each stall we make up a story that “we already ate at Number 51” or that “there are no locals eating there so we’re not stopping either”.  After walking through the 30 or so stalls, having been heckled at each one, we compare notes, head back in to the jungle, and ultimately pick a place to eat.

The food is delicious.  And the display even more so.  Moroccan salads, olive dishes, meat and vegetable tagines, couscous, kebabs, all laid out for the prospective dinner guests to pick and choose.  The local specialty (so we’re told) “tanjia”, is a lamb dish that is slow roasted for the whole day. Delightful. We order way too much food, but manage to finish it all, and are already excited to come back tomorrow.

After dinner we circle once more through the Jemaa before heading back to the riad.  It seems even more intense than during the day: the crowds have swelled, musicians are banging on drums and playing other instruments, and dancers perform all sorts of routines.  Many of the performances have not changed significantly over the last several centuries.

Tomorrow we’ll have the day to continue exploring Marrakech and to check out some of the sites including the Badi Palace, the Saadian Tombs, and Maison Tiskiwine – a museum near the riad that depicts the ancient caravan routes across the Sahara Desert from Timbuktu to Marrakech.  Despite the endless entertainment in the city, we’re already looking forward to escaping to the peace and quiet of the mountains.