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Much Ado About Nothing (or: To be, or not to be)

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‘This is not really Morocco, you know?’ I’m surprised to hear the man sitting at my restaurant table say it at all, let alone out loud in a public place, let alone at a border crossing. It could get him in a lot of trouble if the omnipresent Moroccan police hear it.

After a short stop we continue our journey, and for the first time I get to see the landscape we’re driving through. It’s literally awesome. Western Sahara is probably the most appropriately named territory in the world; it’s simply the Western end of the desert. Beyond it, the desert abruptly stops and the ocean begins. It’s a wild coastline, with cliffs and small secluded beaches, sometimes with a shipwreck slowly being broken down by the elements. It stretches on for more than a thousand kilometers, and apart from three small cities, a few tiny settlements and the odd fisherman’s shack, it’s completely deserted.

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Staying high and dry (‘s more trouble than it’s worth)

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Not another one! The ocean is as relentless as I am helpless. Wave after wave comes in, and I’m floating around, holding on to my surfboard like a shipwrecked sailor to a piece of wood. Just paddling into the surf has exhausted all my upper body strength. Now that I’m in the right place, I can no longer generate enough speed to properly ride the wave, let alone push myself up to stand on the board. The best I can do is sit up, enjoy a glorious second or so as I’m on top of the wave, feeling the energy pick me up and push me forward, and then try not to get completely sucked into the vortex when the inevitable happens and I capsize, again.

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Ramble on

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Could it be possible that I’m not the world’s clumsiest person after all? Ingrid, one of my walking buddies in the Afella Ighir gorges, and I leave Tafraoute together. Joining us in the private taxi are two Englishmen. One of them is Ian, who works at the British embassy in Rabat, making reports about Morocco and supporting political emancipation projects. They are avid rock climbers, and were having a lot of fun scaling some of the more remote granite and quartz cliff faces of the Anti Atlas; there’re lots of routes here that have never been climbed before. It stopped being fun right around the time they dropped the key to their hire car somewhere during a climb…

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Between a rock and a dry place

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The second, unguided part of the walking tour takes place some 30 kilometers South of Tafraoute, where the real desert begins. The guide agency drops me off at Aït Mansour, a village at the beginning of a narrow, winding gorge in the bone dry landscape that has an oasis running through it. The narrow line of green palm trees snaking through the red rocks is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen so far.

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A short guide to rock(s)

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‘I like rock music, like Nickelback, Thirty Seconds to Mars, and the Backstreet Boys.’ For a few seconds, looking out the window and concentrating very hard on the mountainous desert landscape passing by is all I can do to stop myself from laughing out loud and insulting my new friend, Marouan. He got on the bus at a small town, about one third into the distance between Ouarzazate and Taroudannt, and is on his way to Agadir, where he studies English.

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High and dry

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As we descend, the temperature rises again, but the trees and greenery don’t return; it’s still stony fields and tiny scrubs all around. I’m absolutely amazed by the sparseness of the landscape, the way the mountains turn into plains with zero vegetation, which turn into blue-purple mountains again on the horizon. I hadn’t expected this part of the country – so close to the green Atlas mountains – to feature exactly the kind of epic desert landscapes I had been dreaming about. Caravans coming from the other side of the Sahara, carrying gold, slaves, ivory and more, used a string of oasis towns in the Moroccan desert as stopovers, with each of these towns having several castles made with stones held together by a mixture of mud and straw (called kasbah or ksar), to protect the precious tradeware from bandits. Skoura was the last in this string of towns; here, the goods were transferred from camels to donkeys and taken across the Atlas mountains to the large cities near the coast.

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Here we are now, entertain us!

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I can’t turn around. I can’t move forward or sideways either, for that matter. The train’s seats are all occupied, and the pathway is too narrow; adults, children, suitcases, backpacks, and cardboard boxes full of tradeware are all jammed in there with no space to move; for a while, there’re even people hanging out the door. And that’s before the refreshments trolley has to come through! We make the most of it though, exchanging looks saying ‘lovely, isn’t it?’ with the wise old Moroccan who makes sure no one gets trampled, and having some small talk with the Indian-American tourist whose shoulder is wedged into my armpit. It seems a suitably chaotic way to travel to Marrakech!

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