Leaving the hotel in full sunshine our route-book navigates us on to the open road but via the old city’s narrow streets, past the ceremonial and decorative Bab Mansour gates where traffic is being directed by the very smartly uniformed policeman and the roads are being swept by men with large palm fronds wearing high-viz jackets.
Image courtesy of www.allmoroccotravel.com
With the hub-bub of the City behind us, we head out fairly quickly into the countryside driving on what seems like a roman road and onto plains of crops including vineyards – possibly producing some of the very agreeable Meknes dry white that we had sipped the night before. The roads here are roman-road straight, eventually passing fields and fields of onions left waiting for collection, raised up on dry stone walls then packed on hay and left under plastic sheeting; waiting to be collected by farmers on donkeys or by one of the many open sided trucks containing an assortment of livestock or produce that you see trundling along the roads here.
Then we start to gently climb through wide-open spaces, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands with evidence of snow in the tree-line. It’s here that we start to see more nomadic shepherds tending to their flocks and evidence of their homes against the rugged terrain.
After this, the landscape becomes more densely wooded and you can see why guide books talk about this area being the Morocco equivalent of Switzerland. We head into Ifrane which has a very up-market cosmopolitan feel to it thanks mainly to the fact the King has a Summer Palace here. Everything is clean and manicured. The square has a fountain and plenty of hanging baskets. The buildings all look like chalets. The Von Trapp family could come singing around a corner at any time. A lovely pit-stop with many of the competitors commenting that it felt slightly surreal to be in a scene you would not necessarily associate with Morocco.
There were plenty of smiles as both drivers and navigators started to relax into the journey and were able to take in their surroundings a bit more. Experienced and non-experienced rally-ists alike were becoming more acquainted with the joy and ‘idiosyncracies’ of the 2CV and they chatted away about this and the differences in calibration of their rally computers, and getting to grips with maintaining the average speeds required in the regularity events.
Twenty kilometres (also known as ‘clicks’) down the snow-littered road and to great excitement we started to get our first glimpses of the Barbary Apes.
Very quickly the competitors (and soft-hearted mechanics) were proffering nuts and other goodies to outstretched hands. Horses in brightly coloured saddles stand idly by the road grazing while some locals offered little tagines and baskets to passers-by.
The afternoon regularity event near Ain Leuh started on a T-Junction with a hairpin bend on a hill that led the competitors higher into the cedar forest. Half the cars had arrived before the Time Challenge officially opened, so a couple of the competitors took the opportunity to get out their chamois leathers to clean windscreens and buff up the headlights.
Then they were off, immediately on to a good climb on narrow roads through the forest and then out again onto a higher plateau. Even in this fairly remote area policeman could still be found – either talking it easy against a tree or officially standing in pairs at a designated speed trap.
Further on we drove down into a valley with a little river running through it. On the bridge one shepherd seemed to be watching over not only his sheep but also the bridge and had set himself up as an unofficial ‘toll keeper’. With a spade in one hand, he could have come across as being quite threatening – but actually when we drew level he had a broad smile on his face and you could see that there was no malice intended.
The traditional nomadic Berber’s huts here seem to be a wooden frame construction covered in heavy duty plastic or brown material. Managing to get a glimpse quickly into one as we drove past you could see it had been lined with rugs secured to both the walls and the floors, with a little wood burner in the middle of the hut. Simple but cosy and effective. Shepherds seem to spend a huge amount of time alone. Without much in the way of external influences and certainly not an iphone or ipad in sight for them – one wonders what they must think about to while away the many, many miles of walking, moving their livestock from one area to the next.
Moving southwards, the trees and the snow and general alpine feel gives way to lush green crops and fertile earth. We now pass olive and orange trees. It is whilst driving out of the cedar forest, down into the valley that we also start to notice a lot of very young children walking the roads, mainly in groups, possibly on the way to and from school. They seem to see the cars well in advance from their vantage points on the side of the road and start running en-masse towards them. We had to stop for four boys, not much older than ten or so who ran at speed into the middle of the road pleading with us to give them something. As it happened we only had a couple of chocolate biscuits which couldn’t go around so we slowly nudged on through with heavy hearts. But just around a corner was another boy on his own. We wound down the window and offered the biscuits. However he had seen my pen and insistently called out ‘Stilo!, Stilo!’ And again, louder ‘Stilo! Stilo!’ He was far more interested in this and thanked us for politely when we gave it to him. Once we had driven around a bend, we saw the other gang catch up with him and you could see there was much excitement over his new treasure. We spoke to a couple of the seasoned rally-ists about this later in the evening and the general advice is, although often heart-wrenching – it is often best not to stop.
On we go, and the temperature changes slightly and the earth becomes redder. We pass through a number of towns between the end of the Cedar forest and Beni Mallal ( Khenifra and the smaller Tighassaline, Ouaoumana and El-Ksiba ) that look like they had just risen up from the earth, with the buildings (many under construction) exactly the same colour as the roads; each one a hive of activity. Men mainly, mill about the road – scooters and little tuk-tuks weave in and around pedestrians and larger trucks on the side. My husband thinks it has a similar feel to India but perhaps not quite as chaotic. Butchers displaying freshly hung lamb and goat trade next to the man that probably supplies most of the local farmers with their irrigation systems; selling metres of tightly wound yellow and blue hosepipes and metal baths. His neighbour is outside selling mobile phones and other electrical equipment. Many are dressed in the traditional Jalabiya, smiling and waving at the 2 CVs. Levelling out, we drive down on to a fairly fast dual carriage way with the majestic High Atlas Mountains ahead of us, eventually turning off left and into our home for the night – the Hotel Ouzoud at Beni Mallal.