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So close – so strange

An enduro tour through the bitter Atlas Mountains takes you into the magical and strange world of the Orient – with just 13 kilometers separating Morocco from the Iberian Peninsula and Africa from Europe.

Gerhard Eisenschink


The Rock of Gibraltar slowly disappears in the haze of the windswept strait. One last look at Europe before embarking on a journey into a completely different world. In a few minutes Gerold and I will be disembarking the ferry in the Orient, immersing ourselves in one of the most diverse landscapes in North Africa, and then things will come quickly. In the port city of Ceuta – the last Spanish bastion on Moroccan soil – we are confronted with the unrestrained bureaucracy. It takes a long time and is very nerve-wracking until the enduros have finally passed through customs. And during the entire procedure we are constantly surrounded by the armies of semi-official or self-appointed helpers, who turn out to be communication geniuses for all European languages, but also demand hefty wages for their loudly praised services. We quickly leave hectic Ceuta and drive quickly through the reef mountains to the south to Chefchaouen, where we set out to visit the medina, the old town of the place. For me, a newcomer to the Orient, this evening stroll becomes a threshold experience. The alleys, winding like a treacherous maze, are filled with a never-ending stream of people. The house walls, which are pushed together closely, reflect the steps of innumerable feet, the shouts of traders, the sounds of oriental music. We are carried away by the crowd, pushed back and forth in the zigzag of the alleys like in a mirror cabinet. There are small archways that lead into dark side streets. There are open doors that give a brief glimpse into dark hallways and backyards. There are all kinds of shops in tiny niches on the walls of the house, from floor to ceiling, full of goods. And over everything lies an inimitable mixture of scents of drain and spices. But it’s the people that fascinate me the most. Hooded men in floor-length, striped caftans move like ghosts in dressing gowns through the evening streets. Some walk like lovers holding hands, others greet each other with deep kisses. The women touch their hands in greeting and then bring them to their mouths. Dressed in orange, green or purple scarves, some of them deeply veiled. The Thousand and One Nights reveals itself in a variety of ways that we cannot stop being amazed. “You will not find peace,” says Hassan with a grin. Unfortunately he is right. We drove 130 kilometers south to Fes and experience everyday oriental tourist life in the second infusion. The first enthusiasm for the old royal city, which still looks like a medieval fortress today, quickly gave way to disillusionment. We are the perfect food for the countless guides, without whom a stroll through the old town does not seem to be possible, if one does not want to be completely at the mercy of the stubborn business methods of the many providers. “What is money,” replies Hassan when asked about the price for his service. His only concern is to show us, his German friends, his homeland. And again an oriental medina reveals itself with all its promises, sounds and smells. We visit the tanners and dyers who go about their work in the unbearable smell of putrefaction. We watch the tinkerers and brass smiths at work, watch the butcher in disgust as he is swarmed by flies and works a beef thigh with a bone saw between hung pieces of meat. Hassan tells us about the history of the city, its customs and the life of its citizens. The fact that when we split up there is nevertheless a greater difference of opinion about the value of his leadership seems to bother us far more than he does. Haggling and acting is part of everyday life for the Orientals. The next evening I am richer for another 24 hours of orienteering and 210 kilometers of driving. We are already damn close to the High Atlas, see the mountain line that defines the horizon as a signpost in front of us. Through the pine and cedar forests of the Middle Atlas we have screwed our way up to barren plateaus, on which roads sometimes run straight to the horizon. On the north side of the mountains there is still so much rainfall that arable farming is possible in the valleys. State road 21 from Azrou to Ar-Rachidia is a perfect north-south section through the Atlas. At the Col du Zad we passed the highest pass of the Middle Atlas at over 2000 meters. From now on the country will be drier and lonelier. The desert takes over the regiment in the High Atlas and southern Morocco. We follow the valley of the Zis, which sends its blue-green water from the mountains far to the south, almost to the border with Algeria, where the hot sun consumes it and only leaves a few puddles of salt. This presents itself as the perfect irony of life The next day the weather is exactly the opposite of the normal climatic conditions. While we were bathing in the sun on the humid northern edge of the mountains, thick clouds are now gathering over the desert in the south. After a short time it starts to pour in such a way that the water runs into my boots. That’s not how I imagined the desert to be. Inch «Allah: may Allah be done. We drive west on the southern edge of the High Atlas to Kelaa, without seeing anything of the up to 4000 meter high peaks in the thick rain clouds. Finally sun again. On the southern edge of the High Atlas runs the “Street of the Kasbahs”, those multi-storey residential castles made of rammed earth, the architecture of which has remained unchanged for centuries, where the mud houses are very short-lived structures. Every time it rains, the water dissolves some of the building. The older, uninhabited kasbahs look like brown ice sculptures melting in the desert. But most of the kasbahs are in good shape and are now the home of entire family groups like centuries ago. West of Ouarzazate, it is time to finally bring the studded tires to the terrain for which they were actually made. A “slope of the kasbahs” leads north into the mountains through a wild landscape at the foot of the 3000 meter high mountains. Right at the beginning of the tour it goes through the kasbah and Berber settlement ait-Benhaddou. The nested maze of mud towers was created in the 12th century and doesn’t seem to have changed since then. Spontaneously I name the small panorama restaurant opposite the scenery as the most beautiful breakfast place in Morocco and enjoy the morning calm and the wonderfully beautiful colors shortly after sunrise to the fullest. Two storks circling in the sky above us and finally land down by the river, where women are fetching water. Behind it, the towers of the kasbahs, which are up to eight stories high, soar into the sky – like a Manhattan in the desert, built only from clay mixed with straw. An entire city in an earth-colored camouflage look, buildings like many generations ago, seemingly forgotten by time. No phone wires, no road, no machine noise. The illusion of being able to take a look back at life hundreds of years ago. “Stylo, stylo,” we hear from many throats. The »slope of the kasbahs« turns out to be a gauntlet tour through children waiting and begging along the way, waving to us. Stylo – ballpoint pen is the magic word for them. A penny item for us – a supposed status symbol from the rich world of tourists for them. We don’t stop, we feel uncomfortable riding past on our machines like majesties. But we wave everyone back, young and old, until our left hand hurts. We respectfully nod to the old people in the villages and stop to let the mule caravans pass quietly on our way. At least a small drop of oil on the friction surface of two so different worlds. It is said of Moroccan children that they throw stones at tourists when they have not received anything for free. It never happened to us. Our BMWs were always admired in amazement, and almost always people laughed at us and waved. Where it wasn’t, we waved to the children first. Once a boy dropped a stone from his hand in order to wave us back. 100 kilometers east of the Kasbah slope we don’t want to take a comfortable tar road like in the valley of the Ziz, but on a dusty slope across a 2700 meter high pass drive back north up the mountains. “You’ll never get to Imilchil like this,” the old man behind the wheel of the Bedford truck explains in fluent French. His furrowed face reflects something of the countless kilometers that he has already traveled in these mountains with his vehicle. There are large sacks of millet on the loading area, and on top of them are a crowd of passengers who look down at us curiously. Imilchil has been our only thought for hours, since the day is slowly drawing to a close and there are still many kilometers of slopes ahead of us. We had chosen the small nest on the apex of the High Atlas as a place to stay. But now we’ve lost our way, caught a side valley of the Dades River instead of driving over a ridge to the deeply cut main canyon. The Dades Gorge is a picture-perfect landscape, like Morocco’s Grand Canyon. A few kilometers earlier, the narrow rock walls had risen almost vertically for well over a hundred meters. In a series of endless serpentines we had to screw our way up out of the hollow alley. Then the landscape widened, revealing the sandstone bastions that towered into the sky like the stone skeleton of the earth. This canyon must have been washed by all waters. Because the small trickle that we see in it today cannot have prepared such a landscape. There must have been enormous masses of water for millennia, the flash floods of which fell on the rock and gnawed it away. You can die of thirst in the desert – or drown, says an old Bedouin proverb, but Imilchil doesn’t want to show up. We leave the valley of the Dades, which stretches as a green oasis through a completely vegetationless mountain landscape, and follow the slope through barren plateaus with isolated stone houses and a few stray sheep. The people here are very poor and live on the subsistence level. There is hardly any wood to cook food, let alone to heat the houses sufficiently in the cold winters. In the dark we finally reach Imilchil, only to find out that the hostels are either closed or have no vacancies. So on in the darkness to Lac de Tislit, where we actually find a dreamy mountain lake in this dry, vegetation-free mountain desert, on the banks of which there is a hostel. The couscous that the landlord cooks for us makes up for our efforts. The next morning begins with a Canadian ambience in Morocco. The rising sun is reflected in the lake, no sound can be heard, and the undisturbed feeling of space and solitude can be felt. After crossing the pass, the High Atlas changes its face with every kilometer. The rugged rock formations are suddenly covered with grass, pine forests line the slope. From the desert side of the mountains we are back on the Mediterranean side. The olive groves, herds of goats and green terraces along the way, that could also be anywhere in Greece. In a country with two completely different climatic zones and high mountains in between, you don’t need to look far for contrasts.


An enduro trip through the High Atlas leads through one of the most diverse regions of North Africa – and takes you into a world like a thousand and one nights.

Arrival: There are ferry connections to Morocco from Algeciras in Spain to Ceuta (several times a day, travel time 75 minutes). The price per person and motorcycle is around 55 marks. Ferries go daily from Málaga or Almeria to Melilla, travel time seven hours, price around 200 marks. A more comfortable, but more expensive alternative is the ferry from Sete in France to Tangier, 38 hours travel time, price around 1,000 marks. It is essential to book in good time, as there are only a few ferries to Morocco per month. Documents: In addition to the passport, you need a green insurance card for the motorcycle, which must be valid for Morocco. If you do not drive your own motorcycle, you also need a power of attorney from the owner. A form is available from the automobile clubs. Travel time: Morocco is a year-round destination, with spring and autumn being the best times. In July and August, due to the heat, only tours in the Atlas Mountains are possible. In winter, however, some of the high passes are closed due to snow. The southern edge of the Atlas and the adjacent desert areas are ideal touring areas at this time of year. Overnight: Hotels with good international standards and a garage are only available in the larger towns. Per night and person from 40 marks. If you compromise on comfort and cleanliness, you can bed your head for as little as 15 marks. In the remote regions of the Atlas, wild camping is not a problem. Health: Morocco has very low hygiene standards. If you want to avoid diarrhea and vomiting as much as possible, only drink mineral water, avoid ice cubes and salads and only eat peeled fruit. Meat and eggs should always be well cooked. Take vitamin tablets with you, as the diet can sometimes be a bit one-sided. Tetanus, polio and hepatitis vaccinations are recommended. Organized tours: On & Off Road Travel offers one and two week enduro tours through Morocco with overnight stay and half board, four-wheel drive support vehicle and motorcycle guide from Malaga in Spain or from Agadir in Morocco. If you come with your own motorcycle, you pay 3,170 marks per person from Málaga. If you arrive without your own motorcycle, you can rent a BMW F 650 for the two-week tour for 1590 marks. For the Morocco tour from Agadir, including a rental motorcycle, you have to pay 4,320 marks for two weeks. Info: On & Off Road Travel, Benediktusstrabe 3, 83671 Benediktbeuren, phone / fax 0 88 57/99 88, in Spain at phone / fax 00 34/58/82 79 02. In addition, On & Off Road Travel Flights to Malaga. With Iberia, the daily scheduled flight to Germany costs around 600 marks, with a stopover in Barcelona also possible. There are weekly charter flights from 500 Marks. Literature: Very good and detailed route and runway descriptions are available in “Quer through Morocco” by Edith Kohlbach from Werner Rau Verlag for 39.80 Marks. A recommendable road map is available in the scale 1: 800000 from RV-Verlag. Further information: Moroccan Tourist Office, Graf-Adolf-Strabe 59, 40210 Dusseldorf, phone 02 11/37 05 51, fax 37 40 48, time required: two weeks, distance traveled: 3000 kilometers

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