Chefchaouen to Ourtzarh:
Out of Chefchaouen, we hit the road along the Rif Mountains heading east. We climbed steadily, even reaching over 1400 metres though higher peaks surrounded us some with the last remnants of snow cover on the highest reaches.
We noticed that about 95% of the cars on the road are old Mercedes. Usually while with lots of dings and dents and not one with the round Mercedes symbol sitting straight on the grille or the bonnet. They are a great advertisement for the incredible longevity of the marque but not such a good one for its upmarket status.
It was Friday, the Muslim 'sabbath' and most commercial activity was shut, even little roadside stalls, but the big industry seemed to be car washing. At every little spring or tap along the road, enterprising young men had set up with a hose and a bucke,t and were in business.
We sailed through some dusty and uninspiring little towns along the way, still climbing to nearly 1700 metres. A drive through a forest of Atlas Cedars made a change from all the cultivation clinging to the mountainsides.
At what could only be termed a frontier town, we stopped at Ketama. Quite a dump. Dusty and dirty roads and ramshackle buildings and shopfronts were no enticement to stay long. But it was lunchtime and Ray, Steve and Hamid - the Desert Detours guys - asked if we wanted to join them for lunch in a local eating house. Outside the carcasses of sheep and a cow were strung up under what could loosely be called an awning. Inside, straw was scattered over the floor on which rested laminex tables and rickety chairs. The open kitchen to one side allowed us to see the lamb cutlets we had ordered cut off the outside carcass then brought into the kitchen to be 'prepared' with an enormous blade, then cooked over a charcoal brazier. The chops were brought fiery hot and charred straight to the table along with a bowl of cooked onions and tomato and some circular Moroccan bread. Not a place we would have dared eat in if we had been on our own, but we had no stomach problems afterwards - perhaps the sheer intensity of the charcoal fire killed everything!
Then we entered the land of the endless marijuana plantations - reputedly the largest area of such planting in the world. Once it was quite dangerous to travel here, but we encountered no more problems than many people (all men of course) by the roadsides trying to get us to pull over to sell us some weed!
At first, there seemed to be some attempt to hide the crop behind some plantings of wheat by the road. But as we drove on, whole hillsides were covered in the bright green plants, almost encroaching on the roads and in every available piece of land. Steep hillsides as well as the gentler slopes were divided into small fields which all contained this single cash crop.
We turned south on the road to Fes and then speared off again on a little back road crossing, at one point, a little one-lane steel bridge the surface of which was covered in steel plate. Unfortunately the steel plate was broken in several sections with sharps edges pointing up and in a few places missing altogether with holes through to the framework underneath and thence to the river. Crossing it was done very carefully…
Past a little town called Ourtzarh, we pulled off the road, crossed a dusty sports field and camped overlooking a huge dam, Barrage de Al Wahda. A night wild camping. The temperature though had climbed to 40 °C, so we went to enormous lengths to put up extra tarpaulins to supplement our awning and keep the van cool. And all our fridges are struggling to keep cold in the heat.
Being away from the bright lights, the night sky was wonderfully dark. We sat outside gazing all around and up, and with a nifty little app on Russ's phone, located many stars and planets. A dozen or more satellites were clearly visible and we saw a very mice meteor. Excellent!
We had hoped the site would be quiet … well, it was if you could ignore the braying of the donkeys and the constant barking of the dogs on the neighbouring farm being answered by other dogs on other farms … all night.