Car Rental at Marrakesh Menara Airport
Our arrival in Marrakesh late in the afternoon meant that we would not be driving directly to our first destination, near Telouet, a remote Berber village in the Atlas Mountains. The idea of driving in a foreign country, high up into the mountains, across the scenic and perhaps hair-raising Tichi N’Tichka Pass was not a drive we wanted to attempt in the dark! I had booked a car well in advance and it was fairly straightforward to collect at Marrakesh Menara Airport. The extra charge for the fully comprehensive insurance seemed like a sensible addition to the car rental as we did not know what to expect. We had thought we had booked a small 4×4 on the website but sadly were given only a normal compact saloon car, on checking the contract it was clear the pictured cars on the hire sites can be different to the contract so check careful what you book, we will in future.
Driving at Night in Morocco
The hotel Villa Touka, where I had reserved a night for us, was on the other side of Marrakesh, towards the Atlas Mountains. By the time we drove through Marrakesh it was dark and the traffic was similar to any larger city, although I had to concentrate on the motorbikes coming from all sides and a few donkeys. It felt strange initially to drive straight through Marrakesh, a city we had visited and explored less than a year ago, but we were excited about our upcoming trip to a different part of Morocco. Sadly it was too dark to see and enjoy much of the landscape surrounding us once we had left the city’s centre and outskirts. Especially as I soon realised that some of the locals drove without any lights on their bikes or mopeds and so I had to be extra vigilant.
Villa Touka, a Strange Hotel Experience
Villa Touka is located down a dirt track and we had trouble finding the entrance initially as the gate was closed. Luckily a local passing by saw our confusion and called the hotel’s owner from his mobile. Shortly afterwards, we received an overwhelming welcome from the host. He showed us to our rooms, Jerome even got his own, right next to us. The rooms were warm and cosy, lovingly decorated with traditional elements in mind. After having dropped our luggage we were invited to join the hotel owner and his friends in a Berber style tent in the gardens for a drink in the warm evening starlight. It was unusual to watch a local Moroccan drink wine and we got the impression that the owner had already had a few glasses more than his guests, in fact they seemed rather embarrassed by his behaviour. Chris happily joined them on a glass of Moroccan wine, which he said tasted surprisingly good. I noticed that Jerome felt uncomfortable being around the guy, he constantly kept asking the same questions all over again and repeating statements and names, to the point when it was almost getting obnoxious during dinner.
Dinner at Villa Touka
Dinner however, was delicious and had been prepared for us by a local woman upon our request, as we knew that it would be hard to find somewhere else in the area for a late meal. After dinner we quickly retreated to our rooms to play cards and escape the owner, who was by then well into a happy, drunken state. His behaviour seemed so unlike anything we had ever experienced during our times in Morocco and the reviews online for the hotel had been exceptionally positive that we wondered what had gotten into him and if he was always like that.
Moroccan Breakfast in the Sun
After a good nights sleep we woke up to a reserved and sheepishly looking hotel owner, wondering if he knew that he had somewhat overstepped the line the night before. The breakfast was already laid outside under a parasol with views of the pool and garden. It really was a beautiful little hotel and I could have well imagined staying there for a little longer. The garden boasted all kinds of flowers and trees, a fountain was filled with rose petals and the Berber tent looked inviting to spend a lazy afternoon by the pool. Breakfast consisted of traditional Moroccan fare including the local pancakes with honey and jam, yoghurt and fresh orange juice. We were happy to enjoy a cup of coffee, or mint tea and some local orange juice. After breakfast we packed our trolleys into the car and said goodbye to Villa Touka, perhaps rather glad to escape the over attentive owner.
Driving Along Route N9
Headed straight for Tizi N’Tichka Pass we stopped in the next small town, Ait Ourir, to pick up some essentials, like water, snacks and some cash, we did not know when we would be able to get to the next cash point and knew that we had to pay for our next hotel in Moroccan Dirham plus meals en route. Joining route N9 that runs all the way from Marrakesh to the Sahara Desert, we were finally driving towards the Atlas Mountains, glistening in the morning sun. At first we passed some smaller villages, kids were playing in the fields and older nativess going about their daily chores. Local transportation -a ride on the back of a donkey – was a frequent sight along the drive, and some of the locals even waved at us. This was supplemented with over filled minibuses crammed with locals. The landscape started to get hillier, the barren earth, only sparsely dotted with the odd plant, oak tree and walnut groves.
Incident with the Local Police
At some point I was stuck behind a local bus driving rather slowly up the bendy road and thankfully the bus slowed down, driving onto the dusty roadside to let me and another car pass. This turned out to be a mistake, around the next corner we were stopped by a police car parked in a pull off area. The police officer came over and asked me in French if I knew what I had done wrong…while I was not aware of any traffic infringements I was told that I had overtaken the bus on a single line road and this was obviously forbidden. I tried to reason with him initially as I felt that the bus had let us pass deliberately and I had not really overtaking him!… But I soon realised that there was no point arguing with a policeman and got out of the car with my driver license and some cash to pay the fine.
Getting Away With a Fine
The other couple in front, only spoke Spanish and were just as dumbfounded. I explained the situation to them and they seemed less understanding. In the end the police officer chatted to me about German football, he admitted to be a big fan and only charged me half the initial fine! Therefore it is debatable if the traffic fine was just a front or real but I was just glad to move on and decided to be more careful about similar situations during the rest of our drives in Morocco.
Deeper into the Majestic Atlas Mountains
The route to Tizi N’ Tichka Pass climbed deeper into the majestic Atlas Mountains and offered us some incredible scenery. The road, except being very bendy, was surprisingly well maintained and not the dangerous road as it has been portrayed in the past and on some older travel guides. Civilisation in these parts of Morocco was sparse, although the odd village or dwellings hugged the hillsides. Jerome had spotted the stands of brightly coloured geodes that sprung up on the way and he wanted to stop to take a closer look. An old man, had displayed large amount of nodules outside his basic hut. They came in all kind of sizes and shocking colours.
Beware of Fake Geodes!
It was pretty obvious, in our opinion even to non-experts that these crystals could not all be real. However, I guess we felt bad for the man and Jerome decided to go for a small geode with supposed cobalt crystals inside. Our doubt about the geodes was later on confirmed, back in London I accidentally washed them in the washing machine hidden in one of Jerome’s pockets and they turned out to be no more than a clump of ordinary clay, pierced with fake crystals glued to toothpicks!! It certainly made us laugh about the entrepreneurship of the locals and we wondered how many tourists get deceived and spend lots of money in these places, especially as we saw loads of tour groups stop at these stands.
Plenty of Things to See
Jerome was unexpectedly calm the entire drive and seemed to enjoy the ever-changing vistas out of his window. There were plenty of things to see besides the mountain views, shepherds with their flock rambling through the hills, now and again we passed traffic road works to further improve the roads and we even saw some curious loads on some of the buses and trucks. They were not quite as extraordinary as in Vietnam, but still startling to watch for kids and adults alike.
A Local Berber Village
A few kilometres before reaching the Tizi N’ Tichka Pass we stumbled onto a Berber village besides the mountain stream. Colourful clothes and carpets were laid out onto the ashen mountainside to dry in the winter sun resembling splashes of paint between the mud coloured abodes. Down below in the riverbed I could see local women washing clothes in buckets filled with freezing water from the stream.
Tizi N’ Tichka Pass
Not long after, the road started to get steeper and bendier, we had reached the hair-raising Tizi N’Tichka Pass for real. This pass connects Marrakesh with the Southern Oases and once among the most dangerous roads on the planet, it had been turned into a safer mountain pass over the last few years but is still an incredibly exhilarating drive. Coloured sticks remind passer-by that this part of the High Atlas Mountains can be covered in deep snow during the winter months and therefore at times undriveable. We would experience this on our last day for ourselves, on our return to Marrakesh but more on that in another post. If you do plan to drive across the Tizi N’Tichka Pass in winter it might therefore be advisable to call the gendarmerie on 0524890615 to verify the pass is safe to drive and keep an eye on the weather forecast.
Stop to Witness the Hairpin Bends
A stop at the top of the snaking road is a must. Witnessing the hairpin bends we had just driven was dramatic sight that everyone enjoyed and it gave us a welcome break on our drive towards Telouet. It had taken us over three hours to reach the pass and hunger had started to occupy our minds. Thankfully there were a few restaurants en route and we had agreed to stop at Restaurant Assanfou for lunch near the col. We appreciated the tasty lamb tajines surrounded by snow capped mountains and a cluster of tour groups most likely en route to Ouarzate and the Sahara desert.
Driving on to Telouet
After lunch we left Tizi N’Tichka Pass and the souvenir shops behind and drove on through the rocky mountains towards Telouet. The side route to Telouet was less well repaired than the main pass and in places more of a track with a lot of roadworks. Shortly before our destination we came across a sign to an abandoned salt mine, which proved an interesting stop before arriving at our home for the next three nights, the traditional Kasbah Tigmi N’Oufella. Discover more about our stay and excursions in the area in the following posts.
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