Morocco October 2008
Birds, wildlife and tourism in Morocco
March 12th – 19th 2008
Authors: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
Our original plan had been to go to Sri Lanka, with Kenya as a fall back option, but inexpensive holidays to Sri Lanka seemed non-existent this year and the political troubles and violence in Kenya made it an unattractive option, but after a little trawling around we found a week’s B&B in Marrakech for £463 for the two of us. A search of trip reports confirmed that the Sahara Desert was an easy excursion from the city and that finding accommodation and food shouldn’t be too difficult so we booked.
We flew with Ryanair from Luton and hired a car with a company called Carhire3000 who we had not used before but with whom we were quite impressed. There’s a link to them on the website via http://www.avengerpenguins.com/Shopping.html and if you book through that we get a few quid to help pay for the site, but they’re easy to Google and there are undoubtedly other competitive companies about. Car hire is a little more expensive in Morocco than in most of Europe but it’s not cripplingly expensive and unless you hire a local bird guide or go on a pre-arranged trip it’s probably the best way to get to see some birds. We were only going to hire a car for the 5 day/4 night trip into the desert but transfers from the airport to the hotel were an extra charge and the earliest we could pick the vehicle up was 8 a.m. so we decided to pick the car up on arrival, drive to the hotel and spend just one night there before heading off into the mountains and desert.
We didn’t pre-book any accommodation away from Marrakech and had no difficulties finding places to stay. It was possible to walk up to any hotel and ask to see a room. In general, accommodation standards were high and prices reasonable.
The first bird in Morocco was a Collared Pratincole that was on the ground at the airport as our ‘plane taxied a couple of minutes after arrival. We were in the car about 30 minutes after collecting our luggage, having noted a couple of House Buntings in the airport buildings which were still under construction – a major upgrade being underway. It wasn’t too difficult to find the Hotel Amine, which is outside the city centre/medina but it wasn’t dead easy either. Marrakech is a large and busy city with a lot of traffic on the roads and it took a degree of orientation. Nonetheless we managed to pick up a few more species on the drive including White Stork and Common Bulbul.
After check-in we had a quick look at the hotel bird life, more Bulbuls, Buntings and the three expected species of Swifts as well as few less expected Woodpigeons and decided to have a go at walking to the city centre to have a look at the famous Jemaa el Fna square and the souk.
It’s quite a long walk, although not without interest, especially if you’re the sort of person who enjoys the ambience of a busy North African city. We added common Kestrel to our list just outside the Medina walls but not much else. We didn’t bother with the walk after this and used taxis which are plentiful and vary from inexpensive to ridiculously overpriced. There are two sorts of taxis - grande and petit which are unsurprisingly different sizes. In general, petit taxis are older, scruffier and cheaper. We didn’t bother haggling for fares. We had an idea about how much we were prepared to pay and if the driver suggested a much bigger amount we offered less and if this was rejected, we walked away. Not one driver attempted to call us back to negotiate further and there was always another cab with a different price along in a minute.
Our first surprise in the Medina was its size. It is completely encompassed by well preserved walls, mostly in lovely honey, sandy colours. You could walk for a whole day in the interior and still not see everything. We made straight for the main square, the notorious Jemaa el Fna. This is a huge, tiled expanse with various hawkers and magicians, snake charmers and musicians, barrow loads of fruit and children selling pastries and plastic snakes. It’s bounded on one side by the souk and has cafes and hotels overlooking it. It’s quite an exciting place, although people who visited Marrakech years ago will tell you that it is now quite tame compared to then. It has a definite rakish air though, even in daylight.
After a stroll around, during which we managed not to part with any money we found a table at the well positioned Café Glacier where we stopped for a few drinks to settle the dust we’d swallowed during our walk. Café Glacier is a pretty good place to stop a while and watch what is going on and appreciate a few of the differences of Moroccan city life when compared with western expectations.
Refreshed we decided it was time to have a look at the Souk, expecting to be assailed at every step by people wanting us to part with our cash. We were a little surprised because although every shop owner says hello and many ask you to come inside and have a look, the pressure was not really that bad and it was possible to walk along at a leisurely pace without getting annoyed or frustrated. The souk itself is quite delightful and still performs a real function, as well as being a draw for tourists, with many local people doing their daily shopping amongst the tourist tat. Some of the lanes are open to the sky, some are roofed and some have slatted wooden canopies that let a little sunlight through, making for some quite dramatic photographs .
It’s easy to get lost in the souk and we walked right through it and into the less touristy, residential streets to the north, where we found a post office and were served by a gentleman who seemed truly delighted to have some foreign customers. NB – most western tourists won’t speak any Arabic which is the language understood by all Moroccans. In tourist areas English is quite common, but French is probably more useful and Spanish is also quite widespread. Generally though, if you’re trying to spend some money, you can make yourself understood.
After an hour of wandering around in dead-ends and back alleys we found our way to one of the gates in the medina wall and then followed it around until we found a very untouristy café (Café Bahja) where we quickly got through several bottles of soft drinks. We were the only people who didn’t look like locals in the place and indeed there were few other foreigners in the area at all. The prices in Café Glacier had been reasonable, we thought, but they were half as much in this place. We took a petit taxi back to the hotel from here and it was also the cheapest taxi ride we had when in Marrakech.
A late afternoon drink by the Hotel pool area produced a few Chiffchaffs, a male Blackcap and a flyover Sparrowhawk.
Some comparative prices:
Café Glacier - 2 x cokes, 2 x Fantas - 24 Dirhams
Café Bahja - 2 x cokes, 2 x Fantas - 14 Dirhams
Hotel Amine - 1 x mineral water, 2 x fresh orange juices - 26 Dirhams
Hotel Amine - 1 x 24cl beer - 27 Dirhams
Jemaa el Fna - Soup -3 Dirhams
At March 2008 prices, the drinks at Café Bahja were a little less than 1 GBP, so even the hotel prices for soft drinks were reasonable but the price of the pretty dreadful local lager was excessive. Alcohol is not, of course a major part of life for people in North Africa, although it is widely available in Morocco, so the prices seem to be set to discourage excessive consumption. As far as the local beer goes, the taste is probably enough to do that.
Jemaa el Fna is renowned because at night time large numbers of temporary restaurants set up, mainly based on large wheel barrows surrounded by bench tables, so after showering and changing we headed out into the early evening.
The approach to the square just around sunset is striking. There are more people about and less traffic. Smoke from numerous kitchens drifts around giving everything a somewhat impressionistic ambience. Crowds of people hang around and you feel as though there might be something going on that you want to know about but can’t quite find it. Constant drumming from little parties dotted around the square adds to the air of mystery.
We resisted the pleas of various waiters who wanted to tell us that their places were the best in town and wandered around the food area for a while, until we spotted a place selling little more than soup from a huge tureen (more of a barrel, really). We sat down and they brought us a bowl each and we asked for some drinks which they almost certainly got from a nearby shop. The soup was a lightly spiced lentil based broth, served in a chipped bowl with an amusing wooden spoon and was quite delicious. The café seemed quite popular with Moroccans as well as tourists. We tried their strange, sticky pastries which were also just a few Dirhams and enjoyed them too.
We moved on to a stall selling more substantial meals and shared a Tajine and a Couscous, both of which were excellent, accompanied by a variety of dips and salads, before heading back to the hotel for an early-ish night.
Our target for the day was the Dades Gorge and Tagdilt Track area so we knew that we had a long drive through the High Atlas in prospect. We were up and about by 5 a.m. and packed and on the road by just after 6. We barely needed an alarm clock because the local House Buntings woke us up at just after 4, a long time before sunrise.
The route out of Marrakech had been worked the night before and we were pleased to note that when we drove through the hotel gates, surprising the slumbering security guard, there was virtually no traffic on roads that had been thronged when we had got back the previous night. We followed the signs for Ouazarzate, even though it took us a slightly different route to the one that looked best on the map. We reckon the map was probably better because the signs ran out after a while and we drove through a part of town that didn’t really look like it was part of a major national route.
Shortly after leaving the sun arose and we started to get glimpses of the distant, snow capped Atlas Mountains. The quality of the roads was pretty good and we made excellent time and were soon climbing into the range, heading for the Tizi n Tichka pass.
Much of the route passes through forest, but there weren’t many birds about. We identified Magpies in the agricultural land outside Marrakech, presumably of the North African race, but we didn’t stop to look at them as it was actually still dark, Rock Bunting, Moussiers’ Redstart (a female – the only one of the trip) and Rock Dove on the road up to the pass and about 2 hours and 35 minutes after leaving the hotel we parking the car at the Café Assanfou at the high point on the pass, where we decided to get some breakfast.
We studied a bird singing in a tree outside the café for some time before working out that it was a Rock Sparrow and then went inside for some tasty omelettes accompanied by what can best be described as “cheesy peas”. We’d have the omelettes again if we were passing that way. The cheesy peas weren’t as good as they sound.
After breakfast we took a little stroll along the road. There were a few birds about but some were quite difficult to get on to and we were mildly pestered by a couple of shepherds, one of whom theatrically fell to the ground and then asked us for money because he had injured himself. The performance itself was almost worth a few pence but we found great difficulty taking him seriously. Anyone who was a fan of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer will probably remember “Oh Vic, I’ve fallen.” and will understand why we were amused.
We didn’t get a look at the flock of finches that were quite mobile in the area and the Martins were also too distant to identify but there was no doubt about the African Blue Tit, our first new species of the trip, although we didn’t really appreciate this bird until we got much better views later in the day. Two Alpine Choughs flew over and we saw a flock of 10 more of these a short distance down the road near the boundary sign for Ouazarzate.
As we descended towards Ouazarzate the land was noticeably drier and settlements started to look more like the desert villages that we would become familiar with over the next few days. A few miles after the chough flock we spotted our first wheatear, a Black Wheatear that we stopped to watch for a while because we had seen very few of this species before.
A pull in next to the river just past a business named “Belle’s Goods Collection” yielded Grey Wagtail and plenty of Thekla Larks, which we were pleased to get out of the way.
We got to Ouazarzate at about 11:30 and stopped for fuel, drinks and snacks. Given that we hadn’t really been pushing it on the roads and we’d spent at least an our at Tizi n Tichka, this seemed like an easy journey and we thought that the early start was justified.
10 kilometres or more after Ouazarzate, near an obvious white concrete bus stop a couple of wheatears at the side of the road resolved themselves into Mourning Wheatears as we got closer. One then flew for a short distance directly in front of the car, allowing good views of the tail and rump pattern to confirm the ID. It seems that this is one of the more difficult wheatears to see in Morocco although we were quite familiar with them from other trips.
After about 75 minutes of driving through habitat that looked quite good but seeing very few birds we stopped the car at a noticeable wadi just before the “El Khelaa 29 kms” sign. We found our first Sub-alpine Warbler of the trip here along with a small flock of quite confiding Trumpeter Finches.
Another 90 minutes driving saw us arriving at the Kasbah Ait Marghad, partway up the Dades Valley. We were pretty hungry by now and the café had an outdoor terrace with impressive views, overlooking the Dades River so we stopped for a late lunch. There were plenty of common and familiar birds around but it was the African Blue Tits in the trees below the terrace that held our attention. Seeing them from above it was possible to appreciate the stunning dark blue that makes this species look dramatically different to our own.
We considered staying at the Ait Marghad but wanted to explore further up the valley to see the gorge and we were glad that we did because the position of the Hotel Kasbah de la Vallee, nestled up against the cliffs at the start of the narrowest part of the gorge was irresistible. From memory we were asked about 35 GBP for an en suite room for two with dinner and breakfast.
Having dumped non-essential items in the room we headed off back down the valley towards the Tagdilt Track, hoping to add a few new birds to our day list. This is quite a well known birding area and is particularly good for larks and wheatears. The area is described as a rubbish tip but it’s not what UK birders might imagine. It is not a large landfill site. It’s just a flat plain on which small amounts of rubbish have been dumped seemingly at random. It’s not particularly noxious although a dead dog that we inadvertently parked next to caused us to wind the windows up very quickly and move on whilst holding our breath.
There are several access points, mainly on fairly rough tracks, some of which seemed a bit much for our hire car. Apart from pot holes and rocks, the main hazard, and the thing that might put many people off from leaving the car behind and just walking around is the dogs. There are dozens of them just hanging around in groups and some of them are quite large. Most of the time they seem to ignore you and there are shepherds and other local people walking in the area but who wants to risk a bite from a dog that lives on an African rubbish dump? We stayed in the car most of the time and of course it made a pretty good hide.
The birds are pretty good though and definitely worth the risk of being chased by a pack of feral canines. We drove only about 30 metres down the track signposted “Tinghir 28” and immediately found at least 3 Thick-billed Larks amongst the probable Theklas. We drove about 1-1.5 kilometres along this track and saw lots of Greater and smaller numbers of Lesser Short-toed Larks and several Red-rumped Wheatears. We stopped to look again for the Thick-billed Larks on the way back to the road, by which time it was getting quite gloomy, with the sun having set behind the mountains, but only found a couple of Lesser Short-toed Larks this time. We had noticed that a police car had pulled up at the end of the track and of course we were stopped and questioned before we were allowed to pull out onto the road. They seemed satisfied with our explanation that we were looking at birds, although a little bemused. This was the first of several encounters with the police over the next few days and they are a constant presence on the main roads.
The road further up the Dades valley and into the gorge was a tempting pre-breakfast outing so we were off early to surprisingly grey skies. The road climbs steeply on a series of tight bends until levelling out somewhat until it eventually meets the river again. The scenery is tremendous with tributary valleys looking like stone glaciers, steep cliffs and narrow defiles. At the narrowest point the road and the river completely fill the valley with cliffs on either side almost blocking out the sky. We kept going until we decided the road had deteriorated enough for us not to fancy going further and then headed back down for breakfast. Birds were in short supply with Hoopoe and Crag Martin being the most interesting species, although close examination of a couple of photos of Pied-type Wagtails revealed these to be the subpersonata Moroccan Wagtails, a species we hadn’t researched very much but had not really expected to see.
Breakfast at the hotel was ok and the previous evening’s meal had been delicious, but we soon settled up and were on our way. The weather was gradually improving as we drove back down the valley towards the main road and we stopped several times to photograph some of the fascinating Kasbahs in varying states of repair along with some rather unsettling rock formations.
We tried the next track up from last night’s Tagdilt Track and after a short distance we were delighted to find two new species in a short distance. First was Cream-coloured Courser, of which there were several and this was closely followed by Temminck’s Horned Lark which gave frustratingly brief glimpses for some considerable time before finally standing out in full view to give us tremendous views and even a distant photo-opportunity. We went for a short stroll after assessing the dog situation (no obvious packs within running distance – we hoped) and heard a call that we thought might be Dupont’s Lark. We walked over to where the call had come from but found nothing much.
Back on the main road we continued a little further to find what seems to be a fairly new tarmac’ed road heading to Tagdilt. This looks like an area that will be worth exploring. There were no dogs in the vicinity but plenty of birds. There was a Desert Wheatear on the “Stop” sign at the entrance to the road and more Greater Short Toed and Temminck’s Horned Larks were found in a mixed flock, but the prize here was our third new species of the morning (we weren’t counting Moroccan Wagtail yet), a Desert Lark. A small pond was located just off the road to the left (when driving from the main road). This looked as if it might be worth a stake-out because drinking water in the area is in short supply. Unfortunately a lady and her dog had got there before us and it didn’t seem fair to disturb them, so we moved on.
As we had quite some distance to cover and the morning was well advanced we decided to get plenty of miles out of the way before lunch, but we came screeching to a halt a few kilometres in the direction of Erfoud because a large bird with a ponderous wing beat flew behind one of the arch structures that you encounter from time to time on Moroccan roads and landed on the ground with a very upright posture. CC was convinced that when we got our binoculars on this it would turn out to be an Houbara but it was actually a Long-legged Buzzard that was really living up to its name.
We had a lunch stop at the Belle Vue Café at Tinijad. The food was ok but we were rather disappointed that even though we were sitting outside to enjoy the belle vue (not that belle, to be honest, but a view, nonetheless) an escorted group of tourists in their over-sized 4x4 arrived and parked right in front of us. It’s probably a mistake to expect much more than a grunt from a pig but even a little consideration would have told them that this was quite unreasonable. There was plenty of space to park nearby.
There were numerous small children hanging around who were a little bit too shy to come and talk to us, so we bought a large bar of chocolate and passed it to one of the older girls with instructions to share it amongst all of them. She was having none of this though and immediately took off, pursued by hordes of angry youngsters intent on either getting their portion or lynching her – possibly both.
The roads in the direction of Erfoud are pretty good and the driving conditions were excellent but we had quite a scare about 53 kms from Erfoud as we came over a blind summit at some speed only to find the road blocked by two identical blue Mercedes taxis coming towards us. CC had just enough time to swerve slightly, avoiding a fatal collision by the smallest of margins. As far as we could tell, neither of the taxi drivers even noticed anything.
Now is probably as good a time as any to talk about driving in Morocco. Most of the major roads are well maintained and there is signage in the Latin alphabet as well as Arabic. There isn’t a lot of traffic on the roads and in many areas slow moving lorries will make an effort to allow you to get passed – something that would be a welcome improvement in the UK. Unfortunately, in general driving standard are appalling. Overtaking can happen just about anywhere and is often done far too slowly and the levels of impatience in towns is quite incredible. The concept of “more haste, less speed” is largely unknown and drivers will try to nudge and squeeze their vehicles into any small space that comes available. Watching a left turn a busy junction can be hilarious, with so many people trying to get into a position to make the turn that even when a large gap comes they are so busy sounding their horns, gesticulating and getting in each other’s way, hardly anybody actually makes the turn. CC has driven in about 30 countries on 4 continents and is of the opinion that Moroccan driving is the worst he’s seen.
The adrenalin caused by the near-miss (should that be near-hit?) demanded a pause by the side of the road and we quickly found a Spectacled Warbler and then watched a column of windblown sand (a djinn?) as it made it’s way across the desert.
We’d hoped to spend the night at the Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua near Erfoud, not least because of it’s reputation as a site for Desert Sparrow but also because several trip reports have mentioned what a nice place it is. We got directions from the police road block on the edge of Erfoud which took us on an interesting route over the river on a causeway which seemed to double as the local carwash and then out into the desert. The change in the scenery here was quite dramatic, with far less scrubby vegetation and much more sand. We passed a few side tracks leading to fossil sellers (many of the orthoceras and ammonite fossils sold in the west come from this area) and eventually reached the end of the surfaced road. Fortunately there were signs advising us to follow the green painted posts to get to Derkaoua – and most of the time it was possible to either see the next post or at least the route that most vehicles had followed.
After a few kilometres of desert driving, mostly on reasonably hard, stony surfaces we got to a point where the only way to the auberge was across a rather long section of deep sand. We could see the auberge buildings about a kilometre away but we just didn’t want to risk the hire car. We were pretty certain that getting stuck in the sand here would be an expensive and embarrassing experience. Instead we backtracked a little to another hotel that we had passed en route – the Auberge Kasbah Said. This place didn’t have the concentration of mature trees that is presumably the reason why Derkaoua attracts good numbers of migrants but that aside it certainly looked the part.
As we were the only guests we were offered the best room, actually a small suite, the Asmaa, which set us back about £50 for dinner, bed & breakfast. The rooms were charming and photographs don’t really do them justice (Living Room, Bedroom).
Mint tea was served in the pleasant courtyard garden, where a couple of birds calling in the greenery were hard to get a look at and decidedly unfamiliar sounding. We went for a wander around in the desert as sunset approached, picking up a pair of Western Orphean warblers in the little wadi by the outbuilding (where we found, after we got back, that Desert Sparrow had bred in 2008!) and a Southern Grey Shrike in the sandy area a few 100 metres from the auberge. 5 ravens flew by but we couldn’t tell for definite whether they were Brown-necked.
The desert sunset was spectacular and we were ready for our evening meal when we got back. Even though there was only the two of us staying there that night, all three courses were excellent. We spent a short while after dinner listening for bats on CC’s bat box (a recent Christmas present), went for an amble out into the dark, hoping to see some of the deserts nocturnal residents and then turned in early.
Early to bed and all that … We were up in time to witness the sunrise and with plenty of time before breakfast retraced our steps from the previous night, straying a little further out from the buildings. Last night’s Orpheans and Shrike were not in evidence but there were huge numbers of birds in flocks of between 20 and perhaps 500 passing overhead. Our best guess is that most of these were probably larks, probably Short-toed, but none were stopping.
We recorded a Black Wheatear just outside the walls but subsequently found out that juvenile White-crowned Black Wheatear should be checked in this area and they are probably much more common than Black here. A Hoopoe flew past, heading north. Two donkeys came wandering in out of nowhere – there are people around and several buildings and camps could be seen in the distance both north and west (nothing much to the east, though) but how people keep track of their livestock is a mystery. A Raven overhead was definitely Brown-necked this time. Bird activity seemed to start in earnest about an hour after sunrise and we picked up two new species, Desert Warbler and Bar-tailed Lark in quick succession. We missed quite a few birds though, either because they rapidly went in to cover or they were little more than silhouettes against the sun. As the air started to warm up a little, lizards started to appear in small numbers.
The breakfast at Auberge Kasbah Said was good with freshly baked flatbreads and afterwards we had another look at the courtyard garden where a male Common Redstart on the walls looked very much like a passage bird but the Orphean Warbler in the shrubs might have been a local. The unfamiliar calls from the previous afternoon were still happening and we still couldn’t get onto them.
We headed back towards Erfoud so that we could make the short trip towards Merzouga and the Erg Chebbi region on as much paved road as possible and we picked up our first Hoopoe Lark of the trip just a few metres after rejoining the tarmac, near a small fossil shop at the end of a long straight section of road. We got the impression that the surfaced roads around here probably change regularly, but this particular fossil seller was right by the road, whereas most of the others are set back somewhat.
Our next stop was the well signposted fossil shop of the road to the right (left as you’re coming from Erfoud. We thought that we might take a few fossils back for presents and where better to buy then than the source. The shop is pleasantly situated overlooking an arc of hills that look almost like a crater although a geologist would probably recognise a syncline, with the strata dipping in the middle and surfacing in the hills around the edges. As well as getting a few decent specimens at a fair price (but watch out for fakes, which are sold alongside the ammonites and orthoceras. Any perfectly preserved trilobite is likely to be fake and CC was very doubtful about the turtle carapaces which must have been from a different geological era than that represented locally. Nonetheless it is interesting to see the fossils in there place of origin that are also for sale in UK shops, often made into expensive coffee tables or sinks. We walked up to the top of the two low hills either side of the shop and found Trumpeter Finch, White-crowned Black Wheatear and both Bar-tailed and Hoopoe Larks, with a Black Kite, the only one of the trip a short distance down the road.
On the approach to Erfoud we noticed that the area on the edge of town by the causeway was crowded with people. It was market day. The drive looked more than a little challenging, with stalls on both sides of the narrow street that was thronged with shoppers and vehicles coming the other way along with the inevitable and completely random bicycles and mopeds. We inched forward, frequently coming into gentle contact with people walking along looking the other way and several times running over the edge of ladies’ gowns and eventually made it through without making too many people too cross.
Back on the main road and following an amusing interlude with an ATM that seemed to think that the equivalent of about £4 would be plenty for the next couple of days we headed south towards Rissani, Merzouga and Erg Chebbi. Rissani looks an attractive town but signage is not too great and we ended up having to do a u-turn in a square when we realised we’d gone the wrong way. This basic tourist error was enough to attract the attention of several “guides” one of whom was pretty persistent. When we told him that we were heading for the area around Café Yasmina he said that we would find it difficult to locate on our own but offered to guide us for a small consideration. Although this meant sacrificing some of our independence we eventually agreed to take him along with us. With the benefit of hindsight this might well have been a good decision. We might have found the area on our own but given that we had baulked at a bit of sand the previous afternoon it is doubtful that we would have had the confidence to drive across the desert without him.
Moha was the guide’s name and to be honest he was ok. He took us off the road somewhere between Rissani and Merzouga and then for some distance across tracks, stony plains and sandy areas to the southern edge of Erg Chebbi. This area of tall sand dunes is really most peoples romantic ideal of “real desert” although the large temporary lake at the edge of the dunes was quite a surprise. Less of a surprise was the Kasbah that he took us too, at the other end of the lake from Yasmina. We had a decent late lunch here and took a look at the rooms and decided to stay. There were loads of Chiffchaffs in the gardens to the rear of the buildings where there were palms, shrubs and a small area of crops so we thought there might be migrants about too. If we needed a good reason to stay, the Red-throated Pipit that alighted on a wall less than 5 metres away whilst we were eating lunch might have tipped the balance. A male Tristram’s Warbler sealed the deal. .
After a chat with Moha we agreed to have a quick look around the area of the Kasbah (the Auberge Kasbah Lahmada and then go to check out another nearby lake, followed by a visit to an “ethnic craft centre” in Merzouga. We sort of felt that the carpet shop was inevitable at some point during the holiday so decided that we wouldn’t argue against it, especially as the afternoon was advancing.
The lake had Ruddy Shelduck, Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank and Kentish Plover but the bulk of waders were over the far side and too far away to identify, even with the ‘scope. Two small children amused us enough to cause us to buy a couple of the trinkets that they were peddling then we went to find Moha to go in search of other birds. Hoopoe Larks seemed to be the commonest species away from habitation but apart from a German camper van and a few fishermen the larger lake seemed devoid of life when we arrived. The light was poor and a strong breeze had arisen but we decided to have a quick scan with the ‘scope anyway. 4-500 Greater Flamingos and a single Little Egret were the only species on view that we hadn’t already seen.
We didn’t buy any carpet and escaped from the craft centre without spending too much money, although we probably paid over the odds for some jewellery that we might not have bought had it been on sale in England, but we got back to the auberge in time to hear European Nightjars hunting over the lake.
The evening meal was predictable but tasty and we sat out for a while chatting to other guests before Moha and several other guides joined in with some of the staff for a prolonged and lively drumming session, accompanied from time to time by a few other instruments.
The highlight of our accommodation was the bed which was imaginatively positioned in its own little tent inside the room. The lowlight was definitely the plumbing. The toilet although apparently built into the floor was actually sort of balanced somehow and invited a careful approach. The sink looked like a sink but was really just a device to slow the trickle of water from the taps down before it hit the floor. It appeared to be held up by magic or some gravity defying device. Fortunately the shower was in a separate room and worked quite well – anyway it was only for one night.
Many people had told us that the sunrise at Erg Chebbi was something not to be missed and we were not disappointed. The colours in the sky and especially on the dunes were captivating and the mirror-calm lake simply added to the appeal and made for some very satisfying photos. We were accompanied on our morning walk by the auberge’s own celebrity, a large and amiable puppy called Alex.
Spring migration was very much in evidence at the lake plenty of hirundines including several Red-throated Swallows. A small spit had a few bushes and a Willow Warbler was singing from here, and another Tristram’s Warbler was showing well. A Common Sandpiper, a Yellow Wagtail and a Northern Wheatear all occupied spots at the water’s edge but a bird that kept appearing briefly on the ground before flying back up into the bushes was the one that got our attention. It didn’t take us long to confirm our first impressions – we were looking at out first Bluethroat – and a very pretty bird it was. Almost as good, the next bird we found, foraging mainly on the surface of the bushes was a Western Bonelli’s Warbler – yet another lifer.
That seemed to be about it for the lake so we went to have a look around the garden of the auberge. A fly-by Black-crowned Night Heron seemed out of place but the Tristram’s Warblers, of which we found several in the area recently planted with palms were becoming almost familiar. A Woodchat Shrike was using the fence as a watch point as a Brown-necked Raven flew over. White-crowned Black Wheatears were very much in evidence.
Following breakfast and a few more photos we agreed with Moha that he would take us around a few of the other hotels to see if we could find Desert Sparrow. We passed more Hoopoe Larks on the way to Café Yasmina and even more as we drove around the edge of Erg Chebbi but the sparrows eluded us.
We wanted to get back to Marrakech on the following day and had planned to more or less retrace our journey in reverse, with another stop for the Tagdilt Track, but the lure of monkeys got the better of us. Moha confirmed that we could make Azrou easily before dark and after rescuing him from a police roadblock (rather more threatening than it sounds – he was getting quite worried) we paid him and took him back to Rissani.
The road to Azrou is long and scenic, passing through the Atlas via Er Rachidia and the Ziz valley. There are settlements along the route that might have been built last week or could have been there for a thousand years and the road is of a high standard so you drive too fast past many places where you might want to stop a while, but the distances are large so too many delays would mean driving at night. Every now and then, though, you have to stop for a photo or two or even more. The wildlife highlight of the trip was a Jerboa that we saw quite well when we stopped to investigate a wadi just before the Er Rachidia 54 kms sign.
We had a late lunch in Zeida where there is a motorway service station type place. The food was fine but it wasn’t until we went to the toilets that we realised that had we gone upstairs or out at the back we could have eaten with splendid views of the snow-capped mountains, rather than the mound of rubble surrounding the municipal tip that we had been able to see from the tables at the front. For a more authentic experience, a stop in the small town of Middelt might have been more rewarding.
From here it was a drive straight through to Azrou, which we reached just after sunset having passed through some stunning cedar forests as the light declined. Our guide book recommended the Hotel Panorama and having passed another hotel as we drove through the centre we decided that this was the one we would look for. Absurdly we drove straight through town and encountered heavy, fast moving traffic and it took us about 4 miles before we could find a place to safely pull over and turn round. We stopped in the town centre and asked for directions to the hotel which we then found quite easily.
After checking in (348 Dirhams, room only – a bargain) we took a petite taxi into town and had an excellent evening meal in the Restaurant Echaab.
CC glanced out of the window sometime before sunrise to see whether the hotel really did have a panoramic view (it does ) and was astonished to see lots of small falcons in the sky. Jumping to conclusions he dragged JD out of bed “to see the Red-footed Falcons”. As the light improved it became obvious that these were not that species at all but were Kestrels, but by the time the sun had risen we had at least got a positive ID on Lesser Kestrels – clearly there is a big colony somewhere near the town. We continued to see them in the varying quantities for the rest of the morning.
We hadn’t booked breakfast in the hotel so walked down the hill to see what was happening in the centre, noting lots of White Storks on nests, plenty of Serins and a number of species common in the UK that we hadn’t seen before in Morocco. Azrou takes it’s name from the large rock near the centre of town around which there were hundreds (perhaps over 1000) of Cattle Egrets, roosting and presumably nest in the large trees across the road.
We found a nice place for breakfast across the road from Restaurant Echaab where we had coffee, fresh orange juice, mint tea and a couple of pastries each for about the cost of a coffee in some British city centres, all the while entertained by the egrets, kestrels and the general comings and goings of early morning in a Moroccan provincial town. We had time to estimate how many Lesser Kestrels might be around and we were satisfied that there were over 100.
Our next stop was an internet café to track down decent directions to the monkeys and then we went back to the hotel to check out, noting a pair of Cirl Buntings in the tree outside our room (number 33) and a distant flock of swifts including a couple of Alpine Swifts.
The monkey site took a little finding but we got there eventually, bought some peanuts at slightly inflated prices (fruit purchased from the market in Azrou might have been better value and is probably better for the monkeys) and went for a walk in the forest. We’d probably have gone for a walk anyway but we’d assumed, rather stupidly, that the monkeys would be down the obvious path. They weren’t – they were in the area behind the souvenir huts where there are a few picnic tables. Anyway the walk into the forest was pleasurable with butterflies, lizards and birds including a lovely close sighting of a Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreepers and frequent views of the spectacular local race of Chaffinch. Every bird that we thought might be Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker turned out to be a Mistle Thrush.
We headed back to the road to check for better directions but found a large group of Barbary Macaques before we had the chance. How we missed them in the first place was a mystery to us. The monkeys are clearly used to being fed and are very approachable and they expect to get a few goodies from just about every tourist.
Next was a long drive back to Marrakech, that we started off on at about lunchtime. We were hoping to get back before dark. We had a few stops where habitat looked interesting along this road but didn’t see much. A male Marsh Harrier was hunting over the steppe-like area at about 240 kms from Marrakech and we saw a few more representatives of this species from there onwards, along with numerous Southern Grey Shrikes.
We were getting quite hungry as the afternoon wore on and our guide book made the Bzou junction sound a bit interesting (i.e. slightly dodgy) so we stopped and had what was certainly the best tajine of the trip along with a couple of drinks each at the Restaurant de Gare for an incredible 70 dirhams. From then on it was a long drive through a succession of larger and busier towns until we missed a turn off about 60 kms from Marrakech in El Kalaa des Sragnah. By the time we worked out where we were on the map it actually made more sense to keep going and in the gathering darkness we crossed a huge, flat open area somewhere to the north-east of Marrakech that looked as if it might be worth exploring some day.
Finding our hotel in the dark and manic traffic of Marrakech took several attempts but we finally got safely back, feeling quite tired and a bit grubby. We decided to resist the temptations of the city centre, went for an adequate meal in one of the restaurants not far from the hotel, had a few drinks in the bar and had an early night.
The Common Bulbuls and House Buntings were in good voice early in the morning at the hotel and we good a few decent shots of a bunting by recording its song and playing it back. It was hopping around us looking very cross in seconds. In the hotel gardens around the pool we found a Common Whitethroat along with more numerous Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps.
A bit of sightseeing was in order for our last full day in Morocco and after returning our rental car we took a taxi to the beautiful Majorelle Gardens. The gardens are full of birds, at least in the morning in March and we can’t ever recall seeing quite so many Blackcaps at such close quarters. An overhead Lanner was a bit of a bonus, spotted when a sudden alarm call caused the birds in the garden to go quiet. A nondescript warbler high in the palms was probably Olivaceous but the angle wasn’t great and the bird was silent. Another probable was a brief glimpse of a large raptor that looked like a Booted Eagle but it disappeared behind a tree and didn’t reappear. By way of compensation the Olivaceous Warbler “sang”.
A cracking kebab-based lunch at one of the slightly scary looking establishments on a lane off Jemaa el Fna was followed by a brief and expensive encounter with snake charmers (you tell yourself that the live cobra has no doubt been milked of all venom and probably de-fanged too, but it’s still a live cobra and it’s about three feet away) and another wander through the souk where nougat and soap was purchased and finally a visit to the Saadian Tombs where a Spotless Starling was going through it’s repertoire which included almost spotless mimicry of a bulbul.
Dinner was again from the stalls in Jemaa el Fna. We had lentil soup at the place from the first night and then were tempted in to a restaurant with broader offerings. The food was ok but we were very disappointed to see that everything that we ordered (and this applied to the other tourists there as well) came as a double portion and of course we were charged double at the end of the meal. With the benefit of hindsight, the way to deal with this is probably to say “we didn’t order this” and send it back, but it’s too late for that now. We ended up paying for a lot of food that we didn’t eat and feeling ripped off so can only advise others to steer clear of stall number 117, no matter how amusing the waiters are as you walk by.
And that’s about it. The taxi ride to the airport the following morning and the flight back home was uneventful but we perhaps felt that a week in the area wasn’t enough. With plenty of flights and with places to eat and sleep easy to find, I’m sure that we’ll be back for more.