So we sailed from Tanger to Rabat, the trip was nice, something around 30 hours and good wind half of the trip. Rabat is a little tricky to get in, the tide needs to be high so we couldn’t wait for the wind to return and turned on the engine for the second half of the trip. A shame but lots and lots of dolphins made up for it! What made the trip a bit exhausting were the myriads of fishing boats everywhere. Since we don’t have a working radar and most of these boats don’t have AIS the only thing left was to keep careful watch, day and night. Luckily we had no fog, that would have been a bummer.
Rabat welcomed us with beautiful weather, a promenade busy with people and many colorful rowing boats that connect Rabat with its sister city Sale (and other destinations more upstream).
The river Bouregreg separates them and to get from one city to the other you can either take a tram across the bridge or take the more traditional way and get in a boat that takes you over for only 2DH (20c). That’s what we did the day after we had arrived and Rabat completely surprised us!
When we had read about Morocco and its sights it was all about Marrakech and Fes, at least according to our superficial research. Rabat is a relaxed and beautiful Moroccan city with busy Souks (markets), an enchanting Kasbah (fortified quarter) in white and blue and direct access to the Atlantic.
Sale on the other side of the river is like Rabat but more conservative and traditional with its many markets and small shops (not one supermarket inside the walled Medina!). There aren’t many tourists in neither of both cities which has the nice side effect that as a foreigner you’ll get bothered a lot less by vendors, fake guides and beggars.
We walked around Rabat and Sale for hours and hours and were completely absorbed in exotic smells, muezzin calls and all those beautiful colors of spices, clothes and vegetables. On our 2nd day we encountered the famous Moroccan hospitality when we met wonderful Loubna in the neighborhood’s Orange shop (the phone company, not the fruit). She would help us with everything, organize us the print of name cards, help us find the market, get us internet on the boat and so much more. She even invited us for lunch and dinner with her family at her house and introduced us to Moroccan food and costums! We tried Couscous, Harira (a soup based on lamp stock and chick peas that is typically served during Ramadan at fast-breaking), Moroccan pancake (Msemmen, the best!!) and freshly brewed Mint Tea, everything tasted absolutely amazing and we found new friends. At dinner I just mentioned that I found Henna hands really pretty and half an hour later Loubna’s Henna lady came over to paint my hands, what an experience. I hadn’t realized that the painting and drying part is an important part of a Henna ceremony: Of course you can’t use your hands so you are supposed to sit still and let everyone around you cater for you, feed you, bring you stuff etc.
Even though we totally fell in love with Rabat, Sale and Loubna and her family we still wanted to explore Morocco a bit further so we rented a car. Which was an adventure in itself. Lesson learned: don’t try to rent a car short notice in Morocco. At least not via a portal.
However, after only 3 days we managed to get ourselves a decent car and we took off, first stop Casablanca’s Decathlon to buy 2 small tents. We continued along a very good and very empty highway to Marrakesh where we set up our tents at the nearby beautiful campsite. I said the campsite was beautiful and it was but the owner was a very grumpy French lady. When we asked her about parking inside the city of Marrakesh she would reply: „Ohhhh, pepöl can ask many kwöshtiöns.
Marrakesh was fascinating, busy, exhausting, beautiful and everything at the same time. Its location is somewhat spectacular – the layout is flat and the landscape looks like an oasis – very dry and only dappled with palm trees and desert plants – and you can see the High Atlas in the background. In fact it is called the only oasis that is West of the Atlas.
Trip to the desert
From Marrakesh (after a somewhat unpleasant check-out at the campsite – the manager wanted to charge us a second time!!) we continued our road trip through Morocco – next stop: the Sahara. We had heard beforehand that there was the option to sleep in a Berber’s tent in the Sahara and the boys were intrigued! Morocco doesn’t have a big part of the Sahara, there are basically two places where it’s recommended to go and where there the infrastructure for visitors: Erg Chebbi and Erg Chegaga. The former near the more touristy town of Merzouga, the latter near the more remote village of M’hammedia. We opted for the latter which meant a loooooong drive from Marrakesh to Zagora – the nearest town.
So we crossed the High Atlas (stunning), passed by Aït Ben Haddou (which is regularly used as film set, for example in Game of Thrones) and driving through countless more Kasbahs and oases. Arriving in Zagora just before sunset we again stayed in a campsite (Camping Oasis) and again we were surprised by the pleasantness, beauty and cleanliness of Moroccan campsites – and about how cheap it was! We payed around €10 for all 4 of us per night including the car. They even gave as a Nomad tent so we didn’t have to put up our own. Which sounds fancier than it admittedly was, after 1 night on very filthy mattresses and various undefined bugs we decided to use our own tents.
From there we went to shop for a desert adventure tour. We experienced Moroccan people as very kind, warm but also very fierce when it came to business. Everyone wants to sell you something at all times and they will tell you whatever you want to hear. So we took the time beforehand to do our homework and research recommended tour guides. For our German readers: Make sure to get „Reise Know-how Marokko“ by Astrid Därr. This book has you covered for everything you want to see and do in the country and it recommends tour guides! And unless you are lucky to be driving a 4-wheel-car, you will have to take a guided tour – the ‚road‘ to Erg Chegaga leads you right through the desert. Tour prices can vary significantly, not only because some companies try to rip you off. Make sure to check what cars they have and how they treat their animals (in case you are interested in riding camels for example). Not that they would tell you but you can check on the internet by reading reviews and ratings.
Erg Chegaga itself is the name of the highest sand dunes in Morocco. The Sahara has many faces and many different kinds of deserts: stone deserts, rock deserts, sand deserts, just to name some. Not all of the Sahara has these signature sand dunes that we tend to think of when we hear „Sahara“. But Erg Chegaga is exactly how you would think the Sahara looks like. We booked our 2-day tour, hopped in the 4-wheel car and it was a bumpy 2-hour drive to a group of Nomad-stlye tents that had been specifically set up for tourists. It was a little tacky for my taste but the boys loved it. And what can I say: the quietness and THAT night sky were unforgettable. Tacky or not, we would have stayed another night but we only had 3 more days with the car and there was still so much more we wanted to see. But my recommendation for anyone doing this trip would definitely be: Take at least 2 nights in the desert!
Monkeys and more
So the next day after we were taken back to M’hammedia, we drove to Merzouga and Erg Chebbi for more dunes. Erg Chebbi is much easier to reach and hence much more touristy than Erg Chegaga. The dunes are still very beautiful and we chose to put up our tent directly in one of the dunes that was next to a campsite. Romantic in theory but the reality was that the desert is very much alive and just after sunset we were invaded by bugs! Too tired to move the tents somewhere else we finally fell asleep and got woken by a guided camel tour that was passing by very close. Like very very close.
Time to pack up and off we drove, back up North. The plan was to reach Fez by night and make a stop near Azrou in the Middle Atlas to watch some Barbary macaques that were supposed to be very tame. After our experience in Gibraltar Jari was enthusiastic about seeing more of these little fellows. And since in Gibraltar it was prohibited to feed them and here it was not, he was even more excited.
Well, it was a very interesting experience and a teachable moment for Jari. We found the monkeys and we also found them to be rather aggressive. As soon as they realized someone was carrying food, they’d try to get it from you. It was almost a bit scary! So Jari realized it wasn’t such a bad thing after to prohibit feeding these animals like they were doing in Gibraltar. The apes in Gib were so much more playful and fun!
Last stop Fez and again, such an interesting place! We took a guide this time, being fed up from all the hassle that we had experienced in other places. The huge advantage of a guide is that other people (traders, beggars and false guides) leave you alone. We learned so much about Fez and Morocco, about the competition between those two ancient cities, we visited a traditional tannery and found the most charming tea house (Café Clock). Fez is so different to Marrakesh and they both have their very unique charm.
Time to get back to Ponyo and to Rabat/Sale. And after spending about 10 days in much more touristy places we really appreciated the laid back and related atmosphere of this twin city. We could stroll around and hardly ever get molested. The prices were more realistic and people were nice even when they weren’t trying to sell you anything.
Rabat would definitely be an option to be living aboard Ponyo for some months. The food is fantastic, the people are great and there’s so much to see and do. The international airport of Casablanca isn’t far away and you can easily explore the country by car or train.
Sty tuned for our upcoming blogpost about mooring in Essaouira!
Some info for fellow sailors – Rabat
If you are planning to leave the boat somewhere in Morocco to explore the country by car or train, Rabat is the place to go. The inexpensive marina (we only payed about €10 incl. everything for our 13,80 monohull) is super calm and safe (the heavily guarded marina is inside the Bouregreg river on the Sale side) and being the capital it’s excellently connected by trains and roads.
Only be aware when you rent a car via portal: don’t do it too spontaneously. We made the unnerving experience that whenever we tried to get a car for the next day or the day after that we’d get a very short notice cancellation. Apparently Moroccan car rental companies (locations, in French) prefer to have a 48hours+ notice, aha. We payed €130.- for a week without the extra insurance the company wanted to sell to us and everything went smoothly.
Drones are prohibited in Morocco, you will have to declare them and they will be taken away during your stay. Better don’t try to fool the officials, upon arrival all boats get visited and searched by costums (sometimes even bringing their dog). Not specifically for drones, of course, but they wouldn’t be amused to find one, I’m quite certain.
Internet is really inexpensive in Morocco, we purchased 10 GB data with Orange (go to Loubna’s shop in Sale’s main street and say hi from the PONYO crew!) for our little router. It only cost us 100 Dirham (less than 10€) plus 30 Dirham connecting fee. Don’t forget to bring your passport.
Nuisances: I can’t go into this any deeper at this point but do your homework before you go and explore any Moroccon city in terms of what to expect. There are so called faux guides (false guides) who will try to trick you by engaging you in conversations and then charging you for their ‚guidance‘.
There will be people on the side of a road pretending to have car troubles who will ask you for a ride and then lure you into their shop. That happened to us once and we were really upset to have been taken advantage of like this.
Always compare prices, never believe anything at first. But don’t take anything personally either: to outsmart someone else is like the unofficial national sport in Morocco (and in many corners of the world). I see it merely as a culture we are not familiar with and we don’t do ourselves a favor by getting all upset about it.