From Merzouga we turned west into the Draa valley and the Todra and Dades gorges. The Todra was first, a tight, narrow gorge with sheer sides about 300m tall. A spring at the end of the gorge fuels a little stream which runs down into the plane and two hotels sit, inside the gorge, at the source of the spring.
I was delighted to find that the Todra is excellent climbing country and has been already bolted so that aspiring climbers like me don't need to bring too much gear to climb it. A return trip might be in order with some equipment, a climbing partner and a week or so to explore.
The second gorge the Dades is larger and more well populated. A small town (Boulamne du Dades) extends out of the gorge and into the desert. The gorge is also the home of a number of large and decaying kasbah's (fortress) that make spectacular sights against the knobbly hills of the gorge.
We spent the night in a hotel located in the heart of the gorge and arose in the morning to the traditional breakfast of fresh bread, potent coffee and apricot jam. (While this sounds appetizing enough, it pales after nine or fifteen consecutive breakfasts. This appears to be the only breakfast available in Morocco. From Essaouria to Zagora I didn't see a single thing at brekky except for coffee, bread and apricot jam).
From the gorges it was another long bus ride back over the mountains to Marrakech.
That night in Marrakech the tour group decided to hang together for one final celebratory dinner which didn't include couscous, tagine or brochettes. We finally settled on a pizzeria that was listed in the Lonely Planet as being licensed, a rare and beautiful thing in Morocco. When we arrived however we were informed by a regretful maitre'd that they had lost their liquor license two years ago because someone had finally noticed that they were selling liquor within a stone's throw of the largest mosque in Marrakesh, the Koutoubia. However, one of our party was escorted by a waiter to a seedy basement store where he was able to purchase a case of beer and a bottle of wine so our celebration didn't have to go unmoistened.
The next day we split up with some of us going some north to Fes, Tangiers and Spain and the rest west to the Atlantic coast and the seaside resort of Essaouria. Two of the American girls and the token Frenchman also joined us later in Essaouira.
Essaouira is said to be a fantastic Moroccan town in which you can take a break from Morocco. It certainly is more relaxed and friendly and although a certain amount of hustling still goes on it is positively amicable.
On our last night there we were approached by one street corner hawker who offered to swap anything for our shoes. Carpets, jewellery, other shoes, camels, you name it – it all could be had for a pair of Western style adventure sandals.
The relaxed life style in Essaouira probably comes from its proximity to the sea. While Marrakech was baking in 45° C, Essaouira was a lovely but windy 28° C. The sea also offers the best attractions of Essaouira, seafood and windsurfing.
Essaouira boasts what is reputed to be Morocco's finest restaurant (I doubt it) in the seafood Restataurant du Port, Chez Sam's. We dined their one night on Sea Bass taken from the mornings catch on the wharves no more than 5m away. There are also a host of restaurants slightly less salubrious than Chez Sam's and a fantastic outdoor barbecue market where you can get fish, prawns, calamari and clams caught that day and cooked in front of you. The market costs somewhere between 20dh and 60dh for a meal (£1-4) including salad and bread (the same meal in London would cost me in excess of £40).
Our favourite haunt in Essaouira though was the Café Taros above the main square. The café was quiet, served good coffee and featured a smarmy, wise cracking waiter who's only response when I inquired if he could tell me what the desert du jour was, was 'Oui!'.
We spent four nights in Essaouira before we once again split up and went our separate ways. I was sadly going home and back to work, most of them were staying in Essaouira and Gareth, with only a little effort, had been persuaded to go off to Fes, Meknes and Volubilis with the two American girls.
The main thing Morocco taught me though was how small the world really is. We met various odd people there, including a small brown child who accosted us in the street and demanded to know which suburb of London we came from – it turned out he went to school in Walthamstow, but the oddest was definitely the rastafarian. This skinny brown gentleman snuck up on us in the main square of Essaouira and joined in the conversation. After a while I noticed he was talking with a fairly broad but weird Australian/Moroccan accent and asked him where he picked up the Aussie accent.
'I'm an Australian mate' he replied.
'Yeah right – where are you from ?'
Turns out he was from Perth. He spent two years living in Northbridge, playing football for the Perth Glory and surfing in Margaret River. He ended up in Essaouira for a kite surfing competition.
Now, I'm back at work in smoggy London, riding the packed tube to work and eating frozen dinners. But it's not all bad, no-one has tried to sell me a carpet in the last 72 hours.