EDITOR'S NOTE: When he isn't tending to business at the racetrack, Milwaukee Mile Chairman Craig Stoehr is an avid traveler who regularly visits exotic lands like Morocco (pictured) and has agreed to share his adventures with OnMilwaukee.com readers. During this installment, Stoehr and some friends ring in 2007 with an African safari.
MY NEW YEAR'S TRIP TO AFRICA started out with a bang -- literally. While waiting in the Madrid airport for my connecting flight to Morocco on December 30, I felt the entire airport shake violently. My first thought was that a plane had crashed into the airport. Then, after 15 minutes of bewilderment, chaos erupted, with people stampeding onto the tarmac via the departure gates. Outside, a rising plume of black smoke was visible; a car bomb had exploded, killing two. The responsible group was ETA, the Basque separatist group. After five hours on the tarmac, I was on my way to Morocco, where I met up with my German travel companions, Kolja and his wife, Nina. Months earlier, we had planned to drive Kolja's Range Rover through West Africa.
On New Year's Eve, we arrived in Fes, one of the oldest medieval cities in the world and long the cultural and religious center of Morocco, where we walked through the endless maze of narrow alleys that make up the medina (‘Old City'), stepping over numerous hides taken from those unfortunate sheep slaughtered earlier in the day to celebrate a local holiday. We explored the various shops, purchasing three djellabas (traditional garments) for $60 after hard bargaining. We then returned to our hotel and rang in the New Year in traditional Moroccan style.
Eastern & Central Morocco
On New Year's Day, we drove to Merzouga in eastern Morocco, stopping to hire Abdul, a guide who would lead us over the correct piste or dirt road to the Erg Chebbi sand dunes (advisable so as not to stray near the Algerian border, where numerous land mines are buried). The evening was marked by a sunset camel trek through the drifting sand dunes, which at times rise to almost 1,000 feet. Early the next morning, we set off for two hours of off-road driving on part of the infamous Paris-Dakar Rally route. After our limited sojourn, we wondered aloud how the drivers who would follow us in a week could endure two weeks of such intense pounding.
After saying goodbye to Abdul, we headed for the High Atlas. Bouncing through the many Berber towns, we were accosted by children asking for stylos (pens) and bon bons (candy). Although the drive took six hours, the experience was worth it. We spent the evening in Ouarzazate, visiting the Atlas movie studios the next morning, which have played host to films such as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. From Ouarzazate, it was on to Ait Benhaddou, an 11th century kasbah still home to 700 residents featured in over 20 films, including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. From there, we headed for Marrakech, one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in the Muslim world.
Much of the activity in Marrakech takes place at the city's central square, the Djemma-al-Fna. Here, you can be entertained by snake charmers and storytellers, as well as enter the souqs, where you can bargain for just about anything. After taking in the excitement, we dined at Bo Zin, a new restaurant frequented by Marrakech's ‘scenesters.' After an enjoyable meal and several bottles of wine, we headed for a nightclub close to our hotel, where we were entertained by women dancing with plates full of candles on top of their heads -- an impressive display of balance.
The Real Adventure Begins
On January 4, we drove to Agadir, a tourist haven on the Atlantic, breaking up the day with a stop at Sir Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot resort. The highlight of the day, however, was crossing the Tizi-n-Test mountain pass. Accounting for the most annual auto fatalities in Morocco, it was loaded with blind corners, drops of thousands of feet with no guardrails, and locals who drive with absolutely no fear; a mangled car we saw on the way down that must have plummeted thousands of feet was a testament to the dangers we encountered.
After a stop in Taroudannt, where I purchased a ‘Hand of Fatima' necklace (worn by Moroccan men for good luck), we turned in for the evening in Agadir. There, Kolja and I pondered a possible dilemma for the following days -- whether we would be able to find unleaded gas on our drive south. Kolja's Range Rover dealer in Munich had told him using leaded gas would ruin the engine, thereby prematurely ending our trip.
With this in mind, we headed for Layounne. As fate would have it, we could not find unleaded gas. Dangerously close to empty, we found a local in Tarfaya with a 1950's tow-truck, arranging for him to follow us. After 25 miles, we required his services (as Kolja stated, this was likely the best-planned ‘running out of gas' in the Sahara's history). After tanking up with unleaded gas in Layounne, I phoned a friend in Milwaukee, who told us we could use leaded gas for years before ruining the engine. Armed with this information, we turned in for the night, heading for the Mauritanian border the next morning.
We spent the next evening in a town comprised of only a gas station and hotel. Truly, it felt as though we were at the end of the world, with a smattering of locals as well as European adventure travelers. It was here that I tasted a Moroccan delicacy -- camel meatballs in a traditional tajine. The meal was excellent, and the camel well worth trying.
After getting our passports stamped, changing money and purchasing car insurance at three separate shacks (literally), along with $25 that the French refer to as cadeau or 'gifts', and we refer to as bribes, we were on our way to the capital, Nouakchatt ('Place of the Winds'), over a new highway. Prior to the highway's completion in 2005, the trip took 24 hours over dirt roads, and required a local guide, 90 miles driven on the beach at low tide, and one night in the desert.
The ‘Road of Hope' and Sub-Saharan Africa
After resting for several days in Nouakchatt (a dirty and dusty place most certainly reserved for unlucky diplomats), we headed east 600 miles along the Route de l'Espoir or ‘Road of Hope,' spending the day dodging camels, donkeys, cows and goats. We reached our destination of Ayoun-al-Atrous at nightfall, where we found the best hotel in town so inhospitable (the beds were covered with dead mosquitoes) that I chose to sleep in the car.
Desperate to reach Bamako, Mali's capital, we left early the next morning, reaching the border in an hour, and checking into the five-star Kempinski on the Niger River before nightfall. Bamako was a vibrant city where we saw many women walking in colorful clothing, using their heads to carry a wide variety of goods as they walked. This was the sub-Saharan Africa we had read about.
The next day, we headed for the local market, where we were met by vendors selling a wide variety of exotic things used in local medicines - monkey heads, dead bats and mice, lions' teeth, and numerous other unusual items. After some hard bargaining, I bought three African masks to hang in my condo.
After two weeks together, Kolja, Nina and I then said our goodbyes, and I flew to Dakar, Senegal, where I spent a Saturday night on the town in sub-Saharan Africa's most vibrant city, and the home of world music. First stop: Thiossone, a live music venue owned by the legendary Senegalese Grammy Award winner, Yousou N'Dour. Second stop: La Scala, Dakar's most popular nightclub. The next two days were spent relaxing poolside on the Atlantic, and tooling around town on a rented scooter, taking in the sites.
And then it was time to leave the 90-degree weather, but not before my baggage spent two extra days in Dakar. Upon arriving home, I couldn't help but look forward to returning, as Kolja, Nina and I had agreed we would return to Bamako later this year, and continue on overland through Mali (to Timbuktu), Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Niger, and perhaps Chad (if rebel forces no longer are within gunshot of the capital).
IF YOU GO: MARRAKECH
Getting There: All the major European airlines fly from Chicago to Casablanca via Europe, and Royal Air Maroc flies non-stop from New York to Casablanca.
Sights: Djemma-el-Fna (the central square where you can watch acrobats and snake charmers in action); the Koutoubia mosque; and the souqs (be prepared to bargain hard).
Lodging: Top hotels include the Sultana (very ‘in'), Les Jardins de la Medina, Les Cigognes and the Sofitel (and La Moumounia, if its renovation is complete); alternatives include the sumptuous riads (large traditional courtyard homes converted into small boutique hotels), such as La Maison al Arabe, Riad Farnatchi, Riad Malika, Dar Doukkala or Riad Mabrouka. All have websites.
Restaurants/Bars: Visit the world famous Yacout, Chez Chegrouni, Dar Marjana or Stylia for traditional Moroccan cuisine; head for Comptoir, Fondouk or Bo Zin to rub elbows with the local and foreign social set. Grab a drink at Bodega, Comptoir or La Casa; dance until 5:00a.m. at Montecristo or New Feeling.
Beyond Marrakech: Worth visiting are Essaouira (a beautiful town on the Atlantic), Fes (Morocco's oldest imperial city), Ouarzazate (to get to the exotic and well preserved kasbah Ait Benhaddou and Atlas movie studios), Merzouga (for a camel trek or to experience part of the Paris-Dakar Rally route in the amazing Erg Chebbi sand dunes) and Tangier (on the Mediterranean). Casablanca (unlike the image conjured up by the eponymous classic movie) and Rabat (the capital) do not offer much of interest.