Moroccan Misadventures to Chez Moha - A Little Gem in Amellago and Its Gorges

Midelt’s not a town one would go to visit, but more use as one’s gateway for multiple activities in the neighbouring Atlases. That’s probably one of the only reasons why people (us including) end up staying in the unfriendly and unatmospheric small walled campsite, but conveniently positioned in the centre; Camping Municipal de Midelt. Many Moroccan campsite/B&Bs hosts welcome their guests with a pot of mint teas and, some times, even biscuits whilst filling in detailed forms (most ask for professions, purpose of trip etc). Although a nice touch, at times, it felt rather gruelling and time-consuming as the host starts telling you about the many and wonderful activities they offer/ lists the restaurants to go to their family relatives or friends run etc. They’re doing their business though and tourism is their bread and butter. I was ready to play the game, listen patiently and smile, but calmly brushing the offers off by saying we weren’t too interested.

Camping municipal de Midelt. Izzy, the motorhome's on the left hand-side, next to Meike & Stefan's red one.

Brief snow/rain fall this morning. The campsite reception building can be seen in the background. Entrance is on the left.

I don’t think he liked us too much after that. He stopped us in his white van on our way back to the campsite after a walk around town. Peering his head out of the window, it took me a few seconds to realise it was the campsite manager as he was asking us money for our two-night stay and shower(s)! He asked me questionably if I’d had a shower like my husband – I hadn’t. Right at this moment I was very happy I hadn’t. Back in the campsite, the story didn’t end there. Meike and Stefan had been pestered too not only about paying their due, but were forcefully asked about our whereabouts and when we’d be back! The whole shebang left us shocked and wordless. We needed to leave.

Although the events clouded our stay, we’d had a nice time getting to know Meike, Stefan and Benno. Accompanied with wine, beers and biscuits over the two nights, we shared travel stories motorhoming across Europe and others; love of music and films; working days and plans for the future. 

Jamie at the market in Midelt.

Was the cow's head fake?! No, it's all real... Vegetarianism doesn't sound that bad after all.

I don't think they've got enough [shoes], do they?

One of the cheesy old-fashioned photo stores we encountered across Morocco, here's one in Midelt.

Young Moroccan contesters for 'Morocco's Got Talent'? Some look freakishly 'adult-like' for their age.

Mint tea break after a walk through town. From left to right: Stefan, his son Benno and Jamie. 

Goobyes were sad, but it was time to move on; Stefan, Meike and little Benno needed to start making their way back home and we were heading further South; maybe as far as Western Sahara!

The pose for our last picture. Meike can be seen in their van. Somehow, Jamie looks like he's holding our van up with two fingers!

On the road again. A landscape reminding us of Nevada and Route 66 through Arizona.

Our first stop though before heading South was the mines of Aïouli (Les mines d'Aouli et Mibladène). The road through a narrow gorge was amazing, but when a young man on his motorbike started following us and wanting to stop us, I started being sceptical.. He only meant to advise us not to park our motorhome in the gorge, but to park it at the mines! As we parked Izzy, the motorhome at the entrance of the abandoned/derelict mine & town, young kids were smiling, running & cycling around us. I always found this nerve-wracking as we didn’t have any pens or clothes to give them (young kids who'd waved at us in small villages across Morocco always asked for such items). The kids looked disappointed, but our motorbiker, Ali spoke to them in Arabic and they left. We asked Ali how much we owed him for parking, but he wouldn’t accept anything. We asked several times, but nothing. It was strange. Was it a trick?

The road leading to the the mines of Aïouli.

The road got narrower and narrower as we made our way down through the gorge.

We waved off any bad thoughts and just had to trust people. It seemed that in its heydays the village/town of Aïouli had been prosperous one as workers and their families had been living altogether along the gorge. But buildings and houses seemed to have been abandoned as quickly as the mine shut down. It was eery. It also felt we were being watched. As we walked down through the derelict buildings, we realised that some seemed to have stayed behind. From the corner of my eyes, I caught a glimpse of three young men who were watching us. Aïouli even had its own mosque which looked still in use although no call for prayer was heard during our visit. It would have been great to continue deep into the gorge passed Aïouli, but it was getting late. We ate our packed sandwiches our legs dangling down the cliff with views onto the almost dried up river.

Derelict buildings, almost abandoned...

Even Facebook has made it in Aïouli.

The mosque can be seen on the left hand side.

The view from our lunch spot.

Once back to the abandoned village, we went up onto the iron bridge which leads to the entrance of the mine and its tunnels. The young motorbiker asked us if we’d liked to be given a tour. It’s then that we did proper presentations and exchanged names; the “young motorbiker” was called Ali. It sounded all exciting. We asked him several times how much he’d like, but he refuted our offers. Jamie and I thought then, he may change his mind or we’d buy him one of his precious stones.

Walking back to the van.

Izzy, the motorhome is still there and intact!

So we went. As we walked further and further into the tunnel, I got to know and came to trust our young guide. Ali and I were conversing in French and I would translate as much as I could back to Jamie. 23 years old Ali lived with his young wife, two babies (two years and nine months) and his parents in Aïouli. His dad, now 90 years of age had worked in the mine for 40 years and retired when the French left the mine and the country in 1975. Although his pension was fine to start with, with prices going up and up, his retirement money has seemed meagre for a few years. As his father could no longer provide for him and his wife, Ali came back home. Ali explained he couldn’t find any jobs after passing his baccalaureate with success. Although the mine is abandoned, Ali still works there, some times for hours to extract some of its minerals such as copper and gem stones.

Ali with Jamie on the bridge leading to the entrance of the mines at the start of our tour.

It’d been a long walk. Jamie was getting worried. As I was chatting away, not realising the time and how far we’d walked (3kms), he’d been wondering where Ali was bringing us. I reassured him after Ali told me he just wanted to show us a few things. As we came to a fork in the tunnel, abandoned carts lined up in front of us. Ali mentioned thousands were scattered around as everything had been left after the mine closed down. Further up, through a couple of rooms, the main lift that once lead workers up and down the six floors was now in disrepair. The mine had once been a huge enterprise. I wondered why everything had been left behind, in a hurry. Were there any animosity feelings towards the French. It seemed that they had taken a lot from Morocco, but had not given much back. Ali was adamant things were fine. “People were happy the French were there, providing them with a good income.” He said. I’m sure they did... at the time. I would have liked to talk to other Moroccans and other generations young and old about the subject.

Back outside, no bikes/motorhomes had been stolen! Jamie was relieved and me too... His worry had passed on to me. But, not all was finished. We offered Ali some money again several times which he turned down. He wanted us to buy one of his stones instead. We chose one (a small one). So far, so good, or so we thought. As I asked how much it cost, he asked me to say a price. 50 dirhams (Stefan had bought a similar, but fake stone for seven dirhams in Midelt). He laughed it off and seem to be offended had even come out with such a meagre amount. Some of his stones were worth 500 dirhams. He told us again how long it takes him to extract and clean each ones. I didn’t like where this was going and could feel myself being edgy and stressed.

Back outside... Izzy's still here!

I took a deep long breath and tried to explain we didn’t have that kind of money available. Jamie and I keep a close look at our expenses. We don’t buy souvenirs apart from the few postcards. As postage would be dear, we buy birthday presents online. But I wasn’t going to tell him all this – us with our shiny motorhome, how could we not part with our money? I told him we’d be more than happy to give him the 50 dirhams for our guided tour. He started to flip. “I wasted my time!” he said. I was shocked. I felt betrayed. Ali had seemed such a nice and honest young man. “We never asked you to take us to the mine; you asked us.” “We were happy to give you some money for it”. I replied.

One of his friends had joined him by then. They talked together in Arabic. As we were packing our things, Ali asked us about a present; something we could give him in exchange for the stone. I told Jamie, but couldn’t think of anything. Jamie handed him a 16Gb memory card we had. Ali didn’t seem to be pleased about it at first. He finally took it with the 50 dirhams. We said bye, exhausted. What an episode it’d been. It was finally over.

We managed to find a beautiful spot to camp that evening. In the middle of the harsh and arid plateau between Aïouli and the town, Rich. The quietness of the sunny morning was slightly perturbed as Jamie noticed goat farmers and their herd getting closer to our van. Jamie went out and said hi and kindly asked if he could take a picture of them. He quickly came back in telling me they’d asked him for money in exchange for their picture. He was so surprised that we ended up laughing about it. Not everybody wants to be part of a stranger’s travelling photo album, do they?!

Our beautiful wild camping spot.

Dramatic landscape between Midelt and Rich.

Lunch spot in the desert.

Cute donkeys en route to Rich.

We hadn’t had too much luck so far, but these had only been a few encounters. This wasn’t Morocco and Moroccans. It was a few who were desperately trying to make their money one way or another. These were part of our travelling journey; the few hiccups along the way. 

Leaving camp, we headed for late morning coffees in Rich (also known as Er-Rich). A small (to Western European standards – it was one of the biggest towns we’d gone through) mountain town with a nice big square and a small souk. After going back and forth around the square to find a parking place, we parked near other cars and coaches – it was busy. Our [parking] guardian came over and charged us 40 dirhams. For only a couple of hours max. the price seemed excessive. In Meknès – a much bigger and more visited city, we had paid 40 dirhams for our overnight stay, paid in full at the end. But, our guardian didn’t strike me as one to negotiate with. Unfriendly, grumpy and borderline rude, this old black broad man seemed bitter with foreigners and life.

A short stroll and a quick look at the souk, we finally sat down at one of the main cafés dotted around the main square. After several attempts explaining our order to our quiet and young waiter; one mint tea, one coffee and one orange juice, it’s only when Jamie showed him on the menu what we wanted that he understood. Could he have been deaf? He’d really had had to look at us and wouldn’t do any chatting, not only to us, but to any of the many locals sat too. He also had very effeminate mannerisms. If he really was deaf and gay, Rich didn’t strike us as a gay and handicapped-friendly city.

One of the main streets off the main square in Rich leading to the souk.

Jamie sat at the terrace of Café Hafid, Rich.

Many cafés in Morocco are still mostly frequented by men, especially in the  villages  and towns through the Middle and High Atlas.

Back to the van our guardian had decidedly planned to get more out of us. As we ignored his demands (more money) walking back to the van; we thought it better than getting into an argument, he blocked Jamie’s door with his hand. As money wasn’t working, he was now asking for a present. Left on the driver’s step, he asked for Jamie’s smelly battered New Balance trainers/sneakers. He still wears them to this day. Jamie managed to find a gap and shut the door without snapping his fingers. Shaken and shocked, Jamie started the engine. We left with a bitter feeling.

We weren’t having too much luck so far. Our next stop couldn’t have been more the opposite. The other extreme of the “friendliness spectrum”. After a few days wild camping, we needed to charge the van, water and shower. “Chez Moha” became our refuge for the day/night. Ali, one of Moha’s four sons and the main running manager welcomed us in his family’s pretty Berber riad in the small village of Amellago.and its gorges. Down a narrow dirt track between the villagers’ houses, Chez Moha’s tall iron-gate opened onto a hidden gem. A small parking space opposite a cute one-floor riad and its pretty courtyard/terrace/garden/allotment. Ali’s father, a frail 80 year old wearing a traditional Berber hijab, and his wife offered us tea whilst waiting for their son. With his limited French and my poor Arabic, we still managed to communicate the odd sentences sat comfortably overlooking their beautiful garden and home.

'Chez Moha', Amellago.

Moha showed us their rooms too. Simply, but beautifully decorated with colourful Berber rugs. As inviting as they looked, we hesitated, but shortly dismissed the idea preferring to save a bit of money, but still enjoy one of their home-made traditionally cooked dinner in their lounge/tea-room/restaurant. Once settled, plugged in and agreed time and dishes for our dinner, we set off to the gorge on our bikes. It was sunny and beautiful. The quietness and stillness only perturbed by the few women working on the gorges’ green beds and few children smiling and trying to “high-five” us.

Our bike ride through the gorge outside Amellago.

Dramatic rock faces.

Buildings in semi-abandon and carcasses of old vehicles. Another scene reminiscent of Route 66.

The gates of the town of Assoul. Many towns and cities had similar gates in the country.

Stopped behind the gate eating our packed lunch.

'Him and her'.

An abandoned village below the valley on the way back.

Showered, dressed and feeling revigorated, we heartily ate our Moroccan soups and a traditional Berber tagine of rice, tomatoes, peas and minced beef. It really felt fresh and homemade. Ali spent time with us at the end of our meal. It was lovely to sit down together and hear about his family, their business and their culture. One story that stayed with us was when he welcomed a man and his friend who needed a place to stay for the night – they didn’t have any money. They had been travelling across Morocco in a battered car. Ali offered them mattresses, showers and food. They thanked them and said they’d come back to repay him. Two years later, Ali had put the event in the back of his mind. A man came in with a big 4x4 and asked if they’d welcome a party of 6 for a week. It was the same man who’d needed shelter.

I’m not sure if I would have done the same, Jamie would. Sometimes you have to trust people. I wished we could have stayed longer, but we needed to get on. We thanked our hosts, took cards. Jamie and I hope we’ll come back and visit Moha and his family one day.

Excellent homemade food in a cosy-homely atmosphere. 'Bienvenue Chez Moha'!


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