“Alice, what are you doing tomorrow? Are you free to test out a new Marrakech tour for us? It is round the city in a vintage sidecar, ” said Charlie from Epic Morocco. Woo hoo! I was digging my Biggles goggles, jodphurs and leather jacket out of the cupboard before he could finish his sentence.
At 9 am the next morning, Felix from Insiders Experiences roared up to my front door, and raised my street cred to previously unattained heights. The idea behind the tours is to give people a sidecar-sized view of Marrakech and also the “friend experience”, show them the bits of Marrakech that you get to see when you live here. The bits that you take friends and family to when they visit.
ALL ABOUT THE BIKE
The bike and sidecar have a fascinating history. The original version, the BMW R71, was designed by the Wehrmacht to transport them across the steppes for the invasion of Russia. When they discovered their existence, the Russians secretly bought five and took them through Sweden into the Soviet Union. There, they reverse engineered them, and started producing them themselves, the URAL M72. The one we were riding had evolved a bit with concessions to better brakes, bearing and suspension but as Felix said, “They keep the heart and look of the original machine and even though the rest of the world has moved on and forgotten about these machines, in Russia they are still going strong.”
We started off by going round the back streets and into the Palmeraie – the giant palm gardens of Marrakech which stretch miles across the plain. We quickly zipped off road and then we were zooming down the dirt tracks, in and out of tiny mud-built clusters of villages and past surprised donkeys. It is incredible to me that just five miles from my house in the centre of Marrakech you are transported to a different world.
Camels are everywhere in the Palmeraie, and we stopped off at a camp where there was a group of mothers and babies. They were so tame that we could go up (carefully) and stroke their soft noses. They were just dozing in the shade of the trees or munching on hay that was left for them.
Felix led me up a little ridge to where there was a series of 15 metre holes dug into the red clay. I was a bit bemused until he explained that they were irrigation wells and channels. There used to be 700km of these channels right around the Marrakech plain, some stretching 30km to the base of the Atlas. They work using gravity as the plain is on a gentle slope. They take the form of a series of underground tunnels with wells dug down to them, which allows the air to circulate and pull the water through. The tunnels gradually come up to ground level and there the water is pooled and distributed to the crops.
But now, they are dry. Water used to be found at just three metres below the surface, today you have to dig 80 – 100 metres to reach it. Population explosion, intensive farming, swimming pools, gardens and golf courses are the reason. A golf course uses as much water as 10,000 people and there are 14 courses around Marrakech….
Back on the bike, we headed for the Medina, taking a shortcut across the area where the tanners dry their skins before treating them. Medina just means “city” in Arabic and in the Marrakech context it means the area inside the old city walls. The walls and all the houses are rose-coloured and it is a maze of narrow alleys, streets blocked with mule carts and bicycles, and shops and stalls teeming with customers. I was glad I wasn’t driving.
Being in the sidecar, you are low down enough to get a completely different angle on Marrakech life and to peer nosily into all the hidden corners. It is a dream for photography because no-one is concentrating on you so you can capture some great shots. It is also just incredible fun. You are right in the throng, waiting for horses and carriages to pass, or backing up when someone on a heavily-laden bicycle needs to pass. You get to go through neighbourhoods that most visitors wouldn’t go into and to see life away from the tourist areas.
Felix also pointed out some things I didn’t know.
- The butchers hang testicles above the meat to let you know it comes from a male animal
- The oldest toilet in Marrakech
- Tea arrived in Morocco during the Crimean war. Britain had a whole load of it that had been destined for Russia and needed to offload it cheaply. The ruler of Morocco at the time bought the whole lot. He was worried that his people had started to get a taste for alcohol, so he distributed it and told them it was … “Berber Whisky”
An apocryphal tale? Who cares! It is a really good one. We finished off, of course, with a cup of tea and a lovely view over the city to the mountains and then I got dropped off right outside my door. Am thinking of getting a motorbike licence….
Next time you are in Marrakech, try it …………. http://insidersexperience.com/