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Michael’s Travel Diary

Wednesday, 07 Jan 2009

Location: Saharan Desert Adventure, Morocco

MapJanuary 3rd –
It was an early morning for all concerned. Nat and the pilots were off to the airport at 715 am, whilst I was picked up from the hotel at 645 am for my desert trip over the next few days. The trip was a bit of a false start as we seemed to sit in front of the tour companies’ office for an hour and it was some time around 8 am that we finally headed off. Usually not too bad, but they had a reading of the Koran playing on the radio from the minute I got in the minivan until 9am! Way too long to listen to stuff you really don’t understand. Plus the leg room in the van was non-existent.

We headed south east out of Marrakech and up, through and over the High Atlas mountains which were truly spectacular. I was quite surprised just how much snow there was at the top of the mountains. I knew there’d be some as you could see it through the haze from Marrakech, but there was heaps. The mountain pass just kept going on and on and on, and there was snow at the top of the peaks for miles and miles.

After a few hours, and a couple of photos stops, it was clear that our ‘guide’ would be doing nothing more than driving the van at break neck speeds through the mountains (he seemed to keep to the 80km/hr speed limit even whilst taking the hairpin bends on the mountain) and saying one word things like “toilet”, “photo” and “lunch” to further enhance our tour experience. One other thing that became apparent is his lack of interest in slowing down to drive through a town, instead just increasing his horn rate to 30 beeps per minute, allowing everyone in the town to know he was going through. The other weird one was his habit of picking locals up in one town and driving him to another town, which I can only assume was a supplemental income for him, and probably added miles and hours to our already long journey!

We made it to Ait-Benhaddou (A-B) around 1145 am and ordered lunch. This I think is another kick back the driver gets as he made a habit of stopping for lunch where there was only ever one option for places to eat, and he always seemed to know the people working there. Anyway, we order and then head off to explore the area for 45 minutes whilst waiting for the food. A-B has seen a surge in tourism since scenes from Gladiator the movie were shot here years ago. The scenes when “The Spaniard” or Maximum Aurilius is bought as a slave and has his first fights is filmed at the old city Kasbah which is situated atop a massive hill. It is quite a sight and the Kasbah is separated from the rest of the newer part of the city by a river that is crossed by stepping stones or stepping sandbags. Lawrence of Arabia and Jesus of Nazareth were also both filmed in points here.

After lunch we continued on our long journey with brief stops in Ouarzazate and Skoura for photo breaks, and then into Dades Gorge where we spent the evening. The hotel we stayed in was right in the gorge and backed onto the river running through the gorge. We had dinner there, and with very little (nothing) to do after dark, most everyone called it quits pretty early and headed off to bed.

January 4th –
We started early again in the morning, and this time there was no hot water in the shower, so I started the day with a shower in a can hoping to conceal my true odour. After breakfast, we were on the road by 730 and headed off to a palmerai where the locals cultivate the land growing many different products. But, being called a Palmerai, it is perhaps obvious that Palm Trees are the most impressive thing to look at in the growing fields. They have a series of channels that carry the water to different parts of the field, and the field is shared by many families of the town in a co-operative type fashion. To best distribute the water, they damn certain channels of the canals with mud when the water isn’t required down those channels. Each third of this massive field had water access to it for 2 days a week when the damn walls are broken down before being put back up. On the 7th day they use the water for washing clothes and the like. Most of the time they use the water from the snow melt in the top of the Atlas mountains, but occasionally they have to buy the water off the government in the summer.

After touring through the fields, we headed into the old town and were shown to yet another carpet shop- OMG, how many can I possibly have to see. And nothing new was said either. We headed on to Todra Gorge driving through areas thick with Berber (local people) villages and palmerais, before arriving at the mouth of the gorge for another lunch break. Again, order lunch and then head off for a while waiting for it to cook. This gorge was rather impressive, and reminded me a bit of walking into the Petra Valley in Jordan, though the gorge was much wider, but no less high. What was a warm day outside of the gorge quickly became cold and blowy in the gorge which acted as a wind tunnel and blocked out the Sun.

It was quite a spectacular walk through the gorge which wasn’t too long at the start, with the water running past on one side and hotels set into the base of the gorge on the otherside of the small river. Once through the start of the gorge, it opened up much more and it was clear that we were walking through a much larger gorge than we initially had assumed. The strangest thing of the lot was the green patches of grass and bushes along the river in some sections, where the rest of the landscape was a barren rocky, Mars-like scene.

After lunch the long driving continued and as we headed further and further east, we started noticing more and more Moroccan flags in the towns we passed through. It is hard to imagine that they are simply more patriotic out here, especially when there seemed to be a flag pole every 10 meters in some of the later towns we passed through, with flags waving at the top, and flags on strings draped over head across the road as well. As our ‘guide’ refused to speak English, or anything really, we never did find out what the reason was, but we presumed it was some sort of political propaganda to remove the thought of an independent Western Sahara separate from Morocco, or perhaps something to do with it’s close proximity to Algeria.

More driving and eventually we caught sight of sand dunes! Ignorant Michael expected sand dunes everywhere in Morocco, and here it was almost 2 weeks into my trip, and on the 3rd last day in the middle of nowhere that I finally saw them. The nearest town is called Merzouga, but the sand dunes (erg) are called Erg Chebbi. They are Morocco’s only real Saharan erg, and it seems as though they may separated from the other ergs across the border in Algeria. The drifting chain of sand dunes can reach up to 160m in height, and covers an area of about 20km x 40km (I think). It really is quite amazing to see these sand dunes just appear on the horizon from this rocky barren landscape.

After about 8km off road in the uncomfortable minivan, we finally reached an oasis on the edge of the erg. It was amazing to see this massive natural water pan in the middle of this dry arid area. We took our day packs and mounted our trusty camels for the sunset camel ride into the desert to our camp. I was a bit disappointed that the camels were all tied to one another and walked in a single file line, given we had free reign on the camels when I was riding in Egypt. However, the view was pretty incredible, especially as the Sun continued setting and the sand grew a darker and darker red. After about an hour, with the Sun all but gone, we arrived at our camp dropped our bags, and then everyone had the same idea to climb the tallest sand dune we saw as we rode in. And that thing looked every bit of 160m, and felt twice that whilst trying to climb it. From the top of the sand dune we could see the horizon in all directions it seemed, and caught the last of the changing colours of the sky as the Sun dipped further and further away. After some Sun and star gazing, and the view was incredible with so little pollution or lights in the way, we all headed down the sand dune in various forms from running, rolling and somersaulting, or all three!

We were spending the night in a small camp, comprising of 5 sleeping quarters and a food/communal tent. Each of the tents were made of Berber blankets and sticks to hold them up. It was very basic, but nice. The toilets were portaloo’s without any flushing device. Dinner was served in the communal tent, after mint tea of course, and after dinner the Berber men all grabbed hand drums and started playing those and singing away. It was pretty cool, though a lot of their songs did sound similar from one to the other. As the night wore on we were all allowed and eventually encouraged to take the drums and have a go for ourselves. Clearly I need more work on my bongo skills!

With not much else to do, we all headed to bed around 1030 and tried to stay warm through the cold desert night. The ‘tent’ I was in had 6 people in it, and I managed to stay reasonably warm through the night, but was happy I had my sleeping bag with me. Around 3 am I had to get up and go to the toilet. With no lights on at all, and a rather bright moon having set already, I couldn’t see much of anything and just walked away from the camp to find a place to pee. Even finding the toilets was too hard. But with all the lights out, and the overpowering glow of the moon having set, the stars were incredibly bright and plentiful – possibly the best star show I have ever seen. If only it was warmer and I would have stood out there for ages just looking up.

January 5th –
Up at 6am to pack up our stuff and get on our camels for the ride back to the base at the oasis. After about an hours riding we pulled the camels up and looked east towards the Algerian border, within sight, and waited for the sun to rise over the horizon. As the sky changed from dark blue to a blazing bright blue, and the Sun crept up over the mountains at the border, the sand changed from a pinkish color to a bright gold in almost an instant. The rising Sun really was quite beautiful.

We rode on further and got back to the oasis where we sat down for breakfast before piling back into the minivan for the rest of the day. There was the occasional “lunch” or “drink” from the driver, but that was it. No side excursions, not even a photo break. Finally, around 715pm, after 9 hours of driving, and a descent through the High Atlas in the dark after the driver had been going for 8 hours and was visibly fatigued, we made it safely back to Marrakech.

I teamed up with Aaron, a guy from Fort Worth that was on the tour and we found a place to stay inside the medina. We both just wanted to have a shower ASAP and get rid of the sand, and 3 days worth of sitting in a minivan smell. At 9 pm we headed back into Djemaa El Fna and met up with a bunch of the other people on the tour and had dinner with them in the main square. Having seen the scams and fallen victim to a couple of them before, I was more prepared to wave off food that I didn’t want, and sent the bottle of water back immediately!

After dinner we headed to a cafe that overlooked the main square and all had hot chocolates there listening to a couple of guys playing guitar and trying hard to sing in tune. In fact, the guitars weren’t even in tune, so they were fighting a losing battle. Thy were playing songs like The Gambler and Hotel California, so it kept us happy enough as we sang along, cringing at the off tune noise coming through the speakers – not that I can sing in tune, but I don’t ask to get paid to do it!
January 6th –
Another early morning as I packed my bags and headed off to the airport. Everything went smoothly, except the point where I slipped on the smooth floor wearing my smooth soled shoes and rolled my ankle. I walked it off quickly, and headed to the airport. I was surprised just how long I spent in lines there, to check in, to get through security, everything just seemed to take way too long.

Sitting on the rather full plane, everything was fine until we reached altitude. At that point my ankle started causing me all sorts of trouble. I had never experienced such pain, and could only assume that the pressurisation of the cabin was playing up with my rolled ankle. I tried sleeping and couldn’t, I bought a drink and tried to ice it, but that didn’t work either. I was in pain, and new that it wouldn’t get better till I landed, and could do nothing but try and rub it better and watch the time tick away.

When we finally landed after 3 hours, I had to hobble off the plane, using the hand rails to climb down the stairs. I limped all the way through customs, to the baggage collection, and then out into the foyer to catch the bus back into Bristol. The first thing I noticed though was the biting cold! I had just come from 20 degrees everyday for 2 weeks to find that it hadn’t got above 0 for a couple days in Bristol, and would be another couple before it would. Stepping outside to get on the bus and feeling the icy cold air blast my face, it was clear that my holiday had finally finished :-(