Day 12 & 13: The Sahara

Before I say anything, I have to mention that I have just returned from a trek in the Sahara where everything is, at its best, lukewarm, and I’m still sweating despite the air conditioning. And a man just came and sat next to me eating a McFlurry. You have no idea the restraint I have, or how badly I want to reach over and take it from him. Okay, moving on!

Wow I have absolutely no idea where to start! The task of writing this blog post seems so intimidating that I’m almost considering not writing it at all and ending the blog right here. But that would mean admitting that we’re going home soon and I’m not willing to do that either. So here goes. Brace yourself for a long one.

Friday morning we woke up at 6 and had a beautiful breakfast on our little Riad’s terrace. Seriously, the orange juice in Morocco is incredible. We weren’t really hungry, but we forced ourselves to eat a little bit, considering we were about to head out to the desert, and had no idea when we’d be eating again. We got picked up from our Riad at 7am, and we’re driven to this central station place that looked less like a tourism company and more like a sketchy gas station, where we climbed into the van that would take us up through the High Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara desert. I started stepping into the back of the van, but the driver beckoned me and Mom up to the front, where we ended up sitting right next to the driver with the most amazing view! Everyone else filed into the back, and then we were off! In total we were 16 people I think from Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, South Africa, and Lithuania.

The first leg of the drive was the road to the High Atlas Mountains. It was nice to drive through Marrakech during the day, because we’d only seen it at night. The view from up front was amazing, and even though I hate taking pictures through windows I did take a few. Eventually the High Altlas Mountains were upon us, and we started our climb up. The Atlas 20130728-122003.jpgMountains are home to Berber tribes who are not Arabic, and are descendant from an entirely different race. They’re best known for their slightly lighter skin and olive green eyes. Driving through the mountains, the road seemed quite new and very nice, while the rest of the infrastructure seemed a lot older. We passed so many villages that looked as though they were abandoned until someone poked their head out of a door or some kids ran out into the streets. It was definitely a very different feeling driving past these villages from other towns in Morocco. I guess when the French took control in Morocco they deemed the Atlas Mountains and everything past it “useless Morocco” and the region was heavily ignored until the current king came to power and started a rehabilitation program and asked for pardon from the Berber tribes that were ignored for so long. You can definitely see the effects of this driving through the mountains. The National Road, which would have been funded by the King’s rehabilitation program, was in very good condition, while the rest looked like it could use some attention. It was also quite upsetting seeing these villages after reading about the area. Child brides a extremely prevalent in the region, and child labour is also a huge problem. Education is very limited, so many people are not literate, and their lifestyles reflect it. Instead of seeing children playing like we have in other parts of Morocco, we were seeing children lugging water to and from their villages or working in the fields or terraces.

It was beautiful, though. The roads were so incredibly windy, and once we got to the top of a peak we could look back down at the crazy road we’d
20130728-122348.jpgjust driven on! We had a few stops at little shops and things like that, but not what you’d expect. These “shops” doubled as lookout points, and we’re perched on the edges of cliffs on the side of the road. They had all these table tops set up on railings of the road displaying what looked like piles and piles of rocks. I was very confused as to why someone would be selling seemingly worthless rocks, until one of the Berber salesmen opened up one of the rocks to display shockingly purple amethyst. One after another, they showed off all sorts of different glimmering stones, all found in the Atlas mountains. I have to say, it was pretty impressive.

We kept driving, and the road kept winding through the mountain range. The High Atlas mountains are, you guessed it, the highest mountain range in Morocco, but they’re quite small compared to the ones we have back home. What they lacked in height, they made up in beauty. The views were incredible, and it was especially impressive seein it from the front seat. We passed herds and herds of goats, all watched diligently by their shepherds on the sides of mountains.

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Our first major stop was at a village called Eit Ben Haddou. It is a functioning village on the far side of the Atlas Mountains, but is a popularย tourist destination for one main reason: its starring presence in Hollywood. The village is divided in two, separated by a river. In the winter the river is always overflowing, but the bank was completely dry the day we visited. Most people live on one side of the river, where running water and electricity flow freely. The other side was quite isolated until the government put in a bridge to cross the river, and the few locals who still live there have to lug their potable water over from the other side every morning. It’s this part that was made famous by movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Gladiator, and most recently, Game of Thrones. When filming, the actors stay with locals across the river, whose livelihoods now depend on the film industry, as they are also always asked to act as extras in the movies. This one village doubles as villages from all over North Africa and the Middle East. Our plan was to hike to the top.

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Considering the normally flowing river was completely dry, you can imagine how hot it was for us! We started by crossing the riverbed, which was made difficult only by some loose sand. Once across, we huddled in the limited shade while our guide explained a few things about the filming of the different movies. He pointed out the area that was used as the arena in Gladiator, and helped people take pictures doubling as the actors. Then we started to climb. The village is located on the edge of the mountains, so it was quite the incline. We wandered up through old Berber houses, some still in use. A few people had set up little tourist shops in some of the abandoned houses, selling scarves and postcards and Berber jewelry, but I was too exhausted and hot to think about any of that. Mom started feeling sick again, so she elected to sit in one of these little shops where she witnessed some pretty intense bartering while a few of us climbed to the top. As I climbed up I kept thinking I had the most amazing view, but then I’d go up farther and get an even better view. I didn’t have time to make it all the way to the top of the peak, but went above the village and had an incredible view down into the ancient homes.

On the way down, our guide showed us to a shop that sold scarves to be used as turbans when riding camels in the desert. He insisted that everyone needed one, and in hind sight that probably wasn’t true, but it was definitely worth it to get all wrapped up with the traditional head dress, and shield from the sand was definitely a plus. Mom and I bought ones that were the traditional Sahara blue colour, and our guide helped us tie them properly.

Next was lunch at a little restaurant in the more livable side of the village. The menu was all traditional Moroccan food, so Mom and I shared Couscous again. Mom really wasn’t feeling well, which we later realized was dehydration, so I mostly had the meal to myself. After a break that everyone agreed was a little bit too long, we we back on the road, about halfway to Zagora.

Soon after, we stopped briefly at a Casbah in Ouarzazate to take some pictures. The Casbah was this incredible old castle that looked like a very intricate sand castle – I guess it sort of was. I reminded me exactly of the city in Aladdin, minus the giant palace. You could imagine Aladdin helping Jasmine climb up to the top of one of the buildings, saying “Do you trust me?” I would have liked to go in and explore, but we had to keep going if we wanted to reach Zagora by sunset, which we did.

The terrain started changing from here, and we seemed to be driving through a less colorful Grand Canyon. The road was still in good shape, although it was definitely only made for one car which made passing giant overloaded trucks a bit terrifying, the twists and turns did not relent. There was a very small railing on the edge if the cliffs that we were driving on, but they wouldn’t do much to keep a car from falling off, and at times it disappeared entirely. I don’t usually worry about things like that, but there were definitely times when I found myself coming up with headlines for sixteen international tourists plummeting of the side of a cliff in Morocco. The wildlife changed a lot over the next couple hours. At times the land was completely barren except for a few shrubs, and other times there were forests of palm trees.

m10.jpgWe drove through a few different villages, all very small, where I discovered my love for taking pictures of children on donkeys. Luckily, they were in abundance. Some of these villages were in better shape than others; I guess the King’s rehabilitation program has only reached a select few. You could tell which ones had been cleaned up a bit by their wide boulevard like steers framed with way too many decorated street lamps. As we drove by, kids on the side of the street would wave from their donkeys or put down their water buckets to make sure they said hi. The ones who had donkeys could carry a dozen pails or so, but other kids struggled with their buckets, and some carried one between the two of them. All the other villages we’ve visited or driven past in Morocco are characterized by the hundreds of satellite dishes on roofs, even in shanty towns. But satellite dishes were much rarer here. I was quite surprised to see a few signs advertising Internet in a few of the villages, considering many of them didn’t seem to have electricity or clean water.

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Finally we reached Zagora, which was the starting point for our camel trek! We stopped briefly to buy water – two giant bottles each was the minimum – and were then driven out to a little field full of CAMELS! Morocco has Dromedary Camels, and wow, I love camels. They’re probably the best animals. They can survive in the desert for days and days without water, and once you get the hang of it, they’re not hard to ride if you don’t mind a few bumps!

I was first on my camel, which I named Abou. They have the most awkward knees, and it’s always a bit of a shock when they stand up all at once; it’s a good thing they tell you to hold on! Mom went on the camel in front of me, so I could get some great pictures of her on her camel. Slowly the local guides helped everyone onto camels, and we were ready to go.

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It’s going to be absolutely impossible to explain our sunset ride into the desert on camels, but I’ll do my best. Since I can’t really do it justice, I suggest that you head out to the Sahara and try it for yourself – there’s really nothing like it! The ride started out incredibly bumpy, as camel rides generally do. It takes a little bit to get used to the way your camel moves and to figure out where exactly to sit and how to hold on and all that. I found it was easier to sit farther back and up straight, not necessarily always holding on. That suited me fine, since I wanted to be taking pictures anyways, and I got the hang of it pretty quickly. Mom did too, I think. The way it works is they have four camels all tied together, and then someone walks in front to lead them. Mom was on the camel in front of mine, but we were attached together.

And so we headed out, quickly leaving Zagora behind as we went farther and farther into the desert.

The sun was starting to set when we reached the sand dunes, which slowly rose up from the desert like waves in the ocean. They were a lot smaller than the ones I saw in Oman, but that doesn’t mean they’re any easier to traverse on camelback. For the most part I didn’t have to hold on, but camels sort of struggle going downhill, so anytime we went down the side of a sand dune they would do this half run half stumble thing, and it is very necessary to hold on. We rode for about hours as the sun went down, and I loved every minute of it. It’s so hard to explain, but I just love love loved all of it.

I was very reluctant to leave Abou behind when we reached camp, our ride feeling much to short. I was happy to know we’d be doing it again the next day, so I slowly demounted, and headed towards camp. Our camp site was set up in a circle, with ten smaller sleeping tents and a large dining tent. On the outside the was another tent with bathrooms. We got Tent 5, which was closest to the camels! We shared it with Bernadine from South Africa and Aukse from Lithuania, two women we met on the drive. The tents were equipped with four small cots, a little table, and a bare lightbulb, though electricity is very unreliable in the desert. We dropped our things and went to the dining tent where everyone seemed to be congregating. They welcomed us to the Sahara with cups of tea, the Moroccan usual. It wasn’t mint, for some reason, but it tried to make up for the lack of mint with extra sugar. If I hadn’t just ridden a camel across the desert, it would have been way too sweet, but I was so thirsty, and drinking something that was actually supposed to be that hot was very appealing.

It was ridiculously hot in the dining tent, or as the Spanish girl from our van put it, “Hay calore!” so to wait for dinner, we decided to sit outside. There were rugs placed in a little circle in front of the dining tent, so we sat down and visited a bit. It was dark at this point, so eventually we all ended up lying on our backs looking up at the stars. This was interrupted only by a giant beetle that seemed to enjoy terrifying tourists. It caused quite the commotion until one brave guy picked it up and dropped it a few meters from all the people.

m9Dinner was a wonderful Tajine with chicken, potatoes, and some vegetables, with melon for dessert. It was all delicious, but somewhat difficult to enjoy because the dining tent was so hot. We ate pretty quickly, and then returned outside to our rugs where there was the most amazing breeze. Lying out there and looking up at the stars was so incredible. People were talking and laughing, but it was still very peaceful. I kept having to remind myself, Heather, you’re in the Sahara!. It’s easy to forget, especially now sitting on an air conditioned train.

Before going to bed we had some entertainment! The men working at the camp and with the camels brought out drums and started to play and sing! Everyone crowded around on the rugs to listen and watch. We tried to clap along, but there didn’t seem to be a beat. That didn’t stop them though! They used clapping as an instrument of its own, creating new contrasting rhythms rather than just keeping the beat. The singing was really nice too, and I was wishing I could sing along.

Finally it was time for bed, and I was ready for it! Stepping into our tents we immediately realized that it was way too hot to sleep, so we pulled our mattresses out onto the sand and slept under the stars! The breeze was perfect, and as people started getting settled in they turned all the lights out and the sky lit up with stars and the brightest moons I’ve ever seen. We talked for a while, and then people began falling asleep. I didn’t want to sleep – it was just too much to take in – but riding camels takes more energy than you’d expect, and I eventually fell asleep. I only woke up once in the night because I was absolutely freezing! It had been so hot earlier so I left the extra blanket they gave us in the tent, thinking it would have absolutely no use. Well, I was wrong. The Sahara gets cold at night! I had to muster up all my energy to get up and grab by blanket from the tent, but it was definitely worth it. From my spot I could see all the camels sleeping, and the moon was still lighting up the entire sky. It was so cool.

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They woke us up around 5:30, just in time to see the sun rising. The light was very soft, and everything seemed to have pink undertones. I didn’t want to come out from under my warm blankets, but slowly sat up to see the sleepy camp come alive. Once again, I had to remind myself that I had just woken up in the Sahara desert. The sunrise was really pretty, and it was crazy seeing how quickly the light changes and the sand looks different! For breakfast they gave us the Moroccan usual: bread with some sort of cheese spread and jam. And of course the tea, an everyday staple now.

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All too quickly we were back on the camels riding away from camp! This ride was shorter, but equally enjoyable. I was behind Mom again, and the sun was slowly rising over the sand dunes as be rode. My camel was beautiful, with a very even colour – definitely worthy of entering Abu Dhabi’s annual camel beauty contest. I’m no expert, but I’d rate him pretty high. The camel ride was once again amazing. It’s really impossible to explain, but it’s so much fun. I was even more reluctant to get off my camel this time because I knew it was goodbye for good. Eventually we had to, although Mom’s camel didn’t seem to want to say goodbye either as it refused to sit down to let her off. I was very sad to leave. I want a camel to ride to class in Ottawa.

The drive back to Marrakech was similar, but felt quite a bit shorter. We didn’t get the front seats for the way back, so Mom and I alternated between a slightly more comfortable window seat and a slightly cooler aisle seat. Neither were great. We had a few stops along the way, including a visit to a Berber house where they tried to sell us rugs. By now Mom and I are experts and didn’t engage the salesman, but a few Italians from our van got quite heated in bartering before throwing their arms up in the air and refusing to buy. Watching Moroccans and Italians barter is quite the sight.

We also stopped for lunch, before heading straight for Marrakech where the driver dropped us right at the Gare de Train! It was 4:30pm when we got there and the train left at 5pm, so it could not have been more perfect! The sun just went down the train is coming alive and everyone is starting to eat. Two hours until we get back to Rabat!

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