A Saharan Adventure

Will we ever get there? Do these guys know where they are going? Why did I ever think this would be ‘a walk in the park’? You really did overdo it this time. Did you ever stop to think maybe you were too old to take on such an adventure?  Such  thoughts were being triggered by my aching knees, a very sore posterior, stretched stomach muscles, and itchy eyes. I quickly realized that the only way for me to endure this pain was to keep my mind focussed on just why I was sitting on top of a camel on the edge of the Sahara Desert in the midst of a mini sandstorm. I had to think about what a great story this would be to tell my 6-year-old grandson.

Ever since my trip to the Negev desert in Israel over forty years ago, I have wanted to visit the desert again so the prospect of venturing out to the Sahara on a camel seemed like the ideal thing to do while in Morocco. When hubby and I arrived in Ouarzazate, we checked out the possibility of making my dream come true. We found out we could easily do a one night trek given the time we had and the state of our budget. As for accomplishing this with a camel, to our surprise we found this was impossible since Morocco doesn’t have camels. It only has dromedaries! What is the difference you might wonder? Well, camels have two humps whereas dromedaries have one, and Morocco only has those with one hump! I never knew!

Rather than opting for a complete package comprised of transport by mini-van or Grand taxi, with all the other trappings such as a guide, a camel, a traditional Moroccan dinner, a sleepover in a tent, and breakfast the next morning, we opted to rent a car and drive ourselves to the village of M’Hamid where we were to meet up with our guide. It was a less expensive option which gave us the freedom we cherish to travel and make stops along the way at our leisure. We couldn’t have done all of this on our own so instead of going to a tourist agency where information is not always reliable, we sought the help of Momo, our host at Maroc Galoxc where we were staying in Oaurzazate. We found him to be extremely reliable and knowledgeable. Our drive down was mostly easy with a good road and some terrific scenery which constantly changed from dry scrub with rocks and no trees, to suddenly beautiful green oases with huge date palms and orchards irrigated by the Draa River.

We had already decided that a one night trek would be the most we could handle. There are many other options available for longer treks to more beautiful dunes such as the famous Erg Chigaga or Erg Chebbi which are much larger but also will have more tourists. From M’Hamid, a little village about a five-hour drive south of Oaurzazate, we were escourted by two capable guides to see the Erg Lihoudi or ‘Dune of the Jews’. One other young couple from Germany accompanied us making a grand total of seven which included our two guides and the camel keeper.

Following introductions, our guide took us to a shop to buy turbans which hubby instantly decided he did not need. Here is a man who won’t even wear a hat so why should he buy a turban which he would never use again? Our guide was clearly distressed that neither of us bought one since I decided I could use a scarf I had recently bought at a medina. A piece of cloth almost the size of a narrow bedsheet would only stretch my already overloaded luggage to the limit. Needless to say, we should have bought our guide’s sale’s pitch as we later discovered when we found ourselves in the midst of the mini sandstorm.

Once the turban issue was settled, we were then taken on a tour of a nearby ksour which is a fortified village made of mud mixed with straw. It is similar to a kasbah which is often smaller as it is built to fortify a family home. The people who live here eek out a living from the arid land which is located in a palmerie, or what we know as an oasis, which is irrigated by an ancient water course coming from the Atlas mountains. For many years this part of the Draa Valley has suffered from drought causing many of the residents to move north. However, in the past few years and especially this year, the land has been blessed with much rain so the palmerie was very green with numerous tall date palms, their major crop, and other crops such as, wheat, almonds, figs, apricots, and citrus fruit.

I think it was remarkable that the inhabitants allowed us the privilege to enter the ksour to see their simple style of life which really hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Except for a few TV sets, I didn’t see much evidence of the modern-day world. I asked about educational opportunities and found out that the present King has made education a top priority since he took over from his father. Apparently every village or town now has schools and children are encouraged to go but wasn’t able to find out if it was compulsory. This is a sorely needed change in a country which has a very high illiteracy rate.

I guess our guides knew we would not be having dinner any time soon so to fortify us for the upcoming ride out to the desert, we stopped for a short tea break at a local family home where we were served in true Moroccan style on colourful carpets spread out on the ground. The whole family from grandpa to the little toddler joined us for mint tea and salted peanuts.

At about six p.m. the four dromedaries (which I will call camels for simplicity’s sake) arrived with their keeper to whisk us away to the sand dunes. As we were walking towards them, I noticed some dark clouds forming in the west accompanied by a slightly stronger breeze. By the time we got to our camels, the sun was totally obscured by clouds of sand. The sand and wind were so bad that we had to take refuge in our cars while the three men struggled to get the animals loaded up with our provisions. As quickly as the wind came up, it as quickly subsided, so off we went.

I was quite smitten with the camels and made instant friends with the most handsome one: a curly-haired golden one. He had such a lovely smile and gentle eyes, and he gave me the thrill of my life when he so effortlessly hoisted me up into the air from his kneeling position on the ground. Unfortunately, we were not meant to be together for very long. After an hour or so, I had to hand him over to my hubby who was struggling to keep from sliding off his camel. Determining that I would be a better fit for his, the change was made for the rest of the trek.

The journey out into the desert where we were to camp for the night took us about two hours. After only an hour, I was ready to stretch my legs which were beginning to cramp up. There was no stopping as I didn’t want to be a complainer. Realizing that I just had to let go and trust my gentle camel, I discovered that letting my feet dangle was the solution for relieving some of my leg stress. When at last our guides decided on the best spot to camp for the night, I was more than happy to climb off my camel and feel the sand under my feet once more.

It was dark by this time and since it was overcast, we had no light from the stars and moon. It was just us and the desert and the tiny flashlight we had remembered to bring with us. The camels went off to munch whatever scrub or bush they could find, and we went off to explore as much as we could in the dark. We realized that the best help we could be would be to get out of our guides’ way as they pitched the tents and arranged their cooking facilities. Unfortunately, with the rush to get away and the chaos caused by the sudden sandstorm, the matches were either lost or forgotten so there was no way to light a fire. “No problem!” said our guides. ” One of us will hike over to a nearby Nomad village and get some.” In the meantime, we had more mint tea with bread, nuts, and dates and a golden opportunity to all get to know each other better.

Eventually, a delicious meal of lamb, vegetables, and couscous, accompanied with a traditional Berber soup, was assembled and served to us well after 10 o’clock. We were then serenaded with traditional Berber music sung and played on rustic instruments that one of our guides had brought with him. Well after midnight, the desert air, the long camel ride, and the huge dinner had taken its toll. Hubby was falling asleep, and I was beginning to cave so we had our guide make up our beds in our own little tent. By this time the sky had cleared just enough to let the stars peek through. We fell asleep the minute we put our heads down with hopes that we would see a morning sunrise.

The morning dawned far too quickly after one of the best sleeps we had had in a long time. For this we gave thanks to the complete dark and utter silence of the desert. Although there was no wind when we emerged from our tents in the morning, the sky was still overcast with no evidence of a rising sun. What rotten luck to have been cheated out of not only a desert sunset but also a sunrise! In fact, since clouds were ominously forming again, our guides set about preparing our breakfast right away, while we began to dismantle our tents. By 10 o’clock the wind was coming up again while we were hurriedly taking some last-minute pictures before heading out for the two-hour journey back. This turned out to be the most difficult part of all.

Not only did we have the wind and the sand to contend with, but also our stiff and very sore bodies from the day before. Thus, the return journey became the true test of our endurance.

To be more precise, I would have to say that the discomfort or pain level of the previous day was amped up at least three times. No matter where I put my feet or how I positioned my body, I could find no relief. Every motion of my camel called forth an ache from somewhere. My focus this time was on the long, hot shower I would take when I got back to Oaurzazate which would not be until early evening. I could get through this just for that reason alone. As for the sand which never ceased blowing completely, my sunglasses and scarf, which one of the guides had wrapped tightly around my head leaving just room for my eyes did the trick. Hubby had just his sunglasses for protection so I wasn’t surprised to see his white hair turned to the light brown hue of the sand. Not even his mustache escaped the change!

As I look back on our Saharan adventure, I realize that I would not hesitate for one moment to do it all over again. Hubby would not agree with me on this I know. Nevertheless, in spite of the pain and discomfort of riding a camel for the first time and the blowing sand, the benefits offered by such an experience in the desert far outweigh them. I shall not forget the complete silence and neverending expanse of the desert. Is it any wonder that I wasn’t surprised to learn from one of our guides that many tourists are now coming to the desert for longer periods just to meditate! I also have the greatest admiration for our guides* who managed so expertly the difficult task of taking us out there and for keeping up our spirits when they knew we were having our doubts. Finally, I am just so thankful that I did it and now have a story to tell my grandson when I get home.

* M’Hamid Tours was the company we used. They were very professional and their English speaking skills were good. Their website is http://www.mhamidtours.com.

I will be posting some pictures of our trek on facebook.com/people/Betty.Wright


Northern Morocco- Mosques, Medinas, and Mountains

Morocco is just a little larger than California in area but its huge diversity in geography makes it difficult for a first time visitor like me to get a handle on its culture, the people, and just which parts to visit in a month. My husband and I met up in Casablanca marking the beginning of our journey where I quickly realised having him as my travelling companion again was a huge asset, not only because he was here over forty years ago, but because he speaks French, Morocco’s second language.  However, handling my solo travel status to travelling with “hubby” as well as adjusting to the Moroccan culture has allowed little time for blogging.

It was thanks to our travel  agent in Montreal who helped me with my flights to Bangkok and back with a planned detour to Morocco  which “hubby” and I decided would be a great country to visit on our way home to Nova Scotia, that we found ourselves in the city of Casablanca. I booked us into a comfortable AirBnB where we caught up on our four months apart, and I tried to recoup from the little bit of jet lag  I had acquired crossing the time zones from Thailand. We discovered there isn’t much to see in Casablanca other than the Hassan II Mosque which was built by the late king and is the largest in the Islamic world. It is also one of the few mosques which is open to non-Muslims. It has a gorgeous setting right on the Atlantic coast. It’s the largest and most modern city in Morocco so is of more interest to the world of commerce rather than tourism. Most people are intrigued with it because of the movie by the same name with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall which depicted the dark side of the city. The past is almost all gone except for Rick’s Bar opened up and run by an American for those romantics who want to perpetuate the myth since there never was a Rick’s Bar in Casablanca. It existed only on the Hollywood set where the film was made.

From Casablanca on the Atlantic coast, we took the train to the inland city of Fes, one of Morocco’s Royal cities. Fes is not only a spiritual and cultural centre for Morocco, but is also one of the world’s oldest inhabited medieval cities. It was made a UNESCO site in the mid ’90’s. Our arrival here was the real beginning of our Moroccan experience!

I used AirBnB once again so we stayed in a small riad which is a traditional Moroccan home with a central courtyard surrounded by the smaller rooms for guests and family. Dar Warda, the name of our house, was smack in the Medina or old part of Fes about a five minute walk from BabBou Jeloud, the main gate. The medina in Fes is a maze of 9000 narrow lanes going in all directions so we were grateful that our host met us at the gate to escort us to our place which we would never have found on our own! Before we could unpack and settle in, we were served mint tea the traditional greeting or mode for doing any kind of transaction in Morocco.

Although Fes is a beautiful city spread out over a large area surrounded by the Middle Atlas Mountains with a river meandering through it, we found it difficult to navigate. Although we were able to walk the old part of the city without the hindrance of cars, we had difficulty finding our way around the maze of alleys which  did not go unnoticed by the numerous ‘fake’ guides who would appear miraculously to save us. We knew their game but hubby found it hard to simply ignore them so we found ourselves in situations where we were expected to pay even though we didn’t want their help. Being new at this game, as well as too kindhearted, we managed to get suckered in a couple of times. When we ventured too far away from the old town to the new town, we would have to rely on a taxi where here again we had to be very assertive and demand the price we learned was a fair one. Once you discover these scams and learn how to bargain then getting around becomes a lot easier. Taxis, tours, and just about everything sold in the Medina should be bargained, but not so in the new town where sophisticated shops and cafes are to be found. This premise holds true for most cities and towns frequented by tourists in Morocco.

Fes presented us with our first real taste of Moroccan food. Thanks to our host at DarWarda who recommended a restaurant near by, we ate most of our meals at Chez Rachid. This place was small and always full so we knew it had to be good and it was. I had my first tagine with lamb and a vegetarian couscous here, all served with the warm hospitality and service that Moroccans are famous for.

While in Fes, we made two daytrips to places nearby. The first was to the Royal city of Meknes and the ancient site of Volubilis, a Roman city which was once a trading centre for the province of Mauretania. Menkes was created over a thousand years ago by a Moroccan ruler who employed more than 3000 enslaved Christians to build its palaces, mosques, gardens and souks. It ended up as a sultan’s great dream never completed. Today it’s a bustling city of ruins and souks (markets) with its medina and new town. We took this trip with Johanna Reid, a fellow Canadian and aspiring travel writer, who has a successful blog named Travel Eaters. Her site will have many pictures of Morocco which, unfortunately, I still can’t incorporate into my blogs.

Our second day trip was up north to the town of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains. Although we had to take a very early bus ride of about eight hours there and back on the same day, it was well worth it. Chefchaouen has to be the prettiest town I have ever seen as most of its buildings are painted with a blue wash which is especially effective in the medina where everything including the houses and alleys are so close together. The pace here was noticeably quieter where the shop keepers were not so anxious to make a sale. I could actually look at some of the beautiful handmade woolen clothing and rugs for which the artisans are noted. The town is over 3,300 ft. above sea level so has a cooler climate although the day we were there was just a nice temperature with an incredibly blue sky. It has a beautiful waterfall where we sat and enjoyed a refreshing cold orange juice. If there had been time, I would have taken a path which led further up the mountain to get a better look over the whole city. However, we did manage to get a lovely view from the top of the old casbah (a walled village or large home) just at the entrance to the medina.

After five days in Fes, we took the train south to Marrakesh which is undoubtedly the most popular city to visit and on the list of every tourist. It sits on a fertile plain with a beautiful backdrop provided by the High Atlas Mountains which greeted us with their snow-capped peaks as we approached the train station. It is definitely a magical city with its pink coloured buildings, its many minarets, stately palm trees, lovely gardens, and labyrinth of narrow alleys, all overlooked by the peaks of the High Atlas. This is the old part of Marrakesh but there is also the Ville Nouvelle or new city with its wide boulevards and beautifully landscaped gardens.

For eight nights we made our resting spot in another typical Moroccan home on the perimeter of Marrakesh’s medina next to the mullah where the Jewish population once lived. After Morocco gained its independence from France, most Jews moved to Isreal. We found our place on AirBnB with hosts, Annie and Karim, who unfailingly helped us to adjust to life in the medina. We even had a delicious tagine and Moroccan salad prepared by Karim, on our last night there. Annie had her parents and sister visiting from Holland which created for us a large family. We also met two lovely young girls from Germany while there. With them we shared an Easter service at a vibrant Catholic church which managed to lift all our spirits to a new high with the exuberance of the mostly black choir from Senegal.

One of the sites which can’t be ignored by any visitor to Marrakesh is the huge square, the Jemima el- Fna or ‘Square of the Dead’ in English, where there is entertainment galore both day and night. Here you can wander around or simply sit at one of the many cafes and restaurants taking in the sights and sounds of the musicians, snake charmers, jugglars, or whatever other performer happens to be there. This place which is a meeting point for the main alleys leading into the souks is always abuzz with activity and hustlers so short visits were more than enough for me. My preference was to watch it all from a cafe rooftop with a mint tea or orange juice. I should mention that alcohol is forbidden by the Muslims so since Morocco is about 99 percent Muslim, there are few places that serve it. We did find a place called the Cozy Cafe where hubby could get a glass of wine.

Our location put us never very far from all the interesting places to see in the old part of the city. Very close by was the Palais Bahia once the home of a French governor. This was such a tranquil place in the midst of the medina with its traditional tiled mosaics and gardens offering a close up view of Moroccan life.  Also nearby we had a much older palace, the Palais Bardia, built by one of Marrakesh’s greatest sultans and completed in 1602. Much of the original structure is gone except for some crumbling ramparts among the orange trees; however, there is a wonderful photography museum in one of the newer buildings which we were happy to find.

Marrakesh has numerous mosques with the most prominent being the Koutoubia which towers over the medina. It has beautiful gardens with lots of rose bushes but the mosque itself is not open to the public. We also visited the oldest and largest Mosque, the Ali Ben Yourself and its medersa or learning centre,  displaying the small cells where students studied and lived. Built in the 1200’s and reconstructed in the 1900’s, we witnessed wonderful examples of mosaic and carved wood for which Morocco is famous. Again since it is a Muslim country, you won’t see any models or pictures of people in their artistic creations, just intricate and beautiful designs.

Tiring of the constant activity and clatter of the medina, we took a few trips to the new part of Marrakesh to shop and to visit the Jardin Marjorelle, a gift to the city from Yves St.Laurant, the famous designer. He and a business friend bought the property from an obscure French painter, Jacques Morelle, who could never keep this beautiful place maintained to what it is today. With its vivid, blue-painted mansion, colourful plants in brightly painted ceramic pots, every kind of cactus in the world, and proliferation of trees and birds, it’s a welcome oasis in the city. It also has an interesting Berber museum on the premises displaying pottery, clothing, and jewellery from the many craftsmen who represent the original inhabitants of the country.

Morocco is divided by the Atlas Mountains which run from the northeast to the southwest of the country separating it geographically  as well as culturally. After leaving Marrakesh on the edge of the north face of the mountains, we had to cross over to the other side to get to the south and the Sahara desert. We had three ways to do this: by bus, Grand taxi, or rental car. We chose the bus and were fortunate to get front row seats. The views were jaw dropping spectacular but at times teeth clenching scary. However, the road is good and contrary to any of the reports we might have had on crazy driving, we had a modern up-to-date bus with a good driver. To see the snow capped Mountains as we passed through them is an unforgettable experience.

There is so much more to see and do in northern Morocco that I feel I have just scratched its surface. Perhaps I will have to come back? It’s a fairly easy country to visit once you master their culture and get used to it. The Moroccans willingly go out of their way to welcome tourists to ensure they have a good time. Some might say they are too eager, but you can easily adjust to it with a smile and a sense of humour. They are genuine people. I especially like the way they have managed to maintain their culture yet still live with the modern world. I have only met one solo traveller so far, my travel writer friend, Johanna Reid, who seemed to be making out very well on her own. It has always been and still is a destination point for mostly European travellers who now are coming with young families. The Moroccan mystic is still alive for many of us which I fervently hope will continue no matter what the future might bring.

I am posting some pictures on Facebook for anyone who wishes to see what I have been writing about. You can find me at facebook.com/people/Betty-Wright.