Sahara Desert

Trip Start Oct 30, 2005
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Trip End Ongoing


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Monday, June 12, 2006

We got up early for the Sahara trip and packed our day packs for the few days adventure. There was about 12 people on the trip - with a strong Aussie contingent (there were about 6 of us).

Our first stop was on the side of the road for a view of the Middle Atlas Mountains - which were quite beautiful. Of course we saw many impressive vistas along the way where Glenn was itching to get out and take a photo, but we continued on. There were many windy roads, and just when we started to get a little dizzy, we stopped again - and along with the view, saw where a petrol tanker that had not made the corner and had rolled down - the burn't out remains lay at the bottom. Beside the excitement of seeing the tanker that had rolled down, some of the Japanese girls on our tour saw a dog and started chasing it all over the road to take photos - we just raised our eyebrows and scratched our heads.

Our first stop at a sight, was at a Kasbah called "Ait-Benhaddou" (The kasbah is a unique kind of medina, or Islamic city, often with high walls and used for defensive purposes. - For an explanation see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasbah). Here, we had to cross a river by stepping on sandbags. There were a few young boys offering to help people cross, but it soon became evident that their service was for a fee. Up to the entrance, there was someone with a hand-made sign requesting an entrance fee. Glenn managed to get a student discount rate, even though we were in the middle of nowhere already!

We had only been given half an hour to visit and by now, we had already used up 10 mins. It wasn't our style to be time limited when visiting places, but we did our best to wander around. We had managed to lose everyone and now with the time almost up, we decided to head back. At the entrance, there was no sight of the group, only Gerard a french guy from our group who was walking a different way across, so we decided to follow him as maybe he knew something we didn't (as our driver-guide was French speaking).

It soon became obvious that we shouldn't have followed him and we had a long walk the long-way-around back to the bus. Arriving, no one else was to be found, not even the driver. Worried that they had gone looking for us, we started walking back down the original way - and their they were all coming back.

Not too long after this we stopped at a fancy place for lunch and after a look at the menu, decided to try our luck over the road for some cheaper fare. (They even had bow ties on in that restaurant!). Along with some of the other Aussies and an Austrian (who could have passed for an Aussie anyway - ha ha Martin) we found a cheap place across the road and ordered, but had to wait so long for the food that we nearly missed out!

Back on the road, we drove to the Dades Valley, which was our stop for the evening. We rolled up to the hotel and noticed mattresses out on the terrace, which we thought would be for us. However they actually gave us rooms as part of the tour - and they were nice! Quite a treat compared to our normal budget rooms! We had some time to explore before dinner, so most of the group decided to walk to the gorge of the Dades Valley, and it was a long climb up to the top. At the top, we came across two Morrocan guys who said that the valley was not finished and that the most beautiful part lay ahead. After the long walk and with the grumbles of the group (who were tired from a long day), he offered to take everyone in his car - wondering how much, he said only for petrol money! We managed to negotiate a price and all of us managed to squeeze into the back of his car.

Off we went - this guy was quite a character, and he turned on the radio and let the Moroccan music sing out of the speakers - he was merrily singing away as he drove. The rest of the gorge was quite impressive and after all piling back into his car, we arrived back at the top of the hill, where he invited us all into his shop for some mint tea - the traditional drink of the Moroccans. Oh oh, this usually meant that although being very hospitable, they inevitably showed off their wares for sale (often carpets). This time, after tea, it was jewelry, but after we all saw everything that he had (after he neatly laid all of them out in front of us), we explained that we weren't interested - he held no hard feelings and packed them up. We all thanked him, he was a gentleman and a real pleasure to meet.

We all made the walk down hill, and after a quick refreshing shower, we sat down to a feast for dinner. Just when we were ready to call it a night, Barry, (sorry, Bazza, one of the Aussie's in the group) pulled out his Moroccan red wine and we all had a taste, sitting on the terrace of the hotel while bongo drums were being played somewhere off in the distance.

The following morning, we had a quick breakfast and then drove through what is known as the route of 1000 Kasbahs. We passed Ouarzarate (the moroccan film industry town - used by several famous films for the amazing scenery here) and were on our way towards the Todra Gorge when the driver suddenly stopped. Another guide (who spoke English) was there on the side of the road in the middle of a field! (his cousin? we joked) and this new guy took us through a field into a little Medina explaining as he went and then to a traditional Berber home (Berber - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berber).

Quite interesting, although a little unsure if it was a planned part of the trip or not, we all ended up upstairs where a lady was making carpets and after mint tea, out came the homeowners selection of carpets for us to see... hmmmm. It didn't help when two of the Aussies, Barry and Louise took shots at stirring each other by saying "I think you like that one Barry"... causing more carpets to come out. Still, it was fun, but we were trying to remain polite to suggest that we weren't interested so we could go and see the Todra Gorge before lunch!

Back downstairs, we had to wait for our new mystery guide, who then took us back to the car and jumped in as well. Maybe he is our guide? Although a few kilometres later, we dropped him off, so its still a mystery as to what it was all about. Cousin????

We arrived at the Todra Gorge entrance, with many big buses around. Our driver brought us to a restaurant nearby and said to order lunch - so that it will be ready by the time we come back from the gorge. We then walked through the gorge - really steep walls, but really touristy compared to the Dades Valley Gorge we had seen the night before. There was crystal clear water running through it though and a walk through the water was nice. However, besides some crazy rock climbers on one side climbing down, it wasn't all that interesting, so we headed back for lunch. Lunch was a treat - some of the best food we had eaten so far in Morocco!

Now we headed to Merzouga - our highlight, to the sand dunes of the Sahara desert called Erg Chebbi. Counting down the kilometres to Merzouga - the nearest town to the sand dunes, we suddenly turned off the road and began offroading over the hard sand, with only the occasional sign and the drivers knowledge to know where to go. Some of the signs pointed to camps, so we guessed we were going to one, somewhere. Just to make it fun, the wind caused sandstorms and it was quite bad, the sand coming in the windows. Winding up the windows didn't seem to help as on the other side of the van the window was stuck - seeming to suck the sand in even more. It also became stiflingly hot (no aircon in van - well, the driver didn't use it anyway). About to choke with sand, the driver stopped for a break. The scene was quite amazing in front of us - a huge lake in the desert with ruins of buildings around and massive sand dunes in the background.

Our driver informed us (translated by the french people in our tour group) that only two weeks earlier it had rained so much that it had flooded here and caused several of the tourist hotels to collapse and about 6 people lost their lives. The ruined evidence of some of the buildings were all too recent. The lake that we saw, was the remains of the flood.

Continuing on, we finally arrived at a hotel in the middle of nowhere where we were going to saddle up and take a camel ride into the Sahara to spend the night. The lake continued around this hotel, but it seemed that this one faired better than some of the others. Opening the back of the van showed just how much sand had been sucked into the car - all of it dumped onto our bags.

We packed a light bag out of the two to take on the camel ride and got prepared for the camel trek. With the wind and sandstorms, it was too sandy to use the "good camera" (too expensive to ruin), so our other little camera had its chance to finally be used.

Saddling up, we hung on as the camel got up and made our way into the desert. The sandstorms had made a bit of a mess of the sky, but the scene was still amazing - such beauty. It was only a short while until all signs of civilisation had disappeared and we were wandering through the magnificent dunes alone, well, with the tour at least. It was really such a highlight. After about an hour on the camel, we arrived at our camp for the night at dusk. We had three guys leading us in (our driver stayed back at the hotel), and they encouraged us to climb the massive sand dune next to our camp for a great vista.

Things are certainly deceptive in the desert and we soon realised that the sand dune was really much bigger than it first looked, as we struggled up its sandy slopes, the sunlight dropping fast.

Making it to the top, exhausted, it was quite a sight, even though the sandstorms were still blowing. Endless dunes rose off to the distance and on close inspection, the fine ripples gave them a life of their own. Little animal tracks showed that life still existed in such a barren environment.

Down the steep slopes, we now enjoyed a mint tea while we waited for dinner to be prepared. Still it was worth the wait - it was amazing. Out came tajines with a meal for 4, which we ate in the traditional way - with our hands. A bit messy for first time eaters like this, but the tajine was delicious. To finish off the night, the guides pulled out their bongo drums and after we all tried to make a few pathetic attempts to make some beats, they then entertained us with some pretty impressive drumming.

It was such a hot night, that the big tents that they had setup sounded too hot, so we dragged out the thin mattress into the central square and slept under the stars - at least the ones that would have been there if the sky would have been clearer (cloudy + sandstorms).

Still, the moon was quite bright and it made it a little difficult to get to sleep. Sometime in the early morning, Christie woke Glenn - saying "did you see that lightning?". Very much still asleep, Glenn mumbled something and went back to sleep. We later found out it was Barry - who had gotten up and decided to take a photo of everyone sleeping under the moonlight - his flash was the "lightning"! - thanks Bazza!

Sunrise was around 5am, and it came around very quickly. We were hoping, however, for a beautiful sunrise after the sandy day before as we again began the steep climb up the big sand dune. Not as much fun as the day before - we were worn out after a few metres this time, but still made it up there. The view was still beautiful, but the day again wasn't very clear. Heading back down again, we saddled up and trekked back to the hotel on the camels, this time going a different way. Back at the hotel, we had breakfast (shared with the flies) and Glenn managed a quick shower - his shirt became a makeshift towel, but it was so good to get clean after just one night in the desert. The clothes of the people who live near the desert seem so much more practical than ours in these environments.

After such an early rise, we welcomed the chance to have a snooze as we made our long drive back to Marrakesh, not before the driver turned a 360 in the sand though - we think we got slightly lost for a while.

Arriving in the evening in Marrakesh, we bid farewell to our group and went back to our hotel - showers! Out to dinner, we bumped into some of the group at a small restaurant - where Barry asked - how did you know this was my favourite restaurant? It wasn't too bad either!
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