From Diversity to Desert - To the South

Trip Start May 13, 2008
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Flag of Morocco  ,
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

So, two days from Christmas and we're off on some ludicrous excursion into the Sahara desert - as you do. It all began at the silly hour of 6 am, and we were in our vehicle by 7 - pleasingly it was a very smart and safe looking large car with plenty of leg room. We were joined on this trip by 2 French girls, and 4 Aussies, and our driver, a well-travelled gent called Younis, who spoke good English and was very chatty throughout.

As we soon found out, the trip began so early as there was alotttttttt of driving to get done, and some very windy roads to contend with. We were headed first for "the capital of the South", Ouarzazate, over the Tizi n Tichka pass through the High Atlas Mountains, and from there onwards to Zagora, a desert outpost fringing on the Sahara, close to the Algerian border.

Along the way Younis would kindly pull over with the announcement "Somebody wants to take photo" whenever something interesting appeared in the vicinity. The first of the stops was on the outskirts of Marrakech, and none of us really knew what we were wanting to take a photo of when he first pulled over. Out of courtesy more than anything I thought, we all piled out to take a photo of a vast amount of storks grazing on what amounted to nothing more than wasteland. After the stork nests at the El Badi Palace I'm starting to think storks are somewhat revered in Morocco, and refusing to take a photo of them would not have been a wise option.

Future stops were somewhat more expected, the next being when we started our ascent up into the Atlas mountains, the famous Moroccan "coffee break". At this point, the countryside was filled mainly with rolling hills, olive groves and locals doggedly ploughing small plots of land with donkeys. Small flecks of snow were visible on some of the peaks in the distance, it was quite unique.

Atlas Mountains Atlas Mountains Atlas Mountains

The road kept winding and winding, and climbing and climbing until we found our way up into the High Atlas, where all there was was bare mountains, more spots of snow, a distinct chill in the air, and a couple of tiny craft stalls. One thing I have learnt over my short time on this planet, is that with snow must come snowball fights, especially when your mother is such an easy target. What was that about being no snow in Africa this Christmas? Pffffft, snowballs to that!

Atlas Mountains Atlas Mountains Atlas Mountains

Before long we reached the peak of the path, and the peak of the snow. It was a bit draughty up here so we only made a short stop. In this time, Mum managed to offload some paracetmol onto a local apparently suffering with a headache. From a distance it looked like another dubious Moroccan transaction of "stuff"... but she would deny that, wouldn't she?!

Atlas Mountains Atlas Mountains

Atlas Mountains Atlas Mountains

Pulling out of the mountains was to pull into the desert - the landscape quickly became sandier and tinged with deep yellows and reds. We took a diversion off the "main road" onto a one track road for a detour to Ait Ben-Haddou, which is a fort city (kasbah built into a rocky hill, and is classified as a UNESCO world heritage site. It may look a little familiar as apparently several Hollywood films have been shot there - including Gladiator, The Mummy and Lawrence of Arabia. However, the best description of the place that I've encountered has to be "it resembles a slightly melting giant sandcastle"... but a superbly made one, at that!

Ait Ben-Haddou Ait Ben-Haddou

On a tight schedule, we had 30 minutes to stretch our legs and explore - more than enough time to race to the top, I thought. The first hurdle was crossing the river seperating us from the sandcastle. It was dotted with helpful sandbags to act as stepping stones. Their slippery nature did nothing to inspire confidence, and actually reminded me of that game on Takeshi's Castle where certain stones sink when you stand on them, plunging you into the depths below.

The next barrier was dodging all the classic Moroccan sellers, engaging in some friendly banter whilst skipping past them to make my ascent. We had attacked this mission from completely the wrong direction - the steps to the top were around the other side of the fort, so there was nothing for it but to scramble up the rocky crevises like a mountain goat and edge my way round to the wall and clamber over it. With a little endeavour it was easily done, and I turned around to some brilliant views for miles into the diverse desert scenery below.

Ait Ben-Haddou Ait Ben-Haddou

Ait Ben-Haddou Ait Ben-Haddou

At the very top was the epitome of the melting sandcastle description, a decrepit little building wilting away under the might of the sun. Looking down again was a rather amusing sight - Mum was definately not onto a winner as she'd chosen the wrong path up and was scrabbling against rocks getting absolutely nowhere - like a hamster on a wheel it might be said! Unlucky dear... but I took some photos from the top for you! My view on the left, Mum's on the right:

Ait Ben-Haddou Ait Ben-Haddou

And I ran down all the steps on the way down just to rub salt in the wounds! The joy of climbing things is a wonderful thing - not even persistant locals trying to misdirect me to the exit through their shops could suppress it. What a magical little place, really in the middle of nowhere... coming out of those mountains and bumping into this, well, it has to be seen to be believed, for sure.

All of this before lunch aswell! Vegetable couscous and Moroccan bread for a change... funny that. We stopped for an hour at a busy restaurant in Ouarzazate, overlooking more sandcastle-shaped buildings, this time of the less impressive variety. Not that we stuck around for long, but all guidebooks and internet research revealed that this place was a bit of a dive with not much to do, save for visiting the film studios where parts of Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, Babel, Cleopatra etc. were filmed. Rather appropriately, the name Ouarzazate comes from a Berber phrase meaning "without noise", and thus I wondered how the stars of these epics entertained themselves when not filming.

Maybe by making an escapade to Zagora, as this section of the road featured more brilliantly diverse scenery, known as the Draa Valley. The canyons that we saw were just the most awesome jaw-dropping things that I couldn't believe I'd never heard anyone talking about them. In places just as good as what I've seen at the Grand Canyon, and Kings Canyon in Australia - especially as you get the experience of driving through them - just with noone there to appreciate their prehistoric beauty. Views into the canyon, and below, on the other side of the canyon:

Draa Valley Draa Valley

Draa Valley Draa Valley Draa Valley

The sun was setting as we pulled in Zagora, and whilst not exactly and large and lively place, it didn't exactly resemble desert as I had come to expect it. So here was I thinking, this is a bit of a joke, whats going on, when we were presented with a line of camels. It turned out we were riding into the desert on these fair camels... well that sounded like a glorious desert fairytale come true - 2 hours on a camel sounded majestic, and went some way towards being remotely authentic. I thought, 2 hours, thats bound to be a ridiculous Moroccan estimation, it won't be that long. How wrong I was.

Before it all began, our Berber guides insisted on wrapping our faces in scarves to keep the stiff sandstorms of the Sahara at bay. With Mum wearing two mismatched scarves and a pink jacket she looked somewhat less than an Arabian knight, which amused me greatly (see photos for a good chuckle). Getting on the camels was an ordeal in itself - I didn't realise how high up they are, so when they stand up it gives you a bit of a jolt! At first I thought they were quite comfy, but that must have been the novelty factor! The further we marched into the desert, the darker things became, and the longer time seemed. The winds were bitterly cold, and I pulled my scarf completely over my face and sat jolting on the camel thinking how completely surreal it all was - afterall, we could have been going absolutely anywhere, its an absolute mystery how the guides managed to direct us anywhere, it was so dark.

Bob the Camel Camel Wear Bob the Camel + Me

After what seemed like an eternity, we paused, and there was a sharp intake of breath as everyone clearly thought we'd made it. But no, imagine our disbelief when the guides announced there was another 30 minutes to go! Its amazing how sitting on a camel in complete darkness for 2 hours can induce weird and wonderful hallucinations designed solely to keep you awake enough so as you don't fall off the camel... like I imagined myself in several different places, skipping through the streets, but noone could see me because of this universal darkness... what strange things camels can do to you.

So when we got off them it was a bit disappointing to be drawn out of my alternate reality, and into a whole new mystical scenario. We were lead into a dimly lit large tent, covered on the outside by rugs, and furnished by a few tables, stools and cushions. The stiff breeze of the desert had frozen my fingers to yellow shards of ice, and I spent most of the evening trying to warm them up over a candle. The Berbers had cooked some sort of tajine type thing for dinner, I had some bread and then a few segments of orange for desert whilst the evening's entertainment began. On the drums were three Berber chaps, mustering up a delightful assortment of Berber tunes. After each one had fully merged into the others, they began asking us for songs from our homelands. A Catalonian woman sung a local number, and Mum decided to oblige them by wailing out I'll Never Walk Alone, at which point I was torn between tears of laughter and joy, but decided to keep my head down in case I was forced to join in.

The whiskey Berber was flowing (mint tea), and the party carried on and on while we escaped to a smaller tent to settle down for the night. Each tent had four mattresses with a couple of thick blankets each, and low ceiling rugs that billowed ferociously in the wind. Before tucking ourselves in, we paid a visit to the Berber outhouse, where Mum sniffed at the state of the toilet... there was no water... well, it is the desert!

The whole camp was tremendously mysterious in its darkness, and I couldn't wait to get to sleep and wake up tomorrow to see what it all actually looked like - whether we were in the desert as we knew it (dunes etc.), or just conned, and in the back-ends of town!
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Where I stayed
Berber Tent!

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