I asked our friend, Diane, who had lived in Morocco for a year, about places we should see. She answered that for her, "the essence of Morocco is found in the Sahara." First we said, "Some other time. We don't have time for it this trip." But the seed had been planted. Already images of golden sand dunes, the first scene from the movie The English Patient
, Sheltering Sky
, and Lawrence of Arabia
began drifting through my mind. The thoughts were watered by gorgeous photos in the travel brochures and Diego talking about a tour to the Sahara he had taken from Marrakesh. It is a shame to go to Morocco and not see the Sahara. So before we even really got a look at Marrakesh, we booked a 3 day tour to the Sahara for the next morning.
Marrakesh isn't really close to the Sahara so the tour involved crossing the High Atlas Mountains, and then cruising along through semi-desert areas, oasis and river gorges. The tour covers a lot of space in 3 days so we moved at a quick pace.
First we climbed into the mountains which rise above Marrakesh, glistening white with snow.
The Marrakesh side is green and has rivers and waterfalls. Then we descended to the drier side. The driver stopped a couple places to let us admire the view. However, the first long stop was lunch in the town of Ait Ben Haddou, famous for its Casbah.
This side of the mountains revealed more of the Morocco I had imagined: red adobe houses rising up from the earth, some perched on the sides of hills, some looking like castles with majestic walls and decorations carved into their walls. Every village looked like a postcard with the Casbah framed by palms, sometimes with a river flowing at the foot of it.
Storks build huge nests on the tops of the walls or minarets. The color of the earth is rich red vividly contrasting with the green of the oasis.
We cruised through Ouarzazate with a stop to take a quick look at the Casbah.
Next we went through the Valley of Roses.
In Spring it is supposedly full of pink roses but perhaps we were too late or too early. Nevertheless, it was still a tempting and idyllic valley. The Gorge du Dades had walls made up of huge rock formations. Some resembled the pads of monkey feet while other parts looked like twisted rope.
Through the gorge ran a small river lined with trees whose delicate leaves made them appear almost like a green mist. Occasionally a resident of one of the villages would pass by on a bike.
The road is definitely a tourist road and everywhere we stop, there are people selling geodes, ceramics, Berber clothing and colorful scarves. The later are hung so they blow seductively in the wind, bright splashes of color against the rocks.
Our hotel for the first night was a pleasant surprise. It was in a gorge with high red cliffs dotted with caves sometimes used by Berbers.
The rooms overlooked a soothing river. There were a few more hotels up the road but the area maintained a feeling of solitude and tranquility. Up the road, some of the building owners had created little models of mud houses, set in gardens.
We were back on the road at 8AM, retracing our path through the gorge. At a gas/toilet stop, which everyone also interpreted as a coffee stop, the driver scolded us for the delay saying we had to meet a guide who would be giving us a tour of a garden, Casbah, and Berber carpet maker's home. If we didn't hurry, we would be too late to ride camels.
The garden was actually a community field in a town called Tinerhir. It was criss-crossed by irrigation channels and raised paths.
The fields were lush and verdant. Our guide, Hamid, led us through explaining that the women didn't like having their photos taken. We passed alfalfa and bean fields. The alfalfa was for the donkeys. There were also almond, peach and olive trees. Palm trees grew around the edges. Women in loose, traditional clothing bent down tending the fields or carried huge loads on their heads and shoulders down the path.
We picked up an entourage of local kids trying to sell camels made from woven palm leaves. One had tried to leave one on Rowshan's bag (after which a fee would be expected) and when we tossed it back at him, he ran off. Soon they returned to hover around other members of the group. We reached an area where the ruins of the Casbah rose above the fields. The adobe buildings had been destroyed 35 years ago by heavy rains. Our next stop was the newer Casbah known as the Jewish Casbah. It is now the summer home of Berber families who spend the winter with the animals in the mountains and then live in the town in the summer because the mountains are too hot and dry. Now, since the king is requiring education for all children, some of the women and all the children, spend most of the year in town. Tinerher looks like it is growing quickly and has some degree of prosperity. New concrete houses are being built along the main road imitating the style and lines of the adobe houses. The new concrete houses we passed were painted to resemble the red mud color of the traditional adobe.
We walked along the narrow mud streets to a little house where we were given a presentation about Berber carpets. Mohammad, the owner of the house, spoke English and gave us a short presentation about the Berber carpet tradition and how the carpets were made. His sister, demonstrated carding wool and spinning with a hand spindle.
She used techniques she learned from her mother. The room was decorated with carpets on the walls and floor. We leaned against the walls as we sat on the floor. It was comfortable and cozy. Mohamed served tea as he pointed out the differences between carpets made from wool, camel hair and yucca fiber. The yucca fiber was a relatively new innovation for them, discovered by the women. It produced silky felling carpets. Camel wool was strongest. Some of the carpets combined techniques of weaving, knotting, and embroidery. He showed us a beautiful carpet woven by his mother and some of his sister's work. The colors were all from natural dyes and had different meanings.
Back outside, we worried that we were late and our driver would reprimand us. But, our guide said we had plenty of time. Our driver, however, hurried us into the minibus.
Our lunch stop was in the Gorges du Todra, a beautiful area where a tiny river ran between steep cliffs.
In one area the water was dammed to create a little turquoise pool crossed by a bridge. Further into the gorge, were rows of Berber stands with colorful scars floating in the breeze.
Rowshan has found that telling people he is from Iran gets an extremely positive result (unlike responses like, "Oh! Terrorist!" which he got in Peru). Although some of this because people don't realize that Iranians speak Farsi not Arabic, he is still able to joke with people and have more positive conversations than when he says he is from America. He also has been finding that the classical Arabic he was forced to study in school actually does have some use since he can pull out a word here and there and knows the grammar structure. I also think he manages to get quoted lower tourist prices than a more obviously Western tourist.
Back in the minibus, we drove constantly to reach the Sahara before dusk. We left the huge palm filled oasis and watched as the landscape became drier and plants smaller and sparser. Houses also became scarce except for occasional tourist facilities: cafes, gas stations, souvenir and ceramic shops, and an occasional sign for a hotel, usually also advertising camel treks. Occasionally we saw groups of camels.
The weather was overcast but even so, we were able to see the dunes of the Sahara, pale orange through the haze, rising in the distance. The smooth curves of the dunes make a striking contrast against the rough rockiness of the surrounding area. They are huge and on a clear day their orange sands would have popped brilliantly against the blue sky. Even with a background of white clouds, one cant help but notice the beauty of their form, the grace of their lines and the shapes created by shadows.
We reached Merzuga close to sunset and quickly boarded our camels who waited behind a hotel, contentedly saddled up and seated on the ground chewing their cuds.
I was debating between one with a dark brown and white face and another beige one when the beige one winked at me (or more likely tried to clear some sand from his eye). So I chose him. His name was Zidane. Rowshan mounted the one behind me named, Jimmy Hendrix, and Isabelle, with a bit of trepidation, mounted a rather unhealthy looking ornery camel named Hergush, who had made a terrible camel grunt and protested greatly when he was forced to get up. Since the camels were tied close together, Rowshan spent much of the ride worried that Hergush would bite him from behind. Our group had 3 sets of camels, each led by young Berber men in traditional turbans, some in traditional robes as well. We slowly walked into the Sahara. Though we didn't have the majestic sunset of postcards, we still found ourselves in a beautiful mystical world of orange sands and quiet.
It took only a short walk to be out of view of the road, lights and towns. The shifting dunes towered above us. The breeze barely rippled the sands which shimmered as they shifted. Aside from the camel and human footprints, scarabs left sketchy little tracks through the sand often accompanied by a larger trail of a piece of camel feces which they rolled. The dunes stretched into the distance. They are hypnotizing and have a silent siren call which draws one in and makes one want to disappear into their sands... just keep riding or walking off into their soft silent landscape...
Well... the landscape was silent but the camels sure weren't. Midway through the trip, I heard a loud camel grunt and glanced back in time to see a slimy jet of mucus fly through the air and hit Rowshan. Hergush had strings of drool hanging from his mouth and had sent a gob of it onto Rowshan. A little while earlier, the camel had suddenly decided to take a rest and dropped down into the sand. Since our 3 camels were attached together, this pulled the rest of us to a stop and would have sent Isabelle tumbling if she hadn't been holding onto her saddle bars at that moment.
Eventually we reached a group of tents made from blankets, set up in a valley at the foot of a huge dune.
We dismounted and threw our bags (and shoes) in a tent and started walking up the dune. The sands are soft and it is difficult to walk following other tracks because you sink. We found if we walked on pristine sand, there was enough surface tension to sometimes keep us from sinking, at least until we reached the steeper area. Then it was necessary to push our feet deep into the sand to pull ourselves up the dune. The sun had set but the sky still held some light. About halfway up the dune I flopped down into the sand, exhausted. The sand was the softest sand I'd ever felt. It was still warm from the sun and I couldn't keep myself from lifting handful after handful and letting it run through my fingers. It is also unbelievably clean and I began to understand why the Sahara desert is considered a place of purification. I wanted to lie in the sand all night. I could feel the surface sands blowing lightly against my skin. There was a crescent moon which bathed everything in a ghostly light. Below in the camp, our guides had started drumming and singing. As it got darker, everything became shadows: the curves of the dunes against the sky, as well as the camels, other people, and a few stray bushes.
Turning and looking toward the top of the dune, the ridge was a dark path to the last blue of the west. Eventually I headed back down toward the camp, passing the dark shapes of others in our group who had succumbed to the magnetism of the sands and lay sunk into the dunes, staring at the sky.
Back in the camp, everyone sat on carpets around a couple small tables lit with candles stuck in sand filled water bottles. Our guides served tea and continued with their songs and drumming. Then a meal of chicken tagine was served, after which we had more music and danced a bit.
One of the guides proposed a hike to the top of the dune so we all began climbing again. This time we made it. Rowshan took a steep short cut to try to startle me by jumping out of the darkness making rabid sheep noises. At the top of the dune, we walked across a flat area to another small rise from where we could see the lights of Merzuga and other settlements and towns (one of which, the guide said, was the home of many Gnawa musicians). I turned to Rowshan and we agreed that we preferred the other direction with no lights except for the stars and the moon. Looking for some silence, we walked down a little ways and realized we weren't sure of the direction of the camp. Though it seemed obvious as we climbed, to return required guessing which of several ridges we had gone up since the camp was obscured from view. We realized how easy it would be to get completely lost in the dunes at night since walking a little in one direction could quickly hide any landmarks from view. The dunes were a subtle labyrinth, dangerous in their simplicity. We walked back up a little until we found the footprints of the group and got going in the right direction. Soon we were able to hear the drums of the camp and see the lights, so we sat down and enjoyed the peaceful night. The breeze had turned into a bit of a wind and the desert night was quickly cooling. The sand had also turned cold. We went back to camp where blankets had been spread in the tents for sleeping. It was a fairly comfortable night with a bed of sand and blankets, but we wanted to get up early for the sunrise. Everyone missed it because the day was overcast and so the sunrise was hidden. The guides saddled up the camels and we took a walk trying to soak up the desert before we had to leave. Rowshan spotting a lone camel in the distance, striking against the sands, set off in pursuit.
The camels were ready but Rowshan hadn't returned. I saw him off in the distance and called and waved for him to come back but he couldn't hear me and just waved back and continued walking in the opposite direction. Finally I had one of the guides wave to him so he got the message we were leaving. He got the message and began running. We got on our camels, leaving the sick one for Rowshan since he was late. I couldn't see Rowshan at all and started calling for him only to have one of the guides say, "He is right in front of you!" Sure enough, on the other side of the dune we were climbing, Rowshan sat gasping for breath. Hergush, the sick camel, seemed to be feeling a bit better. We speculated that maybe he had just been tired the night before or hated the desert so he was happy to be going back to town. It was a pretty trip back. The morning turned the sands golden. We chatted and laughed, bumping along on the backs of our camels.
When we reached the hotel, we had a breakfast of tea, bread, and Moroccan pancakes, then got in the bus for the long road back.