DM's Morocco and Spain 2014 Diary

Day 8 - Midelt to Sahara Desert

Saturday, 20 September, 2014

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08:26

We were woken this morning around 05:00 by a howling gale blowing outside. It was rattling the windows and doors throughout the hotel and whistling through all the cracks between the windows and their frames. Every so often there would be a huge bang from somewhere in the hotel as a huge gust caught something. As the dawn light rose, we could see the sky was overcast, with ominous looking grey swirling clouds, and the trees were being thrown about, threshing wildly in the wind.

We got up at 07:00 and dressed to go down for breakfast. Lahcen had mentioned the buffet began at 07:00, but we didn't see any evidence of it, although we could smell cooking and hear coffee being made. Leanne joined us and I wandered over to see if there was anything happening near the kitchen, and spotted a corridor to a large room at the back of the hotel overlooking the pool courtyard, where the buffet was set up and some other people were already helping themselves. They turned out to be Spanish. Just as I'd gotten used to speaking French instead of Italian, one greeted me with a "buenos dias", and without thinking I replied "bonjour".

Midelt breakfast
Breakfast buffet at Hotel Kasbah Asmaa.

The breakfast buffet was good, with plenty of options including boiled eggs, Moroccan bread, roti-like flatbread, a heavy semolina bread, roti filled with spiced onions (which was very nice and a good change from sweet things), croissants, tea cake, a whole apple tart like last night's dessert, yoghurt, dates, fresh apples and oranges, jams, honey, and a few other things. As we ate, and others dribbled in to join us, we discussed the wind. We all figured it was far too windy to even be out and about here, let alone in the desert where there would be sand blowing about. We guessed Lahcen would evaluate the situation in the Sahara and decide if it was safe for us to take the camel ride and camp out in the desert or not. Opinion seemed to be that if it was anything like this where we are going, it would have to be cancelled.

On the way back to our room from breakfast, we ran into Lahcen emerging from his room. We commented about the wind and he said very casually, "Yes, it will be much worse in the Sahara." I said everyone down at breakfast was wondering if it would be safe. He said it would be fine within the camp tents, and while we're riding the camels, "well, it's all part of the experience". We were slightly flabbergasted, but I guess we'll see when we get to the desert and the whole group evaluates the situation.

10:23

Vegetable sellers
Market in N'Azala.

We have just stopped in the village of N'Azala to have a look at the local market, which happened to be on today, the one day of the week when it is held. This was a very different market to the ones we have seen in the big cities. It was similar to a country flea market, with men manning stalls or even just spread out plastic tarps on the ground, covered with second hand goods like crockery, clothes, electrical goods, tools, and so on. There were also several fruit and vegetable sellers with piles of tomatoes, zucchinis, eggplants, apples, onions, dates, and so on, and a few meat sellers with cuts of meat on tables. One was selling white lumps of tripe. Little children in colourful traditional clothes ran around peering at us curiously, and the slightly older ones approached us with offers of "photo, one dirham". We are being responsible tourists and not paying anyone for photos, but we took general photos of the market. As we walked around the courtyard where the market was held, large splats of cold rain began falling, but not enough to require a quick retreat to the bus. Lahcen explained some of the details of the market, that it began very early and the live animals were only sold before about 07:00. The whole market closed before noon, to avoid the heat of the day.

To get here we drove out of Midelt to the south, along a road which crossed a broad plain, towards a range of mountains. We then climbed up into the mountains, following a river valley which cut its way through the range. We stopped in a few places for spectacular views of the plain below, topped by an angry sky which promises storms and rain.

Storm over Africa
Stormy sky over the plain.

Now we are driving along the Ziz River valley which cuts through the Atlas Mountains. The geology is astounding, with reddish rocks in gently tilted and undulating layers cut up by erosion. There are some palm trees along the valley, but the river is dry and stony at this time at the end of summer. Earlier we saw lots of juniper trees as we climbed up to around 1900 metres to drive through a pass. There are also apple orchards around the occasional villages we are passing through, and white bee hives.

Lahcen is now giving us a lesson in the history of Islam, about the origins of the schism between the Shi'ites and Sunnis. The weather has closed in and it is very grey and rainy now.

Crossing the mountains
Ziz Valley.

12:32

We have just stopped in the large town of Errachidia for a drink and toilet stop, at a service station. The interior was very gloomy and stuffy, so we all sat out the front. M. got a nos-nos, the local word for a caffe latte, half coffee and half milk, "nos" being Arabic for "half". It is still raining on and off, but there is no wind here. Lahcen asked Michelle at the stop to take his photo in the rain, because otherwise nobody would ever believe him that it was raining here today. So apparently this is very unusual sort of weather.

Lahcen said the area around here has a lot of mines, including the largest silver mine in north Africa. They also mine gold, copper, cobalt, tin, and probably a few other things. After leaving the Ziz valley we are now on a flat plain, where Errachidia is. There are a lot of military bases here as we are close to the border with Algeria. I expect we'll be entering the Sahara soon, and Lahcen said we will be seeing sand dunes on the drive.

Ziz Valley
Ziz Valley.

Earlier Lahcen took our orders for lunch, which he phoned ahead to a place he described as an oasis, so presumably our lunch stop is in the desert. I opted for some beef skewers, and M. is going to try a Berber omelette, which is made with tomatoes and onions.

14:20

We have just left lunch at a very nice restaurant/accommodation place called Gite d'Etape (Maison) Vallée de Ziz in the small oasis town of Oulad Aïssa. And driving out of town just now we saw the aftermath of a very nasty car accident. One of the cars was crushed completely in the front, and the second car had its front sheered almost completely off. This is the third accident we've seen today. Earlier, climbing up the twisty road to the mountain pass we saw one smash, and then shortly after that we saw a car down in the valley which had tumbled off the road and fallen down the cliff.

Lunch was very nice, starting with some olives and bread. Both our meals were delicious. M.'s Berber omelette was really a mix of tomato and onion in a tajine, with an egg cracked on top and then cooked over a fire. My beef skewers came with chips which were a rich yellow colour from saffron (which Lahcen said earlier was grown in the Sahara), crispy, and deliciously salty. I also grabbed a bit of the "Moroccan salad" which Jay and Jill had ordered. This time it turned out to be a mound of chopped tomato, onion, and green capsicum. It seems every salad in the country is named "Moroccan salad", but what it is is completely different and random wherever you go. (The tapas-like plates of warm vegetables we had in the medina in Fes was also "Moroccan salad".)

Berber omelette
Berber omelette.

The restaurant was in a charming building by the side of the main road. On the left of the road is just orange cliffs and tumbled rocks which have fallen from the cliffs. On the right is the oasis, with thousands of palm trees presumably hiding a river which runs down the Ziz valley. We walked in off the dusty road, through the restaurant, and out into the terrace which overlooked a lush garden, full of date palms, pomegranate trees, and vegetables.

After eating our meals, the waiters brought out plates of sliced melon and fresh dates. The melon was pale whitish colour. It was very juicy and tasted faintly like banana. The dates were soft and succulent and very good. Maria asked if they were grown on the trees in the garden and the waiter said yes, he had just picked them this morning.

Beef skewers and chips
Skewers and chips.

We have learnt some important Arabic words. One was "balak", which was useful for the medina of Fes. Atimadh taught us "yallah", which means "let's go". She said, "Yallah means let's go. Yallah yallah yallah means hurry up." Lahcen told us about the Arabic greeting "ssalamu lekum", for which the response is "ulekum ssalam". And he also explained to us about Moroccan time: when you say you will be somewhere at eight o'clock, you append "insha'Allah", which means "god willing". So if you don't actually show up at eight, and are late, it's because it's Allah's will, and you're not really to blame. So whenever you say you will do anything in the future, it is always "insha'Allah" because something could always happen to stop you, and if it does it's god's will and probably for the better (because something bad might have happened if you had kept your appointment), so you shouldn't worry about it. So now whenever he is trying to herd our group back to the bus or to do something quickly, we are adding "insha'Allah" to the end of Lahcen's words.

We are now passing through the town of Erfoud, in the outskirts of the desert. We're about to stop to look at a fossil shop where Lahcen says the fossils are genuine, as opposed to a lot of the fakes that are around.

16:17

The fossil place was great. One of the staff gave us a quick tour of the workshops where they cut and polish the marble which contains fossils of spiral shells of what he called "snails" and straight ones which he called "squid". These fossils are embedded in the stone and only revealed as it is cut into slices. The stone comes from deposits in the Sahara Desert. They also had some large ammonites, which are found loose in the sand and so don't need to be cut. He showed us a coarse and then a fine polishing machine in action. The coarse one had a large rotating head on a counterbalanced arm, and it sprayed bits of white polishing fluid everywhere. The fine one was a hand held buffing machine with sheep's wool.

Fossil guy
Saharan fossils.

After the talk, we had the chance to browse the shop and buy some stuff. They had some beautiful tables, dining and coffee. I asked how much a coffee table would be, and the man said the total with shipping to Sydney would be 3000 euros. That was a bit much, but I liked a serving platter which had a large spiral fossil in it. It was 2000 dirhams, and the man threw in a free plate which cost 400 dirhams by itself.

20:00

We are sitting in the camp in the Erg Chebbi region of the Sahara desert, on rugs laid on the sand. The sun has set and it is dark, but our hosts are turning on some solar powered lights. There are also some flashes of lightning and distant rolls of thunder. A few drips of rain are just starting to fall and we are hoping we don't have to run to our tents before dinner. The camp is affiliated with Kasbah Yasmina, one of the several places at this outpost village of Merzouga, several kilometres out of the town of Rissani.

Desert camp
Campsite in the Sahara.

Our journey here involved driving out of Rissani on a road into a wide rocky plain. We saw huge looking sand dunes in the distance and closed slowly on them, but turned off the road on to an unpaved track across the rocky sand. This was bumpy and slow going in the mini bus, and we travelled about 10 kilometres directly into the desert. At the end we reached Merzouga, which is just a cluster of several hotels, on the last part of the rocky plain and with giant orange sand dunes right on their doorsteps. This was obviously an outpost placed here to cater to tourists.

We stopped at one of the fancier looking auberges here and unloaded the van, taking our luggage into a room to be locked up while we are out in the desert. We wrapped scarves around our heads in case of wind and blowing sand, Lawrence of Arabia style, with the help of Lahcen and Maria, who had watched carefully enough when the guy at the silk place had demonstrated on me to duplicate the wrapping. Then we boarded our camels with the help of handlers and set off on the rocking beasts into the dunes.

Through the Desert
On camels, through the desert.

The ride took a minute to get used to, but was okay after that. The toughest part was when the camel went down a dune, which required you to lean backwards to maintain balance. When they go up, you lean forward. I shot photos with a fast shutter speed to freeze the rocking motion. The journey was spectacular, as we left sight of the hotels and found ourselves immersed in giant dunes. The terrain was almost entirely sand, but there were small clumps of scrubby grass here and there. The camels had huge flat padded feet which spread out when they landed in the sand. My camel was a bit of a rebel, and kept veering to the left rather than follow directly behind the camel in front, like all the others did.

We stopped about halfway to fix the saddle on Ben's camel, which had its handle on funny, making it hard for Ben to keep a hold. Lahcen walked rather than riding a camel, and took a shortcut across a dune ridge, beating us to the campsite easily. We dropped our bags into one of the tents, which is divided into two halves for two people in each half (Karen and Heather in the other half of ours), then joined the group in the middle of the tent circle, sitting on rugs around some small, low tables. The camel drivers had set up olives and peanuts for us to nibble on while they prepared dinner, and served us mint tea.
Sahara dunes
Sahara Desert.

20:36

We have now moved into the emergency rain shelter tent, since there is a storm building outside and the rain is falling. There have been several immensely bright flashes of lighting, and counting the thunder claps afterwards shows the storm is getting closer. The rain is not really heavy yet, but might get nasty soon.

Erg Chebbi
Sahara Desert.

22:51

The dinner was good. We had bread and large communal tajines with some red meat, probably beef, carrots, potatoes, and peas. M. got an individual version without meat. It was only lightly spiced, which made a nice change from the food we've been having. For dessert there were cut oranges and slices of the same melon we've had before, with the skin on this time, allowing us to identify it as the bright yellow, rugby ball sized and shaped melon with ridges running from end to end. We still don't know what it's called.

Desert dinner
Dinner in the Sahara.

After the food, the Berber camel drivers, two of them, performed some songs for us on the drums. We tried playing the drums ourselves but couldn't get much of a sound out of them. The drivers then came and took them away to warm the heads by a fire to tighten them up, and came back with them sounding much better. They played four long songs, urging everyone to get up and dance for one of them.

The songs done, we dashed through the rain to the toilets and to brush our teeth quickly by the sink, getting wet from the rain the whole time. Then we dashed back to our tent to retire for the night.



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