The Sahara

We left Marrakech on Friday, May 30th and headed South over the Atlas Mountains and towards the Sahara desert.  We decided to rent a car for the rest of our travels in Morocco in order to save some time on bus rides and to allow us to be more flexible and see some more things on the way.  At first I was a bit nervous about driving in Morocco after observing traffic in Tangier and Marrakech, but in reality it hasn’t been bad at all, definitely much easier than Ireland.  For one, they drive on the right side of the road the same as we do in the U.S., and the roads are much wider in general than they are in Ireland.  Once you get outside of the cities there also isn’t much traffic because there just aren’t that many cars.  On first observation, driving looks very chaotic with cars going all over the place, honking, not respecting lanes, etc.  However,  other drivers are really very courteous and since it is a bit chaotic it forces everyone to pay much more attention to what is going on.  I’ve found that people communicate much better on the road than in the U.S., making eye contact, using turn and hand signals, and yes, honking to let you know they are passing or just that they are there.  When on the two lane highways, truck drivers especially will almost always let you know when it is safe to pass either by turning on their right turn signal or by just waving a hand out the window.  There are also a lot of speed traps and people will flash their lights at you coming the other way to let you know one is coming up.  Besides all of the speed traps, there are also what seem to be just random police stops.  The police will set up a road block where everyone stops and if they think you look suspicious or something they will pull you over and if not, they’ll wave you through.  Luckily we’ve escaped both the speed traps and road blocks so far.

Our first night on the road, we stopped in the town of Ouarzazate on our way to Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara.  On our way we picked up a young man who’s car had broken down and gave him a ride the rest of the way to Ouarzazate.  There are a lot of hitchhikers on Morocco and we stayed clear of all of them although we felt bad a lot of the time leaving people in basically the middle of nowhere.  This kid seemed legit though and we felt more comfortable picking up someone who’s car had broken down than we did about just picking up random hitchhikers.  I suppose it’s a Karma thing, we would hope someone would pick us up if we were in the same situation, especially here.  He didn’t speak a lot of English, but we gathered that he was a Berber from another desert town called M’Hamid and was the proud owner of 60 camels there.  He was on his way to Ouarzazate to hook up with his brother before they left on their annual camel caravan across the Saharra to Timbuktu. That’s right, they still walk for two months across the Saharra in camel caravans to trade in Timbuktu just as they have done for centuries. When we arrived in Ouarzazate, we took him to his brother’s house and were invited in for some tea with his brother, Nayrawen.  We stayed for an hour or so talking about M’Hamid and the camel caravans, telling Nayrawen about Portland, and looking at pictures from their treks across the Saharra.  Nayrawen was really nice and genuinely grateful to us for picking up his little brother on the side of the road.  Like the other Berbers that we have met he is warm, open, and just fun to be around.  Once we finished tea and conversation, he offered to take us to an oasis town called Fint a little ways outside of Ouarzazate after we got checked in to our hotel and had  little while to rest after the trip.  We took him up on the offer and agreed to pick him up a couple of hours later.

We picked up Nayrawen a couple of hours later and drove out of town.  We turned off the paved road and onto some pretty rough dirt road across the desert.  The desert here is more rocky than sandy and it seriously looks like pictures that you see of Mars.  Just red mountains and red volcanic rock all around.  There are a few scrubby bushes, but not much in the way of visible life.  It is very desolate, but very beautiful at the same time.  After driving across this barren landscape for a few kilometers, we came over the top of a hill and were suddenly looking down into a lush green oasis filled with palm trees.  It is absolutely beautiful and the juxtaposition of the oasis with the surrounding barren mountains is really something to see.  We drove down into the oasis, parked the car a little ways in and then got out and walked around the small village and agricultural lands inside the oasis.  Nayrawen seemed to know everyone since he trades with the people here and we were really grateful to have him along since I don’t think I would have been comfortable walking around here on our own.  The people who live in this oasis are descended from Sudanese people who settled here in the 15th century.  They have taken on some of the Berber culture, but also retained a lot of their original Sudanese culture making for an interesting mix that you don’t see elsewhere in Morocco.  We saw gardens growing corn, beans, squash, and grain as well as almond, orange, fig, and argan trees.  We also saw a traditional earthen oven used for baking bread that was still warm from the days baking.  It was an incredibly beautiful and interesting place that we never would have gone to had we not picked up Nayrawen’s brother on the side of the road.  As the Berbers say, “one coincidence is worth a thousand appointments”.

After returning from Fint, Nayrawen invited us to have dinner with him and his co-worker.  First, however, he showed is his store room full of Berber carpets that they were preparing to load up on the camels and take across the Sahara.  The carpets were so beautiful and the prices so good that we decided we had to have one, two actually.  After many cups of tea and a couple hours of haggling (the favorite Berber pasttime), we are now the proud owners of two beautiful Berber carpets.  Each one was hand made by a Berber woman over the course of about 6 months from camel wool and silk.  They use natural dyes and each one tells a bit of a story incorporating ancient tribal symbols.  Nayrawen told us he will show pictures of the rugs to each of the women who made them and will tell us the stories behind the rugs and what all of the symbols on them mean, which is pretty cool.  We were very happy with the price we got including shipping as compared to what they were in Marrakech and these will be a reminder of our trip here when we see them every day in our house.  After the rug haggling game, we had dinner of home made Tagine which was delicious and then went for some much needed sleep.  Our first day in the desert was amazing, with good people and beautiful sites, exactly what we had in mind when we left on this trip.

The next day we drove to our final desert destination of Merzouga, which is right on the edge of the Sahara.  After Merzouga there is pretty much nothing but sand dunes for hundreds of miles.  We previously arranged for an overnight camel trek and stayed at the hotel the trek would be leaving from the next day.  On arrival, we were greeted by our guide Moha who got us checked in to our room at a hotel called Le Petit Prince and told us dinner would be around 9 PM.  We were just in time to catch the sunset so we walked out of the hotel, past the camels, and up onto a small sand dune to watch the sun set over the desert and Merzouga.  It was beautiful to say the least.  The next day we got up, had some breakfast, and then I drove to the nearby town of Rissani to check out some of the sights there as well as the souk (market) that was happening that day. I drove around the “Monument Loop” right outside of town, which included a bunch of Ksars, which are basically castles where people still live today as well as the ruins of the ancient city of Sijilmassa.  After exploring the ruins for a while I stopped at one of the more interesting looking Ksars to look around.  I was greeted by three enthusiasitc and sweet little boys who offered to give me a tour of their home.  They guided me through the narrow passages and showed me the well, gardens, and towers of the place.  It was really neat and all four of us had big grins on our faces the whole time.  I think I really made their day when I gave them 10 Dirhams each for their efforts.  I also went to the souk where I bought a kilogram of locally grown dates for five dollars and witnessed a man drawing what appeared to be a mustache on a severed cow head.  I went back to to Le Petit Prince and we prepared to leave for the camel trek at around 5:30.

When 5:30 rolled around, we went out to our waiting camels just outside the hotel.  We were in a group with another couple, him from Sweden and her from Denmark.  Getting on the camels and then getting them up on their feet is a little bit of a process.  They are very tall, so you climb on when they are laying on the ground.  After I got on mine, the guide gave it a little nudge in the front and it let out a gutteral bellow as if getting up was the hardest thing in the world it wanted to do. With a few more nudges it finally pushed up it’s back legs leaving me in a precarious position of leaning forward about 45 degrees trying to keep from sliding off.  After a few long seconds, it finally pushed up it’s front legs and there I was perched on it’s hump about 8 feet up in the air.  After everyone was on, we were off across the dunes to our camp about an hour walk out in the desert.  The scenery of the Sahara is hard to put into words, but once we got out of eyesight of Merzouga, the vastness of it really hit me.  It is just golden sand dunes as far as the eye can see with a very few tough scrubby bushes poking up here and there.  A sea of sand is definitely a fitting description.  There is a real sense of solitude and once I was out there I could understand a little why the Berbers,  who value freedom and liberty highly, choose to live there.  After an hour of riding we arrived at our camp and were shown to our tent.  We rested a bit and then walked to the top of the closest dune to watch the sunset.  Unfortunately it was very windy so we had a lot sand blowing in our faces, but it was still beautiful and we had fun.  We even did a little “sand boarding”, which just involves riding a snowboard down the sand dune.  After the sunset we went back and of course drank some mint tea and then had dinner. Dinner consisted of copious amounts of a delicious rice dish with vegetables, then chicken Tagine with carrots and potatoes, followed by watermelon for desert.  It was a hearty meal and hit the spot after camel riding and dune climbing.  Finally, we had a concert of Berber drum music and singing put on by our guides, which was delight to listen to as always.  After that, we went out to look at the stars which were great being out there with no artificial light to speak of.  We could see the milky way and the sky full of thousands of stars.  Unfortunately it was still too windy to stay out long.  We went to bed around midnight and our guides woke us up about 5:40 so we could watch the sun rise over the desert.  It was worth getting up early as it was just as beautiful as the sunset.  After that we got back on the camels and headed back to the hotel.  After breakfast and a shower, we hit the road back to Ouarzazate and then on to the Atlantic coast.

The Saharra was amazing and definitely one of the parts of the trip I was looking forward to most.  Being a Montana boy, I’m a sucker for wide open spaces and the Saharra doesn’t dissappoint in that regard.  We met some great people there and saw some beautiful landscapes.  I couldn’t have asked for more from the experience.

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