Long Day to Essaouira

We had a long transit day today from Taroudant to Essaouira.  So unfortunately that largely means being stuck in the bus.  We had a bit of a drive through Taroudant before we left, which was eye-opening – it’s not a tourist town and looked very poor, and absolutely the most filthy place we have been to. It survives primarily on agriculture and the rural people here don’t have the sort of facilities and amenities we have seen in other places.  There were far more beggars laying around in the streets, and lots of dirty faces and hands… I saw one person eating from a rubbish bin, which always makes you both sad and aware of your own incredible privilege.  I’m not at all into ‘slum tourism’ so I didn’t take any photographs out of the bus.

We continued on, only stopping in Agadir to collect some grocery items to go have a picnic lunch at the beach.  Once at the beach, we found ourselves on a lovely strip of sand with camels, very friendly healthy-looking wandering dogs, and some scantily clad foreigners sunbathing… obviously not locals! Maybe Australian needs more camels on their beaches… Our next stop to break up the drive north was at a women’s co-operative that makes argan oil products from the nuts of the argan tree. This very professional and (deliberately) clinical looking lady showed us how the ladies broke apart the stones from the fruti of the argan trees to get the kernels out to grind into a thick brown paste.  From these kernels, they make various edible products – a cooking/dipping oil, a argain oil paste (which tastes something liek a cross between peanut butter and nutella; as well as a large range of cosmetics. The argan oil comes only from Morocco and is said to have amazing anti-ageing properties, as well as being fantastic for your hair and nails and cracked heels and all of it. Weirdly, at home, you see lots of Moroccan coconut oil shampoos and conditions lining the shelves of supermarkets. This appears to be a totally fabricated thing.  Morocco is not known for its coconut industry – their palms are predominantly date palms and their primary cosmetic oil is argan – which tends towards being very expensive back home.  Oh well, consumers are always suckers for a good marketing campaign. I picked up a small bottle of leave in conditioning hair treatment, and I’m kinda hoping I don’t love it, because buying more is going to be a real bitch! Eventually, we reached our destination for the next two nights- Essaouira, which on the Atlantic on Morocco’s west coast.  It’s a very popular tourist destination with Europeans, who largely come here for the beaches, fishing, kitesurfing, and other summer holiday stuff.  Until the 1960s, Essaouira was generally known by its Portuguese name, Mogador, which we have seen written all over the places still. The ramparts of the medina were built in the 1700s. There was a Roman settlement here, this area is where the Tyrian purple dye used to come from that was used to dye the robes of Roman senators.  It has been inhabited ever since and was occupied by the Portuguese in the middle ages. The medina is wide and airy compared to Fez or Marrakech – and is largely for pedestrian traffic only which is nice after the hectic and chaotic environments there.  Mostly, the medina is filled with Riads (we are staying right in the medina), restaurants, art galleries and handicraft shops… it feels like the Montville or Leura of Morocco!. We checked into our lovely Riad with a gorgeous little courtyard in the centre and then headed straight to the rooftop terrace to have a few beers – this was a complete necessity at this point.. For you see, we had had the most fortuitous miscommunication with Mohammed, the driver of our minibus who has been with us since we left Marrakech.  Samirr had arranged for Mohammed to go buy us some alcohol to take to the desert camp, and each person wrote down what they wanted and we were to pay him when he came back.  And, being all Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and Americans we wrote things down like ‘one six-pack’ and ‘one bottle of red wine’ (with a price range).  We didn’t have high hopes on Mohammed’s ability to choose a nice red – but we didn’t expect him to some how mistake a ‘six-pack’ with a slab… so somehow instead of five six packs turning up to have a few quiet ones at the Sahara camp, we had five cartons turn up!

Which led to the dreadful situation of everyone having to try and consume 120 beers instead of the expected 30.  Turns out the only challenging bit of this was keeping the beer cold enough.  In typical Aussie fashion, Mr K and one of the other Aussie contingent hacked open a big water bottle and filled it with ice to make a makeshift esky, which worked a treat.  So there we were up on the rooftop terrace after a long drive enjoying our surplus of beer and having some very ordinary Moroccan red!
After a few drinks and a bit of a wind-down, we went for a short stroll into the medina to find some dinner.   We all tended towards different fare for the evening and Mr K and I ended up in a very quiet and secluded seafood restaurant enjoying a really nice predominantly European menu with local fresh fish – avocado, shrimp and crab entree, some weird goat cheese spring roll which was absolutely delicious, some grilled john dory fillets and an extremely rich lemon creme brulee (probably the richest thing I’ve eaten in three weeks… only managed about half).

Then back to the Riad, a hot shower and crashed.  So tired from a couple of long days on the bus!  We have all day in town tomorrow to have a really good look around, I’m currently trying to decide whether to go get a massage or find the local museum to see if they have any interesting Roman objects in their collection.


Goats in trees! Taroudant

Woke up early to have breakfast so we could relax and watch the sunrise over our desert camp in the Sahara.  Yesterday was completely cloudless, but this morning we were treated with a beautiful sky as the sun peeped over the dunes.
The early morning light was lovely in the camp, and I was honestly quite surprised that it was nowhere near as cold as I was anticipating.  It was about 2C o’night and very low humidity so it didn’t seem that cold at all… or perhaps my barometer for ‘cold’ is off as I am still comparing most things favourably with last years ‘OMFG my hands feel like they’re burning from the car AC set to 16C in Iceland?!?’, type cold?  Who knows?  Either way, I had a warm night’s sleep in the desert camp and was not too bothered when we got up. Mr K playing silly buggers while some of our group were watching the sunrise from a nearby hillock.
For any who are unfamiliar with the geography, this is where Google Maps placed us at the desert came – right close to the Algerian border… and those land mines.

Our drive out of the desert saw us contine south west for about 3 hours by 4WD.  The landscape was largely rocky, then sandy, then rocky again.

Cutting through the really fine sand was like driving through bulldust in central Australia, though not quite so red. At one point we popped out on the dry, Lake Merzouga.  The drivers actually got over 50kmph once they hit the dry lake bed prior to this we were plodding along, still going quite fast for conditions but largely in low range and 2nd or 3rd gear tops. Another hour or so down the desert, we came to a place covered in rocks where the tourists had, naturally, been building cairns, but where Samirr had us pull up to look at the fossils in nearly every rock you flipped over. Tess and I kicked over this cairn only to discover the enormous flat rock at the base was covered in fossils.  Nearly every rock in this area, no matter how large or small had something fossilised into it. Quite literally, we are in the middle of nowhere and there was a woman herding her goats.  We stopped and gave her a jug of water and said a quick ‘hello’ before jumping back in the jeeps to carry on. Not 100m from where this patch of vegetation was, we were back to sand and nothing for her animals to eat. We followed this enormous rock ridge for what seemed like about two hours.  Every time we thought we were going to pass it, we just turned the corner to be greeted with another rocky face. The last hour in the 4WDs was about as rocky and bumpy as I’ve ever encountered.  I spent many months camping and driving in the outback with Mum and Dad as a kid, but never were we thrown around like this – my Dad was usually driving and he was always super careful of the car, slowing down for bad conditions.  Our driver Mohammed was super proficient, but they definitely seemed in a hurry, so we were jostled around a LOT.  By the time we got off the 4WD, I felt like I’d spent the last hour in a washing machine.

We stopped and had a completely forgettable lunch at a cafe in the town of Iriki… meat skewers, kefta (some a bit sus on whether they were cooked properly) and salad and chips.  It seemed a whole pile of us popped out of the desert all at once and the restaurant was somewhat overwhelmed, so much so, Samirr was spotted on the grill more than once trying to hurry food up.

After lunch, we bundled back into our minibus and hit the road towards Taroudant.  We knew it was going to be a long transit day, but I failed to account for just how I would feel after three hours of being tossed around … I felt like a bobblehead on a dashboard!

About an hour down the road, Samirr made a stop for us to buy some saffron.  I had mentioned back in Marrakech that I wanted to take some home, but Samirr warned me against buying from the colour piles of ‘spices’ in the medina.  It seems quite often these spices are cut with dust.  No shit, some unscrupulous merchants will buy spice, and then find very fine dirt, grind it to dust and mix it with the spice to make a greater profit.  The lady at our cooking class also warned me against buying at the ‘tourist spice’ shops in the medina also.

So we stopped at a little nothing store and marched up a flight of stairs to find a guy selling threads of saffron, rather than the ground stuff. Saffron comes from the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus).  It has bright red stigma and styles, which are called threads, that get collected and dried.  They are then used as a seasoning in a lot of cooking, and I’m hoping to get in amongst some Moroccan cooking when we get home.  Saffron has long been considered to be the world’s most expensive spice (by weight) and Samirr picked up this enormous bundle, which was 5 gms in weight, and said it would last his family for up to a year. Needless to say, I didn’t need anywhere near that much.

A bit further down the road and we entered an area famous for argan trees (argania spinosa).  The argan trees are famous for producing argan oil.  The tree is a flowering plant that grows in the semi-desert areas of the Sous valley of south-western Morocco.  They grow to be about 8-10m in height, they have thorns and gnarly looking trucks, and broad leafy branches. They also grow an inedible fruit, which is discarded, but which contains a stone that is pressed to gain argan oil.

However, all that being said, what they are most known for are the goats in the region that tend to live in the trees and eat the leaves! During periods of drought, the goats will abandon foraging on the ground and instead climb the trees to eat the leaves.  The goat herders don’t have a problem with this, extra sustenance for their goats, and the farmers who own the trees also don’t have a problem with this, as the goats don’t eat the fruit. The tourists, well they just love the goats in the argan trees, as it is something so typically associated with Morocco. Samirr made a point of telling us that we were very lucky to see the goats in the trees, at this time of year, they’ve usually had more rain which would mean plenty of easy foraging for the goats and no need to climb trees. However, this summer was pretty dry, so – goats in trees. He claimed about 1 in 5 times he comes through here, they are actually in the trees.  Most of the time they are on the ground.  So we got lucky.  They’re super cute but you have to keep your distance when they jump down, they damn near fly and seem to leap about 3-4m from the branch they’re standing on.  Moroccan Drop Goats, we were calling them. Eventually, we reached our destination of Oulad Berhil which is a tiny town that has barely one taco stand! Much to The Boys’ dismay.  It is actually about 45kms from the town of Taroudant, which we will be having a look around tomorrow morning.  We were staying overnight in a restored palace which has now been converted to a classy Riad.  The palace has owned for the last thirty years by a Danish millionaire who allegedly was overwhelmed by the beauty of the palace and its magnificent gardens.  Coming to the Riad Hida is like stepping into another era and still bears the name of the Pasha who built it in the 19thC. The hotel is filled with lounges, furnishings and elegant rooms with gorgeous carved and painted ceilings and an immaculately maintained garden, full of orange trees, swimming pools and peacocks strutting about. The place is lovely and we had an enormous big suite with a huge bed. The door to our suite. Dinner was in a lavish restaurant filled with antiques and elegantly decorated.  Tagines all round! Our favourite kefta tagine was on the menu, though sadly lacking in eggs.

After such a long travel day, we decided to turn in early.  The riad is so quiet I am hopeful of a good night’s sleep.  Fingers crossed!

Morocco Sahara Desert Camp

Had a reasonable start in Zagora this morning, but by the time we went to a supermarket to pick up some picnic supplies, and some more wine, it felt like we were getting a bit of a late start.  Zagora has this thing about being 52 days walk from Timbucktoo – spelt here as Tomboutouc, so we had to stop at the famous sign that shows you are in fact, 52 days walk from Timbucktoo..?!  No idea why, but when the Chinese tourists finally got out of the way we took a photo. Our first stop this morning was the small town of Tamegroute.  Tamoutgroute is a famous zawiya (religious learning institute) which houses thousands of manuscripts, and at once time was the largest and richest library of North Africa. There is a very nice collection of some 4200, some of which are still on display in the zawiya.  You can go in, but there is no photography allowed. Among the manuscrispts is a rare 14th-century Quran with beautiful calligraphy in Kufic script.  The library also contains writings on theorlogy, astronomy, georgraphy, sciences, mathenatics and traslations of ancient Greek philosophers and mathematicans.  The collection started in the 16thC by a man named Ahmad bin Nasi, and was transferred to the zawiya on his death  Also in the zawiya complex is the mausoleum of several prominent sheiks and religious leaders since that time, and a hospital for the mentally ill, as Ahmad bin Nasi had a particular interest in mental illness. Outside the library.A picture shamelessly stolen from the internet of the old manuscripts kept in the library.The zawiya’s mosque – and of course fountains for ablutions.
And the door to the aforementioned hospice for the mentally ill and our guide, Mohammed, showing us the door handles.. The door to the asylum has four door-knockers – the top right for men, the top left for women, the bottom left for children and the bottom right for people wanting good wishes.  If Mohammed explained why this was the case – I missed it in amongst his extremely thick accent.  I love the intricated mosaic, carving and painted work on the buildings here. Further around from the zawiya, is the Tamagroute underground kasbah.  The people here would take refuge from invading nomads and bedouins in the event of an attack on their granaries or resources.  It was a particularly dark, narrow and kinda dismal kasbah, which still housed many people.  At irregular intervals, there was light penetrating the dark alleyways, which served no other purpose than to blind you when you plunged back into the dark again. Quite a significant portion of the kasbah was in serious disrepair. It certainly gives a different perspective on things back home – we need to finally fucking fix our back fence, but every single time I travel to a country where people are living in houses with massive holes in them, or tarpaulins for a roof or maybe holes gaping like this in the wall – I kinda go, ‘Meh, the back fence can wait, it’s not that bad’. Not overly helpful on the home maintenance front but the more I travel the less I care about the little things about the house that aren’t perfect.

Not far from the underground kasbah is Tamegroute’s famous green ceramics production centre.  This ceramics post creates all their wares with natural dyes and paints only.   The red comes from henna, the blue from indigo, the yellow from tumeric and saffron and the distinctive green comes from various local plants in the region.This particuarly green glazed style of tagine is unique to this region of South East Morocco. Tagines up and down the country are usually terracotta, but here they make distinctive green ceramics.  We also for the first time saw domed shaped tagines rather than the usual funnel shamed ones.  Apparently, they are used to create more steam in the tagine and allow red meat dishes to be cooked quicker.It was about this point that a few of us needed to use the bathroom – now, we have been educating our fellow travellers on the Happy Room Rating System, and this was barely a 1 Star Happy Room – no paper, a toilet that was flushing somewhat temporamentally, and water all over the floor but it was free and it had a door, so 1 Star.  When I found the bathroom, there were our two young American lads, Jake and Tyson looking at each other awkwardly wondering how they were going to go to the loo.  I didn’t get it?  They didn’t have to sit down, they didn’t need for paper and yet, they were too cowardly to use the ‘facilities’ (oh yeah, I’m using that term loosely!).  I said ‘Get out of the way boys.’ and in I went.  Hiked up the bottoms of my jeans, one piece of paper to wipe the seat, a spare one for me and a guard to watch the door that didn’t have a latch and a well practiced hover pee later and out I came.  The boys were standing there saying ‘You’re braver than me!’… to which I repsonded – ‘Once you’ve peed in Asia, you can pee anywhere!’.  Having said that, I still think the worst loo I ever encountered was at an internet cafe run by a bunch of geeks in southern Turkey…

After out visit to the ceramics cooperative, we were back on the road again heading for the Sahara camp.  The occasional photo stop is always welcome as a chance to get off the bus and stretch out legs. In among this gorgeous desert landscape was a camel train… The gang enjoying the views. Not too far down the road, we arrived at the small town of Mhamid and joined our 4×4 convoy and loaded up to head to the desert.  We drove down the road a short way and then the road just disappeared.  Suddeny the little town Mhamid was gone and we were faced with this: The landscape seemed to change dramatically form sandy and dry to rokcy and dry to dry lake/creek bed and dry. Not much was growing here but there were Arugala plants – who knew they were a desert plant?! About an our into our drive (with a driver named Mohammed who ‘drove it like he stole it!’) we stopped at a bee keeper’s place.  Of all things!  There
We all got to try the honey which had an extremly distinctive taste having largely come from the flowers on the arugala plants. Before we knew it, our convoy had arrived at the camp.  We were greeted with Moroccan mint tea, of course and a few minutes to settle ourselves into our ‘tents’.  To be honest, the facilities out here were way better than expected.  Our tents were made of extremely well insulating traditional mud brick walls, lined outside with wool. After tea and a 15 min break it was time to go find a camel!  As we were riding the camels up into the dunes to see the sunset. This is the camel I rode up the sand dunes.  This poor camel also was nameless – it seems giving beasts of burden a name is not the done thing in Morocco.  The camels live to be about 13, and most of these animals were in their prime at 5-7 years old.One yawned at me which I found somewhat disturbing.  I don’t know what passes for ‘normal’ camel orthadonture, but the poor thing appeared to have hardly any upper teeth!  There was another camel in the group that seemed to be grinding his teeth all afternoon, though I know not why.

Our little camel ride into the Sahara was quite fun, and riding Nameles Camel Number 3 was a lot easier than riding Frank the Mule the other day  The regular loping gait of the camel was far easier to deal with than the irregular all over the place side to side motion of the mule. Out there beyond Samirr is the Moroccan/Algerian border, barely 30 kms away.  This has been hotly contest property for nearly 50 years now and the last King made it a seriously unsafe proposition for the Algerians to try and enter the country by effectively creating an enormous strip of ‘no man’s land’ by planting tens of thousands of land mines all along the Moroccan border between the two countiries to keep the Algerians out… I bet no one was claiming the old king of Morocco is soft on immigration! The view from the top of the sand dunes looking to the east. The sunset was spectacular – everyone who walked up that stupid dune seemed to really enjoy it.t Sadly, we did have to return our camels and go get washed up for dinner. Which was served in a restaurant in the cmpsites – again way more swish than I anticipated.The enormous chicken tagines that were served fro dinner.  Absolutely dieicious.After this we’d had a few drinks over dinner, some of us congregated around the bon fire, but it was stariting to get seriously cold – so we had a quick shower (it was hot thank fuck; almost too hot!) before turning in and sleeping the exhuasted and slightly inebriated sleep we so richly deserved.

Zagora Oasis

Finally got a decent sleep last night – only took an entire bottle of red on top of the usual drug cocktail.  :/  Wooo… Happy New Year.

Ait Ben Haddou is as gorgeous in the sunrise as it was in the sunset.
We started out day off this morning with a spot of rug shopping at a local women’s weaving cooperative.  The Berber style of rugs prevalent throughout Morocco is quite distinctive.  They’re very busy and have a lot of motifs (many of which are for good luck or fertility) that repeat through the patterns.  They’re also really asymmetrical compared to other hand made rugs that you usually see coming out of Eurasia and the Middle East. The boys looked very exciting for their second foray into Berber home furnishings.
Our hosts laid out about 100 rugs for our viewing pleasure… some of them gorgeous, some of them downright hard on the eyes.  We seemed to have an extraordinary shopping experience this morning.  These rugs actually had prices on them, which is unusual in places where you expect to barter (ie: where they really truly want to fleece the tourists good and proper), and the marked prices were quite reasonable compared to what we had seen in other rug shops in the various medinas.

Like many other cultures I have visited, the traders here believe if they offer a good bargain for the first customer of the day, then they will have good sales all day.  So you can sometimes get a nice bargain if you happen to be the first in the door on any given day… but today we were the first customers of the day, on the first day of the new year, which happened to be the first day of trading of the new decade.  Our salesman told us ‘This morning is special day, so this morning for all of you, I make special prices’. And far-out was he true to his word!  The prices tumbled from the marked prices without any haggling or difficulty whatsoever.  One couple was looking at a rug marked 6000DH and they picked it up for 3200DH.  Another guy was looking at once for 4000DH and he scored it for 2300DH.  I think our salesman was either particularly superstitious or at the very least a strong adherent to tradition.  Allah bless his cotton socks. Mr K getting worried for his wallet…
In the end, our small group of sixteen purchased seven rugs – and for a fraction of what they would have cost in Fez or Marrakech, and with no bullshit bartering at all.  There were smiles all round.
Then we were off in our little bus, with Mohammed at the wheel, into the desert heading towards Zagora.  On the way out of town, we got to see some of the large movie studios that have grown up around Ait Ben Haddou – I guess when you have the whole production crew in place, and are using the location, there’s no point moving everyone to another studio area when you can just build a studio in Morocco. Very quickly though we were into the mountains again and into the pass.  Unlike the terrain around Aroumd which was formed by glaciers, this entire area was formed by volcanic actions however many millions of years ago.  You can see the swirling layers of rock that form the desert.  It’s so dry here and barely a tree in sight. It beggars belief as to why you would bulid here, but there are the Berber people who live in these walled towns, and Bedouin and nomadic people who used to raid them all fighting for resources in the region.  Each little town has a kasbah or fortress which can be retreated to when the nomads or Bedouins come invading…?
The scenery was really impessive, enormous rocky canyons, and steep cliffs as we approced the mountain pass which was 1800m above sea level (much lower than Aroumd at 2640m).
The rock formations were enormous and amazing… and unbelievably, on occasion, we could see handfuls of little black dots on these extremely arid areas.  Little black dots that would turn out to be goats and a shepherd.  Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to grab a photo of one of these herds of goats (herd? flocks? pack?  *shrug*  (Fuck who what the collective noun for a group of goats is?).
Once we had passed the pass, we found ourselves in the ‘oasis’.  Now this confused me somewhat – I always though an oasis was a spring of some sort in the middle of the desert.  A kinda Disneyeque situation where there’s nothing but sand in every direction and suddenly a small pool of fresh water with four or five palm trees… but not so!  This oasis spans 200kms down the valley and supports an enormous amount of people, commerce and agriculture. The mountain is Mt Kissane, and the oasis here supports and enormous date palm industry which spans the entire 200km length.  It was along this oasis that we stopped for a picnic lunch at a ‘truck stop’ (which looked more like a fancy hotel).  At lunchtime, I asked Samirr if he could enquire about the young woman from Aroumd who had tried to jump from the mountain… being stuck on the bus for hours, my mind kept wandering back to how the lack of education and bullshit religious superstitions may have driven this poor woman to desperation – he made a phone call and found out that she suffered only a broken leg and a broken jaw, and was due to have a surgery on both today.  I’d like to think she will get the medical attention she needs for her epilepsy, and her subsequent mental health issues… but I somehow strongly doubt it.
Anyway.  Another day another earworm. Every time Samirr mentioned the oasis, I could hear ‘Midnight at the oasis, send your camel to bed…’ going through my head.  We followed the palms and the mountains for a few hours. With beautiful, typically Moroccan vistas in every direction – this is more like what I expected  Morocco to look like, not the lush green rolling hills of the north. This was the only that I actually saw the water source that was sustaining all this growth: the Draa River which feeds the entire valley. We did one stop and it was date palms as far as the eye could see. Eventually, our drive came to an end and we arrived at Zagora.  Zagora is the major town in the Draa River valley. So anyone in the entire Drâa-Tafilalet region in this part of the country comes here for major supplies. The town is flanked by the mountain Zagora from which it derives its name.

Our hotel, Le Tinsouline is our jumping-off point to the Sahara camps, as is tradition for most tourists it seems, because there is scant little to do in th is town, yet it’s full of hotels and tourists.Pretty swish for being in the middle of nowhere. After we got settled, we went for a ‘gently walk for an hour and a half through the date palm trees of the oasis’, which turned out to be nearly a 6km walk, an easy third of which was over fucking sand dunes.  Nice one!  I wasn’t wearing my boots, just sneakers, and was exhausted from five hours being jostled around in the bus for most of the day, and here were expecting a nice easy walk in the cool of the palm trees, and instead, we were slogging over two kms of fucking sand dunes to see… well, I still don’t really know what?!

Le sigh.  The walk started out okay.  We walked through the oasis and the date palms.  The locals only keep the fruit-producing palm trees, if they don’t produce, they get cut down for building materials.  Each tree is capable of yielding 60-120kgs of dates per year, which are harvested by hand.  Inside the oasis in the middle of the palm trees are homes belonging to the land owners many of whom own about 50 or so palm trees, as well as small Riad guesthouses where people like to stay in the summer as it is so much cooler in the oasis than out in the town. Following the paths through the palm trees in the oasis was a bit like winding through a medina – lots of nooks and crannies, cool door ways and arches. Many impressive building facades and doorways, that you would never know was in here among the palms.
At the base of the palms, there are small spaces of other produce being grown – turnips, henna, lucerne, alfalfa and the like. Samirr demonstrating how the locals climb the palm trees to trim the fronds off the trees.  The trees themselves can live and keep bearing fruit for a century, but the fronds get cut off every five years or so.  These fronds are used as a building material – primarily in the building of fences.
Here is where we saw the fronds coming into use as fencing – the oasis is a naturally occurring space thanks to the river that runs through the valley, but the Sahara is an ever-changing landscape that encroaches and retreats where it pleases.  Here, in the oasis, the people have learned how to try and keep the Sahara at bay, by making fences to stop the sand dunes from overrunning their water sources and changing the geography. They weave the fronds into fences which are then laid out in a grid or checked type arrangement, so when the sand storms come, they hold back the sands. Fresh fencing. It was roughly at this point that I got sick of the walk in the sand dunes and lost the energy to look around me properly and keep taking photos – I was in a lot of pain, was trying not to throw up, and working hard on reminding myself to keep breathing.  But it’s one of those shitty things – I was kinda committed, and it’s hard to know whether to pull the pin or not, because at this point it could be further to try and walk back the way we came than to keep going to fuck knows where?  Additionally, I don’t want to impact the entire group’s walk just because I’m falling apart – some of them might have actually been enjoying this?!  Samirr had told us we were going for a ‘gentle walk through the palms’ but here we were up and down small sand dunes and my hips and back were like ‘wtf this doesn’t resemble the brochure’ – I had zero energy for it but had to keep plodding on.  Eventually, our walk went ended back at a Riad I recognised called La Soleil du Monde, where I could have waited for the mad bastards that actually wanted to walk 2kms in the sand to see very little more of I know not what?   :/

I can walk, especially on flat ground and will quite happily walk until my feet are ready to fall off when there’s actually something interesting to see – but trudging along not knowing how much further we had to go or if there was anything worth seeing at the end of it is really stressful for a chronic pain sufferer.  The whole time Samirr was so far in front of me that I had no way of asking him any questions either.  By the time we were finished, I was gritting my teeth, feeling hot and bothered from failing to breathe properly and my pain was through the roof.

Thankfully, we were heading straight back to the hotel and had time for a shower and a heatpack before dinner.  While I had tried to explain to Samirr that I had limited capacity for some things at the beginning of the trip, he obviously didn’t really understand.  I had to take Samirr aside and let him know how difficult this walk turned out to be (especially after five hours of being jolted around on the bus), how his description of the outing was misleading and that I simply can’t make good decisions based if he is going to be so vague.  I can’t tell you how much I HATE having to admit defeat in a situation like this.  It’s almost as much as I HATE having to share half my life story and medical history with a relative stranger just so they can understand what I’m talking about.  Honestly, I’m not sure why he thought I have been always asking for so many details about each walk we were doing:  ‘how far is it’, and ‘how high do we go’, and ‘how many steps are there’… maybe he just thought I was fucking lazy and didn’t want to go to some places?  This is where having an invisible illness really works against you.

Anyway, I was sufficiently recovered from a shower and an hour on a heat pack that I managed to hobble over to the restaurant for dinner. It was kinda touch and go, Mr K was getting so worried, he was talking about us ditching the remainder of the tour entirely and heading back to Marrakech – something I would never want to do!  I haven’t come all this way to miss out on the Sahara.

Dinner was in a really pretty restaurant and I had the veal and prune tagine which was really tasty, and then back to the room and onto the heat pack again and well, bed soon.  I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be another big day…

Ait Benhaddou – Are you not entertained?!

Unfortunately, I woke up in our little Berber guesthouse way too early for my liking, and I went into the common room so as not to disturb anyone.  It was barely 0600 and the sun doesn’t rise until 0830, so I was huddled under a blanket waiting for everyone to wake up.  It was nearly an hour until the hosts came to make breakfast for everyone… yay for being a bad sleeper.  :/

After breakfast, we collected up our day packs and put them on a mule for the walk back down to Imlil – by the road!  It was a 5.5km walk down but I needn’t have taken a mule up yesterday, I could have walked up the road instead of scrambling over the rocky path with the hiking folk.

As we were leaving Aroumd, we encountered a long line of concerned villagers, some in tears, heading towards us.  We respectfully waited until they had all passed us.  Samirr told us after they left that a young 28-year-old woman, who had epilepsy and was not responding to the cure of the shrine and prayer, had thrown herself off a building onto the steep rocks below.  Of course, there may have been plenty of other factors leading to her suicide attempt, but epileptics are shunned by society and treated like they are possed by the ‘jinn’ – evil spirits. The news of this woman’s plight was deeply saddening and disturbing – this is the result of a lack of healthcare and education.  We don’t know if she survived, but if she did not, this death may be attributed to religion and superstition.

The village of Imlil.
We passed quite a few mules on our way down the road – none of them was Frank.
A six hundred-year-old juniper tree, with its gnarly trunk – juniper is one of the preferred building materials here for roofing… it smells nice inside the home and is immune to termites. After we returned to Imlil, we collected our larger items of luggage and jumped into the minibus.  We had a six hour drive ahead of us and I was not looking forward to it.  The landscape was very changeable as we wound along the roads through the High Atlas Mountains. Around 1300, we stopped for a barbeque lunch… there was meat hanging on the street and smoke everywhere with about half a dozen BBQ restaurants all in a row largely catering to truck drivers and tourists.
Out the back of the row of restaurants was a small bridge leading to a patio dining area. After a meat-heavy meal we hit the road again – the landscape was much more like I expected from Morocco, unlike the north of the country that was so green and lush. Another stop to have a look at a fossil and gemstone store.  With no fancy cut stones, or any jewellery to hunt through, the women were largely back on the bus in no time – the men, however, fossicked through the fossils and geodes for quite a while.  Several of our party bought a few pieces to take back home. A roadside puppy was perched high on a rock overlooking the construction site – a large part of this road was being rebuilt into a proper dual carriageway.  Samirr said the contractors in the north were doing a great job, but the contractors in the south were lazy and working with old equipment – we can vouch for that! The ones that were working south of the pass were on machines belching out massive clouds of black smoke.  Gross! The landscapes were really quite pretty and we had several opportunities for photo stops, and to stretch the legs a bit. These guys had their trinkets set up beside the snow markets… the yellow and red poles are to tell drivers how deep the snow is and to show the edge of the road.  By mid-January, these guys won’t be able to hang out here.e After what seemed an interminably long time to be stuck in the bus, we made it to Ait Benhaddou.  We walked through the modern side of the town to get to the picturesque ‘movie set’ side of the town. Aït Benhaddou is a great example of Moroccan earthen clay architecture, it was built in the 17thC and sufferred only a little under French occupation in the early 20thC, so it is incredibly well preserved  It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and has been a popular place for tourist to visit due to its unique beauty and connection to Hollywood films.

Straight off Wikipedia – here is a list of films that have been shot on location in this town:

  • Sodom And Gomorrah (1963)
  • Oedipus Rex (1967)
  • The Man Who Would Be King (film) (1975)
  • The Message (1976)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
  • Time Bandits (1981)
  • Marco Polo (1982)
  • The Jewel of the Nile (1985)
  • The Living Daylights (1987)
  • The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
  • The Sheltering Sky (1990)
  • Kundun (1997)
  • The Mummy (1999)
  • Gladiator (2000)
  • Alexander (2004)
  • Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
  • Babel (2006)
  • One Night with the King (2006)
  • Prince of Persia (2010)
  • Hanna (2011)
  • Son of God (film) (2014)

These gates were also used in season four of Game of Thrones where Danerys is roaming the deserts releasing slaves – this was the city of Yunki. Below is the space used as a slave market and later a fighting arena for the movie, Gladiator. It’s a particularly pretty and very well kept city. Wandering the streets was interesting – cute little alleyways, and fun little shops. I stupidly made the mistake of pottering around by myself, and had several men trying to lead me into their dark little shops!  The views from the top of the kasbah: After this, we made our way down to our hotel, where we managed to get ourselves half sorted.  We also got to enjoy a cous cous cooking demonstration. After this we found ourselves settled into the upstairs terrace to see in the New Year, ther was beer (oh so much beer – thanks to a language communication error with the driver Mohammed who collected supplies for us while we were up at the Berber guest house!) and wine and late night pizza snacks.  Everyone had a wonderful night and I slept like a baby for the first night since we arrived in Morocco.  Yay for the muscle relaxant effects of alcohol! Happy New Year from Morocco!