31 July 2014

Morocco day 7: Riding a camel into the Sahara

It was 9am and we were off to the Sahara (!) … eventually.

We headed off from Midelt into the Eastern High Atlas mountains via a spectacular road that curved up through a gorge of the Ziz river. Juniper trees grew here and there amongst the rocks – once they covered these mountains. Now reforestation is underway, but with pine trees, to try to prevent erosion and combat the expansion of the Western Sahara desert.

We crossed the mountain range through one of only three passes that transect these mighty peaks, this one at 1900 metres absl. On the other side we passed one of the many earth dams used to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation to the local area. The water was an incredible turquoise colour and looked particularly spectacular against the ochre colours of the surrounding barren landscape.

For lunch we were having a picnic so we stopped at a small town for drinks and cake and to buy picnic fare in the local market. The mercury was hitting 40 degrees as we headed out of town and we were all wondering how Issam was going to conjure up a shady place for our picnic. But then, as if my magic, a great rift appeared in the earth in front of us, revealing a long winding GREEN valley, with houses and shops, schools and mosques bordering the vivid green, fertile land on either side of a river.

This was the Oasis du Tafilalet, an 65,000 hectare area, registered on the Ramsar list as a wetland site of international significance as it is ‘an important wintering site for migratory birds’, ‘hosts remarkable populations of Ruppell’s Bat … and of the Sand Cat’.

We stopped at the top of the escarpment for some photos, then headed down into the valley and found ourselves a shady spot under olive trees and date palms to enjoy our picnic. We still had some travelling to do to get to the desert but didn't want to arrive too early as it would be too hot to ride. So, we stopped at a lovely hotel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to enjoy cold drinks and chill by their pool for an hour or so. The place was more luxurious than any of our lodgings – how the other half live!

Then it was onwards towards the desert, passing many nomads’ tents and their large flocks of sheep and goats, before heading into an ever more barren and stony landscape and then, finally, we could see red sand dunes rising in the distance. We all grew more excited as those dunes grew closer, as we saw our first local camels by the roadside, as we approached the auberge where we would leave our luggage, as Issam wound scarves around everyone’s heads to make them look the part, as we picked up our saddle blankets and headed for our camels.

I felt a little trepidation – after all, a camel’s back is a long way from the ground and it was many many years since I had ridden even a horse, let alone anything so tall! In fact, the most difficult thing was swinging my leg over the beast’s back – after that, it was a piece of cake, as long as you remembered to hold on tight and lean back when going down hill, or rather down dune.

The camels were all castrated males, the oldest about 16, and well used to carrying tourists on the one-hour trek into the desert. My camel had been named Bob Marley by a previous tourist and a placid sure-footed beast he was, fortunately. He was also trustworthy enough to be placed in the lead position of one of two lines of camels, with each being tied to the back of the beast in front and a guide leading the front camel.

The swaying movement was interesting and the saddle blankets very necessary – most of us still suffered from a little soreness in the nether regions for a couple of days – a camel’s hump is not very soft to bump against! Not having stirrups also meant I had pins and needles in one foot by the time we reached our camp but what an experience! The colours and the patterns of the sand on the dunes changed continuously as dusk approached and it was easy to imagine that you were in the middle of nowhere.

Our camp was a group of black tents, like the nomad’s use, arranged around a central courtyard where we ate a delicious dinner of lamb tagines, were entertained by our guides singing and playing the drums, and ate cake to celebrate my cousin Julie’s birthday. What a place to be on your birthday!

About 11.30pm, the tables and stool were cleared away, the mattresses and blankets brought out, and we made ourselves a bed, some venturing outside the camp to sleep on a sand dune under the stars, some bedding down in the courtyard, some in the tents. The stars were certainly intensely bright away from the lights of civilisation and we spotted some satellites and shooting stars but I couldn’t keep my eyes open very long. It had been another magical day in Morocco!

22 July 2014

Morocco day 6: The Middle Atlas Mountains and Berem

We left Fes at 9am for a long day of travel, but with lots of interesting stops.

We climbed up and through the Middle Atlas mountains, covered in cedar trees – some up to 300 years old – and Holm oaks, which are native to these parts. Our first stop was at one of the many mountain lakes, a picturesque spot, with lots of water birds and dragon flies, nice reflections in the water, and enterprising locals looking to make a dirham or two by allowing visitors to pose for photos on their colourfully bedecked horses. Even though we deliberately parked a mile or more away, they quickly came galloping over.

Our next stop was for drinks and cakes at Ifrane, a little slice of Switzerland transplanted to Morocco. The town is popular with people from Fes seeking to escape the 40 degree summer heat, as well as for those wanting to trek and partake in winter sports. As it snows there in the winter, rather than the usual flat roofs, the houses are tall and peaked and look more European, especially with the huge stork nests propped against roof peaks and chimney stacks. The town also sports a large statue of a lion, a Barbary lion – yes, they did once have lions roaming these mountains and, though now extinct in the wild, some still survive in captivity. The Barbary Lion Project aims, eventually, to breed enough lions to release back into the wild.

As well as the Barbary Lion, there is also a Barbary Ape or Macaque, and we saw lots of these little critters by the roadside as we continued our journey. People feed them so, naturally, they come to the roads to scavenge and beg for food. As you can imagine, we all took lots of photographs, as they were very cute.

The Middle Atlas are big mountains and the countryside is quite rugged and barren. Still, in places we saw donkeys standing by the roadside. Their owners had caught passing taxis and buses to the weekly market in their nearest local town and would return later in the day to load their purchases on to the donkeys for the journey home – not much in the way of local roads here. And this is also an area where nomads roam, grazing their flocks of sheep and goats in one place for a few days before moving themselves, their tents and their animals on to the next plain or valley. It’s a way of life that has continued for centuries in these parts.

We descended through a dramatic gorge at 2000 metres absl and continued across a high plateau at 1600 metres absl where we stopped at a local town for lunch. Both the goat and the sheep tagines were delicious – parts of the goat, including its head, were still hanging up in the butcher’s stall just outside the restaurant so we were reassured that the meat was fresh that morning!

Our last stop of the day was at Atelier Kasbah Myriem, adjoining the Monastery of Notre Dame in the Atlas. Franciscan nuns established a convent in this place in 1926 and, in an enlightened example of inter-faith cooperation, began teaching the local girls and women how to embroider. Though only two nuns now remain – and they are too old to teach, and the convent has become a monastery for Trappist monks, the embroidery and weaving workshop continues, allowing local women to pass their skills on to the next generation and to earn some money from their exquisite work. Shopping!

It was a short drive from there to our overnight accommodation, in a Kasbah just outside Berem, a small town about 6kms west of Midelt. We got settled, then Issam led us on a walk to see the dramatic river gorge where the old part of the town sits. The younger Intrepid travellers were scampering along the edge like mountain goats but not me … it was steep and the rock crumbly … better to be safe than sorry. 

As we walked through the ancient town of mud-brick houses, we met a local grandfather who Issam knew and were immediately invited into his family’s home to share mint tea and bread. He, his daughter and grandson were very welcoming and it was wonderful to hear him speak (with Issam translating) of his life as a nomad sheep herder. He had only recently bought the house, for his family and his old age, but still missed the nomadic lifestyle. It was a wonderful way to bring another great Moroccan day to a close.

19 July 2014

Morocco day 5: Fes

Fes is Morocco’s third largest city, with a population of about 1.2 million people, and is made up of three quite distinct areas. Fes el-Bali (the old Fes medina) is one of the largest living medieval cities in the world, a walled maze of 9400 streets within an area of about 280 hectares that was founded in the 9th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. West of the medina is Fes el-Jdid (new Fes), an extension to the old medina built in the 13th century, and the third main area is the Ville Nouvelle, with wide boulevards full of shops, cafes and restaurants, built in the 1920s. You can move from an early medieval bazaar to an air-conditioned super-modern shopping mall is the blink of an Arab eye in Fes.

Though our hotel was in the Ville Nouvelle, we spent most of our time in Fes in the old medina, on a full-day walking tour. However, our tour started with our local guide, Fatimah, showing us the beautiful gates of the king’s local palace, then we boarded our trusty minibus to drive to a viewpoint high above the city, where we got a really good idea of how extensive the city is. It was an impressive sight, both for the 365 minarets within the old medina and for the sea of satellite dishes on every rooftop!

From there, we drove to a ceramics and tile factory, for a tour and shopping – this was definitely a day when you could have spent a small fortune on the most exquisite examples of local craftsmanship – how I resisted most temptations I still don’t know! At this first factory, we received a guided tour and explanation of how the goods were made, were able to photograph the skilled artisans at work, watch them chipping coloured tiles into the shapes required for intricate mosaic patterns or chipping away the fired colour to make relief patterns or painting complex designs onto ceramic wares. Exiting through the gift shop, I had a serious case of plate envy when Rhonda bought a beautiful blue and white and silver plate but the shipping cost as much as the plate and I certainly couldn’t have carried it around for the rest of this trip – so I resisted.

Next, our medina tour started for real. We were warned of two things before we started walking: first, keep up and keep an eye out for the other group members because if you got lost, you could be in serious trouble and, second, remember the word ‘ballac’ (not sure that’s the right spelling) – it means ‘get out of the way’ or ‘watch out’. The medina streets are so narrow that small wheeled carts and donkeys are the only way to transport goods in and out, and the donkey stops for no one!

We saw so many different sights during our walk that day that it’s hard to remember everything so here’s just a small selection …

We got a good view of the famous Fes tanneries from the top floor of a leather shop. The smell was quite powerful so we were all given a sprig of mint to wave under our noses while we shopped. From leather purses and handbags to slippers and jackets, the selection of colourful items on sale was enormous. I resisted!

At left, our guide Fatimah, with a couple of the group

At the lantern shop, there were lamps and lanterns of every conceivable shape and size, for use with electric light or candle power, and casting the most lovely shadow patterns on surrounding walls and ceiling. I resisted!

Left, peparing to dye the silk and, right, weaving it
The weavers’ workshop was interesting as they make fabric using strands of ‘silk’ beaten from the fibrous leaves of the agave plant. Here, we were all dressed up in head-gear for a fun group photo. Here, too, I resisted the bed linen and large throws but I did buy a couple of scarves – ‘small, easy to pack, always useful’, I told myself. I couldn't resist everything!

We also visited the Koranic university, saw the oldest minaret in the medina and the oldest mosque – currently being refurbished, and we stopped often at small shops along the way for explanations about the things we saw: the furniture used in wedding ceremonies, the use of henna to paint designs on hands and feet, for photos of camel heads at the butchers and sharks heads at the fishmongers, and much more besides.

Our guide Issam resting his weary feet while we looked around the university
The sights, sounds, smells, colours of that day were almost overwhelming – it was a fabulous insight into local life and into how that life had been lived for centuries past. A Fes of the heart!