19 August 2014

Morocco day 10: Ouarzazate and Ait Benhaddou

After two nights at Todra Gorge, it was back on the road, with quite a long travel day but plenty of stops to entertain us and a need to rehydrate often, as the temperatures were consistently in the 40s now that we were in southern Morocco.

We left the Gorge at 8.30am and made our first stop at Tinghir for a short wander around the local market. Most towns have a weekly market where everyone buys and sells, everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to bulk grains, clothes and all manner of strange bits and pieces. As our guide Issam explained, there’s a different method of recycling here – everything is offered for sale and someone will find a use for everything.

As we continued, we drove along a plateau with the Central High Atlas Mountain range on our left and the Ante High Atlas mountains on our right. It was an impressive landscape and, at one point, we could see a huge grey-coloured scar on the mountainside off to the left. It was the largest silver mine in Africa, where the silver sits right on the surface of the earth waiting to be dynamited and trucked away.

As we passed another gorge similar to Todra, we discovered we were on the Road of One Thousand Kasbahs. A Kasbah is a fortified house, characterised by four towered corners, which, in times past, would have been occupied by a local warlord. Many of the older Kasbahs are decaying ruins, collapsing over time due to weathering by wind and water but, fortunately, the style has been maintained – and even expanded on – in some of the more modern constructions.

We stopped briefly for refreshments at Kelaat M’Gouna, the rose capital of Morocco. The harvest of the all-pink roses takes place in April/May each year and culminates in a huge celebratory festival. All types of products are produced from the roses, like the rose water used in cooking and to make ointments and lotions to beautify the skin. I might have bought something if all the products hadn’t been a rather garish pink colour.

Our lunch stop was at Ouarzazate, the movie capital of Morocco. It’s a prosperous city, where the locals earn good money catering to the film crews and actors, building movie sets, and acting as extras. The Moroccan government encourages the business through financial concessions and the local authorities also do their best to co-operate with the film companies. We checked out the outside of the local movie museum, though didn’t go in, and drove past the Atlas Corporation studios and, though we didn’t stop for the tour, we could see some of the larger sets as we passed, including the ‘city’ in front of which The Kingdom of Heaven was filmed. 

And our movie experience didn’t there. When we reached our overnight hotel at Ait Benhaddou and walked through to the patio at the back of the hotel, our view was of the Ksar that has been used as a backdrop in movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1961) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975), and more recently, Russell Crowe’s Gladiator and Prince of Persia

Our host was a bit of an actor but the other locals were very cute!

Once we had settled in to our rooms, Issam took us on a stroll around this fabulous World Heritage site, dating from the early 18th century – though the granary building on top of the hill is thought to be even older, and it really was like walking back in time. The mud-brick buildings, the narrow alleys that twisted and turned, the crumbling walls, the magnificent views from the top – it was all amazing and I would have loved longer to explore.

Our dinner that night was served on the rooftop patio of our hotel overlooking the Ksar – a magical setting in which to end our day.

Morocco days 8 & 9: Todra Gorge

I was up at 5.30am to watch the sun rise over the Sahara – a serene sight, to be sure. When everyone was compos mentis, we clambered aboard our ships of the desert for the one-hour trek back to civilisation, old hands now at riding camels up and down the dunes. Breakfast followed and teeth-brushing but there was no time for showers and it was hot in the van that day, so the smell of our camels lingered a little longer than expected.

We were heading for Todra (also spelt Todgha) Gorge about 4 hours’ drive away but we stopped a few times along the way. First up was Adarissa ATL, a fossil factory, museum, exhibition and shop. A quarry about 15 kms away produces fossils and fossilised marble dating from between 300 and 600 million years ago, which is sliced and chiselled and polished to produce everything from table- and desk-tops to hand basins showing sea anemones, trilobites and the ancestors of the modern squid in fossilised form. Shopping, though I couldn’t exactly fit a slab in my bag!

We also stopped briefly to check out the local water supply system, an ancient series of underground aquifers uncannily similar to the system I had seen in Nazca, Peru. It always amazes me how our ancestors came up with similar inventions in such diverse and widely separated places around the world.

The aquifer system ... oh, and did I mention the rather handsome local shopkeeper?
Just before lunch, we stopped at a small Ksar, the name for a fortified mud brick town, for a fascinating glimpse of traditional Berber life in the small local museum, where the exhibits included everything from domestic and agricultural utensils, clothing and religious items to doors and window frames. The traditional Berber omelette I had for lunch was very good, as well.

At last, we reached the beginning of the gorge where we would spend the following two nights – and it was spectacular, bordered by cliffs with a strip of buildings perched along the tops and bottoms, and a central green belt nurtured by the river running through the centre. As we drove the 14 kms in to our hotel, the cliffs grew ever steeper and more precipitous until the gap between them allowed just one row of buildings either side of the river. And our hotel was situated below one of these towering cliffs across the river – a very picturesque setting.

Refreshing showers followed – swims for some, as this hotel had a pool – and a sumptuous dinner – I had a tagine of chicken with prunes, both delicious and cleansing! By 9.30pm, my eyes were closing. After a long hot day’s travel and not much sleep the previous night, my bed beckoned.

For the morning of our second day at Todra there were several options: a strenuous guided hike up the narrow paths and scree slopes of the gorge to visit a Beber settlement, a guided walk along the gardens and trails bordering the river, or relaxing at the hotel. I chose the latter – and it was a good choice. After a week of fairly intensive travelling, a relaxing morning, catching up on chores and journal writing was exactly what I needed.

At 11.30am, most of our group set off in the van for the 10-minute drive towards the end of the gorge, from where we walked a kilometre or so into the steep-sided and narrowest final section, with 200-to-300-metre cliffs towering over us. It was a dramatic landscape but the height of the cliffs provided shade and the river was shallow enough and very cooling to walk in.

From the gorge, it was just 5-minutes’ drive back to the village where we enjoyed a traditional Berber lunch in local household, where they also just happened to sell rugs. Everyone agreed that their lunch was rated the best of the trip so far and, from the flash of credit cards, I think the shopping probably the most enthusiastic to date. The rugs were certainly very beautiful and I was sorely tempted to indulge but the reality is that I don’t need another rug, so I enjoyed being enchanted by all their gorgeous colours and patterns and watching my tour mates bartering for their choices. I think they got some good bargains!

We were back at the hotel by 3pm and, while many chose to watch the latest World Cup football match, I couldn’t think of anything worse to do so took myself off for a walk through the palmeries and fields near the hotel, where I was entertained by the birds and bees and enjoyed some quiet time under the shady trees. The first week of our ‘Best of Morocco’ tour seemed to have passed very quickly and I looked forward to what the next part of our Intrepid adventure would bring.

Speedy, on the right, was our friendly 'go-to' guy at the hotel

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!