PART TWO – THE SAHARA AND OTHER GOLDEN DELIGHTS
Sunday | Tour Day 2
We all manage to get some sleep last night but not nearly enough due to the unrelenting and stifling air in the Kasbah rooms. We depart at 8:30am straight after breakfast, which we enjoy sitting on the open air terrace with the other tourists. The breakfast is nothing flash – bread with butter and jam and an instant coffee or tea. But the location and view is rather impressive! The Kasbah Hotel is the mid-point layover before journeying to The Sahara. We are getting closer.
We drive through cities that are new – new buildings and new apartment blocks are being built due to the steady migration of Moroccans who were leaving life in the mountains for better lifestyle, jobs and opportunities in the more built up areas. We pass by a large silver mine which Mohammad informs us is one of the main employers here in town. It’s an extremely hazy day today so the views to the mountains are not as clear as we’d like for the photos. We notice flashes of green colour. Where ever there is a river bed there is an intense patch of greenery – palm date trees thrive in these valleys and add an impressive spice of colour to the usual brown and barren landscape.
We learn lots from Mohammad on this journey. Another is that camel milk is consumed here but it’s very expensive. Mohammad tells us about 100 Dirham for just 1 litre of the sweeter tasting camel milk. We do not get to try the milk, but I assume it must taste like the buffalo milk we had while living in rural India.
The Tales of Tinghri
The first thing today is that we are on another tour. The girls are less than impressed with this result and there’s a bit of outrage shared amongst the teens and tween in the van. Bottom lips are out. We are taking a tour guide and exploring a Berber town and meeting local people along the way. We have a guide already assigned to us and as our car pulls up on the side of the road we see our man with a broad friendly smile. We have no idea what we are doing here. The communication on this tour is limited, but on the flip side it’s nice to go with the flow and just see what happens. We start the tour with a few last grumbles from the kids but we are all out of the car and obediently following behind our smiling tour guide Larson into a community garden in the town of Tinghri.
Larson begins the tour by walking us into the lush community gardens and talks about the history and the people of this place. I look at the girls who are already not coping with the amount of information coming their way from Larson. “Berbers, nomads, Charwi (desert people) all live here in this small town whereas the Arabic people tend to live in the bigger cities.”
The tour takes us through the Berber community garden, near the Kasbah, and Larson shows us what is grown here and its benefits – alfa alfa (good for fever), date palm trees (male and female) with the most expensive dates 150 Dirham per kilogram (A$20), corn, lavender (the purple colour from the flower is used as a dye), peach trees, potato plants, pomegranate and more.
It’s lovely and cool in the garden. Women work their donkeys who are loaded up with large piles of green shrubs and sticks. The unique winding up sound of a donkey call echoes throughout the garden area and is pleasant and unusual to hear. The donkey’s long ears and short legs make them look very so cute (am I’m sure they’re absolutely stubborn!).
Renovating a Mosque
After we walk in and around the garden we come to a building that looks more like it has been torn down. An ancient and dilapidated mosque stands here and we are introduced to a Moroccan man who is committed to renovating it. We walk upstairs to the top of the roof where we are told the prayer call outs were made to the community below. That was pre-speaker days. It’s a lovely old mosque inside and many men seem to live here it seems but I wonder how much of the mosque can be repaired as the damage all around it looks too far gone.
Inside the mosques are scores of photos and relics from another time. It’s a treasure chest containing relics and small antiques. As we stand on the roof top we look out to a glorious elevated view of the gardens and behind us an alternative view of brown sandstone buildings that was previously a maze of alleyways and homes that are now crumbling into disrepair.
We are then taken to the main township area of Tinghri which was originally built by the Jewish people and in 1960 when the Jewish families left it was handed over to the Berbers. The Jewish people and their legacy of trade is held in high esteem to this day amongst the Berbers. The Jewish brought with them and established commerce in silver and leather and according to Larson, the Berbers continue to be thankful to the Jews for giving them these opportunities.
The Berber Carpet Man
Larson takes us in the heart of the Tinghri township. Up and down alleyways, under archways and through the main shopping precinct. We’re told that we’re going to be meeting a traditional Berber family who are also in the business of selling handmade carpets. There we are going to enjoy a traditional mint tea in their home. We pass by beggars on the kerb who hold their hand out while mumbling to themselves. It’s a reality in many of these parts of the world – as soon as beggars see tourists the children make it their duty to follow them around asking for money as discreetly as possible.
We pass by stalls selling henna – both dry leaves and powder form – and a boy selling prickly pear fruit from his cart. Steve and I purchase two prickly pears and although the flesh of the fruit is cold when the young boy peels the skin off, it’s full of pips that crunch with every bite. Steve is struggling with it too. I can’t enjoy mine and end up carrying it through the market area until I find a corner to discreetly discard it. At least we’ve tried it.
We come to the part time home of the Berber family. We enter the elongated home of Abdal and his wife (I think she’s his wife) Hannan. Abdal speaks English very well and welcomes us all into an elongated room that showcases a carpet hand loom, colourful balls of wool and many finished carpets. Abdal wears a bright blue robe and turban and informs us he’s a “Twalik” (not sure of spelling) and he belongs to the blue men of the desert. If you didn’t know it already, wearing blue is designed to keep the mosquitos away.
Abdal tells us that he and his family live in the city for six months of the year, in the summer months and then six months in the desert during the cooler months. He tells us it’s hard to live and work in the desert during the summer months so they pack up and relocate to the city to sell their handwoven carpets. He also tells us that the legacy of his tribe do not trade in money. Instead they trade with the carpets that they make; carpets are their currency. Previously Abdal’s parents had no need for money to trade and they purchased goods and services by trading what they knew best and had access to easily: carpets and silver.
The carpets are made from either sheep, camel, or silk or a combination of any of these. The silk does not come from the silk worm but from a plant from the Agave family. These plants are grown and hand loomed in many parts of Morocco, especially within The Sahara. The vegetable fibres are taken from the plants and dyed to form different colours in the carpet. Abdal gives us a demonstration of all the different carpets and the significance of each pattern in the carpet. He rolls them out in front of us with an air of confidence and arrogance.
Abdul has a strong personality and is obviously a slick sales performer. I wouldn’t want to cross Abdul in any way as I suspect he’d be an intimidating force. We watch him like he’s on the stage at some expo selling his finest range of carpets or he could even be a magical carpet selling character from some desert movie. We all enjoy his hospitality of mint tea and his showmanship of demonstrating what the various carpets he unrolls are made from and how long they took “his” women to make.
When he explains how and who make the carpets I lose some of the shiny appeal I previously had for the blue Berber desert man as he explains the women in his tribe are uneducated and do not attend school ever as according to Abdal, “they can think with their own mind.” Like that is some excuse for not educating women! Reading between the lines is made easier now. The reality of his carpet empire is that “his” women are central to making it successful. Without subservient women to make the carpets, which is labour and time intensive, there are no carpets for Abdal to sell. It takes one woman 18 months to make a carpet he’s showing us by working just 2-3 hours per day. The intense physical nature of the work doesn’t allow for these women to work longer periods of time as it’s too hard on the women’s fingers, back and eyes.
My guess is that if women were educated they’d be choosing better quality opportunities for their lives rather than slaving over threads and carpet looms all their lives and living according to a man’s/husband’s command. As we sit on the floor cross legged, the girls look to me for a reaction when Abdul mentions they do not educate “his” women and there is a shared fury at the straight forward and uninhibited nature of what he’s telling us. But all of my feminist girls, including me, bite tongues and continue watching the carpet show while sipping on Moroccan mint tea.
We are also shown a decorative silver chain with pins like those on belt buckles that wealthier Berber families give to their daughters. Throughout a woman’s life they keep this ornate piece of jewellery and wear it on their clothing to show their marital status. Depending on which side of her body she is wearing the “marriage chain” it will show other if a particular woman is available, engaged or married. We laugh as it is literally a chain-like piece of jewellery with two pretty buckles, so yes we conclude the Berber women are literally kept in chains! Abdal actually makes a joke about women and marriage and chains and laughs along with us on this one. But the reality must be far from laughing matter.
We chat about the culture and customs of the Berber desert people. From the annual Brahmin festival where a lorry of sheep is delivered into town and used for sacrificing to the gods to the various religions that have changed over time – 1st religion – Jewish, 2nd religion – Christianity, and 3rd religion – Islam to the September bride festival where the giving of carpets as wedding gifts to a bride’s husband’s family is the norm. He grabs a couple of cape-like garments and before we know it we are standing up in the middle of the room showing off the capes that are worn by women in the colder months.
We find the whole lesson on carpet making intriguing, but we are not here to purchase thousand dollar carpets. We thank Abdal for his hospitality and move along. The tours here are just like the tours in India – making tourists come into a Berber’s family home for tea but being given the hard sell to purchase something. Abdal is good about us not wanting to purchase anything and we depart. The young wife (well we think so anyway) comes up to Charlie and places a plait of red threads around her wrist. I look into her eyes and wish her the best for her life.
Larson wishes to take us to his family’s business now. It’s a silver shop. We are reluctant to go, as we do not want his brother who runs the shop to have expectations of us buying up on his silver ware. But he assures us there is no pressure. Just look!
The shop is quite amazing as we walk in and around it – antique jewellery and loads of silver ware. There are plenty of things that take my fancy but I’m not here to buy anything. I’m at the end of the Berber shopping spree, and so too are the kids, and we just want to be back in the van travelling to our destination.
We thank Larson for showing us his family’s silver shop and depart for the van. It’s been an interesting part of the tour and we have experienced and seen much of the Berber way of life in just a couple of hours. We feel very fortunate to have walked through a town that not many people will ever get to see – the authentic townships where people of the desert come to trade their goods and make some money. It really does feel like a step back in time here, almost an old world charm mixed with old world poverty. A world of contrasts from luxurious carpets and silver to the young kids that follow us through the winding streets holding their little hands out quietly begging for money.
Feeling Tiny at Toudgha Gorge
Just before lunch, we stop off briefly at the immense Toudgha Gorge. We get out of the van and walk the length of the gorge. A stream runs through the middle of the gorge and on either side of the stream these huge rock formations jut up and out from the earth and tower high above us. It takes our breath away and it’s really hard to capture the magnificence and significance of this place through the lens. All I know is that right now I feel very insignificant standing here. Another perspective of just how inconsequential my life is compared to mighty mother nature.
The gorge area is crowded with weekend campers pitching tents tents, Sunday picnickers and families, and people getting cool by strolling through the crystal clear water. The water on the ankles is very cold and it’s a welcome feeling for everyone. The locals have set up picnic rungs and chairs, music and singing, as well as shisha up on the ledge of the gorge. This place has a lovely relaxed vibe about it.
After walking through the gorge, we stop for lunch at a nearby restaurant. It’s 100 Dh each for lunch. There doesn’t seem to be any way of getting out of this lunch as there are no other cafes in sight for us to go. It’s the usual lunch stop for all those on tour. We sit in a lovely courtyard at the back of the café with a river flowing behind us and women walking back from collecting bundles of sticks carried on their backs. It’s tranquil and quiet and we sit and lap it up.
Steve and I order a traditional tagine of chicken and vegetables. Sticking with traditional meals in Morocco seems to be the best option for receiving the tastiest meals. However, Jarrod and the girls all order spaghetti and are very disappointed. The pasta is seriously overcooked and we complain as it’s just too unpleasant to eat. After some serious complaining and then negotiating we are paying half price for the spaghetti meals. And as the other tour groups leave, we watch as the café cats appear on the vacant tables eating up any scraps of leftover food on top and underneath the outdoor tables.
We drive to another viewing outlook and we say goodbye to our guide Larson. He’s been a lovely guide and full of information about Berber life.
A Changing Landscape
The landscape starts to transform from steep, rocky and impervious mountains to a flat desolate landscape of sand and the odd acacia tree. It’s still and hazy outside, and all we can see are numerous irrigation tunnels. A pile of dirt and sand rests on top while an underground tunnel seemingly expands below.
It’s 42 degrees Celsius and the temperature gauge on the van is climbing the more we drive.
We stop off at a desolate factory-looking area. It’s where we are greeted by a man who runs and operates a factory of cutting and polishing stone and extracting 300 million years old fossils.
We learn about Trilobite, Amonite, and Orthocer that existed 360 millions years ago and now they can be all yours in the form of a lovely rounded and polished stone dining table or a smaller coffee table. It’s an interesting factory, but not my cup of tea and we depart with a few trinkets for memories of our visit.
Back in the car. There are no more stops for food or fossils. We are driving straight to The Sahara.
Sahara Sighting @ 17:54
I lose sight of the end of the long black roads we are traveling on. It’s completely flat landscape on either side of us. There’s nothing out here except the acacia trees spotting the flatlands and the nomadic man’s dromedary camels that meander through these desolate lands.
But then there is something in the distance. The slight haze makes it hard to see clearly but as we get closer and closer it appears. The Sahara. It’s the same feeling as seeing the beach for the first time when you’re on holidays. This time it’s a desert! It’s a land of golden mountain peaks glimmering in the near sunset. It’s at once mystifying. The black stoney savanna and acacia trees and then these majestic, towering pyramids of golden sand. It’s the best way I can describe what we are seeing. The call out is made in the car – “there they are, look over here!” We are all looking with eyes and mouth wide open.
It’s 44 degrees Celsius outside and still climbing.
The road changes direction and we do not see the golden pyramids in front of us. We enter the local town and stop at a bike hire shop to enquire about quad bike rides on request from the kids. They’re quite pricey at 400 Dh 1 hour (A$54) or 900 Dh 1 hour buggies (A$122) for 2 people. We continue driving. Our four legged, one humped dromedary camel awaits.
Camel Riding into the Desert
We arrive at Nasser Palace Hotel. It’s a hotel that caters for the tourist industry of camel and desert safaris as well as offering accommodation. It’s here that we prepare ourselves for our overnight stay in the desert – water, scarves, small bag and camel. We leave the larger bags behind in the back of our van and pack small necessities that we think may be required for a night stay in a desert in a backpack: knickers, t-shirt and some deodorant and toothbrushes. The man and woman at the hotel help us with the art of folding and tucking the scarves around our head. All of us except Steve don a scarf to the desert and we are feeling the authenticity of being a desert camel rider now.
We are ready.
We walk out of the hotel gates and towards a bunch of camels that are laying down on the ground. These are our camels. The camel master sizes us up so we are placed on the best camel for our size and weight. The camel ride is for about 1.5 hours. We’re all quite excited about this part of the journey. The last time we rode camels was when we were in northern India, in Pushkar with Andrea, Luke and Harry. This time we are experiencing this camel trek with my brother Jarrod. Charlie is at the front with my camera, then Dacey, Steve, Jarrod, Ash, Billie and finally I’m on the last camel. We are led by a Berber man and the seven camels are all connected by rope to one another so that we form a long line of camels following each other.
We are in the desert at sunset with faces covered the view in front of us is gradually becoming more and more magnificent and glorious.
We stop half way for photos and get off the camels. Each of the camels has an awkward way of sitting down, and because I’m the last in line, I watch as everyone else is jerked forward in their camel saddles. It’s a matter of just holding on tight and leaning backwards and for me it helps with my eyes closed.
I’m literally pinching myself in amazement that we are experiencing such an epic journey on camel back. I now know what a real desert looks like. We climb up one of the sand dunes to its ridge and peak and all of just sit there taking in the view of golden sand that is all around us. It’s very quiet and peaceful. There’s nothing here. It’s beautiful.
We climb back up onto our camels are arrive at our Desert Berber tent. It’s an interesting set up like a camp with an internal area for sitting and eating. As we arrive there are already three Polish men lying on their beds outside their rooms. The girls are given a room with four singles, Jarrod another room, and Steve and I are in another. It’s hot as we sit down and enjoy a mint tea in the internal area of the camp. We go for a walk and climb the nearby sand dunes and look out at the beautiful landscape that is the desert. There’s nothing else except golden sand rising and lowering. Up and down. Peaks and troughs. We catch a waft of the meals being cooked for us at a nearby tent and are called back by the Berber man as dinner is being served.
As we sit inside the dinner tent it starts to rain. Large droplets hit the canvas tent heavily. We are sweating inside the tent so we all rush out to hopefully get some reprieve from a cool change. But its fleeting and doesn’t last long. The dinner is another three-course of hot vegetable soup with bread, chicken tagine, and then fruit and tubs of yogurt.
I’m not particularly hungry in this heat. And chose to leave the hot dinner tent and come out to lie on the mattress outside the sleeping tents. We have no cold water left, it’s all warm now. Whereas the Polish men have a bottle each still frozen. We start dreaming about icy cold water and suffer drinking warm water from now on.
It’s time to get some sleep but everyone finds it way too hot inside the tents. So we sleep on the mattresses that are placed outside the doorways to the sleeping tents and under the stars. All that we have with us to help us survive this hot night sleep in the desert is former Berrechid volunteer Andrei’s little green spray bottle. Throughout the first few hours of trying to relax and get some sleep that little green spray bottle was a life saver. The Polish men had their icy water but we had a spray bottle that worked its way up and down seven people throughout the night. I’m not sure what the Polish men must have been wondering, as the noises coming from our side of the Berber tent must have sounded quite bizarre – “please give me more”, “oh that’s soooo good”, “over here and here” etc (lol).
As we went to sleep the sky was clouded over so we couldn’t see the stars. We did manage to finally fall asleep but most of us woke up at 2.30am and saw the stars shining bright in the clear desert sky as well as the Milky Way streaking its way across the length of the sky. Again just beautiful and inspiring. I was lying flat on my back, I reached over for my glasses and put them over my eyes and looked up to appreciate the sight.
Monday | Tour Day 3
Up at 5:30am, on the camels, and a stop to watch the sun appear from behind the dunes. Its completely amazing. We love every moment we have left out in this sand environment. As the photos show it was a spectacular sunrise and experience. Totally worth the early rise and limited sleep.
Charlie gets the drone out and sets it up but it’s not working due to SD card problems. Darn. She packs it up completely disappointed.
We journey to Nasser Palace Hotel via camel back, enjoy breakfast there and rather than take a shower we use the two packets of Wilderness Wipes that Steve received from my aunt Kathy for Christmas last year! They have come in very handy right now and will do the job until we get back to Marrakech. We’re back in the van with our happy go lucky driver Mohammad for our very long journey back to the bustling city of Marrakech.
We depart The Sahara at 8:40am.
We are only 60km from Algerian border and due to that we are passing many roadside police checks on way home. Mohammad says this is due to the border closure between Algeria and Morocco due to rise of terrorism around the world. It’s a constant reminder of the unfortunate way the world is heading. We drive past more camels and donkeys and touring vans. Mohammad tells us to place our blue scarf out the window each time we overtake another of his friend’s vans along the great stretches of roads. For some reason this makes him laugh!
1st stop is mid-morning at a café for coffee/tea. The man making the drinks wearing the wide brimmed hat says he wants to trade our daughters for camels (it’s a common joke hahaha) and tells Steve he likes “this one” Ash because she looks Arabic. Steve informs the cafe man that she is only 15 years of age which startles him. He’s very apologetic and refuses to look at her, in that way, again!
2nd stop is for lunch. A better priced lunch deal at 80 Dirham each (A$11) and we enjoy kebabs and chips and a cool drink.
3rd stop mid-afternoon is for another coffee/tea high in the mountains. Opposite the café is a small wooden shack that houses a range of interesting crystals. The man inside has been a miner for many years and enjoys showing Jarrod and Dacey his best specimens. They buy some here. And as we stand outside drinking mint tea and coffee a large flock of black birds fly overhead. There are so many black birds in the sky.
Finally the temperature drops in the Atlas Mountains from 44 degrees to 32 and then rises again as we move closer to Marrakech city. The beautiful hue of colours from the mountains are a mixture of green and brown, red and purple. A herd of goats graze along the ridge of the mountain and hundreds of honey boxes are placed near the base of the mountains. There are plenty of tagine and ceramic sellers along the roadside again as well as flowering prickly pear and selling stalls and the odd donkey being ridden on the side of the road carrying a full load.
We are stopped for major roadworks as the side of mountain is eroding away which is also causing the edge of the road to erode and disappear. The road is not that wide, so major extensions are being carried out and this requires digging into the mountain further to expand the road for vehicles. We watch as large tip trucks are filled up with the rock from the diggers. Dust is sent everywhere!
Mohammad tells us the total distance travelled over our three-day tour is 1,025km. I can believe that.
We arrive back into Marrakech at 7:30pm. It’s been a long day in the van. We say goodbye to our amazing driver Mohammad. It’s been a pleasure spending these last three days with him touring the Moroccan countryside in his van. I still can’t quite believe he drives all this way twice a week! There are hugs and waves of goodbye and good wishes to Mohammad on the side of the road with all the crazy Marrakech traffic whizzing by opposite the gateway into the old medina. We have had one of the best experiences of our lives. Thank you.
We wander back to our Riad and look forward to seeing the manager Moussa again. We knock and Moussa opens the door of the Riad. It’s another warm welcome back and Moussa makes us mint tea.
Unfortunately, Ash is not feeling well tonight and has got a temperature. It’s no wonder as she really hasn’t slept well since the night we arrived here at the Riad which was four nights ago. I think she’s a bit run down and needs a big sleep without interruption and a snoring uncle! Tonight we arrange for her to sleep in our room downstairs on the sofa bed with the air conditioner on so she gets the sleep she needs.
We head out for our final dinner in Marrakech Square. Steve and I enjoy a tangia (it’s a traditional dish from Marrakech which we’ve been wanting to try) and is slow cooked meat thats still on the bone cooked in a large clay pot. I suppose it’s likened to a casserole dish and it’s served with a salad. Everyone else orders a toasted kebab with chips and enjoys the meal surrounded by the craziness that is Marrakech Square at night time.
But then the old man waitering at our table just tried to rip us off by demanding we pay him a tip out of the change he’s reluctantly handing over to Steve. Another Moroccan guest sitting at the table opposite us in the restaurant overhears what this old man is demanding from us and starts talking in Arabic to the other manager of the restaurant in a very disgruntled kind of way. Apologies from the managers are given to us, but the old man scoots off like nothing has occurred. I’m not sure what that was all about, but where there’s an opportunity to make easy money people will take it.
We’re tired. We wander around the Square for a bit and take in the sight and sounds all around us.
It’s time to return to the Riad, get some sleep and dream of the magical desert landscape we just experienced.