The weather was warm but with a strong south westerly wind. We walked along the beach to the port two miles away, the wind was behind us which kept us cool enough but we were tired and thirsty when we arrived, only to find it was an industrial port with no restaurants or cafes. After inspecting the fishing fleet we shared a “taxi” back to town with six others. This was a truck with an open back, the floor was covered with spilled ice and it smelt strongly of fish. We all climbed onto the back and stood holding tightly to the rails as the vehicle sped towards the town. It was like a funfair ride, up and down hills and around tight corners.and after fifteen minutes we were back in town, glad to still be alive.
The town had a fish market with adjacent outdoor restaurants, cooking fish, including sardines, on charcoal grills, but we ate at the campsite restaurant. We had an octopus tagine and the next day for lunch a delicious paella with chicken and seafood. These meals cost little more than £5 a head including a salad starter and a coffee, no wine of course.
The wind had abated the following day and, although the temperature was about 25 degrees, it felt much warmer and we managed a dip in the sea. The waves were strong enough to bowl you over so we didn’t venture more than chest deep but it was great fun surfing in on a wave and being unceremoniously dumped in the sandy shallows.
We looked around the three campsites in the town and we were the only British people there; most visitors were French, then German and Dutch, plus the occasional Belgium and Swiss.
We left Marrakech on Sunday morning having said goodbye to our fellow travellers and our Desert Detours tour guides Ray, Steve and Hamid. We were now on our own! We drove south towards Agadir along a peage motorway. It had been pleasantly warm in Marrakech and it grew even warmer as we drove south, 30 degrees with a warm wind. Our campsite was a fruit farm owned by an erudite Frenchman who supplied produce to British supermarkets, mostly citrus. We spent two days relaxing amongst the trees, the only other campers there were Germans. We cooked a barbecue the first evening and a little dog appeared when we started cooking the meat. It was a very friendly dog and we assumed it belonged to someone local and was hoping to cadge some supper; we were careful not to feed it. The next morning when we opened the blinds, there was the dog, happy to see us. It had spent the night under our van, occasionally barking at things in the night. Everyone thought it was our dog. We spoke to the French owner and he told us his manager had given it food and, no doubt, it would remain with him on the farm. We were sorry to have to leave such a lovely place which was only spoiled by the flies, the sort that don’t jump away when you swiped them – only a direct hit moved them on, only to return seconds later. The locals just ignore them.
We stayed a couple of days in the city, we visited the bizarre Government Shop that sold carpets, ornate furniture, brassware, huge carved animals and many other items that you would give pride of place to in your home – if you lived in a huge palace. Confession – we did buy some rugs.
After dark we returned to the city centre to sample the street food and soak up the atmosphere as the food vendors loudly vied with each other for our custom. We had become fed up with food offered at local eating places so the two of us skipped off to a fancy restaurant called Les Jardins De Bala which served Indian / Asian fusion food. We had a wonderful meal three floors up overlooking their swimming pool. Heaven! The following evening we went to a touristy entertainment called Fantasia, This was a three course meal followed by a show of Berber horsemen galloping around an arena firing guns, then a firework display. The venue could hold at least 500 people; not at all to our taste.
Ouarzazate was a more westernised town as there were a couple of film studios nearby, the mountains making a good backdrop for film locations. The local restaurant walls were festooned with photographs of visiting stars. The following day we set off for Marrakech.
The drive was spectacular, 160k of hairpin bends with lorries, taxis and cars tackling the corners at breakneck speed. We drove very sedately, we stopped many times to admire the views and to have lunch and finally arrived at our campsite at 4 pm. As we drove through the outskirts of Marrakech we saw that the streets were lined with people, with lots of soldiers standing to attention along the route, backs to the traffic and many policemen directing the traffic and waving us on at each junction. We realised it was a bit too much fuss for mere English tourists and it turned out King Mohammed VI was leaving his palace in the city and returning to the capital, Rabat. Sure enough we saw his motorcade sweep by, forty or fifty Mercedes and people carriers.
The weather in Marrakech was warm and sunny, 22 degrees. We enjoyed a touristy visit to the Gardens of Yves St Laurant, some tombs, a palace and the souk.
After waving goodbye to the children we drove west for several hours through landscapes of dusty shale, grazed by the occasional flock of sheep or goats. In the distance there were dark mountains surrounding the arid plain, some topped by snow.
In the midst of this barren landscape was stopped at a museum and art gallery called Sources Lalla Mimouna, Musee de L’eau, created by a Berber called Zaid Tinejdad. This charismatic man was a philosopher and was concerned about the ecology of his country and despaired of the ever increasing amount of rubbish covering the Moroccan countryside. Zaid had spent many years working in France as an artist, specialising in calligraphy. He had discovered a spring of water in the desert that had fallen into disuse, the water source choked with decades of rubbish. He had the vision to transform the area and had spent the last ten years clearing the spring of accumulated rubbish and building a beautiful garden with buildings, made of mud and straw, connected by walkways and pergolas displaying the many aspects of the ancient culture of the Berber. The spring had been transformed into four separate pools of cool, bubbling water, clean and clear. He financed his project by selling his art work to visitors to the museum. It was truly a beautiful and inspiring place.
Our journey took us on and up into the mountains. The road climbed higher and then became a single track heading towards the Todra Gorge, wide enough for vehicles to pass but only if each vehicle veered its nearside wheels onto the dusty shoulder. The journey through the gorge took over an hour. The scenery was dramatic, rocks the colour of terracotta towered above us as far as the eye could see, virtually blocking out all sunlight. It felt like we were driving through the centre of the earth.
We were quite relieved when we reached the other side and found our campsite. Some of us ate in the restaurant that evening – soup, a rice dish made with turkey meat, then sweetened yoghurt.
We woke to a cold morning, three degrees, and a clear blue sky; the day would be warm when the sun came up. A guide took us for a tour of the village of Tamtattouchte, 4000 feet up in the Atlas Mountains. The villagers were mainly smallholders, growing vegetables and animal feed on small fields the size of our allotments. They used donkeys and kept a few cows in walled pens, hobbled so they could not stray. There were satellite dishes on many of the roofs and the dwellings had electricity although the women did their washing in the river – smacks of a male dominated society!
Ben – Whenever we commented to Ben (our guide, local shopkeeper, laundryman etc etc etc) about anything not working properly, or someone not turning up on time, or the amount of rubbish lying around – Ben would explain with a shrug, in one word, “Africa”. His shrug and the word “Africa” was his regular way of apologising when things did not go as promised.
He told us a joke – how do you put a camel in the fridge in three moves? Open fridge door, put camel in, close door. How do you put a giraffe in the fridge in four moves? Open fridge door, take camel out, put giraffe in and close door! Ben thought it was very funny.
The Berber Surprise – When we were at the Roman ruins of Volubilis we were shown a carved stone stool called the Berber Surprise. We were invited to sit astride the stool before our guide revealed the carving on the seat. It was a large penis. If a woman sat on the seat, she sat astride facing the penis – if it was a man, he would be seated behind the penis. And the Surprise? The size of the penis replied our guide with a grin!
The following morning at 8.30 we visited the village primary school, which Desert Detours helps to support. The children were assembling in the grounds with their teacher and were singing songs (I think) in our honour. As each child arrived they greeted the teacher by kissing his hand and then kissing their own hand. There were about eighty children in the group, aged between five and six. Their clothes were clean and tidy and the children looked well nourished.
Two hour’s drive brought us back to the water source that feeds a long, fertile valley stretching many miles. We were visiting Meski to attend part of the wedding of the daughter of one of the DD guides. As soon as we arrived. Ben, the local entrepreneur offered to take our dirty laundry for his wife to wash and I was delighted to hand him a large bag of dirty, smelly clothes.
We went along to Ben’s shop where I bought a large black and silver scarf which I thought would jazz up my plain dress at the wedding. As we were getting ready to leave a young man offered to tie my new scarf Berber style. He twisted and tucked for a minute or so and then I found myself looking more like a local than a tourist. At seven o’clock we walked up some steep steps to the village where we were shown the house with a colourful marquee on one side and a smaller marquee upstairs on the flat roof of the house.
We were shown to tables in the lower marquee where we were served a delicious meal of bread with a colourful salad of grated carrot, cucumber, olives and apples. The next course was whole oven baked chickens stuffed with spicy noodles, followed by fresh fruit and mint tea. We tourists then moved to the other side of the marquee whilst the men and boys were served the same meal – they ate theirs far more quickly than we did. We then walked up to the roof marquee where there was a band playing and in one corner was a large gold and silver coloured throne which was to be the seat of the bride and groom. By this time it was after eleven o’clock and we decided it was bed time and we headed back to the camper. Some of our party stayed on and eventually the women and children appeared with the bride and groom. The bride and groom finally appeared after midnight; she was very young and they said she looked terrified. The music continued into the early hours.
The following morning we were taken on a walking tour of the village. Our guide was, you guessed, Ben! As it was a Sunday there were a lot of children about, the smaller ones peeping shyly from the safety of their doorways, running away as soon as you looked at them. The adults were reluctant to have their photo taken and turned away or covered their faces if they saw a camera pointing at them.
Ben ended his tour by taking us to his house, from the outside it looked pretty poor but inside was a delightful shaded courtyard garden with bamboo lined ceilings and tiled floors. The house felt cool after the heat of the dusty streets. We went up to the roof terrace and there was our washing, hanging out to dry! This was returned to us later in the day neatly folded. Ben’s daughter, Miriam (aged about eight) helped her father serve mint tea, honey and sesame cake, olive bread drizzled with olive oil, salted peanuts and sticky dates. We left Ben’s house loaded with 2 kgs of his dates and 2 litres of his olive oil and Ben was 500 dirums richer (about £40)
We spent the day relaxing in the sun (24 degrees), flying our kites on the dunes and exploring the area around the camp. Some of our group played a competitive game of bowls. At 4 pm it was time to be introduced to our camels that were to transport us to Berber village for the night. It was a ride of about two hours – quite long enough. We arrived at the village at sunset and were greeted with mint tea and nibbles before dinner was served – soup, chicken tagine (again!) followed by fresh fruit. The food was delicious and we were able to wash it down with wine that we had brought with us. Afterwards we sat around the camp fire singing Berber songs to the accompaniment of drums and castanets. For a time we made quite a noise in the silent desert but we were soon ready for bed.
We slept in tents surrounding the campfire, one room per couple with rugs covering the sandy floor. We had a mattress, sheets and lots of blankets. There was a rug for the door and the tent roof was hessian through which you could watch the bright stars. We were woken at 6 am in time to watch the sunrise. The colour of the sand changed dramatically from dull to bright as the sun’s rays reached the earth. It was a beautiful place, so different from the world we knew. The massive dunes emitted an ancient air of calm and tranquility, we felt privileged to be in such a place.
Eventually we remounted our camels for the return journey and two hours later we were back at the campsite, tired and a little saddle sore. It was a touristy thing to do but we were glad of the experience and were charmed by our hosts who did everything they could to make us welcome.
This was the most exciting part of our journey because we were going to spend three days wild camping in the Sahara Desert. We left Rich early in the morning and travelled to the town of Rissina for last minute supplies before heading for the desert. We took the only road south, driving for an hour or so before we turned off the road onto an area of shale with tyre tracks heading towards distant dunes. It was not an attractive landscape, lunar in appearance; we followed the unsurfaced track creating clouds of dust behind us as we slowly drove on. The tour leaders described this as driving off piste and we had to stick to the track to avoid our vehicles getting stuck in the sand; we drove for an hour before we finally arrived at the foot of the dunes.
We parked in a clear area with the dunes on three sides, we were delighted with our surroundings, it was everything we imagined – and more. It was late afternoon and the temperature was 34 degrees (a huge contrast to six degrees this morning). As the sun set the contours of the dunes took on a beautiful pattern of light and shade. A herd of about twenty camels was tethered close by, their keeper regally swathed in indigo robes. Sunrise and sunset were the busy times for camels as they provided camel rides into the dunes to watch the sun come up or go down. We watched those watching the sunset in the distance on the horizon, silhouetted against the setting sun.
We had our evening meal together and, once it was dark, we were treated to an incredible display of stars, appearing closer and brighter due to the gin clear air and the lack of light pollution. That night we went to sleep watching the night sky through the skylight window of our camper.
The changes in scenery were quite spectacular as we drove south through the Atlas Mountains. We were now 1500 miles south of the UK. We left Azrou and drove through snowy landscapes before descending into the valley where the sun warmed the streets of Zeida to 15 degrees. The main street of the town was lined with stalls, shops and cafes; we stopped for coffee and pancakes at one of them. Each cafe had someone cooking on a barbecue; joints of meat were hanging up outside the cafes and also they were cooking individual tagines of meat and vegetables on the barbecue. Whole sheep carcasses, including their heads, hung in butcher’s doorways.
Our drive then took us up to 2000 metres and then down again, passing through fertile valleys and then arid plains and finally through a gorge deeply carved in the red earth to our campsite. We arrived soon after 3 pm but the sun disappeared almost immediately behind the mountains high above us.
We ate a delicious meal in the local restaurant, soup, chicken tagine, followed by fruit, yoghurts and dates at a cost of £10 a head. We brought our own wine. It turned out to be a good evening, after the meal the waiters arranged our chair around a wood fire and played their drums, cymbals and a type of castanet