Meski to Todra Gorge

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!

Berber Jokes and the Village School

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!

Berber Surprise

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.

La Source Bleue De Meski

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)ImageImageImageImage ImageImage</a.


Camel Ride at Erg Chebbi

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.

The Sahara

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.

Azrou to Rich

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

The Snowy Road to Azrou

It was only nine degrees when we woke the next morning, a cold wind was blowing from the Atlas Mountains but at least the sun was shining. We had a short drive of only 80K to our next stop up in the mountains at Azrou. We had only been travelling a short time before we found ourselves driving through snowy landscapes although, by the time we reached our destination, most of the snow had dissipated in the sunshine.

Snow was not unusual in this area during the winter (it was November) and the houses mostly had pitched roofs instead of the usual flat roofs. We passed through the town of Ifrane where the King had a palace; the town looked more like an Alpine village and we were half expecting to see groups of skiers plodding up to the slopes.

Fez and a Tour of the Souks

We had minibuses to take us into the town of Fez where we took an organised tour of the souks.  We were told that the old town had over four thousand narrow alleyways and it would be easy to get lost but we felt it was just a way for them to get us to visit certain shops.

It was raining heavily when we all set off following our leader and clutching our umbrellas.  The narrow alleys were thronged with shoppers, sightseers, vendors and delivery people running up and down the steep cobbled paths with heavily laden carts or leading donkeys stacked high with produce.  Underfoot became a torrent of filthy water as we hurried up and down steps, carefully negotiating uneven paths.  You hardly dared look up for fear of getting your foot caught in an unprotected drain, half hidden by muddy water.  I was so glad we had decided to wear our waterproof walking boots which kept our feet dry and out of the filth.

We visited a tannery and were given a sprig of mint to help combat the smell.  We also visited a carpet cooperative where they gave us all mint tea whilst they showed us their wares.  The carpets were beautiful but very expensive (£2,000).  None of our group bought anything.  We also visited a pottery and a leather goods shop, again, none of our thrifty campers was tempted.

Volubilis and the Wilderness Camp

We left Chefchaouen at nine the following morning, travelling in convoy.  It was pouring with rain as we carefully drove down the mountain to the main road, turning south towards Meknes.  We stopped for lunch at a large roadside restaurant, the rain had stopped and we were able to sit outside.  We ate koftas and lamb chops, purchasing from the meat seller and then we had to pay another man to cook it on his barbecue.  The meal was served with the local bread and cost £5 a head including a coffee.

We drove through fertile farming country to Volubilis which, in ancient times, was the southernmost Roman settlement in Mauritania (now Algiers and Morocco).  In the days of the Roman Empire this settlement supplied their masters in Rome with fresh produce, fruit, vegetables and olive oil; they also sent wild animals captured in the surrounding hills – lions, elephants and black bears for events in the Colosseum.  We spent the night wild camping in these hills but, fortunately, the only wild animals we saw were sheep being looked after by their shepherd.  DD Ray organised a campfire supper of jacket potatoes with a spicy tuna filling.  We all sat around the bonfire with our bottles of wine but then at about 9.30 the rain started and we scurried back to our campers for an early night.

Next morning we visited the Roman ruins at Volubilis.  It was an amazing sight, a complete Roman town covering an area of about four acres.
There were a few examples of mosaics but they had been poorly preserved and, in some cases, very badly restored.

Our next stop was the town of Meknes where we spent several hours exploring the markets and souks.  In the meat market the “live” section displayed poultry and rabbits whilst in the “deceased” section, amongst the displays of butchered joints, we enjoyed a tastefully arranged display of the heads of cows and sheep.  The sheep looked as they always do but the cows looked particularly mournful because their tongues were hanging out.

We then drove for another hour or so along a toll motorway to Fez.  All along the roads we travelled, including the busy main roads, we were accustomed to seeing donkeys being ridden with bundles on their backs and flocks of sheep and goats vying for space with impatient drivers on the busy highway.  However, we were surprised to see a flock of sheep with their shepherd casually grazing on the hard shoulder of the motorway.Image bin

Chefchaouen – The Blue Town

We explored Chefchaouen the following morning.  It was a busy town with narrow streets full of selling booths and market squares with many cafes and restaurants – we chose to drink mint tea in the shade of a cafe’s awning opposite the museum, sitting and enjoying watching people go by.  Later that evening we all walked down to the town again, this time to have a meal in a restaurant called Aladdin’s (it is not pronounced like the pantomime Aladdin, it sounds more like Allah-deen).  We had tagines, it was just about edible, especially as mine had lots of lovely vegetables in it.  Tony didn’t rate his at all and we both had to use our torch to see exactly what we were eating in the candlelit restaurant, one holding the torch for the other while they excised the gristle from their meat.  The meal cost £12 per head for three courses (no alcohol).  Tony reckoned they saw us coming.