This week we travelled south to Erg Chebbi to see desert landscape straight out of the Arabian Nights, complete with huge golden sand dunes, palm trees, camels and nomads.
Heading north again we drove through the spectacular Todra and Dades gorges. Then it was time for Hollywood-style make believe, or Wadi-wood as our pun-loving guide dubbed the Atlas Film Studios in Ouarzazate where we followed the trail of screen greats like Sir Ben Kingsley, Michael Douglas and, eh, Jeremy Clarkson.
And the highlights this week:
The Desert at Erg Chebbi:
Erg Chebbi is the yellow bit (ringed in red) near the border with Algeria. The orange line marks the route we drove to get there.
We were staying at the Kasbah Tombouctou in Merzouga – not actually in this luxury hotel – but parked round the back facing the dunes where we watched the camels being led back from desert treks.
And we sheltered from the Sahara sun in the shade of the palm trees…
There was just one other van there – it was the first one we’d seen from the UK since Chefcheoun. Since then we’ve either been the only ones in the campsite or there have been one or two German motorhomes. A French travel agent based in the desert told us her compatriots – usually the biggest tourist market for Morocco – have stayed away this year. “They have how do you say ‘peur’,” she told us.
We introduced ourselves to its owners Gill and Chris who are also on a big motorhome adventure and are blogging about it at www.smallcatbigtravels.wordpress.com.
We had a coffee, joined them for dinner that night and agreed to pair up for a 1,500 dirham 4×4 journey into the Sahara.
Going by camel would be too uncomfortable we decided. But the 4×4 wasn’t exactly a smooth ride.
Our driver glided and swooped and swerved over what looked and felt like a sea of golden waves and alarmingly steep sandy breakers. We’ve filmed it on a Go Pro camera – except we haven’t yet worked out how to upload it to this blog. That treat awaits.
It was initially thrilling….then CRASH. Our jeep had powered up the steep side of a dune but our driver hadn’t anticipated the sheer drop on the other side. The back wheels slammed down into the sand jolting the three of us into the back seat up against the roof.
In the shocked silence that followed, we gingerly felt whether we’d suffered any damage and our driver was shaken enough by the incident to pull up and untangle the knotted – and so far unused – seat belts. Safely strapped up we set off again to explore the amazing dunes of Erg Chebbi at a more sedate pace.
We stopped for tea at one of the desert camps where you can stay overnight for a sleepover with the nomads.
And we set back for camp to the light of a Saharan sunset.
Of course, we had to take the mandatory sunset selfie complete with rictus grins.
We’ve met some great people this week – locals and fellow travellers.
Just outside Ar Rachidia, we stayed at the Camping Source Bleue de Meski which is nestled in a palmerai. It was a very tranquil setting.
On the campsite grounds which is part of a local co-op, we could see the Berber women each day arriving to do their laundry in the spring waters which flowed through the palmerai.
Mohammed – who runs one of the shops in the co-op within the campsite – looked after us very well as he did the other travellers.
He invited us each day for tea – Berber whiskey he called it – and to his house for tagine on two of the nights we stayed. (To see how he made it, check out the photos on the blog’s Campervan Cooking/Food and Beer On The Road page).
And each evening he gathered camp guests round the fire to chat. While we are just about able to make ourselves understood in Morocco with our school French, he chatted with everyone while switching easily between English, French, Spanish and Geman.
And after the food, around the fire, there was music from Mohammed and Sofiane.
Cynics that we are, we kept waiting for the sales pitch from him. When it eventually came, in a subtle ‘would you like to see some crafts made by my sister?’, we had already resolved that we were going to buy a rug for the van from him to repay the fantastic hospitality.
And so the negotiations began. It was a two day affair and in the tradition of Moroccan haggling involved outrageous opening bids from both sides. There followed a series of further ridiculous counter offers and then – having seen me earlier in the day knitting (actually it was unpicking stitches ), a shameless attempt at flattery. Surely I – also a craftswoman – should know and understand very well the many hours of delicate work which went into such rugs, he implored.
Softened by this comparison between my botched intarsia (the new knitting term I’ve learnt on this trip) and the fine, silken stitches of Berber maidens, we reached a deal.
And here it is:
One new rug for Molly in return for a certain number of dirhams + a bottle of Single Malt Whisky which had been packed specifically for bargaining purposes.
And no, we are not saying how much we paid for fear it will be met with cries of ‘You woz robbed!’. We’ve taken the view that in all transactions the real price is whatever we were happy to pay. That way we won’t suffer any angst over whether we could have bought it cheaper elsewhere.
The date seller – Near the village of Meski, we went for a walk through the palmerai where we were overtaken by sheep being herded back home.
Beyond the palms, where there was just rocky desert terrain, Hassan cycled up to us and invited us to see his house.
We bought some dates from him.
It was all done in smiles and gestures – our Berber is pretty atrocious.
On the way to the Todra gorge, we saw these black specks on the mountainside. We pulled over to have a proper look.
It was a huge flock of goats, being herded down the mountain path by a goatherd who used judiciously aimed stones and occasional high-pitched shrieks to keep his animals together and on the move.
Stuart aimed his camera and took a few shots. The goatherd saw and bounded down the mountain and across the river towards us. As he approached the van, we braced ourselves to be bawled out. But no, he walked towards us grinning broadly with his hand extended.
‘Dirhams?” he asked. Absolutely and damm right to ask Sir – we were very happy to pay him for his image and much relieved he wasn’t insulted by us snap happy tourists.
Before leaving, he pointed at Stuart’s shoes. He wanted them too. Stuart was having none of it. They cost him forty quid on mail order from the Guardian and are his pride and joy.
A few more dirhams was given as substitute and so off he went back to his flock, hopefully satisfied with the transaction.
Hooray for Wadi-Wood:
“And see on my phone, this is Jeremy and James, they are standing right here in this spot and see, those are their tyre marks …”
We went to visit the Atlas Film Studios in Ouzarzate where our guide Fahid showed Stuart You Tube footage from the new series of Top Gear – part of which was filmed on location at the studios.
It is the same Egyptian set used in a host of ancient world epics including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Game of Thrones and, according to Fahid, about six films featuring Sir Ben Kingsley.
‘Oh Sir Ben was wonderful, just one or two takes necessary, then back to the bar for a beer…” he recalled fondly.
When the studios are being used for film production, Fahid’s day job is as cameraman. Otherwise he acts as guide to the tourists and he was very, very keen on encouraging cheesey poses. ‘Walk like an Egyptian’, he asked. I gave it my best shot.
‘Act like a pharaoh’, he said to Stuart. Typecasting again.
And just when you start believing you are back by the banks of the Nile, you see behind the scenes…
….aaah, the silver screen dream is shattered.
The Todra gorge and the Dades Gorge:
I think it was mentioned before in this blog that both Stuart and I are not too keen on heights. Well, the day we tackled the Todra Gorge and the Dades Gorge was in the nature of aversion therapy.
Steep climbs, hairpin bends, tiny barrier walls with campervan-shaped gaps in them…it was unnerving.
But the spectacular views and the strong coffee at this man’s cafe made it worthwhile.
And this was the week we also used our our wild camping shower for the first time:
Moroccan campsites have been a bit patchy so far.
Great with the hospitality – free bread delivered to the van door in the mornings in some cases – but some had truly terrible shower and toilet facilities. Either there was only a trickle of cold water or the guardian minding the shower wasn’t around to open it up (lucky for us as it turned out).
So it was time to unpack our portable shower kit Into The Wild (camp shower)and in the last week, it has more than paid for its passage and place in our limited storage space.
That’s Stuart in there…
…but not even the passing sheep can see him.
Eating out in Morocco:
The choice of dish offered to us in Morocco so far has been limited to either tagine or cous cous and two weeks in, we haven’t tired of either.
This lamb tagine served with prunes was particularly tasty. And you may note the bottle of red wine in the photo…while most of the places we’ve eaten in so far have not served any alcohol, this restaurant at the Timnay Inter-Cultural Complexe Touristique in Midelt did. Speaking for myself, I was quite pleased to see it on the menu.
That evening Stuart maintained a virtuous abstinence though has since been sampling Moroccan beers. Flag and Casablanca will be featuring in his Beer picture Gallery soon to be unveiled on the blog.
And here is the bird of the week and some random photos to finish …