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The Moroccan Desert Excursion

We have gone on an excursion while in Marrakesh, an experience that will probably end up being really a pinnacle of our time in Morocco.

We had wanted to do the excursion, to see the different parts of Morocco that would be difficult to visit otherwise, and Jess really wanted to ride a camel in the desert, for some reason (I've already done that, in Tunisia, and could probably spend the rest of my life without having to do it again). So we booked an excursion through our riad, one that would take three days and cover some impressive parts of Morocco. It was expensive, but this kind of opportunity doesn't always come that often; who knows the next time we will be anywhere near the Sahara Desert? Besides, we have found out that Morocco is really an expensive place, being that it is the playground of Europe, and so our budget here has been shot anyhow.

Anyhow, we headed out early the first morning. We were picked up by a little mini-bus; there was no doubting that it was full of tourists (a label that I really don't like; I consider myself a backpacker, or perhaps a traveler) because the bus was labeled along its side with Tourist Transport in French and Arabic. Somehow in my mind I'd been hoping for a private guide for Jess and I, and so was a little disappointed when it turned out there were ten other people on the tour. They were a good crew, though, all tough travelers, which came in handy later, so I got over it quickly. We headed straight up into the Atlas Mountains. I'd heard of these mountains before, that they were really spectacular, and was not disappointed. I'm quite fond of mountains, especially ones that are massive, jagged, and leave me feeling very small; the Atlas Mountains fit all these definitions. Our little short bus did well going along the curvy roads that would go high up to one pass, drop back down to a river, then head back up for another pass. I loved it, though some of the others in the group, those who weren't used to mountains, weren't so fond of the driving.

We had a couple of main stops that first day, starting with the Ait-Ben-Haddou fortress, an impressive fortified town. We spent some time walking around the small town, up to a peak that had good views of the valley around it. Back in the day, the fortress had been a major stop along the caravan trail, but these days is mostly used as a tourist attraction and the backdrop of quite a few movies like Gladiator and The Mummy. It was pretty touristy, but then again, so were the other destinations along our route. After all, we were in a Touriste Transporte short bus.

Our other main stop of the day was the Dades Gorge, although along the way we passed through the Roses Valley, named for the roses grown there for perfumes and soaps, and along the Road of the Kasbahs, which are big, mud fortress like structures. Our route that day was quite beautiful; the kasbahs we passed were in various stages of repair/disrepair. There were many structures, from these big kasbahs to walled compounds to simple homes, that seemed to be just abandoned. As such, it was obvious that rain and other elements took their toll on these structures, and they seemed to melt back into the landscape, something like the castles of Ireland. They were quite scenic.

We reached Dades Gorge later in the evening, which was fairly unremarkable other than it was a deep gorge with a nice view. We stayed in a hotel there that night, and had quite a nice dinner. The next day we headed off to visit the Todgha Valley and its gorges. Again, the drive was as impressive in its views of the Moroccan landscape as it was long. We poked back into the Atlas Mountains for a few hours, then headed back out into the plains, where the day became very interesting. Although it wasn't the season for rain, we had the luck (if you would call it that) to see the Sahara Desert in the midst of a storm. We missed the initial downpour as we left the mountains towards the Sahara, but it must have been impressive, given the large amount of standing water on the ground as we drove along. The situation became more precarious when we arrived at the first of the many normally dry gullies. Having just come from Tucson, we understand the situation when it rains in the desert; roads often become impassable. The conversation in the short bus ended when everyone looked forward up the road and realized that there was a substantial river running across. We ended up braving that gully, as well as several others, although one in particular looked ferocious; it seemed tenuous, but the short bus didn't let us down. Soon we were hustling along to the dunes of the Sahara. We passed over one especially wide riverbed, dry but ominous nonetheless; our guide confessed that this one he had worried about, because if it had been flowing, we wouldn't have made it to the dunes and the camel ride. Actually, it started to flow not long after we crossed, and several other groups didn't make it to the dunes that night.

Finally we arrived at the Merzouga dunes; we brought the rain with us. From one standpoint, the irony was almost too much to bear that it was raining in the Sahara of all places the one night we were heading out to sleep there; on the other hand, it was remarkable in that most people never see the Sahara being rained on, for I'm sure that it doesn't rain there frequently. So we headed off into the dunes after mounting our camels, which are fun for about four to six minutes and then simply painful. We rode for almost an hour, which was beautiful with the clouds surrounding us, and then a whisper of a sunset below the cloud line. Unfortunately, as the sun dipped below the horizon, we could see a wave of rain heading our direction, and we caught a little bit of it before reaching our camp.

Fortunately, the bulk of the rain had preceded our arrival; of course, that meant our mattresses for the night were soaked, and the tops of our dining tent hung heavily with about a hundred gallons of dirty water waiting for an excuse to crash down on our heads. Our guides, none of whom spoke any English, sort of ditched us for about an hour, leaving us to mill around in the darkness of one of the sleeping tents until we realized a lamp was burning in the dining tent. Even there, we sort of sat around hoping the roof wouldn't spring a leak, looking at each other; we figured that as it was Ramadan, and since we arrived as the end of the day's fast arrived, our guides were breaking the fast and eating; we could even hear them cooking and eating in their tent. Not that we blamed them, though; for Ramadan, they fast from 4:30 am until 6:45 pm, so breaking fast is naturally quite important to them. Eventually they came and served us food; it was actually a very nice meal. There was the issue with communication; at one point they asked for aspirin, for the reason that one of the camels had a fever; we were mystified by this until we realized it was one of the camel guides who had the fever. Later they broke out their drums and played for awhile. Outside, the clouds had broken up, and a brilliant sky full of stars emerged, the Milky Way in full display.

Bedtime wasn't so great; as I mentioned, our mattresses were soaked, which was remedied by placing wool blankets over them. That kept us dry, but the pillows were incredibly musty and damp; from those pillows I'm sure that I developed a postnasal drip that has slowly worsened to include a sore throat, and Jess developed an ear infection that has plagued her even today. Still, no one in our group complained at all, they all made the best of the situation; this was a really good group, I was happy to have gotten the chance to meet them and get to know a couple of them. That night I slept like a log, and woke up a 5:15 to get back up on my camel to head back. En route to the short bus, the sun rose, in an amazingly short time, which was beautiful. That was even worth the sensation of being repeatedly kicked in the gonads that comes with riding a camel.

Speaking of camels, on the trip back to Marrakesh, our guide told us jokes that are popular in Morocco. The vast majority of them involves camels or donkeys, often in situations that are best not blogged about. A clean sample: How do you get a camel in a fridge in three moves? Open the door, put the camel in, shut the door. Not SNL material, maybe; then again...

The ride back to Marrakesh was nine hours long, but it was still nice. It was tempting to fall asleep along the way, but I found myself resisting, wanting to see as much of the Moroccan landscape as possible. My one complaint was that I couldn't have them stop whenever I wanted, to take pictures; next time I might have to rent a car, there is so much scenic landscape in Morocco. It is all very stark and rugged, and endlessly fascinating.

Back in Marrakesh, we arrived in our riad to find that our rooms had been lost to other travelers, but they put us up in a nearby riad. There was only one bed in that riad, so Jess ended up sleeping on a cot in a closet, but like I told her, at least she had a private room (she didn't find that too funny). It is part of the experience, I suppose. We headed out to the square for one last meal from the food stands, one last stroll around the craziness of the square, as we headed for Essaouira the next morning.

Until next time, be safe.


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