A few dry jokes in the Sahara

Arriving into Marrakech we were transferred to our tour to the Sahara desert. The minivan was made up of our driver – Abdoul, and five Americans, from the West and East Coast.

After introductions, we earnestly watched our driver as he made several calls. He looked a little concerned. This early? It appeared we were waiting for one more person. As it turned out, Billy and William were the same person, not the couple Abdoul was expecting. There was something else amiss. As it turned out, the heavy rain in Marrakech translated to heavy snow in the High Atlas Mountains. The pass was blocked and we would have to travel an extra 6 hours around the mountains via Agadir.

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The trip was long and arduous, but not without event. We saw a few goats precariously perched in argan trees eating the small fruit. Some enterprising locals had taken advantage of this phenomenon and tied their livestock on some branches to entice tourists to stop for a photo. We couldn’t support this.

After a full day on the road and watching Abdoul take at least 25 phone calls (he was an excellent driver by the way – Marrakech is a challenging place to learn) we made it to Dades Valley. Here we were greeted by our host who proudly displayed a photo of him playing guitar with Carlos Santana and another of him at the OK Corral and Tombstone, Arizona. We never managed to get him to play us a song, but his wife made us an amazing feast.

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The following morning we were packed in the van again, this time stopping off in the Todras Valley. Tamson made a little friend in an old man selling donkey rides and also in an enemy in one child who insistently demanded she pay 30 dirhams for a photo of his three donkeys – 10 dirhams each! Tam was just taking photos and these donkeys were merely in the way…

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Rissani used to be the capital of the Berber trade routes and of Morocco. The Royal Palace has now shifted to Marrakech, but the city remains the home of the royals who make the journey back every year around the date harvest. We were treated to a “Berber” lunch – a filled bread with 44 different spices. Everything in this area was a Berber joke – this was a “Berber Pizza”, mint tea was “Berber Whiskey” a donkey was a “Berber 4×4” – they laughs started wearing thin after a while. Following the main course we were treated to a show of rug throwing, where pretty much the idea is – they throw as many rugs out on the floor as possible in the hope that you might actually want to buy one. We were a bit more occupied with a malfunctioning camera and were not really interested in buying. The word ‘co-operative’ is bandied around a lot in marketplaces. These are inherently a good thing as it empowers women and supports local manufacturers, but we got the impression that some were very much co-operative by name and not by nature – male dominated and hawking similar products that we had seen before.

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It was only another short trip from here to Merzouga, to see the famous dunes of Erg Chebbi. They rose up out of dirt, some up to 100 metres high. Offloading luggage and donning our makeshift turbans we walked out to the awaiting caravan. Nine belching camels awaited us.

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Mounting a camel is a bit of a mission, first you have to saddle the wide hump, requiring dislocation of hips from the pelvis, then as the camel starts to stand up – back legs first, then front legs. Riding this seesaw requires a bit of rodeo skill, but once you’re up, the camel seems relatively content, each tethered to the next ones saddle. Tam named her camel Cappuccino, it tried to munch on Mitch’s turban on several occasions.

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We rode the contours of the dunes for over an hour, admiring the sheer scale of the Sahara. Camel droppings rolled downhill and settled in small hollows, by the looks of it, there were many trips out into the desert.

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Once at camp, we tried our hand at sandboarding, playing a few drums by the fire (Tam has as much rhythm as a builders hammer) and stargazing through the clouds and full moon. Overnight one of the American couples (not William and Billy) got engaged. The groom to be was an employee of TripAdvisor – working in the fraud team (apparently it is common that fake reviews are posted in this part of the world), but this was a personal trip. We guess he gave the place a five star review?

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Leaving the sand dunes, we felt like we rushed our time. There looked like plenty to do, it appeared many tourists don’t like being out in the middle of the day, opting to travel early morning and in the evening.

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Ait Ben Haiddou is the large Kasbah made famous for the filming of Gladiator was on our travel back. Meanwhile, we were facing a battle of our own. We didn’t know the status of the Atlas pass. So in the end we only managed an obligatory stop for a few pictures to avoid another long day in the van via Agadir. At the stop, one man tried to entertain us with a very sedated looking snake (maybe it was roadkill?) and play Mary had a little lamb on his recorder.

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At the pass, we were fortunate enough to see the snow movers had done their job. What a relief. A great chance to pull aside on the road and relax with a “Berber Omelette” and knowledge that we had only another couple hours drive. In total, we amassed over 22 in a seat over 3 days. Saying our farewells to our tour group, we turned back into the Atlas mountains for our next journey to the small village of Imlil.DSC07120

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In all a great trip despite the time spent in a van. Well recommended tour by Camel Safari’s.

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