As its been a while since you last received tales of my travels in foreign lands, I thought I would bive you a run down of my recent mini trip to Morocco.
Not quite the grand adventure at just two weeks, but enough to know that the spirit is still there and I am already contemplating my next dive into the unknown.
For the first time in my life I travelled with a friend. A daunting prospect. But depressed friend Sandra deperately needed a break...and a little adventure, so the prospect of running wild in the Saharan desert seemed to fit the bill. Unfortunately (for me) Sandra got herself hooked up with a new boyfriend before we left so it was a little like travelling with a lovesick teenager, thumb permenantly attatched to her mobile and the tap tap tap sound of someone texting non predictive fashion, will always evoke memories of Morocco.
Having said this, Sandra took to independant travel like a proverbial duck and a damned good time ensued.
We arrived in Marrakesh at the very respectable hour of 1130 am and a temperature of around 45 degrees (in farenheit that is 'oh my God, bloody hot'). Being my normal wimpish self when arriving in a new country, I had prebooked a hotel and airport tranfer. So we were duly collected and dropped off at the heaving main square, to be met with a man with a box on wheels in which he deposited our luggage and whisked us off through the myriad of back streets to our Rhiad, nestled away from the madding crowds and tranquility itself. A Rhiad is a building based around a central open courtyard, designed so as never to receive any sun, thereby remaining cool all day. In our courtyard was a very inviting 'plunge pool' and our room opened directly onto it. Well, not quite onto the pool, just to the side, or we would have drowned whilst emerging bleary eyed for breakfast. Two floors up was the roof terrace, furnished with sun loungers and the most enormous tented bed. Cool! Well, not cool actually, it was bloody hot and we constantly had to run down the two flights of stairs to 'plunge' into the pool, get bloody freezing, then run up the stairs again. Fun!!!
We stayed three days in Marrakech, explored every square metre of the souks (markets) of which there are 62 miles and five thousand four hundred and twenty two shops. Its true, I know, I counted them. We bartered like our lives depended on it to the extent that market traders hid when they saw us coming for fear of being rendered thoroughly bankrupt. Between shopping we quenched our thirsts at our favourite of the umpteen juice stalls, overdosing on vitamin C.
By day the enormous Djemma el Fna (or similar inpronoucable name for a great big square) was filled with juice stalls, snake charmers, henna tattoists and shit for brains men with monkeys on ropes who wondered why the tourists did not want their photos taken with these severely pissed off little creatures. The tattoists were particularly insistant, to the point that one grabbed me and proceeded to rapidly squeeze out a design on my hand, promising me luck in finding a good man to marry and lots of lovely children! You have never seen anyone wriggle themselves free so quickly. Then she demanded money. 'Money?, you want me to pay for the curse you have just inflicted on me? I think not young lady, may the fleas of a thousand camels make their homes in your baby popping parts'. 'Another six oranges in a glass please nice Mr Juiceman, and no, I don't want to marry you, you are only 12'.
At night the square metamorphasised into a mass feeding frenzy. Three million (or thereabouts) food stalls were erected, barbeques lit and white coated waiters attacked unsuspecting tourists with menus. 'Come to 127, we the best! You English? Every little helps!' Where do they get these catch phrases from? Remember the trader in Egypt, 'Cheaper than Asda!'. And they always know insignificant places. 'England! Ah yes...Stafford!' Bloody Stafford? I dnt even know which county it is in.
We did succumb on our first night. No. 358. We were dished up some slop, coke in plastic cups and we were even charged for the bread. On our last night we found an empty restaurant, its balcony offerring the best view overlooking the brightly lit and smoking square and were served the best tagine I have ever tasted together with frozen water. Utter bliss.
Much to Sandra's suprise and delight we had successfully negotiated a public bus, conversed with the french speaking ticket man at the bus station and negotiated ourselves two seats on the night bus to Zagora. At 10pm we donned our very overweight backpacks (surely we had not bought that much?), forced our way through the crowded backstreets, dodged the waiters in the square and made it unscathed to the taxi rank where we severly tested the suspension of a Renault 4 on the way to the bus station. Finally, after being all but invisable to the check in creature, at 0130 we were on our way. We settled into our cramped but relatively comfortable seats and prepared to sleep our way through the Atlas mountains.
0230. 'Bllllaaaeeeuuuuchhh'. 'What on earth...?' A man three rows down was violently sick. 0300 'Blllaaaeeeeuuuuchh'. The child in the row next to us was violently sick. This continued at regular intervals for the next 8 hours. Thank heavens for MP3 players. But will somebody please invent something that will pump pleasing smells up your nostrils.
We arrived around 0930 in Zagora. The last major town before the desert took over, southeast of Marrakech, heading towards Algeria. It was Sunday and the place was deserted. We plonked ourselves down in a cafe, had a much needed coffee and were immediately accosted by a Berber guide who had a tour agency and would we like to go to the desert this afternoon? 'Are you nuts? We have just spent the last 8 hours on the Vomit Express and all we want right now is sleep'. At this point we remembered that we hadnt actually arranged for anywhere to stay the night. Berber guide was desperately trying to convince us to book into the large tourist hotel down the road where he would get us 'good price'. Yeah right. Trusty Lonely Planet was consulted and we were lured into a Kasbah whos khol eyed owner, the guide said, was incredibly knowledgeable about the desert.
We were met from the taxi by a man that can only be described as... well,.....alarming! Very arabic looking with a shock of affro hair and a set of teeth that would make any self respecting camel very proud. Although I did wonder if these teeth were used to rip poor unsustpecting camel from its bones. He grabbed our backpacks and ushered us through the enormous and elaborate reception hall to a shady spot in the garden. 'Tea first!' and he disappeared into the kitchen leaving the pair of us in a speechless daze. He emerged with a steaming pot of the most delicious mint tea. We were the only guests. Sent from the stars...to him...apparently.
While we waited for the housekeeper to be dragged from her home to prepare us a room we sat and discussed our intended trip into the baking Sahara.
My hoped for five day trek was not considered an option owing to the intense heat at this time of year, so we opted for a 4x4 to his own Bivuac, a couple of days messing around on camels and sand dunes then back to the hotel by 4x4. A third night in the desert was an option but Hassan, as we now discovered him to be called and not Gnasher as I suspected, wanted us back so he could preapre a lavish feast for us before we left. There would only be the two of us staying at the Bivouac. Heaven. But preparations had to be made. We sat drinking tea while has wrote lists and made phone calls.
Hassan turned out to be a most charming man, a Berber Nomad himself, he was incredibly knowledgeable about just about everything concerned with Morocco, especially the desert. We immediately felt at home and more like his personal guests than tourists. We were packed off to our delightful air conditioned room for a rest while he continued to make preparations for our stay. But we didnt rest. Much too excited and facinated by this larger than life man and his amazing deserted (deserted..hah! Pun!!) hotel. We came back down later and Hassan had managed to find a cold beer for me in the fridge. Bliss! We sat chatting about him, us, the desert, the stars and eventually, around 11pm, when we were really just about fit to drop, an enormous feast emerged. Enormous Moroccan salad, tagine, fresh bread and a huge platter of fruit. We ate what we could, made our excuses and fell into bed.
The next morning we met the hard working housekeeper/cook and were served fresh puri style breads, honey, olive oil, fresh orange juice and coffee. Hassan breezed in and announced our 'programme'. We had agreed a fixed (and very fair) price the previous evening and nothing else at all had to be paid for. We hadn't understood quite what that was to include. As his pool was not completed, he had made arrangements for us to go to a nearby hotel to use the pool. We were to return at lunchtime. So we went off with our fluffy towels and were greeted by the head receptionist. We had the pool to ourselves. Moments later a bottle of ice cold water arrived closely followed by two fresh orange juces. 'Paid for' we were told. Woo hoo! This is the life we thought. Pool to ourselves, waited on hand and foot, luxury! We spent the next few hours lazing and swimming, feeling like little princesses.
On our return to the hotel we were presented with a lavish three course lunch after which Hassan produced two suits for us to where in the desert, complete with turbans. The clothing we had brought, he explained, were perfectly suitable for.. an evening out! Then we were ushered once again to our room to pack and rest.
At 4.30pm everything was ready, the 4x4 had arrived and was laden with provisions, two Nomads had been dragged from their goats to be our guides and Hassan waved us off with a toothy grin. We headed south, stpping at a couple of villages for more provisions, namely cigarettes and water. Then the desert opened out in front of us, a vast expanse of flat stony nothingness. A far from interesting landscape I was glad that we had opted for the car over the camels. As dusk approached we stopped at the home of Hammah, one of our guides, to say goodbye to his daughter, his wife, his father, his cousin, the dog and a three footed cat. He had a small mud brick hut, complete with solar panel, tv aerial and phone. So this is modern nomadic living huh?? We drank tea on the roof and then set off in the pitch blackness to find the Bivouac. How they navigated their way is quite beyond me, this way, that way, round that dune, over another. I briefly wondered if we were to be encaptured and sold to a harem or something. But then reality. Two 40 odd year olds in baggy desert suits, p'raps not!
Suddenly the Bivouac emerged in front of us. Five large Berber style black tents, several metres away from each other and in the middle, three sofas, complete with cushions and throws, and a table. All situated on beautiful woven rugs. All of this, just for us. Holy effing shit! After a tour of the camp, incredibly elaborate 8 man tent, 4 man tent, shower and toilet block (complete with hot and cold water AND loo roll!!!) kitchen and generator room, we were sat down and provided with yet another lavish three course feast. The bread was cooked in the sand, literally. No tin, no cover, just dough in the sand covered with embers. It was delicious.
At midnight Hammah and Zayed, our other guide, insisted that we climb the big dune to watch the shooting stars. We sat up there for two hours having being buried in the sand (good for rhumetism apparantly), gazing up at the milky way, watching countless shooting stars. We had been transported to paradise.
That night we opted to sleep on the sofas under the stars rather than the hot and stuffy tents. We felt totally alone, save a large gerbil type creature I spotted in my torchlight. The only sound was that of our own heartbeats.
We awoke at dawn and instantly ran up the large dune we had been sitting on the previous night to survey our surroundings. The bivouac was nestled amongst an island of rolling dunes, beyond that was a sea of flat stony desert. On the horizon to one side were the mountains and to the other, the towering dunes of Erg Chigaga. I so desperately wanted to go there. But where were the camels? The only sign of mammal activity were the footprints of last nights gerbil along with its extended family who had all obviously had quite a party. As we ate our breakfast of fresh flatbreads and orange juice we spotted a man climb 'our' dune with a pair of binoculars. He then disappeared into the desert reappearing some thirty minutes later with four camels in tow.
Two of the camels, No. XI and XII belonged to Hassan, the other two belonged to Hammah, our guide. Each had a huge brand mark on its neck with its number. I imagined that this must have been incredibly painful for the poor dromedaries, but at the same time realised that this was probably the only way of spotting your own camel as they wandered free in the desert. Far from being the grumpy spitting and stinky arseholes of the sahara as they are often portrayed, these were positively placid and not averse to having their ears rubbed. XI was hungry and not wishing to wait until fed, proceeded to rip open the sack of dried dates that we had brought for them. XII was shouting loudly at No. indecipherable blob who, at just 5 years old, was still a baby and obviously had to be taught the pecking order.
As we finished breakfast, the camels were loaded. We were not going to Erg Chigaga today, but to a distant oasis to meet some of the nomads. Two of the camels were loaded with what was required for lunch. Table, stools, rugs, blankets, cushions......the usual stuff you take for a picnic in the desert??!! I was to take XII, the largest and eldest and Sandra was given No. 180, the other of Hammah's. We both donned our turbans to protect us from the intense heat of the sun and I am sure would have made valid extras in 'Lawrence of Arabia', if not leading roles.. our mounting of the camels looked positively professional!
Hammah and Zayed led on foot accross the stony desert towards what appeared to be a solitary tree in the middle of the desert. About two hours later we arrived at said tree. Now despite the relative comfort of riding a camel, as far as ones arse is concerned, it is the equivilant of three days on horseback and I severely regretted the customary pre holiday weight loss. After a short rest we made our way, with true John Wayne gait, to the oasis itself which consisted of a well and a couple of humungous palms in the shade of which were a pack of donkeys escaping the midday sun. It was blisteringly hot so Sandra readily accepted the offer of a 'saharan shower'. Standing in the camels water bowl, Hammah proceeded to chuck buckets of water all over her fully clothed and turbaned self. Not only was she now freezing cold, but the indigo dye of her turban had turned her a stunning shade of bright blue!
Suddenly, and without warning, Zayed started legging it back to our tree. Heat stroke, my limited but expanding medical knowledge told me. Irrational and overactive behaviour. 'We shall need lots of cold water,' I started ' ...and a fan and .....a what?...a herd of goats???' 3007 goats were descending on our resting place and were threatning to eat our lunch, our blankets and anything else that wasn't still strapped to the camels. Although it wouldn't suprise me if dromedary climbing was a goats favourite pastime. The rest of us raced back in the direction of the tree to find Zayed frantically beating off the little bleaters with a huge palm frond.
The next hour was spent in the protection of what was rightfully ours, directing the herd towards the promise of cool clear water and some rather friendly donkeys to chat to.
The next few hours were spent lazing around in the shade of the tree, drinking tea, smoking and munching melon. The one thing that had'nt been provided was a toilet. Luckily, some distance away were the remains of an old settlement which provided perfect privacy from the eyes of guides, goats and camels. But on one trip to the loo, there were no camels. 'Shit! No camels!'. I raced back to Zayed. 'Pas de dromedaire!' (He didnt speak english and my french is struggling at best). ' Some expletive in arabic...come' he replied, and we set off in search of our oversized hairy hot water bottles.
180 was at the well along with the goats and donkeys , XI and XII were far in the distance and baby hidden under a tree. Luckily the nomads were around and one set off to retrieve the pair heading for the mountains. We gave them all a drink at the well. Funny thing camels drinking. They suck, their necks like gigantic straws and 56 litres of water can disappear in an instant. Refreshed, we led them back to our resting spot. Yes, I am now a qualified camel herd. 'Hack hack hack' to make them come, 'Ooosh ooosh' to make them sit and a quick tug suffices to get them up again.. My goodness though, they dont half complain! 'Ooosh oosh' and a tug on the rope and they bellow like that big hairy thing in Star Wars, legs concertina in a most awkward fashion and they crash down with a thump. But after that, they grin, as though terribly pleased with themselves.
XI was bored and hungry. He loped around our rest camp like a pet dog. Spotting our slices of melon, he pretended to be eating the tree then swiftly stole them when he thought we were not looking. He plonked himself down by the fire and munched on the discarded tea leaves. Sandra even had him sucking water from a mug. This was a camel with character and has since been renamed 'Henry'.
When the sun was four feet from the horizon it was time to return to our camp. On arrival Henry made several attempts to raid the kitchen and tried to join us around the table. Sandra and I would have been happy with his company but the guides were having none of it. He was given a bucket of dates and sent off to roam the desert. No doubt to cause havoc with the local gerbil population.
Whilst dinner was being prepared we indulged in the luxury of a shower by gaslight. My soaking sarong used as a towel was dry in ten minues such was the heat that night. The wind picked up but it was still too hot to sleep in the tent. So, turbans wrapped tightly around our heads, we slept through the ensuing sandstorm.
The following morning we were heading to the fabulous Erg Chigaga. Used in films such as 'Mummy', its towering 300' dunes being everyones notion of deep sahara. There was a (thankfully) unoccupied tourist bivouac, the black tents perfectly contrasting against the bright orange of the sand. This was my romantic fantasy. Astride majestic camel, flanked on each side by black turbaned Berbers, silently and gracefully riding along the ridges. We dismounted and were offerred tea, but the call of the desert was too much for me, so I set off with bottle of water, wrapped in wet newspaper to keep it cool, to explore.
The sand was like hot coals spilling into my shoes. I climbed the biggest dune I felt I could manage in the unrelenting heat and sat, immersing myself in the immensity and solitude of it all. Words cannot describe how I felt whilst sat there, at one with the universe and at peace with the world.
'Holy shit' I thought, nuff of that! Lit a fag and came down. I could see our guides looking for me so I started heading back. Nice cup of coffee and I was back to normal. The camels had been returned and we were collected by a 4x4 to while away the afternoon at another oasis before heading back to Zagora and the almighty Hassan.
The following day we were packed off with Su'ad, the cook, for a hammam. To 'rid ourselves of the desert'. Luckily Lonely Planet had graphically described the process so I had a fair idea of what was to happen, but nothing could have prepared us for the indignity of it all!
Stripped off to our bikini bottoms, we were led through to the hottest of three large tiled rooms. Knelt on the floor dousing ourselves with warm water, Su'ad proceeded to wash my back with the thick, tar like, black soap. Next thing I knew was being thrust backwards into her enormous bosoms and every inch of me was scrubbed. I felt like a child again, pulling faces as she washed inside and around my ears. A coarse scouring pad was used to slough off the dead skin and she delighted in showing me the black lumps that were dropping off me. Sandra sat there speechless, her eyes filled with fear. She was next. Afterwards, we rinsed off and cooled in the anti chamber. All dignity now down the drainpipe, we felt invigorated and, above all, clean. I have never felt so clean. No moisturisers or creams, our skin was silky soft and glowing.
Hassan made us feel so at home at the empty Kasbah, the staff treating us as members of the family, we decided to stay. The hot smelly bus and the windswept beaches of Essaoura that we had planned, could wait for another visit. We treated the place like home, helping ourselves and helping out in the kitchen, whiling away the sweltering evenings drinking chilled wine, devouring magnificent tagines and the fluffiest couscous imaginable, chatting till the wee hours with Hassan and his friends.
One evening Su'ad suprised us by inviting us to a wedding reception. This was held on the roof of an unfinished building. We wern't quite sure what to expect as we ascended the concrete stairs, dodging the rubble, but the whole area had been adorned with rich rugs and tapestries. Around a hundred women in brightly coloured clothing were sat around, some playing drums, others singing. We were the only foreigners there but everyone made us welcome.A group of male musicians were allowed in and somehow played the most enormous pipes I have ever seen. They must have been at least 10 feet long! More singing and dancing ensued. We were given a plate of pastries, beautifully tied up with cellophane. we devoured these instantly having missed lunch that day. Then tables started appearing. ladies came round with an enormous kettle and washed our hands. Oh oh, we were going to be fed. Huge platters of whole chickens cooked with olives and pickled lemons were brought out, everyone diving in with hands and chunks of bread. Platters of meat cooked with prunes followed and we were well and truly stuffed! The women packed meat into bread, wrapped it in serviettes and secreted the packages in their clothing. We were mortified! But apparantly that is the norm, the food taken home for the husbands or children unable to attend. When all the food was gone...everyone went home! It was a strange affair but we were deeply honoured to have been allowed to attend such a private event. We had been strictly instructed not to take our cameras, but I will never forget the bright colours, the relaxed and open atmousphere of the women together..and all that food!
Days were spent either wallowing by the pool or in the company of Zayed, our personal guide, visiting the palmeries, markets and ancient Berber villages. Hassan continued to bring us gifts. A whole array of beauty products made from roses grown in the mountains, precious argan oil and blocks of perfume smelling like paradise itself. He would jokingly call us his harem and it was hard not to be seduced by his Barry White with an accent voice. He made us feel so very special and at the same time, protected. He would translate the news on the radio, explain local customs and teach us the history of this mysterious land. He, along with Su'ad, Zayed and Hammah have become firm friends and there were tears all round when we left.