First, Essaouira… second? Last time I recounted my lovely day by the sea. However, there are other places more associated with Marrakech than the sea: the mountains … and the desert. Buckle up or saddle up, off we go!
Despite my countryside upbringing, I’ve transformed into a serious city girl. Nevertheless, I am a faithful adventurer, whether it be an urban or actual jungle, well with limits.
During my research described in my last post, the first type of excursion that piqued my interest, and really made me ohhh and ahhh was a two-day trip crossing the Atlas Mountains, visiting the UNESCO world heritage medieval fortress Aït Benhaddou, taking a camel out into the desert and sleeping in a Berber style camp. In between cool fascination and insanity, those are my kinds of limits.
An even earlier start than the day before, I grumped down stairs at my shoddy riad B&B to be picked up at 7 am. This time there was less waiting around the minibus depot, and I was shuffled from the first bus into another containing a nice hodgepodge of mid-level adventurers from around the globe, though I wasn’t so sure the lively British girls wearing long flowing skirts and flipflops had fully understood what they’d signed up for. However, many of us would soon have the same inner sentiment…
Snaking out of the city’s chaotic streets we started cruising south along the highway: Marrakech-Zagora 360 kms. That didn’t sound too bad. What does 360 kms normally take? Four hours max? With our stop at the Kasbah and lunch in the middle maybe six? Those thoughts were soon dispelled as we started to climb, climb and wind up, up, up the Atlas Mountains.
You know those moments where you know you wouldn’t want your mother knowing what you were doing? Mine usually involve too much champagne, risks and romantic adventure. The only love affair I was having on this journey was with my seat, clutching it for dear life! The road was so windy… with very sporadic guardrails and our driver was a notch under ranging a road rage driver, somehow, thank Allah, that the only casualties we had were a two serious cases of motion sickness and not a busload of tourists plunged to the depths of the treacherous ravines! But boy, were the views beautiful… those that I caught from when I could bare keeping my eyes open from the fright!
I can’t remember exactly when I’d first seen images of Aït Benhaddou, but it stayed in my mind as a place I’d craved visiting. I guess it’s the historic romantic in me. I’d imagined what it would have been like wander a medieval town like this back in it’s heyday, bustling with street vendors, colorful robes, wafting spice aromas… This site is a ksars, a fortress, while a kasbah is a fortified building or a part of a city, usually inhabited by regional rulers (but if you’d like a musical soundtrack to carry on reading with, I couldn’t help humming the Clash’s Rock the Casbah over these two days).
I guess I’d been living too much in those lofty dreams because while it was very cool to have arrived, I thought we’d be able to wander around the laneways ourselves, instead we were stuck following around our monotone guide dressed up in Berber garb… I tried to tour on in my mind’s eye and seek out special details here and there which helped to revive the character of what is now practically a ghost town.
Over lunch I enjoyed some friendly conversation over not bad couscous with two couples from our group, sweet Australian-British newlyweds and cute Spanish-Ecuadorian lovebirds. We were all regretting having to get back into the busy, yet we were eager to get to our next activity: our sunset camel ride to the Berber desert camp.
I was finally dozing off in the bus when I was awoken by raised voices, what was going on? That didn’t sound like camel neighing (or whatever camel noises are called). I peeked out of one eye, that didn’t look like the desert either! It appeared to be a gas station, in a city. The increasing commotion eventually forced me to open both eyes properly. The police! After much bickering back and forth between the driver and the men in uniform, translated by the Arabic-speaking couple in our group, it seemed that the driver had stopped to let someone use the ATM (and let off the poor German couple, the woman too ill to carry on), but had illegally “parked” and didn’t have the car insurance on him! After two hours of sitting around in the bus either by the gas station, then outside the police station, we were beginning to be concerned about our overnight in the desert… We were a rather lighthearted bunch, nevertheless mutiny was brewing. Finally, as dusk and revolt were reaching their boiling points, they let us go, though there were no answer from the driver about the rest of our journey.
We still drove on for about an 1.5 hours. The bus was quiet, the mountains becoming less windy and gradually dimming into a light purple. Around 8 PM we reached Zagora, an oasis town at the edge of the Sahara (or so I’d read, impossible to tell what it was like in the dark). It seemed like we were still going to the camp, and still by camel… now under the moonlight. Well, to make “light” of the situation, I don’t think many people can say they’ve taken a moonlight camel ride, and with a full moon at that. It was rather comical in the end and the group had a good chuckle and lots of laughs around the dinner table. After eating we sat around the campfire with some music (see video). The crackling fire and the wide sky of bright stars reminiscent of childhood summer nights.
I’d heard that it gets quite cold in the desert at night, yet, it felt surprisingly mild. That was until the middle of the night when I woke up shivering, threw on all my clothes and fumbled around for an extra blanket. Morning came too soon, I really didn’t want to get up when I heard someone from our tent going outside. Missing sunrise would be a lazy shame, so for once I chose to get up at 5:30 AM and it was well worth it for the peace of the desert and the aura of shifting morning light dancing across the dunes.
After allowing us to have a slow start due to our late arrival of the previous evening, they also announced that we’d get a bonus of a longer camel ride back. Thirty minutes into our 1.5 hour journey left us all wanting to see our terrible white van on the sandy horizon, However, I don’t know when I’ll get to ride a camel again … and if there is a next time, I’ll need to take in the sunset if it’s anything like the sunrise. In the meantime my horizons are bound to lead me to equally exciting adventures, let’s hope without the curving ride and police!