(Morocco Part III)
Have you ever had a moment? For me, it’s an otherworldly feeling and happens only rarely when a sight so transcends my normal, I can’t help but gaze with awe and wonder. Well, I had one of those in the Sahara Desert!
Leaving the intensity of Fes behind, we headed south in the Marrakech Express, our little Moroccan mini-van. To break up the long journey to the desert, we stopped in Midelt, a market town nestled between the Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains. The next day, we set off to wonderfully isolated Merzouga, just twenty kilometers from the Algerian border, to mount our trusty camels and ride into the Erg Chebbi sand dunes.
From the lurching back of Ali, my grumbling dromedary, the stark Sahara at sunset was surreal. All I could do was stare and savour, hoping to burn into my memory forever the stunning sight: undulating waves in an endless, empty sea of orange-golden sand. If a camel caravan of Arab traders returning from mythical Timbuktu (yes, there really is such a place) had appeared on the horizon, I would not have been shocked. In the presence of such timeless landscapes and raw beauty, it was one of those “Pinch me. Am I really here?” experiences - for me the highest reward of travel.
By the way, I now have a soft spot in my heart for camels. Their enormous heads, yellow, stalagmite teeth, doe-like eyes with enviably long lashes and their incessant drooling…I mean, what’s not to love? They are also endearingly noisy. They grunt, moan and sometimes their stomachs make this gurgling noise that sounds remarkably like a broken toilet overflowing. How adorable is that?
Clambering onto one of those ungulates is nothing like mounting a horse. There is a definite art to it. Ali was crouched on the ground when I first approached to introduce myself. She (at least I think it was a she) looked at me disdainfully and continued to chew her cud, so I swung my leg over her back.
Before I was even settled, she erupted upwards. Her back legs stood first, tossing me forward over her neck. The only reason I didn’t catapult headfirst into the sandscape was my near-death grip on the handlebar of the camel saddle. She then came up onto her front knees, which sent me backwards in the other direction and finally heaved to her feet. It was kind of like going 2.7 seconds in a bull riding competition, only even smellier. The dismount was the same, equally awkward, process - only in reverse.
That night in the desert, we stayed in a Berber-style camp. Over an hour on a camel has its bodily repercussions. To alleviate numb-bum and screaming adductors (thank you, Ali!), we hiked a couple hundred meters up a dune above the encampment and ran down the stomach-dropping, near 90-degree slope, thigh-deep in dry, sugary sand. We slept in tents, ate tagine (again!) prepared by our Berber hosts, sipped mint tea and smuggled spirits and danced to Berber music around the fire. Touristy, yes….but still priceless!
So mes amis, if you’re into the exotic and love lyrical landscapes and a compelling culture, add Morocco to your List. For the sake of brevity, I’ve omitted much about our wondrously intense adventure, but here’s just a few more of our mega Moroccan moments:
We walked through the Todra Gorge and hiked Moroccan backcountry in the M’goun Valley, where we were slept in a rustic Berber “Gite” with some genuine Moroccan bed bugs. When we got home, we left our luggage on the patio to freeze. If any of the little buggers were tenacious enough to catch a ride to Canada, I didn’t want them taking up residency.
Gale force winds almost blew us off the hilltop Ait Benhaddou, a massive 11th century walled red city and clay kasbah. If you think you recognize the place from my photo, you do. It’s where Lawrence of Arabia, Game of Thrones and Gladiator were all filmed.
The day before we were to drive to Marrakech, a storm blew through the High Atlas Mountains and washed out the roads. For hours, we were stuck enroute with the other stranded travellers while excavation equipment re-built what had slipped down the ravines and into the river. Our three-and-a-half-hour drive turned into a tiring, ten-hour slog through mud, rock boulders, snow and crumbling pavement. Hard to believe, days before we were in the desert.
In magical Marrakech, we wandered the old medina and dined (I use that term loosely) at a stall in the street food bazaar in the legendary square of Djemaa el-Fna.
I experienced my first hammam, an age-old Arabian bathing and cleansing ritual, where a big, bra-less, bather-woman stripped down to her serviceable, white, cotton knickers, then proceeded to steam, scrub, pummel and drown me, until every inch was pristine. I emerged with fresh, perfectly polished, post-facial skin…and not just on my face.
For us foreigners, this Moroccan way to get clean was puzzling. First off, the sexes were segregated to separate areas. Then, it seemed the process was divided into three steps: 1) becoming nearly-naked in an extra-hot steam room; 2) being lathered up with Morocco’s famous black soap and then scrubbed (called the “gommage”) with the traditional kessa exfoliating mitt to remove dead skin; and 3) for an invigorating finish, being immersed in water by the buckets full – one after another poured over the head.
Something might have been lost in the translation, but our bather-woman told us in broken English that if large quantities of dead skin cells were removed by the gommage, it means you are an exceptionally good human. I’m happy to report, I qualify! I’m pretty sure she took off a full layer.
On that squeaky-clean note, I’ll leave you with yet another Moroccan proverb:
“By all means, trust in Allah, but tie your camel first.”
Ma‘a as-salaama (goodbye) and ila-liqaa‘ (until we meet again), my friends!
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