Table of Contents
This week, discover our journey into the Sahara desert by
modern day camel where we visited a mine site, a traditional African music group, had lunch with nomads in the desert then went fossicking for fossils. We give you tips on the questions to ask at a camping grounds and the DO’s and DON’T’s if you are unfortunate enough to have an accident in Morocco!
Day 15: Still in Erg Chebbi; Monday 11 Feb
Hamid arrived promptly outside our motorhome at 10am for our desert tour with his enhanced camel, a 4WD Mitsubishi Pajero, and soon we were off to explore the Sahara. (For details of our camping ground see our Week 2 Morocco post). The first stop was at a rare Sahara lake about 2km west of Merzouga called Lac Dayet Siri which is home to a variety of waterbirds, including flamingos, although they are tourist shy and were sitting on the opposite side of the water to us. A lake vista was very unexpected out here in the middle of a desert and Hamid informed us that the lake shrinks and grows during the hot and wet seasons but it doesn’t usually dry up completely and is up to 4m deep in places. I was interested to learn that the summertime (July/August) is when they have the most rain.
A local chap arrived on a motorbike and proceeded to set up shop on the ground with the usual fossils, minerals, and small glass jars so we can collect some Sahara sand to take back home. Sadly for him, his efforts go unrewarded, this time.
Imagine These Two Photos In One Panoramic
The Lake of the Sahara
The next stop was at an operational mine site. Here they are mining for several different minerals including lead sulphide, which is used for making kohl; for eye makeup. Once again stalls are set up selling the rocks, minerals, fossils and jewellery made from these mineral elements. We were able to have a look at a lump of lead sulphide ore which was a glistening silver colour and was very heavy.
Our next stop is the black African village of Dar Gnaoua.
When slavery was abolished in Morocco under French rule, between 1912 and 1925, the local ex-slaves were offered the option of returning home or staying in the township of Dar Gnaoua, south of Merzouga. Many of the slaves had actually been sold by their families and knew no other life other than what they had in Morocco so they chose to stay and their descendants continue to live here. There are apparently other similar black African townships dotted around Morocco. The original mud and straw houses of the township have decayed and are now uninhabited but we wandered around to understand what it may have been like living here. The walls are thick and the air temperature inside is many degrees cooler than the outside temperature, making them bearable in the hot summer months, up to 60 degrees celcius.
We find it fascinating how these houses are constructed entirely from materials taken from the surrounding countryside and the environment immediately starts breaking them back down again to dirt and straw. Each heavy rainstorm or sandstorm erodes some of the structure until their owners build another home nearby and abandon the old one.
We’re off again, this time for a quick visit at the Dar Gnaoua, a traditional African music centre, which aims to preserve the inhabitants’ musical cultural heritage. We are offered mint tea and a seat while a smiling troupe of dark-skinned African men played their various traditional instruments (drums and castanets) and chanted to the captivated tourists while hoping to sell their CD’s for 100 dirhams each (€10 or NZ$15.40). The walls are adorned with a variety of percussion, stringed and wind instruments from various parts of southern Africa.
Being Entertained By A Traditional African Music & Dance Group
We’re in the camel, I mean 4WD again, heading closer to Algeria and learn a little about the border which is closely monitored by both the Algerian and Moroccan military. The 1,600km border was closed by the Algerian government in 1994 after Morocco imposed visa restrictions following a deadly terrorist attack in Marrakech. This has been disastrous for the nomadic Berber people who have always roamed far and wide across these lands as they search for water and food for their livestock. The closed border has shut down this traditional way of life and sadly separated many families.
The Algerians can look down from a mountain range over Morocco and the no-mans-land that separates these two once friendly nations. The Moroccan military has cameras on tall pylons to keep an eye on their side. We were told that there is actually a trench a couple of metres deep, dug right along the border.
Along the journey, we’re treated to the sight of shepherds, virgin sand dunes, flat lands with small volcanic black rocks (called the Black Desert), donkeys, camels, wells and the occasional tree that is eking out an existence in this parched place. Who would have known that a tree or two could be so photogenic but when surrounded by desert and with the Erg Chebbi sand dunes looming in the distance, everything looks amazing?
The highlight of the day was enjoying a very tasty lunch in the company of a Berber nomad family (or at least the elder male of the family) who have set up home in a collection of tents and mud buildings in the middle of nowhere. The women cooked the food then ate separately once everyone else finished.
We were given a tour through the mud buildings and were amazed at how cool it stayed inside which allows them to preserve food even in the hottest conditions – and without an
Modern technology has certainly made some changes to
Lunch consisted of a Berber pizza consisting of two pieces of
I thought back to some friends in Australia who paid good money to have a larger version of this set up constructed in their back yard. The Berber people would probably have a chuckle at that.
Cooking the pizza only took about ten minutes from whoa to go as the oven is amazingly effective and heated with just a few, but very hot, twigs.
In the traditional manner, our host served us lunch by tearing off pieces of the tasty pizza and handing them around to each of us. Coming from a country where food hygiene is seen as ultra important, it was a little disconcerting to see someone using their hands to serve you (we wondered had he washed them, was the water clean and germ-free?). However as the traditional saying goes, ‘when in Morocco…” and I am pleased to advise that the food tasted great and none of us had any ill effects, lol. Our host spoke no English, just a little French and is only fluent in their traditional unwritten Berber tongue. Our guide translated the conversation and we learned that our host is 51 years old and lives with his young wife and his son, with his son’s wife and their two children.
Nomadic Family Life
Our Berber Host
Next stop – fossicking for fossils. We literally walked up and down what looked like an old riverbed, obviously once underwater and were shown what to look for. We have a bag of rocks containing trilobites and other prehistoric goodies. We just need to figure out how to polish them now.
On our way back to the camping ground we drove past some movie sets that were used for the “Little Prince (Le Petit Prince)” movie, which is apparently famous in these parts but was unknown to us.
Hamid, who until now had been very restrained in his driving, seemed to decide that our group was up for a little Desert Ferrari driving and cut loose on the sand dunes with the Pajero like a mad man. That was a lot of fun as we slid around on the soft sand. I wonder if he also drives in the Dakar Rally?
Finally, we were taken to an area of sand dunes that were free of wheel tracks and footprints so we could get some photos.
This was a great day out and for just 1200 dirhams for the group which equated to €30 or NZ$46 per person, it was extremely good value for a tour from
Day 16: Erg Chebbi; Tuesday 12 Feb
Before we left the sand dunes I choose to wake up early and photograph the sunrise over the Sahara. It was my last chance, possibly in my life, to have this experience so I braved the cool desert air, wrapped up warmly in
The early morning light in the desert throws off different colours from yellows, oranges, pinks and blues all silhouetted by the dark sand dunes in the foreground. My camera isn’t as sharp as Alan’s Canon 700D but at least I got some nice photos.
My iPhone 6S Camera On The Left, Alan’s Canon 700D On The Right
Back at camp and it’s time for some girl time and shopping, so Helena and I wandered into the town of Et Taous to look at what the locals have on offer. We both purchased some gifts to take back home at a much lower price than similar items in the Fez Medina or Chefchaouen for that matter. We must have spent a lot judging from the huge smile on the shop owner’s face.
Happy Shopkeeper After A Big Sale!
Day 17: Tinejdad; Wednesday 13 Feb
Finally and sadly it’s time to leave Erg Chebbi.
Tip: Before leaving Erg Chebbi
Today it’s time for me to drive, just so I can keep my hand in and give Alan a break so he could better appreciate the views.
Hmm, I was thinking that this wasn’t such a good idea as we came through the town of El Jorf, near Erfoud. I’ll let you be the judge when you see the video of us driving through this town. There were people walking all over the road, the streets are narrow and cars seemed to wait for the most unlikely of places before squeezing past us.
Coming from a country where roads are intended primarily for cars, it takes a little getting used to driving where pedestrians, cyclists, vendors with carts, and donkeys all use the road with little regard for cars, or a
A Challenging Drive Through Town
One of the main tourist attractions along the R702 road to Tinejdad seems to be a major canal project and many enterprising locals have set up entrances to go down and see them.
We arrived at La Source de Lala Miymona, (GPS coordinates 31.4922, -5.1286) where we were able to park overnight after paying 50 dirhams each to visit the museum.
Zaid, (artist and owner) greeted us at the entrance and explained the museum has been his life’s work since 1973. The museum is built up around a freshwater spring which had been a watering spot for hundreds of years before becoming filled with rubbish falling into disrepair. Zaid has collected hundreds of traditional Berber artefacts and built traditional style buildings and walls to house them.
The springs have been cleaned and restored and he hopes the water will be drinkable again within the next year. One of the displays was a water clock which we had heard about. The water clock consists of a small, thin copper bowl with a tiny hole in the base, a container of water and a piece of dried reed. The copper bowl is placed in the water and gradually fills and sinks to the bottom. When sunk, the operator ties a knot in the reed and replaces the now empty bowl again on top of the water. This gives a measure of time depending on the size of the bowl and the hole in its base. This was used where there was a flow of water that could be directed, using sluice gates to different houses or irrigation channels. Each user would be allowed, for example, ten knots of time before it was someone else’s turn.
The Famous Water Clock
Day 18: Dadès Gorge; Thursday 14 Feb
We are constantly amazed by the ever-changing landscape of Morocco and the journey first up the Todgha Gorge and then to the Dades Gorge were no exceptions. The mountains, the shape of the rock formations, the vegetation was varied and a real feast for the eyes and a target for the cameras.
Betsy is Dwarfed in the Todgha Gorge
At Todgha we parked up as the road became very narrow and took to the bikes to explore deeper into the canyon. In hindsight Betsy would have easily driven through, however, being on the bikes lets us see more and it’s easier to stop and take photos.
A point in case is that on the bikes we came across a family, complete with goats, living in the caves high above the road.
Cave Living With Goats!
A Nice Way To Give Locals Money Is To Pay For A Photo
Our stopping place tonight was 28km up the Dades Gorge, opposite the La Gazelle hotel (GPS coordinates 31.52068, -5.93041), in their camper parking spot on the opposite side to the hotel. This was deep down in the gorge beside a river and under tall rock walls. The cost was 50 dirhams with no services and we were offered, but gently declined, a meal for half price in the adjacent hotel.
We were only two kilometres away from a much-photographed switchback road hewn from the side of the gorge and went in search of this experience the next morning. I was glad Alan was driving and there were no other vehicles trying to navigate their way up or down and around these bends at the same time as us. Betsy’s too fat to share such skinny roads.
An Interesting Drive For Betsy
Day 19: Ouarzazate; Friday 15 Feb
It’s on to Ouarzazate today where we found our way to their Municipal Camping Ground (GPS coordinates 30.9232, -6.88716). The cost was 90 dirhams for all services. There are lots of spaces but mostly they were full with the majority of campers being French registered (ours included, lol). We didn’t find out until we tried to shower later at night, but the shower water is solar heated which explains why we saw people heading for the showers in the middle of the day. Next time we check into a camping ground we will ask about the showers. Another thing to check at a camping ground is if they accept credit cards (most don’t) and don’t just expect if you see an EFTPOS machine it means that cards are okay. Also, small notes are often needed as we were nearly caught out a couple of times when reception claims to carry no change! Alternatively check out at the same time as others and they are bound to have cash then.
While on the subject of camping grounds, also make sure you carry toilet paper when heading into the toilets because most just don’t have any. Hand sanitiser is also a good idea and few toilets here have anything for drying your hands. The question of whether or not toilet paper goes in the waste paper big, as in Greece where it’s to be binned only, or down the toilet seems to depend on the location. I suggest to read the signs and if there are none check to see if there’s a bin in the toilet. If so, use the bin for toilet paper disposal.
Although tourists seem to be largely unaffected, Morocco is a police state. The camping grounds are required to have all paperwork fully and accurately completed. Alan travels with two passports and gave his NZ passport at check-in, however, he entered Morocco on his Irish passport. The receptionist looked for an entry number in his passport and got confused by his dual citizenship until he
Sadly we heard today that our friends have had an unfortunate incident when a lorry came around the corner, partly on their side of the road, and took out their wing mirror. Thankfully there was no other damage, however it gave them a fright. They have given us advice regarding what to do, and not do, in the case of an accident. Here’s what they told us…
If involved in an accident you must stop at the very spot where it happened. Do not continue to drive to the nearest place that it’s safe to stop as we did. Then phone 177 (if in the countryside) and get the police there.
Note; in the city centres, the phone number for the police is 112. Also, ensure you get the other vehicle’s registration number and photographs if possible – unfortunately, they didn’t.
Medical services can be contacted by calling 110 and fire services are reachable by dialling 15. Further research suggests that whilst waiting for the police, get witnesses details and take photographs of the scene as it’s been known that Moroccan drivers at fault in accidents soon drive away if the police have been called.
Our friends were told it will take 30 days to get a replacement wing mirror however a local handyman was able to fix up a makeshift replacement in just one day. Impressive! We have heard previously how helpful and resourceful the local service people are. We put this down to Morocco being a ‘fix it’ community instead of a ‘throw away society’ which seems to be the norm in most first world countries.
A Scarf Anyone?
Day 20: Ouarzazate; Saturday 16 Feb
We pedalled around the township on our bikes, mainly looking for a data top-up and some groceries. Most of the businesses were closed for the mid-afternoon siesta which supposedly runs from about 2.00pm to 4.00pm. In reality, this seems to be one of those ‘Inshallah’ (God willing) things where shops seem to open and shut semi-randomly.
We came across a supermarket that on the outside looked small and uninviting, however, the shops are often like a tardis that expands up beyond expectations once you enter. This one had a fresh meat counter, cheese and butter counter and a fruit and
Unusual Rock Formation
Day 21: Ait-Ben-Haddou; Sunday 17 Feb
The camping ground yesterday didn’t have a good vibe and we headed off in search of something special. Ouarzazate is well known for the Atlas Corporation film studios which have produced many well-known movies over the years (e.g. Gladiator, Jewel of the Nile, Cleopatra) as well as episodes of Game of Thrones. Although this is a big tourist attraction, it didn’t appeal to us.
We headed towards a UNESCO site called Ksar Aït Benhaddou also written as Aït-Ben-Haddou, about 30kms north west from Ouarzazate.
After parking up and paying 20 dirhams in the Kasbar Hotel guarded parking area we walked through the streets of the new Ait-Ben-Haddou township towards the historic fortified town across a shallow river.
Once again, Morocco is showing us something different and remarkable. This is a perfect example of Moroccan mud brick architecture with some of the buildings dating back to the 17th century. Ben Haddou used to be an important watering stop on the caravan route from Marrakech to the Sahara and was a significant establishment in its day.
The mud walls with towers contain an extensive collection of houses, shops and narrow stone-paved alleyways leading up to the hill with panoramic views across the countryside.
UNESCO Site Of Aït-Ben-Haddou
Top & Bottom
Entry is 10 dirhams each (€1 or NZ$1.50) and immediately a local man attached himself to us and began telling us about the history. It is obvious that he is intending to be our guide then will request an unknown fee at the end. We explained firmly that we did not want a guide and he left us alone to explore. This is definitely something to watch out for in Morocco. People
The narrow streets are lined with the usual assortment of shops and stalls selling brightly coloured rugs, scarves, ceramics, clothing, jewellery, artefacts, paintings and drawings. Only three families still live in the old town now and we can wander around freely, joining the millions of tourists who pass through each year.
Typical Street Of Aït-Ben-Haddou
We wandered through alleys, and in and out of buildings and rooms only to be met by a wide smiling young man who greeted us, explaining that we are in his home! Whoops, we were embarrassed that we had taken a wrong turn but he gently persuaded us to go upstairs to enjoy the view from his balcony. We accepted and pondered on life up here as we looked down on his sheep and goats on the next level down in his house. Said, the homeowner, soon joined us to explain that the animals and cooking facilities are always located on the first floor and the family has the two stories above. He uses his home as a guest house and manages a shop selling crafts, jewellery made by his sisters, and his own art.
Of course, we then followed Said to his shop where I purchased a traditional Berber necklace made of onyx, silver and ebony depicting the southern cross. As the Berber people typically travelled only at night and navigating by the stars, the southern cross was an important symbol and constellation for them. With my new purchase I won’t get lost on a clear night and will have good luck with me. How could I refuse to buy such an important piece of local craftsmanship?
Said Happy After His Sale
As we were walking out of the Ksar, we met Adrian from London who is celebrating turning 60 by riding solo on his BMW800 motorcycle from England to China, via Morocco. You can follow his travels on Instagram at ‘adrianfromlondon’ and tell him how you came about to be following him.
We spent the night back at the Kasbah Hotel guarded parking area (GPS coordinates 31.04221, -7.12981) for another 20 dirhams after Alan declined to give the guard his shoes or his shirt. We were rather glad we were guarded as we did see an unsavoury character looking rather interested in Betsy.
Costs for Weeks 1, 2 & 3
Some of week two’s camping ground costs, as well as our Sahara trip, were actually paid in week three, making this week look higher than it actually was. The costs show up when they are paid. I’ve excluded the costs for gifts from these figures.
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Join us next week to see the road less travelled (by tourists and locals) as we venture into unknown territory.
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