Day Three – Sunday March 24
Now, the Marrakech portion of our trip I had planned on our own, however, I used Blue Men of Morocco (http://www.bluemenofmorocco.com/web/) to help organize the rest of the trip. I was not willing to just wait until we got to Marakkech to find someone to take us to the desert, and at the time of planning I also wanted someone who had a website. I originally chose Blue Men because they had a good website and I liked the fact that Elena, the owner was American, although she now lives in Spain. Her husband was Moroccan (although they are no longer married). I also had the opportunity to talk via e-mail with the mom of another family who used Blue Men of Morocco for their trip the previous June, and they were very happy with them. Elena was always very prompt in returning all my e-mails and happy to answer all of my questions. I was very happy with the places that she had recommended we stay in and really enjoyed our camelmen as well as our guide in Fez – all things that she planned. We especially loved our driver Zaid. He was great with the kids, knowledgeable, always took us to good food, didn’t mind we always left about 1/2 hour later than he wanted and made good time on the road!! When you spend so many hours in a car with someone it is important to have a good driver!!!
We had planned to meet Zaid, our driver from Blue Men of Morocco, at 10:00am. It was a bit cooler this morning so we ate in the courtyard rather than on the terrace.
Zaid couldn’t park too close to the riad, so they hired a man with a cart to carry all our luggage. Quite a scene! I wasn’t sure what kind of car we would be driving in for the next five days, boy were we relieved to see a fairly new Toyota Landcruiser!!
We had about a four hour drive from Marakkech to Oazarzate where we would be staying for the evening. We drove through the High Atlas mountains on a very curvy road. We had beautiful weather. It was very interesting country with a lot to see. We saw people herding sheep, women carrying large sacks of wheat on their backs, and women and girls doing the laundry in the river.
Zaid stopped for lunch in a little outpost of a town in the High Atlas. This was the first moment where I really felt like “We’re not in Kansas anymore”. Things were a bit dirty, and the toilets a bit grim (I decided I could wait….), but the food was actually very good. We all had excellent brochette (grilled meat) and we all agreed that they had the best mint tea we had had so far.
We did stop and take some pictures of Ait Benhaddou. I had planned on going in, but we were all beat and ready to crash at our new riad. We also passed by the movie studio in Ouarzazate – pretty cool!
We arrived at Le Petit Riad (www.lepetitriad.com) about 4:00pm. It is a lovely riad with a particularly nice outdoor patio and pool.
The owner is French, very nice, but really limited English. Zaid said he would take us to see a bit of Ouarzazate, but it was quite warm, so we all just decided we would like to rest out in the sun. We changed into our bathing suits and relaxed by the pool.
Once the sun started to set we moved to the terrace on the roof, but soon it got very windy so we went inside. We had two rooms right across from each other. They were large rooms painted in bright colors with large bathrooms decorated in brightly colored tiles. There was just one French couple staying there as well.
Dinner was at 8:00pm in the riad. By now it was dark and the riad did not have a lot of bright light except for in the bathrooms. We did have our best Moroccan dish here, pastille with chicken. It is a pastry dish with ground chicken inside. The top of the pastry has powdered sugar and cinammon – it was delicious. She also served lamb tangine, and for dessert we had fruit and this pastry that was shaped like a pretzel but not as hard and covered in honey.
The wind howled a bit, and the beds were quite hard (even I thought so) but we really enjoyed our stay at Petit Riad and would highly recommend it for a stay in Ouarzazate.
Day Four – Monday, March 26
The plan was to leave about 8:00am (it was more like 8:45am when we got on the road) so we had a nice breakfast out on the patio. Mostly bread and jam with orange juice – typical desert breakfast.
Back in the car and on our way to Merzouga and the dunes!! We stopped at Dades Gorge on the way, which was very pretty. A young boy kept trying to give me a little thing he had folded from a green stalk. I kept telling him “no money” which was true as Stephen had all the dirhams and he had gone to get some water. He said, “it is a gift from me to you” and stuck it in my hand. I said “thank you” and then he started saying “ now a gift from you to me”. I explained to him that I really didn’t have any money with me. I decided to give him some money when Stephen returned, but the kid was nowhere in site.
We drove through Erfoud, which is a fairly large city and then stopped in Rissani for lunch at Kasbah Ennasra. It was an auberge and restaurant that had a pretty nice set up. We all had tangine for lunch. Lauren ordered the tangine kalia that was a specialty of the desert. It was grilled ground meat with eggs, onions and peppers. It was probably at this point that we began to get a bit tired of tangine, so it was nice to have one a bit different.
We drove about another 20-30 minutes to Haven La Chance (www.desert-hotel.com.) It is a desert auberge located right at the edge of the dunes. We had originally thought we would spend the night there and then do the next night in the desert, but Zaid thought it was best that we go tonight and spend the next night at the auberge so we could get an earlier start the morning we had the long drive to Fez. We agreed it was a good idea. Of course, we first sat and enjoyed mint tea.
After our tea it was about 4:00 and they said we needed to be on the camel by five in order to get to our camp before it was dark, so we quickly packed our bag with our long underwear and toilet paper and went out to meet our camels and camelmen. They were Assan and his helper (we never did get his name). Assan had been a camelman for 15 years. We met our camels, I can not remember mine’s name, but Stephen’s was Sharif, Lauren’s was LaLaMerzouga, and Michael’s was Jimi Hendrix. Getting on the camel was not that hard but holding on as the camel got up from being down was sure fun!!
We started out on our two hour camel trek. Wow! As I said in the beginning of this report, it is truly amazing to realize that you are on a camel riding in the Sahara desert!! We never saw any other camel riders but did see a beautiful sunset. We arrived at our camp about 20 minutes after sunset so it was a bit dark. The night was beautiful, however. There were so many stars in the sky and Lauren, fresh from a moons unit in Physics explained that the moon was a waning gibbons. There were three tents – one we ate dinner in, one we slept in and the middle one was where Assan and his helper ate and prepared our meals. It was almost warm enough to sit outside for dinner, but not quite for me (I am always cold!!)
First, of course, we drank mint tea with Assan and toasted our journey. Then we were served the Moroccan salad with chopped tomatoes and onions that I loved!! Assan served us tangine Kalia that Lauren had earlier that day for lunch. The only problem was when he served it, the egg on top did not look fully cooked through. (Now I digress, but the internet friend I had talked to about her trip with Blue Men, said the only problem she had is she thinks she ate a bad omelette in the Dades Gorge on their way to Merzouga and the night she was in the desert she got really sick. This being the case we were all particularly aware of not eating undercooked egg). We all kind of looked at each other. Thankfully, Assan said “Would you like me to cook the egg more – some people like it cooked more.” We all nodded our heads eagerly!!! We were also served a bowl of fruit and decided Morocco had the sweetest most delicious bananas we had every tasted. We really had a wonderful time at dinner. Just us, out in the vast desert reminiscing about our previous trips, about what we had experienced so far, and what adventure we thought should be next.
Well, no more putting it off, it was now time for me to attempt going to the bathroom in the desert. Just me and the dune. Did I mention earlier that I am not outdoorsy, don’t do the camping and backpacking things, so at the tender age of 42 this was my first opportunity – I will spare you the details but there was success.
We got ready for bed putting on our long johns and sweats. The tent had rugs down on the ground and we were each given a mattress, a pillow and two of the warmest blankets I had ever slept with. My two biggest concerns about the night in the desert were using the facilities, or lack thereof, and being cold. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about either one.
We settled down for our sleep. In the middle of the night it got very windy and the flap to our tent would open and the sand would blow in. We slept with our warm blankets covering our faces.
Day Five, Tuesday , March 27
Assan had asked if we wanted him to wake us up for the sunrise. Of course Stephen and I said “yes”. So at 6:00am he started clapping his hands to wake us up. The kids would have liked to sleep in a bit more, but they weren’t too keen on staying in the tent alone. Anyway, I explained this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the sunrise in the dunes of the Sahara!!! When we got up we noticed a small dune that wasn’t there the night before – created by the wind. We climbed about 1/2 way up a large dune near our camp (it is hard to walk up a sand dune!) and sat down just in time to catch the last part of the sun rising – incredible.
When we came back down Assan had set out a rug and our breakfast table in the middle of the camp with bread, jam, oranges and tea. Now it was daylight and we could see our camp and enjoy watching our camels as we ate breakfast.
Assan and his helper wrapped up the camp and “locked” the tents by putting stones in front of the flaps. We got back on our camels for the two hour trek back. My muscles were a bit sore from the ride the previous day. It helped to try to change position a bit, but Michael, being smaller was the only one able to do a full “criss-cross applesauce” on top of his camel. As we were packing up Lauren asked what time it was. I said 7:30am. She said “7:30am??!! What time did we wake up??” I had to break the news to her that she had just woken up at 6:00am.”
We left the camp about 7:45 am and arrived back at Haven La Chance at 9:45am.
We showered and got situated in our new rooms. Now this was the place that my son had dubbed “the jail” based on some of the room pictures on the internet. They were taken without a lot of light, so did look a bit dark. However, the place was really quite nice. The rooms were actually fairly large with a large bathroom. Nothing fancy, but plenty of space and the people who worked there were very nice. Some of the rooms have communal bathrooms (I took a peek, they were very nice), but they also have several rooms with en suite bathrooms which we had.
Now it was time to see a bit of Merzouga. First, Zaid took us to an area which he described as “the black village.” They also refer to them as the Bedouins. They traveled in caravans from Mali, but are no longer nomads. They live together in a co-op or association, about 200 of them. Zaid showed us the tiny little stone oven one woman uses to bake the bread for the entire village. From there he took us to a room where five men sang and danced for us, and had us dance with them as well. They perform Gnawa or Gnaoua music. It was customary for you to buy one of their CD’s after, which we did. The kids particularly enjoyed this.
As I mentioned, Elena, the woman who owns Blue Men of Morocco had married a Moroccan man. His cousin lives in Merzouga, and it was his home that we were headed to for lunch. We did not feel it appropriate to take pictures of them or their home, so I will do my best to describe everything. As much as I felt like Marakkech had taken me back in time, Merzouga really made you feel that way. We entered Ammar’s home, which like all the homes there were made with mud bricks and flat roofs. We walked into Ammar’s home and immediately entered a courtyard with a small fountain, but nothing else. Basically, his home looked very similar to the picture of the room I posted with the Gnaoua musicians. He took us up to the roof to see the whole village. Still very sparse.
Next, we entered the room where the table was set for lunch. There was no furniture in the room (actually we didn’t notice furniture anywhere), just a low wooden table at one end of the room with cushions all along both sides of the room. The only other thing in the room was the tv on a cart, decorated with brightly colored plastic flowers. We were greeted kindly by Ammar’s wife and daughter, but they pretty much kept to themselves. Ammar was the talker of the family. His wife and daughter were watching tv. As we ate lunch other family members would come and go, watching tv, Ammar’s brother’s wife and her daughter and other neighborhood kids.
We were served Moroccan pizza, crust on the bottom, meat in the middle and crust on the top, no plates or utensils. We would each just rip off a piece of the pizza and eat. An eleven year old boy’s dream!! We were also served a bowl of fruit.
After lunch Ammar took us on a walk of the village, showing us their irrigation system. Basically, each family had a plot of land with mud trenches around it. Each family is allowed water for two hours at a time. When it is your turn you break down the little mud stopper by your plot, and fill it in when your turn is done.
Next, Ammar took us to his shop – a rug shop!! A-ha!! Well, let’s see what he has. I must admit it was neat to shop in a village in the desert as opposed to the souks in Marakkech and Fez. More Berber bargaining and we got a toureg rug for the kithcen and a berber nomad rug that I have in our entry hall. The berber nomad rug was quite interesting as it had some long strands of fringe on the side. These were used by the nomads to fold the carpet and use it as a bag over the camel. Then I asked him if he had any silver jewelry. He said he didn’t have a lot so he only took it out if someone asked for it. His helper brought out a chest and opened it. Inside were about five or six little cloth bundles. He opened them up and took out some jewelry. I purchased a bracelet and a necklace.
From there we went back to Haven La Chance. It was about 5:00pm so Lauren, Stephen and I rested while Michael played soccer with Abraham who worked at the auberge. Dinner was at the auberge. Despite Michael’s proclamation of love for mint tea at the beginning of the trip – today was mint tea overload (in the morning with breakfast, when we returned to auberge, with the Gnaoua musicians, at lunch, at the rug shop). Michael announced he would not be drinking anymore mint tea!! As, I stated earlier, as delicious as the food was, we were getting a little tired of tangine or brochette and I started to dream of the tapas I would order on our last night in Barcelona (we were flying home from Barcelona so would spend one last night there). After dinner the guys who worked there all played the drums and we joined in as well!
I must say the entire desert experience, camel ride, tents, Merzouga village, was definitely the highlight of the trip for us. I still think about it quite a bit. There is a lot of driving to get there and back, but it is worth it. My goal, if I am fit enough, is to return to the desert some day with my future grandkids!! As they say in Morocco “insha’Allah” translated – God willing.
Day 6, Wed. March 28
We woke up about 6:30am to get an early start on the long drive to Fez. Before we left La Chance, Abraham wanted to show us some of the fossils he had collected and had polished. We bought a few items and then said goodbye to all our new friends.
Read about the rest of the trip here: