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Sahara, Morocco

Ah, overnight buses. I won't be upset if I never have to do one of those again. Danny woke me when we arrived at our destination, Rissani, so I must have had some sleep but I'm not sure it was very much. It was still dark (about 6:15 am) and our lift hadn't arrived yet so we (plus Said) ordered tea in a cafe while we waited. Moroccans are obsessed with tea, so much so that they call it Moroccan or Berber whiskey. Wherever we go, there is tea. So we drank tea, although this wasn't as nice as tea we had tasted previously as there was no mint in it.

 

Our lift finally arrived and transported us out to our hotel in the Sahara. There was a fantastic sunrise on display out the car window but I was too tired to be amazed. The route we drove in on was called the 'black desert' and we could see that it was just gravel-type rock over the top of the sand (pretty ugly really). We checked in to the sand-coloured Kasbah hotel, located at the foot of several sand dunes with no road in sight, and headed straight to bed.

We awoke around midday, still groggy, devoured our leftover food and water then went to see what was going on. We took a mini tour of the hotel (which involved walking up to the roof to look at the view then back down again), then we were free to wander around by ourselves. We walked a little on the sand dunes, some of which was hard, compact sand and some of which we sank down to our knees. I was fascinated by the sand dunes, watching how the wind changed the ripples in the sand. The only downside was that the weather had turned bad – the wind had picked up and the skies became dark. So we just lazed around for the rest of the day until it was time to head out on our camels to our campsite. There were supposed to be six others coming with us but they bailed because the of the terrible weather. We decided to stick with it. Still not sure it was the right decision.

Before heading out we had to dress the part: turbans. Our heads were wound with long scarves, more to keep the sand out of our face rather than as a fashion statement. We were allocated our camels, climbed aboard and led out by our camel driver, Mohammed. The wind didn't get any better for the hour and a half trek through the desert. There were times when I was sure we would all be blown over, especially going along the ridges of the dunes, where the camels frequently slipped. At one point we needed to jump off the camels so they could climb up the dunes without us weighing them down. We eventually made it safe and sound to camp with no disasters to speak of.

The Berber village we arrived in was a series of tents, mostly for tourists but Berber people lived out there too. We were given our own tent with candles and a low dining table set up outside. There was only one light, located outside, which was handy as all the moths were attracted to that rather than us. The wind died down soon after arriving, which gave us the opportunity to walk up a massive sand dune beside the tent while Mohammed cooked our dinner. It was way more difficult than we expected. We had climbed about three quarters of the way to the top when it started to rain, forcing us back down again (well, that's our excuse anyway) . The rain didn't last long but we weren't climbing back up again.

For dinner we ate soup, which tasted like cream of chicken soup with veggies, plus wild chicken tagine and a mountain of bread. It was amazing. Dessert was only fruit but we were so full we didn't need anything else. Mohammed brought out a few polished rocks and fossils, hoping we would pick a few pieces to purchase from him. Danny succumbed, choosing a piece that looked like a soap dish. Entertainment was provided by the half a dozen cats that were hanging around the light, trying eat the moths. Pity they didn't eat the dung beetles that were everywhere too (although there was so much camel poo around that they probably needed more dung beetles). We were also amused by the camels, their strange noises providing a soundtrack for the evening. There was no sunset or stars as promised by Said, but this didn't ruin our experience at all. Just after we laid down in bed we heard a local band start up nearby, playing a range of percussion instruments. It was a helluva lot better than those camel calls.

The next morning we were woken by our guide at 7 a.m. with the hope of seeing a sunrise. Unfortunately, it was still overcast with nothing but grey above us. We discovered that several people had arrived at the camp after dark and were trying to climb the dune we had attempted yesterday (far too energetic for 7 a.m. in my opinion). Only one made it, making us feel a little better about our lacklustre effort. Breakfast was "Berber whiskey", after which we saddled up and made our way out of there on our camels. On the way we stopped off near the top of a sand dune for almost great views over the desert. If only it wasn't so cloudy.

Back at the hotel a full breakfast was laid out for us: Moroccan bread (the round, wood fired bread we love), heaps of spreads, a boiled egg, cheese and orange juice. I was strangely excited at having a “normal” breakfast (except for the olives they also gave us - no thanks). Danny was even-more-strangely excited by butter, not having seen it for quite some time.

The day was spent on a 4WD tour around the sand dunes, visiting local villages. We drank tea at a Nomad village (although the Nomads didn't drink with us or even sit in the same room as us) followed by tea at a Touareg village (people from Sudan and Mali), who also gave us a live musical performance. Can't really say I enjoyed it that much but Danny felt a little sorry for them, so he bought their CD. The amazing thing about the village was that they had Western toilets and electricity, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We drove past dozens of small hotels, over sand dunes, along dried up river beds and through sand storms. If it wasn't for the weather the scenery would have been stunning. At one point we were within a few kilometres of Algeria, which wasn't our idea of fun as Morocco and Algeria don't really get along. 

 

Lastly we stopped off at the (largish) town of Rissani and ambled through the souk (market), which sold mostly food. There were animal carcasses everywhere and our tour guides decided that the perfect spot to eat lunch was in the middle of all the carcasses. Great. The food was actually really good; the guides visited a butcher to select the meat they wanted, which was taken straight off the animal, diced and mixed with herbs and spices. He then dropped the meat off at a "restaurant", where the meat was placed on skewers and grilled before being served to us with bread. Following the lead of our guides, we ripped off small pieces of bread, placed it around a cube of meat and stuffed it in our mouths. It was fantastic, sort of like a modified BBQ. On the way home we were taken via the obligatory commission store, which sold stacks of fossils that had been found in the desert, as well as jewellery, tea pots, tagines and other handicrafts. Not really our thing. 

After returning to the hotel we walked along the dunes for a while, before I decided to summit the highest dune. Danny couldn't be bothered, so he just watched me do it. At the top the sun had just set so the light was poor, plus it was still cloudy, hazy and windy so I couldn't actually see that much. Still, I felt pretty chuffed just to make it to the top, giving me more of a workout than anything else I had done in a while. I think it took about an hour to reach the peak and ten minutes to come down again.

Dinner was couscous, our first couscous meal of this local specialty since being in Morocco. It was served with veggies and meat (plus bread of course – always bread) and was quite tasty. They also brought us soup and a veggie ragout with egg. Our stomachs were at bursting point. We debated about, and of course caved in to, sampling a bottle of Moroccan "Kzar" red wine to go with dinner. The label didn't tell us anything: we had no idea what variety it was or even what year it was made. It was drinkable. Now we can say that we have tried Moroccan wine and we don't ever have to do it again.

We needed to catch an 8 a.m. bus the following day from a nearby town, so we were told to be up around 6 a.m. to be ready in time. We jumped out of bed at 6:15 a.m. to find there was no electricity, no water and no one to serve breakfast. At 7 a.m., after accidentally/purposely making lots of noise, someone finally got up to put some food together for us. At 7:10 a.m. our tour guide asked if we were ready to leave. We were halfway through breakfast, hadn't taken a shower and had no light to pack our bags. The next five minutes were a mad dash to throw everything in the car to get to the bus stop on time. We made it with a few minutes to spare. 

Our 12.5 hour bus ride turned into a 14 hour bus ride. At least during the day we could admire the countryside, unlike night buses where there is absolutely nothing to do if we can't sleep. Funnily enough we did sleep at little on this bus, which was made easier by the fact that we could stretch out as much as we wanted. The scenery changed several times, from sand dunes to rocky mountains to flat desert. Through the middle of the trip we drove through the High Atlas mountains and we could not believe what we were surrounded by: snow. There was snow in Morocco. In April. Lots of it. The mountains were covered in it and there was a fair amount alongside the roads too. I can now say that I have walked on the snow in Morocco. I bet most people can't say that and didn't even know that it was possible to say. We drove through it for about two hours, during which time the weather was freezing. Not what I expected for Africa.

 

What made our bus trip so long was that a truck had overturned on one of the icy roads. Apparently that happens frequently, which did not make us feel particularly safe as our bus driver liked to hurl us around the corners.  We were stuck waiting for the truck to be turned upright for about an hour, then it was a slooooow drive down the mountain. The wait was made slightly entertaining by a fellow passenger, who decided to go through every piece of Australian slang he had ever heard. It was quite funny to hear the phrases in a Moroccan accent.

The scenery across the whole trip was beautiful, and not only due to the snow. For much of the way the water in the rivers was a bright red/brown colour, which stood in sharp contrast against the snow. Small waterfalls poured out of the mountains at regular intervals. Watching the scenery at least took our minds off the crazy driving. At one point we stopped for lunch, which for us was once again grilled meat with bread, sprinkled with cumin. Not quite as good as yesterday's meal at the market.  At another stop Danny decided he wanted a bag of peanuts. I never thought I would hear those words come out of his mouth. So off he went and bought a bag of peanuts, still in their shells. And he enjoyed them. Amazing.