Over the Atlas to the Sahara

Picture stop somewhere in the Atlas mountains

Picture stop somewhere in the Atlas mountains

On Thursday morning it took a while until the drivers had ushered us into the right tourist busses in Marrakech. We seemed to have landed in the only group that was mixed with old and young people. A few German and Dutch people and an Italian/Polish couple. Then we were off on a long drive through the Atlas mountains. The highest point we passed was 2200m and there was snow too. It reminded me of pictures I had seen from Nepal. The highest mountain in Morocco is Toubkal with a little over 4000m. There even is a skiing region near Marrakech.

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We stopped a few times after narrow bends (dangereux virages) to take pictures. At one point I saw a truck with a huge dust cloud coming around the next corner. I thought it would be a good idea if we all slowed down a little. Which our driver did in the next moment when he stepped on the emergency break and we were all hanging in our seatbelts (yes, so far all the cars here had seat belts and they made sure you wore them too). For a moment we saw nothing but dust. The truck had passed us but when the dust was gone too we saw that we were about 5cm from the car in front of us. They hadn’t been as lucky and had crashed a huge hole into the car in front of them. We all started breathing again and when we were sure that everything was ok, we drove on. Apparently, we had lucked out with the driver we got again. We drove on to our first castle, Kasbah Ait-Ben-Haddou. The sight of this was awesome. A lot of cute built clay houses. They have to take care of these mud houses all the time that they don’t get destroyed by the weather. Again, a guide imposed his services upon us but at least this time he was friendly and so we learned some things about the castle for 25Dh. However, first we had to cross the river by jumping from rock to rock, which was fun (on our way back, we took the bridge). The houses pretty much had one goal, to keep the cold inside and protect from enemies. Therefore, it was quite chilly and dark in there. I liked them much better from the outside. Many movies like Gladiator and Prince of Persia were shot in this town.

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Later, Johannes and I had lunch in the shade of a building and then I walked around the small “modern” village to find an avocado juice. The people here were a lot friendlier and actually wanted to talk to you without getting money from you somehow.

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We drove on to Ouarzazate, the film mekka of Morocco. Unfortunately, the big part of my travel group was not interested in paying the 50 Dh to go visit the film studios. It would have been very interesting to see for example Cleopatra’s film set. Then we spent another few hours driving past a 1000 different kasbahs. I’m not kidding, there were so many. If you like castles, you have to drive through this area and look at all these amazing formations built out of clay.

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Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Here even the normal villages seem more proper than up north. I felt myself relax and think that here I would like to see more off. We continued through the pretty Valley of Roses and then entered the windy curves into the Dades Gorge. Luckily, our driver really seemed to know every bend and everybody in our bus appeared to have a strong stomach. Since we had booked the cheap tourist tour, I also expected that we would stay in a cheap hostel. Therefore, I was surprised when we stopped in front of a nice looking building and then even received a real hotel room with a private bathroom. We were surrounded by the walls of the gorge and always heard the splatter of the river that ran through it. After arriving, everybody was drawn to the warm fireplace in the dining room, where we hungrily waited for our dinner. First there was soup with a typical Moroccan taste, which we had to eat with a big wooden spoon. Then followed a huge pile of couscous with vegetable and chicken with a fresh orange for dessert. Everybody was satisfied and then we finally had time to get to know some people from our group a bit better.

 

Dades Gorge

Dades Gorge

Although there was a heater in our room and I had two thick blankets, I cannot say that I was exactly warm but I slept really well despite that since I wasn’t woken up by a singing muhezin or other noises this time. In the morning, it sounded as if it was raining but it was probably just the river. When I got up, I realized that it actually was raining pretty hard but that didn’t further bother us, while we were eating delicious Berber pancakes for breakfast. Again, we boarded the bus to wind our way back out of the gorge and soon there were blue holes in the sky and the warming sun came out. We drove past great plains, old volcanoes, goats and camels. Unfortunately, the sunshine didn’t last long and so at our first stop in the Todra Gorge, we got soaked with rain. I hoped that the clothes would dry until the evening, when we would spend the night in the Sahara. Before we could actually enter the gorge, we had to watch a demonstration of how they make carpets in a carpet factory. Then we finally went to the gorge across very muddy and slippery paths. The Todra Gorge with its high walls to both sides was an awesome place! I would have loved to stay there longer and in dry weather tried climbing (there was a via ferrata too) but of course then we were in a rush again and had to leave after about 10min.

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Then followed a lot more driving with a lunch stop at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. After that we drove to a camel farm in an oasis near Merzouga, the door to the Sahara. Everybody got their own dromedary and it lifted itself up in that funny way. Like a real caravan we rode into the sand dunes. It looked quite funny. The sand dunes looked beautiful, especially in the setting sun. We rode for what seemed like an eternity (about two hours), which was too long for my butt and my legs. I have to say that riding the elephant in Chiang Mai was much more comfortable than riding this dromedary. Plus, I had more confidence into my gentle elephant. These camels here didn’t like it too much when you wanted to pet them. Anyways, Jimmy Hendrix carried me to the Berber tent camp where we would spend the night.

On the high dune

On the high dune

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Firstly, we started climbing the huge dune that was next to the camp. That was hard work because with every step you took, you sank down in the sand again at least half way. But the view was amazing and it was cool to stand on what seemed like an almost vertical hill. I think it will take me years to get rid of every grain of sand that is sticking to my body now.

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We jumped down the dune in kangaroo jumps and then I tried myself at sandboarding for a while before it got too dark. I actually liked that much better than snowboarding, because you couldn’t hurt yourself in the soft sand. Unfortunately, carrying the board up the hill was extremely tiring.

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Luckily, dinner was served soon after that, since I was starving again. There actually was a nice tent with tables and guess what? It was almost warm inside the carpet tent. We had another chicken/vegetable tajine with rice and bread. After dinner, we enjoyed the stars. We could see the milky way, a few really bright stars and I saw two shooting stars but unfortunately it was a little cloudy. It didn’t match the amazing star filled sky that I saw in the Whitsundays. One of the Berber said that for the stars, the best time to come to the desert is August. After a cup of tea with the guides in the kitchen tent, we tried to get some sleep in our colorful 5 bed tent. The cots were rather hard and of course it got freezing again, so I didn’t mind that we had to get up early to ride back to the oasis during the sunrise. That camel ride was beautiful, since it can be extremely silent in the desert. But again, my body was glad when we could get off the saddle back in the oasis 🙂 We had another delicious breakfast with Berber pancakes and marmalade. Everything that has fruit in it here tastes amazing!!

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Then we were off on the looong drive back to Marrakech already. The different landscapes we saw were amazing! There were many green fields with palm trees, canyons and gorges in different colors. Of course we had to get back across the Atlas mountains and believe me, the windy roads on Swiss mountains are nothing compared to here. So many curves next to such steep cliffs and always up the hill and then what it seems, back down into the valley again. A motorcyclists dream. We were thinking about starting a fund for a tunnel. But our driver did a great job and after a lunch and a few toilet breaks, we arrived in Marrakech 12hours later. The plan was to go to Essaouira directly, however we moved this journey to the next day and enjoyed a good meal that wasn’t tajine or couscous and had one of the most needed showers of our lives 🙂

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