On the first day, as we approached the city of Midelt, we saw guards and police officers stationed every few hundred yards from each other on both sides of the road for miles. There were also army and security personnel walking through the fields, standing in front of houses and village shops and even standing on the rocky crags on the sides of the road. Red Moroccan flags were posted in even intervals along the road to Midelt as well
. It turned out that King Hassan VI was in Midelt that day and his entourage was going to be leaving to return to Rabat or Fez and these measures were taken to ensure his safety on the way. What it meant to us is that we could not stop at any markets or rest stops because this was forbidden when the king would be travelling! After we left Midelt, we were able to find a restaurant that was open for lunch - it was done up in true Kasbah style with ornate couches and a fellow in full Berber dress plucking a three stringed instrument. .
At dusk, we pulled over to watch the sunset on the Sahara Desert - it was such a peaceful and serene experience. Later, we moved on in darkness to our hotel, which was quite a treat! It was a red mud exterior that looked like a movie set - almost like the facade of a castle in the desert but inside was a lovely courtyard, a pool and basic rooms surrounding the pool. We were welcomed by the hotel manager with Moroccan mint tea in the courtyard and after we stored our bags, we met for a traditional couscous meal (chicken, boiled root vegetables and couscous).
The rooms in this hotel had a bed and shelf as well as a basic bathroom but they did not have a TV, phone or radio. It was the quietest sleep I've had in a long time - the silence in the desert is absolutely all-encompassing - there wasn't a sound to be heard
In the morning, we got up before dawn and left in 4x4's to go to the sand dunes in the Sahara Desert to watch the sunrise. That was so amazing. We trekked up some high dunes (slogging uphill through sand is quite a work-out at 6 AM by the way) and stood at the crest of the dunes while the sun rose and turned the sand from a gray color to almost a salmon shade. It was one of those once in a lifetime moments that was so incredible to experience. It was cool up there on the dunes so early in the morning - probably at or below 10 degrees. When we got back to the hotel an hour or so later, we had a light breakfast (bread, olives, cheese, boiled eggs, coffee and juice) and hoped that the water had been turned on (there was no water before we left for the dunes). Luckily, there was hot water galore and after we all freshened up, we were on the road again.
The second day in the desert was also cool (but hot). We stopped to see how irrigation systems were set up to accommodate the people who lived in that region (using wells) and we stopped at a nice restaurant for lunch, sitting outside in a garden terrace. From there we took a walk through a palmery (garden area or oasis) that included lovely gardens and orchards in the valley of the Todras Gorge.
It was a hot afternoon but it was an easy walk and we enjoyed seeing the Berber women working in the gardens and leading their donkeys through the area to carry the produce home. We drove further into the Todras Gorge and were surrounded by tall, imposing red walls of rock. This evening we stayed in another Kashbah hotel in the desert in the town of Boumaine Dades. I took a walk to the nearby town square with a few other girls from the tour group at dusk and it was quite an experience to be down there at that time of night. We stood out as Westerners in this small town and we were harrassed and followed by a couple of locals who wanted us to come to their shops to look at their goods. We managed to shake one of them eventually but we were really relieved to see our guide, Yacine and our bus driver, Mohammed down at the cafe in the square. Along with a couple of other girls in the group, we sat together and they drove us back to the hotel for supper. The locals were not sinister in any way and they didn't mean any harm, but it can be very uncomfortable to be continually harrassed and to have someone not take 'no' for an answer. More local tagine and fresh fruit for supper and an early night in another basic room with limited Western amenities but another completely silent and sound sleep (is that an oxymoron)?
Breakfast at the hotel in Boumaine was set in a jaw-droppingly beautiful area
. Our hotel was on a hill and the patios and decks overlooked a beautiful valley with a river, palm trees and lush greenery as well as the red buildings and houses and mosques surrounding us. After breakfast, we drove through more of the desert surroundings to Ait Ben Haddou, an incredible Unesco Heritage site which is a town centred around a wonderfully preserved Kasbah (fortified village or settlement). It was a collection of red clay buildings built on a hill that is quite startling to see across a small river from the town. It is so historical and well maintained that it has been used in many movies such as Gladiator, Alexander, the Prince of Persia and Lawrence of Arabia. We walked over from our hotel in the town and passed camels resting on the river bank, then made our way across stepping stones in the river to the Kasbah. There had been hundreds of people living in the Kasbah over the years and it was a vibrant settlement, but now, only 5 families remain there and they commited to live there for the rest of their lives. We walked along the narrow circular streets that wound up the hill to the very top for a wonderful panoramic view of the surrounding area. Yacine took us the see a cave that was used in the making of movies such as Gladiator and the owner of the cave room was proud to show us some of the props used in making the movie such as a shield and swords as well as many teapots and decorative items that are still there. We also went to visit the oldest woman who lives in the Kasbah (she doesn't remember how old she is) and we felt honored to be her guests for Moroccan tea in her salon within the Kasbah where she resides with her husband who is very old and infirm
. After another tagine supper, we again had a peaceful night in the desert in another basic hotel.
It seems that breakfast goes down so much better with an incredible view and this morning, we went to a rooftop terrace that overlooked Ait Ben Haddou to have our coffee and bread. The red buildings in the early morning light were absolutely luminous. It is easy to see how people are enchanted by the desert people and surroundings - it is truly a spell-binding place. We spent the morning today driving through the Middle Atlas Mountains on our way to Marrakech. The views from the high elevations of the switchback roads and surrounding mountains was both scary (the view straight down was dramatic) and fantastic (the colors of the mountains ranged from brown to black to white to red). We arrived in the truly beautiful city of Marrakech after lunch but more on that in the next installment!
Pardon me if my writing is a little dry, but I've been in the Sahara Desert for the past several days! We left Fez three days ago and drove for 12 hours to reach the desert. Along the way, we went through many towns and villages and saw such wonderful sights such as women carrying bundles of sticks on their backs, local village markets along their main streets, goat herders, camels, locals leading or riding their donkeys and children skipping to and from school or riding their bicycles together with their arms draped over each other.