Camel Caravans

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Friday, December 2, 2005

Then it was on to the desert via the Middle Atlas Mountains (Morocco's greatest mountain range with more than 30 peaks over 4,000 m) and the Ziz (meaning "Gazelle") Gorge. We will be getting around the next 10 days or so in vans driven by Abdel and Ibrahim. The vans have no heat, no fans (which presents a problem for visibility because it is cool outside and the windows keep fogging up) and no air conditioning - which isn't a problem this time of year! Of course our group of five keeps getting relegated together in one van, but we've been trying to change that a bit so we get to know the others on the tour.

En route we stopped to see the Barbary Apes which are actually not apes but monkeys. We could see frost on the nearby hillsides and, even though there was enough snow for a snowball fight, we are glad the weather is now sunny and clear after the torrential downpour that we experienced on Day 2 of the tour! We had lunch in a restaurant in a riad, a walled compound with an open centre. Along the way we passed many shops selling various rocks and fossils.

About 45 minutes prior to our destination, "Auberge Yasmin", a riad near Erg Chebbi (not far from the Algerian border), we left the paved highway to travel on "hammada" or stony desert, a rough sandy track marked at various points with rocks. Poor Arlene came down with the flu on the way and I'm sure that last three-quarters of an hour was pure torture. Yuri was also not feeling well.

We have all been wearing layers of clothes since with weather is warm during the day but cold at night (as is travelling through higher elevations). It seems that everyone is continually stripping off or putting on clothes as the temperature changes dictate. At the auberge most of us slept in Berber tents and it was mighty chilly. (I even went out and purchased gloves in Fez, as well as long underwear for both Martin and me.) Most everyone struggled to stay warm through the night. One thing about sleeping in the desert - you never have trouble getting out of bed in the morning!

The Moroccan/Berber food is a culinary experience. Like Middle Eastern food, the meal features meat, bread and usually some sort of appetizer, such as olives. Common dishes include beef/lamb/chicken brochettes (kabobs), tajines (food steamed in a conical clay pot), couscous (semolina), as well as beef kefta (meatballs) or kahlia (diced beef and eggs in a tomato and onion sauce). (Pigeon and camel are also eaten in Morocco, but it's very unlikely you'll catch me trying either of those!) The French influence means that the bread is usually good (often baguettes) and cafe au lait is often available. Freshly squeezed orange juice and sweet mint tea are also readily available to diners. Though the beer and red wine produced in Morocco is quite acceptable, it is not often on the menus in most restaurants.

Our first full day in the desert we were taken on a brief tour by "Black" Hassan. (There are three Hassans at the camp, so this is how they refer to him.) We visited the local wells, an oasis and a Berber village. Children followed the group everywhere, hawking necklaces, dolls and toy camels. An oasis is a green area in the desert where plants and trees grow in abundance; as you enter the greenery you can feel the cool, moist air that must be such a relief in scorching 50C temperatures! In this particular oasis, they have date palms, grain crops (wheat and two types of alfalfa - one for livestock and one for human consumption) and various vegetables. Sandra told us there used to be a large lake in this area where flamingoes nested in abundance but with droughts over the past few years it has completely dried up. Sand fences catch the drifting sand, just as snow fences help stop the snow at home.

Traditional Berber dwellings are flat-roofed tan coloured buildings made of mud, stones, straw, lime and gravel, often with brightly trimmed doors/windows and wrought iron shutters. These sort of structures require vigilant maintenance as they tend to disintegrate in the heavy rain. (Not that it rains much in the desert!) Many of the Berber are Gnowa, descendents of slaves brought from various parts of Africa. While in the village we were entertained by a group of Gnowan musicians, Les Pigeons du Sable (The Sand Pigeons); their music is mainly vocals with percussion (drums and castanet-like instruments called "nakkous").

Later that day, we left for the desert - Morocco's only genuine Saharan "erg" (huge drifting expanse of sand) - in the fast-retreating sun, the glow creating a beautiful golden light on the desert sand and the most magnificent long shadows. Unfortunately, Arlene and Yuri were not feeling well enough to come along; Jody, as well, decided to stay behind.

Riding a camel is not that different from riding a horse, just a little slower. They plodded along, the tail of each animal tethered to the muzzle of the next in line. Camels have large fat deposits on both their feet and humps which helps them retain water; the fat in their feet make it easy for them to walk on sand, much like we would do with snowshoes in the snow. The also have long ear hair and eyelashes to protect their ears and eyes from the sand.

It was about an hour's ride to camp and we arrived just in time to climb the big dune to see the sunset. Thought the sunset was less than spectacular, the walk up the dune was a lot of fun. It had rained a few days prior making the sand a little harder than usual and a little easier for us to climb! But, as usual, as the sun fell below the horizon, the temperature dropped and we all quickly hit for the main tent. There we ate a Berber meal (meat and vegetable tajine) with our fingers, being very careful not to use our left hands as the left hand is considered dirty. For the remainder of the evening, we wrapped ourselves in blankets, played drums and taught some of the others a couple of card games before braving our cold beds. (I had on just about every piece of clothing in my backpack, save my bathing suit.) Shannon and Jon told a few jokes and Tim and Kristy gave us lessons in marketing.

Somehow we made it through the night, though it was only Shannon who got any sleep!. The four of us had mattresses on the ground side-by-side, but Shannon tossed and turned all night, kicking both Jon and Martin and pulling the blankets off Jon and me. We also had out heads facing downhill which didn't help matters any. (I hate sleeping with my head below my feet.) In the middle of the night, I woke up with my face about an inch from a post, so decided to turn myself so that I was sleeping with my head at Martin's feet, though I still couldn't keep the covers on! I could also smell oranges all night - here there was an orange (that I'd squished) in the pocket of the coat which I was using for a pillow. (We also didn't have our own sleeping bags and were warned that the camel blankets they provide - yep, the blankets you sit on while riding the humped beasts - tend to be rather "ripe", but they weren't too bad at all, thank heavens!) When Shannon awoke the next morning and commented on the wonderful sleep she'd had, there were three other people who growled at her, though it didn't take us long to find humour in it all! (Even if I didn't get any sleep, I did enjoy watching the stars through the loosely woven ceiling of the goat-hair tent!)
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