Into the Desert

After the safety of the chain hotel, we walked past the tour busses and set out towards Ait Ben Haddou. This impressive fortress would definitely have been the place to stay if you wanted your trading post to avoid being overwhelmed by invaders. However, this ceased to be a problem several centuries ago when slaves, etc. started to be exported via the coast of West Africa instead. This left Ait Ben Haddou high and dry (in both senses), and the Kasbah started to crumble. Que the American film industry who rebuilt the lower half of the town for Jesus of Nazareth. This picture is from Flickr:

On the way back, we stopped off at the Atlas Film Studio. Many films have been shot here, as recently as this year. The various outdoor sets give you a chance to step from Ancient Egypt to Ancient Rome and are frighteningly realistic, until you tap the fake walls.

To round up the Kasbah experience, we stayed in a restored Kasbah, Ait Ben Moro. I felt perfectly safe behind the three foot thick walls, even if they were constructed from mud and straw. Within its confines, we planned our next epic day, to the sand dunes of Merzouga.

We were to get thre by sunset. All we had to do was get up early, book the taxi and we should be fine.

It didn’t start out well. We twiddled our thumbs waiting for breakfast, waiting, waiting, waiting. Then it arrived. The taxi company were asking for a huge sum of money, 200 pounds. We’d given up on our budget ages ago, but there are limits. So instead we went for the local transport option. This got us to the spectacular Todra Gorge (picture from Flickr):

From there it started to get more local. In Morocco, taxi space is at a premium, so one of the ways of getting between towns is on a shared taxi. Our first experience of this was the previous night where we accepted two places in a shared 80’s Mercedes. We couldn’t figure out why the taxi driver was still waiting for more passengers after we were joined by two more ‘voyagers’. It then became clear that he was waiting for two more people. Well, that time we paid for four places. This time, we were in the fully stocked Mercedes – me and another fellow on the passenger seat; Katie and three other ladies on the back seat.

You can only go to the next town on shared transport, and at the next town it turned out that the onward journey would be on a yellow converted hippy bus. Alarm bells started ringing when the first stop was around the corner to load a huge pile of wood onto the roof. Again we waited, until finally after the loading, we were temporarially booted out so they could fix the oil pipe. At last, we set off and crawled at 25MPH for the next 50 miles as the sun made its own slow journey to the horizon.

Erfoud was more rustic and lacking in the usual array of battered ‘Grand Taxis’. We were assured that soon white bus for the next town would soon arrive, and it must have already done a few pick-ups because it was already fully loaded in the manner of a sardine can. I helped them unload bales of hay from the top of the bus to make way for our bags, and the little lad who had been our previous bus conductor was lovely and got us places in the front of the bus. This made us feel bad as the human canning operation behind us continued to expand. We set off with people dangling from the side of the bus and off we went through the most beautiful desert oasis.

We didn’t manage to beat the sun to Merzouga, but the real Moroccan experience – the stunning scenery and amazing generosity of the Moroccan people – more than compensated.

I was pretty amazed when Katie volunteered to get up at six the next day to see the sun rise over the sand dunes. It felt like Laurence of Arabia walking out there on the back of a camel. Perhaps that’s why they filmed it in Morocco.

We went for the easy option to Fez – a single Grand Taxi, just three of us this time (we were met along the way by an American girl called Cindy). To be honest, we wouldn’t have made it any other way, because it took about eight hours as it was. But what an eight hours. From sand dunes we wound through mountain ranges where there was thick snow. We cut through some incredible gorges that looked like God had cracked the earth with an axe (it would have been a very large one). The blazing sun became obscured by patchy, then thickening cloud until we drove through snow, and then as we finally decended towards Fez, we drove into rain which would have made any Brummie feel at home.

The architecture in Fez is far more decorated even than Marakech, with mosaic tiles, plaster and wood carvings lining doorways, walls and floors, one fine example being the rather good (I’ve given up on superlatives, they lost their meaning ages ago) riad we slept in last night. Our bedroom was three stories high, and a tree ent would not have ducked to get through its doorway. This is our doorway, straight ahead…