Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Land of the 1000 Kasbahs

Pick-up was at 0730 on September 24, by drivers Mohammed and Hassan driving two 4X4 SUVs, one for the Elena family and one for the Pjotter family. Packed our piles of luggage in and were on our way, headed for a 10 day tour of inland Morocco. Our first overnights off of the boats in three months!

The tour started with a beautiful drive through the Atlas mountains and the anti-Atlas to Ourazazate. The sides of the road were empty except for the lone goat herders walking off into the endlessness of the rock strewn mountainside. Every now and then we saw a Bedouin tent or a circle of rocks used for corralling animals. Stopped on a particularly scenic piece of mountainside and were met by a man carrying a chameleon and an iguana. The chameleon was very cooperative and changed colour as we moved it from green background to yellow. It had wonderful two-clawed feet that tickled as it climbed your arm. Fascinating looking creature, out of another time.

Met our guide, Brahim, in Ourazazate and after a nights rest we drove on through the Draa valley to Zagora where Brahim, Mohammed and Hassan live. Stopped at a Kasbah hidden away in the valley to have lunch with a Berber family. Houses and restaurants are set up in an incredible cosy way. There is one large room in the middle surrounded by little cosy nooks for more private moments. It is so comfortable to sit and lie on the floor on carpets to eat your meals. It has a very intimate feel and is extremely handy as you are then closer to the level of the children, which they really enjoy. There was also a high terrace on the top of the Kasbah and as we sat and drank the required post-lunch mint tea we watched the clouds darken along the valley, saw great forks of lighting streaking down and heard the echo of booming thunder. As we drove the rain stared bucketing down. We’d done some off-road exploration to get to our lunch location and had to drive quickly through the recently dry river beds as they can fill to a level that makes them impassable in a hour or so. It rains in the region only a few days per year so this was really cause for celebration. Brahim also explained that rain significantly reduces the risk of sand storms. Life in the desert appears to be similar to life on a boat, surrounded by seemingly endless expanses, highly weather dependant and there is always a shortage of drinkable water.

On the morning of the 25th we were given turbans to protect ourselves from the sun and we drove out into the Sahara. Stopped briefly at a well where a man was watering a pack of approximately 30 dromedaries (we thought they were camels but Morocco only has dromedaries). Dromedaries only drink once a week but when they drink they consume 120 litres p.d. The man was pulling up what we estimated to be 25 liter jerry cans full of water which meant he had to drop the bucket almost 150 times (including water for the four donkeys that happened along).

Our camp was very basic but perfect for our needs. It consisted of three Berber tents for sleeping and one cooking/ eating tent. There was of course no running water or electricity. All the same, the cook, Mohammed was able to create amazing tajine dinners and we ate Berber bread cooked in the sand (crunchy but delicious). We closed off each day in the desert drinking sweet mint tea under the stars and having good chats after the children were asleep. We sat close to the tents but didn’t need baby phones as the nights were so still.

The little monkeys loved climbing the dunes and sliding and rolling down. It is a very fine sand that seeps into every possible crevice and we were all completely covered. They never bored of the dromedaries and donkeys and squealed with delight every time we caught a glimpse (which was very often) of them wandering past through the dunes or sitting in groups in our camp each morning. Our second morning in the desert started with an hour long dromedary ride through the dunes which delighted the adults almost as much as the children.

Left the desert and bid a sad goodbye to Mohammed and our guide Brahim. Brahim commented that our children are very flexible and easy to travel with and he estimated that this is a result of the greater voyages that we are making. This pleased all of the parents immensely.

Headed into the imperial city of Marrakech. Arrived in a rather dirty parking lot and wandered down a dingy street until we arrived at the Riad Si Said. Beautiful place, hidden behind a small door. In the short time we had we decided to focus on exploring the medina and the various souqs within it. A visit to the main square is a sensory overload, pounding drums, snake charmers, henna artists, wagons with stacks of oranges of dried fruit, fortune tellers, and some very sad and cruelly chained Barbary apes. The streets of the medina are lined with shops full of beautiful shiny things; tea pots, jewelry, cushions, scarves, tablecloths, rugs - an interior decorators dream. This is all geared at tourists who appeared to be the only customers in the souq and were generally pestered by the frequently aggressive salesmen. Overall, an interesting city to visit briefly but we strongly preferred the people and the places we met outside the city.

Last stop was a two day visit in the high Atlas mountains, at the Kasbah de Toubkal, about 3200 metres above sea level near Jebel Toubkal the highest mountain in Morocco. The enormous mountains come in the most stunning array of reds, blues, purples, greens and greys and all swooped down into a lovely lush valley full of apple and walnut trees. We spent two very short days taking long walks in the steep and winding paths (always accompanied by two donkeys to help carry the tired children) and gazing out at the stunning views. One of the loveliest places that I have ever been. Closed off our Moroccan adventure back at the starting point in Agadir with a heartfelt goodbye to Mohammed and Hassan and a feeling of both regret that the tour was ending and real pleasure to be back on our trusty boats ready to sail again.

We were all completely enchanted and fascinated by Morocco, the people, relatively untouched pockets of culture, the many beautiful and varied landscapes and the delicious food have been some of the highlights of our travels to date.

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