27 February 2012

The Sahara desert: Day 3: Arrival at Camp

We have been told that we will be met in M'Hamid by somebody from the camp who will drive us the last 2 hours of the journey...M'Hamid is the last town before the start of the desert...we approach with some trepidation. As we pull up outside Dar Azawad, the hotel where we are to meet our driver, a big, burly man dressed in traditional clothing approaches us, introducing himself as Fath (pronounced Fat-HA) and proceeds to get into the passenger seat which I have just vacated...but I thought he was driving us. Apparently not at this stage - he beckons to Mart to drive on. Soon we understand why he has met us...the terrain once again becomes alternately bumpy then sandy with a few small dunes thrown in just for good measure. Mart does well to negotiate the first few kilometres, then Fath announces in broken English that he will now drive. By now we are following tracks in the sand made by vehicles previously coming this way and also making our own new tracks. I ask the friendly driver how he knows the way to the camp because all I can see around me is land that looks the same; he replies with humour 'GPS à la tête' (GPS in my head), then explains that he knows the direction from looking at where the sun is in the sky, how low it is, and also by knowing the location of the individual Acacia trees. I marvel at his knowledge.

This is fun!

Fath, our wonderful driver

Fath with a few camels

The desert landscape is not quite as I imagined at this point. The land is very rocky in places (hamada) and I reach for the overhead handle on the car to stop my head hitting the roof as we trundle along. In other places there is just sand, deep sand which causes wheel spins, as well as fine sand through which we swerve and small dunes which we seem to slide over and down the other side. Interspersed with the rocks and the sand are trees - Acacia trees, Tamarisk trees and the poisonous Calotropis procera bushes which Fath warns us are dangerous to the eyes. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere we come across a whole herd of camels, seemingly without a camelteer; there must be at least a hundred of these fine beasts, some of them chewing on the rocket which is growing liberally on the ground in this part of the desert. As we continue on, goats cross our path, again seemingly on their own...strange.

Acacia trees

As we go deeper and deeper into the desert our excitement is growing; it really feels like we've travelled a million miles to get here...and the land all around us is just incredible to our eyes...we can see just nothingness...sand well into the distance...and the silence surrounds us as we get out of the car for a break and to admire the stillness..

Up and over we go

Tracks in the sand

Hungry camels eating rocket

A straight path

Where's the camp?

Goats wandering along

Fath informs us that soon we will be approaching a well, and sure enough we take a track to the left and a well is there...with a camel alongside and its owner who is washing his feet. Goodness knows how far this man has travelled by camel to get here - or where he is heading.

Taking a well-earned rest

At the well

Suddenly we catch our first glimpse of real sand dunes...it appears just like you would see on films...magnificent piles of pure sand reaching up into the sky. We just want to take our shoes and socks off right this minute and run up the dune...but we refrain...for now anyway!

It's a sand dune!

More dunes

On his own

Hamada - Stony ground

Finally, after what seems like days of travelling, we reach the camp. Several traditional Berber tents stand before us, each with a smaller tent attached; rugs lead from the centre of the camp to each of the tents, lanterns lighting the paths to each 'doorway'. Immediately we recognise that this is a very special place and feel so privileged to have this opportunity to stay here. Bobo, the Manager, who was himself born and raised in the desert, greets us and leads us to our tent where he shows us how to use the 'shower' and toilet facilities which are located in the smaller adjoining tent. Much to our amusement we also have a 'dressing table' complete with hand-crafted mirror and lamp. The 'bedroom' itself is huge, furnished with a massive king-sized bed complete with high quality duck down duvets and pillows and handmade Moroccan covers. To the side of the bed is a comfy kilim-upholstered armchair with leather pouffe and bedside tables with solar-powered lamps. The ground is covered in plush rugs, a full-length mirror stands beside the bed and there is even somewhere to hang our clothes. Everything has been thought of...even down to the supplying of traditional babouches (Moroccan slippers) and dressing gowns. This really is the most luxurious camp I have ever seen!

Arriving at the camp

Our tent

The bedroom

Kilim armchair and other furnishings

The dressing room

Sink for cleaning teeth

The Shower

Just as we arrive at camp the sun is about to set and we are ushered towards a small sand dune nearby where a small table has been laid with a tablecloth, some wine glasses and a bottle of wine chilling in a silver bucket as well as small bowls of olives and nuts. Beside the table are some large floor cushions. Already seated at the table are two people who we soon learn have also just arrived - but from a westerly direction across the desert. They are a Belgian couple, Virginie and her husband Romain, who are just a little younger than us. We soon start chatting like old friends and fortunately we get on really well - good job really as we will be sharing most of our meals together. Little do we realise on our first day that we will be sharing our desert adventures too! This first evening is wonderful - we watch the sun setting behind distant dunes, glass of chilled wine in hand, then have a 3-course traditional Moroccan dinner in the Berber dining tent. Fully satiated with Moroccan salad, chicken tagine and kefta (spiced minced lamb with egg) followed by orange slices coated in cinnamon, we have an early night to prepare ourselves for tomorrow's adventures.

Wine chilling nicely

Being in the camp takes a bit of getting used to! The first night we freeze...the temperature in the tent hovers at freezing point...and we are even forced to don our woolly hats, bought in Marrakech the day before coming here - just in case! So glad we had them with us! We are also extremely grateful for the hot water bottles which have miraculously appeared in our bed! There is also an art to using the toilet and 'shower' - a process I won't go into here....but I'm sure you'll get my drift from the photos :D Hot water for the 'shower' is cheerily delivered in the morning to the entrance to the tent if the bucket is left out.

Our toilet

To our amazement the camp also has a bar! Bottles of wine, spirits, soft drinks in a cool box are all located in a separate tent, along with fruit and snacks for the enjoyment of guests. Banquettes line the outside of the bar tent for lounging on whilst enjoying the delights of the bar and large cushions are strewn around the tent. Books about Morocco lie on a table for guests' perusal and ancient artifacts are hung on the tent 'walls' adding to the comfortable atmosphere. This bar lacks nothing!

Mart investigates the bar


Another 'open' tent houses some comfortable cushioned sun loungers. What more can we ask for?!

The most comfortable sun loungers ever!

Just in case we fancy sitting in a more upright 'British-style' manner whilst sipping our tea or coffee, there is even a tent furnished with cane seating and a large coffee table.

Afternoon tea anyone?

Breakfast is served by Brahim who waits on us hand and foot the whole time we are here -  English tea, Mint tea, coffee, fresh orange juice, muesli, yoghurt, fresh fruit salad, Moroccan pancakes and bread with pots of jams and honey are all laid before us, a veritable feast! We only just finish having breakfast and already he is inviting us to have coffee with Moroccan pastries or Mint tea. This level of service continues throughout the day. We are even treated to an impromptu music treat as Brahim serves us coffee then proceeds to play one of the Djembe drums which lie outside the tent. He promises there will be more later.

Brahim, our wonderful (and handsome!) waiter

Djembe drum

A Scarab beetle appears in the sand, scurrying along, leaving the most amazing tracks in its wake - reminds me of the Indiana Jones films and a shudder goes down my spine....

A scurrying Scarab

After breakfast we go for a walk in the local sand dunes, making sure of course that we always keep the tents in sight...would hate to get lost around here! The sand is incredible....dunes rise majestically before us bathed in morning sunlight, and we scramble up them...two steps forward, one back. Our legs sink into the sand and it feels like we are wading through mud at times...must be good for the ol' leg muscles! Some of the sand has a rippled effect caused by the wind, but some is so smooth it seems a shame to ruin it with our footsteps. However, ruin it we must, and we clamber higher and higher till we reach the peak. It feels amazing to just stand at the top of a dune and look all around, and experience the heavenly silence of the Sahara. Coming down is fun too - the only way to come down a sand dune is to allow yourself to sink into the sand and go with the flow...I feel like a child all over again...

The most beautiful surreal sand dunes



Our first full day is spent just getting used to our surroundings and relaxing amongst the dunes and around the camp. We spend time chatting to Bobo, fascinated by his tales of life in the desert, reading books and really just eating and drinking, soaking up the hospitality of these lovely people of the desert. We teach Bobo a new word 'chillax' which is what we intend to do today; he finds this very amusing and keeps using it over the subsequent days. Bobo explains to us how the desert landscape changes when the winds come, pointing out to us that one of the tents has just been moved two days previously due to a sandstorm which had formed a new dune, practically covering the furniture in the tent. Such happenings are the norm to people who live in the desert - they adjust to the power of the natural life and work with it - how wonderful! This place is just magical...it is beyond our wildest dreams!

As evening approaches we head once again for the small table being laid for us on the nearby sand dune. Brahim and Lahcen can be seen walking towards us with the cool box which we now know contains the cool refreshing wine with which we will toast another sunset.

Here comes the wine!


After another lovely evening meal of tagine and couscous the camp fire is lit. Out of nowhere we can hear the sound of drums. Virginie, Romain, Mart and myself make our way towards the sound and the fire, our way lit by the lanterns that edge the rugs across the desert sand. The music fills the night air as five of the camp staff sing, clap and play drums well into the night; Bobo tells us that they are playing traditional wedding songs...and from the joyous sounds we can well believe that. It is amazing just to lounge on large floor cushions sipping a beer and listening to such a beautiful sound, looking up at the stars in the clear night sky, the warmth of the fire adding to the cosiness of the atmosphere. Not for the first time, we want to stay in this place forever.....

The camp lit up at night

Music by the camp fire

An amazing sound

We finally go to bed, the sound of the drums and singing ringing in our ears....What adventures will tomorrow hold for us?

23 February 2012

The Sahara desert: Day 1 & 2: The Journey

I have been waiting for this moment to come ever since we started to plan the trip over a month ago - we are travelling nearly 300 miles, traversing the High Atlas mountains en route - our destination...the Sahara Desert!

The 4x4 we've hired especially for the trip is a white Toyota Land Cruiser Prado which is delivered promptly to our house this morning...all clean and shiny...I reckon it won't stay that way for long!

And we're off! The first part of our journey is very familiar as we head across the plains from Tahannaout towards the Tizi n'Tichka pass. En route we pass through many villages where the hustle and bustle of daily life continues; women carry bundles of wood on their backs to make fires, donkeys carry grain, old men drink strong coffee outside small derelict-looking cafes, mopeds weave in and out of the scene driven by jedi-looking young Moroccan men wearing hooded djellabas. The view is now so familiar, it is engrained in indelible ink in our minds and hearts.

We gradually start to make our way up to the col. The Tizi n'Tichka is one of only two passes through the High Atlas, the other being the Tizi n'Test. It is a well-constructed road, built by the French in 1936 as a link to the pre-Sahara oases, and at the highest point stands at 2260 metres (7415 feet), more than twice the height of Mount Snowdon!! As we wind our way up the mountainside we pass through verdant foothills, walnut groves and streams and see villages perched precariously over vast chasms. The scenery becomes more and more spectacular the higher we go...until finally we reach the snow line and find ourselves looking down on patches of ice and snow that are slowly melting. At one point we come to a standstill as a coach and a lorry face off at a tight hairpin bend. We watch as the two drivers and companions shout instructions to each other to move a fraction forward or back, having observed the lay of the land...we stay well back...it is hard to see how this situation is going to work itself out, but Moroccans always find a way. Finally, the combat is over and the faces of the coach passengers, etched with relief, come into view. I'd hate to have been on that coach, looking down over the steep mountainside from an already elevated position!

We stop at a cafe for a well-earned rest after travelling about 2½ hours along winding mountain roads, and are surprised to be approached by two wild dogs who have the semblance of huskies. Hardly surprising - it's freezing up here! A few bits of bread for them and a cold coffee for us and we're on our way again. Fortunately the snow barrier is not down today, so we pass through the col without any difficulty...apparently it was down only a week ago and people had to wait hours for the snow ploughs to dig a route through! We are in luck.

Immediately we cross over the mountain, the scenery begins to change. Before us stretches barren rocky land, standing in sharp contrast to the lush greenery of the Atlas foothills and the snow-capped mountains.

Villages still cling to the hillsides, but now they are camouflaged against the reddy brown rock.

Our accommodation for the night is at the architecturally-stunning Kasbah Ellouze (our overnight stay on the return journey also...more on this later).

The next day we continue our journey, heading nearer and nearer to the desert. We are now on desert land referred to as hammada. This is a type of desert landscape consisting of largely barren hard, rocky plateaus with very little sand. It feels like it is never ending as we drive along straight roads which disappear into the distance only to reveal more stony barren land thereafter.

Finally we reach the town of Agdz which signals the beginning of the Draâ Valley. The name 'Agdz' means 'resting place' and it lies on the old caravan route linking Marrakech to Timbuktu. The river Draâ is the longest river in Morocco and serves to irrigate the many palm groves which have developed alongside it. It is good to see some greenery again after crossing such barren land.

This area is also famous for its kasbahs which are to be seen all along the route, most now being derelict, although some have more recently been renovated (see this article for further info on what a kasbah is).

As we pass through village after village, life here continues as normal....the Imam calls the men to prayer, children line the route making their way to school, women walk along the roads in groups...who knows where they are going to?!

Once again, the land starts to become barren and all we can see for miles around is rocky terrain in shades of brown and red...surely it can't be far now to M'Hamid, the last town before the desert takes over - this is where we will meet our driver for the last part of the journey.

We spot a signpost....Distances seem so far when written in kilometres!

Eventually we reach the main town of Zagora. This town was many years ago an important trading post with traders carrying goods such as goatskins, salt and dates to Timbuktu. There is a famous sign in the town which in a tongue-in-cheek manner tells of its importance - It says '52 days by camel'.

Before we know it, we come across a series of signs telling us we are nearing the desert...now we are really excited! This is where the adventure really begins!

To be continued...