28 March 2012

The Sahara desert: Day 5: Erg Chigaga to Ouarzazate

It's the final morning of our stay in this magical place. After a leisurely breakfast we pack our belongings and venture out of our tent to say goodbye to Bobo and the team with whom we've shared these past few wonderful days. To our utter amazement, whilst we have been packing one suitcase, the team have packed up most of the whole camp's belongings into one tent! Cushions, blankets, tables, chairs, lamps, rugs and numerous other items are piled high on top of each other, seemingly randomly...but knowing this team, there will be a method of organisation which we don't need to know. Bobo explains that there are no more visitors to the camp for a few days now after we leave, so everything must be packed away into one tent and a 'guardien' will stay at the camp and keep watch whilst everyone else goes home for a few days to see their families, mostly to the nearest town of M'Hamid just over 2 hours away by car...or 7 hours by camel (I know which method of transport I'd prefer!)

We too set off, waving goodbye to our new friends and our wonderful experience, Fath, at the wheel once again. He is taking us back via an alternative route, across the dry salt lake bed called Lake Iriqi. This route was often featured in the Paris-Dakar Rally...and today it certainly feels like we are in a race as we speed over the flat barren land which once was a lake but is now made up of seemingly endless salt flats. It stretches for miles and miles ahead of us as far as the eye can see. This really is like a wilderness...the odd tree, bush, camel, signpost for a school - uh? And then a cafe/bar - in the middle of nowhere?

A school?

A cafe/bar?

As we speed across this barren land, stopping now and again to just gaze at the vastness of this space, we see what looks like the ocean ahead of us - but that's not right, this is the desert! It is a mirage, the light is playing with our eyes! As we come nearer to the 'water' nothing seems to change - but somehow we never quite reach it

Our car in barren land

Is that the sea?

Beautiful Acacia trees

Eventually, land is in sight...we have left the beauty of the desert behind us and in front of us lies the long route back through numerous villages to reach our overnight destination, Ouarzazate, and the same lovely Kasbah we stayed in on our way here, Kasbah Ellouze.

Civilisation again

As we draw near to Foum Zguid and our stopping off cafe, funnily enough also called Erg Chigaga, we can hear a loud whistling sound. On closer inspection, a large 4 inch bolt has punctured our back tyre - thank goodness that didn't happen in the desert, miles from anywhere! As we sip freshly squeezed orange juice and then coffee, awaiting a fictitious mechanic who never turns up, a young lad passes by on his bike and stops to help. Between them, Fath, Mart and this lad take the wheel off and unlock the spare tyre from its casing - to our utter disgust it is flat! So now what? A small village, no mechanic and 2 flat tyres! The lad promptly hitches the flat wheel onto his bike and peddles off into the distance to get some air put into it for us - he doesn't even need to be asked. Whilst we wait for the return of the lad with our tyre - he will come back, won't he? - we take a look at the badges displayed on the cafe door, each one being left by a different car tour group that has also used this place as a stop-off. They come from all over the world.

Our flat tyre

Fed up of waiting now

Nearly ready to go

Freshly squeezed orange juice

Our cafe

Badges from all over the world adorn the cafe door

A few coffees later and the lad returns with a blown-up tyre which he insists on fitting back onto the car. The kindness of the Moroccan people is in evidence yet again. A small gift of a few dirhams and we're on our way again and en route to the next town where we hope to have the spare tyre mended - just in case.

Indeed, another coffee at yet another cafe in the next town whilst our spare tyre is being mended, and 40 dirhams later (£3.20) and we're off again. Eat your heart out, Kwik-Fit!

We have arranged to take Fath all the way to Ouarzazate with us so he can catch a bus back to M'hamid from there, a journey of about 4 hours - otherwise he will have to wait a good while till someone passing through can take him back. We learn on the journey that he is actually a touring musician with a band and is going on tour to County Sligo in Ireland amongst other places next year - funny to think that this traditional man of the desert is soon to be visiting Europe in all its modernity. Wonder what he will make of it....

As we are driving along, I notice that Fath seems to be changing his clothes in the back seat - I turn around and much to my surprise he is no longer wearing the traditional blue and yellow djellaba with headdress, but rather jeans and a sweatshirt - and he has dreadlocks hanging beneath a Bob Marley style hat. I'm about to say something to him when I realise we've been pulled over by the police - Oh no, this could take a while! Fath is led to the other side of the road whilst we are questioned by an arrogant policeman about our connections with him and why he is in our car. We answer honestly that he is our driver from the desert and I look over in Fath's direction as the same policeman struts over to him, no doubt to ask the same question. Poor Fath looks very uncomfortable. It's about 15 minutes before we are on our way again, the policeman having checked all Fath's papers, and finally being satisfied that he is who he says he is.

A couple of hours later, having negotiated mountain roads and villages, we arrive on familiar territory, Ouarzazate. We are still a little way off when I notice out of the corner of my eye something unusual at the side of the road - it's a petrol station that somehow looks old-fashioned. We slow down to take another look...and realise it must be a film set. Sure enough, this is the petrol station from the film 'The Hills have Eyes' (2006). It is now abandoned but all the props are still there as well as that notorious signpost 'Gas Haven - Last Stop 200 Miles'.

The Hills have Eyes

We are now at the junction of two main roads - this is where we say goodbye to our new friend, Fath. It is with a heavy heart that we wave him off as we continue our journey. We hope to see him again one day insha'Allah. Not much further and we arrive back at Kasbah Ellouze, now familiar to us from our previous stay. We are feeling sad but happy - sad to have said goodbye to the desert and our new friends but happy to have many fond memories of our time there. Now we look forward to a good night's sleep and tomorrow's exploration of this area of Morocco. Sweet dreamzzzzzzzzzz........

05 March 2012

The Sahara desert: Day 4: Erg Chigaga

Last night we were given a calor gas heater to warm our tents as well as the hot water bottles - It was wonderful to experience warmth in the tent at night. During the day it's so hot in there but as soon as the African sun goes down the cold sets in. After a much better night's sleep we awaken with excitement wondering what today has in store for us.

Breakfast again is a lovely experience - sitting in the morning sunshine wearing shades and fleece to keep off the chill with fabulous views of sand dunes, being waited on hand and foot by Brahim. We converse in French as Brahim does not speak English. He tells us that he has only been married a few months and he loves working at the camp - who can blame him?! As we later scramble over the dunes, I catch sight of him in the distance playing football with another member of staff; it strikes me as funny, bizarre and somewhat surreal to see young men dressed in full nomadic clothing kicking a ball around in the desert.

Go Brahim!

Morning coffee

After a lazy morning hanging around the camp talking to Bobo, he offers to take us off-roading in our 4x4. We jump at the chance and invite Romain and Virginie to join us. Mart is really excited - this is one of the activities he really wanted to do, so has no hesitation in getting straight into the driver's seat... I am a little more nervous...understandably!

All set to go

Bobo is a great teacher and soon he lets Mart take off by himself over the smaller sand dunes...being the dedicated wife I am, I stay in the car with Mart whilst everyone else scarpers and watches from a safe distance! Can't say I blame them. We set off slowly but soon gather speed as we see the dune looming in front of us; I hold on tight to the roof handle as we bump along, wheels skidding in the soft sand...up, up and over we go, then it's a lovely silky smooth feeling as we slide down the other side...we made it in one piece! Not content with one dune Mart continues to another - my insides are rattling around inside me, good job we haven't eaten since breakfast! Up, up and...wheels are skidding furiously - we are stuck! Bobo and our friends come running over to help, scrambling up the dune to meet us. After surveying the scene Bobo directs us all to dig out the wheels and push. We scramble in the sand, digging with all our might with our bare hands to gain freedom for the wheels...then it's a mighty push, really getting our backs into it whilst Bobo steers the car safely down the dune. We all clap him...but we're not aware at this point that there's more of the same to come...and things are about to get even worse!

Up we go....

Oops, stuck at the top. Bobo to the rescue!

Virginie also has a go at driving amongst the smaller dunes and not to be outdone Romain decides he must too - but he wants to prove he can do better than his wife...we should've known it's always a bad sign when a man admits to this! Everything starts fine...Mart is in the passenger seat whilst Virginie, Bobo and I sit on a sand dune watching. By now the sun is scorching and it really feels like we're in the Sahara desert. We watch as Romain drives around the same route as Mart, following his tracks...up and over they go, getting stuck a few times, but nothing a bit of digging and a big push by all of us can't handle. However, then things take a slightly more serious turn as we watch...the car is stuck...but this time Romain has turned into the hill instead of driving level causing the car to tilt over with wheels firmly stuck. Without thinking, Mart gets out of the passenger seat to call us over...but then suddenly realises that without his weight (and there is a lot of it these days! :D) the car could topple! So he gets in again. We all run to help, but this vehicle is going nowhere fast. Bobo looks at the car from all angles, a slightly worried look on his face; he weighs up the situation, then tells Romain and Mart to carefully get out of the car. We are all so glad that Bobo knows the desert like the back of his hand and is used to getting himself - and visitors - out of scrapes. He urges us to once again dig out the wheels, then he takes the driver's position...leaving his door open in case he needs to jump out, he spins the wheels steering furiously and urges us all to push the car sidewards, seemingly in the opposite direction to how one would think it should be pushed....but this man of the desert knows best, and soon the car is upright again - PHEW! Thank God for Bobo!

Romain at the wheel

Oh dear!

Surveying the damage

Time for lunch me-thinks!

All we have in mind now is for a restful afternoon hanging around the camp...but no, Bobo has other ideas and suddenly appears with two camels and a camelteer! This looks ominous as he begins to wrap Mart's scarf around his head like a true nomad. I am in fits of laughter at this as Mart looks nothing like Laurence of Arabia....he just doesn't carry this look well. Soon everyone gathered is also laughing...Poor Mart...but he carries on with dignity. I manage to convince Bobo that I will put the hood on my fleece up if the sun is too hot on my head - phew, got out of that one! We mount our camels and begin the trek. The plan is to meet the others at one of the highest dunes in about half an hour's time (they will travel by 4x4)....to go sand boarding!

However, we trek on the camel up one sand dune and down the other side and that's enough for me! The handle on the camel's back which I am gripping as hard as possible just doesn't feel sturdy, swaying even when the camel is stationary...and it's a long way down if I fall! Have you ever tried coming down a sand dune on a camel? On the flat ground it is fine, if a little bumpy, but coming down a dune is a different experience altogether! I decide to get off and walk the rest of the way alongside my camel. Typical that the camelteer then decides we will walk across the hamada (rough ground) anyway and avoid the dunes. Mart endures the rest of the journey by camel and we finally meet the others as arranged.

Suits you, Sir...not!

Off into the distance we go

Our camelteer and camels

As we approach the taller dunes, I gasp in amazement...these are absolutely stunning, mountains of pure sand reaching up into the blue sky, seemingly untouched by human feet - until now! The colours of the sand in this late afternoon/early evening light are beautiful. Light and shade alternate as far as the eye can see, small peaks appearing like icing on a Christmas cake. Here they are known as 'la mer de sable', 'a sea of sand'. We all scramble up the dune ahead of us and stand awhile taking in the spectacular views all around us....in fact, I decide to stay there and enjoy a bit of silence whilst the others scramble even further up the dune so as to  have a go at sand boarding down the other side.

La mer de sable

Our footprints in the sand

A moment to soak up the peace

Climbing up the sand dune

Virginie before her tumble

All was going just too well. I am enjoying the spectacular views and the peaceful silence, sitting on the crest of the dune, Mart is sliding down the sand dunes on his backside having given up on efforts to sand board, and Romain and Virginie are practising, determined to succeed at this difficult activity...when suddenly Virginie falls off her sand board and tumbles down the dune. We know nothing of this until Romain and Virginie eventually join us...Virginie has hit her head on the hard sand and hurt her back and is walking slowly and painfully towards us; she is very lucky to not have more serious injuries. To add insult to injury, Romain has captured the whole thing on his phone video, hoping to see his wife making it look easy...but instead we can see Virginie take a tumble. Not a very pleasant end to a lovely experience. We decide to go straight back to the camp instead of waiting to watch the brilliant sunset with a glass of wine, all set out on a table for us by the drivers who, as usual, want to give us the best experience possible. Reluctantly, we all return to camp, hoping that Virginie will soon feel better.

One of the lanterns lighting our way

After yet another lovely evening meal Bobo's girlfriend, Tyne, a young Belgian girl, leads us outside to look at the constellations of the night sky. The sky is so clear here in the desert as the only light comes from the many lanterns lighting the way to our tents and the camp fire; there is no light pollution, so stars appear very bright in the night sky. Soon we are spotting the Milky Way, Orion, Jupiter and Venus, Little Bear and Great Bear, the Plough...and even manage to capture a shooting star in our photo!

The camp lit up at night

Beautiful night sky (with shooting star on left of photo)

We have really enjoyed our time in the desert, an unforgettable experience. We have learnt such a lot about how people live in this arid place, the supremity of nature and the need to be guided by it, the simplicity of lifestyle of nomadic people, the genuine hospitality of the people who work here and above all the sheer beauty of this wonderful place in the middle of nowhere. It is a place to which we hope some day to return.

Our journey is not over yet, however. Tomorrow morning we leave this place after breakfast and Fath is driving us back another route across the desert via a dried salt lake bed called Lake Iriki. It proves to be another interesting journey....