Day 5: From Fes to the Sahara
Our drive is though the Middle Atlas Mountains where the landscape changes from minute to minute. There is always a new sight to see and Anthea takes the uncomfortable back seat so she can record the journey photographically on her Ipad, alternating between left and right windows depending on the view. The front seats are reserved for Ann and Willy, who suffer from travel sickness which is exacerbated by Hotoman’s macho cornering. We try to allow a double seat for Jennifer to stretch her legs so there is a limited number of options for the rest of us to rotate places.
We stop for coffee at Errachidia. This green and lushly planted University town is also a popular skiing resort in the winter. The international University is jointly owned by the Kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Our journey continues with the land alternating between arid and green until we arrive at Kasbar Russani for lunch.
We are offered a set menu of salad, main and fruit for desert or single dishes. There’s something going on with certain members of the group who don’t want to have a set menu dumped on them, but most us go for it as it offers trout as a main. It’s caught locally in rivers and lakes and likely to be fresh. They cook it in foil and it’s quite delicious – one of the most memorable dishes, flavour wise, so far.
We now enter a most spectacular gorge with amazing geology. We can see the sedimentary layers of rick which have been pushed up and bent, some at 45 degrees and others almost flat. This is fossil country and the once submerged layers are rich in marine life. The rivers continue to attract vegetation along their banks but the remaining landscape is rocky and barren. Pockets of soil host a few date palms until the bed of the river widens to an alluvial plane which is flooded with date palms, all laden with huge bunches of ripening fruit.
We stop for a photo opportunity and a retail opportunity presents it’s self in the form of a good-looking young man selling dates. We buy some, feeling virtuous in a belief that we might be his only customers all day. This, I think is unlikely as other date sellers materialise from nowhere as if in waiting and other vehicles are stopping for the same photo opportunity. There are so many dates on the trees that we can’t imagine how they can all be harvested and sold or eaten. We are following the Ziz river and the large town here is a military one. People are offered a free house and double their salary to come here. Simo says that the government is trying to encourage people to inhabit the Sahara area to bring more stability. Hmm, I wonder. There’s another coffee stop in a featureless suburban area on a busy road. The coffee is good though, which slightly makes up for the lack of ambience. We arrive at our Hotel, Xaluca Maadid in Erfoud late, and are welcomed by singers and musicians. Sue & Mary think we should respond with a Haka. We begin but are drowned out by the band who start up again.
Although the hotel is modern, it is spectacular, made out of adobe (mud & straw). The rooms are inventively furnished and well appointed. The wash basin is made from polished fossil rock, not very practical for putting toiletries on, but fun.
The floor is crazy paving and not level. This is probably not OK if you are elderly and unsteady at walking – Jennifer finds it hazardous. The swimming pool is about twenty metres long and I make a bee-line for it. By this time it is dark and I plough up and down using the underwater lights at each end as a guide. It’s difficult to gauge the ends so no tumble turn practise today. Dinner is in a huge hall where a buffet is arranged. There are lots of guests here after all. The place had seemed deserted when we arrived and the rooms are so quiet.
Day 6: In the Sahara
Jennifer and I struggle with the Liptons tea bags at breakfast. There are no teapots, only small cups, too small for the strength of the bags. Cold milk has to be poured into a spare cup from the cereal table as there are no jugs. The traditional tea here is mint, drunk without milk but with sugar. Today, there are boiled eggs. Hooray! I’ve a touch of the runs this morning, so after eating my banana, saved from dinner last night (bananas are not served at Breakfast for some reason) a hard boiled egg is just what’s needed. Jennifer reveals that she has dihorrea and intends to stay in her room all day.
It’s to be a long day out and about and I’ve packed my hoddie for the desert later as it’s supposed to get cold at night. Our first stop in town is to collect a local guide. Here they wear blue jalabas and turbans.
They are from once nomadic people called Tuareg, otherwise known as blue men because the cheap blue dyes in their clothing used to stain their skin. Our Blue Man guide takes us to a market. It’s not a full market day, only a few desultory stalls are operating so it’s quite a disappointment. Normally, we are told, there is a huge area of date stalls. Today only one is open for our benefit and as we bought dates yesterday, we’re not buying today. There are only so many dates that one can eat at a time. It’s never quite clear where we are going or what to expect but we stop at a large adobe wall in the middle of nowhere. I’ve given up consulting the tour itinerary as it often bears no relation to what we actually see. Sijilmassa is the name of this Kasbah and through the gate is a huge empty area contained within the walls.
In one corner is what might be a well. It’s a tap supplying clean water to those who live here. On the fourth side of this vast area is a grand gate and a higher wall. Through this is a series of streets and alleyways of mud built houses in poor repair. A few women are around and peer out of darkened doorways, often clutching their children. We are not allowed to photograph people unless they agree and most of them don’t. There are also wells inside and fetching water seems to be the only activity.
A Kasbah is a walled community and this was once an important seat of power. Today the people are very poor and apparently the government is trying to re-house them. As we make our way to the centre of this complex, suddenly we are in a more imposing and restored building, still made out of mud and straw adobe. It’s the rulers’ palace and a protected heritage site. This was on of the caravan stops in the trade routes where salt and spices were exchanged. Our guide shows us several large lumps of pink salt rocks much like the rock salt that we buy purporting to come from the Himalayas. A series of corridors eventually lead to a central courtyard where on each side is a room for each of the ruler’s four wives.
It’s very bare and desolate and takes imagination to see it furnished with carpets and cushions. There is a crumbling and dark hamam with the only mosaic floors to be seen in the building. On the way out there’s a friendly young woman struggling to load a wheelbarrow with empty plastic water containers.
Mary decides to help, much to Simo’s disapproval and there is much hilarity as the containers keep falling off. Eventually it is loaded and Mary pushes the light load along the street. We part ways with the woman who will have to wheel the loaded barrow back from the water tap. Mary and Sue are good at approaching the women and taking an interest in what they are doing they are both experienced tour leaders.
Earlier, we drove past what looked like a large house with carpets hanging from an upstairs balcony. I thought they might be drying, but we return here and it turns out to be a craft centre. There are several nomads’ tents woven from black goat hair and set up to demonstrate how these people lived.
The main guy is quite dark compared with Berbers and Arabs, but he and his staff all dressed in the Tuareg blue jalabas.
As we go inside the house there’s a sand storm brewing up, which Simo says will be over shortly. The central room we are ushered into is yet another carpet show-room and fabulous examples are rolled out before our eyes. It’s a well rehearsed performance and anything anyone admires is kept aside. Expressing an interest is almost as good as a commitment. Ann decides there’s a design she likes and after some bargaining, buys a small carpet.
The centre is an Aladdin’s cave of craft stuff, which includes wooden chests, crazy furniture and chunky Berber silver jewellery. Simo buys several rings for Anthea which are too large – it’s a gesture as no one else is buying. It turns out we are having lunch here which was to have been in the nomad tent but it’s too windy so we sit in a dreary side room on cushions on the floor and eat a sort of pie/burger and salads. A beef stew had been placed between two rounds of bread dough and baked in a tagine dish. Triangles are cut and passed around. It’s fairly bland but the olives with a hint of chill are sensational.
We are off to the SaharaDesert but as we drive, the sand storm gets more dramatic and we can hardly see the road in front of us. Seventeen Km from our 4×4 pick up point we turn back. Liz is disappointed as she has been looking forward to riding on a camel. I’m sorry to miss sunset in the Saharan sand dunes but have no burning desire to sit on a camel. Some of the women have heard stories of tourists paying to get on the camels and then having to pay again to be taken back. On the way back to the hotel, we stop at a fossil shop and processing factory. The pushed up sedimentary layers are full of marine fossils such as trilobites. Many have been exposed and painstakingly picked out of the rock.
Large chinks and slabs of the fossil rich rock are made into polished objects. There’s a toilet bowl and cistern, hand basins, dinner plates, bowls, polished wall surfaces and even jewellery.
This place is a curiosity and I have no intention of buying anything to sit on a shelf and be dusted every now and then. The bathroom ware is in poor taste and unfortunately the place reminds Willy of their garage full of her dead father’s stuff. Even more unfortunately she articulates this feeling in Simo’s hearing. He gets the wrong end of the stick and when we are all in the bus accused her of being culturally insensitive. I’m thinking that trilobites that long ago might not have developed much in the way of culture but shouting breaks out and I have to tell them to stop as we’re all getting embarrassed. There are some quiet apologies and explanations going on but they develop into more shouting and I have to intervene again.
It suddenly dawns on me that everyone on this tour has been recently bereaved. Added to this, the trauma of the Christchurch earthquake has left, those who live there in a precarious mental state. Although they might deny it, Simo and Athea must have been affected by the loss of their three businesses and having to start again. All the Christchurch people have a negative attitude to possessions and any new acquisitions. Many lost everything in the quake and are reluctant to re-encumber themselves in fear of loosing it all again in another one. Jennifer, who lost her apartment, moved to Dunedin. Much of her rescued stuff arrived in boxes all broken. Someone spotted one of her painteings for sale on Trade Me and the seller was traced to an official involved in clearing houses in the Red Zone. Quite a lot of her other possessions never turned p so presumably that official, now living in the UK, did quite well from all the old ladies who lived in her block of flats. As I mentioned, Liz lost her brother, who was married to Anne and Sue lost her Mother very recently and hasn’t been able to go home for a funeral. That just leaves Mary and me. Our bereavements are now several years old. It’s clearly a difficult group ad everyone had different tastes and needs. Simo does not seem to be up to sorting some of the problems out, hence the title Simo’s surprise tour.
We return to the hotel having missed our desert adventure, but there’s time for a sleep, a swim and a gin & Tonic with Mary and Sue before dinner.