Suitcase and World: Saharan Night. Erg Chebbi.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Saharan Night. Erg Chebbi.

After Ifrane, we continued on our road trip towards the desert where we would be spending the night.   We had a long day's journey ahead of us.

I was excited and looking forward to seeing the sands of Sahara.  I've been to plenty of deserts but the Sahara is the grand daddy of them all and it's always been a dream of mine to see it.   I hope the other three enjoy the experience as well. :-)

"Atlas Mountains, here we come " It wasn’t long after we left Ifrane that we also left the pine forest behind. The landscape was now barren and arid. In the distance we could see snow capped mountains and sheep grazing on scrub. We were in the region of the Middle Atlas mountains. It was amazing how the scenery had changed from the time we left Fez.

Our driver told us that the scenery would change every few kilometers and he was right.  Some stretches we we surrounded by arid plains dotted with grazing sheep.  Every now and again we would pass through a mountain village.  Though rivers and streams were a rare sight, we did manage to pass a few of those as well.  Snow capped mountains, though, soon became a constant fixture.   With little else to distract me, I kept my eyes and my video camera on the landscape.  I didn't realize that I had shot 28 video clips of our drive but I did.  I've compressed them into a few minutes worth so you can have a taste of what the drive, which was at least two plus hours long, was like.

"Zaida where? " Our next break came in the remote mountain town of Zaida which is nestled in the foothills of the snow capped peaks of the Middle Atlas mountains.  We are in the middle of nowhere but the scenery is spectacular.

We clamored out of the vehicle. Our driver had parked alongside the butchers. All were either busy carving up or grilling meat for sale.   Oh.....that smell of grilling meat.  So tempting.   I can never be a vegetarian.

It was market day so Soon and I walked in the same direction that the crowd was headed in. Typical small town market – everything and anything you could possibly want or need was for sale.

Nothing interesting to look at so it was a quick walk around and we were done.

On our way back to the van, we stopped by a small market to pick up some drinks and snacks. The young man behind the counter kept trying to sell us Pringles. That must be the chip of choice for foreigners. After we paid, he offered to pose for me and he decided to hold up, of all things, a can of Red Bull. I hate it when they do the pose thing – you don’t end up with a genuine photo. Oh well.

Back in the van, down the road, more arid landscape and snow capped mountains. The landscape was stark but beautiful at the same time.

Somewhere outside the town of Midelt, we turned off into the parking lot of a Kasbah style hotel. It was another chance for us to stretch our legs and take a toilet break.

It was a pretty hotel with lots of interesting architecture and design to catch my attention.   For some reason, I really captivated by the wooden doors which were carved and decorated in typical Berber style.

"Prisoner swap "
When we started out this morning, our driver had told us that we would be swapping cars at some point. Based on where we were travelling to, I was guessing we needed to be in a 4x4…..something along the lines of a LandCruiser. I figured this was the swap location but we ended up getting back into the car.   Huh?

We drove a short distance later and we pulled over… the middle of nowhere. A short while later, a white Toyota 4x4 pulled over in the opposite lane. From inside the 4x4 emerged two men. Their driver opened up the trunk and pulled out their bags. Our driver did the same on our car. This was the vehicle swap though we jokingly referred to it as the prisoner swap :-)

I asked the two guys how their trip was and they enthusiastically replied, "Fantastic" and that they really enjoyed the night in the desert.  I was happy to hear their words.

"Hello Salah "
We introduced ourselves to our new driver whom we would be spending the next few days with. I recognized his name, Salah, from the emails that I had been receiving when planning this tour. Turns out he is the local manager for Morocco Explored. I wondered how he ended up driving us around and apparently, there were issues with the car that we were suppose to have been in. As a result, our original driver was not able to pick us up in Fez. So, I guess they had to come up with an alternative game plan. It doesn’t matter to me as long as we go on our trip as planned.

I never got our first driver’s name, just his picture. I’ve made a mental note to ask Salah later.

(UpdateDecember 29.  Our driver's name was Mohammed.  Thinking back to Hamid in Meknes who also told us his name was Mohammed, I jokingly said to Salah that everyone here seems to be named Mohammed but apparently, this really was the guy's name.)

Right off the bat, Salah seemed like a very friendly guy. A few minutes into the trip, he offered us a snack mixture of dried fruits and nuts. I don’t do dried fruits but happily settled for the dried nuts. To my surprise, when I reached into the bag, I pulled out chick peas. According to Salah, here in Morocco, chick peas, that have been soaked overnight in water, are dry roasted using sand and then eaten as a snack. They’re a bit chewy but tasty.

The scenery had not changed much – same arid landscape, except that we were nearing the High Atlas Mountains. We passed by a reservoir. Seeing this much water in this arid mountain landscape seemed somehow oddly out of place.   It was strangely beautiful

"Truckstop food, the best kind " By now, it was well past our lunch time. Not that I was hungry but my internal body clock was tell me I had to eat.

Salah had tempted us with a good barbecue lunch and I, for one, was not about to let him forget that he had made that offer.

As with many places in the world, the best food is street food. On the road, this often means truck stops or gas stations. It was the latter in this case.

Salah pulled into the parking lot and parked right in front of the restaurant. It was a beautiful day so we all decided to eat outside.

Ever so conveniently located next to the restaurant was a butcher. In Morocco, you buy your meat fresh and then it’s grilled on the spot.

Soon and I followed Salah over to the butcher and watched as he chopped off some lamb and beef. The lamb was just sliced up; the beef ground up and mixed with spices and herbs.

Lunch started with a simple tajine and bread and was followed by the beef which was now officially kefta and the grilled slices of lamb. As always, the meal was washed down with glasses of mint tea.  Very, very tasty.  I wasn't hungry but I was greedy.   I couldn't get enough of the lamb!  You can't beat simply cooked food that let's the quality of the ingredients shine!  Happy tummy.

Lunch over, it was back on the road. More of the same High Atlas mountain scenery which by now was becoming same old, same old.
We passed through the town of Errachidia which Salah pointed out started out life as a small town but grew once the Moroccan military established a based there. We didn’t make a pit stop in Errachidia; just drove through the town.

"A pretty sight " Next stop was at the Ziz Valley where we did get the chance for a very quick photo op. A pretty narrow valley, flanked on both sides by the High Atlas mountains which in this region looked like someone had sheared all the tops off so just plateaus were left.

Soon captured a series of photos that I stitched together to create the panoramic view.

"The dunes of Erg Chebbi "
By now, it was mid afternoon and we had miles to go before reaching our final destination for the day. It wasn’t long before we left the mountains behind us and the sight of a enormous set of sand dunes stood before us in the far distance. Those were the famous dunes of Erg Chebbi and they were going to be our final destination of the day.

Somewhere along the way we had passed the town of Merzouga which is the gateway to the Erg Chebbi. Mustn’t be much of a town since Salah didn’t stop there.

"We're late " Salah turned off the main road onto a dirt one and began off roading towards the dunes.   I think we were running late because he seemed to be driving as fast as he safely could.  Lucky, we're riding in LandCruiser!

The plan was to ride camels to a Berber camp, overnight there and then ride the camels back in the morning. I could see the sun beginning to set and I couldn’t imagine that we would be riding in the dark.

It seemed like an eternity before we arrived at the Kasbah/hotel where we would be getting on the camels. I had already told the other three to prepare for a cold night in the desert and to bring a change of clothing for the next day. In all my hurry to pack, I had myself forgotten to pack in my gloves and to bring along a bottle of water. Oh well.

I was right about us being late though. As soon as we got out of the car, Salah hurried us along to the back terrace of the hotel which fronted the dunes. What a magnificent view!

"Camel time!" The sun was just dropping over the horizon so we all stood on the terrace and took photos of the sunset. I was feeling really rushed for some reason and since I’m not into taking pictures of sunsets, I just snapped a couple of shots and turned my attention to the line of six camels that were lying in the sand directly in front of the terrace. There was a young man tending to them, making sure the saddles were in place and securely fastened.

The four of us were going to be joined by two others. The young man said that the person who likes to take photos needs to be in the back. Everyone pointed to me and so I was the first to mount up. I slung my right leg over the saddle. The young man then wrapped the arm straps of my back pack around the metal supports. On command, the camel rose, hind legs first which means you need to be prepared to drop forward and then front legs next which means you need to be prepared to be thrust backwards.

Once I was settled on my camel, it was Soon’s turn followed by Aaron’s. The other two people - a man and a woman were next. Mildred was on the camel in the lead position.

Salah had watched over the entire process making sure we were all okay. With a final check , the young man led our camel caravan into the desert. He was on foot, gently guiding the lead camel.

The sun had already set over the horizon but there was still enough light for me to take a few photos. In the early evening light, the sand takes on a warm terracotta color. The sweeping dunes were amazing if for no reason other than their sheer size.

Nightfall was descending fast. The crescent moon was visible along with a very bright star. Venus, perhaps?

My camel had a very gentle gait, barely swaying from side to side and so I was having a very enjoyable ride.

"Brrr..... " It was also getting cold. I had already piled on three layers as well as my down vest. I had also put on my knee high wool socks so my upper body and calves were warm but my toes and thighs were beginning to feel a bit of the chill. I figured it wasn’t going to be a long ride – they don’t torture tourists so I could bear the little bit of discomfort I was starting to feel.

It wasn’t long before it was dark though there was enough light for our guide to continue to lead the way.

At one point, I saw the lights of a camp but my hopes that that was ours was quickly dashed as we marched right by it.

We soon happened upon another set of lights and this time, it was our camp. Woohoo!!

The camels all dutifully lined up in a row. Obviously, six camels who have gone through this routine countless times before!

Lead camel down and then one by one, the others followed. Mine was the last one down and so I was the last to dismount.

"Home sweet Berber camp? " As we entered the camp, we were greeted by another young man. We basically had two attendants for the night.

I saw another two people – an Asian man and an Asian woman, already seated on a mattress that had been placed on the ground. In front of them was a low table. Looking at their empty tea glasses, I presumed that they had been at the camp for quite some time before our arrival.

The layout of the camp was like a horseshoe shape with the sleeping tents lining the perimeter and in the center, a setup of mattresses (for sitting on) and tables for dining.

We were shown to our tents. Soon and I bunked in together in a large tent that was spacious enough for four people; two on each side with a partition in between. We each took a mattress on either side of the partition. I left my backpack in the tent and immediately headed outside.

I found myself a spot on the mattress, beside on of the tables and made myself comfortable. It wasn't long before soon joined me followed shortly by Aaron and Mildred.

Sitting still, I was getting cold fast. The two young men went over to a large metal container which held several very thick blankets. I gratefully took one and laid it across my legs and feet since those were the cold parts of my body. I wrapped my wool scarf around my neck and head and pulled the hood of my wool jacket over my head. All bundled up and a few minutes later, I was toasty warm. A glass of warm mint tea helped warm me up as well.

As we sat, I heard the voice of the Asian man. It sounded like a Malaysian accent. When there was a break in his conversation, I asked him if he was Malaysian and he replied that he was Singaporean. I replied back that both Soon and I were Malaysian. Truly is a small world. That broke the ice and we started chit chatting – the usual traveler chit chat. They seemed like a very friendly couple.

Aside from a small gas lamp, there was no other light in the camp area where we were sitting. Laying back on the mattress, I could see the star filled sky. The Singaporean man had an iPhone app that mapped out the stars as you raised the screen to the sky. As you moved the phone over parts of the sky, the name of the star or constellation would light up on the screen. It was very cool. Even without the iPhone app, it was such a pleasure to see the stars. Living in the city, that’s not something that I get to do.

Before I knew it, it was dinner time. Vegetable couscous with bread. Pretty much everywhere they seem to serve the same vegetable couscous, the same bread and if it’s a tajine, the same tajine. With the exception of the meal that Sabah cooked us, it’s all starting to look and taste the same, no matter where we’ve eaten. I had to wonder. Is this all tourist food or is this really what Moroccans eat? With my belly still full from the big lunch earlier in the day, I could barely stomach more than a few tablespoons of couscous. Besides that, I really wanted to go back to looking at the stars and so that’s what I did instead of eating.

"Entertainment tonight "
After the two young men cleared the tables, they brought out sets of drums. Apparently, there was going to be some form of entertainment and considering the number of drums that they brought out, we were going to be involved. I don’t drum and from the look on Soon’s face as he tried to hand a set to me, he doesn’t drum either.The guys angled the drum heads close to the fire to warm them up. As we waited, the guys asked where everyone was from. Turns out the other man was from Australia and the woman from Israel. Interesting coupling.

When the guys and the drums were ready, the beat got going.

After the first set, the guys asked if anyone had a song to sing because they would be glad to provide the beat to it. Sure. I’m no singer and apparently, none of the other seven were either. Then Aaron came up with an idea. He had music on his iPhone and when one of the guys mentioned Bob Marley, Aaron was certain he had a Marley tune in his playlist. Sure enough he did. So, here is the video of Aaron Mitchell singing "Three Little Birds" accompanied by Bob Marley and a Moroccan drummer. Priceless moment.

Music interlude over, it was back to star gazing but not for long. Bed was calling. There’s not a whole lot to do at night. I offered that I had a deck of cards but the guys scoffed at the thought so that was the end of that.

The two young men handed out more blankets so I walked back to the tent with three in hand. I spread one on the mattress, which I would lay on top of, and set the other two aside.

"Time for some shut eye " A quick trip to the bathroom and I was ready for bed. There was no need to change clothing as I was sleeping in what I arrived into the camp with and that was one thin thermal underwear shirt, one lightweight fleece shirt, my cheapie wool jacket that I had bought in Fez and my down jacket. The wool socks were staying on as were my hiking pants. Fully clothed, I laid down on the mattress and piled the other two layers on top of me. I scrunched up the extra shirt and leggings that I had brought with me and formed a makeshift pillow. Wasn’t much but I need a pillow and you do what you can with you got!

When Soon was ready, I tuned off the light and scooched down into my covers. It wasn’t long before I was toasty warm. I heard the men put out the fire and with that, silence fell over the camp.
The next thing I remember someone was clapping their hands outside our tent. It was our wake up call. I know what lies ahead and I’m excited to get going!!

Goodnight Erg Chebbi!