Another Desert Safari… This time with a good camel ride.
Last I wrote we were just arriving back in Fez after three days in Chefchaouen. We have been busy since them and without a lot of internet access.
Upon arriving in Fez, we immediately sought out a doctor to deal with my digestive issues. I had researched some clinics and doctors in the Nouvelle Ville area of Fez. The challenge was getting there. With only street addresses you quickly become a target for taxi drivers and street folk looking for a tip. We ended up trusting a cab driver who said he would take us to his doctor. It was not far from the bus station and near the McDonald’s… A Big Mac is my cure for all that ails me when push comes to shove.
When we arrived at the clinic I was informed that there was no doctor there. It was a difficult conversation with the receptionist. For most people here, French is their second language…. Berber is their first language. Many people speak little English. For me, my French is rough at best. I have noticed it is getting better since I have been forced to speak it during the last two weeks. Some of the people I have been talking to ask if I would prefer to speak English and I keep saying that I prefer to try to speak French but I am not very good. That said, I have been quite pleased with my ability to get my message across. Eventually I got my message across to the receptionist and she called a doctor who came in about ten minutes. I am not sure where he came from but he arrived quite quickly.
My discussion with the doctor was a whole other challenge. He spoke no English and I think he was Jewish … according to the cab driver anyway. I do not think he was Moroccan. He was very professional and was very patient with me as we tried to get my symptoms across to him. What is the french word for diarreah anyway? Furthermore, I had taken some antibiotics that the doctor back home had given me ‘just in case’. This was all part of the story of my ailment. He prescribed me four things and told me what to eat and not eat. I made sure that I translated everything to Nicola so that she understood that eating on the street could be a problem for me. I have been taking the meds since I got them and I am happy to report that things are much improved. My doctor’s visit cost 300 dirhams (about $37) and my prescriptions cost 125 dirhams (about $15). Best money I have spent on this trip. My ability to communicate with the receptionist, doctor, and pharmacist has greatly improved my confidence when I try to speak french. I rewarded myself with a Big Mac Meal… Super Size!
We returned to the Medina in Fez and the hostel where we had left our big backpacks when we went to Chaouen. We stayed there that night before we would head to the desert the next morning. Ben, the manager of the Dar Lalla Kenza, is quite a character. I would guess he is in his mid-twenties and he is quite entertaining. He was quite helpful with our efforts to get a desert camel trek sorted out. He arranged a taxi to drive us Merzouga which was about 7 or 8 hours with some random stops. The alternative was to take a night bus which takes about 11 hours. I know it seems strange to take a taxi but the cost was about $135 for the whole taxi to ourselves for 8 hours. We had hoped to pick up a couple of others to share the cost but in the end we were okay with our own ride. It beats trying to sleep on a bus overnight.
The taxi arrived in Rissani at about 4pm and then we transferred to a 4×4 for the rest of the ride to Merzouga. This is where we met four others who would become part of our group for the desert camel experience. In all, there were ten of us… two Canadians (us), two Americans (Brandon and Tyler), two Australians (Anita and Hannah), two Czechs, and two Belgians. It was quite a fun group. The ride to the Kasbah where we were staying that night in Merzouga was a bit hair-raising. A wind storm kicked up and it was near impossible to see where we were going through the desert. Think of the worst snow storm that you have driven through and then make that snow brown sand. It was very blinding. Luckily it was not all that far so the fear was short lived.
When we booked our camel trek, we were told that the first night was relaxing at the Kasbah. We were told there was a pool and we could have a casual day by the pool, dinner and then music and dancing. Try sitting around a pool while being pelted by sand blowing 60 kph. Nevertheless we did it. The pool was protected by a wall so it was not that bad. Eventually the wind died down and the skies cleared up. We were able to eat outside under the stars and enjoy some Berber music the way we were meant to. The dancing was more dragging us out to dance with them so not exactly Berber dancing.
The sleep that night was extremely hot. There was no fan and little air came through the window that we had. We were tired though so we slept through the night no problem. The next morning we had breakfast with the group and then we all decided to go out walking to the dunes. We had until about 5pm before we would camel out to the Berber camp. So we hiked into the dunes and summited the hightest peak in the dunes. That may be hard to imagine but it was actually quite high. We also each tried sand boarding. This is snowboarding but on sand. I have never snowboarded before but it seemed very slow to me. The Czech fellow, Petra, actually dragged the snowboard to the summit and then sandboarded down a much steeper spot.
While we were at the summit, we watch a sand storm approaching from across the desert. One of the guys from the Kasbah who had come up to meet us told is it would blow by quickly. I think he lied though because we were up there for a while getting sandblasted. Sand at 60 kph actually hurts as it sandblasts your exposed skin. Needless to say, by the time we got back to the Kasbah, sand had penetrated everywhere… and I mean everywhere. I washed half the Sahara desert out of my body and down the drain… or so it seemed.
At 5:30pm, we all mounted our trusty one-humped dromedaries for about 1.5 hour ride through the desert. The saddles are designed to fit around the hump and then a wool blanket is thrown over top to cushion the ride. So picture this… a hard straw saddle with a hard camel hump protruding through the centre all covered with a scratchy wool blanket. Now sit your but on top and bounce up and down for about an hour and a half. When we booked this trip we were thinking that an hour and half was not much of a camel ride… after half an hour we were thinking that it was too long. As the camel walks up hill it is much easier to sit back on your gluteus maximus and cushion yourself. However, as it goes downhill, and its feet settle into the sand, it is very bumpy and there is no way to cushion your private parts. I am sure there was some bruising.
When we arrived at the Berber camp, we took dozens of pictures as the sunset over the Sahara. We were assigned our own ‘rooms’ in the Berber camp. It is hard to describe the camp but I will include a picture below. Basically, it is a semi-permanent setup in a large circle. The ‘rooms’ are divided up by berber blankets. The ground in the rooms and the entire centre of the circular structure is covered by more berber rugs/blankets. The ‘rooms’ are covered above and the door to the ‘rooms’ are covered so there is privacy for each one. The central area of the camp is open to the stars above. The Belgians chose to sleep under the stars that night but the rest slept in their rooms. We had tea first in the centre and then had dinner later in a ‘dining room’. To go to the bathroom, just wander into the desert and find a private place.
The camels slept just outside our camp. To prevent them from running away, the guide takes their left front foot and ties it bent back to its leg. When you get near the camels, you have to walk through all of their poop. No one seems to even hessitate and many of the guides walk through it bare footed. It is not like walking through dog poop or anything like that. They are small balls and as you step on them they just push into the sand. They do not smush or get on your shoes or sandles. The camels themselves have a smell but I do not think that the poop itself has a smell. Maybe Nic would disagree.
We had a nice tajine dinner and then laid around under the stars for a while looking for shooting stars. I saw one quick one but it may have been a figment of my imagination. The moon was very bright and there were some clouds so the stargazing was not ideal. After a few minutes I was ready for bed. Each ‘room’ has a foam matress again covered with Berber blankets. They say in the desert you cannot hear a sound as you sleep. They neglected to mention except for the sounds of a nearby camp, resident cats meowing, and other people talking. It did not last long and I was sound asleep before I knew it.
We awoke very early. The guide had told us 5am but he doesn’t follow daylight savings time. This can be a very confusing thing in Morocco. The official time is 5 hours ahead of Eastern time zone (ie. Toronto time) and they follow daylight savings as well… officially. People who do not work in business, on schedules, etc. however just ignore daylight savings time. We continually had to ask ‘on what time’ to make sure we were not late. So the time we got up was really around 6am… or maybe 6:30am. The early rise would allow us to see the sunrise as we rode our camels back to the Kasbah. The sun emerged just as were arriving back to the Kasbah… not from the horizon but from behind clearing clouds. We got some good pictures just before the end of our camel trek. All said and done, 3 hours on a camel is enough for me for a while.
After arriving back at the Kasbah we had breakfast and then were hustled back into 4x4s to return to Rissani. We were heading to Boumalne de Dades for the night. The Dades Gorge is a large canyon in the Atlas Mountains with lush greenery running through the middle. Some of the group were just driving that day to Marrakech but we decided to take a couple of days for the trip. Boumalne de Dades seemed like as good a place as any for relaxation. We ended up sharing a taxi with the Czech couple to Tinrihr and then we had to take a shared taxi from Tinrihr to Boumalne. The bargaining with the taxi driver for the shared taxi to Tinrihr was quite stressful. He wanted 600 dirhams ($75) but he ventually took 500. That is quite a bit more than a bus would cost but the bus was not leaving for another 7 hours. Eventually we conceded to 500 dirhams.
We stayed at the Auberge Panaroma in Boumalne de Dades. This auberge is perched overlooking the gorge and the Valley of the Figs. We settled in and it was quite comfortable. Perhaps the best thing was that we had a balcony. We were able to wash our sand filled clothes and hang them outside to dry. With the light breeze blowing they were dry quite quickly. The Panaroma however is quite a bit away from anything so we were pretty tied to staying and eating there. We decided to spend two nights. We asked the manager to book us a guide for the next day to take us on a hike though the gorge. We were bombarded by people looking to guide us when we got off the bus in Boumalne from Tinrihr but it is hard to know who is good, who to trust, and what we should do. He arranged one for the next morning for us. There was no wifi (By the way, pronounced wee fee by everyone here) but they allowed us to use their computer for a while that night.
The next morning at the Panorama, our guide showed up nice and early. Interestingly, the guy who showed up had actually talked to us in town when we got off the bus. He had very good English and was in his mid-20s and clearly gay. He was a very nice guy who talked throughout the tour and kept us quite entertained. He told us a lot about his life including how he had told his family about being gay and how they reacted to that. Our hike with him was quite good. We strolled through the gorge including having to wade through the Dades River for part of it. In all we hiked more than 10 km and it took about five hours including time just sitting and relaxing. We paid 300 MAD (about $36) for the guide.
Yesterday, we were planning to stay in Ait Ben Haddou. We had to take a shared taxi to Ourzazate (2.5 hours). In Ourzazate after having a quick bite, we took a petit taxi to the Atlas Film Studio. We did a tour of the studio that lasted about an hour. Movies such as Jewel of the Nile, Cleopatra, Ben Hur, Kundun, The Living Daylights, and more have been shot there. Basically, all of these movies had scenes in the desert or in Egypt. Morocco is quite a stable country so filming here maybe easier than trying to go to Egypt for real. When we were done however we decided not to go to Ait Ben Haddou. We had a difficult experience with a taxi driver and in the end we just decided to get a bus and go to Marrakech. 5 hours later we arrived in Marrakech.
When we arrived in Marrakech, it was pouring rain. We had only read about some places to check out in our Lonely Planet all in the Medina. We also knew how much a taxi should cost. That said when the drivers started giving us higher prices we were not in much place to negotiate given the rain. Our driver asked for the phone number of where we were going and then he called and said they were all full. We totally did not believe him and figured he was trying to take us somewhere else more expensive or his friends place. He took us to the entrance to the medina and said he would go into a hotel for us. We said no and got out of the cab. We went into the hotel he was bringing us to and it was 420 MAD (about $52). I went on the internet and checked the hostel we had wanted and it was indeed sold out. We felt bad that we did not believe him but it can be quite overwhelming when they are trying to get you to go somewhere. We have become quite skeptical in Morocco.
We stayed that night in that hotel mostly because it was raining so hard and we could not search any more in the rain. It was an okay hotel but to use the wee fee we had to be in the lobby. It was filled with so many people smoking that it was sickening. We went to bed and decided to check for places to stay in Marrakech in the morning. In Marrakech you can find hotels for $50 and up but you can also find some hostels for $6 per person and up. Guess what we chose??? Actually we found a decent hostel right in the Djema El Fna Square area right in the heart of the medina. We shared a 4 bed dorm (actually a 4 bed private that they made a dorm room on the spot) with a guy from Germany and a British girl. It was comfortable enough and included breakfast and non-stop mint tea for about $13 each. Breakfast was all breads though… like 5 different kinds of bread items. It would be nice to have a bit of variety like a yogurt or an egg or something like that. The common room was quite comfortable and we spent some leisure time on the internet and chatting with people there. That is the value of hostels for us. Meeting other travellers, getting ideas for things to see and do, and in some cases joining up for days of activities.
When we showed up at the Marrakech Rainbow Hostel that morning, we were welcomed openly and they even gave us breakfast even though we were not staying there. We went off and got our bags and checked out of our hotel and brought them to the Rainbow. Once we were settled in we decided to go off and explore medina. We explored Djema El Fna Square and the Souqs. In the Square, entertainers put on ongoing performances. For example, there are snake charmers, men with trained monkeys, transvestite belly dancers, henna hand painters and much more. We learned that they are actually paid to be there through funding as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are not supposed to be pushing for tips but they do. If they see you take a picture they will be all over you. You do not have to tip but it can be difficult to say no.
The Souqs are a winding and confusing network of allies and laneways filled with little shops selling the art and handicrafts that are made in Morocco. Carpets are a big product here and while we would like to buy one as a keepsake of our time here, it is a bit stressful not knowing what they should cost. As always, if you want something it is best to know what it is worth to you before you go in and not go over that. For example, if you ask about the price of a lamp and the vendor says it is 3500 MAD, expect that his best price may be half or less. You have to play the game and be prepared to walk away. We were looking at a lamp like that and I offered 400 MAD. We listened to quite a sob story and bartered a bit but were never able to come to a price. You have to walk away when it is over what it is worth to you.
We got lost in the Souqs on more than one occasion. The signs can be quite crazy. You can see two signs pointing different directions both pointing to the same place. We followed one and it led in a circle and we ended up back in the same spot. We followed the other and ended up back in the same spot. Someone always wants to help you find what you are looking for but will expect to be tipped for their time. We did not want help and in the end I turned on my gps watch and it led us right back to the waypoint I had set at our hostel.
On our first full day in Marrakech we decided to go for a hammam and massage. A hammam is a Turkish bath. I think in Turkey it is actually a big hot bath tub but here it is more of a steam room. You get coated in some black mud kind of stuff and sit in a steam room for about 15 minutes. After that, you get scrubbed down removing all of your dead skin from your body. Then they coat you in something else and back to the steam room. Following that is the Moroccan massage. They call it a massage but I would describe it as somewhere between physiotherapy and chiropractic. There was a lot of vigourous stretching and cracking of my body. On my part there was a lot of grunting. Painful and good all at the same time. I also had a relaxing massage for an hour. In all it was about two hours and it cost 550 MAD ($68). A hammam was a cultural experience we knew we had to try. After, the guys who had ‘worked’ on me all lined up waiting for a tip and were quite aggressive about the whole thing. A total $15 tip seemed okay to me but was probably a fortune to them… they were very thankful.
Nicola did not get the same package as me. She did the Hammam but only had a 30 minute relaxing massage. She also had a pedicure. Hers was 480 MAD ($59). No one lined up waiting for her to tip so I am not sure why it is so different.
I will leave it at that for now. We have another day in Marrakech and then we will head to Essaouira for three days and then back to Marrakech before our flight to London on the 25th.