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Magical Morocco, Part I: Casablanca and the South

Author: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: March 2007

We didn't have much time left in the afternoon, so we headed back to the park where we'd sat that morning to relax a bit and enjoy the nice weather. We were sitting comfortably for no more than five minutes before a local approached us and started asking us in English how we liked Morocco, where we were going next, where we were from, etc. He seemed friendly enough and didn't immediately ask for anything, so I was almost starting to think he was just being hospitable to the nice foreigners when suddenly the sob stories came out. His daughter died in Spain, his wife died somewhere else, blah blah blah, and eventually he wanted us to give him the equivalent of $2 for ... gas? I have no idea. We gave him about $1 just to make him go away and then walked off as quickly as we could. He was just the first of many Moroccans to approach us that way during our trip. We quickly got better about spotting them and not being taken advantage of as we were this time!

We went back to Hotel Guynemer to pick up our bags and catch a cab to the airport for our Royal Air Maroc flight to Errachidia, a town in the southeastern part of Morocco. This was my first prop plane experience -- fun! There was a big, rowdy group of about 10 Spanish tourists on the plane with us, and they applauded when our captain successfully landed the aircraft.

Errachidia, Erg Chebbi and the Desert
We hadn't booked a hotel ahead of time in Errachidia, but fortunately there was plenty of room at the Kenzi Rissani, just five minutes by cab from the airport. This was one of the nicest (read: most expensive) hotels in town, supposedly, though to be honest the rooms weren't anything special and it took ages to get anything but tepid water in the shower. The rate was about $90 a night with breakfast, which is ridiculously pricey for this part of Morocco. In retrospect I wish we'd chosen somewhere else to save a few bucks, but this place was certainly clean and nice enough, and the English-speaking man at the front desk was incredibly helpful and patient with our many questions. It was through him that we arranged to hire a driver/guide and 4x4 vehicle to take us around for the next two days.

Our guide, Youssef (sp?), picked us up in a clean, well-maintained Toyota Prado -- with seatbelts, no less! -- and began driving west toward Todra Gorge. This was my first time in a desert, and I found it beautiful in a very barren sort of way. The ground was nothing but sagebrush and rocky reddish sand, with a backdrop of mountains in brown and rose and green. As we approached the various villages, the landscape got lusher, with palm trees and the occasional pockets of greenery, thanks to whatever wells or water systems the locals had in place.

As we drove, Youssef pointed out a number of Berber nomads tending their herds of sheep and goats, grazing on the sagebrush. It looked like an incredibly lonely life to me.

We broke up our long trip to the gorge with a stop at an amazing little museum of Berber culture (I'm not sure of the name). It included samples of Berber dress and jewelry, pottery and tools, weapons, calligraphy, etc. We also saw samples of the kinds of wells the locals use to get water in the desert. It was a really neat place, with the various indoor exhibits surrounding an open courtyard with several nomadic tents and a pen with sheep. The owner was friendly and enthusiastic, capably switching between French for the two other tourists visiting and English for me and SO. He was also a calligrapher, and we bought a small piece of his featuring the words of Kahlil Gibran (written in Arabic): "The earth is my country; humanity is my family."

Back on the road to the Todra Gorge, we passed through increasingly dramatic scenery as we approached the town of Tinerhir, located in a huge valley blanketed with palm trees and flanked by high rocky cliffs. We wound up behind a tour bus right before we got to the gorge, which was a pretty good indicator of what we'd find there. Sure enough, Youssef dropped us off at the same time as a few big tour buses spewed out a flock of older European tourists sporting cameras and knee-high socks. Oy. The gorge itself was incredible, the cliffs stretching upward on both sides to an almost dizzying height, but the tourist hordes and the hotels right at the base took away from the experience a bit.

We'd hoped to do a 30-minute hike mentioned in our guidebook, but Youssef told us we didn't have time with everything else we wanted to do that day, so it was back into the car for us. I was a little bummed -- we basically drove a long way to stand at the bottom of a gorge for 10 minutes. It was a nice gorge, but ... ah well.

It was a fairly sleepy drive back along the same roads to a little town called Tinejdad, where we stopped at a teeny roadside joint for lunch. SO and I shared a big bottle of water, lamb kebabs, a basket of bread, an enormous orange and a plate of fries for about $10. We ate out on the front porch, watching the very small town go by. Bicycle seemed to be the preferred mode of travel, although there were also cars, motorscooters and even donkeys. A bunch of kids played games on a dusty side street, while a tiny older lady hunched by under an enormous burden of some sort of grass/straw -- it looked as big as she was. (Now she could've used a donkey!)

Back on the road, we made our way toward Erfoud, where we were going to visit a fossil "museum" (I figured "shop" was probably more accurate). SO is a geologist, and he was really excited to see the various fossils to be found in this part of the world. But first we were waylaid by a rather odd detour.

"Do you see the constructions?" Youssef asked us, pointing toward some mountains in the distance. We squinted obediently, not sure what we were looking for. "You see?"

I finally acknowledged that maybe I saw some brown, desert-y buildings way off in the distance. Youssef began talking about a place to "see stars" and a place shaped like a goniatite (one of the fossils found in abundance here). We were all, "okay, okay," which we said a lot throughout our tour to indicate that we understood whatever he was telling us. Then he said we could go see the constructions, it would only be a half-hour detour, etc. We still didn't get it, but figured he'd only take us there if it were worth it in some way.

So off we went -- off-road, that is. I felt like I was in a truck commercial, where the vehicle is flexing its muscles on the kind of mountainous off-road course that most American vehicles never actually experience. We were bounced around like rag dolls and tilted at various scary angles as we careened up and down the dunes. I was gritting my teeth to prevent them from flying out of my head (and to ward off motion sickness) until we reached flatter, rockier ground and approached the buildings we were seeking.

The goniatite-shaped thing was a dark building that apparently "spiraled around and around until water," according to Youssef. So ... it was some sort of well? The other thing was a cluster of buildings that could have been ... a planetarium? We never did figure it out. We did spot a big group of camels, including some babies, on the way back to the main road, but otherwise? Not the best use of 30 minutes. Oh well.

We pressed onward, taking note of quite a few dirt devils kicking up around the desert. (Youssef charmingly called them "tor-nye-does.") As we approached Erfoud, we began to see a few women on the roads in full black veils, with only their eyes peeking out. I found it chilling -- I hadn't even realized that we hadn't seen it yet, but everywhere else we'd been, the women had only had their hair covered (if anything). I've heard that many Muslim women feel safer behind the veil, but I still found it jarring to see. Youssef pointed out that this was part of Arabic culture and was not a custom among the local Berber women.

In Erfoud, we stopped at the fossil museum, which sure enough was actually a shop -- Fossiles et Ceramiques du Sahara -- but what a shop! Even I was impressed by the fossils there, which ranged from itty-bitty unpolished clymenids like the ones SO has at home to huge thick tabletops made of slabs of limestone teeming with fossils.

Then it was off to see the real thing in a nearby quarry. There were so many fossils there that even my untrained eyes could spot them. SO was the proverbial kid in the candy store, grabbing up a ton of rocks in the 10 - 15 minutes we had there. (No wonder our bags were so heavy on the way home!) I had a nice time too, just sitting there peacefully staring out at the desert. In the distance I could see the rosy dunes of Erg Chebbi, where we'd be spending the night, and the dark mountains beyond that marked the border with Algeria. I had the same feeling of quiet peace that I often do sitting on the beach in the evening looking out at the ocean -- the desert has the same sort of power and beauty.

All too soon we were back on the road again, this time on a piste road to the town of Hassi Labied, where we found our hotel, the Kasbah Tombouctou. Along the way we had a constant view of the dunes, which were magnificently rose-red in the setting sun. We had enough daylight after check-in to walk up some of the lower dunes and catch the end of sunrise, which was amazing. We had to pass by the camels parked out back of the hotel first though -- which meant that we picked up two camel wranglers who started following us up the dunes. SO was pretty good about giving them a consistent "No," but they continued to follow us silently for a few minutes -- to the point where I thought I'd be sharing a romantic sunset with both SO and the two camel wranglers. We finally lost them when we walked past two other poor tourists who were trying to enjoy their own little patch of dune; the camel guys stopped to harass them while we walked quickly to the top of another dune. We enjoyed about 20 minutes of peace and quiet as the sun slowly set.

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