After a few days of meandering through Morocco, we arrived to a small town of Chefchaouen, tucked away up in a Rif Mountains, not too far from Tangier. I think Chefchaouen is one of my favorite places in Morocco. Between its striking blue medina, laid-back attitude of the locals and gorgeous backdrop of the surrounding mountains it’s very hard not to fall in love. I wish we had a little bit more time, but I felt like everyone was getting tired of Morocco and especially endless tajines, so we made plans to fly out to Thailand.
On our last morning, I got up a little bit earlier and went out to explore Chefchauen on my own. It was early, so the streets were pretty empty, except for a few little children being taken to school by their mothers and some shopkeepers setting up their shops. And, of course, several groups of ubiquitous Chinese tourists with their giant cameras and rooster-like clothing.
I walked up and down the streets, taking pictures, enjoying a perfect morning in a perfect little town. Every street, every corner was absolutely picture perfect and I shot hundreds of photos and had a hardest time picking my favorites.
Later I found out that the reason behind Chefchaouen’s blue buildings. According to Lonely Planet, there is a religious reason behind it: Jewish teachings suggest that by dyeing thread with tekhelel (an ancient natural dye) and weaving it into prayer shawls, people would be reminded of God’s power. The memory of this tradition lives on in the regularly repainted blue buildings.
Exhausted after our Sahara adventures, but utterly satisfied and happy, we left our Caravan-de-Rev crew and drove to meet our long missed ‘little Mr. Sunshine’ Mohammed in M’Hamid to head to our next destination. On the way we hit a bit of a sandstorm, which was kind of cool.
We stopped at the riad called Sahara Sky, not too far from Tamegrout. Tamegrout is a village not too far from M’Hamid, in the valley of the Draa River. It has a history as an important center of learning and religion through its famous Sufi zawiya, historical center of the Nasiriyya Sufi order, one of the most influential – and at one time one of the largest – Sufi orders. Tamegroute library still contains many ancient manuscripts, some as old as 1063, with most being written between 11-15th century. There is a 14th-century Quran with beautiful calligraphy in Kufic script, writings of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), a translation of Pythagoras, treatises on theology, astronomy, geography and pharmacology. All books are handwritten and some are written on skins of gazelle. The library comes with an ancient man in a wheelchair, who speaks just enough English to explain you what books are all about, that’s about it. It’s such an amazing treasure for such tiny little town in the middle of nowhere… Now they have built a koranic school, adjoined to the library, where kids spent many years studying koran and becoming religious scholars.
Tamegrout is also famous for the type of pottery, particularly its greed glaze, which has infinite variations, thanks to the ancient techniques. The founders of the religious brotherhood Nasiriyya wanted to raise the status of the village of Tamegroute to that of a ‘Medina’, or a city. They assembled the merchants and craftsmen that they had brought from Fes. But even though Tamegrout is a small village again, there are still a lot of potters whose families has been doing pottery for many generations and it’s exported all over Morocco and the world.
But the main reason we stayed in that particular hotel, is because of the stars. The hotel is built by a quirky German dude, who used to be an entrepreneur in the US and then advised king of Morocco on economic and business development, and now retired. He told us that he was always interested in astronomy and decided to build his own observatory as a hobby. And since he is a born entrepreneur, he also built a riad, so he can share his passion with others. The riad is literally in the middle on nowhere, in order to avoid light pollution. He has few serious telescopes and a professional astrologer on staff to educate those like us, who have never seen a telescope up close before (OK, we did. Once).
We were worried about not being able to see anything, because the sky was clouded for an entire week which is very unusual for October in this area. Plus the moon was almost full and bright, so if we wanted to see anything, we had to catch it before the moonrise. So, right after dinner we went upstairs to the roof, where the astronomer, who is originally from Belgium, showed us some pretty cool things. We got to see Andromeda, the galaxy closest to ours, couple of nebulas — ring and dumbbell — and Mars, which was pretty far and it appeared as a tiny orange dot. But the coolest thing was the moon. By that time the clouds started to move in and hang pretty low, but there was a small gap between the clouds and the horizon. We could see the moon in that gap, and it was so amazingly clear and beautiful, you could see every crater, every line. And partially hidden by the clouds it even looked even more intriguing and demure. As it was rising it was moving so fast, you could literally see it rolling higher and higher behind the clouds with the speed of a mad roadster. It was magical.
In the morning we got to see the sun through the telescope too, which was pretty cool. Having a professional astronomer was an icing on a cake – it’s always so much fun to talk to someone who is so passionate about their job.
We are heading to the Sahara Desert today. What a dream…
This morning we headed down to a small town of M’Hamid. M’Hamid is about 1.5 hours from Zagora, but the road is one lane only. Not one lane each way, but one lane literally. Every time a car moving towards us gets close enough, both cars have to go off-road on one side in order for them to pass. Thankfully, most drivers are courteous enough and everybody waves and thanks each other. We were stopped for about 10 minutes before M’Hamid to do a passport control check, apparently it’s a very common thing and they check everyone who comes there, probably because of the past conflict with Angola. We stopped for lunch at the Chez Pasha Kasbah and our driver Mohammed called Ali, our guide for the desert part of the trip. Ali is also the owner of the company Caravan de Reve. He is quite a character with his fedora, dreadlocks and berber blue muslim dress, like some confused berber Rastafarian.
At 4:30, we drove to M’Hamid El Ghizlane, which means “plain of gazelles.” It’s a small oasis town with about 7500 inhabitants, consisting of a bunch of dusty desert outfitters and tour companies. There are no hotels, restaurants or shops. Most people come, hop into a 4 wheel drive and head off to the dunes.
Well that’s exactly what we did. We piled our gear into Ali’s 4X4, leaving most of our luggage behind with Mohammed and took off. Our first night was at the Erg l’Houdi dunes. The drive to the camp is only 30 minutes, two hours if you go by camel. When I think of desert, or Sahara in particular, I think of sand dunes, of course, but in reality, sand dunes are only a part of it. As per Wikipedia: Regions of sand dunes (erg) occupy only about 15% of the Sahara; “stone deserts,” consisting of plateaus of denuded rock (hammada) or areas of coarse gravel (reg), cover about 70% of the region; mountains, oases, and transition zones account for the remainder. So, most of our drive was through dry flat hammada (the rocks), with an occasional patch of sand or a tree on the way. We were surprised by the abundance of the vegetation in the desert: trees, bushes, cacti, birds. Apparently there are a lot of animals too, but we didn’t see any. The drive was a little bit of a rollercoaster ride, with may bumps on the way, but driving through sand patches was particularly fun! It feels like driving through thick molasses, soft, sticky and somewhat slippery. The driver decided that we enjoyed the thrills and did a few special sand swerves for our entertainment.
We drove by our camels, which were walking all the way there, with the guide. Those guys get a lot of exercise going back and forth. When we got to the camp, we were welcomed again with the mint tea so strong, we thought it would keep us up for at least a camel ride. But we didn’t care for the tea, we saw the dunes and immediately went running up and down them. The dunes there are truly glorious, even if not to huge. Perfect curves and geometric lines, ripples, occasional dry patch of grass, picture perfect, just as expected. But compared to the rest of the desert, the dunes looked like a tiny patch of sand that spilled out of toddler’s pocket.
Kids of course saw the sandboards and wanted to go riding. They first found a tiny little slope, where they practiced, but then have gotten brave and went all the way up the big dunes. Sandboarding is somewhat like snowboarding, but very different. The idea is the same – you are strapped to the board, you go down the hill, that’s about it. In reality, sandboarding is very different. First, there is not enough friction on the sand, so the slope has to be pretty steep, otherwise the board gets stuck. Second, the board moves pretty slow, so there is no such thing as carving or having to be on the edge, you just go down the hill. The worst part is that for every 5 seconds of riding down, you have to spend 30 minutes climbing the dune, which is not and easy task. But kids didn’t care. They climbed up and down about 300 hundred times and were ready for more, but our camels have finally made it there and we were ready for the sunset ride.
We’ve done some camel riding in India before, so it wasn’t as new, but kids had never done it, and they were very excited. Getting on a camel and getting off is probably the worst part of the trip. Camel has to sit down for you to mount it, and then it first straightens its front legs, and you feel like you are about to topple over backward, then the back legs, when you are absolutely sure you will eat it head first, and then the first steps feel like you are going to topple off it any second. But after a few minutes you get a hang of it and fall into some sort of rhythm of gentle swaying with the step. That is until you hit the dunes. You would think that camels and dunes go together like milk and cookies. Well, maybe, but not when you are riding one. When they go up or down the dune, they take really big steps, almost jumps, to make sure they can stay steady and not fall, which is like jumping on a trampoline on a 4X4, scary as hell. I thought that I was going to rip that tiny little handle off in a first dune. So we kindly asked our cameleer not to do any extreme cameling, and stay off the steep dunes. Camel guide does not ride the camel, he walks the entire time. Even when he brings camels to the camp. Berbers don’t usually ride camels, they use them to carry goods and gear.
I would like to say that I really enjoyed the camel ride, but all I remember is gripping the handle with all my might and trying not to fall off. And sore thighs for the next few days.
After the ride we spent some time settling at the camp. The camp seemed pretty permanent for a movable camp. The beds were real, even though covered with a thin layer of desert sand. But I guess it’s a part of the experience, pretty soon we had sand in every crevice and on every surface, including the camera and all the laptops.
After the camel ride we had pretty unmemorable dinner and after everything was cleaned up the guides, cook and Ali all whipped out a couple of jambes and other drums and had a little jamming session, drumming and singing. Kids decided it would be fun to play drums too, so they were goofing around with one extra drum they had, making a lot of noise. We were lucky to not have had too many people, the only other campers were the two Swiss brothers, who came to Morocco for a quick vacation and drove 900 miles around the country.
The sky was quite cloudy so we didn’t see any stars. Unfortunately. But the sunrise the next morning was quite spectacular. I went to see the sunrise twice. Once at 5AM, when it appeared to me that the sun was rising. I went out and sat on a dune for a while. And then, after it not getting any brighter, I had enough smarts to check what time the sunrise really is. It was at 6:45AM, so I went to bed, hoping I would oversleep, but no, I was up bright and early ready for sunset at 6:30.
After breakfast we did more sandboarding and then got in the car to go to the mighty Erg Chigaga Dunes. Erg Chigaga (or Chegaga) is one of two major dunes of the Sahara in Morocco, the other being the Erg Chebbi of Merzouga. Erg Chigaga is approximately 40 km to 15 km wide, with some dunes around a 360 m tall (170 m more than Erg Chebbi) and because it is relatively difficulty of access – it is only accessible by 4×4, camel or on foot – Erg Chigaga remains relatively untouched. And magnificent, of course.
Being untouched, there are no camps in the Erg Chigaga dunes themselves. Most of the camps are in the driving distance. Short driving distance, but still. So the kids couldn’t just jump out of the car and run up and down the dunes, the whole experience was a lot more subdued. The camp was a lot bigger and much more crowded. The sense of being alone at the end of the world was lost, as well as the sense of camaraderie that seems to appear in small, intimate groups of travelers.
At one point we went out and followed Ali all the way up to the highest dune. I think he said it was over 350m. It was quite a journey, but we all made it! The wind up on the top was abominable and I after having my hat get blown off and having to tie it to my head with a scarf, the whole bedouin get up started to make a total sense.
After the two weeks of Marrakesh fun, we are taking off on our big journey across Morocco. We said long tearful good byes to our sweet Moroccan “family,” Badja and Samad and walked down our last walk through the medina to the taxi stand. It never stops to amaze me how your perception of a place changes just after a few short days. I remember arriving in Marrakesh the first night and seeing nothing but chaos and dust, but now Marrakesh feels so homey and peaceful. We pass by souk owners who say hello not because they want to sell us something, but because they know us by now, the streets look clean and sunlit, even the motorbikes seem mellow and agreeable.
Our driver, Mohammed, a young guy with forever sunny attitude and impeccable professional manners, was waiting for us at the taxi stand. We loaded up and took off to the mountains on Highway 9, towards Quarzazate. The mountains up from Marrakesh to the summit are gorgeous clay red, with specks of trees and bushes and an occasional farm or a nomadic goat herder. I was surprised how green some of the spots were – I always pictured Morocco as a giant desert with nothing but rocks and sand dunes. They have plenty of that too, but there is also no shortage of luscious greenery, orchards, palmearies and plantations. Most of the rains come in the winter and the snow melts, rivers swell up and sometimes get out of control, creating floods and devastation. We drove past several places destroyed by floods, including one as recent as the one this summer. Rains here can be quite severe, especially the torrential rains that come and dump buckets of water in just few minutes, creating violent mountain water run-offs, not unlike the one in the Hollywood studios, except deadly.
On the way we passed many Berber villages, still built out of mud and rocks, just like in the olden days. One was particularly picturesque, in its own stark, stone-like way.
After the summit at 2260 meters, the road changes and turns gray and stony through Tizi N’Tichka path. Not too long ago the road was in horrible conditions and it took several hours of heart-stopping driving to get over to the other side, but now government is putting a lot of money in road renovations to improve infrastructure and attract tourism. It is considered a highest major mountain pass of North Africa and November-March it occasionally gets snowed in, but the snow melts quickly.
Right after Tizi N’Tichka path we took a turn off to the road to Telouet – small dusty village in the Zig river valley. The road to Telouet follows the path of the river, which also sweeps up and destroys everything on its way, including the roads. We’ve spent a couple of hours creeping alongside the river, keeping our fingers crossed that the road ahead is not washed off. That area can get pretty dangerous during the rain and we’ve met a couple in Marrakesh who got stranded few days earlier in a little village in the mountains because of the rain. Thankfully it wasn’t raining that day and they weren’t expecting the rain anytime soon.
Telouet is located along the former route of the caravans from the Sahara over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech. We stopped at the Telouet Kasbah, a castle for the T’hami El Glaoui or Lord of the Atlas, the Pasha of Marrakech from 1912 to 1956. Kasbah, in a typical Moroccan tradition of building something beautiful and then either destroying it or abandoning it to turn into ruin, is slowly collapsing, but there are few rooms that are still full of old age glory. Thankfully the government is putting an effort into preservation and restoration of old castles and historical buildings, as it attracts tourism and brings in a lot of money.
After Telouet, the road had gotten a little bit better, but little did we know that the worst part is yet to come. We drove 11 km to Ameter, where we took a turn off to Tighza. Well let me tell you – I probably have a lot more gray hairs after that trip, than even after Stalheimsklevia road in Norway. The road was super steep, unpaved and of course didn’t have any borders whatsoever. We were lucky to have met only 3 or 4 cars on the way and only in the places where we could pass each other, because in most places the road is wide enough to barely squeeze by in one car. What do you do when you meet another car? You just back up for another mile or two until there is enough room to pass. Hopefully you don’t back up off a cliff. When I was making a reservation, the lady asked me if we wanted to take a mule cart, but I figured that I will let the driver decide if he wants to drive up this road or not. On the way back, I’m definitely taking a mule cart for the luggage and walking all the way down!!!
Tighza is a tiny little village all the way up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. Literally. It’s at the end of the road, there is nothing past it. But, boy, it’s gorgeous! Beautiful red clay mountains surrounded by lush bright green olive groves and farmlands, red clay kasbahs perched on the cliffs. And giant rocks and quiet…
We stayed with the family at El Quazemy house. Ahmet, his wife and mother live there, and his brother Mohammed, who is married to Caroline, run Kasbah Oliver next door. At the Ahmet’s house we met a family from the UK: Andy, Jenny and Poppy. Andy runs the Baraka Partnership Charity, which does a lot of good deeds for the village and many other places. We had a long talk about Morocco, charities and travel and general. I have so much admiration and respect for people like that, who just pick up and start doing things to help others: singlehandedly run the entire organization, finding projects he wants to help with, finding volunteers to help with building schools and organizing learning centers, providing medical help and helping with the constructions work.
Ahmet’s wife and mother cooked a delicious meal of harira (traditional Moroccan soup) and couscous with vegetables and a side of chicken. We had tea and fruit for dessert. Our bedroom was pretty basic and the water wasn’t running that day, but that’s what you would expect in a place like that. We didn’t complain. Well, Bobby did, but he didn’t feel that good that day.