Morocco’s Sahara Desert 2013
It started with a smooth bus ride from Big Sky in Saidia Marina to the town of Saidia, Morocco on brand spankin’ new road. The total bus fare was 25 cents each paid in dirhams. The purpose: purchase catch a shared taxi to the town of Oujda to purchase train tickets, and to empty out our instant teller to buy diesel for Big Sky – in cash! We walked to a chaotic parking lot in the centre of town which was the taxi stand where hordes of people scrabbled into various Mercedes of 70s or 80s vintage taxis. The taxi is full when there are six (or more) inside.
Joining in with great animation, what followed was an interesting 15 minutes of miscommunication despite Con's best French. We knew the cost was $2.50 each for the 65 kilometers journey to Oujda, but the driver wanted to charge us five times that. (The map shows the marina location, and Oujda is south.)
A crowd of taxi drivers and others gathered around us. Ahh, finally we realized the problem, they assumed as foreigners we wouldn't want to cram into the taxi "Moroccan style", but they were wrong. We were after the full experience. So, once crammed in, someone from the outside slammed the door, and we were off. People chatted, a boy opened his chocolate bar and offered to share it with me, "No thanks," (so kind, so Mulsim). An Arabic radio call-in show filled the taxi at full blast, "...Islam... Alkiada..." were about the only words we recognized but tones became more aggressive and the taxi quiet.
In Oujda, someone from the outside opened the taxi door and we tumbled out to the dusty dirt, smiled, brushed off, and walked around the town. Once we found the train station, we purchased tickets to leave Tuesday from our next port (Melilla, the Spanish enclave within Morocco) on a sleeper train to Casablanca, with a train change to arrive in Marrakech before noon Wednesday.
Stopping at a busy cafe, we enjoyed the local fare and then left to seek the designated taxi spot for our shared taxi return to Saidia. Confusing? Yes! We joined a large crowd where many excited covered women were shouting loudly chasing -- unsuccessfully -- taxi's up and down the street. We watched the mayhem believing that we'd have to eventually do the same. So we did. A taxi stopped, we beat the women to the door, clambered in along with seven or eight others, Con paid, and we were off. Con looked baffled, since the cost was different than our arrival price. "Saida?" We asked a few times. The taxi stopped, the doors opened, we were gently helped out, (difficult, because when that door opened, others tried to push themselves in), the driver opened his window handed Con our fare and pointed to a different intersection.
Now in the right taxi, the door slammed and the driver didn't let up on the gas pedal. He was going 149 km at times, snuggling up to the driver's bumper in front of us until they moved aside. The route follows the Algerian border with a small river separating the countries. Algerians waved at the drivers across the river. Hands extended out the windows to wave back.
Back aboard, we drove to the diesel station, filled up on 75 cent diesel, and left for Melilla in the morning.
September 10-11-- "You know we're ridin' on the Marrakesh Express"
We boarded the sleeper train to Casablanca, a ten-hour ride, in a surprisingly comfy compartment, “surprising” because it was so small one of us had to step out of the room if the other wanted to turn around. We next boarded the Marrakesh Express for another three hour journey toward the Sahara Desert and the Atlas Mountains. We loved it!
An eleven-fingered taxi driver picked us up at the station and dropped us off just outside the Marrakesh medina. We paid him 20 dirham ($2) and walked through the thousand-year-old streets, with our drag-behind bags. We passed the snake charmer making a cobra dance; a monkey in a diaper attacking his owner when he tried to check his diaper; a woman walking straight-backed with a heavy suitcase balancing on her head; and to the front door of our incredible oasis of a Riad (hotel), more than 400 years old, a charming place in the middle of Marrakesh's organized chaos. Our room was on the main floor. Entering our room, we immediately went to the bathroom to wash our feet and faces, and then set off to get lost in the medina -- an easy task!
September 12 -- Following a delicious breakfast on the museum-like Riad terrace, we once again opened the big front door and stepped out into a world of weird and wonderful. We kept a reasonable distance from the Snake Charmer, because just one look, you'd have to empty your pockets of change into his bucket. We did see, however, the Snake Charmer make sudden lashes at the cobra’s head in his dance with the snake. Once his dance was over, he laid the snake on his blanket and it coiled up lifting his head from the centre just to keep an eye on things.
You can get anything in Marrakesh, it just takes money. Want directions from local kids? Pay him. Want to smile at the monkey? Pay his owner.
TO THE DESERT
September 14 -- With our rented car, we drove through the spectacular High Atlas Mountains from Quarzazate through the Dades Valley. For 345 days out of the year, the valley is dry, but for the second day it's been raining off and on in this region. In other words, they receive 20 days of rain in a year (give or take) and so far, we have experienced two days of rain! It's curiously wonderful. The landscape doesn't allow for quick saturation and the rain water spills wildly over the sand for a short period time.
The road ahead had washed out. We didn’t want to turn around this soon in our adventure so we challenged the rental to go through and it managed to cross it to cheers of local onlookers.
Another flood blocked us ahead. This one was a lot hardier.
All the locals encouraged, “Wait 30 minutes, 30 minutes -- it will clear.” Our destination was the gorge, only 10 kilometres away, but by now a river of deep sandy water separated us from the other side of the road. We turned back into the town to wait "30 minutes" settling ourselves into a small restaurant for lunch. Our 30 minutes turned into two hours, and the situation was getting worse. The flash flood had won, so we set a new route to a different gorge. It was one of the most spectacular roads we've traveled.
To the End of the Road -- Literally!
Our eight-year-old guidebook said that it's well worth the trip to drive to the end of the road in Morocco, so of course, we did. From nowhere, seemingly going nowhere lone walkers would appear from the sand dunes and disappear again over the sand dunes. On a few occasions young men would appear (seemingly from nowhere) step in front of our car while we're traveling on the skinny two-lane road which often shrunk from the blown in sand, and attempted to stop us. We didn't know if they needed help, or if it was an ambush. Gingerly rolling down our window, one man adamantly invited us to "his father's house" for lunch. It could have been a fabulous opportunity, or not... We thanked him and carried on.
The end of the road is a small southern Moroccan mud town called, Mhamid, not far from Algeria. The road ends there and the Sahara Desert covers the land (Algeria). It was once a starting point for camel treks to Timbuktu.
Our arrival brought out more men again from nowhere, stepping in front of our car often causing us to swerve to miss them. They had arms full of necklaces or rocks to sell, or dromedary rides (the one-humped camel). They must have known we were coming. There were no other tourists, at least that we saw.
Village of Mhamid
Mhamid, like all the villages is made of mud, well sand. Everything is the same colour and with the rain, the road was now mud. To get to this village, drive to the end Morocco's road south, a 92 km trek on a rough road barely one lane, with about 10 km of detour into the sand. Why did we want to go to Mhamid?
Our eight-year-old travel book promised a spectacular market on Monday with Berbers coming into town from their desert villages to sell their wares and bringing hundreds of camels, goats, and sheep. You can imagine we were pretty excited.
The man at our ranch-styled hotel where we may have been the only guests, said with a quizzical look, "That never happens here." The drive was worth it again, zigging and zagging through the Atlas Mountains, hills, villages, and oasis, seeing people and imagines we'd never seen before or could have imagined. The world is beautiful!
September 16 – Our return to Marrakesh from the Algerian Moroccan border on the southern tip seemed like a crazy race. Returning on the same highway, but this time hugging the rugged cliff-side elevated our blood pressure somewhat. They road is narrow and often with overhanging loose-looking rocks leaving the impression that one sneeze too many and the road would be buried in a rocky-sandy mountainside.
At one hairpin turn, a diesel truck didn't make the turn and flipped on its side bursting open. We passed just as the accident had happened and the diesel was spilling out of the tank (in the picture below) running down the road. The smell was fierce. Others were on the scene so we didn't stop for fear of ignition.
We’d left Mhamid at 9:30 am, drove 450 kilometers through the beautiful desert, into foothills, and then the rugged Atlas Mountains – non-stop right to the 5 pm train to Casablanca. We didn’t even stop for lunch! We did, however stop at a highway-side Berber shack to buy a few things for the grand kids.
The deeper we had traveled into the southern tip, the more aggressive locals were to have us buy something from them; a trinket, dinner at their house, or an overnight stay at their daddy’s house, still stepping in front of our car to stop us. It was exhausting.
Despite the awesome rain storm, the sun always showed off the magnificent desert red colours of the mountains. The desert plays tricks on your eyes and we’d see a gloriously coloured prism in the sand created from the sun.
At one point, about six women came out of a fortress-styled mud-house community and stepped in front of our moving car to cross the road. That is not necessarily uncommon. Please don't look directly at them, (which is hard not to) because they become uncomfortable and turn away. Rolling down my window, I smiled and said, "Hello," but they were too timid to acknowledge.
September 17 – Casablanca to Melilla
Checking into a hotel in Casablanca, we washed the desert out of all our orifices, put on our walking shoes and trudged over as many Casablancan streets as we could. It's the largest city in Morocco.
Like all big cities, it's filled with people -- 4 million. Winding through the cities, with our inner GPS guiding us, we found the large port area, but more specifically the Hassan II Mosque, located in key real estate on the Atlantic Ocean. The mosque can house 25,000 worshippers inside and 80,000 in its courtyard! Its minaret is the world's tallest at 210 meters. The mosque is the largest in North Africa and one of the largest in the world.
A mad work plan took place in 1989 when the people attempted to complete the mosque by King Hassan II's 60th birthday. It didn't happen. In 1993, at an estimated cost of $800 million, the mosque was finally completed.
The city, probably because of its size wasn't much of a highlight for us. Instead, it was our necessary destination to catch the sleeper train back to Melilla where Big Sky was waiting.
This train trip I avoided brushing my teeth with the complimentary shaving cream provides as I did on the first trip. (FYI, shaving cream burns your tongue!) Again, the compartment is surprisingly comfy, but try (as I did) to train your bladder to use the toilet only when absolutely necessary. It's at the end of the car, and use breath control. It stinks!
On our previous trips through Morocco, (in 2008) we'd visited the eastern area (Smir to Fes, Tetouin, and Tangier).
Despite the many ghetto pictures we captured of Casablanca, don't misunderstand the diversity of that great city, it's one of the main financial centres of Africa with lots of international companies headquartered there.
Below, everything recyclable has been picked over and the rest remains like a landmark. Directly in front of this ghetto is the mosque -- Casablanca's number one tourist attraction. Talk about contrast! The Atlantic Ocean is on the other side of the mosque. Below, a series of photos or the wild and wonderful flash flood.