Sahara Safari

So much for getting held for ransom by Algerian rebels! We had booked our tour through an Italian company, and as can happen, a few things were lost in translation!

We were not embarking on a 7 day safari of Saharian golden dunes, but a 9 day hike of the Draa Valley. Camels were included, but primarily as carriers of supplies, not us! We were not beginning at M’Hmid, the doorway to the Sahara, but ending there!!!

Our journey was to be a 9 day odyssey. A pilgrimage of the Moroccan kind. A spiritual toil through sacred, ancient land, following burial grounds along the valley of the river Draa – a skinny, winding river that sits in lands as harsh as it can be lush. A river that has supported settlements and nomads for thousands of years.

The Lonely Planet succinctly describes The Draa as “so desolate, that until you see it, there is no other way to comprehend the amazing feat of Moroccan existence!”

This is where we were to spend the next 9 days!

Ground, Grounded, Gone to Ground. The first thing to notice is the ground. We live off the ground, sit and eat, off the ground. Everything we have, comes from the ground. Its a different perspective, down here on the ground. Thank goodness its not wet but it’s also dirty on the ground. Clean dirt – mostly sand and not as bad as soil, but it is earth, terra firma! The first day – this is what is most impressed upon me. Ground. A concern begins to emerge in my thoughts! How can food be hygienically prepared – on the ground! Without refrigeration or running water?

Our “caravan” consists of 6 human beings and 3 camels. (An extra camel to ride is ordered and joins us a few days later – hand delivered by a young Saiid who walked for 8 hours, from M’Hmid, to do so). Antonio and I are the guests. The staff include 4 Arab men we quickly form a friendship with. Saiid is our Guide, Alii our interpreter. Ibrahim our brilliant cook, and Mohammad the carer of the Camels.

Young Saiid who walked 8 hours to deliver us a camel.

Under sensible desert wear of caftan and turban, the Arabs wear sensible urban wear – track suits and runners. These men live life with a foot in each world. Surrounded by their desert and generations of tradition and belief, they also all have mobile phones, and unbelievably, reception for most of this trip.

There is a rhythm to our walk, biting off chunks of the day as we proceed at the slow, steady, soothing pace of the camel. Rising with dawn, breakfast, packing up camp, traveling for about 4 hours. (Happily me mostly on the camels back!) Walking single file through crackling river reeds or parched irrigation channels. Emerging into sparse wide country, spreading out, consumed with the gentle breeze on the hot day, in our own thoughts. Stopping for the day, eating lunch and trying to survive the heat. Its way too hot in the sun, and surprisingly, too cool in the shade!

As the sun begins to set, motion begins again around the camp. A fire is built and dinner is prepared, eaten and we go to bed!

At times this was a tough journey for me including a melt down, yes tears in the tent, about half way through as I was overwhelmed with the excruciating boredom of trying pass the hot hours of the afternoon; the dirt; the ground; the drying desert; the lack of fresh water, only a small basin of water morning and night to wash in – no showers! The wind – a mini sand storm set in one afternoon and all night the wind thrashed and roared like a storm at sea. Thankfully, all other days were calm. Just hot. Mind you, not the grilling, sizzling heat of the 50 – 55 degree summer days, but a slow tagine cooking kind of heat of at least 30 degrees.

We survived the journey and from the comfort of our now awarded 6 star Cubby (all things are relative), time has already distilled the harshest memories into jewels.

We have lived and discovered the realities of life as nomads. For thousands of years, nomads have traversed this desert. Trading salt, sugar or just looking for a better place to be.

A desolate, rocky country, we moved amongst the relics and burial grounds of ancient settlements; Jewish kingdoms over 1600 years old, before Islam was born, and Berber villages, Arab cities. Chunks of terracotta pots and plates, remains of houses. Burial mounds as far as the eye can see, a closer look and the fragments of human bone inside. All slowly eroding, disappearing with the coarse wind, sand and searing summer heat.

 

The modern, subsistence lives of the Draa still cling to the river, channelled now and allocated amongst the villages on its long course. We are never far from civilisation and infact pass through or around about 60 villages. Built from the very earth they sit upon, houses are made from mud bricks, rendered by mud, fences formed from slabs of mud and dried palm leaves. Most nights we can hear the faint and distant drone of the evening and morning call to prayers, amplified though villages, 5 times a day.

 

People appear from the desert as if conjured by the hands of sand, stone and wind. We had a surprising encounter with a young girl and her little brother. As we sat on a dune, seemingly in the middle of nowhere admiring a sunset, they arrived with veils to sell – the traditional hand embroidered Berber “Zief.” We begin to barter but she quietly and shyly stuck to her price of 150 dh (about 15 euro) for two. We stick to our price, 50 dh less, and unbelievably she bids us “aurevior” and begins to walk away. At first we are just astounded, then we call them back and make the purchase. She knows the value of her handiwork, and we are proud for her.

 

 

Saiid has arranged a number of interesting diversions to the rocky barren desert and we visit the homes of some locals. It’s an eye opener. If lucky, the mud brick house has a few cooler chambers inside and perhaps a concrete stair case to an upper level. No surfaces are treated – concrete and mud is left, raw, dry. Inside the living area the only covered surface is the floor – with rugs, or mats! There is no furniture. Mattresses and blankets for sleep are stacked along one wall. There may be signs of electricity and light fittings, but no globes. Men are sitting on cushions against the wall and the central feature, the only feature, is the tea making equipment.

The Moroccan tea ceremony is unbelievable. We are amazed how important and what a ritual it is. Every evening our Arab friends “do” tea around the fire before they eat. Every visit will be accompanied by tea. Most often the men make the tea. It’s made and served in 3 rounds. The first is bitter and strong – like life! The second to quench the thirst. The third is lighter and sweet – like love! And sweet it is. A lot of sugar goes into each pot. Our caravan carries a 4 kg solid chunk of sugar, big chips are broken off each night. The tea is poured with length. The tea MUST end up with a head – like a good beer. It is said that tea without a head is like a nomad without a turban. It cannot exist.

 

On one visit I am called, shyly, from the room by the young girl of the house. Islan is 20 and brings me into the womens only area. It’s just like the mens, but more rugs on the floor. We sit on cushions on the floor in front of an ancient television. She wants me to speak English so she can repeat the words. She has no idea what we are saying but is relishing just practicing the sounds.

We have learned a lot about the Muslim culture and are reminded that Islam is a religion of peace; education in Morocco is for men and women and the fundamental aims of education are anti-poverty and to strive for equality between men and women; young Arab men often choose their brides in the joyous 7 day, singing and hand clapping, celebrations of a friend or family wedding; the camel is a sacred animal as it is mentioned in the Koran 3 or 4 times, more than any other animal.

 

Certainly we depend upon our camels. These tall, docile, gangly creatures are ideal for this environment. The camel has an amazing foot. Not hard and noisy like the horse, but soft, quieter with a tough hide texture – just like the nomad. Surprisingly they are not sure on their feet. A rough, uneven or slippery surface is not easy for the camel. Their endurance comes from their self sufficiency for water. No other animal can last in a desert so long without water. Their practicality comes from their long legs – collapsing cleverly into 3 parts and tucking under their belly, ensures they are just the right height to pack and to mount. A good camel can cost around 1500 euro – a small fortune to most Moroccans. A donkey costs around 100 euro.

 

Life in this part of a modern Morocco is tough. It’s very hard for a young Moroccan man to improve his position. Employment is seasonal based on tourism or agriculture. Work is not available for 6 or 7 months of the year. Even if some money could be accumulated and saved, the obligation to help family is compelling. Those “with” cannot be seen not to help those “without.” Centuries of tribes have survived on this principle.

And we see dunes. Golden and sweeping in a blue sky. I cannot say I yet have the heartful of dunes that I’d desired. I may have to come back.

 

Our camel trek was more than we could have ever anticipated. Almost religious on a spiritual, cultural, human level – somehow purifying. I feel more inspired after this 9 days in the desert than I did in 5 weeks on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella.

And we have 4 new friends with 4 Arab men who kindly and happily supported and served us for the past 9 days. It is hard to say how important each person was but certainly a heartfelt thankyou to all, and especially Ibrahim! Every day, somehow out of the kitchen tent, he managed to serve us fresh salad, fish and a cooked interesting dish for lunch, tagine or cous cous for dinner. Always healthy, delicious and Moroccan. All without running water or refrigeration. Thankyou ………..

Ibrahim our talented cook!

Alii our Interpreter

Mohammad our Camel Carer

Saiid our Guru Guide

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2 Comments on “Sahara Safari”

  1. Douglas says:

    Epic post. Tony, with those glasses on you look like some runaway dictator. Take it easy, man!

  2. Elizabeth fowler says:

    Yet another fantastic post. I think these photos top the lot (with the exception of the photo of Noah of course) The little girl in the alley way is a great shot, but I think I love the long shadowed camel most of all. What a good looking man Alii is. I bet he wins all the hearts.


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