Quiz time. Grab a pen and paper.
Ready? Without thinking about it, write down the first five things you think of when I say the word...
Done? That was fast. Have a house point. Now I'm going to guess some of the words you wrote down. You may have written any of the following:
How did I do? OK, I'll venture further and say that you wrote either the word 'SAHARA' or 'DESERT'. Hopefully you see where I'm going with this...
Morocco is a sizeable country, bigger than I expected, and one of the consequences of this is the dramatic changes that take place within its borders. Without (hopefully) needing to show your passport or cross a border, you can move from the Atlantic Ocean into the outer edge of the world's largest and most famous desert. With towering, snow-tipped mountains in the middle.
Ready for round two of the quiz? I know I am! Write down the first five words that you think of when I say...SAHARA. Off you go! Tick tock! Keep those answers for later, if you would. And please stop doodling a silly face and put your pen down, thank you.
To get to the Sahara you must cross the Atlas mountain range, which spans from X to X and is the backbone of eastern Morocco. This part of the country is also the birthplace and home of Morocco's main tribe, the Berbers. A group of about twelve explorers packed into a minbus in the early morning to set off from Marrakech, with the intention of getting to the south-westerly town of Zagora in the mid-afternoon.
There is, however, much to admire within these two towns, most pertinently the stunning landscapes our bus, driven by a man called Mohamed with terrible teeth and arguably an even worse fashion sense, traversed across. A key aspect of the landscape is its ability to surprise; from the lush green fields to standing in snow atop a 2000+ metre mountain, it was very easy to forget our intended destination was a desert.
A quick word on the driving at this point: hairy. Take that to mean you won't have much left due to the stress caused by the constant weaving and daring overtaking manoeuvres accomplished just in the nick of time on the side of a steep, rocky cliff face. The picture below shows two lanes of vehicles moving in the same direction. Don't be fooled: cars were coming the other way. The overarching loads tiny trucks were struggling to haul over the Atlas range was simply terrifying. Don't even get me started on the poor donkeys...
We stopped in a couple of places of interest. One of these was an innocuous town called Ksar Aït Ben Haddou. This remote village only houses ten families, and they have lived within the kasbah – castle, not the song by The Clash – for hundreds of years. The population was larger, but many families have opted to move to modernity. Our ruthlessly quick tour guide explained to us several times that the buildings were made of mud, straw and water: nothing else. The village is a fascinating sight when you consider that fact. Intriguingly this place has a synagogue, in addition to a mosque, as there used to be quite a large Jewish diaspora living here in centuries past.
The buildings and kasbah was interesting, but not the main reason for us being brought to the village. Ksar Aït Ben Haddou is no ordinary place, and extraordinary people come here to make extraordinary products. For Ksar Aït Ben Haddou is the host of Hollywood when it decides to shoot on location in northern Africa.
The list of movies shot here is impressive, and expanding all the time. The breakthrough film for the region was the classic Lawrence of Arabia, and more recent blockbusters such as Gladiator and the new Prince of Persia flick used this village and its kasbah as a film set. The erection of these elaborate sets is temporary, however, as you can see from the Gladiator Colosseum below. That is certainly not part of Berber Moroccan culture, and is thus dismantled upon the denouement of filming so that the village retains its authenticity as a symbol of Moroccan history.
We arrived into Zagora in the late afternoon, and were taken to our method of transport which was more suited to moving through the desert than a minibus. So, off into the Sahara we go. You may now retrieve your answer papers. Look back through those five words I asked you to list earlier. Did they include:
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I got at least three correct. I'm also going to tell you that, though all undoubtedly true, they are also not all part of our Saharan experience. Particularly the 'hot' part.
After the guide shooed away the local begging children in what I assume is diplomatic in Morocco and not many other places – I can't imagine throwing stones at beggars in Prague – we were invited to sit on our camels. I couldn't help feeling sorry for the one-humped creatures; the way they were sitting, limbs cocked and folded beneath their bodies and necks tied tightly to rope and other camels, hardly seemed friendly. Yet they were able to express themselves in other ways. Hannah's camel was literally salivating at the prospect of her sitting on his back for an hour-and-a-half, and mine was wailing and howling at the thought of carrying me for that amount of time, in spite of my lack of weight. Maybe he wanted a challenge.
Thunder, as I called him in typically ironic fashion, nonetheless behaved himself for our journey. Any worry about damage to my manhood was also ill-advised: they don't move that quickly. Aside from stopping so the guides could pray, we bounced and lolled along, starting in sunlight and ending in complete darkness, save for the twinkling stars above. It seemed that the whole galaxy was out to amaze us. I have never seen so many stars in my life. In between was a lovely, light sunset, a faint wash of yellows and blues.
After beginning to question whether camels can see in the dark (my guess, based on them bumping into one another, is that they can't), we soldiered on over a dune to find a dim light shimmering in the distance. This was to be our campsite. Having erected a tent at dusk during our camping adventure in the summer, I was glad that the tents were already in place. They were set out in an arc around an open area for a fire, as you can see from the picture taken the following morning.
It would seem that this is the chance to tell you that the desert is not always hot. It makes sense, when you think logically. Burning with heat during the day, but with no clouds or prospect of a sea breeze at night to warm it, the temperature in the Sahara plummets as the sun disappears in the west. Having initially packed for Morocco thinking of only sunshine, we thus had to take as many clothes as possible in our rucksacks in order to keep warm, especially as the fire wasn't lit for a long time.
After a mass serving of soup and tagine which caused a few digestive problems the following day (I'll spare you the details), we huddled quietly around the illuminating flames and listened to some traditional Berber drumming. Soon after I chose to shiver away from the fire; the compromise of gazing at worlds beyond ours was more than a fair compromise. A camera simply wouldn't do them justice.
We awoke for a lovely, pure sunrise which rose slowly over the distant mountains, before riding back to base on our camels. Any soreness in your back or legs which you experience on an initial camel journey is multiplied significantly the following day. Though the unique aspect of camel riding has gone the following day, the journey was thankfully shorter as we were collected in a different location.
The experience of sleeping in the desert was definitely worth the long drive through the mountains. Indeed, the mountains themselves are worth a visit in their own right. Morocco is blessed with some inspiring and truly diverse scenery. The brilliantly bright stars, watching down on the desert in their thousands, is a sight I hope I never forget.
Love you all