Morocco Desert Tours Part 4: A Day in the Desert

Yes, it’s a bit special to straddle the ridge of a sand dune and watch the sun go down. For many people, it’s truly a dream come true. So it’s quite easy to respond enthusiastically to the hosts’ suggestion of getting up early the next morning to watch the sun come up again. Those devils. I don’t know how they keep a straight face. It’s 4:30 in the morning. Unarguably, it is still dark. In the tent it is, anyway. The dunes’ acoustics take the sharp edge off the hosts’s clap-clap… “Bonjour!” Time to get up if you’re going to see the sun. Because it is your first time to the desert, you will do this. You said you would… oh, foolish pride. On subsequent trips, you will merely roll over, thank the heavens for that hotel mattress and bedding you burrow into, and smile at the muffled mutterings of those intrepid ones who wanted to greet the sun. Since you can’t beg the sun for just five minutes more, you struggle into your clothes, stumble out the door. There is just enough grey in the light to distinguish the outline of the tents against the dunes, and you join the others questing once more for the ridge. Oh, rubber legs! How could you betray me?! Alas, it’s no longer dark enough to be able to beat a retreat to the tent and back to the lovely bed without being seen. Imad with camels In desperation, you push for the crest. Once more, this surreal landscape has its way with you. Your breathing slows, peace and tranquility wash over you. And then, there it is. There is none of the furious red, orange, and ochre of the setting sun. This sleepyhead sun has just enough yellow to push its way through the last grey streamers of the night sky. There is no mistaking its power, though. Soon enough, the sun is asserting itself, its piercing heat sends you scrambling back down to camp. Time to pack up, time to head out: the camels are ready, and breakfast and showers await back at the desert hotel. Fossils …You’ve never had a start to the day quite like this, have you? Well, just wait ‘til you see what this day has in store! It’s time to discover life in the desert towns. Let’s see, how about fossil-hunting? A visit to a camel farm? (Want to try camel milk?) Dancing to the ancient rhythms of Gnaoua music? Discovering “medfouna”, the local “stuffed pizza”-like specialty in Rissani? (Sshhh… it’s a secret!) Bargaining for a carpet? (This is the place to get them…) How about “all of the above”? And then there are the local markets… ooh, LET’S GO! We’re in the neighborhood, so our first stop is the tiny village of Khamlia, a haphazard cluster of mud-brick dwellings that seem to grow out of the dusty dirt streets. The notable exception is the white-washed home of the Pi geons du Sable, one of the premier Moroccan musical groups playing Gnaoua music. It is the music of the former black African slaves, and the inhabitants of this village are descendants. They and their music have now been integrated into Morocco’s cultural mosaic, and the major Gnaoua World Music Festival is held every year in Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast. If the Pigeons are “home” and not touring, you can pop in for an impromptu jam Pigeons du Sable music band session, where you will be welcomed with mint tea and nuts. The music is hypnotic, and before long, everyone is up, swaying and clapping to the ancient beat. See if you can resist buying a CD after that!     And on to Erfoud! But first, we stop en route at a camel farm to pet the camels. Oh, there’s a little baby white one – he already knows he’s special. He turns his head, pressing into your fingers so you get that one little sweet spot in the soft-dense-wiry hair behind his ears. It’s a day for new experiences, so don’t miss trying camel milk! We arrive in Erfoud, a bustling little desert city, in time to catch the morning market, and it’s truly a local market – meaning, a market for locals. Of course, the people see tourists all the time, but this is their world, and they don’t like to be seen as “sights”. It’s important to ask first before taking pictures of people here, although that is generally true throughout Morocco because of Islamic strictures against photography and image-making. It’s sensory overload in markets like these. It’s like an open-air department store and grocery store all in one, and it only seems chaotic because Imad and Abdul on drums it is so busy and alive, with sounds-sights-smells all so immediate. In fact, there are distinct sections where you’ll find all the furniture, or all the clothing, all the household goods, all the electronics, all the spices, the meat, the fresh vegetables. All the donkeys. All the sheep. Yes, there’s a big open courtyard which at the moment is filled with maybe a hundred donkeys. They’re about to be auctioned off, so nearly as many men with shrewd and wizened faces mill around them, some in small groups casting calculating eyes at this one or that. The courtyard is ringed by pens full of woolly sheep. They’re evidently awaiting the same fate.Lambs Time to push on, so we hastily buy a big box of fresh dates – absolutely the best road food! – and head off to Rissani. We’re waylaid again. The remarkable Tahiri Museum of Fossils and Minerals is open, so we pull in. You can’t possibly miss it: the low building just off to the side of the road is dwarfed by life-sized models of a dinosaurs out front. It’s a private family-run museum that has displays of scientifically important fossil and mineral specimens, providing a truly eye-opening introduction to the extensive prehistoric record to the area. Your guide’s pride is unm Toyota Mechanic istakable, a compelling mix of commitment to the family enterprise and also to the remarkable “hidden history” of this part of the world. (Who associates the Sahara with dinosaurs and fossils??) In fact, the Paleozoic strata stretch all the way from Erfoud south to Alnif, and if you like, you can spend a few happy hours fossil-hunting with the help of local guides throughout the region. Our timing is impeccable: we arrive at our lunch spot in Rissani just as our medfouna arrives from the nearby bakery. It’s fresh, hot, fragrant… delicious! It’s flat, like a pizza, but inside you’ll find a delicious filling of ground lamb, onions, and spices. The bakery itself has its own filling, but sometimes people bring in their own self-prepared meat filling, and the bakery puts it into the dough and makes it for them. A little slip of paper with the customer’s name on it is baked into the top so there’s no mistaking whose lunch is whose. We’ve enjoyed ours around a low table in an outdoor tent in the courtyard of an antiquities shop, so before we depart, we slip inside to gawk at the glorious treasures. It’s filled floor to ceiling with all manner of goods: antique ceramics, inlaid wooden chests decorated with camel bone, exquisite metalwork mirrors, and silver jewellery. A couple from the Netherlands are buying a matching pair of old carved and decorated doors: the doors will be stored for them until they can return in a few weeks with their own vehicle and transport them home. We are drawn deeper into the shop, and into a second room ablaze with the jewel-toned carpets draped across the walls. This is an excellent place to get an education into the various styles of Moroccan carpets, the designs, as well as the materials and methods: some are woven, others are knotted. Some are woven, knotted, and embroidered! (That’s another story, hmmm?) Typically, the carpets here are made by women in various villages in either the desert or in the mountains, and are bought directly from them by the shop owner. With no factory, no middlemen involved, prices are excellent here, as is the quality. After the obligatory glass of fragrant mint tea, we depart. We’re ready for some pool time! It’s been a day of “new-new-new” – every minute something remarkable, some new insight into a different world, and a new appreciation for a way of life so well accommodated in this very special part of the world.