Friday 11th June, Merzouga, Morocco.
As you can see I made it to the Sahara. I got away from Azrou at noon on Tuesday, but not before having to shake hands with at least a dozen friendly locals along the short walk from Hotel Des Cedres to the bus station. On the bus I met a Welsh guy, who was heading the same way I was. His plan was to stay the night in Erfoud, then make his way to Rissani and on to Merzouga the following day. I was planning to continue a little further to Rissani that night. The bus ride was an experience in itself, with a continued variety in the landscape. First rolling green hills either side, punctuated further east by the occasional explosion of colour as we whizzed past fields of wildflowers. The further we travelled, the greenery seemed to fade, the wildflowers were left behind and replaced by simple stone or mud brick buildings. After a few hours, the landscape was mostly a mottle of beige and grey, sand and rocks, with patches of greyish green vegetation here and there. Then we cut through a strangely formed mountain range and it was desert from there on, apart from a lush palm filled valley that ran along below the road on the southern side of the bus.
At Er Rachidia an Australian couple boarded the bus, and the four of us got talking- in between fending off the relentless touts that boarded the bus at every stop, trying to convince us to get off the bus and travel in their four whell drive to their particular hotel in Merzouga. Jonno and Zoe were planning to get off in Erfoud and try to make it to Merzouga that night. Considering the late hour, and the fact that there's no scheduled public transport that far, I thought they were a bit amitious. In the end, Kevin the Welshman and I figured there was strength in numbers, so the four of us we decided to stick together. We stayed on the bus till it termintaed at Rissani.
Of course there were touts at the bus station in Rissani, trying to get us to their hotels in Merzouga. Ironically, the guy who we ended up going with represented the same hotel as the touts who we'd told to get lost at earlier stops. But at Rissani he had an advantage. He was the only one who had a four wheel drive standing by. The drive to the mud brick compound of Hotel La Hamada was via a series of desert tracks, rough and stony, and definitely a challenge for the uninitiated. We received a warm welcome at the hotel (four definite customers for their camel trips!) and were plied with sweet green tea, and entertained by African drums. We dined on Kalia, a delicious local specialty- a tajine made of mutton, tomatoes, peppers, egg, onions and 44 different spices. Ali the 'camel man' presented us with a confusing array of options for camel trips into the desert, all much more expensive than we'd anticipated. None of us were in the frame of mind to make a decision that night, so agreed to meet for breakfast at seven-thirty and decide then whether we'd head out in the morning or wait for an afternoon departure. For twenty dirham, we slept in berber tents in the yard, a much cooler option than the small fifty dirham rooms.
It was a unanimous decision at breakfast. I wasn't in any rush, but the others were all on time constraints, and none of us could imagine spending the day sitting around, waiting for an evening departure. Another Australian couple arrived in the morning, and were keen to head into the desert straight away. We told Ali we were all ready to go, and by nine o'clock we were all mounted up and trotting off into the desert at a relaxed pace. My straw hat blew off before we were even out of sight of the hotel, so it was lucky I brought a spare gelaba that I could use as a turban.
Our first leg was a couple of hours on the camels through a stony wasteland the locals call the black desert before we stopped at a nomads' tent for lunch and a siesta. The cous cous was delicious, and we whiled away a couple of hours telling riddles and -believe it or not- solving algebra equations that one of the camel dudes posed to us! It was so hot outside that I'm sure all of us were happy to sleep through the middle part of the day.
Berber riddle: How do you get a camel into a fridge in three moves?
Then when they catch their breath, they say "But there's another riddle: The Lion had a big party and all the animals came. All except one. Which one and why?
After reviving us with copious amounts of sweet tea, our guide Assou led our caravan back into the desert and onto the oasis where we would spend the night. We stopped at a well to give the lead camel a drink of water. I guess if the lead camel keeps going, the others have no choice but to follow. On the flip side, the lead camel also has the unfortunate privilege of having one of its front legs tied up underneth itself when we stop for the evening. So I guess there's pros and cons to being the lead camel.
Finally we arrived at the oasis and after a quick climb of the nearest dune, we all settled into relaxation mode, chatting and drinking even more tea. The guide Assou and a couple of his mates tried to teach some of us white boys to play the drums, but in the end it was better just to leave it to the experts.
The night in the desert wasn't as cold as I'd heard it can be. A few of us chose to sleep outside, instead of in the berber tents. I pulled the blanket over myself during the night, but more to stop the sand blowing up my nose, rather than for warmth. When we woke up, all of us were covered in a layer of sand, evidence that the dunes are in fact, constantly moving.