My trip to Merzouga

Zipping along the road, I was finally able to relax. Our “vacation” had hit several speed bumps due to numerous unpredictable events. The biggest speed bump was the fact that Morocco’s southern region was experiencing its first snowfall in 20 years. This made for unpredictable traveling and boy, was it an adventure.

Monday

Arriving in Marrakech at 5pm, I was struck by the beauty of its train station. Compared to Mohammedia, this was obviously built with tourists in mind, and as we walked outside it became very clear that we were in a tourist capital.

Walking away from the throng of taxi drivers, we managed to hail a large taxi that charged us 70 DH (a decent price), to take us to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square packed with food stalls, performers, and surrounded by hotels and restaurants.

Using Cafe de France, we navigated through hundreds of people in the square to a side street while trying not to be run over by the dozens of motorbikes that passed us every few minutes in the narrow alleyways.

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View from the rooftop of our hostel.

We stayed at Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge, a great place with very friendly and supportive staff. For example, moments after we checked in, we were served delicious mint tea and given an extremely thorough explanation of all the things to see in the square.

We put our things away and went out to grab a bite to eat. A nice meal of couscous, Moroccan salad, and a delicious Nutella crepe later, I was ready for bed.

Tuesday

We got up at 7am, ate breakfast quickly, and headed out the door to meet up with our tour group.

Our group consisted of travelers from Greece, China, Turkey, South Korea, and the UK. Including us (four Americans) and our Moroccan boss and her family, it was an interesting group to be sure.

About an hour into our trip, we hit major traffic. The road had been closed, due to weather conditions (the snow had blocked major sections of the road in the mountains.) We were encouraged to get off the van and stretch our legs.

But 45 minutes soon became 90 minutes that stretched into 4 hours before we were finally able to start driving towards the mountains. At one point it was even suggested that we turn around and try again tomorrow, but luckily we were FINALLY able to go.

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Both sides of the road were covered in snow.

Driving in the mountains, I was stunned by how much snow covered the ground.

Under these conditions, we were once again stuck in traffic. Cars, vans, and buses had to drive through narrow turns and more than a dozen times, traffic was stopped as people helped to move stuck vehicles.

By the time lunch arrived we were all extremely hungry. Three other vans had pulled up at the same time, and there was a mad dash to get out of the snow and grab a seat.

There was one option for lunch: chicken tajine. The price? 70 DH. Back in Mohammedia, we do not pay more than 45 for either couscous or tajine, but on this trip, our van would end up stopping at “certain spots”, where there was always an expensive “set price” for everything.

As we continued driving towards the desert, we made several pit stops at famous sites.

The first stop was the citadel of Ait-Ben-Haddoua. It’s a little way outside of Ouarzazate, a famous Moroccan town.  Scenes from Gladiator were shot there as well as Game of Thrones. It’s a popular place for international films to use as a backdrop.

When we arrived the tour guide that greeted our bus, told us that we would have to pay him 25 DH each for the tour. I flat out refused, so he said that I could wait in the van. Several others joined me until it was made clear to us that we could go explore the ruins ourselves. We would only have to pay if we’d wanted a tour. (HA!)

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Taken near the top of the citadel. Do I look cold?

I hadn’t counted on it being quite so cold, but I managed to stay warm by wearing everything that I had packed (and by everything I mean every- single-layer.)

The desert scenery was breathtaking! I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was stunning.

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Taken in front of the citadel.

We didn’t stay at the top for very long. The wind was whipping about, making for a gruesome headache and runny nose.

When we came down from the top of the citadel, night had fallen.  It was nervewracking because I didn’t want to fall into the freezing water. (We had to walk on sacks of sand to cross the stream to the citadel, and I only had one pair of shoes.) Luckily I didn’t end up in the water.

As we piled back into the van, we found out that we still had another three hours to go.

When we finally arrived at our chateau for the night, it was almost 11pm. Cold, tired, and hungry, we got out of the van, and headed inside.

We were all looking forward to hot showers and charging our phones. However, no sooner had we stepped inside, then the electricity went out. We all burst into laughter, there was no other choice.

Laughing at our “luck” after a day of driving that seemed like it would never end; laughing at our freezing cold situation; and laughing at the fact that this just seemed to be the cherry on top of an already absurdly difficult day. The melting snow had gotten into their generator, so we had a candlelit dinner, which ended up being delicious!

Dinner was harira (a traditional Moroccan soup which I usually don’t particularly enjoy, but this time, there was no hint of an “aged” taste), Moroccan salad, and chicken and beef grilled skewers.

We headed off to bed, and I dove under the covers because it was freezing. The absurdity continued as I discovered my bed had metal bedsprings and it was right under the window.

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Writing by candlelight.

I journaled by candlelight but I did not last very long before succumbing to the cold and curling up into a ball under my covers.

Because we ended up not having any electricty, I was grateful that I’d brought along my charging stick. I wanted to be able to take photos of the desert the next day.

Wednesday

The next morning I woke up and found the room to still be freezing. The electricty was back on, but there wasn’t time to heat up the room.

I got dressed at the speed of light and ate a simple breakfast of bread, jam, and a hard-boiled egg. While waiting for the others to join me, I sat by the log fire to try to regain the feeling in my toes. It felt fantastic.

Stepping outside we saw that it was raining. Given the itinerary for the day, this turned out to be a muddy mess.

Our first stop was an oasis, where we were to walk across a field to an old mosque. But after five minutes of trekking across the MUDDY field, the group decided not to continue. We tried going a different way, but the side alley turned out to be equally as muddy.

Our guide for that day told us that we would be skipping ahead, and going for tea.

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Our Amazigh local guide explaining rug making traditions.  

At the rug shop, we were ushered into a room where every inch was covered in rugs.

Then the “sales pitch” began.

It soon became evident that rather than a “tour”, we were stopping at pre designated sales sites.

The mint tea was good and I learned a few things, but it was also felt awkward because the “sales” aspect was quite obvious and none of us planned on buying the rugs (they were beautiful but $$$).

The best aspect of the tour was learnig how the Amazigh culture has been preserved. They own their own sheep, spin their own wool and use natural colors for their rugs. The colors come from grown plants: red (poppy or henna), blue (indigo), green (mint, alphalpha, cumin), yellow (saffron). 

Our guide kept asking if we understood his explanations by using the phrase “wah-ha”, which means “ok”, but it can also be used to check for understanding.

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A “one fringe” rug.

Here are some other things I learned:

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Leather sack used when traveling by camel.

If a rug has one fringe then only one woman worked on the rug. If both sides have fringes, than two women made it.

The leather sack (pictured below), is a pack to carry objects if they are traveling by camel, and it can be sewn shut.  It is covered with a design that wards off the evil eye.

The two metal hands (also pictured below), are used to indicate whether a woman is single, engaged or married. If worn on the right, it means they are single. If on the left, it means they are engaged. If both are pinned, it means that she is married and should be shown “total respect” (in the words of our teacher).

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Metal hands that indicate a woman’s relationship status.

There were also several rugs made from baby camel fur.

Another fun fact, agave silk is not actually soft like I thought it would be. Several rugs from it and I was surprised by how rough it was.

We said goodbye to our rug hosts and headed to Tinjhir village.

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The backside of the gorge.

Located a mere 20-minute drive from the billage, we visited a beautiful gorge. In the 1970s, commercialization of the gorge began. Prior to that it had mostly been frequented by European campers.

As we walked, our tour guide told us the story of a hotel that we had seen earlier on our tour. It used to be a functioing hotel, until a massive rock, rolled down the cliff, and smashed it.

Luckily, the bus with 60 Japanese tourists was still on its way to lunch when this happened so no casualties; however, the hotel was closed due to future safety concerns.

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If you keep going up the steps, they wrap around the hill, and onwards towards spectacular views.

Even though it was cold and rainy, was still a beautiful site, and the bonus of it being winter meant that we got to explore without being hassled by vendors or swarms of tourists.

Back on the road we stopped for lunch where it was 90 DH for couscous or a tajine. We hadn’t anticipated needing to bring along so much cash. We had also made these travel plans with our teaching salaries in mind, which meant that these “tourist” prices hurt even more.

I split a couscous order with Mary and we devoured the Moroccan salad and bread that were at our table.

We were still hungry when I looked over at the table next to us. A group of tourists had left behind two plates of relatively untouched Moroccan salad.

I looked at Mary, and our eyes agreed. Despite the weird looks from the rest of our group, I went over and took the plates of leftover salad. Smiling to myself, I finished an entire salad by myself.

Back on the road, we finally, reached Merzouga.

After dropping off the others, our driver dropped us off at the wrong hotel. When the mistake was discovered, we grabbed all of our things, threw them in the main cabin of the van, and our driver rushed off over bumpy roads and sandy mounds to get us to where we needed to be.

When we finally arrived at the right place, the sun was now hidden behind the hills. We were all so tired and all just wanted to start the adventure that we’d spent the last day and a half waiting for.

Waiting for our guides, we were informed that there wouldn’t be any water out in the desert (sometimes tour groups provide you with water, sometimes not…) Fortunately, we already had large water bottles so we didn’t need to buy anything #savingmoney #rippedoffeverywhere.

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Walking out towards our camels, I snapped this picture of the rising moon.

We were finally led out to the camels. Eight were tied together; one for each of us. I (either volunteered or was selected I can’t remember), and was the first person to get on a camel.

It was an awkward experience as it maneuvered its way up off of its knees. The saddle was not very comfortable, and the camel’s stride was extremely awkward and difficult to get used to.

Once everyone was up and our stuff securely fastened to our saddles, we were off.

It was to be an hour and a half trek into the desert. Our guide joked that we were getting to ride under the “rising moon” because we had missed the sunset. Thus, we rode into the desert under a full moon.

About ten minutes into the ride, I experienced an unpleasant reality check.

My camel freaked out.

I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden, he was bucking and jumping and I was clinging on for dear life. Eventually he calmed himself down, but I was (to use a new favorite phrase of mine) “shooketh”. My camel was at the very back of the line, and so it took more than a moment for the group leader to realize what was happening to me.

Everyone asked if I was okay, and I replied that I was, while looking towards the moon to settle myself (and to try to calm the rush of tears). I was laugh/crying. It was a long way down to the ground, and I had injured myself while trying to cling on with my legs. The following day I got to see two huge bruises, the size of my palms, gracing my thighs. Not great.

I’d like to be able to say that things got better that night…but they didn’t.

My camel would shift whenever I tried to move back into my original saddle position, so I was stuck with metal rods jamming into my legs. My camel also had one more mini freakout session.

The silver lining, if you could call it that, was that while it was cold, it wasn’t windy and I was somehow managing to stay warm. ( I think it was the brown hat that I had purchased the previous day.)

Time dragged on… the thought of my camel freaking out again, especially while on the edge of a sand dune was too terrifying.

And then…it happened.

It was the final hill. I saw the camels in front of me being led up a VERY steep looking sand dune and I had major doubts.

Then, one of my friend’s camels went down.

It just tipped over.

Then my other friend’s camel fell down.  I was one camel away, and I started to freak out…a little bit…I was certain that if the other camels had gone down, mine would surely follow given its earlier antics that evening.

Fortunatley, the guide quickly came to the back and led mine and Mary’s camels around to a different path to get over the hill.

The camel that had originally fallen continued to make moaning sounds that sounded like death. The guides managed to get the camel on its feet again, but none of us wanted to get back on the camels.

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The drummers would occasionally take the drums to the fire, and hold the top over the flames. They did this in order to loosen the drums for a better sound.

We walked the remaining 10 minutes to camp.

When we arrived, we were shown our tents after walking through an interesting labyrinth formation.

Dinner was decent, but nothing too special. When we had finished, we sat outside with all of the other tourists, while the various guides got together and formed a drum circle. 

That was a magical moment. Dancing with everyone, under the full moon, in the Sahara desert, surrounded by beautiful sand dunes. Just lovely!

As we went to sleep, we could hear our camel’s breathing through the sides of our tents. They were sleeping right on the other side.

Thursday

We were woken up by shouts to rouse the group.

I quickly brushed my teeth, grabbed by my bag, and headed out to our camels.

Given the events of the night before we were all a bit nervous. But, thankfully, nothing happened on our ride back to town.

My camel, who I affectionately named Bartholomew, didn’t have any more mini “freak out” sessions. The downside of the ride back was how my body ached from the previous day’s abuse; but, I am so glad that I got back on my camel.

We rode for 20 minutes before our guide stopped the group. We got off of our camels and hiked up the nearest sand dune, and watched the sunrise.

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Sunrise in the Sahara Desert.
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Bartholomew and I #backofthepack.
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Peacefully waiting while the silly humans take a million pictures.
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I couldn’t get enough of the endless dunes.

We eventually got back on our camels and continued our trek out of the desert. We would spend the next 12 hours on a van, encoutering continuous delays due to land slides from the melting snow.

Needless to say, at the end of our 3 day-2 night adventure, all of us on the van, wanted nothing to do with van traveling for a long time.

When we finally arrived back in Marrakech, it was after 11pm. We were dropped off near to the square and made our way back to our hostel.

Would I recommend this trip to others? Absolutely! I would just encourage really looking into what the trip offers. The lunch prices, for example, were an unforeseen “adventure”.

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