Morocco, Part III: Gorge-ous terrain, Sahara proper, a declined proposition

[MOROCCO PART I]  [MOROCCO PART II]  [MOROCCO PART IV]

I’ve just parted with Part I of my tour, and the affable tour guy steers me in the direction of my new bus, plunking me in a scene that feels like I’ve walked into the middle of someone else’s family reunion gone wrong, only these are unrelated groups of twos and threes, none of whom seem to be speaking to one another.

It’s a strange and silent ride from Ouarzazate through the Oases of the Draa Valley and into the Dades Gorge, 15 minutes late for sunset proper. The landscape is other-worldly, magnificent rolling hills flanked by kms of lush palms, oases fed by the Draa River. The scenery is quite different than the cartoon oasis image in my head, the tiny lush tropical island in the middle of a sandy sea. Tho, from a birds-eye view it might look just like that. The gorge is still gorge-ous. I redouble my sentiments from earlier: I’d love to go hiking here.

 

 

Lodging: The proudly 2* hotel is freezing – there is no heat here either, but the hot shower feels wonderful, the dinner mediocre and the company, still weirdly silent. So it’s not until late in the evening, when I’ve wandered back to the dining hall and to the only lit fireplace in the building, that I meet some fellow travellers. We’re warming by the fire, and I’ve engaged the Berber kitchen guy, Izil, in a conversation because a colleague is doing some research on the linguistic origin of oranges. And I guess this interests the others, because soon we’re talking about travels and oranges and traditions in broken Spanish, French and English (I’m feeling optimistic as my broken Spanish and French are better than their broken English), all of us trying to learn some Berber words.

izilBerbers account for 40% of Morocco’s population, yet according to a recent census, the nomad population is below 5000 (this number strikes me as ironic, tho, since they by definition move around a lot and the population is predominantly illiterate).

And we also talk about the nature of Berbers (Amazigh, in their tongue) and how different people are as you get farther from the cities (the farther you get, the warmer they are; I concur!). And Izil tells us his family has some relatives still living in the caves.

Removed from the tourist/vendor relationship, the people I’ve met out here have been warm and welcoming. And I detect an unspoken tribal friction when he describes the thing I felt but could not place in Marrakech. It’s something of a transactional game as you get closer to the city; this thing the guide books warn of: people you meet want you to give your money over in a “I know you know I know you know I’m scamming you” sort of charade. Whereas in this part of the country, I feel that you would be invited to one’s home (or cave, as it were) for supper.

As I settle to sleep this night, I’m grateful for my Berber blankets and interesting conversation.

The road to erg Chebbi.

Draa ValleyMorning comes, and we drive from Dades to Todra Gorge via the aptly-named road of 1000 kasbahs. It’s here we visit another one, this kasbah occupied by some nomad families for the winter. It’s a different experience than Ouarzazate, as we are much more remote and the surrounds much more rustic. The landscape is alternately breathtaking and sad, as the living conditions in the kasbahs cannot be much better than the caves in the gorges; a trickle of river in which to bathe, wash clothes and find water to drink. They’re used to some level of tourism, tho, and we are lead through the kasbah and to a room for a demonstration of Berber weaving techniques – I can’t help but compare this experience to some similar in India, where the local way of life is peddled as a tourist attraction and I’m not sure if it’s heart-breaking or -warming to know that our presence contributes to their livelihood.

 

 

Back on the bus, the road runs through a flat expanse of brush- and trash-dotted brick-red plains, scabbed with crumbled rock, and flanked by rolling hills on either side. It’s a barren, in-between land, but the hills are morphing into higher mountains as we travel north. The periodic olive groves remind me that there’s hope for greener things. And, as if the road reads my mind, a semi-modern-looking town emerges, its redbrick buildings and Coca-Cola signs in a mélange of French, Arabic and English. Long Berber robes (djellabas) and burqas prevail. Even in the day’s warmth (striking, really, compared with the frosty nights), all are dressed head-to-toe. Men, old women, children…all visible. Also striking is that you do not see any young women. Anywhere.

Our driver has not said more than a combined paragraph this trip. Luckily, those on the bus are chatting – I think the previous night’s fireside chat broke some of the ice. So, as we roll to a stop at a weird hotel-looking place from which you can see some MASSIVE dunes, his, “descender ici” is the note on which nous descendons du bus. 5 minutes for a potty break, then it’s camel time!

Last night I learnt that “Sahara” means ‘magic’ in the Tamazight language. It also means ‘desert’ and ‘dawn’ and ‘wilderness’ and ‘wild place’ – depending on who you ask. It is all these things, I’m thinking, as we mount camels and in a matter of minutes we’ve crossed a dune and entered a Martian universe. It’s just before sunset, and the camels are moving sure-footedly through the powdery sand. I’m in awe of this landscape unfolding around me, not sure if everyone else behind me (I’m on the lead camel) is thinking the same: I’m riding a camel in the Sahara Desert…it looks just like the movies. The sun sinks lower and the sand begins to glow with its evening touch, a golden-red hue I’ve only seen in pictures, the purity of which is only just now confirmed: no photoshop required.

 

 

It’s after about an hour that we reach the campsite; a few meagre tents surrounded by dunes. We climb the highest (no small feat in itself!) and at the top are rewarded with a real Sahara sunset. Again, I’m in awe and truly speechless. Our group is quiet, but this time I know why…this moment in time makes the entire cheesy tour worth it.

 

Berber dinner. Frosty night. Heavy blankets (and a silk sleeping bag liner that has made this and the past two nights much more bearable!). A bright moon and a sky full of stars. I’ve underestimated the dryness of the desert and my headache sends me to bed a little early, so I’m wide awake well before the sun rises, and surprised to find one of our guides already up and getting ready to do his wake-up rounds.

 

As we depart with the rising sun, I’m on the front camel again. My Berber guide offers me a tasty meal of camel tagine (my camel is on the older side and will be retired soon), and proposes I stay on in the desert with him at camel camp. While the landscape offers amazing photo ops, the air is clear and dry, and a simpler life seems novel, I graciously decline. This day will be spent on the bus back to Marrakech, where I’m to meet my own (not particularly) Arabian Knight, to share the 2nd half of our Moroccan Adventure.

As seen on the road back to Marrakech from Merzouga (550+ km):

 

Marrakech, encore: This chapter winds down with one Travel Girl warming to the idea of Morocco, a bus that is an hour late, a serious need to go to the WC, and an unexpected drop-off at the opposite end of Jemaa el Fna at peak madness. It ends, happily, navigating back to the riad (on my own!) without getting hopelessly lost, then meeting a travel-weary Calvin to continue our adventuring. Next up: L & C do Marrakech.

Want to read the rest of the series? [Morocco, Part I]  [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part IV]. Cheers!

Morocco, Part II: A tour, the Milky Way and a Berber fortress.

[Morocco Part I]  [Morocco Part III]  [Morocco Part IV]

The 6am wake-up came trop tôt, but it was written: quick brekkie then onto the bus and into the desert for a 4-day, 3-night adventure in Berber-land. I navigate the labyrinth with help (compris), then out into the bustling morning to be assigned a spot on my tour.

I’ll reiterate that I’m not a fan of tours, so this one, slap-dashedly herding me onto a bus, has me peeved far too early in the morning. It’s loaded with millennials chattering in Spanish, a quiet German woman and two Russian girls. Everyone is friendly-enough, but I find out hours after we’ve left the city walls that this is a 2-day tour and I’ll be switching to another bus tomorrow. Fun times.

Atlas and the pseudo-desert.

Some hours into the ride, we wind our way through the Atlas Mountains, where sparse, snow-capped peaks peek out, piquing my interest in hiking here in warmer months. Lunch is in the Moroccan version of Hollywood, Ouarzazate, about half-way between Marrakech and the Algerian border. The area has a fair share of movie studios; films like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Last Temptation of Christ and even some GoT episodes were filmed here. There’s a tour of a small Kasbah, where it seems life goes on as it has for centuries, and I’m as captivated by the architecture as I am the storks nesting atop the minaret. I learn that a Kasbah must have three things: a mosque, a madrassa (Islamic school) and a public fountain. There’s even a character actor here who has built a small museum to himself, containing nothing but framed photos of his walk-on roles in films shot in the area. But there is no time to see more of the town, as we’re half-way to Zagora and need to meet some camels before sunset.

After a couple more hours of driving, and like a well-oiled machine, the driver drops us at a place in the road, barren, flat and seemingly uninhabited but for a pack of camels (of the dromedary, not carcinogen, variety) and our Berber guides. Thus, we trek out into this mini-version of the desert, flat and crunchy underfoot, some small dunes visible in the not-so-distant distance. We ride into the sunset and arrive at our desert camp for a Berber dinner (tagine), campfire songs (Russian folk and Brit pop), and an attempt at shooting stars (cameras).

This is what travel is about, I think: I’m in North Africa, in the Sahara Desert (or the outskirts of it, at least), with a passel of people I didn’t know yesterday, representing 7 different countries on 4 continents, and we’re listening to songs around a campfire, sung by a Russian girl playing ukulele.

DSC_8455-171

The next morn is camel caravan in reverse, then a visit to the exceptionally cool 17th Century UNESCO World Heritage site ksar Aït Ben Haddou, a fortress-like compound where some families still live. I’m something of a castle freak, tho this construction is red stone walls and desert floor, adorned only modestly, but with prominent carved-into-stone Berber symbols of freedom that look something akin to two Greek psis stacked on top of one another, or a man with outstretched arms. It’s the last letter of the Tifinagh alphabet, yaz, or ⵥ and this shape was also used in ancient wars as a weapon. Ironic, that. There’s no electricity or running water here, so most families have moved to other accommodations because it’s a 3km walk just to get water.

It’s like a miniature kingdom (they filmed Gladiator here, among others), small castles and dwellings mish-mashed together, steps and pathways leading you through the place, and when you climb to the top of the highest landing, you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of the sprawling desert below. The night sky from this place must be breathtaking. Small shops dot the base, where locals hawk their wares and artisans paint with saffron and tea.

It’s a pleasant hour and a half, as the uber-chatty millennials have boycotted the tour on principle due to the 25-dirham fee (at the equivalent of 2,5€ it really is their loss). So it’s me, my new German (pediatrician and fellow solo female traveller/photography buff) friend, the Argentinian future Médecins Sans Frontières provider, and a couple of other stragglers. We’ve got ample space to wander without the conspiratorial giggling and selfie-mania. Just hours earlier, I was feeling a tad old as I watched in wonder as one of the Russian girls missed the desert sunrise in favour of getting the perfect selfie angle, and then again in astonishment as she did acrobatics on the back of a camel, selfie stick in hand – I’m not sure if I was more appalled or impressed by that stunt.

And then it was a little weird. Just as I’m revelling in the novelty of it all, I’m whisked away on a moment’s notice to find my 2nd bus so I can continue the desert adventure. Hasty goodbyes are said to my bus-mates and to the short-lived new friendships.

Travel is comme ça: fleeting connections made over foreign food and new experiences. If we’re lucky, some of these become people to visit across the globe. If we’re really lucky, some of these become lifelong friends. I’m fortunate to have some in both categories.

Next up: Morocco Part III: Gorge-ous terrain, Sahara proper, a declined proposition.

Go back and read [Morocco Part I] if you missed it. And also [Morocco Part III] and [Morocco Part IV]. Cheers!

Africa Part III: The magic of elephants

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]  [Part II: Into the Okavango]

“We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behavior.” –Graydon Carter

The upside of being on a tour is that they fit as much as they can into your limited days. They also, if you’re lucky, find unique accommodation. Case in point, the bush huts in Ghanzi…and tonight’s stay at Elephant Sands, a rustic-ish bush camp set around a non-fenced watering hole. Botswana, I’m realising, is something of a massive game park. Fences, merely a suggestion. Our room here is a large tent on a raised platform with a birds-eye view of the watering hole and the lodge. The warnings abound as we check in: Do not go down to the watering hole. Do not walk into the bush. Do not walk between the tents (and/or into the bush). Stay on the path, bring a flashlight, do not lock your door (in case someone is running from something with sharp teeth and needs to enter quickly), do not feed the animals (this last one I made up, but I think it goes without saying).

We arrive and there are no fewer than 8 elephants of all sizes at the watering hole. While it seems they are used to people (they’re busy ignoring us, that is), these are still wild animals and we are in their domain. Mutual respect is granted. So it appears this evening, since a broken door on the bus cost us a couple of hours this morning and we’ve arrived too late for the afternoon safari, the game drive has come to us instead of the other way around!

As cool as this is (I can think of no better adjective, sitting here mere metres away from a 3-metre tall beast), it feels somewhat canned. I’ve got no complaints, tho; they are magical to watch. As enormous as these eles are, they are enchantingly silent at the same time. Their feet are padded and look like suede (I see this in close proximity as one of the large bulls near me shuffles his feet). Large looming shadows appear from the bush in the periphery, silently – but heavily – these morph into massive and simultaneously graceful beings, small buildings with proboscis(es?), brimming with personality. Coming and going, socialising at the watering hole, as if nobody is watching. And we do watch, until the African sun drops below the horizon and the stars blaze in the sky. Unfazed, the eles frolic until our bedtime, then one by one return to the bush to do whatever it is they do at night (scientists say they only sleep 2 or 4 hours a day), leaving it to our imaginations what might come overnight.

Alas, all is mostly quiet, save for some wandering antelope and rustling in the bush behind the tent. I wake early and catch the sunrise over the quiet watering hole, hoping to catch sight of an early morning critter or two. Just some hornbills, African starlings and some wading birds make appearances before we’re off to where the animal adventure really begins: a river safari on the Chobe River.


I’ve travelled to some extraordinary places in my life, each special one leaving a bit of itself inside me; and, as I leave, I shed a bit of my old self, like dead skin or bits not-needed anymore, to make room for the new. In no particular order: India. Belize. Sardinia. Saba. Istanbul. Nantucket…

And so, after that first real bush walk, after a glimpse of wild but not-so-wild elephants up close, I realise Botswana has made its way to this list even before I spy my first truly wild elephant. I’m not at all surprised.


The thing you hear about Africa quite often is “the light is amazing.” What they don’t tell you is that “amazing” is an understatement. It’s sparsely-populated here; that, combined with these vast open spaces creates for fantastic-seeming air quality (at least this time of year). The sub-equatorial light is spellbinding as it streams through these clear skies at dusk, pinks and golds against the savannah.

cropped-d72_5247.jpgThis is the point at which the photos – and through them, the animals – begin to do much of the talking, speaking thousands and thousands of words while mostly what is heard is birdsong. In Chobe National Park, late afternoon is the time the elephants migrate towards the river to socialize and play and bathe and eat – in droves. The park contains an estimated 50,000 elephants, possibly the largest concentration of these magical beasts in the world. So, at dusk this day, we see easily 150 elephants on little Sedudu Island, once a hotly-contested piece of marshy land that sits between Botswana and Namibia in the Chobe River, annexed to Chobe National Park after an International Tribunal ruling in The Hague in 1999 (the Botswana flag now proudly flies here). Just downriver from us, four countries (Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia) meet as the river continues towards the Zimbabwe/Zambia border, spilling into the Zambezi River and then over Victoria Falls. It is said that fighting in this part of Namibia kept the elephants on the Botswana side of the river, contributing to the increase in their numbers in Chobe. Now that the fighting has subsided, the elephants are once again roaming into Namibian territory. Botswana has some of the strictest anti-poaching regulations (shoot first, ask questions later) in Africa. Let’s hope the eles fare as well across the border.

20170727_171917My inner elephant is doing backflips as outer-me marvels at the monstrous bulls swishing reeds back and forth to remove sand and stones that grind down their aging teeth. With a child-like grin, I’m watching the elephant families playing and grazing in this safe haven. A matron escorts a pair of calves across the river and then goes back to wait for her mate, making sure the rest of the family crosses in safety. Adolescents frolic in the water, spraying and dunking each other, play-fighting in the shallows. The boat pauses as the rest of the family crosses.

Elephants aside (though I could stay here watching them all day), we observe another of the Big Five, the African cape buffalo, with its silly swooping horns that look a bit like something out of the Flintstones. We see more prehistoric-looking creatures: Nile crocodiles basking in the afternoon sun; hippos frolicking as gracefully as, say, a refrigerator; we even see a chance monitor lizard hunting for its dinner. Along with the hippo warnings, we are cautioned about swimming in these waters: there are thousands of crocs here and even Aquaman has a next-to-zero chance of out-swimming one.

As I internally pinch myself to make sure this is indeed real, I am truly awe-struck at the vibrancy of this place; of the quantity and the quality of wildlife; of the sheer pristine beauty of this scene, the vivid African sun setting over the Chobe River. We haven’t even been inside Chobe National Park yet.

Ancient legend (and Terry Pratchett) tells of the World Elephant, the mighty mythical beast(s) that support the world while riding the back of the World Turtle (hence the saying, “it’s turtles all the way down”)… there is little wonder how the early sages were awe-struck upon seeing these magical animals.

[Stay tuned for the finale: this girl’s first safari, one of the 7 wonders of the natural world, and one last day of epic animal encounters.]

[Part I: Kalahari before the safari]  [Part II: Into the Okavango]  [Africa Finale]

Kalahari before the safari

The terrestrial part of the trip starts unexpectedly badly, with a raging migraine and a feeling of “why did I sign up for a tour?” as we meet the others with whom we’ll share a bus and myriad adventures for the next 8 days. I’m in Windhoek, Namibia, the starting point of this bus-and-bush trip across Botswana, travelling with a friend I met on my trip to India. The ghastly first dinner helps the migraine not at all; I hate vomiting in unfamiliar surrounds. But with optimistic hats on, we are determined to make the most of the days and experiences ahead.

 

Doha.

To get to Africa, I’ve first bounced for 9 hours on one continent – Asia – where a long layover afforded me a state-sponsored city tour of the weird city of Doha, an uber-riche oasis in the Arabian desert. Surrounded on 3 sides by the Persian Gulf and one by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, they say, is the richest country in the world. Oil, oil and more oil… Elaborate is the first word that comes to mind of the airport here, as the Adhan (call to prayer) resonates throughout the cavernous modern space. One stop on the city tour is the man-made gated island, The Pearl (called this because oil displaced pearl diving for its #1 industry), for Qatari residents only – the workers are accommodated in single-room worker housing and paid $300/month for labour on the massive amount of construction going on here, least of which is FIFA World Cup 2022. The Pearl, in obnoxious contrast, boasts exquisite waterfront housing and a mini-mall replete with Ferrari and Rolls Royce shops, flanked by Hermès, Gucci and other designer boutiques. Regrettably, we only have 10 minutes at this stop so I won’t even have time to choose the colour of my Ferrari. We don’t get a tour of the worker residences, but we are allowed an hour or so to wander the Souq Wakif, their enormous traditional market where I wend my way to the spice section, past all manner of vendors. A small treat in advance of my 10-hour flight to Windhoek.

 

Welcome to Namibia.

Having spent many long flights beside over- and under-perfumed humans, large and small, awkward and fidgety, I was delighted to be seated next to a charming and adorable bush-pilot-turned-private-jet-captain, returning home after a 3-week globetrotting stint. We struck up conversation immediately; books and travel and world views. Pas mal, as they say.

Still chatting away, we step off the plane and into the silky Namibian air. It has a texture I can’t place; clean and pure as if it has magical properties. The sky is a cloudless, crystalline blue. The temperature, a perfect 20°C; the morning chill lingering for now.

My seat-mate issues my first “Welcome to Namibia.” This is the 2nd stranger from a plane I’ve sat next to (the first was a lovely woman from Joburg on the Boston-to-Doha leg) who’s insisted on connecting on WhatsApp just in case I need help while in their homeland. I think: we don’t do that enough where I’m from. One of the amazing things about solo travel is the ability to remove walls and preconceptions…there is an immediacy about the interactions you have, where the minutiae around what you do for a living and other small talk has no place because the connection and the conversation is time-blocked. There is simply no room for fluff.

20170723_080535-1Now entering Botswana.

On most road trips, one expects to see a smattering (and, alas, the splattering) of animals along the sides of the highway; where I’m from it’s deer or red-tailed hawks or woodchucks. But we’re on the Trans-Kalahari Highway, and as such, in the first 20km of open road we begin to see a troop* of baboons and their infants**. We pass a sounder* of warthogs and their piglets**, some round ground birds (guinea fowl) that I later find out are nicknamed Chobe Chicken; an ostrich, yellow-billed hornbills, iridescent and shiny-breasted starlings…and this is just the small stuff. Note to self, as I gaze out at the Kalahari savannah rolling by the window: this moment is time-blocked as well. Fluff has no place here in the desert.

We cross the border into Botswana with little ado, and each of us receives a condom from the immigration folks; a sobering reminder of the fact that 25% of the adult population here has HIV/AIDS. 18 of us on the bus, and we let that sink in: our collective Western privilege acknowledged.

As we drive towards the bush huts in which we’ll sleep that evening, we begin to see more animals (in no particular order): zebras, giraffes, goats, sable, impala, more ostrich, oryx, dik dik (a very tiny antelope), kudu, lilac breasted roller (a gorgeous little bird), and – at last – an elephant (or twenty). We are not in Kansas anymore, although the terrain is just as flat. We’ve already driven something like 5 hours and I’m just starting to get my head around how big the Kalahari, and Africa, is.

The road to our bush camp is straight and flat; vast swaths of scrub brush as far as the eye can see. We’re on the upper edge of the Kalahari proper, tho the animals are not much aware of boundaries. The low scrub brush is interspersed with dusty green desert trees and random baobabs, their roots seeking moisture in the red earth carpeted in desert grass.

More stats: 84% of Botswana is covered in sand; and the Kalahari Desert comprises about 70% of its land. We’re entering a dry, sparsely-populated area (most of the population lives in or near the capital in the southern part of the country), home to the largest elephant population on the planet. The preview elephants we’ve seen so far have whet my appetite (not literally) for more.

 

Bushmen without a bush.

Our lodging for the night is a cache of bush huts on a tract of the Kalahari. Botswana residents are entitled to land from the government, but with it, they are required to do something of use: tourism, farming, etc., so we see roaming goats, cows, horses along the highway; not unlike India, I think, anything might cross the road at any time.

The camp is a swath of lump-looking pods with doors, each containing a couple of cots. Quaint, pseudo-authentic, rustic. Despite the 25° day, it will be 8 or 9° tonight, but at least we’ll have walls between us and the desert…and it’s too cold for snakes.

Our hosts have set up this mock bush camp to teach tourists about the ways of the bush. It’s sad, I think, that the San People (bushmen) need to put on a tourist show to keep their traditions alive; government regulations have all but made their lifestyle of hunting and gathering obsolete. Their language and way of life will die out within a generation or two. Indigenous people were pushed out of South Africa and more fertile lands towards the arid and impossible Kalahari, and so it is like a slow starvation made possible by Western colonization and modernization.

 

The first activity is a bush walk. It’s more a staged demonstration by a few San People, who have changed into traditional garb and driven in for the show. I feel a bit of a voyeur, watching them practice their gathering skills (hunting is prohibited here). The film The Gods Must Be Crazy was made almost 40 years ago and perhaps foreshadowed their brush with modern society. And as we walk with them along the quiet, dry path, I can’t help but wonder if the land was once teeming with animals. We’re encouraged to ask questions and take photos as a means of remembrance; historical preservation: spread the word lest we be forgotten. I oblige because the images are stunning, but I feel simultaneously patron and rich western foreigner taking advantage of the locals. Isn’t this what got them here in the first place? The day closes out with dinner and more of the San show: traditional singing and dancing by the fire.

Dawn.

As the new day greets us with its 5° chill, I dress quickly in the pitch blackness of a Kalahari morning. The African sun rises without fanfare as if it knows it’s in high demand this day. As quickly as the sun pops over the horizon, we’re on the road just after brekkie to see the Okavango Delta. Visions of Nat Geo specials dance in my head….

[Part II: Into the Okavango!]  [Part III: The magic of elephants]


*The full list of animal collective nouns

**The full list of animal baby names