Moroccan Adventure Part IX: Desert tour days 2, 3 and 4

By dawn the next day, we had breakfast buffet at the common tent. It was time to say goodbye to the Sahara desert. The camel rides, sunset by the sand dunes and the bonfire that kept us warm at night in the desert were cherished memories that I definitely brought home with me.

A jeep took us back to the starting point where we arrived yesterday. I was already missing the sand dunes and the night spent in the desert. Seeing the stars, staying warm by the bonfire with all the other guests, and enjoying live berber music. It was such a carefree life. As soon as we reached the starting point, our driver and tour guide, Abdul was waiting for us. Where he slept for the night was a complete mystery. I just hope it wasn’t in the van.

The second, third and fourth day of the desert tour took us to places both man-made and natural. As we visited these places, we slowly made our way back to Marrakesh. I was particularly fascinated by the natural landscapes of morocco. The hills, mountains, ridges, cliffs, gorges and canyons. Not forgetting the oases and the beautifully tended green farmlands and plantations amidst the brutally dry and arid landscape. How such life can survive in such harsh environments is intensely fascinating. Somehow, despite all of that, where rural villages live nearby such oases that support their way of life, I rarely witness any form of environmental exploitation. It felt as if, nature and man lived in complete harmony. That was the impression I got in seeing such beautiful oases.

I remembered seeing a lot of fossil shops in Erfoud. We stopped at a particular shop that sells all kinds of ornaments big and small made from fossils. Apparently the place in and around Erfoud have so many fossils that you can easily find it on the ground. It is so abundant that it is known that the place used to be part of the seabed millions of years ago. Some of the ornaments were beautiful, huge slabs of rocks, carefully cut and sand down to make furniture pieces like dining tables and saucers to small necklaces and paperweights for collection. Although we didn’t buy anything, just seeing the process of making such pieces from stones and rocks containing fossils was fascinating.

Todra and Dades Gorge

I also remembered stopping by at Todra Gorge and Dades Gorge, with its stunning winding road. The Todra gorge is simply a series of limestone river canyon where millions of years of erosion by the river water carved out a steep and deep gorge that can be 160 meters high. Deep and narrow, it looked spectacular when you are at the bottom and narrow end of the gorge, looking up.

The Dades gorges on the other hand holds a small stream of water that cuts through the gorge. We saw many children playing in the water, and villages collecting water from the stream. Remarkably, the water from the stream sprouted out from small fissures at the bottom of the riverbed, most likely from an underground river that wound inside the limestone formations that are flanked on both sides of the gorge. The water is clean and drinkable from the source. No doubt in wetter seasons, the stream will turn into a raging river.

The famous winding road of Dades Gorges
A small stream that cuts through the gorge. The water is remarkably clean. Most of the water appeared from an underground river that sprouted out in between the fissures on the river bed.

Kasbahs

As we made our way to the beautiful gorges, we also stopped to admire and appreciate how Moroccans live in the olden days by visiting the Kasbahs. Simply put, Kasbah can mean a few things. It can mean a keep, an old city or a watchtower. In morocco, the Kasbah is referred to a group of buildings or structures built closely together to resemble a keep. The Kasbah has high walls, usually without windows. They are often easily defended, being built on a hill overlooking the large expanse of land below. Owning a Kasbah back in the old days is a sign of immense wealth for the family living in it and they usually have dominion over the surrounding lands and villages around the Kasbah. In return, the kasbah can serve as a protective fort for the villages living around the kasbah against invaders.

There are a large number of Kasbahs scattered throughout Morocco with varying degrees of upkeep. Some are abandoned and dilapidated, with no one and no money to maintain. Others are still in use, while others still have are still owned by the original families, but have converted their kasbah into a living museum.

We visited two different kasbah along the way back to Marrakesh, as part of the desert tour. Both have been converted into a museum and conserved to allow tourists to explore the compound within the kasbah and learn the way of live of these wealthy Moroccans families who once owned and lived in such buildings.

I learned a great deal about the kasbah. It truly felt like a fort, where you can easily defend against invaders, and when it is situated on top of the hill, you feel a sense of empowerment over the lands below. Though the ones we visited have been hollowed out, they are now simply empty shells, sparsely furnished with a sinking feeling of abandonment. Still, it must have looked and felt glorious back in the days, where the families lived in it with its multitude of servants and private soldiers manning the Kasbahs and protecting the villages nearby.

At the top of the kasbah, you can see the lands stretching out to the horizon. If I am not mistaken, the long empty patch of land you see beyond the kasbah is the river, now dry as the summer season begins.
This kasbah we visited was quite well preserved.
This kasbah is abandoned and dilapidated with no financial means to restore the kasbah to its former glory.
Abdul, far left, our driver and tour guide for the desert tour in Morocco.

Ait Benhaddou

Another highlight of the desert tour was visiting Ait Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site an popular filming locations for films such as The Mummy, Gladiator, Alexander, Prince of Persia and Son of God to name a few.

As the the ancient fortified village came into view, I immediately recognised the place from all those films that I watched. It was absolutely gorgeous. Add to the fact that it was bright and sunny, just made the entire area shine.

Ait Benhaddou is basically a fortified town along a former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh. It is a collection of ancient buildings and dwellings within a walled compound that makes up Ait Benhaddou. A few families still live within the confines of Ait Benhaddou.


Ait Benhaddou from a distance. We walked inside and all the way to the top.

Aside from the Kasbahs oases and Ait Benhaddou, we also visited a number of cooperatives or local industries such as the manufacturing of olive oil, rose oil, cosmetics, handwoven carpets of various materials, cotton, silk, wool. We learned how these things were made and how it supported the local industry. At no time at all, do we felt we were coerced in buying any of their products. These industries and the respective guides to these cooperatives were kind and friendly, taking time to explain how these things were made without being pushy. We appreciate them spending time with us to help us better understand the local Moroccan industry. Because of all these visits, we gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for the country. It all left us feeling hugely positive with great stories to tell back at home to our family and friends.

As we travelled closer and closer to Marrakesh, we stayed at a number of hotels along the way. One was built right at the edge of a cliff face. We had a open foyer right outside our hotel room on the second floor of the hotel and looking up, we saw nothing but a sheer cliffs right above us. I refused to think what would happened to us when there is a rockfall due to an earthquake. We would instantaneously be crushed as we slept in our hotel rooms!

I remember the road to Marrakesh was highly treacherous as we neared the city. I was glad that I wasn’t the one driving for this part of the trip. One main reason for the dangerous roads ahead of us was that the country is improving their major roadways, expanding the roads and making the roads safer. Thus, we could see major road works. We encountered detours, narrow and temporary lanes, some right by the edge of the cliff as well as newly unmarked roads. It was rough, but at the same time, I felt excited that the country is undergoing a renewal and the new roads would ultimately benefit the people.

Despite all of that, the landscape was just jaw dropping.

We stopped at a viewpoint while on our way to Marrakesh to enjoy this beautiful scenery.
Those guidebooks you read don’t usually mention how beautiful the Moroccan countryside can be.

As we arrive at Marrakesh on the final day of the desert tour, it was time to say goodbye to Abdul. Looking back, Abdul is a super generous and patient man. He took time to explain the culture of Morocco despite difficulties in translating certain concepts to us in English. He was inquisitive about our lives back at home and how we Singaporeans live our lives. We asked about his family and children and whether he enjoyed his job as a driver and tour guide, especially when he had to be away from his wife and children for a major part of his time. We encouraged him to visit Singapore and contact us if he ever made his way there. His reply was, “Inshallah”. He became more than friends at the end of the journey, we were part of his family.

He dropped us at the main train station before heading to our accommodation in Marrakesh. We wanted to buy train tickets for our trip back to Fez, where we would catch our flight back home the following day upon arrival in Fez. We were approaching the end of our adventure in morocco. With a couple of days left in Marrakesh and Fez, we needed to mentally prepare to say goodbye to Morocco.

However, as we stayed in Marrakesh, little did I expect that I would fall ill before our journey could properly end.

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