Friday, October 11, 2013

Camel racing in the Sahara

As I'm writing this I'm snug inside while outside lightning flashes and the rain pounds down. Autumn has well and truly arrived in Milan and I am indulging in all these pictures of hot, dry weather with bright endless skies. Anyway, back to the post...

On our first day in Marrakech we spoke to our hostel guy about a tour to the Sahara. We signed up and got up at 6.30 the next morning ready to head out there! The pain of the early start was lessened by our awesome breakfast provided by the hostel.

We hadn't actually read much beyond the words 'camel' and 'Sahara' so we were slightly surprised that we were going to be spending the whole day in a van visiting places on the way to the Sahara (it's about 8 hours away). Luckily those places turned out to be pretty cool.

The landscape became more arid and rocky as we headed inland, and we passed over some hills just out of Marrakech which gave some great views. I haven't been in such a harsh or dramatic place in a long time. As much as it's nothing like NZ, the contours were just a little bit, just a teensy bit, and I appreciated the view.
We made quite a few stops to check out the view, grab food or look at the wares of a roadside stall. I was suspicious that these were tourist traps and they were in collusion with our guide, but ended up buying a small bowl anyway.
Shadow people

These were fake baby camels. I have no idea why except 'tourism'?

I especially like the way the colours of this town blend into the hills. 

One of our stops was at a Berber village called Ait Benhaddou - it has been used for various films including Gladiator, Prince of Persia, Game of Thrones, Lawrence of Arabia and Kingdom of Heaven. There were a bunch more but I can't be bothered listing them. Only about 9 families live there and survive off the films and tourism.
Ok yes, it's upside down, but look at what the wall is made from! 

Our guide

This man paints in 'invisible ink' - tea (black), saffron (brown) and a blue dye which I forget. They go on only a few shades different from the paper, but once he holds it over a flame they darken and the picture is revealed.

This man was leaning over the ledge guessing everyone's nationalities incredibly accurately. He got a Mexican woman's city after three guesses! He guessed Australian for me but I had only said a short sentence to him so it was reasonable. Peter completely stumped him with his Irish-Sicilian upbringing! They must get such a huge volume of tourists through here. The other thing about Morocco that was particularly cool was that everyone speaks a bunch of languages - especially in this village it seemed. Peter renamed it Babel! Most of the people we spoke to were fluent in about five or six (Often Arabic, English, French, Dutch, German and Spanish).

We were just near the 'T' as my beautiful assistant Peter is demonstrating! A little north of Ouarzazate where we stopped for lunch. 
I suspect this is an Oasis. It fit the description in 'The Alchemist' which I recently read anyway, so I got very excited and started snapping away. It really is difficult to describe it, but we had been driving through a bit of a wasteland for some hours and then we came across thousands of palm trees stretching away into the distance. I feel like Morocco demands much more poetic descriptions than I'm providing!

Finally we arrived just outside of Zagora and it was time to mount our camels - Peter and I had been excited about this the whole day! I'm pretty sure Zagora is also known as the Gate of the Dessert as it's the last place for a while heading east. By a while I mean a few hundred kilometres at least. You may come across a couple of roads in Algeria but there's not a lot that way. We may have been barely in the Sahara but it was still the Sahara.
One of our guides helped me tie my scarf properly. 

It was getting to right around sunset at this time, and by the time we got to our camp it was completely dark. Camels are also not the most comfortable of beasts and the hump sits right between your legs, so we were all a bit stiff by the time we got off.

It was also pretty windy out there and I started to see the reasons for headscarves! I even tried a sunglasses-at-night look until it became clear that worsened my visibility!

We went to the main tent straight away and settled in. One of our guides poured us all tea and we settled down to chat with the others and await our dinner.

Tagine of course!

After tea they lit the fire in the middle of the camp and we all spread out on rugs and listened to them playing music and singing. They got everyone up for a frenetic dance, which was wild and energetic and lasted about four minutes and even involved a conga line! After that they played more chilled out stuff and some of the women did some drumming. People slowly drifted off and Peter and I decided to sleep outside on one of the rugs. This was for three reasons: we were sharing a tent with a couple on their honeymoon and thought they might like some privacy, Peter wanted to stargaze a while, and I don't do so well with low ceilings and thought it might be safer to be outside. Turns out it wasn't - remember when I destroyed the tent in Ireland because sleeping Nina is psychotic and claustrophobic? Sleeping Nina apparently wasn't comfortable in the dessert and in the middle of the night I threw off our blankets and tipped a small table over to the surprise of Peter. I was trying to escape snakes this time and at least the table survived, unlike the tent.

The rest of the night was uneventful and we woke up around 6 to a spectacular dawn. (I say we but I'm suspicious that Peter actually spent the whole night watching stars - they were pretty amazing and I think most of Europe has pretty bad light pollution)

After a tasty breakfast of coffee, tea, bread and honey it was time to put our poor bruised butts back on the camels (who, to be honest, probably weren't thrilled about us being there either) and make our way to Zagora for our return to Marrakech.

This is what the saddle looked like + a blanket over the top.
The return trip was much more efficient and we only stopped for food breaks. Peter and I slept a fair bit of it - he invented a position that let both of us use the other as a pillow - intelligent man!
I am off to Norway tomorrow to hang out with Eleanor again and our other Kiwi friend Ewan - so that'll be quite a change in climate from this post! See you then!

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