We woke up at 6:45 and had an early morning breakfast before our guide/driver and companion for the next couple of days, Youssef, came and picked us up at the Riad. We walked out of the medina and made our way to his waiting van (a little easier than the poor cart man who had to push the cart containing our suitcases back up the hill – he wasn’t young and he was sweating by the end of it).
We travelled into the ‘new’ town of Fes, something completely different to the medina – wide open streets with promenades in the middle and palm trees towering overhead. It was such a contrast to the world that we have lived in for the last couple of days and made us understand how people who live in the medina exist in the medina and do not venture out. It was like being in a time warp from which comfortable life resides and the known exist to those who live within the walls. Whilst the external part of the medina looked lovely, we were thankful that our accommodation had thrust us back in time and enabled us to see the beauty and simplicity of a Fes lifestyle.
From here we started to head up towards the Middle Atlas and the terrain changed. Where fruiting citrus trees had lined the roads, it was now replaced with groves and groves of olive trees and despite the fact that the ground was extremely rocky, the areas that had been cultivated showcased brown, rust coloured and rich looking soil.
Venturing further up we stopped at a place called Irfane. This is where the king has a Palace and it is known as the ‘Switzerland of Morocco’. I think maybe the ‘Monaco of Morocco’ may be more apt as you would need a squillion in Moroccan dirhams to buy here. There was green grass, manicured lawns, fountains and buildings with pitched rooves, showcasing brick rather than the common render and being significantly bigger in size. Even the menus at the restaurants were far more western.
Even higher up we past through a huge cedar forest, stopping to take photos of the Barbary monkeys that live off the acorns and berries in the forest. As we drove out of the cedar forest, the terrain changed again becoming much dryer and barren. Tufts of straw coloured grass poked their heads through the cracks between one rock and another. Every now and again there would be herders with their sheep and donkeys, wandering along the landscape.
In the villages that we passed through women and children would be riding donkeys, and men standing in groups on corners smoking and chatting to one another. In one town the weekly market was on leading to a procession of people, men and women, with large bags, donkeys and carts walking to and fro collecting their supplies. Daily life wherever you are in the world has a predictability about it that doesn’t really change – people still need to eat, sleep and get water. How they do it might change but daily life is daily life.
As the terrain changed again we travelled through the Zizi. As our guide, Youssef described it ‘this is our Grand Canyon’ and it was. We drove through the valley floor with huge sweeping canyon walls on either side. Within the base of the gorge lay green palm tree laden forests and small brown clay houses all stacked side by side, sharing walls but existing on the fruits that were accessible with the oasis nearby. It was such a contrast to see the green of the valley and the brown surrounding each town.
As we neared our final destination there were towns with people wearing different clothing. We were to find out that this is where the meeting of their Berbers and the Arabic reside. Married Arabic women of a historical sense from Yemen wear black and fundamentally keep to themselves. This is not the case for the Berbers although to be fair this is told from the perspective of a Berber driving our van.
At around 4pm, we pulled up at a Riad and were told that we were to elect some of our warm clothing and prepare for our camel ride. The remainder of our luggage would be kept in a room at the Road from which we would return tomorrow morning to shower and have breakfast. Not being short on warm clothing we scrambled some things together and went out the back of the Riad to discover camels waiting for us and sand as far as the eye can see. This is the Sahara!
We clumsily got on our camels and were taken an hour and a half into the dunes themselves. The ride was actually quite smooth on our one hump camel and their behaviour despite the poor press camels often get was very good. As we were slowly traversing the dunes, the sun was setting casting shadows on the sand and making for some of those typical camel in the sunset pictures.
When we got to the tent site we saw a circle of black cylindrical tents with an inner core draped in carpets. Our tent comprised two beds something we hadn’t overly expected as we thought we may have been sleeping on cushion type structures on the rugs or carpets. There were five other people also staying the night – a couple from America, a German man and a couple from Russia. The whole site was nestled within some larger dunes to protect it from wind and make the whole experience a little more comfortable (not that there was any wind but this is definitely a fixed camp site).
Dinner was served in a dining tent – soup, bread and a chicken and vegetable tangine finished with some great mandarins. Music was then played around the campfire before Philip trundled up one of the dunes to do a little experimenting with some night photography.
It has been a really wonderful day with a once in a lifetime experience. Three people from half way around the world riding camels and spending the night in the Sahara Desert – pretty cool hey!!