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Published: March 15th 2020
Day 7 dawned bright and sunny once again. The bountiful breakfast buffet at Erfoud’s Kasbah Xaluca Maadid gave us an excellent start for the day’s activities. As mentioned in my previous blog, we started out with a fairly short drive to view the ruins of historic Sijilmassa before visiting the Mausoleum gardens of Sultan Moulay Ali Cherif and the market in the town of Rissani. This was followed by an interesting and enlightening visit to the Macro Fossiles Kasbah back in Erfoud. We were ignorant of the fact that northern Morocco had once been covered by a vast prehistoric ocean, nor that its subsequent retreat had ended in causing many types of marine life of this period to become extinct; their remains, having settled on the ocean floor in sediment, became fossilized and therefore preserved.
Lunch was back at our lovely Kasbah hotel which was a welcomed break after our long morning of sightseeing. Afterwards, it was time to make preparations for a night in the desert. With our large luggage to be left at the hotel overnight, we were allowed to bring only enough clothes and necessities for our one night in the desert which frankly did take some
thought to put together. Prior to leaving for Morocco I thought nighttime in the desert would be cold, so I packed some warm clothes for that possibility in my small bag. As it turned out, I needed warmer clothing for mornings in Essaouira on the Atlantic coast than I did for a night in the Erg Chebbi!
With our small packs in tow, our group assembled in front of the hotel where we were assigned a driver; our driver was a friendly young man wearing a Tuareg blue gandoura. A fleet of white 4X4 vehicles would transport us into the desert, each vehicle carrying 4 very excited guests. With our night packs loaded, we departed for our much-anticipated adventure into the desert in mid-afternoon.
Like a high-speed convoy, the group of 4X4s sped along a straight, flat road for some distance before sharply diverting off of the paved road at a 45-degree angle. Without missing a beat, our 4X4 sped along a flat rocky desert tract – the scattered rock was the only feature that signaled other cars had previously taken the same path, but even this was even barely distinguishable from our surroundings. Continuing on this trajectory
into a barren landscape, it felt as if we were leaving all of civilization behind. The arid land looked more lunar than earthly but occasionally a scraggly bush would make its appearance here and there having survived the harsh effects of the sun, wind, and lack of moisture.
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we caught sight of a nomadic hut which had been scraped together with whatever materials could be found at hand – rock, scrap lumber, palm fronds, scrub bush, and a tarp. The wandering nomadic souls who live in this remote area are traditionally tribal Tuareg Berber people who prefer their isolated lifestyle versus a non-mobile, city life. This normally nomadic characteristic among these peoples is thought to be changing as the number of nomadic Moroccans has seen a substantial decline over the years.
The nomadic Berbers live with the barest of earthly essentials, but cherish the most important essentials of all --- their freedom and independence. They are “Amazigh,” or “free men.” Since the Berber have their own unique language as well as a written alphabet, they encapsulate the Amazigh identity into the Tifinagh letter, “yaz,” shown as the symbol ⵣ.
In various places,
including once on the side of a mountain, we saw a huge Amazigh yaz symbol.
Sometime into our ride into the Sahara, small sand dunes of 5 or 6 feet began to appear and our drivers had fun with us by cresting these ski mogul-like bumps like a roller coaster. I think our driver was having fun too; when we laughed, a broad smile came over his face. We later found out that one of the 4X4s actually became mired, and it took quite an effort to extract it from the sandy clutches of the dune! The camel guides must have a good snicker when this happens as nothing beats your trusty camel in the desert!
Back on a flat stretch of land we stopped at a tent owned by a welcoming Berber (nomadic) family. We were introduced to the matriarch, and her daughters and/or daughter-in-law, and several family members. I believe the family did not speak any English, but Larbi who is himself a Berber, translated for us. We were told something about the nomadic Berber lifestyle while the older lady began preparing mint tea for us as is the hospitality custom in Morocco. It was an
enjoyable interlude in our day, and I suspect the family supplemented their income by welcoming guests such as us which was more than fine in my eyes.
Within feet of the large tent were smaller tent rooms with walls that looked to be made of bamboo covered by a tarp/tent. Inside of one, a young woman in long dress with a black head scarf covering her face was separating and cleaning piles of wool which would then be spun and mostly likely used to make rugs. Someone had been making just such a flat-weave rug on a small weaving loom which was ingeniously made of tree branches, bamboo and slat wood. Partially completed, the Moroccan flat wool rug was being woven in colors of red, white, and black with a touch of ochre yellow. The finished end of the rug was still on the loom but rolled and I was able to see one Berber symbol which I believe was the fish skeleton ( >->->->
), a symbol of protection as near as I have been able to determine.
The women of Berber families seem to have more than their fair share of the family responsibilities. It’s interesting
that the ethnic Tuareg Berbers are a matrilineal society where the tent or physical dwelling belongs to the woman. Most of the important work and functions are left to the women while the men tend to grazing herds. Saying our goodbyes, we left happy to have been able to interact with this local nomadic family.
A bit more driving time into the desert took us into late afternoon, and we found ourselves nearly 40 miles from Erfoud and closer to the town of Merzouga, though Merzouga was nowhere in sight. These wind-shaped, serpentine dunes of the Erg Chebbi lie only about 30 miles from the Algerian border. Looking like a still painting, it was a surreal experience to see the undulating beauty of the soft, swirled red sand dunes and the deep shadows they cast. Dunes stretched as far as the eye could see with some immense dunes dwarfing all around them.
There is a Moroccan legend attached to the Erg Chebbi which has been passed down through the generations. It says that the sand dunes were a punishment sent by God for turning away a weary traveler from Morocco's Sahara desert. This once green and flourishing land
disappeared and in its place the dunes appeared near Merzouga to teach the people a lesson so that they would never refuse to help tired travelers ever again.
We had come here to ride camels to the top of a high dune for an unparalleled view of the sun setting. With a troop of camels and guides awaiting us, we were each assigned to these gentle creatures for the remainder of the daylight hours. Most camels were given funny names – Rick’s camel was supposedly named “Jimi Hendrix” but Jimi looked decidedly pregnant to me! My camel, “Yakten,” was the perfect gentleman – calm and collected. He graciously allowed me to pet his head with no resistance and he never spit.
We were helped on board our camels by some friendly and helpful young men who would guide our camel train to the perfect place to see the sunset. Though not completely sure, I assumed the young men were Berbers, perhaps even Tuaregs. However, the gandouras and tagelmusts they wore were not blue but light colors. Their huge tagelmusts were tied differently and their faces were left uncovered, they wore no veil. Traditional Tuareg Berbers who often wear
blue gandouras and indigo-dyed cloth tagelmusts are often called “blue men” because the indigo wears off on the skin leaving a blue tint, but they are alternately called “People of the Veil” because traditionally their faces are covered except the eyes.
With each camel tied to the one in front, our guides lead us to the crest of an enormous dune while we admired the extraordinary scenery. While the sun began its slow descent, the last rays of daylight’s golden sunshine turned the sky into layers of pale orange and pink. Another camel train appeared on the crest of a dune to our west while casting sepia shadows of their profiles in the sand like a scene from a movie.
Arriving at the peak of own dune, our camels rocked us first forward and then backward as they positioned themselves upon the sand for us to dismount. It was much more difficult than I would have imagined to tread this sand, but the camel guides were ready to help anyone who needed a hand. They had laid mats down in a line at the crest for us to sit on while waiting for sunset.
I started a
conversation with the young guide sitting next to me. He said that he had been working since he was just a boy and had been doing this job for many years now. I complimented him on how well he spoke English (like the majority of people we met in Morocco), and he told me it was one of 5 or 6 languages he spoke which he learned by listening to tourists --- I found this amazing; but, I wasn’t totally surprised as Larbi had told us that Moroccans possess an excellent ability to easily learn different languages which we found to be true throughout much of Morocco.
How lucky I was to be in Morocco’s Sahara Desert to view one of the world’s most beautiful natural sights. The immense expanse of swirled dunes seemed to absorb all sound resulting in a profound silence. The sky was changing minute by minute. The horizon was completely cloudless which created an incredible panorama of the sun’s quickly fading light now turning the sky a vivid tangerine while the sun itself appeared as a white globe sun dipping ever lower below dunes casting shadows in shades of lavender and deep purple. Only minutes
before the sun seemed to slowly approach curvature of the earth, but then began to sink below the horizon at warp speed and just as quickly the nightly show was over. While on the dune we collected a small container of the Erg Chebbi’s red sand to remember our short time in the Sahara which is now kept in a Moroccan glass and silver spice jar we later purchased in Ait Benhaddou.
We were truly blessed as the weather continued to be perfect throughout the night and we were witness to yet another spectacular desert scene. Riding back to camp, the moon began to rise, casting its own glow over all below it. Our camel guides helped us mark the occasion of our visit to this incredible place by taking copious, though not always perfect, photos for us during the ride up the dunes and knowing moon rise is special, used the opportunity to take some interesting genie-like photos of us with the moon as a backdrop.These guides took excellent care of us, and we felt they deserved compensation at the end of our ride which they happily accepted.
What a difference a day makes. Later the next
day we learned that that day’s group would not be so fortunate with the weather as we were. During their camel ride in the dunes, a sandstorm whipped up, completely obliterating any hopes of them being able to see the sunset or moon rise. More’s the pity for anyone in that group who did not think it necessary to wear a tagelmust or some kind of protection from wind-whipped sand in case just this type of scenario happened to occur.
We had a pleasant ride back to the Bivouac Belle Etoile camp, after which our camels were sent to bed for the night and we gathered to chat about how wonderful the desert sunset experience had been. The Bivouac Belle Etoile camp tents were arranged to form a perimeter and included room for a gathering space at one end. With some imagination it seemed much like the textile equivalent of a ksar. At night, the corridor of tents was divided by a colorful carpet pathway lit by a row of large pierced-tin lanterns. Our tent, #1, was huge and felt like a fortress. The heavy tent walls seemed completely impervious to everything but sound. It had a carpeted sleeping
room with sitting area, a separate shower room, separate toilet room, and even a separate area with a washbasin and mirror. I found it even more incredulous that there was electricity! If you called this ‘glamping’, I wouldn’t disagree with you; it was so much more comfortable than I could have ever expected.
We took time to freshen up before dinner and then gathered with others once again to talk over the day. Before long, we were following the aromas coming from another large tent where tables had been nicely set for dinner. We began with khobz bread and a pureed vegetable soup was substantial enough to make a full meal by itself, but many plates and bowls of beautifully prepared Moroccan specialties followed including dessert and wine. Music was an enjoyable addition to dinner as was the entertainment. How our servers could dance, twirl and dip while balancing huge trays of tea glasses, among other tricks, was a bit boggling but a masterful display!
Out in the courtyard, the desert sands were covered in Moroccan carpets. A fire cauldron in the center of an open space had been set ablaze sending flickering sparks into the dark night
sky. Sitting on cushioned benches, poufs, and pillows, we all gathered around the fire to enjoy this special night and soon enough we were joined by the musicians once again. Suddenly I felt a tap on the head and one of the musicians pulled me up to join him in dancing. I was able to keep up pretty well without looking too much like a fool I thought. But, luckily others were soon pulled into a circle and I was no longer the only one dancing with the young Berber man. It was funny to see others trying to show off their Berber dance moves. Our entertaining hosts seemed to enjoy seeing the less coordinated folks trying to keep up which they tried mightily to make as difficult as possible but all in good fun.
The night sky was crystal clear, and it was the perfect night for stargazing from the top of some of the low, surrounding dunes. With the expansive night sky overhead and the enormity of the desert at our feet, you come to realize what an infinitesimally small part of the universe you really are. And, though we foolishly thought we had the Sahara to
ourselves, our camp was not the only one secreted among the dunes; we could see other camp fires and hear music drifting on the still night air from not so distance camps in the Erg Chebbi.
I hope I will always remember this one special night in the Sahara and hearing the rhythmic beat of the Berber bendir drums long into the night before drifting off to glorious sleep.
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