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Published: June 10th 2015
As previously mentioned, the Palais du Desert was the one clinker in our hotel experiences. Although the rooms were lovely, and the overall layout was fine, there were simply too many problems, and management seemed both unwilling and unable to fix them. But I shall cover that in my TripAdvisor review.
After spending the night, we arose the next morning and headed to Rissani. Risen is the old capital of the Tafilalet region, and in the past was an important way station on the caravan routes. It is also the closest city to the Erg Chebbi, the largest sand desert in Morocco. We visited the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Cherif, father about 6 generations back of Moulay Cherif, the founder of the current Moroccan Alouite dynasty. It was wiped out in a flood of the Ziz River in 1963, but was wonderfully restored by Hassan II, father of the current king. Some of the mausoleum is a mosque, and therefore not open to us. It is a place of quiet serenity and repose.We then had a tour of the old ksar led by a young Berber in the traditional blue robes that led to them being called the "blue men
of the desert". We got to go inside one of the houses, with its close confines, no windows, but an opening in the ceiling to allow air in (and presumably rain if any ever falls). Finally, we finished our visit to a shop in the ksar that sold Moroccan knives, small vials, and other such trinkets made locally by local craftsmen.
And then we got to the good stuff. If you have ever visited a rock and mineral shop anywhere, you have undoubtedly seen black marble blocks and slabs with fossils of ammonites and Orthoceras squid. They all come from a quarry near Rissani, and in fact we later passed it on the way to the desert encampment. The son of the man who discovered the deposits took us through the shop where they prepare the fossils for various uses, and he seemed to be quite knowledgeable about the various geologic eras involved. He showed us the laborious hand preparation of the fossilizes they are fashioned into decorative slabs and also such things as soap dishes, and even more elaborate things such as whole sinks (we bought one).
We then retired to he hotel to eat lunch and
rest until about 5, which would mark the start of the biggest adventure of the trip.
I have always wanted to, in the words of Ray Stevens, "hop on my camel named Clyde" and ride off into the desert. It always seemed it would be more natural than the horse always used by Buster Crabbe in the French Foreign Legion film and TV series (the early parts of the series were filmed in Morocco with actual members of the FFL in the filming; later for security reasons they changed to Italy - probably heard Clint Eastwood was coming). I had no idea, of course, just what was involved riding a camel, other than the camel and some sort of saddle or seat. I also don't think I had even been closer to a camel than 30 feet, and had certainly never made the acquaintance of one. All that was about to change. We abandoned our Mercedes bus for this journey, and boarded several 4x4 vehicles. We headed out along secondary roads, somewhat rutted and worn, past the quarries where they retrieve the fossils we saw earlier in the day. Suddenly, the tandem string of vehicles left the road and
headed out across the desert. Driving over hardpan, areas of drifting sand and small dunes, and dry wadis, the vehicles split up and raced southeastward in what certainly appeared to be a rally with a clear effort to get there first. Periodically the vehicles would close upon one another, then would split again, sometimes completely out of sight, as each driver sought the fastest path through difficult terrain. Along the way we saw a couple of small casbahs and stopped briefly to take a look into a bedouin tent inhabited by an older couple. There were scattered donkeys and goats, and occasionally at a passed tent or casbah children would wave at us. Finally, our vehicle which appeared to be completely alone, turned around a large dune and before us was the corral for the camels, with my Clyde and his friends all cheerfully awaiting our arrival. I say cheerfully because they all appear to be perpetually smiling. The other things they are perpetually doing are pooping and farting. I am particularly aware of these traits because I ended up near the end of the string of camels and riders, and thus was able to observe these activities with multiple
We had been told that the difficult thing about riding the camels was the mount and dismount. More particularly, the standing and sitting of the camels. They don't simply stand up and then sit down. They use a ratcheting motion, with the hind legs coming up part way, then the front, then the hind again, and finally full extension in front, with each step throwing the rider suddenly forward or backward. Fortunately, the saddle included a metal bar like a handlebar to which one might cling desperately. Without it, or if you weren't ready with a good grip, you had a chance to be a bystander beside a standing camel. I might mention that a similar phenomenon occurred when they went down a dune - you were suddenly thrust forward over the handlebar, and God save you if you weren't holding on. Photography from the back of a camel is an adventure. Despite what you might expect, we were not hot. In fact, with a stiff breeze blowing, it was a little cool. Once everyone was aboard, our bedouin guides led us out into the desert to our overnight tented camp. I have no real way of knowing,
but I would guess that our ride was about a mile. Which was just about the right distance. Camels are very wide, much more than a horse. This forces your legs to turn outward, and after several minutes my hips were screaming. I finally did my best Laffit Pincay imitation and drew up my knees level with the top of the saddle, which helped. About halfway through the ride, we stopped and climbed on foot to the top of a dune. We had planned to be there at sunset, but missed it by more than an hour and did not want to wait. We watched as one of the bedouin guides unrolled his turban, all 15 feet of it (or about that), and let it fly in the wind as he re-wrapped it. We finally made it to our tented camp for the night, and the camels departed back over the dunes.
The tents were very nice with en suite bathrooms and showers, and double beds that were certainly not luxurious but better than a bedroll on the sand. We were greeted by local musicians who played and then got some of us to dance with them. A separate
tent had been set up with tables and chairs, and china and glasses. Wine was served as we arrived and throughout the evening. Once everyone had gotten settled, we sat down for a very delicious Moroccan dinner cooked in yet another tent behind us by some of the women. It was the birthday of Steve and Jan, and our guide had arranged for a birthday cake. Just as the candles were being blown out, the tent shook with a big gust of wind, and the lights winked out temporarily. The wind suddenly started howling and we hustled to our tents, where the flaps were hurriedly zipped securely shut behind us by our hosts. We spent the next hour or more thinking that our tents were going to blow away at any minute, and listening the grains of sand hitting the sides of the tents and finally small sounds we thought were raindrops, although it was hard to say over the general din. It had been along day, though, and we went to sleep.
Tomorrow, the aftermath of the storm...
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