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Published: July 28th 2017
Geo: 30.33, -5.86
"Holy Hell I look like Shrek!" was my response on waking with the jarring Call to Prayer and stumbling into the bathroom. My eyelids had swollen to twice their normal size - I had woken several times during the night, coughing and sneezing, but assumed that this was the remnants of the cold that had been plaguing me for the entire trip. It would now appear that there had been some form of allergen in the room - animal hair would be my first culprit, followed closely by feathers - both guaranteed to leave me looking like David Guest after 8 rounds with Tyson.
I prised my eyes open long enough to stagger out of the door and appreciate the sun rising majestically over Ait Ben Haddou from our terrace before heading to the welcome gloominess of the breakfast room. Here, despite our promises to ourselves of, "No more bread for the next couple of days," we guzzled down more sweet Moroccan flatbreads laced with tangy marmalade and the ubiquitous hot, sweet mint tea. This is always served in Morocco with sugar, something resolutely refused for our first experience of it. "Sugar? In peppermint tea?" We scoffed. "Ludicrous! It surely negates any health benefits!" Negate the health benefits it may do, but it also negates the bitterness that we don't get in Peppermint tea in the UK. So, sweet and sugary it is!
After our breakfast and a quick pack up, our backpacks already straining under our hurried packing, as opposed to our pre-trip methodical layering, we joined the minibus and began our 6-hour journey further into the dry lands. We had barely put our seatbelts on when we reached our first stop, the Horizon centre for disabilities. This is an incredibly worthwhile charity, supported by the Intrepid Foundation and provides a place for the disabled people in the surrounding area to have access to prosthetic limbs, rehabilitation, physiotherapy and emotional support. In the rural communities, it is still somewhat taboo to have a disability and thus people can come here to learn about their own needs, their children's needs and to have access to a support network to enable them to cope with the stigma of their situations. Physical and mental disabilities are catered for, ranging from amputation to autism. The charity funds trips to the seaside, counselling and play therapy for children. They also provide workshop space for adults with disabilities, who can create pottery, textiles and rugs which are of sold to support their creators and the work of the centre.
It was an interesting and eye-opening experience to explore the crude and under-developed grounds - all of the equipment there: treadmills, hospital beds, toys, furniture - has been donated by suppliers and charities from other countries. It was, somewhat ironically, one of the least disabled access friendly places I have been to. Huge piles of rubble littered the floor, while cracked tiles hung dangerously from the walls. A member of staff proudly showed us around - this is the kind of centre that warrants support from overseas charities. The work they do is so valuable, over 4000 people access their services, sometimes travelling over 150 miles just to attend an afternoon support session. That the staff take such pride in their meagre surroundings really does hammer home how fortunate we are in the UK to have access to such services at our fingertips, should we ever need it.
In classic charity style, we exited through the gift shop. Here we were able to buy goods that had been made by the people supported by the charity. There was some incredibly intricate artwork and pottery for sale so of course, we obliged! Then, it was back in the van to pass into the bustling town of Ouarzazate. Once 3 small villages, it was turned into a city by the French legionaries and is now one of the largest cities in the area. As we pressed through the streets, imposing stone buildings jostled for space and people milled about the streets. Hawkers displayed their wares outside their stall as the veiled and hooded locals perused. A quick time check showed that we had a good enough length of time to visit the spice market. Here a herbal pharmacist talked us through the huge array of spices, flowers and herbal remedies that can be used to fight common illnesses, we were shown the nigella seed and mint sniffer I'd been given in Marrakech, argan oil ointments, fragrant perfumes - the list of alternative medicines was endless.
A few dirhams lighter, we emerged into the heat of the day. From here, it was a short hop around winding streets to The Labyrinth - a treasure trove of curiosities collected over the years from the South of the country by the owner. Dressed in traditional Berber robes, he showed us around his collection, talking us through their uses - Jewish doors decorated with the Star of David, intricately carved Berber princess sedan chairs inlaid with precious stones, weathered wooden tent pegs the size of oars, and the "Real Aladdin's lamp." We declined his offer to try and make the genie appear and were ushered into the back room. We were then treated to more of the obligatory mint tea while stunningly woven carpets were unfurled in front of us. Carpet after carpet were laid out for us to peruse, eventually not an inch of bare floor remained. Each carpet was created using a different technique, the motifs on each one unique to the style. Shoes off, we were asked to walk on the carpets to see which ones we most preferred. I fell in love with a thick, woollen Berber carpet, but the practicalities of getting it home, coupled with the potential clashing of styles with our Ikea - bedecked lounge meant that I left it well alone. Even here, in the most obvious place for the hard-sell, we were simply encouraged to look, ask questions and buy at our leisure - once again there was no pushiness.
Once back in the van, the long journey commenced. However, the scenery outside the windows was once again stunning enough to divert our attention from the arduous travelling. The road was a narrow ribbon of asphalt, looping the mountainous terrain, with rough hardcore creating a path of sorts at either side. This rubble proved to be invaluable at times. Morocco has one of the world's worst road safety records, and having experienced the driving of the other road users, I can see why. The entire journey was a giant game of Chicken. There appeared to be no hierarchy to this game. It did not matter whether you were a moped or a lorry, there seemed to be no way to know who would swerve. As a minibus full of 12 tourists, a driver and a guide, we were a fairly large, imposing player in the game, yet we constantly found ourselves weaving away from the Tarmac, bouncing down from the road itself with a bone-shaking thud, and onto the rocky terrain on either side. However, eventually I worked out the rule of the game: the one with the most sheer bloodymindedness would be the one to stay on the road. I have never been more grateful for a measured, cautious driver than on this trip.
It was a long, bumpy, winding journey - one that felt more like a roller-coaster ride than a road trip at times. The roads twisted and turned, huge potholes in the road jolting us from our window gazing at times. Once again, the landscape had changed, and as we wound and zigzagged down yet another mountainside, we found ourselves gazing into the heart of a deep canyon. Its layered rocks, vertical sides and jagged mouth were reminiscent of the USA's most famous landmark. In fact, from our vantage point, this canyon was almost more spectacular than its counterpart. When we were at the Grand Canyon, the sheet scale of it had made it impossible to truly appreciate. The vast chasm had seemed bottomless and unfeasibly huge. This one, by comparison was more manageable. We were able to take in its entirety, from the deep crevice at its base, with a trickle of water running along it, to the very top - the colours, shapes and patterns identical to the Grand Canyon.
Our perilous journey continued, each bump and twist in the road adding to the feeling of excitement as we drove. We passed by terraces of Palm leaves woven into round pens, around 1.5 metres in diameter. These were created to catch the sand as it blew over from the desert. Sand can drift as quickly as snow and, Mohammed pointed out, it doesn't melt. These traps therefore ensure that the roads are kept clear for the vast volume of traffic that passes through the area. After around an hour of head-jolting, we began to descend. Below us, we could see the valley floor, encased in a thick green blanket. We travelled down further and eventually drove down into the most incredible lush green valley. A wide river snaked through thick patches of palm and date trees, their leaves swaying gently in the breeze as though to welcome us. On each side, the canyon rose sharply, its faces looming over the verdant oasis below.
We finally reached our destination, Zagora - the last large town before the desert. Here would be our resting place for the evening. We passed along the only road in the town, lined with shops bedecked with colourful scarves and pottery, the proprietors dozing on three legged stools in the doorways. Travel agents with brightly painted signs were adorned with pictures of camels and four wheeled drive vehicles, reminding us again of the treat that lay in store for us. We arrived at our hotel, only to be quickly waved back out of the gates. Apparently, there was a problem. We were unable to stay there. Fortunately, Mohammed knew of a lovely little 4* place just around the corner and so we took our leave.
Our new hotel turned out to be an oasis for weary, frazzled and overheated travellers. Stacey had begun to show signs of catching the plague that had been afflicting me for the last few days and so retreated to the cool darkness of the room. The two signs I needed to see more than anything were present: pool and bar. A quick change and I was ready for both. However, merely dipping my toe in was swimming enough for me: the temperature was freezing at best. Others in the group were braver, emitting the usual yelp of pain as they plunged into the icy water. I lay back and let the day's last sunrays beam down on me. Reading my book, relaxing in the sunshine, I was completely at ease. A late dinner of chicken, cous cous and Berber omlette, although not setting the world on fire, finished off the day beautifully.
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