Sunday, November 9, 2008

Zagora & the Sahara

That's me on the camel in the back!

The day started with a drive along the palm tree oases about 20 minutes from here to a town called Tinfou, where the sand dunes begin. There are still mountain formations, though they trail off a bit more down the road, and I imagine that's where the fun really begins! There are signs all around which say “Timbuktu – 52” meaning 52 days by camel! Uhhhh, not this time around! Anyway, the winds have deposited sand in these large dunes off the main road. The Toureg people (dark skinned nomadic Africans from the Sahara) occupy the area with their camels (occupy for the tourists.....), and of course, for a price, you can ride one.

So, ride the camels we did! We each got our own camel, they tied a few together, and then the Toureg guides lead them through the sand, and up and down the dunes. They have carpeted tents set up for the tourists who come to spend the night, as well as modern amenities as motorcycles. These people are obviously accustomed to tourists, as they spoke basic English, and were happy to take your picture of you on your camel with your camera, and happily took your money for the fabric they wove around your head into a turban. (I actually have become quite fond of my royal blue fabric, I just have no idea how to recreate the desert turban look!) We would lurch along, and then stop for some picture taking, and then pitch forward as the camel headed down the dunes. The saddle on top of the camel isn't the most comfortable thing in the world, and it took a second to get your land legs back once you got off, but great fun! It was a good 30 – 40 minute ride, and thoroughly entertaining! When else are you going to ride a camel in the Moroccan Sahara?!?? It was a treat!

From there, we headed back up the road to a town called Tamegroute, which oddly enough, is known for its Islamic library. It used to have upwards of 40,000 volumes, and scholars came from all around to study the books on math, astronomy, philosophy, Koranic verse, and other sciences. Adjacent are pottery makers, who do ceramics with a green glaze made from natural manganese, mined from a nearby region. We had a tour of their rustic studios, and of course had buying opportunities. Lunch was back in Zagora at a small riad (cooked carrots and a beef pot roast tagine), and then to an antique & rug store, operated by men in traditional Toureg dress (blue kaftans & turbans), though they didn't look like it ethnically speaking. As in, I think the dress was for the tourists. Some time to rest in the late afternoon, and dinner at the hotel of kefta, (instant) rice, and veggies.

Marrakech to Zagora: The High Atlas Mountains

We leave Marrakech and it's famous Djemma (plaza) of food vendors, entertainers, snake charmers, and mopeds for a quieter countryside drive. Early fog gives away to blue skies with some high clouds. It is a beautiful drive up to the snow-covered peaks through hairpin turns and a multitude of scenic views.

I wish knew more about the geology of the region, because rocks and mountains changed at every seeming bend in the road. It started out with terraced hillsides with deep stream-carved valleys below. We saw a whole range of snowy tops, with the sun glistening off the mountain sides. The highest peak is called Tizi-n-Tichka pass, which at 7400 feet, is the highest pass in Morocco. The landscape then became very much like our American southwest, some looking like the reddish-oranagey Grand Canyon, other areas looking like southern New Mexico's Robledos with their more muted tones. There was one mountain that was a light sage green, and it appeared to be that shade not just from its vegetation, but from whatever minerals were in that hillside. We saw very angular, cubic looking hillsides and mountains, many at odd angles, having been thrust up by plate tetonic movements eons ago. All different, all gorgeous.

We stopped for lunch in Ouarzazate, which is known as the Hollywood of Moroccco, as there are at least 3 movie studio sets & soundstages there. Movies like Kundun, Gladiator, The Mummy, and Babel have all been filmed around this region. Brad Pitt was known to walk around town. Lunch was at a place owned by a Greek, called Dimitri's, and it was filled with photos of movie stars of the years gone by. A nice spinach soup and chicken tagine. Another 2 hours down the road to Zagora, which is the beginning of the Sahara.

Our hotel is a sprawling place, with the rooms built around a center courtyard and pools. We arrived just as the sun had set, and navigating some of the dark passageways to find our rooms was amusing. The lights were not on, and once we figured out there were light switches in the halls, that made it a bit easier. This place though has a bit of an abandoned feel. Not out of neglect, but for the size of the place, there's just not many people here besides us. Dinner was soup and another chicken tagine, with wine in honor of Tom's wife's birthday and their anniversary.