Oct 192012

I left home three weeks ago, and so far, I have to say I’m amazed by how much this trip is going exactly as I hoped it would. I had a wonderful time in London, seeing old (travel) friends and making new ones, and now I think Marrakech has set a nearly impossibly high standard for the rest of this trip. I came here (over the objections of some more familiar with Morocco who said it was too touristy and my time would be better spent in Fes) because I had the sense that it would provide an ideal base for doing/seeing a variety of things outside the city itself. With a weekend in Essaouira, an expedition to the Sahara and a cinematic three-day trek in the High Atlas, I couldn’t be happier with how things have worked out.

The Sahara

3 days, 2 nights with 1 American, 1 Brit, 1 German, 2 Québécoise, 2 Frenchies, 2 Australians, 6 Brazilians, and 1 Moroccan driver. 1000 kilometers, 1 hotel room, 6 Berber tents, 2 gorges, 229 pictures, 16 camels, 2 flat tires, 1 bottle of wine, infinite grains of sand.

The culminating experience was a camel ride over sand dunes to a Berber camp in the desert, and the dinner and drum circle that followed. I think all of us will never forget the first time our camels rose in three distinct stages from underneath us, vaulting us high above the sand. But truly it’s the sum of the experiences, and the people with whom I shared them, that will leave an indelible mark on me.

There’s only one main road that heads east out of Marrakech. It climbs through the Atlas Mountains and over Tichka Pass, at 7400 ft. This is what it looks like on a map. Courtesy Google Maps

And this is a view of the road in person. We stopped plenty of times to take pictures. In such a landscape, it’s nearly impossible to capture a sense of scale. At least, I’m rarely successful.

Lookout point shops are big business in Morocco. It seemed that no matter how isolated the location, if there was a place for our van to pull off the road, there was someone trying to sell us something. This came in handy once I decided it would be wise to buy a scarf for the camel trek. Other items are less useful: geodes are ubiquitous. I would have been in my glory 15 years ago.

Dessine-moi un mouton! No baobabs near the top of the pass. This is, though, one of the larger flocks of sheep I’ve seen so far in Morocco.

Here, the ancient kasbah of Aït Benhaddou. Though it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, only a few families live here now, with most opting to reside in the modern area of town on this side (from the photographer’s point of view) of the river. If it looks at all familiar, it’s because more than a dozen movies have been shot here, including Jesus of Nazareth, The Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator. It was a true highlight of the first day.

A common, and sometimes heartbreaking, sight in Morocco. Donkeys and other domesticated animals are often treated poorly here. However, I’ve tried to temper my moral outrage while in a country with a nominal per capita GDP of $3,085 (IMF). For the record, this guy seemed to be doing ok.

Shadows and dust. In Gladiator, Aït Benhaddou played the role of Zucchabar, a Roman city in what’s now Algeria. This is where Ridley Scott built the first arena Maximus fought in. Yes, we were very entertained.

Made of sticks and mud, the kasbah has a bit of trouble holding together in the rain. Fortunately, the UNESCO designation and Hollywood’s never ending interest in Aït Benhaddou ought to keep it around for decades to come.

A local artist. This guy paints with nearly invisible saffron and tea watercolor, and then singes the page until the image appears. He just started the burning process here; you can make out the beginnings of a camel traversing the desert.

For 10 dirhams, a guide led us through the kasbah. Here’s a view from the top. The construction of the gate at center right is for an upcoming film.

From within the kasbah of Ouarzazate. For some reason, this kasbah is supposed to be a top sight in Morocco. Tanya, one of the girls on the trip, recommended it enthusiastically and unequivocally. But as we wandered around a series of rooms that all looked pretty much the same, Sarah and I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. Maybe the original tiling? It’s true that kind of work is hard to find these days. Anyway, here’s a shot out a window. I like the geometry.

Dadés Gorges, at the end of the first day. We arrived too late to wach the sunset, but it was still pretty. This is fairly representative of the kind of landscape we drove through most of the day.

The next day began with a walk through the oasis of Tinghir (I think), and a lesson on Berber carpet making. That’s me and Sarah, with Jade looking super skeptical on the right (I think Sarah has better pictures, but this is what I have for now).

The carpets were beautiful. If I had money or a place to put a one, I might have bought and shipped it. Unfortunately, I have neither. Mohammad was kind enough to explain the meanings of the colors and some of the symbols. I recorded a bit with my iPhone; if I’m able, I’ll attach some audio soon.

Another reststop, with apparently little purpose. I think this is where I got my scarf, though, so yay.

In Todra Gorges with Troy, one half of an amazing Australian couple who just about made the whole expedition for us. They were so upbeat the entire time – I was grateful we were in the same group. Lots of climbers here – made me think of my UV friends.

Finally we reached Merzouga, the launch point for our camel “raid” into the desert. Camels are kind of ridiculous looking when you get up close to them. Even more than alpacas. This guy was totally hamming it up.

Hey buddy, you’ve got something on your lip there.

At the edge of the world’s biggest sandbox.

We rode in groups of 4-6, with Berber guides leading us on foot. Ours was named Said. That’s Carina, the other half of the Australian couple, taking a picture of me. In the back, Sarah’s taking one of herself.

The obligatory shadow-on-the-sand shot. We rode for about an hour. Not much commentary on the next couple of shots.

Another view of the dunes, some of which rose more than 300 feet above the desert floor.

The dismount was tricky. If any of us were going to fall off, it would have been here. Hang on, Troy!

Our camp between the dunes.

Carina and me, happy to be in the Sahara.

Dinner in the tent. This is the only known group shot, almost. If someone had held up a mirror, I’d have been in it too!

After dinner, our Berber guides entertained us with some traditional music before turning the drums over to us for our own drum circle. It was incredible. Video coming as soon as I can find faster internet.

The camp at night.

After the drum circle, many of us climbed (with no small amount of difficulty) to the top of the dune behind the camp to contemplate our roles in the universe, and also celebrate Troy’s birthday! With his whisky, Carina’s peach vodka (gotta love Australians) and the bottle of wine I’d picked up in Essaouira, we had quite the celebration. None of us could quite believe where we were. Though I was almost completely caught up in the moment, the stars helped me to reflect on how at peace I’ve felt to be on this trip, and how grateful I am for the company I’ve shared it with so far. 3 weeks in; 45 to go.

Edit Jan 8 2013: Finally added a video I’d made shortly after the trip. Not sure why I didn’t post it before; for me, it’s not a half-bad editing job!

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 Posted by on October 19, 2012 at 4:09 pm

  4 Responses to “Infinite Grains of Sand”

  1. WOW………..is all I can come up with at this moment:incredible!

  2. couldn’t have said it better myself; great writing.

  3. JBJ! Looks like you’re having a grand old time over there in Morocco. Hope all is well and continues to go well, we miss you at Fox Run (and you should see what they did to your room! Tore it down, that’s what!)

    Can’t wait to see more photos!

  4. Aw, thanks James! Man, I assumed they’d leave it in state. I guess tearing it down is a more productive outlet for grief, though, so no hard feelings.

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