Awake at 2 am on the 12th of March I packed my case and rucksack into Sue’s Mini and set off for Stansted Airport, picking up Jim Hankers and Jeremy Brown by 3 am in Harborough. Paul Bissell was taking Jim Crawford and Sean Perry in his car and we were to meet in the airport carpark around 4.30 am. The traffic on the A14 and M11 was very quiet, with cruise control set at 70 mph for most of the journey we arrived within five minutes of each other.
We navigated Passport Control and security with no problems and were soon enjoying breakfast in Wetherspoons, waiting for the gate to be displayed for our Ryan Air flight to Marrakech. It was a bus transfer to the aircraft, but the flight left on time and having bought a ‘Meal Deal’ at WH Smiths we enjoyed a cheap lunch during the three-and-a-half-hour flight.
It was a bright sunny afternoon and very warm when we landed. The queue through immigration was long, but we all eventually made our way to the arrivals hall where proceeding through the exit we quickly found our transfer to our hotel the Sol Oasis among the mass of eager drivers jostling to display name boards held in hope of quick identification and departure. My fellow travellers were bemused at the erratic driving through the chaotic city traffic, wincing and commenting at the regular near misses and liberal use of the horn as we weaved our way through a throng of carts, mopeds, buses and cars. Particular excitement ensued when we nudged a horse pulling a heavily laden wagon. There is no defensive driving here if you want to get anywhere in a hurry, and everybody does!
Our hotel transfer had already been paid, but I tipped the driver a few dollars left over from my USA jaunt for his skill in avoiding our deaths, I later discovered that one in our party had been introduced to the well-known Arab characteristic of ripping off the foreign tourist. Jeremy was approached by our driver who professed that he couldn’t change the dollars I had given him, naively he believed him and produced a further five Euros, thinking there may be something wrong here when the driver kept the dollars. I will have to keep a very close eye on my compadres on this trip I thought.
At check-in, our rooms weren’t ready, so after welcome drinks, we were invited into the restaurant for lunch. My first impression was that this ‘All-inclusive’ hotel was going to be very acceptable. And it turned out to be so.
Stomachs swelling and few beverages consumed we picked up the keys and made our way to our rooms to discover that the requested twin beds were doubles. Thankfully this was later rectified in the evening.
Though very tired and not at all hungry the six of us made our way to dinner at 7.30 pm and washed down some very tasty Moroccan fayre with copious glasses of local red wine before finding some comfortable seating on the large poolside patio for more drinks and to play one game of excruciating Bingo that lasted an hour and was more a display of the compere’s gallic sense of humour than the rapid pronouncement of numbers usually expected. We were in bed for 11 pm.
Jim Hankers and I were in breakfast for 7.30 am, the others in our party filtering in, bleary-eyed between 8 and 9 am. Deciding to visit the Medina in Marrakech we were disappointed to discover that the hourly free hotel shuttle bus was fully booked until the afternoon. We contacted our transfer driver of the previous day and were on our way into town by 10 am.
The Medina was founded in 1070–72 by the Almoravids and today is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Nearing our destination we were stopped by a group of locals who seemed to be arguing over a moped. After witnessing lots of jostling and a few punches being thrown our driver eventually after a lot of honking managed to squeeze by. Welcome to Marrakech I thought. We disembarked our vehicle next to the large plaza surrounded by restaurants and tourist shops and fronting the Kasbah. All around were the sights and sounds of the Arab world, crowds of locals dressed in traditional, modest caftans mingling with shorts and T-shirted tourists, the sound of car horns competing with the wail of snake charmer’s pipes and hubbub of stall holder’s cries. A long line of horse-drawn carriages stood waiting for those brave enough to risk the Marrakech traffic. After a short foray along the frontage of the shops to view the trinkets on display and experience the persistent petitioning of the owner we chose to escape the melee and heat and sought the shade of a restaurant high above the medina for refreshments. Being also presented with a menu we added the first of many tagines to cooling drinks and watched the throng below.
Plunging back into the medina we entered the Kasbah through its ancient gateway and were immediately transported back to the time of Saladin and a scene from the Arabian Nights. Its narrow, dim and confusing passageways are stacked high with trinkets and essentials, testing your memory to remember your route into this visual assault on your senses. Keeping together as a group of six was not easy as we shuffled among the crowd along the cobbled alleyways, ignoring the cries of shopkeepers whenever we glanced for more than a second at their displayed wares. Souvenirs were negotiated for and bought, I helped those in our group unused to such transactions to achieve a fairish price, but on exiting the Kasbah I could see that some had ‘gone it alone’ (I didn’t enquire as to what they had paid).
Making our way back across the plaza we risked our lives crossing the busy road to visit the Koutoubiya Mosque. Thankfully, the group had listened to my advice of not trying to judge the traffic yourself, but watch the locals and stick close to them. Founded in 1147 the mosque is the largest in Marrakech and today is the highest building in the Medina and surrounding area. We didn’t enter the mosque, satisfying ourselves with a peek through its large and ancient doors, glimpsing a few locals at prayer. We read the information boards, purchased some ice cream and made our way back to the pick-up point of our taxi. The fracas of earlier had disappeared, either honour had been satisfied or the police had arrived.
We spent the rest of the day and evening enjoying the delights of ‘All Inclusive’. The evening entertainment was a band that sang in French and I presumed played modern Morrocan music as the tunes didn’t sound very traditional. We retired early to bed at 9 pm as five of us were to leave the hotel the following morning for a three-day trip to the Sahara. We were to leave my roommate, Jim Hankers behind, recent knee operations meant that the included camel ride would be beyond him.
I left Jim sleeping soundly and was the first of our party into breakfast for a much-needed coffee. We met our minibus transport under a clear starlit sky at the front of the hotel and once again made our way into Marrakech. There, at a petrol station, we transferred to a larger minibus and were eventually joined by others of mixed nationalities until the vehicle was full. We were a mixture of English, Italian, French, Columbian, New Zealand and briefly, German.
Unfortunately, as we were about to leave the city the German couple had to disembark the vehicle. She didn’t look well, laying down on the pavement tightly wrapping a coat around herself, her boyfriend tried to cover her with more clothes. It seems she had food poisoning. We left them there, wishing them the best, wondering what was in store for them.
It would take a day and a half to reach our destination, Merzouga Dunes. Traversing through the High Atlas Mountains past one Berber village after another, we stopped briefly at a viewpoint to take in the breathtaking scenery and to photograph a cavalcade of Ferraris that had been passing us over the last hour. Moving on we hair pinned through the mountains until Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ait Ben Haddou, famous for its Kasbah and fortified village and was previously used as a backdrop for famous Hollywood epics and also as a backdrop to many fashion magazine photo shoots. More recently it has been the location of Game of Thrones and is presently being prepared for another episode.
Our little group began the visit with a wander through the village accompanied by a guide who met us at the stop-off point. Making our way through twisting sunburnt alleys we made our way down to the river where we crossed with the aid of a group of small children who held our hands as we hopped from sandbag to sandbag, placed specifically for tourists and the harvesting of a tip. The heat of the day was now having its effect as we climbed up to the fortifications of Ait Ben Haddou. As we entered the Kasbah there was some relief to be found in the shade of the tightly knit buildings. Our guide took us into an art workshop where we sat fascinated as we watched one of the artists daub his brush into a pot of sugary, mint tea and seemingly painted nothing onto a sheet of paper. Satisfied that his masterpiece was finished he then lit the burner of a gas stove, over which he then shook his paper, magically the painting appeared. Intrigued, of course, I had to buy one.
Again entering the furnace of the day we made our way upward to the top of the fortress to take photos of the surrounding panorama. It was easy to see why this place has been chosen for the location of so many films;
• Sodom and Gomorrah (1963)
• The Man Who Would be King (1975)
• The Message ( 1976)
• Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
• Time Bandits (1981)
• Marco Polo (1982)
• The Jewel of the Nile (1985)
• The Living Daylights (1987)
• The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
• The Sheltering Sky (1990)
• Kundun (1997)
• The Mummy (1999)
• Gladiator (2000)
• Alexander (2004)
• Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
• Babel (2006)
• Prince of Persia (2010)
• Game of Thrones- parts of the TV series
We followed our guide back to our transport, this time over the bridge built especially for the film Gladiator, we were glad for the relief of the minibus aircon. Leaving this iconic Berber settlement behind we continued our journey, stopping next for drinks and an opportunity to buy a shemagh, a traditional square cotton scarf, which Arabs put on their heads as protection from the sun and sand, essential for our upcoming camel trek. I had already bought one from Amazon the previous week and was satisfied that it would do the job. Most in our group purchased larger, bright blue examples before we drove on to a later stop and a tagine lunch at a roadside restaurant well used by tourist buses.
Continuing on your way through Ouarzazate which is often referred to as ‘the Gate of the Sahara‘, we stopped briefly for a rest and ice-creams before making our way on to Boumalne Dades, located at the edge of a desert plateau, at the outlet of the upper Dadès Valley, before another stop to admire the beautiful scenery from a viewpoint above the city.
The day was fast running out as we entered the Dades Valley, the road meandering alongside the river which had cut a deep channel through the plateau. Passing the impressive sight of the rock formations known as Monkey’s Fingers, sometimes called the Cliffs of Tamlalt. They are long vertical sections of rock which appear to be “digits” made of a conglomerate of boulders that rest in a unique formation within the gorge. As the name implies, it appears as though a hand is rising from the river below. It was here that our hotel for the night was situated.
Our little group of five and an Italian couple were dropped off at the first hotel, the rest were staying elsewhere. The hotel was basic but comfortable, our room was a dormitory of six beds and gave us plenty of space. After checking in and dropping off our rucksacks we made our way into the restaurant for the set evening meal; soup, chicken tagine and fruits. Adequate and filling, but disappointingly as it was Sean’s birthday and this is a Muslim country, we couldn’t celebrate it with a bottle of wine.
It was a 5 am wake-up, a 5.30 am breakfast and a 6 am start to the next leg of our journey to Merzouga. After a stop at a small pretty Berber village to pick up another guide who conducted us on a ramble through the adjacent farmland, and explained what was growing in the fields. He later took us into the village where we had mint tea and a demonstration of carpet making. There was an opportunity to buy, but no one did.
After moving on and taking lunch at a local cafe we entered the spectacular Todgha Gorges, a series of limestone river canyons, or wadi, in the eastern part of the High Atlas Mountains, near the town of Tinerhir. We walked along the river flowing through the gorge, noting the rock climbers clinging onto the vertical cliffs overhead. Far too hot to be climbing I thought. We walked about a half mile into the river’s edge before being picked up by our minibus. I would have loved to explore further this geographical feature of Morocco but time was against us.
We had just one more rest stop before we reached Merzouga. The village is known for its proximity to Erg Chebbi and is a popular destination for tourists. It has been described as “a desert theme park” and the Erg Chebbi as “a wonderland of sand”. It has the largest natural underground body of water in Morocco. The Saharan dunes could be seen rising like orange waves topped by creeping black shadows on our left-hand side a good hour before we reached the village. I have seen many photos of these dunes and assumed that their colour had been photo-shopped for effect, but that is not true. They truly are one of nature’s wonders.
As we arrived on the outskirts of the village we could see strings of camels sitting among the scrubland patiently waiting for the hordes of tourists about to descend on them. Their drivers dressed in robes and shemagh sitting cross-legged beside them chatting, no doubt weighing up the arriving tourists disgorging from their vehicles. Five of our group were selected and the rest of us watched from inside the minibus as they frantically shouldered their rucksacks and attempted to remember how to wind on their blue purchases of the previous day. We saw the first two called forward to mount their steeds and flinched as they grimly held on to the movement of the camel standing, first the protesting animal threw them violently forward then backwards and lastly forwards again. The rest of the beasts began to grunt and complain loudly at what was to come.
Our minibus drove on out of the scrub and entered the dunes, continuing for around a quarter of a mile, until we came to a stop between two huge dunes. As we left the vehicle, shouldered our rucksacks and wound on our shemaghs the minibus departed leaving us alone. Where were the camels? There were plenty of strings of riderless steeds available when we first stopped, why didn’t we mount them? Are we being kidnapped? Our group of eight confused and camelless wannabe Bedouins wandered between the dunes wondering nervously what was happening. Around ten minutes later the sound of complaining camels could be heard, then slowly from around one of the dunes, the first of a caravan of eight animals and two drivers appeared. So we are not to be ISIS, hostages, after all!
The drivers allocated each of us a camel based on our size and weight. Mine bellowed and grunted loudly as I sat astride, then after half standing decided to sit back down and complain loudly. I was beckoned to dismount while the two Arabs adjusted the cushioned seat, then gestured for me to remount. This time Annabel (I gave her a name) stood and waited patiently in line as the rest of our party mounted and lurched to a stand, some like Annabel complaining vociferously.
We set off led by one of the drivers walking in front of the lead camel tugging gently on a rope attached to the camel’s mouth. Each animal in turn was attached to the rear of the one in front by the same method. It was a most uncomfortable ride, with legs akimbo we gripped a metal T-bar to steady ourselves and avoid falling off. I found the first 15 minutes of rhythmic lurching difficult as bones, sinews and muscles expressed a painful dissatisfaction in their new positioning. Eventually, I gained my camel legs and found a tolerable sitting position and began to enjoy the experience.
It was hot, it was dry and it was perfect! It was just as I imagined the caravans of old making their way across the desert for centuries following a string of reliable wells and oases while circumventing mountain ranges or sand seas. Slipping into the role of Lawrence of Arabia, from atop my beast of burden I found myself romanticising on the life of a Bedouin tribesman, well, at least for the hour and a half that it took to reach our camp for the night. As we progressed over the dunes following a well-worn trail scattered with small pellets of camel pooh we could see dung beetles scurrying among the little packets of food, leaving a trail of footprints in their wake. One was trodden on by the camel in front but as soon as the foot pad was lifted it shook itself free from the sand and scurried away. They are tough little beggars! As we reached the top of each dune we could see in the distance other caravans slowly marching their burdens to some hidden encampment. Several times we stopped when a driver noticed a saddle had slipped on one of the camels, after sitting it down and its rider dismounted the two Arabs would set about adjusting it before we set off again.
As the sun began to set behind us the shadows crept into vivid contrast with the shifting orange dunes, a truly extraordinary and inspiring sight, creating a lasting impression not in need of a photo to cajole the memory.
As the sun began to clip the horizon we could see the tents of our encampment a short distance away. With great difficulty and fresh pain, we dismounted the camels and encouraged by our drivers, climbed to the top of the last great dune of this trek to take photos of the setting sun over a stark desert landscape. Exhausted by the effort, the five of us lay in the sand with the wind blowing fine grains of silica into every nook and cranny, waiting for the colours of the sunset to spread into the heavens to take our shots. As the sun disappeared, under a growing starlit sky we made our way down the dune to pick up our rucksacks and board a 4X4 for the final leg into camp. I guess camels are not keen on carrying tourists in the dark.
The five of us were allocated a tent with six very hard, low-lying beds covered in rugs and came with a brick of a cushion. There were no sheets or pillows, this was to be Bedouin style. There was a toilet in the corner, privacy provided by a thin curtain and likewise a shower head, though whether it worked, none of us was brave enough to give it a try.
Over the next hour, the rest of the camp slowly filled up as another caravan of principally French arrived. At 7 pm we made our way to the food tent and sat in the semi-dark while the rest of our new campmates joined us. After half an hour, just as we were beginning to suspect that our Arab hosts had deserted us we heard the sound of a generator and when the lights came on, we knew that our dinner of soup, chicken tagine and fruit was imminent.
We had been warned that tomorrow was going to be another 5 am wake-up, breakfast at 5.30 am and 5.45 am camel trek back to our minibus so it was going to be an early bedtime, or so we thought. After marvelling at the spangled desert sky with the rest of our campmates it was 10.30 pm when we lay in our tent on the instruments of torture called a bed. It was then that our Bedouin hosts brought out the bongo drums around the campfire to entertain those of their clients who hadn’t succumbed to fatigue. It was 2 am before the last slap of the bongo rang out!
It was 4 am when Paul decided to get up and dress, closely followed by a frozen me. I was expecting the temperature to drop during the night, I didn’t expect it to plummet so far! By 4.30 am we were all awake and dressed in our tent and ready for some breakfast.
Not all in the camp ate that morning, I hoped that it was those that kept us awake who were the ones to starve. We were all standing outside the confines of the encampment by 5.30 am gazing again in awe at the cosmos. It was some twenty minutes before the grunting of reluctant animals could be heard in the distance, but this time there was no complaining as we mounted and set off back into the dunes.
We took a different route back to our waiting transport. The first half hour of our trek was in the dark, it wasn’t until the sun eventually peeped over the horizon behind us that we could see that we were still in the Sahara and not on the moon. I found this leg of our journey not quite as painful as the previous, I guess that a night on a Bedouin bed is the perfect bone stretching preparation for an hour or two on a camel. For the latter part of the, trek I found myself on the lead camel when for some reason the animal in front was relegated to the rear of the caravan. Not having the rump of a camel to focus on in steadying my seating, took a little getting used to, but like Lawrence, I soon slotted into the role of leader with ease.
Arriving back at our return transport we tipped our drivers and then moved on to pick up the rest of our group. Saying goodbye to the Sahara, the first part of the journey was spent discussing each other’s experiences. It seems the camp the other group had trekked to had proper beds to sleep in and were warm and comfy throughout the night. We consoled ourselves with the thought that we had come for the full Bedouin experience and it was they that had missed out. Would have been nice to have had a pillow though!
The journey to Marrakech was long and tiring, covering the same route, we all sat in the same seats throughout the three days so when not dozing we had the interest of seeing different vistas through the window. Every hour or so we stopped for refreshments and the toilet. Lunch was an extended affair in a pleasant restaurant on the edge of a town overlooking lush fields of alfalfa. We were the first to arrive and were served quickly, shortly afterwards several other tour buses pulled up, spewing their human contents into this well-oiled system for feeding hordes of tourists eager to experience the Sahara or returning from. Whether they were coming or going to the sands I didn’t judge, I just marvelled at the speed of service, MacDonald’s could learn something here.
The five of us were the first to be dropped off in Marrakech at around 8 pm, another smaller minibus was waiting to take us on to the Sol Oasis. When I arrived back in the room, Jim had just returned from his evening meal and was watching TV. Anxious for company he joined me in the restaurant where the six of us were soon enjoying copious glasses of wine and a substantial meal that didn’t include a tagine. We finished the evening listening to music in comfortable seats with soft cushions that didn’t sway or lurch once, we had survived the ‘ships of the desert’ and this was our reward.
We all made breakfast at different times but by 10 am we had agreed that a planned ‘free’ tour of Marrakech was not going to happen, we needed to chill out and enjoy the facilities of this rather nice hotel. That evening we attended a ‘Fantasia’ of Morrocan culture involving dancers, acrobats, riders, fireworks, and folk music on the outskirts of Marrakech at the Chez Ali exotic restaurant. We were picked up by minibus at 8.15 pm from the hotel and along with three French women we had a short drive to reach Chez Ali. As we disembarked the theatre began. Passing between two lines of prancing Arab horsemen we made our way to the entrance only to be further impressed as we descended into an underground grotto. This dimly lit artificial tunnel twisted and turned until it eventually ejected us into a cacophony of noise and light. Costumed dancers swayed and screamedaround us as we made our way through a set of gates, pausing only to have our photo taken with a couple of beautifully attired Berber women before seemingly bursting into a huge arena surrounded by high castle walls and Berber tents. This was an assault on our senses, the sights and sounds were magnificent, spectacular, and confusing!
We made our way through more dancers, fire eaters and pipe players to one of the tents at the very end of the arena where we were shown to our table set for five. Over the next hour, a feast arrived, along with yet more singers and dancers performing inside the tent. Eventually, by 10 pm we had scoffed and drank until we could do no more and left our tent to take up seats at the end of the arena to watch the show. This began with twelve horsemen charging down the length of the arena to fire their rifles in the air as they were level with us. My heart nearly stopped at the blast wave from their muskets, how on earth do their steeds get used to this? Next followed belly dancers, fire eaters, camels and sheep, there were several more galloping charges with the now expected discharge of firearms and all accompanied by the wailing of pipes and beating of drums.
The show lasted an hour and had a cast of hundreds. We were back at the Sol Oasis by midnight, well satisfied we had gone native for just a few hours.
We spent the next couple of days in the hotel, recharging our European batteries playing petanque and pool, swimming, sunbathing and trying as many delicacies as we could at meal times. Sangria and gin and tonics became the favoured afternoon drinks, and red wine and beer during the evenings. On Saturday night we had some mild excitement as we watched Scotland beat Italy and Ireland beat England in the Six Nations Tournament along with a few other Brits on a large screen in the theatre.
We were very fortunate when on the last evening as we sat enjoying refreshments next to the pool we heard an announcement during one of the children’s activities that the clocks would be going back that night by one hour. This would have certainly impacted on waking up for our early morning transfer to the airport. We adjusted our watches.
We completed our stay at the Sol Oasis with a memorable show in the hotel’s theatre. A mixture of dance, music and pyrotechnics performed by the animation team was superb, a great way to end what has been a brilliant week.
We breakfasted at 7 am, boarded our taxi at 7.20 am and were at the airport for 8 am, a smooth transfer without any undue hassle. The previous night I had checked us all in online on the Ryan Air App to discover that after doing so I had then had to go to their website to access the boarding the boarding cards, very annoying! I sent these via Whatsapp to the rest of our group. On presenting these on our mobiles at security we were informed they had to be validated at a check-in desk. This entailed walking to the other end of the terminal and queueing to acquire a handwritten paper boarding card. Why the poor staff member had to handwrite hundreds of boarding cards, copying the same details from each passenger’s mobile phone is beyond me. However, the rest of the process went smoothly and we were soon in departure.
On our journey through the airport, it was noticeable that a great number of passengers were in a blind panic, begging their passage through the various queues with the excuse that their flight is about to leave. I guess this is what inevitably happens when you aren’t aware that the clocks have gone back.
The flight left 20 minutes late and because of a headwind, we landed in Stansted 40 minutes behind schedule. There was no queue at immigration or security so we were soon marching outside the terminus towards the Blue Short Stay Car Park. It was a Sunday so there was little traffic on the roads and we were back in Harborough for around 4 pm.
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