Trip to Merzouga Day 2 – what’s the difference between a valley and a gorge?

27.10 – Wednesday

Woke up early to eat our breakfast at 7 am. Unfortunately the food didn’t amaze this time either. And to be fair to us, it wasn’t because we are horrible food-quality-demanding-hard-to-please-people. The bread was stale and there wasn’t much to choose from. The thing that saved that morning was the coffee (nice and strong) and honey with its extraordinary smokey flavor. Let me say something about their cheese/butter spread thing… well I am still not convinced  whether it was the texture or the taste that was so appalling. Let me put it this way… As butter it definitely wasn’t a nice one, as cheese it was a pretty revolting one.

7.30 sharp all the kids were on the bus ready to go and very excited about the desert. The driver took us first to the top of the mountain to have a look at the Dadas Gorge at its best. And to be honest it looked pretty normal. Not much really to make all this fuss about it. I remember Kate saying “Be sure to express a lot of enthusiasm, though!”. Sure, after all this trouble yesterday with persuading the driver to get us up there it was a good advice. “Wooooooow! It is MAGNIFICIENT up here! Am I right guys?!” – how much more sarcasm can a person squeeze into that sentence I don’t know, but it seemed just enough not to give anything away to the poor driver.

After leaving the gorge we continued driving (really just to see another one). But before that, we made a little stop and walked around the Palmerei with a NICE guide – for a change. No one pushed us, no one tried to cheat us out of our money, nice weather, nice area, easy. We walked on little pavements, amongst crops and women working in the fields. Our guide entertained us telling all about different plants that grew there: palm trees (of course), peach, apricot and olive trees, licorice, broccoli etc etc. I don’t remember them all. Oh! And I finally solved the mystery of olives! They all grow on one type of tree and colours are determined by different parts of it. And also how mature the fruit are. It was also then and there I realised that donkeys can walk on really narrow pavements. The path was the width of their hooves! Come on, it is pretty impressive.

After some time in the fields we got to the village, where we walked the narrow streets of mellah until we reached one of the houses, where nice Berber host was waiting for us with a greeting. Everyone took their shoes off and sat down on colourful carpets, which were spread around the main room on the ground floor. In one corner the tea was being brewed for us and in the other a women from the village was weaving a nice red carpet. “Marhaba!” – said the host of the house and begun to explain everything step by step. First of all we were given names – boys were all called ‘Mohameds’ and girls ‘Fatimas’. So simple. It was actually quite entertaining, when he was referring to one of us this way. Never too sure it was you he was talking to. Secondly we were told not to worry and be happy and to feel free as the birds. It means that if you want to get up and see the weaving machine from up close, you should just do it Jessica. A moment later he poured everyone a glass of tea (‘berber whiskey’) told us how to say “shukran” in Berber language (‘saha’) – it means “thank you” by the way – and started explaining how they dye their wool. Green is made from alfalfa or mint, orange from henna, red from poppy flowers, purple is lavender, black is made from coal, yellow comes from saffron and blue is the colour of indigo rock. After some time we were taken upstairs, where all different carpets were show to us. Some of them were really impressive. Not only the colours but also the patterns. The most amazing were the ones made 100% from silk extracted from a cactus plants! Each one of them had a little tag with a certain code, that represented a family who made the particular carpet. This was the moment I realised he was actually trying to sell something to us. For a moment I felt bad we weren’t really interested in buying a carpet. How would we take it with us on a plane? Maybe if you could fly on one of the carpets…

Soon we were all back on the bus again. Out of pure curiosity I asked the guys what the difference between the valley and the gorge would be. While some people seemed a bit puzzled with my language related question, Matthew gave a pretty good answer: “when you fall into a valley you roll down a grass slope, when you fall into a gorge you plunge to your death”. Lovely and actually pretty accurate! Matthew is an extraordinary man. Or should I risk and say ordinary looking guy with loads of extraordinary knowledge and some traveling experience to back it up. Very calm and rather quiet but always has something interesting to say once he opens his mouth. So it seemed to me at least. Anyway, we continued our journey to yet another gorge. On the way we passed more berber villages, some of them bigger, some smaller, but no matter how tiny they were and how muddy or poor they looked, each one of the houses had a satellite dish glued onto what one would call a roof here. It was a real bizarre sight. One of the other funny things that kept amusing me were car horn sounds. They were always present. At times you could forget about them because they created an almost constant sound effect I wondered if they are set on automatic mode and that is why they beep every time you are coming close to any kind of object. It would explain a lot actually. I thought some drivers must get pretty frustrated and even furious when their horn does not work. What is more, they might not be able to drive in such circumstances. Not that their driving skills are great anyway… We arrived in Todra Gorge just before midday. Looking up to the high cliffs I realised quickly the obvious difference between valleys and gorges and decided never to try to check it in practice. Some theories are better left alone. It is safer that way. “Todra was much more impressive than Dadas Gorge” – I though once we were driving away.

About an hour later we stopped for lunch. Again we weren’t given much choice, but we were hungry enough to agree to whatever was offered. Plus the day was a pretty successful so far and most of us didn’t really care. Rhys and I settled for two tagines with chicken (lemon and vegetable – 50 and 60 DH) one coffee and a coke to clench our thirst. The food was decent and no one complained. There was a nice atmosphere within the group and we were having more and more fun just telling stories and laughing together and at each other too actually. From this point onwards the drive became pretty dull until we were getting really close to the Merzouga Desert.  The driver kept listening to some weird arabic tunes, but having Jessica in the front seat changed the soundtrack of our trip.  African hip-hop entertained us for a longer while. Everyone seemed to love it. Later we swapped seats with the girls and I was able to take a few photos from the front of the car just when the landslide became more and more barren.  The vast areas always amazed me and made me feel excited. I have not yet discovered why. The closer we got to Merzouga, the more interesting it got. I think it was also due to the rising level of anticipation. We passed some weird looking wells and lots of camels running loose. Every now and again a big tent was inviting you to come in and rest on one of many mattresses. We finally arrived in Merzouga at 3.30 pm and after quick repacking and buying some extra drinking water we went to our alternative means of transportation. Unfortunately it turned out that there weren’t enough camels for everyone. “Total bullshit” –  I thought to myself as we started moving away from the rest of the group. No one answered our questions, but they had to get everyone to the camp somehow, so instead of worrying too much we tried to focus on enjoying our ride. The sun was slowly going down. My camel was awesome. A bit of a rebel I must say. And he did enjoy leading more than anything! Matching personalities. Coincidence? After a while one more guide joined us and untied my camel from the rest of the group, so that I was on the front of a smaller group. The ride was pretty shaky but the views were too awesome not to take pictures. I learned to balanced myself while holding a camera and after a while was able to take pictures sitting on a camel sideways. All of a sudden the guide untied my camel from the rest and left me behind. My camel wouldn’t move! Not even a centimeter. All because I joked I was born to do this and I consider becoming one of the Nomads. Beware, the power of words can be dangerous. One could die alone on the desert if not careful. Anyway, when everyone was quite far away my camel finally decided to start walking again. Later I managed to join the group. He came back for me. I am not that great at riding camels after all. The whole experience was very entertaining. Let’s do it again!

When we arrived in the camp it was already pitch black.  Everyone sat down on carpets spread out on the sand. Soon the dinner was served. Big bowls of rice with onions, tomatoes and nice chunks of chicken plus some bread. We were either very hungry or this simple dish was extraordinarily tasty. Rhys and I shared out little table with Fi and Drew and two girls, who were vegetarians, which in the end ment more food for us. Cruel? Lucky. Mandarines for dessert.

At this point I thought we might move to the big fire, digest while listening to some Berber music and soon go to sleep. I quickly realised there was something else planned for the night. All of a sudden our funny guide, same one who left me to die in the middle of the desert, told everyone to take their shoes off, leave all belongings and take only a bottle of water. WE were going to climb the big dune! I think I need to mention again it was pitch black and the sandy hill was 836 meters high. Nevertheless, we were off, soon to realise it was even harder than I imagined. The first stage was to run up the steep slope. In my case it was rather crawling, fighting against the sand sliding down with every step I took. And believe me I wasn’t alone in my misery. Poor hiking skills or really strange conditions? I say both. I managed to get to the top just because I was pretty much dragged by already mentioned guide, who grabbed my by the hand and set a ridiculous pace. Almost dead but extremely happy I quickly realised that not only it wasn’t the top,  we weren’t even half way there! I was disappointed and exhausted. Not sure which feeling was stronger at that point. I sat down as everyone else kept climbing. I admit I simply gave up. When most of the group reached the top I was sitting in my spot alone enjoying complete silence. The stars were amazing. I don;t think I have ever seen so many at once. All of a sudden I saw a glow on the horizon. It became bigger and brighter until a big shining shape appeared. At first I had no clue what it was but as it rose higher and higher it changed shape and became a glowing yellow circle. It was the Moon rising. Few minutes later the desert was filled with light. It was truly spectacular moment. As I was admiring it I started wondering if anyone will be coming down this way. Even though it wasn’t as dark as before the light still wasn’t strong enough to light my way back. As I was contemplating running madly down the hill and hoping not to kill myself in the process, our guide appeared. Few minutes later he was walking me to the camels, gave me a rug to sit on and we talked for a while about the desert and the animals. All of a sudden he suggested I leave my Australian boyfriend and take a Berber one as a husband. He would teach me Berber language, build me big tent, give me 2 sheep and 2 camels. And he was dead serious! It became real awkward. “I should be going back to the cap” – I muttered. Rhys was probably wondering where I was. But my new Casanova said my man was probably still at the top of the dune and I should stay with him. At that point I decided all this was waaaay to much and so I got up. He grabbed my hand and walked me back to the camp. He assured me that Morocco is a very beautiful country and I should really think about what he has to offer. To be honest I thought I was worth more than 2 sheep and 2 camels!

PS. Rhys found the story extremely entertaining but promised never to leave me alone again just in case I did want those camels and a tent.

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