Sunday, March 21, 2010


I hate camels but find deserts hypnotic and spectacular. A brief but accurate summary of my previous ventures into the desert.
Even though our brief sojourn into the Sahara lived up to my dry stereotype it is still worth a few words. I mean it is the SAHARA after all.

To the Dunes…

By numerous country miles the largest expanse of non-frozen desert on earth. Superlatives come easy, but it is hard to get your head around just how immensely large and imposing this expanse of rock and sand is.

Stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and from the Med deep into the heart of Africa. It is roughly the size of the 48 bordering mainland US States. Little old England would be gobbled up more than 35 times over. When your mind ponders these things it is no wonder that excitement passes through your veins as you set foot (or camel foot) into the Sahara proper for the first time.

Across the Atlas and three hundred miles from the sea we left our 4x4 at Merzouga and jumped on some camels. As the sun slowly fell from the sky we kerchunked (after much thought, this is the best description I can come up with for the clattery movement of a camel) through the light brush and gravel, over the first humps of sand and into the dunes proper.
What the local lads playing dust-pitch footie must have thought of all these tourists in their desert designer gear (many a khaki covered Frenchman frequents this part of the world) only part of me wants to know. At least Aziz brought us away from the minor masses, so we had a penchant of an "all on our own" sensation.

The component nature of a dune makes it inherently difficult to judge size until you are right up close. These dunes can be blown to a height of 200m (for that is how they are formed – ever continuing wind induced shift and pile). From afar these looked large, but over every growing minor dune, the ones further off, perceivably grew and grew. With a sore behind - I’m sorry, camels just aren’t comfortable - we made it to the foot of one of the largest dune and chucked our packs into the small Bedouin shelter which we would call home for the night.

Up, Down the beers and Up again…

As darkness took hold and the stars came out we set our sights on the summit of our sheltering dune and after half an hour of two steps forwards, one step back calf twinging climbing, we made it to the peak. Worth every step.

A full moon had risen on the horizon and lit up the desert with its earrie, gloomy shadow. Below, the small lights of the camp and beyond just sand and rock as far as the eye could see. Time to crack open a beer and sink it all in.

Top of a Saharan desert with two buddies, tinnies and the man in the moon. Sweet!

Short-lived serenity was appropriately blown to bits by our newly found exteme sport – dune bounding. Yup, face down the steep face of a dune and… go for it. Lunge after lunge with increasing chaos until you either make it the bottom or face plant (well done Dave). Exhilarated either way. Time to tuck into the remainder of our bevies and some cards with Aziz and Bob.

A few hours shut-eye was curtailed by a second climb. Out the tent still in a dream and start tredging up the other side of the dune. Steeper this time we criss-crossed the face until, induced by slow-progress boredom, we moved onto the crest and tottered our way to the top.
We had made it in time and the evening’s vista was surpassed.
On one side the moon was diving for the horizon while, at the opposite side of our vista the dark was breaking, announcing the near coming of the sun. A moment of planetary awareness. The three space-hurtling bodies which dominate our lives coming and going in unison.
The sun broke the Algerian horizon with a pin-prick of piecing light. Perched on a long, thin ridge, the sand blew into our eyes as the desert lit up.

With every degree the sun rose, the multitude of shadows shifted in emboldening colours. This desolate place became a palate for the sun. An enriching experience.
Before we left for some more dune bounding, we welcomed an inspiring visitor. Out of the sand at the very summit, a small beetle waddled his way searching for sustenance. It is easy to forget just how many beings cling to the extremes of life in this harsh environment. A single life is weak. Life is not. Just enough time to fall off an angry camel and head back to the hills. Kerchunk…kerchunk...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Morocco: Over the Atlas and into to the Sahara

Back in 2007 Dingo and I climbed Morocco’s highest mountain ( I only spent six days in the country split between the hills and Marrakech. Expectant though I was, the country intrigued me and the landscape excited me. Another trip had to be on the agenda… So for the turn of the decade Ramsay, Bassett and I escaped the snow of England for the almost, at times, T-shirt weather of Moroccan winter an adventure with Aziz!

My body was thoroughly confused when I shuffled off the plane, in and out of a bus and on to the streets of Marrakech. In a few days I had travelled from Brazil, back to Blighty and now to North Africa. A lack of sleep did not aid the situation. This is the context for my return to Djemaa el Fna, the buzzing central square of the city.
It had lost none of its charm. Despite, or perhaps because of my confused and drained mental state, I was perplexed with wonder at the scene that unfolds as the sun sets and the city comes to live. From one of the old French cafes overlooking the Djemma el Fna we were spoilt by a scene of shops, stalls, sellers, buyers and minglers. Athletic dancers, snake charmers and monkey men shrouded in the smoke from a hundred kitchens coming to light and the crowds of onlookers and avoiders. A wonderful scene set off by the most exquisite sunset, the light at once softening and shifting to greater radiance of red and golden hue. A jaw-dropping scene flanked by the snow-capped Atlas and pervaded by a multi-layered call to prayer, ringing out from many a minaret.

Out over the hills…

The next morning we tucked into a good breakfast and met up with Aziz, our driver "Bob" and the 4x4 that was to take us into the south. I was so glad to be meeting up with Aziz again after our adventures a couple of years before. A man of such kindness and strength.
Out of the big city and towards the Atlas, we made a pit stop at a large local market.
Split into sections for dead animals, live animals, vegetables, cooked food, carpentry, bric-brak and so on. Having spent 5 months in sub-saharan Africa the previous year, Dave drew stark contrast with equivalent markets below the Sahara. Here there was so much more variety and local product. An example of why North Africa fits more naturally into a mixture of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean spheres then those of its neighbours to the South. I for one was taken aback by the level of workmanship, productivity and sheer scale of this market. We walked for nearly an hour and never covered the same ground or produce once. As is the way in this land, we had time to mull it all over a round of local tea (for the third time in the day and it was not even lunch!).

From there we crossed the remainder of the Marrakech plain before the back and forth of the ascending mountain roads.

The Return of the Atlas

Dry and stark, buy with life clinging all around, it is a privilege to drive through this Berber heartland. It is amazing to see how Aziz, himself a Berber, knows and greets so many people in the villages, other cars and on the road. A social society where bonds of family and friendship are of great importance.
As Ramsay and I get deep into discussions about his current time in the army and the consequences of a hierarchical life/organisation, we drive past one spectacular view after another. The scenery does not holdback. Speeding along roads cutting, at times precipitously, across the piste of mountain after mountain.
At length these mountains are broken by hills and we see the claws of the Sahara opening up before us. A view that salivates in the hunger for adventure.

Ait Benhaddou

All the talk had been of deserts and treks, so I was not expecting what lay at the end of a few kms off road. Ait Benhaddou bowled me over side ways and then came back for a second bight. Simply world class.
In the middle of a buffeted sand-strewn landscape rises a high point brandishing this mighty sandstone Kasbah (fortified city). Used in many a film from Gladiator to Lawrence of Arabia, it is spectacular in the shifting African sun. Sand and ever moving shadow.
Up close you see small etched detail slowly giving way to the erosion of the wind and rare rains. We, of course, stopped for tea in one of the remaining habited buildings. Goats and sheep in one room, us in the other, as the mother of the house dished out delicious sweet tea. Her hands were covered in intricate henna and, despite practice, we were a long way off successfully imitating her measured tea-pouring style – low down and then slowly up as you begin to pour, reaching a crescendo an arms length above the cup and then back down with a flick up of the wrist and flourish.

With this enchanting place still rattling around our thoughts we settled in for the night at the city of Ouarzazate.

Todra Gorge and Fossils Galore

We awoke to another long journey across the semi-desert which flanks the Southern edge of the Atlas. By the time we reached the lush oasis of the Todra valley and drove up towards the famed gorge I was itching to stretch my legs.
The landscape round here is really something. Stark yellow’s all around, divided by the green of the valley which narrows as it approaches the hills. From abounding palm trees, this wedge effect eventually squeezes out all shrubbery as the hills rise starkly on each side. Up and up until vertical cliffs run hundreds of metres high on either side of a 15m wide pass.
It reminded me of Petra, though at the other end of the gorge, instead of a plethora of ancient buildings, there are rocks for scrambling up to some fantastic views of the real rock climbers hanging on for dear life (the gorge is a bit of magnet for people of a clinging persuasion).
Back in the car across arid Southern Morocco we rode on. The only pit-stop to the dunes a remarkable fossil workshop. The myriad of rock formations and folds in this part of the world have thrown up huge quantities of fossils.
Here work concentrated on those of sea-creatures originating from a body of water long since transformed into this waterless place. To run your hands over a two hundred million year old fossilised ammonite as big as you head is quite a thrill. The workmanship was, as seems often the case in Morocco, of a very high quality, producing everything from tables, to ear-rings and the kitchen sink (literally).
On and on until as the sun waned, we caught our first sight of the dunes. At first a faint bobbling, then undeniable. We had made it to Erg Chebbi and would spend the night amongst the Saharan mountains of sand…