We are booked on a 3 day desert trip with a company called Le Maroc Authentique. We wake up early for a 7 o clock pickup from the Riad. But ir is 7 15 and nobody shows. Christian offers to call the operator. I give him the number and tell him that the owner’s name is Abdou. “Like every other Moroccan”, says Christian, laughing. It turns out they are on the other side of the Medina, lost. Finally, a young guy in a fancy leather jacket shows up. We say goodbye to Christian and Isabelle and follow this dude through the alleys for the van parked on the Main Street. We have a full backpack and a day pack, but he doesn’t offer to carry anything. He is laser focused on collecting the money. He punches out 2000 Dirhams on his cell phone and says “you pay now!”. That’s about 250 dollars. Per person. It’s a lot, but we are expecting a high quality experience based on the TripAdvisor reviews. I don’t have enough Dirhams and I tell him I need to use an ATM. He takes me to one. It doesn’t work. He takes me to another. Nope. We try several more before I realize that there is something wrong. It looks like my bank has put a block on withdrawals. I am surprised because I had notified the bank about traveling in Morocco. Now, the dude is getting anxious. “Give me dollars”, he says. “I don’t have dollars”, I tell him. I need to call the bank later, when it is daytime in the states. He is not happy but he tells me to pay the driver later.
We get in the SUV. We have three more people, a Young Brazilian couple and a Chinese guy. Off we go to our first stop: Ait Benhaddou, a spectacular kasbah on the edge of the desert.
As we drive to the High Atlas, we make friends with our fellow passengers. Lucas and Julianna are newly engaged (he proposed to her in Paris a week ago!) and are here for the World Cup. Lucas is a pilot in the Brazilian air force and Julianna is a doctor. Kevin, from Shanghai is an accountant, but clearly has a wild side to him. Our driver is Abdullah, originally from Algeria. Kevin asks Abdullah a lot of questions in broken English. Abdullah tries to answer in even less English. Julianna speaks only Brazilian Portuguese and Lucas’ English is about as good as my Spanish. It’s a polyglot motley crew. But we are having a lot of fun. There are a lot of jokes all around and lots of laughing.
Around noon, we arrive at Ait Benhaddou.
We park outside a giant touristy lunch place next to a bunch of tourist vans and buses. Some tourists are here for a day trip, some are loosely part of our group, going to the dunes.
We are introduced to a “guide”, who takes us along a dry river bed, toward the kasbah. Curious Kevin wants to know when the river runs with water. Our guide has only a handful of English words. “Summer”, he says. I am not sure that’s right. River in the dessert in the summer? “What months?”, I ask him. “December””, he says. What? It is December 19! We all laugh and let it go.
Our guide points out a sign that lists all the big Hollywood movies that were shot here . The kasbah is spectacular, but the experience is very touristy, with lots of little shops selling stuff along the path that leads to the viewpoint at the top. The view is spectacular. We can see the High Atlas Mountains and the little town of Ouzerzate, the gateway to the Sahara.
On the way back, Rohan and I talk about whether we can ask our driver to take us to a more real place for lunch. We really don’t want to waste a meal on overpriced generic brochettes with French fries with bus loads of tourists. Rohan thinks Abdullah doesn’t have a choice. But I want to try. After all, we are paying big bucks for an “Authentique” experience. I talk to Abdullah and explain to him that what we have here is “Touristique”, which is the opposite of “Authentique”. He seems to understand and nods. But when everybody is back, he leads us in. “Tomorrow, I will take you”, he says.
We get an atmospheric table on the terrace with a view. There are a handful of fixed menus for about $15. We order. The food is generic, the service hurried, there are more tourists waiting.
“Very Good?”, asks Abdullah, as we return to the SUV. “Ok”, I tell him, with enough body language to let him know that I would really like him to deliver on an authentic lunch tomorrow Rohan thinks it is a lost cause.
On the way to Ouzerzate, I call the bank and get them to unblock withdrawals. Sure enough, I can withdraw at an ATM in Ouzerzate and I hand the driver another 2000 dirhams. But, I am beginning to think that we are grossly overpaying for this trip. I ask the Brazilians how much they paid and find out they are paying half as much! This is becoming a familiar pattern in Morocco. Getting scammed, getting overcharged for everything. Every transaction requires utmost vigilance, otherwise, you are cleaned out before you can say “how much” in Arabic.
Around 3 pm, we stop at a roadside cafe for a bathroom break and tea. As I step out of the SUV, I see a thirty-something Indian guy sitting in a plastic chair and drinking tea. His name is Shulin. He lives and works in London. He tells us this bizarre story about how he got dumped here by a van from the same outfit as ours and he has been waiting for three hours to be picked up. He jumps in our SUV and off we go. We learn more about his story. Apparently, he and a woman got dumped once before by the van and then they wanted to dump the woman by herself and Shulin volunteered to get dumped instead. What the heck is going on? Nobody knows. Apparently, the tour company has overbooked and they are scrambling. Half hour later, we catch up with the van. A Moroccan guy from the van tells Shulin to go to the van. At the same time we see a woman in a headscarf coming towards our car. Shulin and the woman have an animated conversation. Apparently, she is the same woman he was talking about. She jumps into our car, squeezing in between the Brazilians. “Hi, I am Fazilla”, she says. She is Malaysian, but studying medicine in Brighton, UK. And thus begin our adventures with the inimitable Fazilla.
We drive through the Atlas Mountains, through some spectacular country, all red rock, golden in the afternoon sun. It is a beautiful but desolate landscape, dotted with picturesque Berber villages and “palmeries”, which are oases planted with hundreds of date palms. We drive up the Dades gorge, a very beautiful narrow valley, and arrive at our Auberge. It is quite cold here, at about 2000 m. There are about thirty other people, Brazilians, Europeans, Australians, Japanese, all on the way to the desert. Some, maybe all are part of our group, or perhaps, there are multiple companies involved. Shulin is not here, he is at a different Auberge. Everything about this tour is clear as mud.
Accommodation is rustic, but there is a beautiful terrace with a view of the gorge.
I wish we had some time to hike and explore. We have a group dinner of chicken tagine and couscous with vegetables, followed by the standard dessert of tangerines. There is a wood fire and a couple of Berbers are playing on drums and singing. We talk to a Libyan guy who is studying in Malaysia, who is tickled to meet Fazilla. There ate three girls from Toronto, the only other contingent from North America. It is a great atmosphere, with people from all over the world, enjoying the adventure and the camaraderie. Kevin is talking to the good looking Berber in a djellaba, who is the owner. Kevin wants to try on his djellaba. No problem. The Berber takes it off with a flourish and Kevin puts it on. “A Chinese Berber”, says Fazilla. Everybody laughs. Soon, Kevin has a desert turban and the next thing, he is banging on the drums. It is hilarious.
The next morning, we leave for the desert. We drive through more red canyons and then flatter, dry terrain. Gradually, it gets moe and more desert like, the rocks get smaller and smaller and the sky gets bigger and bigger. At one point, the driver stops for a photo op, for a camel crossing sign.
Around 4pm, we reach Merzouga. We stop in a small store, where Rohan and Kevin buy djellabas.
We drive for another hour deeper into the desert. Finally, we arrive where our camels are waiting. The sun is low in the sky and there is a stiff breeze. We put on our warm clothes and get on our camels. Off we go for a one hour trek to our desert camp.
It is cold and windy, but the setting is amazing. There are dunes all around us and the setting sun casts a wonderful light on the landscape. Our caravan is led by young Berber man in a sky blue djellaba. It is almost dark when we get to the desert camp. It is very rustic. There is no electricity, no water. There are a couple of Berber men in the camp. Kevin asks about the toilet. One of the Berber laughs and says “anywhere in the desert”, waving his arms. This doesn’t faze Kevin. But Fazilah is a little freaked out. She spent one night in another desert camp at the beginning of her trip and apparently that camp had electricity and a toilet. Kevin returns and shows everyone a picture of “the toilet”, a pattern of freshly wetted sand!
We are sharing the camp with a large group of young people from Singapore, mostly girls. Kevin tries to communicate with them in Chinese. We sit around drinking whiskey in candlelight, while the Singaporeans sing songs in English.
Dinner is a simple chicken tagine with couscous, followed by tangerines. Outside, the sky is studded with stars, the Milky Way clearly visible.
We turn in early, crashing on mattresses and covered in thick blankets. Kevin talks the Berber into making a fire. They trek out to where there is a clump of trees and bring some wood to make a fire. Soon, there is music, drumming and singing.
In the morning, we are up at 6 and on the camels, trekking back to Metzouga. There are some clouds in the sky, making the sunrise spectacular.