Asleep in the Desert: Todra Gorge to the Sahara Desert

Monday 12th January
Despite my heater being set to 30 degrees the room never reached a temperature I would describe as warm but it was no worse than the attic in Ealing I’d got used to. Having got up I made my way to breakfast where they had the crêpe style of pancake. I had mine with jam and what i assumed were blueberries. It was only when I took a bite I realised the blueberries were in fact black olives. I sent a couple of quick emails and returned to my room to ensure I had everything. I was last again and stepping outside decided it was marginally warmer than inside.

We left our hotel and had to back track slightly before taking another spectacular winding road towards our next destination Todra Gorge. There was a big cloud that seemed to follow us and the blue sky or rather lighter coloured cloud always seemed to be around the next corner. We passed through a town that links the Rose valley and Dades valley before it appeared we were out of the mountains and on a long flat road. There were however more mountains in the distant.

Eventually we stopped so we could have a walk around a local market. Our guide said because we were in a slightly poorer and rural area it would be used in a very traditional way in comparison to the way the markets are used in Marrakech. It was organised chaos summed up when a tuk-tuk which had successfully battled through the crowds then came face to face with a giant tractor. I had feared there would be meat alive and dead everywhere generating the awful smell there was in Bangkok but there wasn’t. In fact judging by the size of the oranges, carrots, onions and peppers the food section was a vegetarian paradise. The market seemed to sell everything; beds, bikes, mobiles, toys, spanners, drills… You name it someone probably sold it.

We drove along a little way before we stopped off to take a photo of a stunning valley. It was quite a sight because there were towering dry sandstone rocks with no vegetation either side of the valley and yet in between it all there were lots of palm trees. We jumped back on board the bus for less than a minute before we jumped off again so a local could take us through the valley to our hotel. It was a nice touch and meant I really felt like I was interacting with my surroundings and not just passing through them.

Within about 5 minutes of the walk the sun suddenly came out and almost instantly I had to ditch layers. I had been wearing 4 including a layer of thermals (I knew it would be cold, I had not expected that cold) and when I was done the one jumper I had left was still a layer to much. It was a pleasant walk, not strenuous but after a day on the coach it was nice to move the legs again. Plus it was a start of a new Fitbit challenge so I needed to keep my step rate up.

It was really interesting to see the channels that have been dug in the field to keep the land irrigated and to see the effects a recent flood had on the community. Quite a sturdy looking bridge had been half washed away. Eventually we arrived at our hotel and whilst I no longer had a double it was very nice. We went on to the tea terrace for lunch where we had a very nice lentil soup for starter (and customary big roll) followed by a Berber omelette cooked in a tajine. This was absolutely wonderful and it was the first dish we as a group completely finished off.

Next we drove a short distance to Todra Gorge where Jason and I were doing rock climbing. We walked through the most narrow section and saw two abandoned hotels where again the bridge leading to them had been washed away. Other than that they both seemed very smart and a lot of money must have been used to build them. Initially it was unclear why they had been abandoned and then we saw. They were at the bottom of the cliff and during a particularly bad storm a boulder had dropped on to the roof of the restaurant. Luckily no one had been inside because they had already been evacuated due to the floods.

Whilst we waited for our rock climbing guide I climbed up some steps for a better view and on my way back down passed a nomadic family leading a donkey and horse up. As I reached the bottom I realised our guide was there. It was time to rock. I have a vague recollection of doing it at some point in a indoor centre but as far as I was concerned this was my first real go.

I was excited, I didn’t feel nervous because I knew I just had to trust the the guide. I am not agile, I am not strong and I am not tall. But I was not going to give up and slowly and then a bit more quickly I got used to where to put my hands and feet and scrambled up. I won’t be racing spider man anytime soon but I loved it. Jason went after me and made it look a bit easier before Ibrahim went up and made it look like he hadn’t even needed the rope. The guide then set up as new course for Jason but I was happy just watching.

After rock climbing we went back to the village to see carpets being made. Perhaps if I had my own place already by now I would have collected furniture from different countries I’d been to. It seems a nice idea and I was a bit tempted but I’m not at that stage yet. We had more mint tea before the demonstration and Allison who had been looking for something did buy a carpet which packed down in to a very convenient size. On the way out I brought myself a blue scarf for the desert and then we had a couple of hours free time at the hotel before dinner.

Dinner like lunch was wonderful. The starter was again soup and big roll but it was the main course that I particularly loved. Beef kofta meat balls with rice and vegetables. Dessert was apple and banana with yogurt. We went to our rooms about 8 and I spent a bit of time communicating with the outside world before going to bed.

Tuesday 13th January
For some reason I’d had a bit of a sleepless night possibly because my body probably isn’t used to so much sleep but I still felt refreshed when I went down to breakfast. I was first and they quickly brought me a fried egg, pancake, fresh orange juice and a coffee. I had loved every meal so far but the food at this hotel was my favourite and it was in a lovely location so I was sad to leave but the desert was calling my name.

We left the hotel and passing through the village had a photo stop of the old village in the valley below. It appeared that children outside the nearby school gates were protesting due to their chanting and a banner but no one including the teachers seemed that worried. Maybe they were just Pink Floyd fans singing ‘We don’t need no education’.

After staring out of the window for about an hour we arrived at a garage / toilet stop. We were used to having places to ourselves so were surprised when a big coach arrived. I’ve travelled on both types of tour but for a country like Morocco where I want to feel like I’m connecting with the scenery and culture I definitely prefer a more intimate experience.

Jason and I wanted to buy djellabas for the desert so we stopped off at a shop in a small town. It was a bit more than I hoped to pay but it felt very comfortable and I could tell it would keep me warm. I probably should have attempted to haggle but I’d forgotten my French, I didn’t really have the energy and figured the amount I’d save would be the cost of 2 bottles of water.

As we left the town Ibrahim told us that it was the Berber New Year and that the students we had seen earlier were protesting because they didn’t want to be at school. We weren’t yet in the desert but we were in a very remote area and he explained that any nomads in that area would have a very tough life. The government encourages them to leave the children in the towns during the winter and when the children are are older many leave to work in the cities.

As we carried along the road to the desert we started to see sand dunes however we then approached a settlement with a lot of vegetation. It was explained that this was one of oldest irrigation systems in Morocco built in the 11th century using a technique from Persia. Wells were dug 20km from mountain along with a network of tunnels so water didn’t have to be carried. The wells are no longer needed because the villagers can use machines to dig 100ft to reach water if it is required especially in the dry season. The system has allowed the village we passed through to grow palm trees, to produce dates and also to grow barley and wheat. It also appeared vegetation had started to grow on some of the sand funds close to the village making them more stable in the process.

We stopped off at Kasbah Ennasra a lovely looking building for another huge lunch. Olives, olive oil & bread, followed by a cooked salad with rice, then a chicken leg with vegetables followed by a crème brulé. Throughout different meals we’d had to take one for the team to eat a bit more food and it was Allison who duly obliged on this occasion.The food had been delicious so far and I’d over indulged so much I was concerned the camel would be unable to carry me.

After leaving we passed through a gate to enter the town of Rassani which was one of the oldest settlements in the area. Originally it was a commercial centre for Caravans from Fez but now it was one of the army bases as it is the closest town to Algeria. Tourism is now a big industry because it is the last settlement on the route for those going to the desert.

Gradually the vegetation was less and less and then in the distance we could see the sand dunes that were our destination. There was quite a bit of cloud but the sun that did shine through gave them a pink colour. Eventually we turned off the main road and on to the desert track. It wasn’t long before we felt remote and for the first time there was little of anything except the odd shrub and patch of desert grass. I am however always surprised at how much gravel and stones there are in deserts, they very rarely just consist of nice bright yellow sand.

The dunes grew bigger and after many twists and turns we eventually came to a stop. After getting off the mini bus I had a mini wardrobe change swapping my jacket for my new djellaba whilst Ibrahim helped me to put on my turban. Whilst we waited for departure we took a couple of pictures in front of the sand dunes and camels. A couple from Lithuania had also joined us though they were on a separate camel train.

The journey to our camp site was about an hour so there was plenty of time to appreciate our stunning surroundings even if the sun was refusing to shine through. There are many deserts in the world but the first I ever heard about when growing up about was the Sahara so camel riding through a dune to reach a destination in part of it was pretty special. I held on firmly with my left hand whilst taking the occasional picture with my right. I didn’t have a watch so I’m not sure at what point various ‘pressure points’ began to rebel but it meant I certainly developed a whole new level of respect for the great explorers and locals that travel on them.

As we reached the top of one dune we could see a camp below. Going down hill always felt a bit more unstable so holding on for one final time my camel slowly plodded down the dune. When it was my time to get off I have to admit the overriding feeling was one of relief. Having dumped my overnight bag in my tent (which was nearly as big in width as my room at home) I went back outside. It was time to give sand boarding another go.

Those that read my tales in Australia will know my failed attempts to get a picture of me doing it there so I was quite excited about the chance to have another opportunity. It was however only when I reached the top of the dune I realised this was a different type of sand board. This was one I’d have to stand on and as I’ve never skied or any type of winter sport (besides sledging if that counts) I was a bit nervous. The first go was pretty pathetic but at least I hadn’t actually fallen over or broken anything.

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately no pictures were taken so I stepped up again and this time glided all the way to the bottom. It wasn’t as fast as sitting down in Australia but standing felt a bit more dramatic and perhaps most importantly I finally had my picture. Sand boarding done, Keith, Jason, Allison and I went for a walk to explore the dune which was 20km by 5km.

It wasn’t particularly windy so sand wasn’t blowing in to our faces and whilst the sky was still overcast ensuring we wouldn’t get sunburnt Jason and I had our turbans on anyway. Eventually we reached the bottom of two ridges. I took slightly longer than I should have resting and taking pictures and when I turned I saw Jason and Keith were already a quarter of the way up. Allison started to turn back. I looked up. They were on their hands and knees. I gulped. Reminding my self I had conquered a steep dune in Jordan…But this was far steeper.

I set off setting myself mini challenges. First shrub, second shrub but eventually there were no more shrubs which also meant the sand was loose. Initially I was able to stand up right by using their hand and feet prints but gradually that became impossible and every step forward seemed one back. Keith and Jason disappeared over the top. I gave my self a few minutes and then with a burst of energy I scrambled up on all fours until the top was less than 10 feet away before the sand gave way and slowly I was making no progress. I turned and sat admiring the view. I gave it one more go but realised even if I reached the top I wasn’t at the actual peak so admitting defeat I trudged back occasionally turning to see where they were.

I’d built up quite an appetite whilst walking and as I had perhaps 1/4 of the way to go I saw them at the top before they came running (whether on purpose or carried by momentum) down the ridges and I suddenly realised there was a chance I’d get overtaken. I reached the bottom and appeared to have collected half the dune in my shoes so emptied them out before we sat with the Lithuanian couple whilst we waited for dinner. Unfortunately it was still cloudy so there was no grand sunset.

Dinner was very nice and I keep being surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it though I’ve probably eaten my chicken and beef quota for the rest of the month. Starter was a cooked salad with chicken skewers the size of which would have been a main in any other country. The main itself was beef with vegetables and thankfully as we were all so full dessert was just fruit. A fire was being prepared outside and once ready the music would commence.

There is something special outside in the middle of nowhere with a proper fire. The drum music was very lively and as the clouds slowly parted we had the stars up above which really finished off the scene. It reached absolute perfection when Ibrahim gave us a skewer each and pulled out a pack of marshmallows. How he’d kept that a secret as we’d discussed them at dinner I don’t know.

The clouds covered the stars again and gradually people started to go to bed. The stars came out again and I used the opportunity to grab some pictures. It wasn’t as cold as when I did the sane with Lucy in Wadi Rum but the pictures weren’t as good either. Jason and I had made a decision to give sleeping outside a go and once I was in my sleeping bag I looked up to the sight I’d last seen from the same sleeping back in Flinders Ranges. I forced myself to stay awake until I’d seen at least one shooting star and catching one before it disappeared behind a cloud I was satisfied I could sleep.


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