Rockin’ All Over The World: Sahara Desert and Ouarzazate

Wednesday 14th January
I had a bit of a sleepless night but it wasn’t because I was cold or uncomfortable. There was one stage when the wind picked up and seemed to channel between my bed and the tent but I just pulled my djellaba hood over the back of my head and my sleeping bag hood over my face. The blankets were thick and I doubt I’d have been much warmer in the tent anyway.

I woke properly when Alison walked by confirming it was 6.45 and as we were leaving at 7.00 I got up without protest. I quickly made sure I had everything and moved my mattress back inside the tent before we all headed over to the camels. Mine was better behaved this time not standing up whilst I was still getting on.

After Ibrahim took some pictures of us we were off though he walked in front and eventually took a different path. It was quite relaxing though rather quickly the ‘pressure points’ from the day before started to ache. I started to list left as it felt more comfortable though perhaps looked a bit unstable especially on the down sections. Eventually I corrected myself because I was concerning the guide but it meant I felt numb by the end. It was totally worth it though and I knew I just had to grin and bear it knowing it was all part of a quite unique opportunity.

When I saw the base in the distance my feelings were one of relief (that my ‘pressure points’ would be relieved) and sadness (that our desert experience would be over). The building gradually got bigger and eventually having got down I realised one of the camels had taken a liking to my sleeping bag case. We had breakfast (omelette, pancake and bread), before boarding the mini bus and commencing our journey back across the gravel road towards the main road.

We passed back through a village/town which I assume was Rissani. There were lots of children around, I saw two riding a bike at the same time with one sitting on handle bars and neither holding on, another two were racing again neither holding on and I was impressed with their great balance. We also saw a group sitting on a plough with what looked like an instruction manual. It was a bumpy road all through the town and a number of buildings were either being built or left to fall down.

After about an hour we crossed over another river where the bridge had been washed away and we had to cross through a shallow bit of water. Ibrahim explained that during his 7 years of doing the tours this was one of the first when water was flowing. Apparently there had been no rain for 5 years until recently so once the floods had subsided the villagers immediately planted palm trees. We stopped off for a short while before commencing our journey across the barren gravel desert like valley flanked by mountains either side.

We drove for about 1 hour 30 minutes when we came to our lunch stop. The staff seemed to like my djellaba and when we were being served the first course he gave me Berber name ‘Hamel’. He then tried to teach us some Berban as he gave us the food so the starter was ‘zit’ (olives), zitoun (olive oil) and of course large ‘aghroum’. Take a guess. The second starter was a lovely salad with some lentils (we often tried to guess what we were having so we were all right) and the main was beef skewers and chips. Dessert was a apricot yogurt.  Someone at work had said I’d put on weight out here and I’m sure I will by the end if I have not already done so. There was a cat that wanted feeding but I think it got the message I wasn’t going to relent but I did get a great picture of it looking quite angry at me.

30 minutes later we stopped in the Draa Valley famous for producing dates and where if we were interested we could go to a market stand to buy a fresh packet. First though we had a stroll across a bridge over what was once the longest river in Morocco before a sand dune blocked its route to the Atlantic Ocean. The river had flooded fairly badly recently which had destroyed many of the crop fields and whilst the land had dried there were still stagnant pools of water.

Ibrahim gave us some information about Agdez which was one of the stops for the old caravan routes and is now mainly a tourist stop. As it is also one of the bigger town in the area it is one of the main places where dates and date products are sold. At some point I fell asleep only waking up when we stopped off for a photo of the gorge below the Ait Saoun mountsins (Hard Mountains) and were named due to the difficulty caravans had crossing them.

We finally arrived back in Ouarzazate and it turned out we were sleeping where we had lunch on the first day. We had about 2 hours free time but unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your view point) WiFi was only available in reception so it was only just before dinner I connected with the outside world. Dinner here was a choice I went for salad followed by meatballs however I was full after the salad which was a shame because the meatballs (as with most food here) had some lovely flavours.

After dinner we chatted and Margaret (who I shall I appoint as my sub editor) read snippets of the first blog. I returned to my room which was now more toasty and finally sorted the pile of desert clothes I’d thrown on the floor almost as soon as I’d got in earlier in the afternoon.

Thursday 14th January
We were given a bit of a lie in as departure wasn’t until 9.00 but unfortunately I forgot to reset the time on my Fitbit so it still went off at 7.15. I started to go to sleep before my phone briefly connected to WiFi. Once the signal had gone it was to late to go back to sleep so i decided to start the day. It seemed everyone else already had and after filling ourselves up on bread, pancake and a croissant type pasty we left for our final day outside Marrakech.

The first stop of the day was to the Atlas Corporation Movie Studios which officially opened in 1983 and has been famous for movies such as: Gladiator, The Mummy and Kingdom of Heaven. It is still actively used and sets from it will be seen in 2016 when ‘King Tut’ is released.

We had a tour given to us by one of the locals that has worked on some of the films as an extra and as an interpreter. He said he’d been doing them a number of years but it was only recently he had a mobile that could take pictures and I was glad I asked as he seemed keen to show. Outside of the sets we saw a stunt car which is used in explosions, a boat from Astrix and the Obelisk: Mission Cleopatra and a non working plane used in Jewell of the Nile.

The first set we saw was used in the Gladiator slave/market scene but it has now been adapted for other movies. I’ll have to watch the film again to see if I recognise it. Carrying on we passed through an Egyptian temple used in Cleopatra and to an Egyptian palace which I believe were also used in ‘The Mummy’ and ‘King Tut’. The pillars looked so authentic and yet when we tapped them they were just made of wood and plaster.

We passed through other in door sets used in various films including the 2009 version of Ben Hur. One of the sets was apparently the location of a famous mistake after an extra had forgotten to remove a watch. Leaving the indoor sets we emerged outside in to a street scene set for a film on Moses. Looking one way it appeared to have a lot of depth and much bigger than it was. Walking behind it was interesting to see all the wooden supports and to see that these had just been covered in a picture of plaster and straw to create such fine details on the walls especially the bits that were meant to be crumbling.

Carrying on outside we saw the entire set of a replica of the City of Jerusalem in the distance used in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. All the buildings were full size and it looked enormous but then I suppose it had to be. To the left of that was a replica of Karnak temple with various siege weapons lying around it. This had been used in a Astrix film and either intentionally or not bits were looking a little worse for wear. Normally bits are only repaired if they are to be used in new movies and that’s when additions are made. This did however mean sets used in ‘older’ films like gladiator weren’t that recognisable.

We had seen some camels in the distance and during the time we’d been outside they had come over. They are specially trained and were very placid so I was able to stroke one without fear of being spat at. It was very soft and if I ever have to buy myself a new rug I may come back to Morocco. Finally we saw a set of Tibet used in Kundun which reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was quite a short tour of the studios but I found it quite enjoyable and it has encouraged me to see some of the other movies the studio helped produce.

We boarded the bus and travelled 30 minutes down the road to Ouarzazate so we could have a brief walk around the famous Ait Benhaddou. By now the sun was finally out after hiding for four days so I removed my djellaba. Ibrahim explained that village was built on the caravan route because it was the first town after the mountains and last town before the desert. The village was fortified to protect it from invaders.

Made our way up winding street with lots of handmade products and paintings on sale for tourist. We appeared to be the only ones. One of the busiest places in southern Morocco in the high season. We stopped off about half way and Ibrahim explained what a Kasabah is as we looked down on a good example. Kasabahs were a place for the local leaders to live and because they had high walls, 4 towers and very small holes for windows they could be used as a defence when a city was under attack. Ait Benhaddou with its fortified walls outside certainly seemed to me to be well protected.

Ait Benhaddou Was UNESCO heritage listed in 1987. Ibrahim explained that it has been decided that the best way to ensure that the village is looked after is to allow a small number of families to live within the walls. They live in the Kasabahs and still repair the buildings using mud and straw when they are damaged by rain. Unfortunately however there is no electricity for the people living there and whilst it to expenses to put cables in underground they are not allowed overhead cables. A number of movies have been filmed there including classics such of Lawrence of Arabia and more recently Prince of Persia. Ibrahim told us that during filming the families are paid to move out to.

When we reached the top there was a small building called the Granary which was surrounded by another wall. This was where the villages most valuable items would be stored and would be protected by everyone. Whilst individual homes would be protected at least if they fell to the enemy the centre and their most valuable items could still be protected. It was also here that fires would be burnt if the city was under attack so people in nearby cities would come to the rescue.

On our way back down we stopped off to see one of the local artists. First he used a magnifying glass to burn a picture in to a piece of bamboo wood. Next he took a piece of paper and taking a tea substance and a saffron substance he painted a picture. He then lit a gas cylinder and holding the painting over it the colours slowly changed and as if by magic it transformed in to a lovely desert scene of a camel caravan in front of some sand dunes. This was the traditional way of painting in the village and the results were certainly very impressive.

As we made our way back down we could see a very large group of tourists crossing the river and they looked like a mini invading army. As we got towards the bridge another group arrived and it was clear that staying in the town overnight and the relatively early start had beaten the rush.

We had our penultimate lunch together in a nearby hotel. Bread with a lovely chili paste and olive oil, followed by a salad. When I think of Moroccan food I normally think of Moroccan lamb but this was our first meal where we had any. Apparently lamb is only served as a speciality in the mountains. I’d eaten to much by the main but I still tried a bit and as expected it was very nice. The only real issue was for poor Alison who ordered an English tea with milk that came as milk with a tea bag. If this is how it’s served it’s no wonder it hasn’t caught on with the locals.

We now had a four hour drive back to Marrakech that would only be interrupted by a brief stop at a place selling Argane oil. I looked out of the window before falling asleep waking with a jerk as we went over a bumpy bit of road. Looking out of the window we were now back on the twisty road in the heart of the High Atlas Mountains.

Our final stop before Marrakech was to see a place where Argane oil was produced and sold. First we were given a very brief demonstration of how the oil is made before we went in to the shop. I tried the oil (like olive oil), peanut butter and honey but wasn’t convinced to buy either before I had a aftershave rubbed on my wrist which I could still smell two hours later. I had to buy Lucy my travel buddy from Jordan some and whilst everyone had said how expensive it is because it is only produced in Morocco I was still stunned when I did the conversion. It must be good stuff so I brought myself a small bottle.

Just as we were done a big coach of tourists arrived and the shop was swamped and I got out just in time. It was going to be weird being in a city full of other people.


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