From Midelt we head to Merzouga through the Ziz Valley. Morocco is full of surprises and the Ziz Valley is one of them – a slash of green palm trees in the otherwise ochre and rust landscape. We stop to admire this beautiful valley and …a nomad comes down from his shelter above – Bonjour, You are welcome he says.
After the Ziz valley we head through Err Ichada and Rissani to reach Merzouga where we are to meet Ali (of Ali and Sara’s Desert Palace). We almost lose our way in the busy, dusty winding streets of Rissani as we try to avoid donkeys, cyclists and pedestrians. We ask a gendarme who gestures – we follow his gestures but this alley is too narrow for a car! Luckily an old man in a traditional outfit on a bike bids us to follow him, his name is Mohammed Nasseer and he is a local tour guide apparently.
At our destination Ali turbans us up, loads our bags into the 4×4 and gets us onto our Dromedaris camels (different to the two hump Bactrian camel). Thus riding our gentle beasts we slowly roll into the dunes of Erg Chebbi.
We arrive at our desert palace, bags awaiting us in the tent. Sara and Ali’s Palace in the Erg Chebbi ‘desert’ is the result of a beautiful love story. Ali is a Berber and together with his 11 siblings and parents lived a typical nomadic life until about 6 years ago. Sara, an unconventional English lady, one of 9 daughters. Sara had travelled for holidays before, always a tourist, but, on visiting Morocco and the Erg Chebbi district, she fell in love, not only with Ali but with the people, country and life in general. Ali keen to share his culture and Sara keen to share what had drawn her to the place started Ali and Sara’s Desert Palace – a camping experience even a ‘fair weather’ camper like my dear heart can enjoy (there are flushing toilets, four poster beds and a lounge with board games and books.)
It’s winter this side of the world and while the sun can be hot during the day, once it slips behind the horizon it is COLD. However the camel hair djellabas’ they gave us to throw over our clothes did the trick – camel hair is warm. If you don’t know what a djellaba is – picture Gandalf’s outfit. Berber whisky (herbal tea) was served to us at a little table on top of a sand dune looking down on the camp and we enjoyed our tea and snack while on a distant dune, we saw one of the men at prayer, the setting sun outlining his silhouette.
That first evening we sat around the fire while Ali tortured us with riddles (so annoying since many were familiar enough to ring a bell but not to recall the punchline) – for a man who never went to school Ali is more educated than many people I’ve met. In addition to doing everything a Berber man is expected to do (drive camels, goats) he speaks something like 6 languages – Berber, Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese!
The following morning, after getting up early to see the sun rise we experienced a twist on the traditional Moroccan cooking we’d enjoyed thus far – Moroccan cooking Berber style. Although Berber culture is traditionally patriarchal there is a tribe, the Tuaregs where it is more matriarchal and women there can marry two men – I told Mustafah, Ali’s brother who did the lion’s share of the cooking, that were I a Tuareg woman he’d be my second husband for sure. That earned me another big, yellow, toothy grin which the Berbers hand out so generously. However since one husband is enough for me he offered instead to show Pierre how to make a Berber omelette (there are variations of them – awesome poached or scrambled eggs cooked in a delicious combination of spices and herbs …soooo yummy!
Shortly thereafter Ali arrived in the 4×4 and took us out to find one of the nomad families living on the desert edge. It’s hard to describe – these are tough people living in an extreme environment, their sheer skill, ingenuity and lack of waste made me feel very humble. Taurplins woven from camel hair keep out both sun and rain, woven carpets provide a floor. Bread is baked in stone ovens. They live on what they can find on the land and their camel, chicken, goat and sheep provide material and food. While as a vegetarian I wish no animal should die for food – if I was to choose then at least these animals are largely free to roam (versus packed, factory like, so close on one another that it is stressful for them) and are hormone and antibiotic free.
After tea with the nomads we go into the village Rissani with Ali to shop for food for the day. It’s market day and the place is abuzz. The market is incredible – sure the meat hanging outside some stalls doesn’t do it for me but then I don’t much like walking past butcher shops and the meat here at least is super organic and, no, no flies – they hang herbs over the meat to prevent that. I was captivated by the herbs, spices and fruit and veg – Dot heaven. After shopping we head back to the camp for some Berber pizza (and besides was busting for a pee, it was a tossup – use one of the “loo’s” in the local market, Pierre indicated it was rough – I considered hovering with a closed nose but didn’t want the locals to feel embarrassed so hung tough)
Then off to see how the locals in the village had created an irrigation system that allowed them to channel water filtered through the dunes into an area where each family had a section of ground where they grew date palms, alfalfa and other fruit and vegetables. Each section gets water for a specified period, then is dammed off so the next section gets its share – the ingenuity and community work is incredible. A quick visit to an old French mine which is now used by the local Berbers to mine coal and minerals – literally a deep gash in the ground with a ladder leading down.
We arrived back at camp shortly before new guests arrived and finally got to meet Sara herself. A Spanish family – mom and daughter, mom’s boyfriend and daughter’s friend. We all sat at little tables on the dune overlooking our camp and shortly some musicians joined us – these amazing men from the village are descendants of Mali and Mauritian slaves and played wonderful music on their drums and …castanets …well not sure what that particular instrument was but that’s what it most reminded me of. After dinner in our dining tent, ourselves and the Spaniards huddled round the fire and soon we were entertained with a combination of Berber, Arabic music as well as more music from the musicians from the village – it’s true the Spaniards are lively and “geselig” and soon we were all dancing around the fire. Finally exhausted we crept into our cosy tent for a good night’s sleep.
There was a large dune in the distance that we’d been eyeing and we got up early enough the following morning we headed out that way. I think Mustafa was a bit disconcerted to let the le tourista off on their own like that but we knew we could do it. It took about forty minutes to the base of the dune – and a full 20 minutes from the bottom to the top of this approximately 200 meter mountain of sand – at one point I really thought we had made it so far but wouldn’t be able to make it to the top – insane – like a bad dream we walked and walked while the sand slid out beneath our feet – 2 steps forward, one back (sometimes three back!) – the final scrabble was done on all fours and was far from elegant. Back to camp was a lot easier and we managed to finish with a flourish.