Camel riding on orange dunes pt2

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Camel riding. Well, that would be a first for us, since we hadn’t even ridden a horse before. The camels looked intimidatingly tall, but whatever stories we had heard about their stroppy character left our thoughts as we gazed at the serenity of their eyes.We reluctantly rode our camels and slowly marched towards the orange hills of the desert.

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The first leg of our trip was through a grayish rocky terrain that didn’t seem too impressive. Even if it had been impressive we wouldn’t know about it anyway, as we were trying to figure out how to stay on our camels humps. It didn’t take that long though before everyone was looking comfortably settled on their camels. The tension we felt prior the ride diminished gradually and gave its place to audacity as our concern was now focused on taking the best shots and enjoying the scenery.

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Our small caravan quickly reached the orange sands and we started climbing up and down the small sandy hills. After a while a feeling of discomfort started overwhelming us though as our limps and back started aching due to the ride. Thankfully we made a short break and stood amidst the sand-dunes as our eyes feasted voraciously on the seemingly never-ending desert scenery.

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Finally after a two hour camel ride, we reached our camp. We were told to sit on a waiting area and someone quickly informed us about our lodging. We had booked a separate tent which turned out to be a part of a larger elongated tent separated by a large rug from the other “private tents”, but the bed was extremely comfortable. After hanging around with our party for a while, it started to rain, which came as a surprise, since none of us was expecting to face rain in the Sahara (a few months later it actually snowed in the desert though) and after a while a sandstorm broke out.

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That didn’t last long though and after a while it seemed as if none of this had happened. We were called to supper and we entered another elongated tent, where we all sat down and enjoyed some tajine and mint tea. It was a great way to end a tiresome day but the fun wasn’t over yet. After dinner a band of Bedouins started playing traditional music and some people even started dancing. It was a great thing to watch, but suddenly someone dropped the idea to leave the camp and walk nearby for star gazing.

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Well, we didn’t think much of this idea at first, but we decided to go along and it was a great choice. we laid on the sands gazing at the clearest sky ever, we could see so many stars and for the first time in years the galaxy. After chatting around a bit and enjoying the magnificent Saharan sky, we headed back to camp since we would have to wake up early tomorrow.

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I think we woke up at 5.00 or something like that. we hadn’t slept long enough and we were very tired, but this, the last day of our trip would be the most demanding, since we would have to spend approximately ten hours on the road. However, before riding the bus, we would ride our camels once more. After sorting ourselves up, we found our camels patiently awaiting for us. It was almost pitch black as the sun hadn’t set yet and we were all too tired to talk. Our trek began in total silence and there was something mysterious in the air. Laugh all you want, but I felt as if I was escorting the three magi at that time. The serenity which came along that silence was extremely soul-soothing. I couldn’t give in to that feeling at once though and I tried to talk to Catherine for a while before quitting my attempts and surrender myself to that liberating silence. Nothing seemed to matter, it was just a party of people, camels and thoughts, slowly crossing the Sahara as many more people had been doing for centuries.

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The silence broke as soon as the light began to turn the dark sands to their bright orange colors. We made a stop before the sun set, to view the sun dominating the desert sky and we walked up the hills once more. After a few photo shots we rode our camels again and continued our journey to the meeting point with our tour guide. We enjoyed breakfast and a quick shower and hopped on our bus to Marrakesh. However, during this ride, we had a casualty that would put us into some small trouble, once we would be back in the city…

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Day one of our Desert tour- part 2, Spending the night at Dades Gorge

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After tasting a rather indifferent lunch we resumed our trip towards our next stop, while enjoying the magnificent scenery the rocky desert offers. The view compensated us for our recent unsavory experience and made me regret that I wasn’t that interested in that part of the Sahara, before this trip. The desert consists of three types of landforms, Ergs, , the typical Sand dune scenery, which are the ones we were mostly keen on visiting and Regs, where gravel is predominant and which we were crossing through at that moment on a speeding air-conditioned mini bus. The third type of desert landscape are the Hamadas, elevated masses of rock like the Atlas mountains, which could be seen far on the horizon.

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On our way out of Ait Benhaddou, we passed in front of a movie studio, which stands as a gentle reminder that many famous movie and tv stars have worked in this place but what surprised us most was the mild raindrops that serenely knocked on our bus. Could we perchance witness a rainfall on the Desert? The scenery kept me company for most of the ride as Catherine took a nap while we were traveling through the grey gravel covered terrain which altered to an orangie- reddish hue that was sprinkled with a few scarce notes of green. Some old wrecked Kasbah’s and a large traditional styled building near a small oasis were interrupting the landscape’s monotony, while an almost dry river bent seemed to make a claim that this arid scenery would not prevail over it so easily.

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Our next stop was Vallée des Roses, an area famous for its rose production as the name suggests, where an annual festival takes place sometime in May (the date depends on the collection of the roses). We only made a brief stop near the small village that lies on this valley, so we don’t really have much to say about the place (I found some info here though). We did make a stop to a small village on the following day though and I kinda feel that there’s not much difference between the two (except from the rose scented air of course). There was a small shop where we bought some water and we visited a gift shop where there was a small exhibit of instruments used for the distillation of rose oil, but we were familiar with the use of rose oil and water for cosmetics and pastries, so we were not that impressed, although the experience will probably satisfy anyone else. My guess is that the May festival must be the highlight of this area, but we were a few months late.

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In the afternoon we made a short stop to enjoy the fantastic view of Dades valley, where  a velvety green foliage shone intensely through the reddish colored rocks rewarding even the most demanding gaze. It kind of reminded us of Meteora (where we constantly concur that we should pay a visit in a few days, but we never do make the short two hour trip to show up there). This view was a great way to end a long day of sightseeing and we rushed back on our minibus for the last leg of our ride for the day. After a while we entered Dades gorge, where our hotel laid and we eagerly rushed into our room hoping that it would be comfortable enough to compensate us for the last sleepless couple of days. Thankfully, the room was great offering a sensational view of the gorge from its little balcony.

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We enjoyed a shower and relaxed on that small veranda for a while, before joining the rest of our party for dinner, which was tasty, but with very small portions (even a five year old kid wouldn’t savor its appetite on that amount of food). Nevertheless, we were tired enough and keen on resting on our room, regaining some strength for tomorrow, the dawn of the day we had been anticipating more eagerly while we were planning this trip. I never dream, but I’m certain that I dreamt of camels and dunes that same evening.

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Day one of our Desert tour- part 1, way to the yellow city of Yunkai

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To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect when we subscribed to this particular tour as the booking process seemed a bit odd to us and the price was awkwardly cheap compared to the ones offered by other tours. We are glad we didn’t regret it though, as it proved one of the best experiences ever. Before venturing on this trip, we were mostly eager to be in the Sahara, overlooking most of the other stops on the tour’s itinerary, but the scenery straightened up our minds and senses easily to our benefit.

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We chose the tour offered by Marrakech desert trips and – as already stated – it was an excellent choice. After resting for a few hours in the tiny and hellishly hot room of our riad, we got our luggage once more and walked towards the nearby Cafe de France, a meeting point for many such excursions as we came to understand. While waiting there on the square, that was shyly beginning to fill up with vendors several tour guides approached us checking out if we were on their lists, till eventually our guide showed up and gathered most of our group after a while.

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The Berber alphabet among some local artworks

 

We got comfortable to our seats and after a couple of short breaks – for picking up the rest of the group and refueling – Day one was on. Our driver proved to be an awesome and skillful fellow and soon I was left alone admiring the route – as Catherine was falling asleep by my side, after all the – insufficient sleep experience was running for the third day, up to that point.

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It took a while to escape the city that was starting to wake up, as people were preparing to begin their busy day, but as we got outside of Marrakech, the scenery changed and I noticed some open air markets in most of the villages (in some of them the vendors were using their trucks as a shop) and hills that were loaded with prickly pears (a familiar image in Greece as well and possibly in many Mediterranean countries). Many buildings seemed old and they blended harmonically in the scenery but the similarities to Greek landscape became more intense when we started climbing the mountain road, until eventually we made a short stop on our route in order to buy some snacks and water (and allow any smokers to have one).

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Our next stop was on the Tizi Ntichka pass, which is the highest mountain pass in North Africa. The place is considered to be the gateway to the Desert and is offering great views to the barren mountainous landscape. Our next stop was at the main highlight of that day’s itinerary, the village of Aït BenHaddou, a Ksar (fortified village that is) where many old and modern films have been shot. Among them Pasolini’s Oedipus rex, Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nasareth, Scorsese’s last temptation, R. Scott’s Gladiator, Stone’s Alexander etc while most recently the village was a filming location for the series Game of Thrones (as the city of Yunkai).

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The village consists of many Kasbahs (fortified houses) made of clay, most of which are abandoned, as the villagers live opposite the hill where the original dwellings stand in more modern accommodations. A wide but dry river bend separates the old village from the modern settlement (we were told and saw it in a couple of old photos, that a few decades ago, the river was running wide and mighty on its bend, but nowadays just a small stream of melted snow flows down that path in springtime).

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The name of the settlement signifies that the tribe of Aït , descending from the chieftain Haddou dwells on the spot. The Berber tribe that lived there had strong ties to each other and were originally pagan, before converting to Islam, but many of them were also of Jewish faith and there were even a few Christians. Our ascent to the hilltop would be a tricky one as the sun was high on the sky, but we would be refreshed by some short breaks inside the cool Kasbahs, whose construction material acted as some sort of heat repellent. The ceilings were made of some large wooden logs and many dry reeds, while the walls were mostly made of clay and straw. When we got up a flat rooftop of one of the houses, I thought I felt as if my feet were standing on a rocky boat, but it seemed like a solid construction.

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Catherine looked very pretty in her green dress and panama hat. A bit later she looked pretty exhausted and after a while, I even left the group for a few minutes, as I purchased a turban and the kind old vendor offered to help me wear it on my head, Berber and Tuareg style. I guess my appearance caused some laughs to our group, Catherine certainly found it funny and I was very happy to wear something to assist me battling the sunlight. We also visited an artist who used a technique to make drawings, by which he would use his materials to put the shapes on the surface and then introduce the drawing surface to some heat, so that the shapes would finally form the drawing.

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After reaching the hilltop, where the old granary was situated, it was finally time to leave the old village. We made a final stop to a souvenir shop, where we bought some much needed water and sodas, while I acted as a turban model to everyone’s cheer once more and I have to say, it was a very funny experience.

Subsequently, we marched to a restaurant to have lunch and I was mostly eager to taste Tajin for a first time. The place offered the choice to a three course menu for the price of ten euros, which was ok, maybe slightly overpriced compared to other places we visited, but it ain’t a big deal. The food was below average though, but thankfully that experience didn’t discourage us from trying a few more tajin dishes during the following days.

 

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