Morocco. Monday,Tuesday,Wednesday,Thursday27,28 Feb.1,2 March 2006

Fri 3 Mar 2006 18:45
Monday, 27 February.  Rest and Recuperation at Ksar Jallal.
Ksar Jallal was even better after a splendid dinner, an excellent night's sleep and breakfast this morning.  Helenne considers us as her house guests and the atmosphere is very relaxed and friendly, with her 4 staff really feeling more like her family.  There is Abdul, an ex-desert guide, who is steward, porter, waiter and guide.  He appears in a different djellaba for each position!  Asmaa is the cook,and a very good one.  She favours western dress and will appear in anything from camo fatigues to a stunning silk embroidered trouser suit made by herself. Fatima is the cleaner come waitress, more traditional in dress, gets regular fits of the giggles and, we think, has a thing going with Moustafa the gardener and donkeyman.  Moustafa lives in a shack in the garden and is commanded in his work by Helene who is an avid gardener.  Helene floats around the whole establishment in a rather ethereal way. During the day she will be in teeshirt and trousers for gardening, but may well throw a djellaba over them to look smart when someone turns up, but changes for dinner and looks very smart as lady of the house.  There is a vaguely theatrical, Gilbert and Sullivan, feel to it all, helped by the effort put into the arrangements in the main "hall" where candles are carefully placed, tables set with fine china, cutlery and glass from France and cotton and silk hangings blow gently in the breeze and Abdul and Fatima glide in and out with drinks and food. One day he is the desert nomad, the next Alladin and always with a soft voice and happy smile. All very welcoming and relaxing......which is what we did ...all day!
The garden is delightful and we spent much of the day getting the cold of Fes out of our bones. Moustafa and Fatima were having fun gardening together.  Suddenly there was great shrieking and much laughter. We looked over our balcony and here was Fatima being wheeled around in the wheelbarrow by Moustafa. Madame was called to join in the hilarity and thought it was great fun too. Later, we went for a walk along the track through the oasis, circling back around the edge of the desert. The locals were working here and there and we met two ladies bringing large sacks of grass on their heads back to their animals.  They would not let me, a man, carry one on my head, but were delighted to let Paula try.  She could barely stand let alone carry them back to the village!
On return, we found that two Australians, Rowan and Chennelle, had arrived.  We had seen them on the plane and at Riad Mabrouka. We chatted to them at "aperatif" time as we all sat round the fire in the sitting area of the great hall.  Also there was a team of four from Colas, a road building company, who were doing a recce for their summer jaunt when they reward their best workers by giving them an "unusual" weekend away. The amazing thing was to be the numbers.  They were hiring 6 aircraft and bringing 900 people to El Rachidia, then by 250 4x4s up into the Atlas for a night in a camp, down through the Dodra Gorge and back to Rissani where there is to be a huge desert camp complete with souk, musicians, Berber horsemen etc,etc, then back to El Rachidia and home. The thought of  a convoy of 250 4x4s is a bit mind boggling, not to mention the logistics of feeding such a huge number.  Will shall think of them.  It is the same weekend as Will and Sus's wedding.
Tuesday, 28 February.  Rissani and a desert drive from Ksar Jallal
Rowan and Chennelle were also in a hired 4x4, so we set off in convoy with them in the lead for a day out with Abdul as our guide.  We stopped just down the road from Jorf to look at some ancient Phoenician qanats, underground water channels that run for miles to bring water from the mountains to the villages and palmeries.  These ones had been in use until fairly recently, but were replaced by modern pipes after a dead dog in the qanat gave the town cholera.  We drove on to Rissani and Abdul took us for a walk around the souk.  All very un-touristy and busy with locals doing their daily shopping.  We fell for the odd piece here and there, coming out with two necklaces and a set of pannier baskets for Paula's bicycle. Just what BA wants on the flight home!.
And so into the desert.  Rowan and Chennelle had no 4x4 driving experience, so I gave them a couple of tips from my limited personal experience - viz. keep in a low gear with high revs and turn off the aircon if the going gets sticky to put more power into the drives.  Rowan took to it with relish and we were soon belting along sandy tracks and across vast smooth gravel beds.  He was quite glad to have us in front to start with because, unless you have done it before, you do not realize how fast you can go and how well Landcruisers cope with the rough going.  We had an early stop at a little shack where the desert floor was covered with fossils embedded in the solid rock, with lots more in loose stones all around. We went on through a variety of desert scenery, much of it in "black" desert with rocky hills and outcrops, before arriving at a deep gorge with water and palm trees running down its length.  We drove down and stopped under the trees for lunch.  We wandered through the palms while Abdul got the fire going and cooked our "brochettes" (kebabs) and then we all settled down on the new carpet/rug which he had bought for Helene in the market. It was a super picnic in the warm sun with the birdsong of the oasis (or "wuziz" as Abdul calls it) all around us.  Then on towards the Erg Chebbi sand dunes where we were to watch the sunset.  We got to a huge flat gravel area and Abdul urged us to have a race, so off the boys set reaching about 60mph.  The surface was incredibly smooth and so flat that you could easily spot the odd rock.  Abdul got so excited that when we stopped he admitted that he was lost as we had gone much further than he intended and was not sure which direction we were headed in!  Fortunately, Boy Scout Winter had taken a GPS fix in Rissani and was able to tell him the direction to there. (I am sure he would have worked it out eventually, but it was interesting how easy it is to loose the sense of direction) Back to calmer speeds, stopping to photograph some beautiful white flowers that had sprung up in the recent rain.  They were all over the place and looked incredible against the barren rock and sand. We stopped to talk to some Berber nomads in their tent and to give them some fresh mint which I had bought in the market.  Tey were delighted.  Sadly we diid not have time to share a mint tea with them as sunset was approaching.  We drove on and got to the dunes just in time to leave the cars and walk up the sand hills.  There are huge here and cover an area of approx 10 x 30km, and rise to 150m in places. Sadly, they are a huge tourist attraction and many hotels have sprung up at their edge, and there is concern that they are draining ancient water from within the dunes which may de-stabilise them.  Even though we are here so early in the season, there were a lot of people watching the sunset.  The sky was really too cloudy for a good show, but a shaft of sun broke through to remind us of what it could look like on a good day.  We drove back to Ksar Jallal in the dark, dodging donkeys and bicycles.
Drinks with Rowan and Chennelle to celebrate Rowan's birthday and after a super dinner, we were all usherd to table opposite the fire, candles were strategiclly placed, the lights were dimmed and in came the birthday cake in procession with all the staff and Helene.  They all joined us round the table to help Rowan eat it -- a lovely family gathering.
Wednesday, 1 March.  To the Dades Gorge via the mountain piste.
It was like saying good bye to old family friends! They had made us so welcome that we were sad to leave.  We eventually extricated ourselves by about 11.00 and set off west towards the Todra Gorge.
We stopped in Tinejad to buy postcards and then drove on to Tinerhir to buy some more cash from an ATM.  The road runs along flat land with the High Atlas rising straight from it to the north and the Jebel Sarhro running parallel to the south.  Wonderful views with the snow above about 2600m.  At Tinerhir we turned north up into the Todra Gorge.  The narrowest bit is very impressive.  The walls rise vertically to some 300m and the narrowest point is probably only 50m wide so it is an impressive "trench" through the solid rock.  The choke point is also a tourist trap so we did not linger but stopped just beyond where the girls had a nice walk on up the road.  Onwards to Tamatoucht where we turned off left on to the piste to the Dades valley. 100m in and the track split in about three directions so we stopped to consider the wisdom of proceeding. Needless to say, a young man appeared as if by magic and volunteered to guide us across the watershed.  Off we set.  I had imagined a "graded" road as it was referred to as piste, but no grader had ever been near it. It was mostly bedrock with the odd stretch of gravel so speed was minimal.  At points it was well described by Moustafa, our 18 year old guide, as "escalier" (staircase) as we crept down the natural steps formed by the exposed rock strata.  But the views were magnificent as we wound our way across three cols and down into deep valleys.  We passed several nomad camps, some a combination of caves and tents.  They all rushed out to see us, but we had some way to go and did not have time to stop.  The final col was the highest and as we approached it, we reached the snow line.  We were following some recent vehicle tracks which gave us some confidence and the snow was drifted onto one side of the road only so that I always had one set of wheels on the clear surface, but there were a few tricky bits that called for low range bottom.  Then we reached the very last approach to the summit (2800m) and my heart sank.  I could see the track sloping away to the left to zizzag back higher up right onto the summit, but it was covered in snow and on a steep sideways slope. I was not keen, but Moustafa got out and pointed me to a short, steep slope to the right with a sharp right hand approach to the col.  The previous vehicle had left tracks but they had filled in with snow. I decided that if we didn't make it, I could do a safe abort and turn back the way we had come, so gave it bags of wellie in low second and we stormed up through the snow with very little drama.  Even Mrs S, who had opted to walk for one of the hairier bits earlier, sat in state with Mrs W on the back seat and seemed more relaxed than the driver!  Well done the Landcruiser - they are incredible vehicles!
From there it was an easy track down hill all the way to the top of the Dades Gorge, though it was getting dusk by the time we reached the hotel - Chez Pierre, after four hours on the piste.  The top of the valley is wide but with spectacular scenery all around.  Moustafa had to catch a bus from Boumalne at 8.00 so Olaf and I took him down in the car as all taxis had ceased for the night.  He said it was about 10k but it turned out to be 27k on a very twisty road.  However, we were back in the hour. The hotel is built up the rocky side of the valley, and the poor porter had to carry all our cases up many steps to our room.  Paula's was so heavy that he broke a pane of glass in the room door as he put it down.  We had a gorgeous "French" meal of pink, sliced duck's breast and all the trimmings plus our usual 2 bottles of wine to celebrate our safe arrival. 
Thursday, 2 March.  Dades to Zagora.
Left after breakfast and headed west again below the Atlas towards Ouarzazate.  We stopped at a Kasba at Ben Moro and had a drink followed by a walk through the palms to look at a very old kasba across a dried up wadi bed.  Very beautiful in the sun and some of the old mud brick work was quite ornate.  On to Skoura where we stopped for some water and a film, before reaching Ourzazate at about 2.0pm.  Bought some bread and hard boiled eggs which we ate in a little wadi just off the main road before pressing on down the Draa valley.  First we had to cross the Jebel Sarhro, which was a spectacular climb with amazing rock formations all around and long views back to the snow covered Atlas.  The Draa Valley is filled with palmeries and many kasbas and makes a fine approach to Zagora.  It is about 150k so it was getting late again when we arrived at Hotel Zagora to be met by another warm welcome.  The long drive had made us a little scratchy and tired but a view of the sunset from the hill behind followed by a good dinner restored us to good spirits.