Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A deserted desert town – Merzouga

We arrived in Merzouga with no sleep after our eventful bus ride and disembarked to overhear the conversation between two fellow survivors and the unsympathetic bus driver who told them “unless you put your own bags under the bus, they won’t arrive with you”, they were told that maybe their bags might arrive on the next bus the following morning, but they’d have to wait and see…. We thankfully collected our own bags at the same time as being greeted by the usual array of touts.  One guy on a motorbike seemed to be extremely, extremely persistent. We told him in English and in French that we were staying at “Auburge les Pyramids” and that we knew the way (which was kinda true, we had a Google map print out).  Nevertheless he insisted, telling us i6337825167_4e2d4e9b5a_bn broken English that we could go have breakfast with him and if we didn’t like the place, we could come back to the bus station and go elsewhere.

Not completely understanding him we started wandering around the desert town following our Google map. Unfortunately, Google maps has no idea when it comes to Merzouga and took us to a dusty street out the front of the wrong hotel, where thankfully the owner (and our persistent tout who had turned up on his motorbike) pointed us in the right direction. 

We arrived at the Auburge and we were immediately offered breakfast and tended to by Amir, a friendly worker at the hotel who turned out the be the nephew of the owner, Ali. Amir ran the camel tours so we began the formalities of negotiation with him. We had seen on their website that they quoted 45USD/pp (which was quite reasonable from the other reviews we’d read).

Amir showed us many ancient photos and explained the tour to us.  It basically consisted of camels, a guide, bedding, a meal, breakfast and possibly some entertainment by the fire. It sounded good to us, and we really wanted to do it – so we asked the opening price. Amir told us 100USD for us duneboth, which was 10USD more than the website price.. so we paused, discussed the prices.. hummmed, harrred and then told him the website price and that we thought he could offer a better deal, maybe 60USD for us both?. No problem! Done deal he said.. and then we kicked ourselves for not bargaining a little more!

Amir was a great guy and a brilliant host. He is in the process of starting his own tour company ‘Marvellous Morocco tours’ and really enjoys what he does. We spent some time checking out his website and hearing his business plan. It was interesting to see the ‘other side’ of the webpage that you read whilst searching around the net for tours.  After he made us feel so welcome and organised such a good tour, we wouldn’t hesitate recommending him.

Having some time to kill on our first day and craving a bit of quiet time, we decided to climb the highest sand dune in sight, Erg Chebbi, to watch the sunset over the town. The biggest, and closest was just outside of town and was 400m tall (doesn’t sound big, but this is a SAND dune.. not a hill made of compacted dirt, and sand in Morocco is much. much finer than the Australian variety!).

Leaving through the back of the hotel, we walked into the Sahara desert, passing multiple wells that had been dug into the desert floor, each feeding a different residence with an electric pump. All the  locals proudly told us that the desert is rich with water, you just have a dig a long way down to get to it… We arrived at the base of the dune and admired the sheer height before us and tried to discern the best way to tackle it. We noted that, unfortunately, there were motorbikes buzzing around and up and down the dune face (apparently it is illegal, but as one Moroccan said “Who is going to police it?”. Welcome to Africa).  Anyway, we decided they knew the best way up the dune so we took their approach to tackle it.

We raced up the sand dune, making excellent progress until about 3/4’s of the way up when it became extremely steep and we ended up taking two steps forward and one back, which was 6337810693_e6e0e7b893then reduced to hands and knees, following by some crawling on our stomachs. Eventually, we made it to the top which so much sand in our shoes they felt like they’d stretched to double the size.

We’d just managed to beat the setting sun and needless to say it was spectacular. We were feeling very proud of achievement and were sitting having a rare alone moment when we heard from behind the familiar “Hi Friend, want some fossils?”.  Incredible!!! TOUTS!! On top of the highest sand dune outside of town with no-one else around. We were pissed off to say the least. Normally we’re very calm and polite with touts, otherwise it only fuels their desire to harass you, but this time, in such a perfect tranquil moment we were not happy! We tried being polite, and then simply explained that it’s impossible to take fossils into Australia as our customs are too tough and thus it was pointless to buy anything.  They finally got the hint that we wouldn’t be buying anything from them ON TOP OF A SAND DUNE and left.

As it was getting dark and we decided to follow the touts tracks back into town. After a while, our aboriginal tracking skills failed us and we were lost, at night, on the fringe of the Sahara desert. Thankfully it wasn’t too serious as we could still make out the lights of the Merzouga town and we headed towards them.  Eventually, after going in the same general direction for a while we arrived at the edge of town, completely surrounded by pitch black except for a few street lights from the highway nearby. Neither of us remembered there even being a highway and at this stage we were a bit panicy – we had no idea how far we walked in the dark, where we’d come from and we had no idea how safe it was to walk around this area after dark. Dumb move.

We walked retraced our steps in the general direction of where we believed our hotel was and found ourselves next to an unfamiliar hotel, so we decided to ask the guy at reception where ours was - he gave a deep and thoughtful look and told us to follow him into the darkness. It turns out our sense of direction wasn’t too bad – we were literally next to our hotel, except our hotel was saving some power that night and had no lights on at all so we’d walked straight passed it!

The next morning we started to head into town for breakfast but we were headed off by a guy at the door who invited us to the terrace for some ‘Berber whiskey’. At 9.30am, we were a little dubious about accepting an offer for whiskey, but we’ve learnt after many years of travelling that you should never turn down an offer for something traditional as you may never experience it again, so we agreed and followed him outside.

We sat down and sipped our Berber whisky with Ali, who was actually the owner of ‘les Pyramids’. He was a very friendly guy who had a weathered look about him, like he had sunsetspent his entire life around the desert, which was in fact true, He comes from a nomadic family of 9 children but he gave up that life and now lives in town while running the Auburge. He also brought up a touchy hygiene topic that we had noticed amongst the local population – rotten teeth. Apparently, the reason the local people all had terrible teeth (we thought they all must smoke like chimneys!) is due to the local water supply in the wells, which are full of minerals that rot their teeth.  Sarah tried to work out what minerals but apparently no one has really done much testing on it yet… future job here?

He also told us that he would love to travel but the money for visa applications alone was exorbitant and even then not guaranteed.  This is something that we’ve come across constantly while travelling through developing countries – the desire to travel, but due to the cost and visas it’s always an impossibility. We feel extremely lucky to be from Australia when people tell us this, and we’re honestly told this same story ALOT.

After finishing off our chat and Berber whiskey, we headed off into town – noting to ourselves that despite the amount of ‘whiskey’ that we drank for breakfast, we didn’t feel light headed at all! Hmm… Well, the joke was on us, and the joke was one retold throughout southern Morocco…. Berber whiskey is in fact just Moroccan mint tea laden with the usual 8 cubes of sugar, but since alcohol is forbidden they like to refer to it as their ‘whiskey’ and enjoy trying to fool the tourists.

Upon returning Amir told us we needed to meet the ‘camel man’ to choose our camels for the tour and that he’d be the one tto take us out to the desert camp and be our guide. Keen to choose our camels we asked if we could meet this ‘camel man’. A moment later, the ‘camel man’ appeared from the back room. As soon as we saw him we both said ‘oops!’.

Turns out that the camel man was actually our motorbike riding tout from the bus stop. His name 6337817043_44dd88a899was Mohammed, and he was a really, really nice guy. We later offered him an apology for sternly telling him to go away (we weren’t rude, but we had been a bit forceful after he’d been tailing us for 30 minutes…). He explained to us (in French) that he had been told by the owner to come and collect us to make sure we arrived safely. Oops. It’s difficult to know sometimes who’s authentic and who’s trying to lead you up the garden path… After three weeks in Morocco it was hard not to be cynical of people who approach you and offer their help, as generally they’re serving their own interests and after money.

We relaxed until the afternoon – when it was finally time to meet our camels, Drupey and Drapey, and head off into the Sahara……

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