Saturday, 21 May 2016

A Moroccan Adventure: Rain in the Sahara, Trekking With Camels & Winding Atlas Mountain Roads

The last few days of our Dakar to Marrakech trip were spent on the Atlantic coast in Essaouira, which means 'The Little Rampart', in reference to the fortress walls enclosing part of the city. Essaouira is know for its cabinet making and wooden inlay, and is a UNESCO World Heritage listed city. 

A short drive from Essaouira took us to Marrakech, where we said goodbye to Pauline, Zoe, Lexi and John at the end of our Dakar to Marrakech trip.

Djemaa el-Fna is Marrakech's huge central square and a focal point of the city, which comes to life in the evening with numerous food stalls, musicians, story tellers and performers. 

Above is a picture of our Dakar to Marrakech group sharing a meal in Djemaa el-Fna on the last night of the trip. From left to right, Fred, Will, Hiro, Nathan, Lexi, John and Zoe. 

Marrakech has 18 souks which all specialise in a different craft. Rowan, left and right below, made sure she bought something from each one of them!

We enjoyed a beautiful drive from Marrakech over the Tizi n'Tichka pass, a road through the High Atlas linking the coastal plains and the Sahara Desert. 

En route we visited the ancient kasbah of Ait Benhaddou, an impressive fortified Ksar that has been used in many films such as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. Below, Jase and Ida walking over the bridge to Ait Bennhadou.

There was a downpour at our bush camp before we headed into the Sahara desert - fortunately Ian remembered his umbrella!

Heavy rain the next day slowed us down on our journey into the Sahara. At a coffee stop in Agdz we were told it hadn't rained so heavily since 2006! Fortunately the skies cleared for our arrival at our camp and we went for an afternoon walk amongst the soggy dunes. 

Below, Ida, JP and Jase.

There was an impressive thunder and lightning storm on our first night in the desert which blew Hiro's beloved tent away as he was trying to put it up. If anyone finds a bright yellow tent in Algeria, Hiro would very much appreciate being re-united with it! 

We spent Jan's birthday appreciating the shelter of a sturdily built Berber tent.

With clearer weather the next day we packed up our camels for our trek into the desert. The camels took even longer to get ready than we did!

Above, Rowan, Hiro and Jase, prepared for the desert winds. 

Above, birthday girl Ida leads our camel caravan. As she's allergic to eggs we celebrated with a birthday melon, with everlasting candles that threatened to stay alight all night!

The next day we visited Erg Lihoudi. Below, Al and Jase enjoy a quiet moment after a steep climb up the highest dune.

In the afternoon the wind picked up again, this time bringing a sand storm with it. We were all wrapped up as a defence against the sand but the camels didn't seem bothered at all!

In the evening our guide showed us how to make sand bread, as Berber tribes have been baking bread for generations.

The next day we explored the Draa river valley, visiting Tamegroute. This small town is known for its Koranic library, which includes a Koran from the 14th century.

Below, Rowan models a traditional black shawl. 

Tamegroute is also known for its green pottery. The first 'firing' of the pottery is done in the sun, with the green glaze baked on later in a wood fired kiln. What look like plant pots cut in half at the bottom of the photo are actually roof tiles!

Below, Will, John, Hiro and Rowan enjoy local hospitality in the kasbah in Tamegroute.

From the Sahara we headed north on a drive to Todra Gorge, passing a number of ruined kasbahs on the way. 

The walls of Todra Gorge rise up to 160 metres on each side, narrowing to just 10 metres wide at one point.

We spent a day hiking in the gorge and exploring the palmeries below. 

We stayed outside of Todra at Tamtachoute, away from the tourist bustle of the main gorge. 

Below, John, after a trek to the Petit Gorge, a little visited spur off the main gorge.

The next day we visited Akhiam Caves on our way to Imilchil. The drive there, and the trek up to the caves, was as impressive as the caves themselves!

Below, Al on the trek to the caves: Aminah is a tiny blue spot in the valley below.

Below, Jase and Will at the entrance to the caves. Inside there is a large network of caves on several levels, with underground lakes and many stalactites.

Above, Al and Alice under the huge natural archway outside the entrance to the caves.

Below, Lake Tizlit in the Eastern High Atlas National Park, where we stayed for 2 nights. 

Below is an Opsrey we saw on our first night. Ospreys breed by the lake during the summer, but head for warmer climes in the winter.

We spent a day trekking to Lake Islit, sharing tea and goats cheese with herders along the way.

On our last evening, our host cooked us a cous cous feast. From left to right, Ian, Nathan, John, Hiro, Fred, Rowan, Alice, Ida, Jan, Al and Jason.

The drive down through the High Atlas mountains was stunning, if a little tight at times!

Below, donkeys graze in front of Lake Aguelmame Sidi Ali. Ida took some persuading to leave the baby donkey behind!

We drove through an ancient cedar forest on the way north, and were fortunate enough to see Barbary Macaques, the only macaques found outside of Asia. These are the same as those that were introduced to Gibraltar. 

Our last night in the Atlas mountains was particularly chilly; fortunately there was plenty of wood in the forest for our camp fire to keep us warm! 

Our next drive brought us in to the ancient imperial city of Fez, from where our next blog post will pick up shortly.

Many thanks to Alice, Lexi, Ida, John, JP, and Fred for all of the photos!

Monday, 2 May 2016

Across the Sahara Desert: Sand Dunes, Salt Lakes, Bush Camps & Beautiful Coastline

From Touba we journeyed north to the coast and the Langue de Barbarie National Park, located on a long peninsula just south of the mouth of the Senegal River. This park attracts a huge variety of migratory birds, and we were lucky to see a few during our stay here.

A short drive from here took us to St Louis, the former French colonial capital on an island in the river Senegal. Here we stayed near the busy fishing community of Ndar along the sandy peninsula.

The fishing market is always an impressive sight, as fridge trucks are loaded up with fish brought ashore on horse drawn carts, to be sent all over Senegal and beyond. 

The fleet of colourful pirogues pictured below stretched for hundreds of metres, but it was difficult to take photos that did the colour justice as the harmattan is currently in full swing. As a result the St Louis sky turned orange with sand blown in from the desert, giving some hazy photos!

Below shows some of the fading colonial architecture in the old colonial quarter of St Louis. Though usually a thriving town the old city centre was eerily quiet when we visited!

From St Louis a short drive took us to the border with Mauritania and the town of Rosso, where a ferry across the river Senegal awaited us. Crossing this particular border is not the most relaxing of experiences, but fortunately there is less hassle from the officials these days than there used to be! 

Above are some shots from the market in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. It's a rather unusual city located close to the coast but surrounded by desert. The busy traders and colourful market more than make up for the sand storms that regularly affect this city. 

Mauritanian tents have a plain exterior but a beautifully patterned interior, as shown in this photo in the market place above.

Located just a few kilometres from the city centre, Nouakchott's 'Port de PĂȘche' (or fishing port) is vast. It attracts fishermen from all over West Africa and the fish market it supports continues for several kilometres along the sandy beach.

The catch is very varied, with some fish being caught in the shallow water and others on long and arduous journeys further out into the Atlantic.

Jase went to check out the surfing possibilities but it turned out the coastline was rather busy!

North of Nouakchott stretches hundreds of kilometres of Sahara desert, though it must have seen a little rain within the last few months as there was some surprisingly green and fresh looking vegetation about. 

Shortly before the border with Western Sahara we crossed Mauritania's only railway, below, which carries iron ore some 700 kms away from a mine in Zouerate to the Atlantic port of Nouadhibou.

Crossing the border between Mauritania and Western Sahara was surprisingly swift, though the land mines that litter no-mans-land allowed neither photos nor pee-stops! Above is a photo of Lexi at our first night stop in Western Sahara, which is perfect for bush camping with miles of space all around and perfect seclusion.  

As always the coastline was absolutely stunning, with the main highway often running close to the steep cliffs. 

Above is a group shot taken en route. From left to right are Ian, Will, John, Nathan, Hiro, Lexi, John, Jase, Fred, Jan, Zoe, Rowan, Pauline, Ida, Alice and JP. 

Below is a photo of Zoe, Fred, John, Ian and Will.

Above, Al and Alice, near the edge! 

On the way we passed lots of camels, though most were a little camera shy!

Dakhla is the first town of any significance you get to after crossing from Mauritania, located on a small peninsula and a popular destination for kite surfing holidays. It was rather surreal to see all the colourful kites on parade after miles of empty desert!

Above, Ida, Rowan and Zoe prepare to wash their feet, whilst the boys enjoy a sunset beer below!

We were treated to some stunning sunsets whilst bush camping on our journey through Western Sahara The one below was particularly special, lighting up almost the whole sky as Al and Alice stood by Aminah.

Above shows the Bedouin camp we stayed at in the desert for 2 nights. In the foreground is a salty seasonal waterfall which feeds the Sebkha (salt lake) of Oum Dba. 

Below, Nathan standing above the Sebkha. 

Many of us spent the day exploring the Sebkha. Above is a photo of Fred, Hiro and John wandering among the sand dunes, and below, of Al at the top of Mount Gara in the middle of the Sebkha.

Above is Will at the dunes some distance from our camp which he visited on a 4x4 tour. Below shows Al in front of Mt Gara.

Above is Lexi and Zoe at the top of Mt Gara, whilst Jan enjoys fresh camel milk with nomadic camel herders below.

Some of the group visited an area of salt production at the far end of the Sebkha, as shown above with Ian, Will, Alice, Nathan and Jan. 

To extract the salt, deep channels are dug into the ground and flooded with water. This salty water is then extracted, and evaporated off to leave salt. 

Above, a Bedouin tent some of us stayed in, complete with feline company! 

Below, Al, Nathan and John enjoy camel and date tagine.

From here we continued north to Tarfaya where we saw 'La Casa del Mar' (above), a former British trading post from the 1880's, renamed as such when this territory became Spanish Sahara. 

We also passed Tarfaya wind farm, currently the largest in Africa with 131 wind turbines.

Above is Naila Lagoon, known for its fish and also flamingos which we saw in the distance. 

Once we headed north of TanTan the scenery began to change as we left the coast behind and started our approach to the Anti-Atlas mountain range.

Our next bush camp was in a cracking spot with sand dunes rolling off into the distance. The hill behind us did its best to shelter us from the wind!

Above, Ida enjoys sunset over our camp spot. Below, the road to Tafraout, in the Anti-Atlas.

A couple of nights in Tafraout gave us the chance to stretch our legs and head off for some trekking, as shown above with Lexi, Hiro, Will, John and Zoe. 

The area around Tafraout is known for its hillsides scattered with granite boulders. We also saw some prehistoric rock carvings.

Above, Nathan, Jan, Fred, Zoe, John, John, Will and Alice rest in the shade of a boulder whilst out trekking. 

Below is a photo of 'Les Pierres Bleus', the work of Belgian artist Jean Veran.

Below is a typical street in Tiznit where we stopped for a few hours. Tiznit is famous for the work of its silver smiths and jewellers and made for an interesting stop en route.

Our next stop was Taroudant in the Sous valley. Almost the entire city lies behind its protective walls. Here there is an Arab and a Berber market, both of which are well-known for their leather work, jewellery and carpets. 

From here we returned to the Atlantic coast to visit the famous town of Essaouira, which will feature in the next blog in a couple of weeks time, as this trip to Marrakech comes to an end and we start our final trip of the season up to Tangier. 

Many thanks to Lexi and Alice for sharing many of the photos in this blog!