Friday, 6 February 2015

To the Sahara and Back

Ssalamū 'lekum  اسلا عليكم dear family and friends. You find us in the Anti Atlas Mountains, at 4,000 feet, in a town called Tafraoute, nestled in a basin surrounded on all sides by mountains. We are camped in amongst the palm trees looking out at the most magnificent mountains that change from deep ochre during the day, to a deep pink as that sun goes down. The temperature at night drops to a chilly 9 degrees, but by 9:30am is climbing into the twenties and has reached 25-28 each day. The air is fresh and unpolluted, the people are delightful and the children, with their heartbreak big brown eyes and melting smiles, are a joy to have around. They come to visit, asking for bonbon (sweets); we keep our supply handy.....It’s trick or treat every day of the week!

Fang looking for inspiration in them there hills....when she found it she dropped her bike!

But lets take a step back, when last we blogged we were on the coast and heading for the Sahara.....and so we did.

From our idyllic camp on the beach we headed south to Tiznit. We stayed in a campsite just outside the town walls and spent a fascinating two days just wandering around the town, the souk and the open market where we got lost and had to catch a taxi back to camp.. cost 7dh.. 50 pence

Fresh chicken sir?

They treat their old folk with respect here

This is Tiznit Bob.....we were having a mint tee across the road and saw him actually jump in front of a car that was trying to get away without paying him! Held up the traffic while he extracted payment.......don't mess with Bob! 

Then it was further south to Sidi Ifni. We had developed a slow puncture a couple of days before and decided that perhaps we should get it sorted before heading into the wilds of the Sahara Desert; so we stopped in a village on the way and found a tyre place.......but not exactly the sort of Kwik Fit we are used to!

Rashide has a shop on the high street and you just pull up on the road outside; he jacks your vehicle up and goes to work......everyone else.....the traffic, the donkeys, the carts and the pedestrians just work their way around the action, the Health & Safety goons in the UK would have a fit, but it works and it’s the Moroccan way!

He worked so hard Fang bought him a cake to restore his energy......and when we asked how much? He said ‘give me what you think I should have’......... Good psychology, as of course we gave him far more than we needed to...... his face lit up and he was off to buy a house!

Rashide goes to work

'He seems to have everything under control.....think I'll go for a mint tea'

Rashide, my very best friend

And so tyre fixed it was back on the road again. The only reason for visiting Sidi Ifni was to go to the Sunday Market, and we had timed our visit accordingly, arriving on the Saturday lunch time and booking into a campsite very close to the where the market was being held. And what a brilliant experience this was.....we all love a Sunday Market don’t we? But Sunday market Moroccan style takes Sunday markets to an entirely new level.....
Well...every market has plastic washing baskets eh?

You look for an onion and 400 come along

There were at least five stalls like this one.....they must eat oranges by the ton!

'I think I'll have this one'

You can buy just one egg! You take your own carton and fill it up

These are the best doughnuts on the planet

'Hey Donc I hope this slap head is going to get us one of those bails.....I could eat a horse'

At the beginning of December Morocco suffered some horrendous rain, which decimated a lot of the country; numerous people were just swept away along with their houses never to be found again. Sidi Ifni was one of the towns that suffered very badly with a lot of lives lost, roads damaged and two campsites completely obliterated and washed in to the sea.

One of the annihilated campsites.....fortunately they cleared all the motorhomes off before the devastation 

This is the main road out of town

No cones you will notice!

The white line is the centre of the road

Next stop was to a campsite nestled right in a secluded valley which is only accessible by a 3 mile drive on a stony sandy track, but worth the effort. The campsite was so relaxing; we were just out in the country no traffic, no town noises. We saw that they served Tagines, which is a traditional cooking method, the Moroccans (and I think others) use to slow cook their meat a vegetables. Fang ordered lamb and I ordered Camel.....yes you heard me right, I had Camel was delicious, a white meat that tastes like a cross between lamb and chicken, very tender with no fat. Not sure what cut of meat I had; weather it was the rump or the hump, but it were right grand.

The table set for our lunch

The campsite owner is French and invites his guests to an aperitif before this stage Fang had consumed three Gin and waters and I have my hand behind her to stop her falling off the chair....she  had that daft grin on her face until she fell asleep for her afternoon siesta! 

On leaving the campsite we made our way to one of the Women’s Co-Operatives that we had heard about. At this particular co-operative they make products from the Argan nut. Each nut has to be individually cracked by hand and this is done, as it has been for hundreds of years, by the women. The nuts are then crushed, put through a process and turned into Argan oil, which is used for cooking and health & beauty products. It takes one women 15 hours and to crack 30 kilograms of nuts, enough Argon to produce 1 litre of Argan oil. However, because this is a co-operative, all the women get paid a fair wage and are treated with dignity. As a buyer from a co-operative you can be sure that the product is genuine (a lot of the road side sellers mix the Argan oil with olive oil) and that you are buying Faire Trade.

We wanted to take these two home with us

As you can see Fang had a bash at cracking some nuts but just ended up cracking her fingers! Giving  the job up she tried to bite into the nut, much to the horror of the women. We later found out why; The Argan nut has a rough shell on the outside, when it falls off the tree, the women let the goats eat these which  pass straight through their system, (the goats system not the women’s ) and out the other end, minus the rough outer shell, saving the women a job.

 They then just go round picking up the cleaned nuts ready for cracking;  So yes.....Fang was chewing on a nut that had been shot out of a Goats bottom. It’s put her right off her honey coated cashews and she can’t look a walnut in the eye without thinking of goat’s bottoms!
And so onto a wild camp at a place called Plage Blanche (white beach). The beach stretches for 36 kilometres of undisturbed, beautiful, natural splendour. We spent a wonderful two days and two nights walking the sand dunes during the day and gazing at the stars at night, without any light pollution to distract from the cosmic display.

'I want to be alone'

Fang doing some bartering....some clothes in exchange for some bread....the bread was home made and they must have walked a couple of miles from the nearest village......she is asking Fang if she has any jackets.  

Now we were heading into the Sahara proper; we went to TaTa and onto Tarfaya and finally to Laayoune, the last outpost before the long haul to Dakhla, a trip we decided not to do as it’s a very long way and then a very long way back on the same road! I will let the pictures tell the story.

Doing a deal in the desert

A desert road

Two dogs in the desert

'This is all very nice, but I can do without the sand in my knickers'

A rainbow in the desert
Yes there really are camels in the desert

No begging sign at Goulimime

The entrance to Tan Tan

The Sahara Desert in Morocco is still a disputed area, and although there has not been any trouble for several years now, it is still a militarized zone with army and armed police, road blocks are common where they check your passport and record where you have come from and where you are going to.

At a check point in the desert

Laayoune is an interesting town in that no one is from Laayoune! It’s a town dominated by the UN and the military and that’s its only function. It is populated by Moroccans attracted by the good wages, the army and UN officials driving around in their white vehicles with the big UN painted on the side. It has the strange feel of an itinerant town where no one belongs and is interesting for this alone.

As you will see from the map that you no doubt have open beside you, Laayoune is a long way from anywhere so we needed an overnight stop. We knew there were no campsites here but had planned to find a wild camp in the town; however, after walking around the town and seeing the military, the police and the UN forces everywhere, and after experiencing all the security checks on the way in, we decided that parking up for the night in the town was not going to work.

About 8 miles outside Laayoune town is the sea, so we headed for the beach to look for a night stop. After going through yet another security check we finally found an open area where another motor home had pulled up, so safety in numbers we joined him. Our companion turned out to be a charming Dutchman called Paul who joined us for the evening and had a meal.....prepared by Chef Fang.....backed beans, fried potatoes and double eggs, Fang’s speciality, and as Paul is a vegetarian right on the button!

At about 10:00 that night a police car rocked up with blue lights flashing. Luckily Paul was still with us, and as he speaks French, he jumped out to deal with the coppers.....

(I followed clutching my French phrase book, page open on Consulates Abroad) it turned out they were asking Paul where we were going. ‘Nowhere’ says he ‘we are staying here the night’. ‘No you’re not’ says copper Abdul. ‘Why not?’ says Paul, and that was it; they were having none of his charming persuasive chat and demanded to see our passports!

When I went back in the van and told Fang they wanted to see our passports she thought that life as we know it was over, and was already looking in the wardrobe trying to decide what best to wear for a night in a Moroccan jail.

However, after the usual interminable wait (they have to fill in a form with the details from your passport) they came back and told us we had to move 10:00 at night!

Paul tried some more of his continental charm, but they just frog marched him over to his van and told him to get in and follow them; then came over to me and told me to do the same.

And so now I am back in the van and Fang wants to know what’s going on, ‘They want us to follow them’ says I.... ‘What for?’ says Fang... ‘Not sure’ says I.... ‘Oh $%&*^’... says Fang... ‘My thoughts exactly’ says I;  And off we go following the Moroccan Bill with their blue lights still flashing, the dishes from our evening meal clanking about in the sink and Fang in the back trying to decide if they will let her take her electric toothbrush into jail.

 But all is well in this blessed country and her beautiful people; the police officers were just taking us somewhere safer than where we had parked. Calm and serenity once more restored to the Trundlebus we spent a peaceful, undisturbed night, once Fang had unpacked her going to jail bag! She did, of course, spend the rest of the night on copper watch.

Next morning we parted company with Paul and made our way through the road blocks and back North.

Fang relaxing in Paul's van

We spent the next couple of days retracing our journey (as you will see from the map you have beside you there is only one road!) back to Agidir where we had heard you could get solar panels fitted on your van for a very good price. But the quote was more expensive than the one given in the UK , this turned out to be very disappointing and was a wasted trip.

However, our journey from Agadir to Tafraoute was very special and brought us through the majestic Ameln Valley. As luck would have it the Almond blossom is just coming out so we were treated to a gorgeous display of pink trees.

We paid a visit here

Waiting for my coffee on the roof terrace

Fang with Fatima our beautiful guide

We are wild camping in an area just outside the town. Every day the women come round selling their wares; bread, cakes, fantastic fresh donuts and fruit. One lady in particular (our favourite) comes around each evening with a big pot of the most delicious homemade Moroccan soup.....this has become our standard lunch, set off with a loaf of traditional Moroccan round bread called a is good here!

An interesting thing about Tafraoute is that, unusually, it is very affluent, both the town and the surrounding villages. The reason for this, apparently, is that the young people leave the town and villages to go and work in the big cities and abroad; they then send money back to the family.
When they have made some decent cash they come back home and build big houses for the whole family.....this is the Moroccan way. So for the first time since we have been in Morocco we are seeing a town without shanty town on the out skirts and virtually no beggars on the streets.

One of our many visitors.....he is one of the local carpet sellers.....he invited us down to his shop, was like an Aladdin's cave, and we had mint tea while we looked round.....this is John Lewis Moroccan style!

This bowl of veg cost me about 35 pence

The bread man cometh

Market day in Tafraoute

The area is known for their hand made shoes and baboushe.

On one particular day we took a walk into the next village to try and find a prehistoric rock carving of a Gazelle which is purported to be 6,000 years old. On our way into the village we noticed there was an old Kasbah on top of granite outcrop.

A Kasbah is a fortified house which may accommodate several generations; so there could be 30 to 40 adults and children living there. Most of these old dwellings have now fallen into disrepair as this is not the way families live any more, however, some have been restored and are a joy to visit.

We were not sure if we could visit this particular Kasbah but made the climb up to have a look see, and sure enough there was some restoration work going on but no one seemed to be about. We were just on the verge of giving up when Ahmed came rushing up and greeted us with the traditional ‘Welcome, You are very welcome’. He then took us on a tour of this traditional Berber house which he was restoring using all the old building techniques. It was a fabulous insight into how a Berber family would live and as his English was excellent we bombarded him with lots of questions!

Ahmed showing us an old couscous plate for the whole family to share

A baby's rocker which was just outside the kitchen door so Mum could hear baby

The view from the terrace

Ahmed is showing Fang some of the old family documents and contracts.....the ones Fang is holding are wooden

After the tour he invited us to stay for mint tea served in the traditional Berber way, and this is when we were able to get the full story. This had been Ahmed’s family home for 500 years so he knew all the history of the Kasbah from his grandparents, who had heard it from their grandparents and so on down the ages.

The rest of the family had gone down into the village to live in modern houses but when Ahmed came of age he decided to go back, live in the old Kasbah, and restore his family heritage, at the same time as studying for a degree in Biology at the university in Agadir; a 5 hour journey there and 5 hours back, twice a week. It was an absolute delight to spend time with, drinking tea and hearing his story, Ahmed is a charming intelligent man (he is 22), who is committed to preserving his heritage and that of his village.

After tea Ahmed offered to take us to see the carving of the Gazelle which was literally just behind his Kasbah.  

Our second stop over in the village in amongst the palms

Sunset at our camp

He then invited us to join him for lunch. As luck would have it the village was having a ceremony to welcome in the Almond season. All the women were in a field behind the village cooking a traditional Berber meal for the whole village called Tagala.  Ahmed took us out to the back of the village and sat us down in the shade of an Argan tree.

He went off to where the women were cooking and a couple of minutes later came back with what I can only describe as a washing up bowl full of this Tagala! The three of us sat around this bowl, under the tree, and ate our lunch with our was the highlight of our trip so far! During lunch Ahmed told us that he was trying to start a co-operative, in conjunction with the women of the village, to try and improve their lives and preserve some of their traditions.

We told him that we had some children’s clothes that we wanted to give away and asked him if they would be of any help in the village...we arranged that Ahmed would come and visit us the next day to collect the clothes. We wanted to pay something for the lunch but Ahmed said that the women were just happy to have us as guests!

The next day Ahmed came to visit us in our van. He told us that he had mentioned our gift to the women of the village and they had asked him to invite us to join their co-operative! Our visit to Tafraoute and been an unexpected joyful insight into the Berber way of life and will remain a wonderful memory.....shukran Ahmed my friend. 

We now plan to head further east and out into the Sahara again, so until next we blog, we bid you m’a ssalama, Dear Family & Friends.