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We left Fès in the early morning, leaving the quiet sanctuary of the riad, scrambling behind a porter with his cart loaded with our luggage, through the narrow passageways to the streets bordering the outer walls of the Medina. There was no stopping for a photo of a donkey carrying a load: left, right, left and the porter was gone! I was so happy to see Kamal, our guide, waiting with his Wildland shirt on, ball cap and big smile.
It was a long, hot drive ascending the Middle Atlas Mountains; through cedar forests, stopping to play with the Barbary macaques (mountain monkeys), then leaving behind the green and going further into the rock and sandstone mountains dotted with remote villages of flat stucco homes with donkeys tied up and children playing. In the distance, the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains appeared, about 13,660 feet at the peak. As we drove further to the east, there were makeshift nomad tents with multi-patterned rugs thrown over to make a roof. A narrow plume of smoke came from some piled rocks and a woman wearing a scarf, bent over the tagine pot on the fire. Men were tending goat and sheep herds.
After hundreds of miles of increasingly barren landscape, we got to the beautiful, lush valley of the Ziz River and a long oasis with thousands of date palms. We were hosted by the Tata family for a lunch outside under the grape arbor and then a tour of their date farm. We learned that the Berber family tradition is to have many children so that there is guaranteed care in old age for the parents. The Berber custom is still for the parents to arrange the marriages. Then the new daughter-in-law goes to live with the groom's family, learns from the mother-in-law, has her help during the early years with babies, and then the couple moves to their own home.
After nearly 9 hours of driving we arrived at the edge of the Sahara and were excited to see the rising orange dunes, dramatic with long shadows in the late afternoon. We transferred to a sand Jeep that took us to the tent camp, swerving and sliding across the shifting road path.
We had a special desert guide who owned dromedaries and he helped us into position to ride them. The dromedary followed his command to rise and.....whoa!!, I held on to the narrow metal bar and lurched forward, then lurched back as the dromedary bellowed his protests to get to work. Sitting on top we were about 12 feet from the sand. My dromedary turned to bite at flies near my hanging right foot and John's dromedary nestled up on the left side. My inner thigh muscles were being stretched further than I thought possible and I was glad to have used the toilet! Immediately, I starting thinking about how I would save myself if the dromedary fell over or stumbled, which seemed likely! It was scary, especially as we started climbing up and over the dunes, the descent plunging us over as the hooves got buried in the deep sand and we were tossed back and forth with each step. We dismounted once we were far into the dunes, took pictures, snf wandered over the ridge lines like kids in a giant sandbox while we waited for the sunset. The quiet was amazing! What a hoot it was, and not nearly as scary going back to camp.
Later we had lamb, chicken, eggplant, and lentils in the dining tent. We listened to Berber drumming and songs, then walked back out to the dunes with flashlights and turned them off to be in total darkness to witness the amazing constellations. We awoke at 6am to walk out again and watch the sunrise cast warm rays over the dunes, where the sand had blown around all night and covered our tracks. It was a peak lifetime experience that we will treasure.
Chefchaounen was delightful; perched on the edge of the mountain with the Medina, a twisted ancient core of stairs and narrow passageways. About 70 years ago someone decided to paint the city with a beautiful cornflower blue and accents of turquoise paired with terra cotta tiles. Gorgeous! My photos seem too color saturated but that is really the intense blue color!
We needed to walk slowly and watch every step because the alleys are risky footing, stairs at every turn and your eyes are busy feasting on the blue colors instead of looking down. Rustic doors opened up to L shaped entryways so the passersby can not see the interior, which usually has an courtyard. Young children were playing loudly in the cobblestone passages and flying up and down the stairs with no fear. Even with the tourist presence, the residents went about life, making the rounds at the bakery, grocer, butcher and sometimes a donkey would comes through loaded with tied down alfalfa.
On Sundays, Moroccans from other towns come for the day and there were huge crowds of teenagers who were having a ball: singing, marching, and playing music. The minarets went off five times a day and with ten mosques in the area, the calls to prayer were noisy and echoed off the buildings and hillside. Handicrafts were hung on many walls: gorgeous vibrant colors of the scarves, rugs, and handbags.
Pictures and story by Anita and John Drew - longtime Wildland travelers