Day 108: Morocco, Merzouga

We’ve woken up much earlier today and fortified ourselves with an early breakfast. It’s our 4×4 adventure into the desert and we’re really excited.

Barak, our guide, arrives promptly at 9:30am breaking hard in his Toyota Prada to stop outside our motorhome to collect us for our trip. He is a real character, and thank goodness for that, as we are going to be with him for the next 6 hours. His Berber blue djellaba and white turban setting off his striking looks perfectly and chosen for just this purpose, I suspect!

All women want him, all men want to be him. The gorgeous Mr T gives him a damn good run for his money, in my very honest opinion!! Answers on postcards, please ladies…. & gents!

First stop as we exit the campsite is at the Dayet Srji Lake. Yes, we were surprised too! A lake in the desert fed by the River Ziz (the same river that feeds the fertile valley of palmerias in Aoufous). Turns out that although winter is great for viewing the lake normally, it just dried up about 1 week ago. The water can cover the entire valley but at the moment is reduced to a small, shallow patch of the liquid gold or in this case a beautiful shade of blue in the morning sunshine. It’s inhabitants currently, a very lonely juvenile flamingo that has been left behind by its flock and a few Egyptian geese . Looking at the pictures: we all obviously got the memo HAHAHAHA

The wide angle view of the valley shows the entire area that can be covered in water *gasps*

What was really, REALLY nice about this tour, was that before we got to each stop, Barak would ask if we wanted to stop and would give us a brief rundown on what to expect and any potential costs.

The next stop was in Khamilia to listen to some Gnaoua music by Les Pigeons du Sable. The music was originally created by Sub-Saharan black Africans who were enslaved but then who were freed and integrated into Moroccan society. We absolutely loved them! The mesmeric and repetitive beat of the music was so redolent of the Sufi music and Whirling Dervishes that we had seen in Khartoum on our big tour down Africa. In fact, from the research that I’ve been doing, I’ve discovered that both are mystical branches of Islam.

The same instruments we have seen in local Moroccan music and that we’ve heard throughout our travels in Morocco, are used in Gnaoua music. The metal castanets (qraqebs) and taarija (kettle type drum with stretched goat skin) have made their appearance again but now joined by a 3 stringed guitar carved from a log with the back side covered in camel skin.

The repetitive, syncopated rhythms and sounds are used to enter a trance-like state to bring about a meditative movement and dance to celebrate religion and Allah. We happily parted with MAD100 to buy one of their CDs and have spent several hours driving through Morocco re-listening to the music and sounds.

Up and down dunes in the vehicle with some great driving skills, we made our way to the mines of Mfis to do some fossil and crystal hunting. With some finds (mostly by Barak) as he wet stones and showed us the crustacean shells embedded in them.

He pointed out some turtle fossils but I’ve since found out that these are, in fact, septarian nodules. Formed 50-70 million years ago, mud balls cracked, the cracks filled with yellow calcite crystals and dried creating partitions resembling a turtle carapace. Nonetheless, beautiful.

Then a quick drive to the mines where they are still mining for baryte, a white crystal (barium) used for x-ray shielding. The baryte occurs with iron and magnesium oxide that creates a black covering over all the crystals making it very dirty work to mine.

On a side note: You will often find geodes for sale on the roadside in Morocco – beautiful coloured crystal quartz covered in a black layer (like the iron & magnesium oxide layer) and split into 2 halves. But hollowed out geodes filled with good quality crystals don’t occur naturally in Morocco any more. They are beautiful, so if you see them and love them, buy them for their beauty but they really aren’t worth very much so keep your offer low; very,very low. (Split crystal geodes can be bought for under £5 from Amazon UK)

Time for lunch as we stopped at a Berber village for a pot of mint tea, sheltering under a Berber tent made from woven camel hair stretched over wooden sticks, away from the heat of the noonday sun. Lounging on colourful cushions, pouring Berber tea from on high, sipping the hot flavourful liquid and nibbling on tiny sweet biscuits as we waited for lunch.

Finally Fatima started to stoke the fire oven.

The bread dough rolled and stuffed with finely chopped meat, peppers, onions and potatoes and sealed with another layer of bread, a bit like a calzone – a Berber Pizza or Rghaif Shema or Madfouna. The clay fire oven is pre-heated with fire made of sticks, small flat stones resembling chips of slate are placed on a metal plate and heated over the fire, the dough placed on the stones and the bread baked, being constantly turned and flipped to brown and cook the contents. It is the most delicious stuffed bread. Period. But served with a Moroccan salad and eaten in a Berber tent, cool under the hot sun, sitting on cushions, in the Sahara Desert makes for unforgettable memories.

Finally we make our way along the original Paris-Dakar roadway, slipping and sliding in the sand as we drive in the direction of the campsite, running parallel to the mountains alongside us, marking the Algerian border.

And later that night just to end off a fabulous day…….

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