To the Edge of the Sahara and Back, September 2009

Salaam! I am writing to you from a little Kasbah in Merzouga, southern Morocco on the edge of the Sahara desert.  I left the rose pink walls of the medina in Marrakesh and it has been an amazing road trip over the High Atlas Tichka mountain pass, dropping down to the pre-Saharan oases. Hurtling along in old Moroccan buses with music blaring we pulled up with much fanfare in each town – buildings nestled among lush palm groves, olive and fig trees with rambling rose bushes along roads and grapevines and bougainvilleas clambering over walls and entryways.  I’m always amazed at how the scorching temperatures outside belie the cool pleasant conditions inside the mudbrick houses. In the valleys leading down to the Sahara old crumbling Kasbahs dot the hills and the landscape turns to a red and green blur of iconic mudbrick buildings and towering date palms as we whiz by.

On a strange note we passed by the Atlas Film Studio in Ourzazate – one of the major studios outside Hollywood and Bollywood, as the many iconic Kasbahs in this region are used as backdrops for blockbusters, including Jewel of the Nile and more recently Kundun.  I somehow hadn’t expected to see Tutankhamen and the Sphinx in Morocco (even the Moroccans have sold their soul)!

I spent a few days hiking in the hidden gorges in the Draa valley – sheer faces of red rock tower over one hundred metres above you in Todra gorge, with a chasm only several feet across.  It’s a thrilling sight as if the cave of Ali Baba had momentarily opened and closed behind you.

I am now not far from the Algerian border dipping my feet into the rose gold sands of the Sahara desert. After my $15 a night digs I have put my feet up for a couple of days in a beautiful Kasbah with a pool and garden courtyard and my own private terrace with a view of the shifting dunes beyond. I am becoming a connoisseur of regional tagines (I will never look on the humble casserole the same again) – with my favourite to date chicken and fig, with chicken, lemon and green olive a close second.

I have of course traded in all other means of transport here for the obligatory spitting, cantankerous “ship of the desert” – although it’s apparently 52 days by camel from here to Timbuktu I have ventured only a few kilometres into the dunes.  The swaying malodorous novelty is certainly worth it near sunset as the amazing colours and shadows play on the sand.

Today I have spent exploring the palm groves and many Kasbahs of the Merzouga and Rissani region and wandered through the local markets.  It’s currently the date harvest here and there are many sweet snacks on offer. Tomorrow I return to civilization to explore the Imperial cities of Morocco and the north Atlantic coast.

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