Leaving behind the feudal quarters of ancient Fez, our coach took us on a very different adventure the following day. Actually, for some moments, we wondered whether we were, through some trick of altered physics, in Europe. No, I’m not kidding – because straight from the exotic medina of Fez, we found ourselves transported to an alpine setting. The Swiss landscape did come to mind at this point, not least because of turquoise skies, verdant greenery and cool air of Northern Morocco.
Alpine? In Morocco?
So here’s what transpired. We started climbing steadily across the Middle Atlas mountains at the beginning of the day. Leaving the plains behind, we passed forests with an amazing variety of foliage. So there were the towering Ponderosa pines, cedars and stately oaks. We were told to keep our eyes peeled for the Barbary monkeys (macaques) that populate the region. But alas, they seemed to be in hiding, and we didn’t get to see the apes amid the forests.
Instead we pulled into the charming town of Ifrane, smack in the middle of Heidi-land, it seemed. A quiet town, Ifrane is the home of the King’s Summer palace, and a magnet for wealthy Moroccans in the summer months. Typical red roofed houses of the alpine regions dominate the square in the middle of Ifrane.
Still, I was more impressed by the volcanic mountains of the Middle Atlas range. For one, it was far more dramatic, with sweeping vistas and brooding kasbahs in the distance. We passed shepherds minding their sheep and goats, staring into the distance, across the plains.
Progressively the scenery got more impressive as we navigated through small Berber villages, descending sharply through to the spectacular Ziz gorge. The river Ziz carves its way through the striated cliffs and crags, creating a wide swath of fertile arable land. Locals decided it was too good an opportunity, and since ancient times, they have cultivated that 150 kilometre stretch. Date palms abound, and we were told the locals grow other crops as well. It was like a dense green river of palms amid that barren landscape, and set my heart thumping. Coupled with the dusty-rose kasbahs arising in the desert, away from the mountains, I could not help but be enamoured by the poetic panorama. Here’s my impressionist painting of a kasbah (fortified dwelling).
Leisurely ambling via the town of Errachidia, it became clear that we were nearing the great Sahara. Arid, yet, with a startling spare beauty, the smaller towns appeared like mirages. Errachidia however, gave the impression of a slight bustle, with the familiar sights of school children returning from their classes, elders gossiping on benches in the street, and jellabiya-clad Moroccan women carrying home their bread baked in community ovens.
Leaving the main street of the town, we drove deeper through isolated desert towns and villages. It was almost dusk and there was a definite frisson in the air, partly due to the knowledge that the Sahara was near. We pulled into our hotel in the small town of Erfoud.
The Sahara, way in the distant past, (read 300 million years ago), was once an ocean. The Berbers who live in the region realized that fossils have a way of getting people misty-eyed, and willing to part with their cash. And so, a business idea was borne, gradually swelling into a huge industry. Every few hundred yards and you come across a seller who swears that his fossils are authentic. Names like ‘Trilobite’ and ‘Orthoceras’ trip off their glib tongues. Trilobites are the ancestors of today’s insects, spiders and crabs. Apparently rich collectors will pay serious money to get their hands on rare specimens. All this commerce has led to a huge army of locals who subsist on this ‘fossil-economy’. So yes, there are fakes to be cognizant of.
But the best experience in Erfoud, for me at least, was the trip into the Sahara. When the day broke over the small town, I was filled with excitement. We made stops at a marketplace in Rissani where immense heaps of aromatic spices competed with the thousands of varieties of dates. Not to be outdone, the livestock market where baby goats and sheep were being traded made many of us swear to become vegetarian, for lunch at least!
During the afternoon, a Bedouin trader sold us some scarves for our desert trip. He even wound them around us in true Berber style. Piling into 4X4s, we started our sojourn into the Sahara. Our destination was Merghouza where the dunes took on the colours of the setting sun. The heat of the desert was astounding, but the wind blew and the fine sand settled into our clothes. The cameleers stood ready with their beasts for those willing to go over the dunes.
I sat down on the dunes, and gazed into the distance, just Being, just experiencing the quality of silence and vastness. The sun slowly sank further and further into the horizon, setting ablaze a thousand fires in the sky. The dunes turned rose pink, now crimson, then ochre, and faded away into greys and blacks. What a show!
But that wasn’t it. Within a short time, twilight stalked the skies, and then, complete darkness fell swiftly over the Sahara. Magically, a huge full moon arose, hanging delicately in the marbled sky. It took my breath away. The local Bedouins brought out their drums and a steady percussive beat reverberated in the stillness.
We drank wine, toasting the desert moon, the ancient dunes, and the incredible luck to have experienced this moment.