Merzouga trip, part 2. April 6-9, 2019
Getting to Merzouga was a trip filled with wonderful surprises. Our private taxi (yes, the driver’s name is Mohammed, but we are not getting married) picked us up at 7 and our trip took us through Sefrou. Soon those beautiful snow covered mountains were in front, then we were traveling over, past Gigou and through Bouleman, and snow! There was a beautiful confection sugar dusting for miles, the kind that sticks to the trees, but not the road. I am sure it was all gone by noon. In Bouleman it was a little thicker, and we stopped for a coffee to go. Few places have paper cups, so they just let you take the glass cup. In these areas it is still winter, with the fruit tree orchards all still dormant, a few buds opening on apples and plums. The fields were tilled, but no crops emerging yet. We saw cedar and pine.
We crossed a high desert plane that would remind one of Nevada, with small patches of agriculture and distant mountains. We traveled through the Ziz Gorge, a mini Grand-Canyon, exposing millions of years of history. This area is well known for fossil hunting, even the Jurassic era, and so you see shops and roadside tables selling all sorts. There is also an abundance of sparkling geodes for sale. We pass ruins? towns? both mixed together? Nothing is painted here, all mud brick, so it is hard to tell. The roof construction is a mix of lodgepoles, bamboo and mud. I want to stop and eat, but our brother is telling Naima and the driver to wait for the hotel. I get them to pull over at a lookout. No restaurant, but a fantastic view of a new gorge, filled with palm trees and other agriculture, with buildings sprinkled throughout. I used the WC (yes, that’s the common term here at public facilities). I was 10 minutes down the road before it even occurred to me that it was odd to have a young man in the ladies’ room, pouring wash water over my hands from a tea kettle. The road follows the base of the palm filled gorge (palmeraie), with countless tiny farms and mud-brick buildings, ruins and dwelled-in.
I finally put my foot down and we had lunch at 2:00 in Erfoud. I went to the restroom and they had cleared my food. Oh well. In this town there were lots of people on bicycles, and in the area, numerous horse-drawn wagons. In our area lots of donkeys, but no horses. There were also several women in the full, black burqa, though in one case four ladies had theirs loose enough to see party dresses under. More fossils, the Paleozoic strata, prompting many diggers and shops. The style of the shops reminds me of car trips of my childhood, whether in the Redwoods, Gold country or Arizona desert, little souvenir shops drawing you in with big signs and, in this case, gigantic plaster replicas of common fossils.
As we approached Merzouga, we pulled over at a gas station, but did not get gas. Some guy in a white SUV met us and we followed him, in the opposite direction of Merzouga, a different road, and then across the desert. Our hotel is not in Merzouga (as was stated on the website), not even close, to anything!
The hotel was nice, with a cute desert motif. Dirt, weeds, dead trees in the entry/court yard, but some nice plants also, and, it is the desert after all. The rooms were clean. The food was very good and the staff was nice. The meals were served buffet style, at set times, with every popular Moroccan dish I could have imagined. The food was not only very good, but authentic. There were lots of different spots where you could enjoy your tea or juice. I did see a few groups drinking wine on the last night, but I don’t know what you had to do to get it (advance order? On hand? I did not ask). The pool was not clean, but not too gross to let your kid swim in. In fact, there was group of French women actually in the pool, thigh high at the deepest. It was very far from town, and even if you had a way to get there, town was really just one main street, with a few residential areas around. Our hotel, as with all the hotels, of which there were hundreds, maybe thousands, sat at the transition line between the sand dunes and the surrounding desert. The surrounding desert is an unusual volcanic remnant, mostly flat, covered with black rocks, some bigger than your fist, but mostly gravel sized. The appearance is as if you were looking at a million acre, abandoned, chip seal parking lot. Really, at first, I thought it was man-made, but no, just a terrain I had never seen.
We watched a couple of camel trains leave the hotel and walk to the top of the sand dunes nearby. They were joined by many others, for the sunset experience. I laughed at how preposterous it was that these poor fools paid to watch the sun set on the hotel and the highway (and us). Little did I know. After dinner there was some music performed by the hotel staff, but I could not hold out. After dinner they said “now”, but there is no such thing in Morocco. I waited about an hour before retiring, but my sister and her daughter enjoyed it.
Breakfast was another nice buffet. We had a private taxi, that I was paying for 4 days. I called the guy to come get us a few times, but it was never to be. My host sister has more sway (and Darija) than I and she wanted to wait to follow our Brother’s program. Except she already told me, there was no agenda for the day. I cannot just sit it a remote hotel for 3 days. Finally, the call, now we have someone coming to pick us up. You see, the hotel does not have cars, or camels, or tents, or guides, as they lead you to believe. They just have a shopping list of these guys. It is unlikely you will see the same guy twice. Each one takes you to a place, where you might buy something, where they are friends with the owner and presumably get a percentage if you buy. Some may actually take you to one or more of the places of interest.
So, Ahmed and Mohammed finally came to give us a ride into Merzouga. One short commercial street. We met Mohammed, our personal driver. I could not get him to drive out of town. We ate bad food in a “European” style restaurant, that did not have water in either bathroom (again, should have left as soon as I learned no water). We could have had a very good lunch at the hotel, all included, but I just wanted to see-do something different. We walked the shops, saw camels and quads at the water tower, all vying for our business.
Ahmed and Mohammed (my favorite drivers) re-appeared and took us to Lake Tamezguida. I was sad to not have binoculars. There were large flocks of Flamingos and other birds. Lonely Planet says that this is the best spot in Morocco for viewing desert birds. We walk through a palmeraie, which I also enjoyed. Individual farms, under the date palms, are tiny, with a mix of grain, fruit trees, fava beans and more. They share the water from underground springs through a series of small canals. The underground springs stretch clear back to the Ziz Gorge and the access portals to the cisterns follow the road (or the other way around) for many miles. Though we are told the source of the water is the dunes, not the Gorge itself.
My host niece dawns her long underwear and I take her to the pool and she enjoys herself immensely, splashing in the shallow edge. After, I sit with tea and watch many SUVs pull up behind the hotel, unloading guests and luggage, as many as 30 at a time. If you come in your own vehicle you come in from the parking lot, but if you paid for an SUV you must drive around back to get some sand under those tires. Most seem to stay one night. All are international, from many places, but predominantly China.
We are told that we are taking a camel ride now. I don’t see the point of two camel rides, not yet knowing I would be cheated out of tomorrow night, but happy to try out the camel. It is a short walk to the top of the dune, and I enjoyed it. Camel poop is round, like very large deer pellets, in case you were wondering. The sand is very fine, rose colored. Camels lumber along and there is a handle on the saddle. I do think that long rides could benefit from stirrups, as the dangling legs against the camel would get tiring. Sadly, there is no picture of me on a camel, as I thought there would be the next day. Up late with the post dinner music and campfire.
In the morning, happily Naima gets to do something she really wants to do, ride a quad. I have no desire, nor are PCVs allowed, so I wave the two of them, with their instructor, into the dunes. While she is gone, one of the hotel boys (20 something) offers me friendship in various forms, most importantly, that we marry. I decline. She is gone only 15 minutes. Not sure if the shortness of the trip was her choice, but I doubt it.
Today’s driver, Hussain, took us to the nearby city of Rissani. We were told we were visiting a souk, but it was not souk day (again, the poor unknowing tourist is being told these few permanent “marche” stalls are a souk). He took us to some souvenir selling friends. His friend was going to give me a deal on a kilo box of dates, only 80 dh (I paid 27 at Carrefoure). His best contribution to the day was to bring us to a bakery that makes a local favorite, Madfuta, rounds of bread, stuffed with a mixture of chopped meats, chicken, livers, almonds, raisins and who knows what all. It was cool to see the ovens and after the marché, we enjoyed one for lunch.
I asked about various historical sites, but he did not have any idea. He did take us to some ruins that were likely Sijilmassa, an important ancient trading city from before the 8th century through 1818. He also took us to the shrine honoring Moulay Ali Ash-Sherif. We made a few trips across the black-rock, desert, for no reason, as there are good roads. Just an excuse to keep me out of my car. Back to the hotel. We had a juice while we waited for the transportation to the camel departure.
The afternoon driver first took us to a tea house where there was a group performing Ghana music, an African folk music, which we watched for a while. Then, I began to realize there was a problem. We were taken to the same lake, he tried to take us to a car museum, “no, I don’t want to go into town and have more tea, why aren’t you taking us to our camels?”, all while the sun was past the point when we should have been on a camel. But even where we were taken to the lookout, overlooking all the industrial park “camps” it did not really hit me how badly we were about to be shafted.
As I said in the last post, when he pulled up to the “camp”, and I realized no camels, no trip to the Oasis, had I been in charge I would have never gotten out of the car. I was so angry, hurt, disappointed and helpless. 9 white plastic steel framed buildings, separated by a few feet of sand from an endless stream of the same. Then to add insult to injury, the food was the worst I have eaten in Morocco (Berber frozen pizza, really?), maybe anywhere. They make a big deal about how your luxury tent even has a shower, but with COLD water. I left a perfectly good hotel for this???? THEN, when I wanted to leave in the morning, they would not take me AND they refused to tell our driver where we were. But, it gets worse.
When the driver finally comes, he refuses to take us back to the hotel. Despite my begging, he drops us at a gift shop, where we are to have more tea. I don’t want more tea, I want to get back to the hotel in time for a descent breakfast. He will not budge, and we are forced from the car. I have continued to try to get our taxi driver to come for us, but he is at the hotel, having misunderstood where we were, coming now. Meanwhile two more guys come for us. But by now, I cannot trust anyone here. If, once you get in the car, you have no control over where they take you, even when you are very explicit that you do NOT want to be left somewhere, no thank you.
Finally, we are back at the hotel, too late for breakfast, past our planned departure time. But wait for it…they have MOVED ALL OUR STUFF!!! All our belongings were thrown from one room to another. We were forced to leave most of our belongings behind because the camel could only carry a small bag for each of us. AHGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!! Had I known, I would have packed everything and locked it. I might have put it in our taxi.
Despite the cruel disappointment of the Merzouga, the terrain is beautiful and interesting. The trip home was lovely, though I had trouble staying awake. We traveled a slightly different route home. We stopped at a popular roadside spring, and saw some different sights, including some large cedar trees, and the only wood buildings I have seen so far in Morocco. We traveled through beautiful green valleys. There was no snow. We did get to pass through Gigou, previously only seen from a distance, a very busy agricultural town.
I was glad to be back home. And for once, I wish I were more social media savvy, so I could warn people away from Merzouga and the Saharan fraud. Go visit the real Morocco, the wonderful Morocco, not this place.