Armed with the recommended Michelin map of Morocco and our handy google maps on our phones we headed south out of Fez towards the Sahara. After a little adjustment as far as timing of pedestrians, bikers, and mules crossing the road, and getting accustomed to the fact that drivers tend to pass at times that seem totally inopportune, Kiko was soon driving with confidence. We loved the freedom and the changing landscapes were truly breathtaking.
There are a lot of desert camel tours available from Merzouga but I did my research online and found the best for our price range. Ali and Sara’s Desert Palace is run by a super friendly English woman and her Berber husband. What a team, with her attention to detail and service and his knowledge of the desert environment they can’t be beat. It is a small and personable operation. I was thrilled upon our arrival to meet Sara after exchanging emails the previous week. A sand storm had just passed, actually while we were driving, so we enjoyed some Moroccan mint tea and discussed whether the weather would allow us to set off on the 1.5hr long camel trek to camp.
I recalled talking as a family while still on Kauai about where we would spend each person’s birthday around the world and to actually be on a camel in the Sahara was quite unreal.
The second night another couple joined us at the camp. The weather cleared, allowing us to eat at tables under the stars. The berber music was even more wonderful the second night as we circled around the open fire. That night will remain in my mind as a moment of perfection, when everything just clicked and I was mindful enough to savor it. Yoda had joined the band seamlessly while Zuki, at one of the nearby tables, excitedly showed her fossil finds by headlight to Sara, who truly shared her enthusiasm. I was part of the group around the fire but not engaged in conversation or making music, just warmed by the fire and the rhythm, enjoying the unique feeling of solitude while not being alone. The true magnitude of our trip hit me. Moments like that are the highs that soar in the opposite direction of the travel lows that I sometime write about.
The two boys came bouncing back up with their parents and all of us were smiles. Info was exchanged at rapid fire pace between parents as the kids disappeared off together to play. Turns out they are traveling around the world for a year or possibly more in the opposite direction as us; we were heading toward Asia while there next destination was South America. We ate lunch all together and then ended up joining them for a little hike across the street with their guide. It was a whirlwind and the kids were crestfallen once they left, as they had only stopped in for lunch and had accommodations arranged further along. Wow, what a great coincidence. The experience made us realize that we would like to seek out more such exchanges with other traveling families.
The oasis of Skoura is breathtaking after crossing such arid lands. The large palm grove goes on and on. We followed the directions given to us by the owner…pass a kasbah hotel, cross a dry river bed, up a little hill, where we wait by the mosque, after calling the phone number of Mohammad. I am always so thankful when these directions to the homes/apartments work out. Mohammad, who speaks English and lives in Marrakech, sent his dad, who speaks Arabic (and probably a few other languages but not English) to met us and show us the house. We exchanged “salem” greetings and he opened up the house as the kids ran in to choose their rooms. The house was beautifully simple and extremely comfortable. The view out the front was otherworldly, as the layers of desert, palmery, mountains, and snow, created a beautiful scene.
Ok well, that all seemed pretty clear so we followed his wishes to the best of our ability with what was available. Thank goodness we had had the foresight to purchase a boxed gluten free cake mix on our last day in Spain, as finding any ingredients to make a gluten free cake from scratch in Morocco would have been very difficult. We had also found a toy store and purchased a few small toys to be wrapped up as Yoda had really been missing having little characters with which to play out scenes with like he use to at home. Decorations were proving hard to come by and we were beginning to think we would need to string up toilet paper but luckily on one of the last days Zuki spotted a bag of balloons and we stealthy purchased them.
Yoda was truly surprised with the decorations and the day played out as he had hoped. We enjoyed the lovely cake and the pasta, (some rice noodles we had found a a little shop by chance) and the dance party, which consisted of just the four of us showing our moves, which was hysterical. The Skoura house will forever be referred to as ,“Yoda’s birthday house.”
We asked along the route the best we could, even pulling out our “point it” travel book that has everything you could ever want to discuss in picture form to help with language barriers. The men at the fruit stand insisted no snow as we pointed to the picture of snow falling. “Route ok?” “Oui, Oui” but it was the hand motion that had me worried, as he held out his hand flat and oscillated it back and forth. I know hand motions vary wildly by culture but for me that clearly meant, “kinda ok.” We proceeded but not with confidence. Soon after a truck coming the other way stopped in the middle of the road and a man got out to talk to us. We eagerly looked at him for information but when he saw we were foreigners and we didn’t speak his language he politely backed away, bowing in apology. “Wait! Route to Marrakech ok?”, but we received no answer. Ok well that sure didn’t help.
We proceeded with caution. In a few minutes we had an idea what the man had wanted. There was a pretty horrible accident around the bend. Two trucks had collided smashing a minivan in the middle. There was a man with blood on his face. Maybe the truck driver had wanted help from us in some way but by the time we had arrived there was a group gathered.
We started noting that there was some recent rock fall along the road and in some areas there was a thin layer of water across the road created from the water cascading down the hillsides around us. It was beautiful and I was sure, a bit unusual, because none of the many photos of the area that I had seen had shown the dozens of waterfalls ever present around us.
We crossed a few more flooded areas but nothing we weren’t positive we could get through. We noted areas of the road washed away from the adjacent river undermining it. Things seemed pretty bad but we hadn’t seen any where to safely stop for the night. There were not any real towns up there and we couldn’t remember the last hotel or restaurant we had seen.
Zuki was fully aware of the situation and was scared and full of questions. My only response was to sooth her, “we aren’t going to do anything to put ourselves in danger,” but I was not sure of the actual safest option. Finally after waiting for about 1/2 hour and watching a number of small cars drive safely through we just decided we would make it and we went for it. We drove exactly where the other cars had driven and I held my breath and actually prayed. When we crossed to dry land Kiko offered a high five, which I half heartedly preformed, as tears brimmed my eyes. Oh Thank God.
Although there were no more flooded road crossings, the rest of the drive continued to be nerve racking and we saw another two accidents, one in which involved numerous motorcycles with multiple unmoving people laying on the street. At one point I heard Zuki say from the back, “oh this is so scary!” And I thought, "oh gosh, this is too much for her", but when I looked back at her I was uncharacteristically relived to see that she was referring to her game on her device rather then our immediate surroundings.
The infamous Tizi n’ Tichka pass which the guide book described as “pulse-racing series of switchbacks” seemed like nothing compared to the stress-inducing driving we had already been through. Finally when we were 1/2 hour from Marrakech we allowed ourselves to stop for a very late lunch. We both agreed we were thrilled that that was our last day, rather then our first, of our car rental in Morocco.
It wasn’t until a day later that we started to see the coverage on TV and internet news,
and we realized just how truly lucky we had been.