Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Remembering Morocco (5)

Again we rose early and after a small breakfast were soon back on the road, piled into the back of the Landie and brimming with excitement. That evening we would be sleeping in the Sahara Desert. But first, a visit to the Todra Gorge. In the clear sharp African sunlight the shadows are crisp and neat making the 300 metre high walls which are either side of the river appear even more majestic. Against the bright azure sky the faded red of the rock takes on a magical hue – this is a natural cathedral if ever there was.

We wander along the bank of the river and a small boy appears by my side, his eyes glinting against his dark cheeks and hair. He holds out something in his hand, which I take. It is a camel, albeit rather small and woven out of green reed. It is beautiful so I pay him and he trots off to his father, pleased with his sale. All along the side of the footpath there are people peddling their wares. Every time we pause, there is someone by our side. We return to the Landie and climb inside. We are obviously not the only ones with this idea as when I turn round to watch the gorge disappear from view I am surprised to find a boy hanging off the back ladder, his eyes level with mine through the rear window. Laughing, he drops off the back as we turn left towards the desert.

We spend the rest of the day driving ‘cross country’, our vehicles taking it in turns to chase each other across the flat desert which stretches in every direction as far as the eye can see, bordered by the Atlas mountains in the distant distance. The sand is orangy and dust flies up in huge plumes behind the Landies as they speed across the ground. We have to drive next to each other as to drive in convey would be nigh on impossible. We race. I feel as if we are on an important mission.

And then, finally, we reach Merzouga. The last outpost before the Erg Chebbi sand seas. It is from this small village that our Berber guide, Omar, is from. He leads us between small houses and we stop at a shop. Some of our party purchase desert scarves – M and I had already stocked up in the souks at Marrakesh. And then, as the afternoon sunshine began to creep towards evening, we went to meet our camels.

Six camels, in a caravan, ropes threaded through their noses. “Hush” says their leader to each in turn and they kneel down, awkwardly, one knee at a time. We pack the saddle bags with firewood, water and Berber drums and pose for one last photograph against the backdrop of the camels. Each of the party is assisted in turn onto a camel and the camel is instructed to rise. Which it does, again, one knee at a time, so for an instant you feel as if you are going to topple off forward and then sideways and then suddenly you are several feet in the air. Their backs are warm and they are furry. Much more woolly than I ever imagined.

I am sat on the leader of the caravan. His rope is held by a Berber camel driver and he leads the train across the sands into the desert. The sun is still warm but dropping over the horizon. The shadows are crisp and clear although lengthening. The sand is redder than I thought and our shadows lay over the dunes. It is quiet and beautiful and so peaceful. The camels footsteps do not make much noise against the shifting sand and the repetitive swinging of their backs is somehow rather comforting. There is very little other wildlife in this part of the Sahara; scarab beetles are perhaps all that I see other than some tiny green scrubby plants. The beetles are quite large and shiny and visible even from the back of a camel. They leave tiny footprints behind them as if the teeniest four wheel drive vehicle had driven in circles along the tops and sides of the dunes.

I sit there and my mind drifts. It is so quiet. In my minds eye I see Count Almasy stumbling along, desperate to get back to Katherine. This may be Morocco but it could just as easily be anywhere else in the Sahara. The sun slides towards the horizon and the sand shifts colour, deeper, redder. It looks colder in the fading light. We wind our way onwards through the sand sea, the dunes getting higher and hillier, the valleys deeper. We tread towards the Algerian border. It is almost dark, the sky is a deep blue-black. The last rays of the sun fade behind the horizon and little prickles of stars begin to appear. And then, we see tents. Berber tents, dark against the pale sand. We stop near them and our driver is speaking to the camels. “Hush” he says, and they bow to their knees. We climb off and look around. As far as there is to see there are sand dunes. It feels as if one could walk forever and never reach the edge.
We gather around the fire that Omar has built, wrapped in thick woollen blankets and we eat tagine, scooping out the meat and vegetables with flat bread, all of us around one dish. It is very bright now that the stars and moon are out properly, almost as light as day. We can see the camels lying down after eating their food, resting on their knees. One has his neck and chin on the floor as well, almost as if he is a dog. The Berbers bring out their drums and start chanting and singing. Drums are handed round and instructions given. We are not our English names but Mohammed, Fatima, Ali Barbar. We join in with the drumming and try to follow the chanting. It is intoxicating. There is no other noise except for the drumming. And after the drumming, silence. Silence so loud that it is deafening. I lay back and look up at the stars, stars brighter and clearer than I have ever seen. I feel very small.

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