We drove through the sleepy streets of Fes early in the morning. The sun still hidden behind the buildings and turning the few clouds a dusty pink against the pale blue sky. People waiting for the commuter bus in the new part of the city. A mix of bare heads and head coverings looking left to right. The new city filled with buildings just as modern as any you’d see in any other city. Which isn’t surprising. What’s surprising is how well the whole city blends life between ancient and modern. The 8th century Medina doesn’t sit as ruins or a museum but is a breathing part of the residential city. After going forward in time by hundreds of years by driving the streets, we wave goodbye to Fes and I wonder how it can possibly be beat.
The sun rose over the mountains. A perfect ball of gold. The middle Atlas Mountains appearing in front of us like a hazy mirage dotted with berber villages. We drove through a charming mountain town still scattered with cafes and friends visiting before they start their day.
On to the Switzerland of Morocco. A town up in the mountains that gets snow. The architecture shifted so drastically to Swiss style buildings sitting between the tall evergreen trees. If it weren’t for the head coverings and occasional donkey, you would think you’d been transported to another country across the straight of Gibraltar. The air was cool just like any mountain town. We stopped in a cafe for a warm espresso and Sallam was recognized by the police. Don’t worry - it was because they recognized his stories on insta and tiktok. His travel shorts are amazing and give a great view of visiting Morocco with him.
We continued through the mountains going around taxis and vans with the back door held closed by the hand of a passenger. The buildings became a blend of European and Moroccan style that created a beautiful result.
We found the atlas monkeys. Rick is always hesitant around monkeys. Not a big fan - especially since one tried to pickpocket him in Nepal. But he might have turned a corner with these sweet guys. A street vendor was selling bananas and I bought too many. Turns out if you are holding three bananas, while trying to break pieces to be fair, one large adorable monkey will attach herself to your long shirt and that one fist will be fused to you. “You stay here and feed me” her eyes implored as she sank heavily to the ground refusing to let go of the edge of my shirt. Her other soft hand reached towards me, palm up, waiting for her treat. Another young and agile monkey jumped around us and yelled “me too me too me too” but after one small piece I was still trapped by the thick fuzzy and patient girl with the soft brown eyes. So she got the most of the meal. A friend for life. Until the bananas were gone. Then she released me and sauntered off, successful. I found Rick and Sallam giving other monkeys turns at drinks from the water bottle. Each monkey reaching up to grasp the bottle as it tipped towards them. As we were leaving, the trees above us shook with the weight of the creatures and I noticed the small handprints painted on my pants by mushed banana.
Then through to the other side of the middle Atlas Mountains and the trees fell away to brown rock and rounded green shrubs. The patchwork nomadic tents set up along the valleys bringing splotches of color. Mules, sheep, and chickens roaming free agains the red soil. Down from the mountain and in the distance we see the Big Atlas Mountains, far enough away they look like a watercolor version of what we just drove through.
As we continued to hit a few of the standard city police checkpoints we start to realize how famous Sallam is. The police get excited to see him in real life and call him by name.
We continued to head towards the big Atlas Mountains, the warm air arid and dusty, sitting heavily on the dry brown ground. Another quick coffee stop and small normal kassie spill and we climbed through the winding road along the edge of the mountains. Bright orange machinery sticking out as they work to widen the narrow rocky roads all the way up. Making the future cliff hugging a little more safe. Piles of rocks making little cairns instead of fence in areas. Past a river now made only of dust, carving its way through the tall stone.
One is quickly reminded they are in Morocco as we weave our way through mountain villages with square houses made from clay and blending to the surrounding land. Men and women in flowing tunics providing color among the buildings. The terrain changed and we found ourselves moving from rounded edges to jutting cliffs showing the lines of their age and wisdom. Dogs and goats climbing through the rocks. We found a river with water as we passed through the Ziz Gorge. Made obvious from far away due to the palm trees growing along its path.
We made it to where the tan soil stretched flat as far as we can see. The horizon broken by square buildings and small roadways. Until we were back in hills the color of sand but not the texture yet. We stopped for a pizza at Lune de Desert before heading back into the rock hills. Before long we found the river flanked by tall palms growing flowers and dates. Ancient square buildings rising next to the oasis. A movie set taken out of time. But it’s not. It’s real life and real homes. The trunk of the palms as black as night, showing the damage from a recent fire. The fire didn’t destroy the trees but actually killed some harmful bugs and the blackened trees produced more dates this year.
After we passed the mountains, and the trees became less, we noticed the skin of the people begin to darken. Showing the generations in the open sun and less European integration. Slight changes in the clothing, building styles, and suddenly bicycles everywhere!
The land flattened yet again and we made it to a place selling head scarfs. Sallam helped pick ours out and showed us how to wrap them and we were off. Headed to the rising dunes in the distance. Movable mountains of golden sand. Along the way we passed the fossil shops, filled to the brim from ocean fossils of the creatures that lived here when it was under the salty deep.
One quick stop at the “secret” bar to get a few beers (not wanting to look like lushes we under bought… lesson for next camel desert camping night) and packed them away to be delivered to the camp.
We came to a parking lot. For cars and camels. Leaving our bags with Sallam we were led to a group of four camels. Two with riders already standing and patiently waiting and two empty and sitting. I go to the second in line, a brown one I promptly named Coco Chanel, and swing a leg over her back. Barely a moment to settle before I’m thrown forward, clinging to the metal rod handle like my life depends on it. Then back again coming to rest in the saddle. Once my gal is up and standing, Rick follows suit on his white girl named Casper. Our little group of four is up and moving into the Sahara desert hills. The going was relaxing. The sky darkened to teal and peach and our shadows danced across the sand. The quiet broken by the burp of Mr. Hippo (the name given to the camel behind me) and the distant celebration of sand surfers. Our guide walking our camels in single file. Tied together with a rope version of a typical bridle used on horses. The camels are magical creatures. Made for the desert. They can eat cacti and their fuzzy two toed feet sit solid on the shifting sand. These camels eat well, taken care of by the camps. Hay and treats. The camps were created for tourists that wanted to experience the Sahara like us. The government agreed to a section for the camps and they are scattered in groups based on luxury level. Basic with bunk beds up to private shower and toilet. The camps do well. There is something magical about being in the Sahara. But Covid shut it down and like any groups dependent on tourism, they were hit hard. The camels were fed. Until the food was gone. Then released for their survival but many died. It reminds us that tourism is needed economically and has so many benefits. But also a reminder to continue to do our best to travel in a way that benefits local businesses and people.
We found a hill filled with people and camels, all sitting and lurched in our seats as our camels lowered to the ground for a rest. Hopping off with wobbly legs to then try to climb up a sand dune for the sunset. How did the camels make this look so easy? At the top we sunk into the soft sand to watch the sun setting behind the shifting golden sea. Running the sand through my fingers and noticing it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. Fine and heavy at the same time. It barely held a shape for longer than a few seconds. It was warm on the skin even as the air cooled. The sun set in shades of pastel and the sand deepened into orange. Back on Coco, we made our way to our camp. One of many camps but only with 14 tents in this one.
Each tent with a toilet and shower and comfortable bed. For riding a camel for only a little over an hour and hiking a small hill, it felt like I had been trekking all day. The warm and sweet mint tea hit the spot as I realized there wasn’t a tense muscle in my body. To feel fully relaxed with such little effort. A young Berber came up to us and the two guys we shared a caravan with (A+O) from England but now living in Portugal. The guy was smiling so big and called us “KimKim” after the way that the four of us booked our trips to Morocco. A nickname that stuck our whole time there. We settled into our gorgeous desert tent (complete with a toilet and shower) and went back out to meet up with our caravan mates for a beer. Sitting in our camp as the stars shown brighter and the cats meowed at our feet looking for a tasty scorpion treat. Sallam showed up like magic to see how things were going. Before long we were ushered into the dining tent for a delicious dinner of baked veggies in a Tanjir pot (and baked meat for the non-vegetarians), olives, and a salad that consisted of rice and veggies with a drizzle of mayonnaise and ketchup. Made me think of something teenage kassie would have made and called it dinner. But it was surprisingly wonderful. Finally desert of a date and pastry little cake and fruit. We grabbed our last beer, my sweatshirt, and followed the sounds of drums out to a bonfire circle. We got an amazing experience of drumming, singing, and dancing. Taken to a world where all is right and we are in it together. I closed my eyes, savoring my cold beer and the beat of the drum to breathe in the fresh air and realize how amazing this is to be sitting in the Sahara desert under the stars.
After the music faded to the next camp and the fire’s heat dwindled, we slowly hiked and sank and hiked and sank up the sand. Into the dark. To get photos of the stars and the clear Milky Way. Standing on a ridge watching the shooting stars and the music echoing off the dunes. The distant burp of a camel and laughter of the Berbers as they visited. A voice came from the dark “what settings are you using?” As a man came sliding up the sand. Learning to take night photography so the guys chatted settings for a bit before we were joined by another. A Parisian expat living in Germany. Last minute trip like ours. But he takes photographs of the stars for a living so he showed us the constellations I can never remember and the andromeda galaxy and more. The first man moved on to some better shots up hill and we kept chatting with the astral photographer for a while about the trip and past trips and next trips. He went off to his tent around 10:30 and we followed shortly after. My head hit the comfortable pillow and I slept like a nomad. Full of dreams and restless movement.