Thursday, 4 June 2015

Life in the Desert

Travels with Children

Plans do not get thrown out the window when travelling with small children but they do take on a whole new perspective. Recently I spent 3 weeks traversing  Morocco with my delightful family which included a two and four year old. Before leaving Australia my Michelin map had been spread over the dining table for over a week to give a rough idea of places, distances and driving times.  I wanted to share ‘my’ Morocco, my friends, my Magribi family, as well as see a few touristy icons. 

Touchdown at 01:00am after 15 hours of flying, a 12 hour layover, and a 5 hour time difference, it was on the cards that our first day might be altered. Oblivious to the new time zone, I aroused the slumbering newcomers just after midday outlining a reverse travel plan over remnants salvaged from the breakfast buffet. An hour or so later we set out in a northerly direction for the composed city of Rabat just 100kms away and not cacophonous Marrakech 226kms to the south.

I had forgotten the time it takes to organize young children so it took me several days to become used to a ‘clock’ that varied even more than ‘Moroccan time’ which can be more than a little casual. Deciding when to meet for breakfast each morning became a rough idea and craving my early morning coffee, I would often breakfast alone. What I had considered might be a short drive tested attention spans to the limit so plans were frequently altered. On the many days of driving to our next destination, it seemed we had only just gotten into the car when it was time to get out again; sometimes less than 2 hours before a snack stop or a toilet stop. Once stationary we would take a vote to stay longer or return to the road; We had unscheduled mini picnics sitting under farmers’ fig trees and lunch under the cork trees at Eco Centre Bellota so the children could play for a short while. Two hours later with samples of discarded cork bark added to the cars crammed interior, we abandoned Moulay Idriss in favour of Fes and a longer stay.  

While we still had a goal on our driving days we often altered the time spent on the road and our destination for the night. This was actually a bonus as we discovered some great places. La Perle Azrou in the pretty village of Ait Ain Amer just outside of Azrou, had a huge orchard, free range chickens and a playful puppy.  Ksar El Khorbat at Tinjedad intrigued with its dim passageways and its’ piscine (pool) which you found after manoeuvering several stairways and turns inside the ksar.  The serenity of Oasis Fint uncovered the leftover remnants of film sets, turtle and tadpole colonies with the added bonus of fabulous drumming sessions after dinner.  Our hosts were wonderful with aesthetically pleasing homes, the locations were fantastic for the children, all served delectable meals either at dinner, breakfast or both.

It was not only curious but often caused a great deal of laughter to see things from the children’s perspective. In Rabat it is obvious from my photos that eating their snacks in the shade of giant flowerpots outside the Kings’ palace was much more fun than looking at the beautiful doors. Seen through childrens’ eyes, ancient Chellah conjured up numerous games from counting storks and walking in water channels to sitting astride fallen Roman columns (now imaginary canoes) for afternoon drinks. 

Stopping at pretty Asilah to see the artistry on the walls of the medina we tracked giant artistic ant colonies climbing the walls and I suspect it won’t be too long before at least two walls in their home become a creative palete on their return.

We stopped at several touristy mineral shops, not so we could bargain for pieces of meteorite or fossilized tribolites, but because the children wanted their photos taken with the giant skeletal dinosaur models. In my desert home of Ramlia, it was the most natural thing in the world to join the village children on raiding parties in the gardens followed by snacks ‘alfresco’ munching into freshly pulled spring onions & beetroot; as they said in the good old days ‘a little dirt won’t hurt.’

Even though travels with the little ones taxed even my patient nature, our adventures were an absolute delight. The car was always full of ‘stuff’; It was never  ‘tidy’. Each day we said ‘good morning new rubbish bag’ to what else? Yes, a clean rubbish bag. We invented so many new games we could probably become millionaires if they were patented. An impromptu stop to clean up a projectile of vomit on one of the most scenic roads in Morocco and an emergency dash to the clinic from the dunes of Erg Chebbi after a scorpion bite are not on my list of ‘things to do on holiday;’ But I loved every day  with my family and would not change a single moment.  

Actually that’s not true - I never want to see another scorpion.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Life in the Desert

What's a GPS?

I now have my own vehicle here in Morocco. It’s taken a while; weighing up the pros and cons. With the imminent arrival of family for a three week holiday, it was obviously time.  With less than 10 days to their arrival I took to the piste to find my way to the village of Ramlia and to become familiar with my car. 
Most of the time I know I will be driving on tarmac roads but there are also a great many places I want to discover which are only accessible via the piste, which is why I decided on a 4x4.  In the village I had no trouble to-ing and fro-ing about this desert area knowing which tracks to take on the hamada, night or day. 

Driving to and from Ramlia I always feel a sense of achievement, or is it relief, when I reach various points on my internal gps.  Keeping the long flat-topped mountain on my left. The short steep track that crosses the wadi where the goats graze. The tree where the fargo stops of an afternoon. The small ‘mountain’ before you take the track through the grass to the river before Ouzina. I will admit though, it is easy to feel unnerved when I don’t recognise the track I have decided on or my landmarks. The desert is a huge landscape and you and your vehicle are very small. I know that help would come if needed as nomads appear when you least expect them and they always know where they are, but being disoriented is still a little scary. Eight days later I returned to Rissani, without ‘crossing into Algeria’ as everyone jokingly said I would; A day later I headed for Mohamed V International to meet the family.

With no maps or gps (not even on my phone), I relied on my internal sense of direction and ability to spot signs and traffic directions. Along the autoroutes I found these were relatively easy to follow, written in French & Arabic they give ample time to act. In the cities it’s a different story.  Often the first sign you find will give your destination but afterwards signs may list cities before the one you are going to, so you need to know that Berechid & Settat are before Casablanca!

I discovered where there are road works or deviations there are no signs. Negotiating Marrakech a couple of times ‘I wasn’t lost, I just couldn’t find the way’ (Bedu saying)   I discovered the best thing to do was to drive past or pull up to, the police in the middle of the traffic, and ask?   They don’t want you to hold up traffic so give you immediate directions. Garage attendants are good too; But not the man on the street. Ask 2 people you are given 2 different directions; Ask 8 you are given 8.

Parking in cities can be a problem; however there are ‘little men’ who rule over every car parking area and they will direct you to within a few centimetres. I have never had to park in such small spaces, in fact, it’s often difficult to get out of your vehicle! Even on the street ‘a little man’ will guide you into and out of the tiniest spaces; They will watch your car overnight and wash it if you ask them; it’s worth every dirham you pay them.
Unlike Australia where all is now automated, there is someone to do everything here. Every service station has attendants to fuel your car, to check your tyre pressure, to clean your windscreen. Automation may be streamlined & easy but I think I prefer ‘old fashioned service’ which also keeps people employed! 

I love my car and new sense of freedom; being able to come and go, stop and start, at a time that I choose, not wait around for taxis to obtain their quota of passengers or buses set to a schedule.  I won’t miss the length of time travelling on a non-air-conditioned bus in the summer or an unheated one in winter, but I think I will miss being crammed into a grand taxi and the unknown companionship this transport provided.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Favourite Places & Spaces - Morocco - Oasis Fint

Oasis Fint & La Roche Noire

 I have known the family at La Roche Noire for several years now and I love being there, returning from time to time but somehow never as often as I would like or for as long as I would like. A couple of weeks’ ago I stopped at the oasis for two days rest while travelling with my family on their first visit to Morocco. 

Driving along the piste there is no hint an oasis exists. A turnoff announces Fint 2km and as you edge towards the escarpment you are suddenly rewarded by the superb visual contrast of massive outcrops of black rock plunging into the sharp green palmeraie of the lush oasis in the wadi below.
Home to four villages, Wangarf, Taherbilte, Timoula and Belghizi and approximately 1,200 people, Fint enjoys a microclimate and milder temperatures than the surrounding areas, including Ouarzazete 12kms away. Amongst the date palms interspersed with masses of pink flowering oleanders, are almonds, apricots, pomegranates and healthy vegetable gardens. My family spent their time wandering beneath the green canopy and wading in the cool waters of the wadi, the children trying to catch turtles, tadpoles and frogs.   With a long days of travel planned they then sank into afternoon siestas while I took to the piste to discover the Kasbah at Taguenzalt and the stunning landscapes as far as Ighels & Boughrar.                        
The men at La Roche Noire are exceptional drummers, the best I have heard in Morocco. Often after dinner, brothers, cousins & friends will beat out a hypnotic rhythm which you cannot resist dancing to; Even 6 year old Anwar breathes music, effortlessly keeping up the tempo with his older cousins, his 2 year old brother Bilal tapping along as well. My daughter & husband are professional musicians so an impromptu performance was a real delight.
Another night in the cool of evening, rugs and cushions were spread outside on the terrace where family and friends lounged into the early hours, chatting by the light of the moon.
An additional pleasure for me is having breakfast on the terrace in the early morning, dipping ‘aghroum na zit’ into my coffee as the sun begins to light up the mountain of black rock opposite the village. If you are up early enough you can watch the women of the house & neighbours firing bread in the ‘kushas’ (clay ovens) which are nearby.

Many guests stay more than one day. Others use the auberge as a base, heading off on sightseeing excursions, desert trekking and camping to lesser know areas. Brothers Ayoub and Rachid will happily accompany you; They are great company and very knowledgeable. What about a walk with donkeys to visit the old village?  For me, the piste and undiscovered kasbahs & ksars in the area beckon. I haven’t been gone long but I think it is already time to return to this beautiful haven.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Life in the Desert - Old Time New Time

April may be the official start of summer and the advancing of the clock by one hour but the afternoon of the 1st was as if permission had been given for the ‘weather man’ to let us know it was summer immediately; the temperature jumped to 36 degrees. Time for me to discard my ‘icebreaker’ long-sleeved top for a light cotton one, though having lived in the sahara area for so long I will wear my leggings until at least mid-May. The saharawi’s leave them on all year telling me they give protection from the heat & the sun. I believe them, but once the temperature is in the high 30’s too many clothes makes me feel claustrophobic in the heat.

With the advancing of the clock in the sahara the locals refer to time as either old time or new time!  In the village of Ramlia I am told there is no need to change the time because everything stays the same and it can become confusing. 

At the Friends of Nomads school, a young village girl has a class of four year olds    each day teaching them the Arabic alphabet, sometimes the French alphabet and  other basics. Hadija starts at 8 a.m. and finishes at 10:00 a.m. when my classes begin. This week the classes have started later but when I have gone to begin my classes at 10 a.m. new time, I have been told ‘But it’s not time yet,’ because she wants to finish at the old time!!

Another vagary is the desert transport, the fargo; It departs the village about 8 a.m. This doesn’t alter with the time change, but means it is now actually departing at 7 a.m. Returning from the town of Rissani, the fargo normally leaves between one and two o’clock old time, usually depending upon the buying of supplies and whether passengers have arrived after having lunch!  With the advance of the clock it leaves around two o’clock new time, but this is earlier, as it is 1 o’clock old time.

And what do I do? Just go with the flow. 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Life in the Desert - Arrmas

ARRMAS - I'm Addicted
The gathering & storing of tazkht continues. Either stacked on the roofs of animal shelters where it offers shelter from the hot sun, or alongside the walls of the enclosures.

Sitting for dinner one night I noticed something different. A plate of dark green vegetable I had never seen before.  ‘Arrmas’ father told me; ‘From the wadi.’ He watched me for a reaction.  I love fruits & vegetables and will try anything.  A spoonful later I was totally addicted  and probably consumed a third of the plate; Arrmas is delicious. It has a slight salty lemony flavour and when cooked, the small leaves wilt and look rather like spinach.  That evening the plant had been prepared with a little oil, crushed garlic and mashed tomato.

The following morning I persuaded Itto to show me where the plant was growing so that I would hopefully recognize it for the future.  Driving a few kilometres to the wadi where father had told us the arrmas was growing, it was then necessary to walk a short distance. After the heavy rains over winter the wadi is a crazed pathway of dried mud and powdery fesh fesh, the fine powder produced by this mud and very difficult to drive across as you can never tell when the mud will break up or the depth. I have to admit to never having driven across the wadi deep in fesh fesh or to have any experience in difficult off-roading and the last thing I wanted was to be stuck. 

At the moment the wadi is a never ending landscape of tazkht and walking amongst them it was hard for me to distinguish another type of plant.  Itto pointed, arrmas!  And there it was; a small plant, a deeper green than those crowding around it.  After pointing out a few plants sporadically growing I could spot several others. Apparently the arrmas only grows well after good rains and as it is only the new growth that is eaten, it’s no wonder I haven’t seen it in the kitchen or the souqs the past few years. 

Cropping two bags full for the kitchen, we then proceeded to gather three other plant species as a treat for the goats.  I asked if any of these could be eaten and was laughingly told ‘no only for the animals.’ However I did discover that the very young new leaves of the tazkht made an excellent salad; it has a peppery taste similar to rocket.  

Monday, 16 March 2015

Life in the Desert - Return to Ramlia

This week I returned to the village of Ramlia
If I’d driven myself I am sure I would have ended up in Algeria!

Going by fargo, more than once I was disoriented. Several times the fargo trundled along a different track and I was unsure of my bearings. After flooding through winter the old tracks have become too heavily rutted for the heavy fargo. 
In the four months I have been away the desert has changed so much. The harsh hamada is still hamada, but now splashed with ground hugging plants, the rumla a  vibrant green sea of tazkht bushes blazing with yellow flowers.  

Generally behind the camera I had no idea I would be the subject of a photo a few days later while helping to harvest tazkht. Usually a tedious slow process, in a short period of time we had a huge pile of plants stacked and tied to our donkey for the short walk to the village.  Here the plants will be stored and dried for summer fodder.

Saturday, 14 March 2015


This is not the first time I have written about taxis in Morocco. Petit Taxis are a great way to get around cities and Grand Taxis between them as long as you are patient and can put up with the vagaries of their behaviour and ‘the system.’ 

The past week I have had a series of mini adventures. While saying goodbye to Jipaventura and friends in Rabat a petit taxi crept to the pavement.  The ancient taxi with its’ equally ancient driver sat watching me. As waiting for taxis can be a full-time occupation I decided to take a chance on the battered relics that had been so patient. ‘Salam ki3raf embassy Ghana ?’ I asked. My Derija is awful, however I am usually understood. When a toothless grin and an affirmative nod was my answer I knew that my ‘friend’ had no idea where the Ghanian Embassy was located. 

Not to be deterred we chugged into the traffic and arrived in the vicinity of embassies without breaking down; Here my wizened companion proceeded to jump in and out of the taxi at various intervals with more energy than a gazelle to ask directions. At one point, it was necessary to turn around. Backing into a side road we jumped the high curb coming back down with a resounding crunch and a broken axle.  My ancient knight would not hear of me getting out and walking; We inched across four speeding lanes of traffic and challenged a large bus before finally expiring at the next intersection. Flagging down a new taxi for me, and apologizing profusely for the interrupted journey, the door of my new transport was opened with a ‘C’est la vie,’ and a wave goodbye.

Taxi No 2 and driver were slightly younger and in much better condition though I found I was imprisoned as the doors could only be opened from the outside. As before, he had to repeatedly ask for directions before finally finding the address. I asked him to wait, then to take me to my hotel.  Another dilemma, also address unknown. I tried the phone number but nothing and no wonder!  My hotel had become a construction site. We were greeted with empty windows, closed doors and piles of dirt and rubble!  Again, a ‘C’est la vie’ from the driver.

A day later I am in Fes enroute to the CTM station. My driver is muttering to himself.  

We have barely driven a few metres when the phone rings and he is shouting at the top of his voice.  A few more metres we pull into the curb and there is a heated conversation with a woman, his wife.   As we rejoin the traffic, the phone rings again and totally oblivious to me, my driver becomes livid with rage, red in the face, shouting at the top of his voice, waving his arms about. The taxi clearly can steer itself. His anger is transferred to the traffic and I pretend I am oblivious. At CTM  I am wished a pleasant ‘Bon Route’ !!!