Trek day! One of the big agenda items for our trip to Morocco was a trip into the Sahara, recommended by our friends the Wards and the Waldons back home. After extensive research, Sarah picked the company Camel Trekking, which has been written up in the Telegraph and ranked highly on Tripadvisor. We happily signed up for a three day, two night journey. After a quick Moroccan breakfast at our riad of bread, honey, olives, and tea (not as near to our American tastes as a good old McMuffin, but still pretty good), we met our driver/guide Brahim for the long trip towards the desert. Departing at 8AM, we had a good six hours or so of driving today, with ample stops in between. And we were off!
We wound our way out of Marrakech and towards the Atlas Mountains, a steady soundtrack of Moroccan music on the car radio. Although initially foggy, the mountains opened up and we could see into the deep valleys and across the mountainside villages. We stopped several times for nice panoramic shots of the scenery. Parts of our drive were surprisingly lush, others little more than scrubland.
Our first major stop was at a pleasant roadside hotel for lunch, where we each had a quick tagine and gazed longingly at the pool that beckoned us in the 104 degree heat.
But pools and such things would have to wait for another day, as the main reason for the location of this stop was the hillside town and UNESCO world heritage site of Aït Benhaddou. Originally built as a trading post and caravanserai (or caravan stopover point), it had slowly been abandoned in favor of the new town across the river. But here in the desert, the old town stood preserved, when it was rediscovered by Hollywood as a shooting location for the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Since then, Hollywood has come back repeatedly to the Aït Benhaddou well, shooting films like Kingdom of Heaven, Prince of Persia, some scenes for Game of Thrones, and most famously Gladiator.
We wandered across the riverbed and into town. After shaking off the initial wave of tourist shops, we proceeded deeper into town, exploring the tiny nooks and crannies of what was a tiny although somewhat decrepit settlement. Hirsh took fifteen minutes to clamber to the top of the hill for a panoramic view of what turned out to be more scrubland, while Sarah stayed near a shop and made the acquaintance of a lovely gentleman named Mohammed. He showed her the art of the "burning painting," local to this area, where he would apply organic dyes like saffron, tea, and pepper to paper, then gently applying a flame to make the pattern of, say, a camel caravan or a desert dune appear as if like magic. On Hirsh's return from the top of the hill, Mohammed invited both of us to see his home, one of the few still existing in the historic old town. We saw his kitchen, stables, and said hello to his sister, and he invited us for a sit in his living room. To our surprise, a film poster of Gladiator hung on the wall, flanked by swords. He explained that the film had shot several scenes just around the corner, and in between shots Russell Crowe actually came and relaxed in that very living room. As a token of thanks, he was given a film poster and a prop sword from the film (the one on the right; the one on the left is real!). Charmed, Sarah got a picture with Mohammed. He even invited us to stay for a cup of tea, and as desperately as we wanted to, we had to return to the drive. Saying our thanks, we departed Mohammed's home and returned to the road.
Our next quick stop was Morocco's film capital (Mollywood?) of Ourzazate. The government recognized that this area was reminiscent of the generic Hollywood desert, and so built a large film studio in the area; Kingdom of Heaven shot a scene here in a purpose-built castle. We took a quick peek inside the studio, which hilariously juxtaposed Egyptian statues, Chinese dragons, a fighter jet, and a Viking ship. The magic of the cinema!
We continued on our long drive, and along the way chatted up Brahim about Morocco. He had mostly positive things to say about his country, riffing on topics as diverse as criminal justice, taxes, women's rights, and of course the US presidential election. Morocco is a kingdom, with a king who works in conjunction with, but ultimately superior to, a Parliament. We saw the King's framed photograph everywhere we went. We talked about the merits of each of our systems and ultimately realized how diverse our perspectives are around the world about the right way to run a country.
At long last we wound up at our lodging for the night, a hotel owned by the trekking company owner's family in the Dades Valley. Overlooking red rocks reminiscent of Sedona, Arizona, we had a lovely meal of tagines and settled in for a restful night in preparation for another long drive tomorrow.