Sunday, June 26, 2016

MOROCCO: A LION, SOME MONKEYS, A HORSE, AND SOME SHEEP EN ROUTE TO THE SAHARA DESERT

We had a long day of driving to get from our riad in Fes to our next place to sleep (not a hotel, not a riad--read to the end of this post to find out what). Bob had hired a driver through the company Naturally Morocco who acted as both our chauffeur and our tour guide. His name was Aziz, and he was a young, single Muslim man who had been driving for five years. He spoke quite good English, and we learned a lot about Moroccan life from him. For example, Moroccans have to be eighteen years old to get a driver's license, and the process is similar to what we do in the United States--class time, road time, and a test. At 21, a driver can get a professional license, and there is a re-certification process every three years for those who drive tourists around. That was nice to know. 

Aziz also did a fair amount of proselyting as we drove, including playing some recordings of a Muslim preacher "debunking" Christianity. To be fair, it was in response to questions that we asked. Since we come from a proselyting religion ourselves, it was interesting to be in the "potential convert" role.

After leaving Fes, we headed south, passing through a series of small towns, each punctuated by one or more minarets, much like the small towns of Utah are dotted with LDS chapels or the small towns of Europe are anchored by Protestant or Catholic churches. Our ultimate goal was the Erg Chebbi Dunes, one of two sections of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. The line meandering southward on the map below was our route:

As we drove, we noticed radar cameras everywhere, along with policemen stationed at blockades occasionally placed across the road, waving people through or stopping those whom they had caught on camera violating the speed limit. We even saw a big tourist bus that had been pulled over. The speed limits were often quite low on roads that seemed to be able to handle faster speeds, and I'm guessing speeding tickets are a good source of revenue for the government. Aziz said the fines are very expensive, and he assiduously kept to the speed limit. Had we been driving ourselves around, I am positive Bob would have incurred several of those large fines.

Our first stop was Ifrane, a town of about 70,000 people located in the Middle Atlas mountains at an elevation of  5,463 feet--similar to Denver. It felt very much like a resort city--we saw a ski resort, beautiful, expensive homes lined the streets, and parks and European hotels added their own cachet. In fact, we parked by the Hotel de Chamonix (Chamonix is a mountain valley in eastern France) for a bathroom stop. The hotel was across the street from a lovely park whose main attraction was a huge stone lion:
The story is that this lion was carved by a German soldier during World War II when Ifrane was briefly used as a prisoner of war camp.
It commemorates what some people believe was the last Atlas lion, which was supposedly shot near here in the late 1920s. It is now known that one was shot in 1942, and they were still seen in the Atlas Mountains into the 1960s.
1893 photo of a Barbary lion from Wikipedia

Although now extinct in the wild, descendants of the Barbary lion live on in today's zoos. However, most, if not all, have been cross-bred with other types of lions. The "Barbary Lion Project" aims to isolate the Barbary lion DNA and "re-create" the original species through a selective breeding program.
There was a tour bus or two parked near the lion when we were there, and everyone was lined up to have their photos taken with this truly gentle giant.

Our next stop was in the forest near Azrou. Signs warned us to watch out for animals crossing the street:

We pulled over at a place where wild Barbary apes congregate to glare at the tourists and disdainfully accept offers of food:
Barbary apes, more correctly called Barbary macaques, are actually monkeys and not apes at all. Their name refers to their native habitat of the Barbary Coast--or northwest coast--of Africa (primarily Morocco and Algeria). A troop of about 250 Barbary apes also lives on the Rock of Gibraltar in Spain, but they are immigrants of rather recent origin.

We had met some of these monkeys on the Rock of Gibraltar on a trip to Spain in 2006. They were less arrogant than these Moroccan ones and more anxious to sit on our shoulders and have a nice conversation. In contrast, during this stop in Morocco, when I slowly reached out to try to touch one, she slapped my hand and glared at me.

If we were patient, or had a good-sized piece of food, we could coax the monkeys near, but there was no way one would sit on our shoulders as they had in Gibraltar.

Bob was very patient. He was The Monkey Whisperer:


As is so often the case, it was nice NOT to be part of a big group, and to have all the time we wanted to watch these fascinating critters:

The cute little babies reminded me of Curious George:


It's hard to resist a baby of any species:


This face, on the other hand, has an adult expression I know only too well. ("You're assigning what for homework over the weekend? Don't you know I have a life?")

Yeah, I know. Sometimes I feel like this too:

Barbary apes remind me of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. I wonder if MGM used Barbary apes as the model for their monkeys?

I'm not quite sure how I ended up riding this sad old horse with the beautiful, somewhat shabby saddle, but suddenly instead of looking at monkeys, I was trotting up and down the dirt road. Moroccans have a way of making things happen:

It was March, and there were still patches of dirty snow here and there. The horse's owner also used his magic to get my camera, and he took about 100 pictures:

All of the sudden, Bob was up in the saddle behind me. Our poor old nag was not having as much fun as we were. In fact, she probably regretted being in the "Atlas" mountains where everyone is expected to carry such heavy loads:

Of course, when the owner finally let us off, he wanted an exorbitant sum of money. Bob had handed him a 10 dirham note (about $10), which we thought was generous, but he (nicely) demanded 200 dirhams as there had been two of us. We resisted and he persisted, and you can guess how the story ended.

We continued on over the mountain pass, enjoying the snow-dusted high plateaus:


We were impressed by the number of sheep we saw grazing in what seemed to be barren fields:


If we looked hard enough, we could always find a shepherd standing among or very near to the sheep:


Occasionally we also passed a Beduoin camp comprising a primitive, somewhat untidy tent that was a strange mixture of rather ancient blankets and new blue tarps:

We lunched at a huge hotel, the Hotel Taddart, which seemed to be the main feature in the town of Midelt. I don't know where the word "Midelt" originated, but for an English speaker it seemed an appropriate name as the city is in the center of Morocco, at least from north to south:

Inside the restaurant:

 View from the restaurant:
The one notable food item in our otherwise ordinary lunch was "apple juice," which was actually milk with some apple juice stirred in. It was surprisingly good.

We continued south through an area that reminded me of the terrain of Las Vegas--dry, barren plains interrupted by occasional rocky mesas with great, vertical, upswept lines. We drove through the plains and protuberances on narrow, winding roads that sometimes passed through crude tunnels hewn through the impeding rock.




We stopped to look at a swath of deep green flowing down a valley parallel to the road--a huge date farm. This region produces a lot of the dates for North Africa.

Finally, FINALLY we reached our destination, the Erg Chebby Dunes, where we would be spending the next few days and sleeping not it a riad or a hotel, but in tents.

Next up: Our Sahara adventure

3 comments:

  1. If I were those monkeys I'd worry that Bob The Monkey Whisperer was wondering how monkey meat tastes.
    Good to know Moroccan wheeler dealers are alive and well.

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  2. I like the sheep with long tails and the monkeys was one of the most fun portions of the trip. I wish the lion and some of the other amazing animals now extinct, like the elephant, in Morocco could have been preserved.

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  3. With travel and my crazy life, I missed all your posts, and am having fun catching up on the reading. I"m not commenting on every one, as I think that would drive you nuts, but I keep thinking "Bob and Judy are crazy. Bob and Judy are crazy," meaning that in the nicest possible way. Crazy fun. Crazy brave. Crazay adventurous. You inspire me with your willingness to see new places and enjoy new experiences. Travel on!

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