Occurred: August 27 to August 30, 2014
How do you celebrate a 10th birthday when your girl has outgrown princesses, Barbie dolls and fairies? How do you celebrate a 10th birthday when your girl is so far away from all her friends? How do you celebrate a 10th birthday when your girl doesn’t give you any clues as to what she would like to do on her special day?
A 10th birthday isn’t like turning 9 or 11. Being 10 means you have lived a decade. That’s two hands; ten fingers. You have officially left the single digits behind and entered the world of double digits. Now, that’s a big deal. That’s why we decided to celebrate Aurora’s 10th birthday in the Sahara Desert. Not something too many Canadian 10 year olds can do. We planned it perfectly, a four-day tour of the Marrakech area and the Sahara Desert, with a camel trek in to a desert nomad tent camp to spend a night in the Sahara Desert. Perfect, right? Well, we forgot one thing……. read on to find out what!
Our tour started promptly at 9 a.m. when our guide, Ahmed, arrived at our riad to pick us up. Of course we were still eating our breakfast that our host insisted we have, so Ahmed, kindly waited for us putting us 30 minutes behind schedule. (This is we do not go on group tours, we are always late.)
Our tour started from Marrakech towards the Dades Gorge. We stopped at the Tizi-n-Tichka Atlas pass and Zat Valley to take a few pictures of the view and of course take a look at what the vendors were selling along the side of the road.
We continued on to Ait Ben Haddou, a Ksar, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. We had a quick guided tour of the Ksar. Inside the Ksar there were a number of people selling souvenirs, a mosque and a few homes in which descendents of original inhabitants are still living. This spectacular red mud brick fortified village was where Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth, Jewel of the Nile, Gladiator and many other movies were filmed. I can see why this location was chosen; it is breathtaking.
Len and Noah climbed to the top of the Ksar for a more panoramic view. Aurora and I stayed down and watched a painter. He explained to us that the style of painting was used to pass secret messages during times of war. The message was written (painted) within the painting and it would only appear when the painting was heated over a fire.
While at Ait Ben Haddou we took a quick tour of one of the few homes in which families still live in the Ksar. Currently, there are only 7 families remaining, most have moved across the river to be closer to amenities and more modern housing. The home we saw was very simple. The bedroom/livingroom had no bed or furniture, just a carpet on the floor and a TV that ran on solar power. When it gets too hot indoors they pull the carpet out to the terrace and sleep under the stars.
We continued on to the Dades Valley, stopping to enjoy the great volcanic rock formations in the mountains. We spent the night in the most exquisite hotel, called Chez Pierre. We even had our own private terrace with a beautiful view of the valley. Supper was included with our tour/hotel. We felt like royalty sitting there and having the waiter bring course after course out to us. From the pizza appetizers to the homemade apple tarts, everything was so good. It was a meal that we never would have been able to afford, or ever would have ordered on our own.
We thought supper was good, but the breakfast the next morning was even better. The breakfasts we had to date have mostly been bread and pastries. This one was a treat. Freshly squeezed orange juice; scrambled eggs, toast, and homemade jams. And having it served on the terrace made it taste even better.
After breakfast, we stopped at the Dades and Todra Gorges. Todra Gorge is a very narrow valley carved over time by a meandering river. The almost vertical cliffs tower on either side of the river offering shade on a hot summer day. Many locals visit this spot to cool off and enjoy a day playing in the water. The kids found tadpoles in the shallow waters and had to stop and look for a while longer.
Slowly we made our way on to Merzouga where our camels were waiting. On the way we continued to pass Berber villages that were scattered along the way; donkeys carrying loads, people walking from village to village, kids selling fruit, turtles and geodes along the side of the road. Gradually the landscape began to change too. There were now fewer trees, more rocks and more nomad camels grazing in the fields.
We arrived at Merzouga at our place to stay called, Dar Tayfouyte (similar to a riad, but referred to as a “Dar” because of different building style). We checked into our room only to drop off our backpacks and grab what we would need for a night in the desert. However, our host insisted we have some mint tea and dainties, before we continued on the tour. Ahmed drove us to where our camels were lazily waiting. I didn’t realize how big they were until I was standing beside them. They are huge. Long skinny legs. Giant head. Big teeth. Ugly sweat glands that ooze black sweat. My stomach was in knots. We were warned about how to get on a camel and how the camel gets up, but we forgot to mention this to the kids. Oops! (parent failure #10491).
Ahmed helped us put on our turbans that we had bought a few days earlier, attached our water bottles to the saddle and told us to get on. Len was the first on. His camel was named Bob Marley. Then it was my turn. I froze. I wanted the sand to open up and swallow me. As you know I am terrified of heights and my camel had the longest legs. He kept turning his head to look at me. Almost questioning, “what’s the problem, just get on”. Our guide and our new camel guide, Mohammed, told me to hurry before he gets up. Quickly, almost without thought I lifted my leg over and just as quickly, Jimi Hendrix, my camel, stood up. First throwing me forward, then backwards all in one quick motion. I hung on for dear life.
Here it comes….
Then it was Aurora’s turn to get on her camel (forgot its name). The tears started. She was pale as a ghost. Slowly she backed away from the camels and the guides. She was ready to bolt if given the chance. She was in a full outcry in protest. She was overcome with sheer fear. She was running from one side of the camels to the other and was begging us not to make her get on. We offered to let her ride with one of us. But, no way! Before we knew it, the guide had picked her up, put her on the camel and slapped the camel to get up. Up she went, letting out a scream that would have woken the dead. You see we had forgotten she was scared of heights too (parent failure #10492). We tried bribing her, begging her, but nothing worked. She wanted down and there was no way around it. She wanted down so bad that she promised to walk the whole way to camp and not complain. Begging us, with tear streaks running down her face, my heart broke. I could understand exactly how she was feeling. We rode about 50 metres or so, but Aurora was so adamant about getting off, that we finally insisted that they let her down so she could walk.
By this time it was well after 7 p.m. and it was going to get dark soon so I was getting worried about her walking in the dark. Ahmed, our guide, walked with her for the first 15 minutes or so before he had to turn back and leave us with Mohammed. She was happy walking. I think she was relieved not to be on the camel. She kept her distance from the camels as she happily walked beside us. After about 30 minutes I asked to get down and walk with her. It was getting darker out and I felt tremendous guilt that she was walking alone. I have to say, it is very hard walking in the desert sand. By the time we arrived at our tent it was pitch black out, I was exhausted and tired. We were all ready for bed, but Mohammed was busily making us supper. We plopped down on one of the sofas in a “party tent” and would have fallen asleep if Mohammed hadn’t come in carrying a tray with mint tea. We sat there drinking our tea and decided to go sit outside and watch the stars that were shinning so brightly. We had such a clear view of the milky way. Beautiful and so peaceful. The trek through the Sahara was worth this moment.
Mohammed served up a tasty Moroccan salad followed by chicken and vegetable tajine. The meal was huge and our appetites small. Supper was followed by a surprise birthday cake that Mohammed had secretly carried the whole way. Aurora went and asked Mohammed to join us for birthday cake. We all sang Happy Birthday and Mohammed even sang Happy Birthday to Aurora in Arabic. Such wonderful and special moments. I hope she remembers this part of her birthday.
After supper we went to our tent and crawled into bed. Mohammed said he would wake us at 6:20 a.m. so we could see the sunrise. At exactly 6:18, he slowly walked to our tent quietly clapping his hands. He stood there clapping for a few minutes then turned around and walked away still clapping his hands. We got up, quickly dressed and made our way up towards the sand dunes to get the best view to the sunrise. I knew Aurora was walking again today, so we stopped halfway up the dune and enjoyed playing there, while Len and Noah ventured up to the top.
When we came back to the tent we could hear Mohammed singing Happy Birthday in English as he was getting the camels ready for the trek back. I even heard some camel-guide conversation, Mohamed knew what the camel grunts meant (I didn’t have a clue). It was 7:30 when we began our trek back to our Dar in Merzouga. Aurora, true to her word, would not ride the camel today and she walked again without complaining. Me, I stayed on the camel this time. The trek back was peaceful. It is so quiet in the desert. The sand dunes are forever changing shapes and patterns. I took the time to enjoy the beauty of it all. And again, our photos cannot show just how beautiful the Sahara is, but it is forever etched in our memory.
We can say we rode a camel in the desert, but Aurora can say she walked for hours in the desert. Both amazing feats. We are so proud of our birthday girl.
Once back at the Dar we all had breakfast. The Dar had a pool, which Noah and Aurora took full advantage of after breakfast. They splashed and played in it for a while, to cool down from the desert heat. After some quick showers we were back in the 4 X 4. Today was mostly a driving day. We stopped a number of times to see things, take a few pictures. The kids, especially Aurora, were so tired that they slept in the car much of the day (I think the desert walk wore her out). We arrived at our riad, and in typical Moroccan manner, were served mint tea and dainties before being shown our room. We had supper, went back to our room and surprised Aurora with a few birthday gifts.
The next day we were to have a number to places to stop; but the stops we made were not on our original itinerary. You see, I was sick. Our poor guide had to make frequent stops on the side of the road to let me jump out. I asked that we go directly to Marrakech without the scheduled tourist stops. It was a long drive back. Once we got back at our riad in Marrakech, I crawled into bed and slept until morning when we had to get up to catch the bus to Essaouira.