Sunday, October 25, 2009

Road to Morocco - without Bob, Bing or Dorothy!

For several years, I had been trying to sign on to one of Exodus’/Michael Asher’s camel treks without success. The Kenyan ones were canceled - lack of participation - and there were visa issues with the Sudanese ones.

So when an October Moroccan Sahara trek was announced, I immediately contacted Adventure Center with deposit in hand. I was a fan of Asher’s from his TE Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger biographies to his recent history of the SAS, Britain's Special Forces unit. The fact that he also was the last of the great desert explorers added to my determination to go, cheerfully ignoring Exodus’ listing of this tour as Moderate/Strenuous plus my past experience with camels which have left me walking most of the time.

Normally, I leave tours labeled Strenuous, alone. Adventurous, I’ll consider; Strenuous I avoid. But not this one, my Birthday present to myself. The thought of riding/walking across the Sahara for ten days - magnificent!

Marrakesh was the gathering point for the eleven intrepides who were set for this trip, several of whom had increased workouts in preparation. We were a mixed group: There was an Aussie couple, a Korean woman, an Emirates Arab, a Canadian, another American woman and the rest Brits. Ages: from twenty eight to eighty. And it was the best group I’ve ever traveled with - we bonded together well.

From Marrakech, we drove to Zagora where we were to met our camels and crew and have an introduction to the trekking. The problem was, to use an old Anglo-Saxon expression, some dumb shit didn’t get the word! So camels and crew were not where they were supposed to be and the local agent refused responsibility. Finally we made connections but no trekking that day. Just a chance to try on the camel of choice and camp out, with serious business to begin the following day.

The terrain ranged from hilly and rocky to sandy with brush to a packed gravel road to sand. All walked the first hour and then choices were made either to walk or ride for the next hour segment and so it went. At noon there was a several hour respite for lunch. Usually about six PM, we were done for the day. The scenery was great; the sunsets and sunrises were breathtaking.

By the end of the third day - second day of trekking - I really wondered what I had gotten myself in for. My nether regions were shot. The thought of more camel riding, no matter how the pads and blankets were arranged, sent me into outer space. By the fifth day, I had pulled a groin muscle. I obviously had more trouble than anyone else. Others could give themselves a break with an hours ride. I would try it and within half an hour, was off the animal and back on foot. At the end of the trek, my feet were as taped up as they had been when I was doing point work some years ago.

I had no choice but to suck it up and keep going. And once I realized that, I put myself into The Zone and trudged on, hopefully at a pace that didn’t hold anyone up too much. I made good use of the rest periods. And enjoyed the completion of each days journey, which was about 20+ kilometers. By the time we completed the trek at Merzouga, I was quite pleased with myself.

While others had bits and pieces of problems, most did well. An Aussie walked the entire distance and the Arab only rode the final bit. My fellow American, a devoted cameleer, rode the full trip. Several had intestinal problems. So far as I could tell, my roommate, the Korean woman, smaller than I am, had no difficulty and kept plugging on.

Though tents were provided, we all camped out. Mostly, the sky was clear and, even without my glasses, I could see the starts. It was a extraordinary experience, to lie there and breathe the clean outdoor air. I’ve rarely done this for I was never a camper in my salad days, so really appreciated this experience.

The sadness of the trip was the encroachment of civilization. Motorbikes roaring across the land and the tracks of 4x4s in the sands. of the Erg Chebbi broke into the desert isolation. I wonder if there is any place left that Man hasn’t attacked.

Michael Asher was an outstanding guide - very sensitive about and concerned for everyone’s welfare. Obviously knowledgeable about the area and facile in Arabic, one had every confidence in his leadership. He also kept the evening’s discussions going: we had several very bright and knowledgeable people in the group who were responsive to Asher’s rather Socratic style.

At the end, we had a day in Fez including a tour of the City and the Medina. For the first time, overseas, I bought nothing home with me. In fact, I lost both ball cap and duffel carrier at JFK.

Would I do this again? Probably!


Food was plain but good: pasta, couscous or rice with various vegetables, cheese bread, jam and sardines. Fruit or chocolate pudding for deserts. Often, there was oatmeal for breakfast.

Accommodations in Marrakesh, Zagora and Fez were very comfortable. The Fez Hotel was a bit out of the way, however.

Tour cost was $2703.25 , which included a discount for past patronage. Almost all meals were included. Air transprt was on Delta and Royal Air Maroc and cost $2403.25, plus $200 I paid at JFK to catch an earlier flight to SFO.

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