We left Marrakech early Thursday morning when our Rough Tours guide, Said, picked us up at the riad. He helped us with our luggage (which had grown exponentially thanks to the carpet dealers) and introduced us to our driver for the trek, Zaid, as we climbed into a very nice, air conditioned SUV.
There were a lot of unknowns about this tour - would we have other people in the group? Would we be hauled around in something like the petit taxis we've been seeing all over town (which, Said told us later, were called pomegranates because so many people crowd into them to save money)? Would the tour live us to the reviews I'd read?
The last question gets a definite yes. The ride out to the desert and up to Fes was long (9 hours total to the desert then 9 hours from there to Fes) and we congratulated ourselves many times for not forcing ourselves to do the trek by bus.
Said was courteous, ever helpful, and full of information about everything from the flora and fauna we passed to the customs of Ramadan to the differences between Berbers and Arabs. We stopped at many sights, as you can see in my Flickr account. Turns out kasbahs in this part of the country are like cathedrals in Europe. The one that we spent the most time and actually walked to the top of was the Ait Benhaddou kasbah, a UNESCO World Heritage sight and also the place where they filmed a lot of movies I've never seen (Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Gladiator, etc.). It looked very much like a movie set, and I can see both why it's popular for that and why so many kasbahs have been abandoned - turns out mud walls are not very sturdy in either earthquakes or sudden floods.
The nearby town is actually host to a couple of movie studios. I liked how this one, the major Hollywood one, chose to decorate a studio in Morocco with Egyptian and Chinese statues.
To get to this area we drove over the High Atlas mountains. I had been feeling under the weather for a while in Marrakech, which I self-diagnosed as dehydration and was treating by drinking a lot more water. As a result, about an hour into the trip I began to feel the pressures of a full bladder. So I tentatively asked Said, "Do you know how long it will be until we stop for the restroom?"
Immediately the driver flipped on the turn signal and pulled over to the side of the mountain road. I panicked for a moment, thinking that the promised (and much-dreaded on my part) use of "natural facilities" would be expected even before we reached the desert, but then figured out that Said and Zaid were in a panic that I was carsick. At the beginning of our trip Said asked if either of us were prone to motion sickness. I admitted my weakness, but assured him that I had preventative measures of my own.
It took a little while for me to assure them that I was not sick, just well-hydrated, and we were soon on our way again with a promised rest stop 15 minutes away. However, for the rest of the day anytime I said anything to Said, even (as was usually the case) just asking a question about the things we were passing, both men up front would immediately look at me in the rearview mirror with panic on their faces, Zaid poised and ready with his hand on the turn signal.
They really did take good care of us. They were so eager to please that once they found something we expressed interest or pleasure in, they went overboard to make sure we had it. For example, they had been playing Berber music as we drove. We paused on a look-out point to take pictures of the "Snake Road" we had just driven up (and which had prompted me to make use of all of my motion-sickness preventions). When Jason and I opened the car doors to get back in we discovered the driver listening to music that was much more familiar. "Katy Perry?" Jason asked.
The driver looked guilty. "You like Katy Perry?" Said asked.
"Sure," we responded.
As a result, we were treated to a playlist mix of traditional Berber music and Katy Perry. We listened to "Firework" at least three times before reaching the hotel that night, and several more times the next few days.
In the afternoon the first day we stopped at a panoramic view of one of the valleys. After we walked back down the hill, Said invited us to a cafe for tea. He was very intent on sharing that tradition with us, so when Jason explained that we don't drink tea we wound up compromising with mint tea instead. The cafe owner picked several sprigs of mint from the garden in the middle of the cafe, put them into two glasses, poured hot water over them, and served them to us with cubes of sugar on the side. We toasted per Said's instructions, and it actually wasn't too bad.
Again, if only we had known. Said took it upon himself to make sure these strange Americans with their weird religious drinking custom had mint tea at every meal. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, at the hotel, at the restaurants on the road, and even in the middle of the Sahara desert we were served fresh sprigs of mint in glasses filled with hot water. And you know what? It started to grow on me. I just might try to grow me some mint when I get home.
We arrived in Dades at the end of the first day to discover, much to our pleasant surprise, that our hotel accommodations for the night were at a four-star resort on top of the hill. Our luggage was whisked away through a very nice hotel decorated in an African motif that reminded me so much of the Animal Kingdom lodge my family and I stayed at years ago that I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't in Disneyworld, I was actually in Africa. We quickly threw on swimsuits and headed to the terrace to swim and read and bask in the sunset before dinner. It was an unexpected treat, and it was marvelous.
The drive the next morning through landscapes that went from looking an awful lot like southern Utah to landscapes that looked like ones I've only seen in movies. In the late afternoon we arrived at a auberge literally on the edge of the desert. Said showed us to the room where we could leave our luggage for the night and gave us a few hours to nap or shower or whatever we wanted before we would depart for the desert proper.
We took advantage of the chance to shower, but it was hardly refreshing. The room was 98 degrees, and we took turns emerging from the bathroom dripping with sweat. I tried opening the windows to let in a breeze, but the breeze turned into wind and the wind carried an awful lot of dust that soon coated everything in the room.
By then I was an enormous bundle of nerves while Jason was so excited he was counting down the minutes until we got to meet our camels. At 6:30 we took up our overnight bags, locked the room, and went to find Said. After a round of mint tea Said handed us a bag of scarves to select from. He then showed us how to properly tie it:
Soon we both looked sufficiently Arab and we were ready to meet our camels. Thus, for the sake of posting, end part 1 of this tale.