Moroccan Road Trip

To get to the desert, I went through the desert, and also over a mountain. (Like I said, it’s always about journey.) I went on a tour with Camel Safaries, one of the many tour companies operating out of Marrakech, and over the course of 3 days and 2 nights, we wended our way over the High Atlas Mountains through Tizi n’Tichka Pass, stopped in Ait Benhaddou, drove through the Dades Valley, walked in a bit of Todra (Todgha) Gorge, and sped across the the black sands surrounding the small town of Merzouga, where we mounted up on camels and trekked into the Erg Chebbi part of the Sahara Desert. It was a heckuva road trip.

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Tour guide driver Hassan takes a break in the Dades Valley, Morocco

That’s a lot of time in a car, but if you only have so much time and you want to get to a remote spot, that’s part of the deal. One more day to cover the same ground would’ve been nice, to spend more time in some of the stops or do a more proper walk in one of the gorges, but I’m still happy with what I did.

high atlas mountains morocco road trip

The High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

todra gorge morocco road trip

In Todra Gorge, Morocco

High Atlas Mountains and Tizi n’Tichka Pass

high atlas mountains morocco road trip

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

When you think of Morocco, do you think “mountains”? I certainly didn’t before I started researching my trip, but in fact the Atlas Mountains run through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, separating the coast from the Sahara. Morocco is nearly bisected by the mountains, so when you look at a map and think, “I’m going to go from Marrakech to Merzouga, that’s only 350 miles, not a problem,” you are 1) clearly an American or Australian (my British friends would definitely balk at a weekend jaunt of 350 miles), and 2) not taking into account the fact that you have to climb up, squeeze through, and pick your way down a large mountain range.

As we left Marrakech behind and started our ascent, I was reminded of parts of California and the American Southwest, with the orange-red sandstone and the scrubby green trees. Once we passed our first pit stop, the red gave way to brown, and we drove past mud-and-stone villages that blended in well with the hills they were built on. Finally, at the top of the range, as we went through the pass, were among the snowy peaks we’d seen hours ago in Marrakech.

Ait Benhaddou

ait benhaddou ait ben haddou morocco road trip

Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

One of the things that attracted me to this tour was the opportunity to see a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ait Benhaddou is listed because it’s a well-preserved example of southern Moroccan architecture; it’s from the 17th century but uses building techniques centuries older than that. It seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but its placement is no accident; the route we were following from Marrakech to the desert is the same one that caravans used to travel, and this was one of the places they’d stop to trade. Now it gets most of its money from tourists and from film companies — it’s been in Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, and Gladiator, among others.

Our guide, Mustapha, told us that the easiest way to think of a kasbah is as a tower that has four raised points on the corner. The casbah used to be the fortified city which had one of these towers, but when defense became less of a concern, wealthy families started building the towers with the raised points on the corners, as a sign of their wealth and prestige, and the towers themselves became known as kasbahs. Ait Benhaddou is a ksar (or kind of castle/fortified group of houses), with several kasbahs in it. It’s built onto a hill and rises up dramatically from the flat landscape around it.

ait benhaddou ait ben haddou morocco road trip

View from Ait Benhaddou

We got there by fording a river, walking on sacks of sand that were laid out like stepping stones. I noticed some kids holding a tourist’s hand as she walked on the “stones” unsteadily, and once she was safely ashore, it was time for a tip. We admired the imposing gate to the town, which was apparently used in some Game of Thrones episodes, and then walked up and up and up through the town, for some great views of the countryside — a cluster of trees and greenery around the town, and then flat desert punctuated by gentle hills to the mountains on the horizon. As we walked down through the other side of the town to our waiting van, we passed lovely flowering almond trees, white blossoms contrasting with the reddish brown earth.

At one point, we passed the tiny town of Imiter and saw to the east a large complex in the low hills, and an imposing sign over an even more imposing fence. This is a mine owned privately by the King of Morocco. It’s the seventh largest mine in the world; more than 6000 people work there, going 25 kilometers underground to find gold and copper. What a thing for one person to own.

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He made dramatic, probably romantic, entreaties to her the whole time I was there

Dades Valley

dades valley morocco road trip

Ruins of a kasbah in the Dades

This area is romantically referred to as The Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, and it’s true there are many around. Once you understand that these don’t mean castles the way you might have thought they did, but a combination of necessary defense systems and also symbols of prestige, you can see why there are so many.

We drove deep into the valley at night, and the next morning, we drove up a hill to get a view of the gorge, then back out down the same road, admiring the scenery we’d not been able to see the night before.

dades valley morocco road trip

The Monkey’s Fingers rock formations in the Dades Valley

One of the surprises (to me) of much of Morocco was how suddenly green spaces appeared in seemingly endless desert. I guess I’d understood oases mostly from comic strips and movies, so to see a grove of date palms rising up out of the otherwise barren earth was a surprise, and a welcome one. Morocco has also built up irrigation systems for farming, and as we drove through the valley I saw greens and beans, and then silvery trees I didn’t recognize. When I asked what they were, Mustapha pointed to a sign behind me that read “Valley of the Figs.” Aha.

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You can really get a sense of the valley from this, how it was cut out of the rock by water eons ago

Todra Gorge

todra gorge morocco road trip

Todra Gorge, Morocco

The Todra Gorge used to be difficult to access, but the government has extended the asphalt road right up to the mouth of the gorge, so we drove up, hopped out, and walked along it for an hour or so. The river is quite low unless it’s the rainy season, and parallel to part of the river, a canal or gutter had been set up (although it was higher than the river and I’m not sure how it worked).

todra gorge morocco road trip

People had set up stalls along the rock wall, selling pashminas, wooden figurines, silver bracelets. A couple passed us, packs on backs and poles in hand; the Dades and Todra gorges are popular with serious hikers.

One woman, baby strapped to her back, herded donkeys upriver. The Berber nomads in this area used to move around to find food and water, but now they shop in villages and move seasonally: they spend the summer in caves in the High Atlas, and winter in warmer tents.

high atlas mountains morocco road trip

“The Sahara is ours” in Arabic

In several places, people had made giant signs on the hillside out of white rocks, which contrasted well with the brown earth beneath them. Sometimes they said “God, country, and king,” which is the motto of Morocco. Sometimes they said “The Sahara is ours,” which is a claim on Western Sahara, a disputed territory south of here which Morocco occupies and which Algeria claims as well. Algeria particularly wants the oil found there and access to the sea. Whatever the message spelled out on the hillside, there was always the Moroccan star (from the flag) to accompany it.

Glimpses of Berber Culture

Our guide, Mustapha, and driver, Hassan, are both Berber, or Amazigh. We asked if they wouldn’t mind talking a little about what it’s like to be Berber in Morocco, a mostly Arab North African country. Mustapha explained that under French rule, which was under Saudi influence, the Berber language was forbidden, although people still spoke it at home. In the 1970s, university students started being more vocal about being allowed to celebrate their culture. Around 2010, the king decided to head off any possibility of an Arab Spring situation by making Berber one of the official languages of Morocco, along with French and Arabic. The Berbers have had a written language since before Arabs arrived in the 7th century CE, but it was suppressed for centuries. Now, Berbers are openly teaching and learning how to read and write in their language.

todra gorge morocco road trip

Hassan picks us up after our walk in part of Todra Gorge. Hassan talked about how much he likes wearing traditional dress, and he insisted we all wear headdresses when we went camel trekking.

Mustapha was part of a Berber liberation group at his university in Meknes. He emphasized that they don’t want a violent uprising, and even when they have marches they don’t want anything too disruptive. (I have my own ideas about what disruption can do for real change, but this is not about my ideas or my cultural context.)

todra gorge morocco road trip

The yaz symbol — for Berber freedom

We saw many yaz symbols painted on cliffs, drawn on buildings, formed out of white rocks on brown hillsides. This is part of the alphabet and also represents the “free man” — which is what “Amazigh” means.

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Local transport — mule and a cart

Hassan played Moroccan music during a lot of the drive, and one song in particular was so hauntingly beautiful that I asked him to play it again, twice (which my tourmates indulged). The singer was Mbark Oularbi, who sang about freedom for Berbers. Officially he died after a battle with illness, but it is widely believed he was poisoned for stirring up too much unrest. His band is named Saghru, which is a mountain where various Berber tribes banded together to battle the French. The song is in my notes as “Hokuma” meaning “government,” but that gets me nowhere when I search for it. If you have better google skills than I (and nearly everyone does), just listen for a quiet, insistent song and enjoy.

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Tunes, new friends, gorgeous scenery, an exciting destination: it was a good road trip.

Be sure to read about the destination of this road trip — the Sahara!

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Desert to desert

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The National Palace of Sintra in Portugal

Look up, because you might see something wonderful. If I were to make one of those dreadful inspirational posters, that’d be the caption and the photo would feature one of the ceilings of the National Palace of Sintra. Because “look up” might be bland life advice, but it’s just plain practical when it comes to this palace.

national palace sintra portugal

National Palace of Sintra, in Portugal

Sintra, a hilly region slightly northwest of Lisbon, has been used by rulers for centuries as a place to establish power and build pleasure palaces. There’s nothing left of the Al-Andalus building that was once here (luckily the so-called Moorish Castle up the hill is another UNESCO site you can visit). What remains today is a mostly medieval and Renaissance construction, with decorations and furniture ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

national palace of sintra portugal

There’s a lot of mention in the castle of the Manueline style, which looks vaguely like it’s from the Tudor period (because I live in the UK and most of my sense of this type of architecture comes from here, Tudor is my reference point), and indeed the style is named after King Manuel I, who reigned 1495-1521, overlapping with Tudors Henry VII and Henry VIII of England.

I love when you can see different fields directly influencing one another in specific historical times and places — as in, this type of literature is directly related to the political turmoil of a time, or in this case, this type of architecture is directly related to the major expeditions of exploration Portugal was making at the time. Taking elements of the Gothic style, architects in the Manueline style added influences from places Portuguese ships had ventured to — especially India (which included Islamic elements, and of course the previous rulers of Sintra were Arab Muslims, the Moors, and so it’s all intertwined). The Manueline style also incorporated elements that referenced the Age of Discovery directly, including ships, anchors, items from the sea, and botanical flourishes. (This is especially apparent in the monastery in Lisbon — stay tuned for a post on that!)

Legend has it that King João I decorated the Magpie Room as a public rebuke: his wife caught him cheating, and he had as many magpies as there were women at court painted on the ceiling of this room, not because he felt guilty but because he wanted to chastise the women who gossiped about the affair.

Most of the rooms in the palace are by now known according to what graces their ceilings: the Swan Room, the Mermaid Room, etc. One room, however, has the most boring name but the most magnificent ceiling: the Coats-of-Arms room. Manuel decorated this ceiling with the coats-of-arms of the most prominent 72 Portuguese families at the time — although a couple hundred years later, one of those was removed, because members of the Távora family were convicted of plotting against the king. Oops.

The National Palace of Sintra was in use by the Portuguese monarchy up until the founding of the Republic of Portugal in 1910, at which time it became a national monument. A few decades later it was restored, and in 1995 it was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO as part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra. It’s open to visitors who want to catch a glimpse of royal splendor — even if it means getting a neckache from looking up.

national palace of sintra portugal

 

The Majesty of Iguazu Falls: A Photo Essay

Dearest fellow travelers, I have been to many amazing places and seen many incredible things on this trip, like Uluru and Angkor and Machu Picchu, and while those all awed me, none filled me with joy the way Iguazu Falls did. I walked a lot the two days I visited the falls, but my sorest muscles are in my face, from the non-stop grinning.

GRINNING

GRINNING

The week before I visited, there were such heavy rains that the subsequent flooding at the falls set records. This meant that a couple of the cool walks were closed on the Argentinian side–the bridges over the falls in those areas had been swept away–but there was still plenty to see.

Here, let’s look at a bunch of photos together:

The water levels were the highest they've been in decades

The water levels were the highest they’ve been in decades

Mesmerized

Mesmerized

Looking down was a rush

Looking down was a rush

And then there was this

And then there was this

Dozens of rainbows

Dozens of rainbows

I got pretty soaked standing in the shadow of this one

I got pretty soaked standing in the shadow of this one

Dos Hermanas--the two sisters--at the end of the Lower Trail

Dos Hermanas–the two sisters–at the end of the Lower Trail

Looking down from the Upper Trail

Looking down from the Upper Trail

And more wonders

And more wonders

The island in the middle of the falls; it was too dangerous to approach when I visited, because of the water levels

The island in the middle of the falls; it was too dangerous to approach when I visited, because of the water levels

That would be part of the Upper Trail. That section is currently closed.

That would be part of the Upper Trail. That section is currently closed.

I went on a boat ride to get up close and personal. This is before we went farther in and got completely, 100% soaked.

I went on a boat ride to get up close and personal. This is before we went farther in and got completely, 100% soaked.

There was a lot of mist in the late afternoon, when I went, so the falls didn't translate as well on camera, but they looked really cool from the boat

There was a lot of mist in the late afternoon, when I went, so the falls didn’t translate as well on camera, but they looked really cool from the boat

River-level view

River-level view

And now a break, in which I show you pictures of raccoon-like animals that you might think are kind of cute but are actually vicious little food thieves and biters. Coatis are wild animals native to the area, and although the ones outside the tourist areas keep to themselves (as wild animals ought), the ones in the tourist areas have figured out that they can get food a lot more easily by begging and outright taking it from tourists. I had food in my bag, and when the bag was hanging by my side while I took a selfie, a coati pounced on it! I won that fight, but yikes.

They creep up on you

They creep up on you

With their little anteater-like faces

With their little anteater-like faces

And their indignant raccoon-like tails

And their indignant raccoon-like tails

The Brazil park had this guy running around taking photos with kids, which I think sends a confusing message: Don't touch or feed them! But also, cuddly friend!

The Brazil park had this guy running around taking photos with kids, which I think sends a confusing message: Don’t touch or feed them! But also, cuddly friend!

Back to the beautiful, this time on day 2, when I went to the Brazilian side of the falls:

I mean, this is an pretty good introduction to the falls

I mean, this is a pretty good introduction to the falls

Good job, Nature

Good job, Nature

Now you're just showing off

Now you’re just showing off

More grinning

More grinning

You can walk out in the middle of the falls in the upper level on the Brazilian side

You can walk out in the middle of the falls in the upper level on the Brazilian side

You might get a little damp doing so

You might get a little damp doing so (people heading out on the ramp looked at me, aghast, as I headed back in–one woman grabbed my arm and said something in concern, and one man laughed out loud at my bedraggled state)

Right in the middle of the action

Right in the middle of the action

You can also go up an elevator for a view pretty high up

You can also go up an elevator for a view pretty high up

Which was a cool perspective

Which was a cool perspective

The Brazilian side

The Brazilian side

The final view from the Argentinian side

The Argentinian side

Temples in Kyoto

There are more temples in Kyoto than days on a Japan Railpass, but I did manage to see the Golden Palace, the Silver Palace, Ryoan-ji, and Kiyomizu Temple over the course of a couple days. I can see why people rhapsodize about them.

Kyoto temple

Kyoto temple

Ginkaku-ji (officially Jisho-ji) was built in the 15th century, and is probably nicknamed the Silver Palace as it came after construction of the gold-leafed Golden Palace. Possibly it was even going to be covered in silver foil, but that never happened, and it remains a painted wooden sculpture.

Ginkaku-ji

Ginkaku-ji

The Silver Palace, a wooden structure whose proper name is Temple of Shining Mercy

The Silver Palace, a wooden structure whose proper name is Temple of Shining Mercy

The approach to the temple was direct, but felt like a giant maze because of the huge hedges

The approach to the temple was direct, but felt like a giant maze because of the huge hedges

The grounds were extensive (I feel like a character in an Austen novel every time I say that, but it’s true). The gardens I visited in Japan were all meticulously laid out, and little arrows pointed the exact path you should follow, both to avoid congestion and to appreciate the gardens according to the aesthetic plan of the designers. The gardens at Ginkaku-ji were flowering beautifully, and the large raked rock garden (it is a Zen temple) was a perfect complement to the leafy trees.

Lovely gardens

Lovely gardens

Seriously lovely

Seriously lovely

Another view from the hill walk

Another view from the hill walk

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Palace, was super crowded–it’s one of the most popular destinations in the country, for domestic and foreign tourists alike. There’s a little spot set aside for photos of the gilded palace across the pond. Trying to elbow in for a photo in front of the fence was a bit of work. A Japanese teenager tried to take a photo with me–with me as the tourist attraction. I declined. Was that so different from taking a photo of the women in line with me at the kabuki theater? I like to think it was, since I chatted with the women in line before asking for a photo, but I’m not sure.

Golden Palace

Golden Palace

May was a great time to visit, with everything in bloom

May was a great time to visit, with everything in bloom

Finding space to get this shot was an exercise in patience

Finding space to get this shot was an exercise in patience

The palace a large house on stilts. It was originally the villa of a wealthy man; another man bought it later and then asked that it be turned into a Zen temple upon his death. So he got to enjoy the lavish place for himself and then piously give it over to religion–nice one! The original structure was burned down by a disturbed novice monk in 1950, and it has since been rebuilt. The hill walk here was far less impressive than that of the Silver Palace. I’m glad about that, actually, since I take it to mean that I’m getting a little better at distinguishing among the Japanese gardens I’ve seen, and determining which are more pleasing.

I love the temple gates

I love the temple gates

In the gardens of Ryoan-ji

In the gardens of Ryoan-ji

A view of the rock garden of Ryoan-ji

A view of the rock garden of Ryoan-ji

Ryoan-ji is part of the World Heritage listing of Kyoto, and it’s famous for its Zen rock garden, which has kept the same arrangement since the 15th century. The grounds are huge, and they include a large pond with ducks (which are apparently rare here), and a little fox shrine on a tiny island on the pond. Up the hill was the building. Everyone had to remove their shoes before entering, which is actually the first time I’d encountered that in a religious temple in Japan. (I removed them at every temple in Thailand.)

Teenagers in traditional dress, taking a selfie

Teenagers in traditional dress, taking a selfie

A miniature of the rock garden, so you can see the layout

A miniature of the rock garden, so you can see the layout

The rooms behind the rock garden were empty except for these beautifully painted screens

The rooms behind the rock garden were empty except for these beautifully painted screens

The rock garden is enclosed in a large stone fence. There are 15 rocks, set in carefully raked gravel/gray sand. I couldn’t get a good angle to see the whole garden at once, which is apparently intentional; you’re meant to sit and reflect on the portion you can see, and take meaning from that. You’re also only able to see 14 of the 15 rocks from any one point on the viewing pavilion, because you can “see” the final rock when you reach enlightenment. It would have been peaceful to sit there and reflect, but there were a lot of people and they all talked loudly, so that didn’t happen.

Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu-dera

One last temple before sundown

One last temple before sundown

Detail on one of the structures at Kiyomizu

Detail on one of the structures at Kiyomizu

Picture perfect

Picture perfect

Getting to Kiyomizu Temple was more of a journey than I’d expected. I took a bus, walked up an endless hill, which finally turned into old Edo period buildings, and eventually I reached the shrine. It was a large complex, set around the edge of the hill, so for the first part you stood on the patio and looked across the ravine to a pagoda. (“Jump off the ledge at Kiyomizu” is a Japanese idiom similar to “take the plunge”–if you could jump 13 meters from the pavilion to a spot below, you’d get your wish. Not everyone survived this plunge.)

A peek at the pagoda

A peek at the pagoda

Up close

Up close

I saw what looked to be overflow on stock of religious sculptures on my walk through town

I saw what looked to be overflow on stock of religious sculptures on my walk through town

Then I walked along the rim of the valley to that pagoda and looked back at the buildings there, with the city off to the side and the sun starting to set. It was all picturesque, as just about everything in Japan was. Because I was there at closing, I didn’t get to to see the waterfall for which the temple is named, so, next time.

Goodbye, Kiyomizu and Kyoto

Goodbye, Kiyomizu Temple and Kyoto