Day 17 - Erg Chebbi - the Sahara

Today we are going to see Erg Chebbi. As Saharan dunes go, its one of the smallest, but its still the largest in Morocco. Mike and Carol have seen it all before, and so decide to head off to the Cascades d'Ouzoud. We plan to meet them there tomorrow.

We pack everything up and head off to the dune. The going is good, and we're following well-worn tracks in the scrub. There's quite a bit of traffic heading down to the dune, including a bunch of Toyota Land Cruisers which Sam takes great pleasure in overtaking.

There's a small hill in the distance. Is that it? As we approach it becomes clear that its not a hill. Its a huge pile of sand. It goes on for miles, and must be hundreds of feet high. We approach, stop on the soft sand at the edge, and get out.

Elsa at Erg Chebbi

As usual, some children appear and take an interest. We let Abbie talk to them while Sam and I explore the sands.

Elsa plays with children

Further on, we find some palm trees and take more pictures of this remarkable place.

Palms at Erg Chebbi

Palms at Erg Chebbi

Abbie stands on a dune and contemplates existence.

Abbie of the Desert

Tracks of my Tevas

Elsa is now in what Sam hopes is her native habitat, despite having mud tyres!

Elsa on the dunes

We drive off, and Sam must now be upset that this is as far south as we will go, and from now on its all back North.

Chebbi in the distance

As we head back to Erfoud, there's an unusual noise coming from the front left side of Elsa. I get out and run along as Sam drives slowly, and it seems to be coming from the wheel. Could be the brakes. We drive slowly and carefully back to Erfoud to decide what to do.

We get back and hang out at the car park that was full of Land Rovers yesterday. The same guide comes over to talk to us. We tell him we need a mechanic, and he offers to take us to one. We drive off, and he directs us to a mechanic's shack down a side street.

The mechanic adjusts the front brakes and bleeds off the brake fluid. Luckily Sam brought plenty of hydraulic fluid for Elsa so we didn't fill her up with what ever they had in stock. The mechanic then guns Elsa down the road and slams on the brakes. The front wheels lock, but the rear keep rolling. He pulls over and tells us that the rear brakes need new pads. Sam had been told back in England that they might need replacing, and now seems to be the time.

But the parts shop doesn't open until 4pm, we are told, so that gives us about four hours in Erfoud. Our guide offers to show us the local marble factory and fossil museum. We had tried our best to avoid these tourist traps but now we seem to have been sucked into one. We wander through town to the place. As we do, Abbie attracts a swarm of little children, mostly boys, who give her little camels made from cleverly twisted and woven palm fronds.

The marble factory is quite interesting. There's a huge saw that slices metre-wide blocks of solid marble into 100 slices, with a huge flywheel at one end, 100 blades at the other, and a continuous stream of water flushing over it to keep it cool and wash out dust. It gets through about 10cm a day, we are told.

Then we get a quick tour of the craftsmen working the marble into table tops, chessboards, and other items. Then its into the shop.

We feel we have to buy something, but we try and spend as much time as possible in there, looking at everything. Sam buys some hefty bookends and I pick up some small fossil ammonites to make into pendants.

Our guide now insists we go to his cousin's carpet shop. We tell him we don't want carpets, but Sam tells him that I have a house and need lots of carpets. Thanks mate. Anyway, we end up in the basement of the carpet shop, and drink mint tea while the guide's cousin rolls out his wares and tells us how much better and cheaper they are than ones you can get anywhere else. And then somewhere in the middle of all this, he stops being his cousin and becomes his brother. Despite our guide looking african, and the carpet salesman arabic. Most curious.

We get out of there without buying any carpets, but now we have our guide's life story, told to us by his 'brother'. He used to be in the army, until he smoked too much 'kif' (dope) and went a little mad. The madness is now all under control, we are reassured.

We head back to the garage. By now Abbie has half a dozen palm camels. She's obviously very popular.

Elsa is almost ready to go. The mechanic is hammering the brake pads into place. And then its done.

But then there's the ritual of paying. Mint tea is served. A price is agreed, and Sam is happy. He's also noticed the painted testimonials to Nordine's mechanical skill on the garage door, and asks to add to them. A pot of paint and a brush appears and Sam writes a few words on the metal door.

Sam paints a tribute

In return, Nordine paints some arabic on the side of Elsa. We joke that it says 'the drugs are in the back' or 'gullible brits', but its actually a friendly greeting.

Elsa gets a tattoo

While all this is going on, I take some pictures of the local kids who seem to enjoy hanging around the garage.

Kids playing as kids do

Finally all the mechanics and children pose for more photographs, and then we drive off.

Magic Mechanic

We are more than glad to get out of Erfoud. But its getting dark. We're heading up the Ziz valley and gorge but we're not seeing the scenery. Driving on these roads is dangerous - if not for us, then for the unlit cycles and mule carts that seem to appear out of nowhere in front of us. Eventually Sam has had enough, and we don't blame him. We pull over on a flat spot with rocks high up all around in the darkness. There's nowhere to put the tent so we all pile in and sleep.

Where's Elsa?
- To The Cascades