My Journey to Stay with the Nomads
The Oasis for Lunch
For our visit to the nomads, we hired an air-conditioned 4×4 vehicle and the services of a young driver called Aziz, from Zaid the owner of Le Petit Prince. The first stop was a natural lake near Merzouga where sometimes there are flocks of flamingos. After that it was onto a market garden in a natural oasis in the desert for us to enjoy a picnic lunch with the man whose market garden it was. He worked there all alone and rarely saw people, his only trip was driving once a week to Rissani to visit his wife and children and sell his produce. We ate Berber pizza and fruit and we drank, of course, Moroccan tea or “Berber whiskey” as the gardener called it.
Later that day on our tour, we paid a visit to the village of Taouz, now half-abandoned with many of the traditional buildings gradually wasting away with the passing of time, but a few shy heads briefly popped out from their dwellings to see the visitors to their village. In general, few local people were visible – the village seemed quite abandoned, perhaps they were sheltering from the heat and enjoying the post-lunch siesta. We saw the house of Mouna’s maternal grandmother, now ¾ destroyed by time. It is a funny perhaps melancholic feeling witnessing the passing of time in that way. It is sort of sad but also calming, like a sunset.
Then it was on to the nomads who live by the side of the dunes but on the opposite side to the small town of Merzouga. We arrived there late afternoon. We looked around the camp, located and used the nomad version of a toilet (an experience in itself) and took some breathtaking photos of the desert including their goat herd, acacia trees and the sunset that was made all the more strikingly gold by the airborne sand. Mouna and her brother Youssef played soccer with the little nomad girl and Mouna sang some nursery rhymes with her in the Berber language. The child had no playmates so was very excited by our visit. As night-time darkness was approaching I spent some time getting my things in order so that I didn’t have to scratch around for them in darkness with only the benefit of the torch Youssef had given me (along with tissues, a sleeping bag and some lollies for the nomad children).
The Full Moon
As it was the night of the full-moon Youssef advised Mouna and me to watch for its ascension. We were all in the nomad tent made of camel hair, looking towards the horizon. Then all of a sudden there it was, large and luminous, in all its glory in the night sky. In that moment Youssef spontaneously outstretched his hand towards mine and I took it. His was a gesture of pure human, brotherly solidarity from a person who feels strongly the desert-pull in his veins, his father having been a nomad shepherd before their family settled into village life and he married Mouna and Youssef’s mother and entered military service, serving near the Algerian border for many years. And really when you think about it the tourist guides of the desert like Youssef are simply continuing the tradition of shepherding of their forebears.
Dinner, a chicken tagine eaten with the nomads, was at about 9.30 pm that night. We sat on carpets woven by the nomad women with a carpet of stars overhead. Youssef, Mouna and the driver who all spoke Berber talked quietly with our hosts and translated any questions I asked and answers they gave. Mouna had also mentioned to me earlier in the evening that the young nomad mother, pregnant with her second child had a sad story to tell in that her husband was in prison for a few months for failure to pay a debt.
After dinner, we all retired to our respective tents to sleep. Youssef literally tucked Mouna and me in under our blankets covering our sleeping bags! Then he proceeded to let down the sides of our tent and depart for his own. It can be cold in the desert at night but my sleeping bag and blanket were cosy and the inner darkness of the tent was comforting.
The next morning I got up early to see the dawn and then the sunrise. Later, while the nomads were cooking the breakfast Mouna and I walked some distance away to the chook pen where the stringy-looking chooks ran away from us, perhaps fearful they were being sought for the next tagine! Then after breakfast and after saying our goodbyes to our wonderful hosts, we continued our journey by making our way around the other side of the dunes back to the auberge (coming full circle), stopping off on the way at a famous large hotel overlooking the dunes called Yasmina for a coffee or freshly squeezed orange juice, where, on the contrary to the Auberge du Petit Prince, there were many rally drivers staying.
Café Run by an Australian Woman
We had also stopped off at Café Tissardmine likewise in the middle of the desert, owned and run for many years by an Australian woman and former performance artist because I wanted to meet her, check out her establishment and because I knew that she is happy to provide lunch to travelling visitors provided she is given enough forewarning and perhaps also to give us an Australian perspective on her life in Morocco. She also hosts artists on occasion, who stay a few days with her capturing the desert with their paint brushes.
Just before returning to our auberge we dropped in for a quick visit to the family of Zaid the owner of Le Petit Prince because Youssef knew them well from years before. By way of traditional greeting, Zaid’s wife proffered a fresh loaf of bread to us, cooked in the fire, and from which we each pulled a mouthful as we stood in a small circle. No butter, cheese or jam, plate or serviette, just a mouthful of honest still-warm bread, taken with the right hand (because the left is considered the one for ablutions).
Finally, we arrived back at Le Petit Prince. My friends left me to return to their routines at Erfoud and Goulmima and I stayed behind, because there was one final thing that I wanted to experience at the desert before leaving.
Next up: Part 4: Art and wisdom in the desert and returning to Australia