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Sahara Misadventures

A Moroccan Road Trip

sunny 40 °C

Normally we spare you, our readers, the minutia of our day to day life on the road. Partly because its more interesting to write about life here but largely we don't have time to write all the little things that happen in our day today life. Sometimes, a tale of excitement and misadventure simple needs to be told in all the little details. So go grab yourself a glass of wine, curl up on the couch and marvel at the fun and foolishness of the McNouyes, for this is such a tale...

Our original plan for Morocco was to start in Fes and work our way over ten days up to Tangier then take the ferry to Spain. After a little bit of soul searching we decided the kids would get a lot out of a trip to the Sahara. Now to be fair, we knew it was going to be a lot of driving for one day in the desert, but for a little taste of the worlds largest and most famous one we reckoned it was worth it.

Day one of our road trip is covered in the previous blog post but the short version is that we did a lot of driving, saw some cool ruins and wound up in a town with no guide book, no internet service, no Arabic and pigeon French. After a little driving around we stumbled across "Le Panorama" a little hotel that could have been dropped from the 1950 Alps directly into rural Morocco which was even adorned with photos of the hotel in the snow. As if to complete the time and cultural warp, the receptionist laid into Audrey numerous times for not writing legibly enough when completing the extensive paperwork required to sign in. If it wasn't for the Arabic accent, you would have sworn that we were being scolded  by an uptight abrupt German.

In the morning we had a leisurely French breakfast and got on the road at about ten; after all we only had about 500km to drive that day and we had made reasonable time the day before. Shortly after departing we had a nice long stop to see some Berber Apes and drink some fresh orange juice on the side of the road. The kids loved watching the apes and we snapped a gazillion pictures with babies that couldn't even walk, teenagers that were fighting with their brothers and adults grooming each other. On the road again for a bit and we needed to stop for lunch.
Apes on the side of the road
A nice place for lunch
It turns out that to get to the Sahara you first need to drive through a few mountains; there is actually a reason that the rain doesn't get there from the coast. The road between Fes and Merzouga starts off fairly straight but the last half of the distance has stunning scenery and very slow driving. When we were pulled over at 7pm and had to pay a 50 euro fine on the spot to the police for having Taro in the front seat (some might call it a bribe) we were starting to realize that we were not going to be pulling into our hotel in central Merzouga until well after dark. Couple that with the fact that the kids had not yet had dinner and we were really trying to make up some time for our previous lolly gaging.

At 9.30, we finally pulled into Merzouga. Determined not to be caught with our pants down again, we were armed with google maps, a GPS phone app and the booking.com map to find the hotel we had booked.  At the main square we pulled over and were consulting our map when a helpful stranger came up to ask if he could help us find our hotel. He informed us that our hotel was not in town but in fact 20km away.  And yes, he could also take us to another hotel right in town.

This isn't exactly our first rodeo, and the hotel closed/moved/not here misdirection is pretty much the oldest one there is; this one was textbook. Tourists arrive in town and are greeted by someone telling them their hotel burned to the ground last week or some other tale and steer them to another one that pays a fat commission. Besides, we had three maps telling us that our hotel was in the middle of town. We picked up our cell phone, called the hotel and were told that yes, we needed to drive 14km back the way we came and someone in a jeep would be waiting for us by the side of the road to escort us to the hotel. I guess the helpful stranger in the middle of Morocco was actually just a helpful stranger.

At ten o'clock met the jeep and he offered to drive for us. Given that I am the only one insured on the rental car, we declined and were told it was 20min to the hotel from here. Great, twenty more minutes on top of our already long day...

Now I didn't read all of the fine print, but off roading in a tiny Hyundai on the edge of the Sahara probably isn't covered for our rental agreement.  Getting stuck in a sand dune almost certainly voids the warranty but that's what we did.  Three kids in the car, eleven at night and we bottom out in a sand dune in what seemed like the middle of the Sahara. Some light pushing and grunting later and our car is moving again and we pulled into our hotel moments later. Finally after nearly an hour of off roading on the desert (20 minutes was apparatly for jeeps), we fed our kids some bread and cheese for dinner and collapsed into bed.
I wonder why we are the only car in the parking lot?

Picture for a moment the Sahara desert. If you are thinking of some combination of sand dunes, camels and hot you are right on the money. At night you can't see the camels or dunes, but you can still feel the heat and A/C is sure a nice touch. Or at least it would be a nice touch I think. I don't know because our lovely little hotel in the middle of the desert had none and it was probably the hottest night  I have ever experienced. The kids were up numerous times, Taro took a shower in the middle of the night and Audrey invented a new form of "human AC" where you blow on your own sweaty body to cool yourself. No fan, no AC and a crazy hot night in the desert.

We woke up only slightly rested to another meal of bread and cheese. Feeling exhausted and getting slightly constipated (how much cheese can one really eat in two days?) and we decided that our best bet was to spend another night in the baking hot desert hotel. The logistics of us driving back to town, getting internet (there was none where we were) and finding another place to stay would have burned up most of the day and we were only planning to spend two days in the desert. So we resigned ourselves to another sleepless night, but vowed to enjoy our day in the Sahara.

A swimming pool on the edge of the Sahara. Go figure.

And enjoy we did.  Our little place was in a group of hotels beside a fresh water oasis on the edge of the Sahara. Our hotel had a little pool that was uncomfortably cold to swim in (go figure), camels all around and was surrounded mountains of sand. We spend the day cooling ourselves in the pool, eating and walking around. As you might expect, our car was the only one in the parking lot as most people are here as part of a tour group to do trips out on the Sahara. Several groups were coming and going in the morning and evening either for their night under the stars or to and form connecting transport. No one else actually drove on their own out to the middle of the desert.

Been there, dune that.

At sunset we set off on our camel ride through the dunes with a snowboard in hand. That's right a snowboard. After a picturesque ride up the mountains of sand, we hopped onto the snowboard and surfed out way down. The boys each scaled the mountain numerous times and rode their board down the drifts. In case you're wondering why no one has built sandboarding lifts in the Sahara, you do not get very much speed surfing down a dune; there is far too much friction. It is a lot of fun none the less and climbing those hills makes for tired kids.
Hey, nice legs baby!


Fun on the dunes.

We hit the hay again for another restless night, taking turns in the shower to cool off. In the morning we got on the road at 9.30am, determined to get an earlier start than our previous two days of driving. Ahead of us lay 500km to Marrakesh, our final stop in Morocco. We got an escort from the hotel almost to the road (it is much less frightening during the day) but the desert driving was again slow going. After just over an hour we got to the first town, and then we were going.

Well, "going" is all relative. The roads were slow in Morocco, and we were averaging around 70km/hr. The flat stretches of road we could get going pretty quick but the number of small towns in between really slowed us down. When we pulled into Ouazazate at 4pm we had 200km to go. There were very few towns between Ouazazate and Marrakesh so we should make better time on the final 200km. Maybe it would only take two hours. Three at worst.

After a nice leisurely Moroccan meal Audrey and I thought the kids could use a little time to blow off some steam and Ouazazate is billed as Moroccos Hollywood (Mollywood) and one of the studios has tours you can go on to see all of the wonderful sets and desert scenes of things that have been shot there. Game of Thrones, Cleopatra, Gladiator, James Bond films and countless other movies have been shot there. We had a nice tour,walked around the sets and explained to the kids the difference between real buildings and movie fronts. After a nice hour of strolling around we decided that 6 o'clock was a good time to hit the road for our last couple hours and maybe arrive into Marrakech for a late dinner. Just before we jumped into the car we casually asked someone how far the remainder of the trip was.

Maybe we thought there was a language barrier. Maybe we thought he didn't actually know where Marrakech was. Maybe we were just too happy to delude ourselves into thinking that we only had 2 hours left that we just completely weren't ready for another 4 hours on the road. The "4 hour" answer went in one ear and out the other. And as it turned out this was not only 4 hours, but probably the most challenging 4 hour drive I have ever done.

For most of the last 200km we were averaging 20km/hr, snaking our way up and  down the side of mountains. The road was filled with trucks making their way painstakingly over the pass into Marrakech and aggressive cars were trying to pass them whenever a few car lengths were free in front of the trucks. The trucks would often sit in the middle of the lane and not give the less sane drivers squeeze past but the trucks were not what was slowing us down, the road was crazy.

I can't even tell you how insane the road was. A narrow two lane road that worked its way through the mountains that was built with some serious budget restrictions. While the road had a great surface and there were guard rails for much of the way (except for the places where they had been knocked out) there were no tunnels and no where that the natural valleys had been filled. This meant that the road would wind its way with switch backs up the side of a mountain, follow a narrow valley to the next mountain then wind all the way back down. Often Audrey and I would have a glance around a corner and down the mountain in awe of where the road was taking us. There were no hotels for us to stop in though we were not in the middle of nowhere; small towns still dotted the mountainside on our journey.

When we finally pulled into Marrakech well after 10pm (the kids again had not eaten) and we were relying on google maps and the booking.com info to find our place. The Riad (hotel) had told us to call when we got downstairs and they would meet us on the road. Google maps took down a road that gradually got more narrow and less travelled until it just stopped at a doorway that had enough room for pedestrians and a few motor bikes driving throught. Our other map brought us to another impasse that was geographically close but ended in a pedestrian walkway along the narrow streets. A phone call to the Riad and we had a motor bike escort to find parking. He drove us back the way we came to the our original dead end. Only it wasn't a dead end.

It turns out that with a small enough car you can actually drive though something that looks like it is only for pedestrains. Our motor bike escort drove through the doorway, and beckoned us to follow. Very apprehensively we tucked in our mirrors and inched ourselves through the door as the locals glared at us for taking up the road for so long. A few moments later we were parked and with luggage in hand, walking toward our hotel.

At 11pm, tired and frazzled I sat down and had my first beer since arriving in Morocco. I was very happy to be returning the car first thing in the morning and put an end to my first African driving experience

Posted by McNouye 06:35 Archived in Morocco Tagged road_trip sun sahara sandboarding family_travel misadventure Comments (6)

A Wonderfully Epic Day in Morocco

35 °C

By Audrey
Today was one of those days that was so full that my head is swelling.  I am sipping a large glass of red wine and eating olives while sitting in a (formerly) opulent hotel in a small village in the middle of rural Morocco after a day with a car rental that didn't work out, a tannery tour by a local guy, a tour of an ancient ruin and arriving in a town with no hotel reservation, no internet, no guide book and signs only in Arabic at 8 o'clock at night. With that said, there was no melting down, whining, or vomit and generally happy children (and parents) all day.  It was definitely an epic day in a really wonderful way.

We started the day with a hike to the tannery in the ancient medina of Fes.  The Medina is a maze of tiny streets enclosed by a massive wall where time has not touched for hundreds of years. The Medina is likely over a thousand years old and when you enter, you give up all hope of ever finding your way back without help.  I hesitate to call it pedestrian only, as it is used by people, carts, donkeys, horses, the occasional motorcycle, giggling children, women buying produce and lots of happy cats and some eating chicken heads.  You never really know what is around each corner. The alleyways are very tiny and we even saw some that were only tall enough for Kaito to walk through and they even had little mini doors which I can't even guess where they would lead to.  You could imagine coming face to face with a character from Game of Thrones at any minute.  It was busy, but not so busy that you couldn't stop for a pleasant chat en Francais, do some shopping or have a really strong espresso.  You might find a man making wooden buckets by hand or chiseling a marble tablet, a few boys kicking around a football, horses carting 10-20 propane tanks, men hauling in bags of cement and hauling out construction waste or a cart full of fresh herbs.  Considering all of this, the doors and doorways are ornately carved and painted and everything was surprisingly clean.  Not at all like the slushy alleyways in Varanasi, India or the dirty streets of Asia.

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One of the loveliest things about traveling is being open to local folks taking you to their shop, to see a great view and to show you around.  We met an 'unofficial' guide, Bushkar, who took us to see some breathtaking views and later offered to show us the tanneries.  I was a little nervous about going to the tanneries on my own with just the kids but as it turned out, our guide was from the area and waved or shook hands with most of the locals as we floated through the streets. 

In the meantime, Dave was arguing with the car rental company that agreed to rent us a car and then today said that they didn't have one available.  So, Dave was tasked with finding a rental car and at 'day of' prices.  Like a champ, Dave found us another rental - yay!   Driving out of the old city felt like time travel as we drove out of the 9th century and into the 21st century.

We piled into the car to drive to the ancient ruins of Volubilis.  We were unable to find a map in anything other than Arabic so we were on our own with our phone gps.  Before long, we missed a turn and had to drive out of the way along a rural country road through olive orchards where we saw several sheppards, yes real sheppards watching their flocks of sheep.  In fact, we later saw many herds of sheep and even camels being watched by their sheperds.  Time stands still once again. 
The city of Volubilis was built by the Romans over 2500 years ago and housed about 20,000 people.  The limestone used for building was taken from a nearby mountain and transported by horse and wagon.  The area is famous for olives and we learned how they made olive oil 2000 years ago.  The ornate mozaic tile floors were still mostly intact and only slightly faced.  There were pictures of Zeus fighting with two snakes and killing a lion as well as Hercules and many other roman characters.  We learned that the Romans raised money to build the Coliseum in Rome by charging to use the toilets in Volubilis and that they later housed the lions for faught at the Coloseum. It was all very cool.

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We ended this very full day with an overnight stop in a town called Azrou and were very lucky to find a room and a large glass of wine.

Posted by McNouye 15:05 Archived in Morocco Comments (3)

On the Road Again

Hey, where did the blog go? Half way into your trip and you guys just stop blogging all of a sudden. What did somebody die or something?

Well, actually yes. My dad, Jim McMillan passed away at the end of March and within 12 hrs of getting the call we we on a boat off of Koh Phagnan making our way back to Edmonton. After 27 hrs of travel we had a tearful reunion with my mom and the rest of the family. The last month has been a blur of writing the eulogy, preparing for the funeral, cleaning up the house, helping mom and planning the next leg of our trip. In a very sad way, it was great to spend so much time with family; there is nothing like a death to bring everyone close together.

We decided to spend a month in Edmonton and head to Morocco, Spain and Frannoonather than going back to Asia. Audrey went first to Toronto with the kids where she spent 4 nights visiting family and we flew separately to Madrid where we met yesterday morning.

Illusionists in Madrid

After some sightseeing in the afternoon we all crashed from jet lag shortly after 7. Audrey and I both opted not to set our alarms since we needed to leave at 11am what were the chances all 5 of us would sleep in? Fortunately I awoke at 10.30, got everyone up and rushed out the door for our afternoon flight. We got to the airport 2.5 hrs ahead of time got in line to check in for our Ryanair flight to Fez, Morocco. After standing in line to check in we were told we needed to check in online at least 2 hrs ahead of time so we scrambled to do this on our phones and missed the deadline by mere seconds. The fee for a late check in was 45€ per person; a non trivial amount considering the cost of the flight was 15€ each. 220€ and some vocabulary expansions for our children later and we were checked in and ready to board. A little reminder to always read the fine print, especially for no frills airlines.

So we are now on the plane to Fez where we plan to spend 3 weeks going from central Morocco through Spain to southern France where we will meet Audrey's English cousins. Just to add an extra challenge, this time around we decided to do it all with carry on luggage instead of our big bags so we have taken the pack light philosophy to new levels and really stripped things down. No more travel "luxuries" like shoes and a big fancy camera; we are down to flip flops and a point and shoot.

Welcome to Morocco

Audrey and the kids have never been to Africa before and this is my first time in the west. It is, after a bleary eyed month in Edmonton, good to be on the road again.

Posted by McNouye 15:29 Archived in Canada Comments (2)

Four Countries in Five Days

We decided it was time to finally move onto our beloved Thailand from India and we might as well stop in Malaysia on our way. We knew that there was a recently opened Legoland in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and Audrey and I decided to surprise the kids. We told them we there were some really nice temples in Malaysia and we were going to be stopping by for a couple days to blitz a couple temples. Here was our rather ambitious itinerary:

Day 1: Take a local bus for many hours to Kochi (Audrey's birthday present)
Day 2: Wonderla (see http://mcnouye.travellerspoint.com/143/)
Day 3: Get up at 5 am to fly from Kochi to Johar Bahru (JB)
Day 4 and 5: Legoland
Day 6: Singapore
Day 7: Get up at 5 am to fly to Thailand

All sounds totally reasonable with 3 kids, right?

Things went exactly as planned for the first few days. Audrey spent her birthday getting jostled and bounced around for about 4 hours on an Indian bus (during which time she added her contribution to Ammas Ashram http://mcnouye.travellerspoint.com/142/). Through sheer luck the bus ended up dropping us off right at the door of our hotel in a city of two million people. Trust me when I say that no amount of planning in India could have worked out so perfectly.

The next day we spent a fun and interesting time in Wonderla, got to bed early and up at 5 am for a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia then a second short domestic flight to Johor Bahru to surprise the kids at legoland.

Legoland, a bit of first world fun.

We arrived later in the evening, had a quick meal and went to bed. One of the first things that struck us about Malaysia was how incredibly well developed it was. There were roads where people actually followed the lines, nice new cars, very friendly people and a great hotel. After spending two months in India and Sri Lanka our bar was set fairly low and we were really amazed at how nice the cities are. It is comforting step onto an elevator and not fear a power outage.

The next morning we were a little slow getting going with the 2.5 hr time change and travelling the day before but got to an almost empty amusement park just after lunch. We exhausted ourselves in the water park, went around the roller coasters multiple times without getting off and generally had a fun packed day. On day two we repeated the experience but Audrey was nursing a migraine and I was limping while kids were still going strong. We came back to our hotel, gobbled down some food and collapsed in bed once again. On to Singapore the next day.

Thanks mom and dad for an awesome trip to Legoland.

How many times can we go around without getting off (or getting sick)?

Now in fairness, Singapore was a complete last minute addition to the plan. Audrey and I had had a half day in Singapore on a layover during our honeymoon in which we flew through customs and had a lovely little bus ride through the city seeing a few sights. We had three days in JB this time and seeing as we could see Singapore from our hotel room and we were told that we could get there in ten minutes we figured what the heck, let's go there for a day.

The day started out at about noon when we walked to the bus station, passports in hand to find the bus to Singapore. Seeing as it was lunch time we grabbed a sleeve of Pringles and a bottle of water to keep the kids going for the time being (we were going to be in Singapore in ten minutes, right?) After an hour of walking and waiting in line we had cleared Malaysia immigration and we ready to board the bus. When asked by the bus driver where we wanted to buy tickets to my response was "Singapore." He laughed, thinking I was joking and asked, "yes, but where in Singapore?"

"Ummm..... Queen Street", I replied. It was the label on the bus and I thought it sounded good.

Ten minutes later we were in Singapore...or more precisely, we were on Singapore soil but we had to get off the bus to clear immigration customs and immigration. After waiting in line again we were cleared for entry we again in line for our bus. We talked our way onto the bus as there was standing room only after we assured the conductor we could handle standing for our little (ten minute?) jaunt over to Singapore.

Two hours later we arrived with hungry and exhausted kids at our destination: Queen street, Singapore.

As it turns out, asking to go to "Singapore" is a little like taking a bus to "Toronto." You end up getting dropped off somewhere in a city with no internet, no guide books, no local currency and hungry kids at 3 pm. We saw a Subway restaurant and dragged the complaining kids there to get some calories into us all. With everyone fed we figured out which way it was to the harbor front and started making our way through the streets and malls to the subway station. At 5 o'clock we had some money and were ready to get the train to the harbour when Audrey pointed out that we had a 3 hr trip back to JB and needed to be up in less than 12 hrs to be on a plane to Thailand. After apologizing to the kids we turned around and walked back with our tail between our legs to Queen street bus terminal and got on the bus back to Malaysia.

Thanks mom and dad for the really crappy trip to Singapore.

The next day we were up early, again, this time for two plane flights, a two hr bus ride and a two and a half hour ferry to Koh Phagnan in Thailand. The five of us, all exhausted, collapsed in our lumpy beds and slept like babies on this beautiful island. I think we will be staying here and catching up on homeschooling for a couple weeks. No more 4 countries in 5 days for us!

Posted by McNouye 09:09 Comments (2)

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