Friday, March 13, 2015

Lake Iriki

Getting up at 6:30 was, for once, a treat. We climbed up the nearest dune and watched the colours of the sky change as the sun emerged. Wisps of white cloud turned orange then pink. Saïd led us to the dining tent and laid out the mint tea. Then the aghroum (round flat bread), orange jam, honey, strawberry jam, yogurt, orange juice and, of course, la vache qui rit.

Back in the car to Foum Zguid via Lake Iriki. Out of the dunes, we are in the feshfesh for miles following the river bed to Lake Iriki. Hussein swings the steering wheel from left to right, trying to maintain speed so we don't sink. He very clearly loves to drive. With me white-knuckling the doorhandle as our rear end swings around, he is entirely blasé, chatting or texting on one of two phones on the go. I ask if the phones have arabic characters on the keypads. Some do, he said, but mostly we text in french because it's easier. Our revamped itinerary provides the added bonus of letting us see the breadth of the desert. We are really on the "border" with Algeria. There is a surprising amount of green. Shrubs tucked into the valleys of dunes. Much of it in flower. It rained a lot this year. Twice. It rains for a day or two. Hard. And it is enough to fill the wide oued (river bed) and then the lake for a month or so. Right after the rain, in "Mois Un" as Hussein put it, the piste becomes too dangerous as the clay beneath the sand gloms on to tires and pulls you down. In January and February, you have to make a track through the mountains to the north. The ground is at its firmest just after the standing water disappears.

Our timing is good. There are little pairs of piles of sand with rocks balanced on top every hundred metres or so, markers from Paris-Dakkar days, before it moved to South America because of the disputed border in south west Morocco. Hussein waxes nostalgic about those days. There is still a woman's rally, L'aïcha des gazelles, that comes through but I get the impression the whole region is suffering financially for the loss. In the distance bodies of water appear and disappear. Mirages. The real thing. Mirages that are entirely convincing. Again, a thought for the caravans coming through on foot.

Once we're in the bed of Lake Iriki — a lake that is nothing like a lake unless you see it in January. The only indication that it ever is a lake is the absence of arrrek or feshfesh. Every few kilometres is a little cluster of tents with plastic patio chairs or a fairly elaborate kasbah-like construction. Waiting for the tourists. What happens when the rain comes? we ask. They abandon the buildings and go back to their village, returning when the lake bed is dry. Every once in a while a colour that doesn't belong in the desert appears. Like a bright scarf dropped in a field of snow, the smallest flash of colour stands out in this monochromatic world. In the Sahara it is nomads. Distant specks of black of the goats, nomads in scarves and kaftans in electric hues, their tents lengths of colourful plastic and fabric strung from the acacia trees. They spend a few months here after the rain while the grazing is good, edging closer to civilization as the drought approaches, ending the year in the outskirts of the villages where animals can be traded for food. Occasionally we see another vehicle in the distance, charting its own parallel course through the desert — the choking cloud of dust behind them making us all the more grateful they've given us a wide berth. Once the dunes fade away to our left and we are through the lake it's back to the rocky arrek. On our right the folds of the anti-Atlas mountain range pull closer. If we were in Utah what was on the left I'd call buttes — flat-topped rocky outcroppings blown bare by the wind.

Hussein stops the car on a dark patch of rock. "Fossils', he said, 'Everywhere", waving his hand over the ground. Sure enough, it's hard to find a rock without one. Vertebrae of trilobites, big and small, encased in the dark stone, littered everywhere. With the sun beating down and the wind blowing hard it's next to impossible to imagine this bedrock once lay under a prehistoric sea.

Not far from some of the nomad tents, kids stand near the piste waving. We though they were saying hi but they're waving with no smiles in their eyes. Hussein explains that they spend their days standing there hoping for handouts of candy or money from the tourists. Hussein doesn't slow down. What is about the way a person's eyes go when they're begging? ouf...

The massive dunes of Erg Chigaga may be the most picturesque part of the Sahara but they're only one small part. We saw a sign entering the desert "Water is a treasure." Who can argue when a single day of rain a year can sustain this incredible array of plants, animals and the nomads who keep them.

We head into Foum Zguid, a town full of military buildings that underscore the conflict in nearby Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (I'd never heard of it either!) We stop at a café for mint tea. Hussein offers the kids souvenir necklaces, black beads with little pendants of the Free Man and the Southern cross, both potent Berber symbols to ward off the evil eye. Ismael is late (as usual, Hussein laughs) but eventually shows up. We shake hands, say a big, heartfelt Tanemirt Bzeff to Hussein and hit the road to Taroudant. Kangoo Away!

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