THERE comes a moment in every trip when the ultimate penny drops.
Life as you know it cops a huge slap in the face, your views on the universe and everything take a major turn and you’re forced to re evaluate, well, everything.
Our moment has come and its name is the Sahara.
It was day two into our short but sweet desert adventure.
We’d left Ouarzazate and our German friends Freddie and Birte (who we’d spent the past six weeks cycling through Morocco with) and swapped peddles for a 4×4 Landcruiser to drive from stony landscapes to the windswept golden dunes of the Sahara.
Prior to that we’d spent the past two weeks dawdling around the palm tree oasis town of Skoura (taking small hikes into the Valley of Roses and eating our weight in bread and olive oil) before peddling a mightily windy 40km to Ouarzazate and it’s cheap and cheerful campsite.
It was there that Freddie and Birte copped a nasty stomach bug and after a few days of waiting it out in the hope we could continue our group travels we were forced to go on alone. We had just a couple of months left on our Europe visa and with Greece and Italy still on the hit list time was against us.
For the first time in 10 months we ditched our intrepid traveller badges for the comfortable tourist version and booked a three day desert trip with the hopes of getting a bus direct from Rissani to the bright blue mountain town of Chefchaouen.
In our cosy 4×4 Landcruiser we teamed up with the fabulous Portuguese pair Paula and Gaspar and with our polished guide Mohamed we flew past Ait Benhaddou and continued steadily east to the Sahara.
Being driven in a (comparatively) posh car was bliss and meeting such an awesome pair (who instantly became firm friends) was an unexpected bonus but what took us by complete surprise was the ultimate cultural face slap.
It started with Mohamed.
With his smart haircut, clean shaven face, designer jeans and air of great pride he seemed the epitome of a modern Moroccan but you can’t spend two days in a car with someone and not peel back the layers.
The proud Berber grew up in tribe were his family raised goats and at 15 (after a rival tribe had attempted to steal some of their livestock) his father was shot.
With just his mother they struggled on together, Mohamed working a myriad of jobs to make ends meet, before chance struck and he entered the guide business. With a fierce work ethic and even fiercer survival instinct he worked his way from the bottom to the top, buying his own Landcruiser and ultimately setting up his own business.
He revealed the huge ethnic tensions in Morocco (particularly between the Berbers and Arabs) and proved just how primitive life was for some when he veered off road to introduce us to a community of simple nomads who lived in caves.
We were far from being the first tourists to enter the grubby and dank confines of the simple dwelling (they make tea for travellers to earn a little extra) but that didn’t detract from the shock.
A huge toothless woman sat in the corner pouring tea while two of her daughters were hunched in another making rugs.
Nearby a feverish looking baby lay bundled in a blanket crying pitifully.
Later that day we drove through the jaw dropping Dades Gorge before being led to a polished hotel that seemed the essence of luxury after that small, black cave.
The following day the wind picked up and the stones turned to sand as we powered along, stopping for a brief walk in the Todra Gorge, before lunch in a tourist trap and afternoon tea in a sandy roadside stand where toothless locals put on an impromptu concert with a drum and a guitar made from an old Mobil oil can.
I was beginning to feel the magic of the desert and then we turned off road again and that magic revved up to high speed.
The wind howled as the Sahara came into view and by late afternoon we’d arrived at a small hotel and campsite right on the doorstep of epic golden dunes.
From here we were to leave our luggage and swap the car for a camel before a bloody windy two hour ride into a rustic desert camp.
And it was here we met Ali.
With bright blue robes and a voluminous blue scarf wrapped around his head and face you could see little but his round dark eyes as he held out a young looking hand and introduced himself.
He was to be our guide, leading us in and out of the dunes, and gave us a cheeky smile before leading us to our beasts of burden.
I made my acquaintance with Abdul, a relaxed “dromedary” with long, feminine eye lashes and after watching the others climb aboard I hauled myself on with the grace of an arthritic hippo and swung into the lead with Ali leading us on foot.
Riding a camel is a little like sitting on an old notched barrel that rocks and sways with alarming force.
As we left the hotel and struck east for the dunes the wind picked up while sand blasted its way into just about every orifice and despite the fact that we were all convinced the ability to have children had been painfully stripped away the scenery was jaw dropping.
I began to ask Ali simple questions and he answered shyly, apologising every few minutes for his “bad English”.
He was just 21 years old (but confessed he looked older because life in the desert was hard) and said he’d grown up in a nomad camp in the black desert, just a stone’s throw from the Algerian border.
His father was a shepherd and his brothers sold camels but dromedaries were an expensive commodity and life was hard.
Years before (when the border between Algeria and Morocco was open) he said the men would cross over to buy their camels (roughly four times cheaper on the other side) but that had long become impossible.
It was 7.30pm the rustic camp came into view and we hauled our aching thighs off the beasts and wobbled in.
There was no toilet and no permanent building – just bamboo sticks propping up heavy canvas – and we threw our backpacks into the sandy tents while our thoughts turned to dinner.
It seemed Ali was our guide, cook and overnight companion and when we offered to help him prepare the tagine he was stoked.
He explained that his mother had taught him to cook and we soaked up his skill at deftly layering the tagine to ensure all the vegetables and meat achieved the perfect level of tenderness.
Over dinner we plied with him questions and slowly Ali told us his story, getting more and more open, animated and cheerful.
It was a simple one. He’d grown up in a nomad camp where only the very rich had solar panels and the rest lived by the light of the sun or the dim flicker of a candle.
Education was to them like the word alchemy is to us: a little confusing, very hard to achieve and vaguely misunderstood.
He said he and his brothers went for a short time to a sort of school that didn’t have exams or tests but intelligence exists whether you have text books or not and in the two years Ali had been a camel guide he had learned to communicate in English, French and Arabic.
His life long dream, he said, was to also learn Italian and travel to Europe. He admitted he had no interest in marrying a Moroccan girl (to the shock and disgust of his mother) and instead wanted to marry a European. It had been two months since Ali had seen his family (he worked seven days a week) but he nevertheless reiterated his gratitude at finding tourists who were willing to talk with him.
“People promise they’ll stay in contact with me and send me photos but they never do,” he said.
That night Paula, Gaspar, Scott and I slept in our makeshift beds under a pile of heavy blankets while Ali slept under the stars but while I waited for sleep to come (while trying to breathe shallowly in a bid to avoid inhaling the Sahara) my mind was reeling.
At 6.30pm we crawled out of camp and jumped back on the camels to ride to the nearby Erg Chebbi dune (at 150 metres high) before walking back to the hotel for breakfast and a shower.
After jumping aboard Ali said he’d catch up later and let the camels march off on their own with four nervous tourists wondering what the hell would happen.
We knew it was his idea of a funny joke but after half an hour he still hadn’t reappeared and in that time the camels had begun to treat the well worn tracks with disdain and even broken into a bone shattering trot.
Eventually Ali reappeared, laughing at the joke, and we jumped off to climb to the top of the dune.
Climbing a sandy peak is like swimming through a pool of cement. What looked like 10 minutes work was three times as long and five times as hard and we swore and sweated (ok that was me) before finally hauling our aching calves and thighs to the top.
Ali sprinted up in record time and we watched the world go by before all but rolling back down out of enthusiasm for breakfast.
It was almost emotional to say farewell to Ali at the end but after giving him our contact details he promised he would try and meet us later in the day at the nearby town of Rissani where we would be forced to wait for the 8pm bus to Fez.
He wanted us to meet and have lunch with his family who had recently left the desert camp to give their children an easier life.
After food and a heavenly hot shower Mohamed picked us up and took us for a last desert tour before taking us into town for a Berber pizza.
It turns out Berber pizza is like an enormous meat pie with about five times more chilli and after scoffing it down and saying our goodbyes we found a cafe and prepared for the long wait.
At 3pm Ali trundled into view on his brother’s rusty old bike and we gave him a warm hug and again talked about life and our families.
It was a little late for a family lunch so he instead said he would rush home and bring back some olive oil and bread before we left for the bus.
I felt so humbled by sweet and cheerful Ali that I decided I wanted to give him something too.
We bought him a small money box and put some small notes in it before writing “travel money” on the lid.
When he returned we shared oil and homemade bread before handing over the gift.
He was mortified to receive money and it was only my loud accusations of being horribly offended if he refused it that he eventually conceded defeat.
Despite that, I had the awful feeling I’d done the wrong thing and unforgivably embarrassed him.
Later, while sitting in the bus my mind churned.
His story wasn’t unusual, his circumstances weren’t unique, but regardless I’d never felt so ashamed of my wealth.
And it wasn’t just money. I knew that Australia was a lucky country, I knew our lives were profoundly easier but I’d never realised just how much. I’d read the horror stories of poverty stricken Africans online and donated money to Oxfam but I’d never truly understood it – maybe you never can until it’s sitting right in front of you.
Ali had a job and he had a small income but it was his happy go lucky attitude that struck me to the core. I’d complained (recently too) over the lack of hot water in my hostel and the restrictions of my small travellers’ budget and ranted over those “dodgy Moroccans” who tried to scam us out of a few dollars but to so many people I had wealth beyond comprehension.
On the long nine our bus ride to Fez I realised I had to live differently. Because even if I had nothing, not even a dollar in my bank account, I was still lucky beyond belief. I could go home and have safety and security, I still had an education and the luxury of a supportive family and I had the ability to do almost anything I wanted. It was tough not to be humbled by that.
When the bus arrived at Fez an hour early (4.30am) we rubbed our bloodshot eyes and wandered over to the only thing open: the train station.
Train stations are the one thing in Morocco that often outdo their western counterparts. They’re modern, fancy, clean and packed with upperclass cafes and shops and it was for this reason that I believe the security guards almost refused us entry.
The bikes didn’t make the cut at all.
We left them outside and stumbled over to a cafe where we indulged in extortionately priced coffees in a bid to wile away the time until the city came to life.
Besides Casablanca, Fez has one of the most negative reputations in Morocco. It’s big, ballsy and full of aggressive hawkers and “guides” and cops a lot of flack from guide books that warn of the petty crime.
We had no desire to stay there and so the minute the shops opened we skipped across town to a different bus station and booked a one way trip to Chefchaouen.
Four hours later, with serious sleep deprivation sinking in like a bad hangover, we arrived.
Over the course of two bus rides the scenery had gone from sand, to rocks and slowly green mountains covered in wild flowers and goats as we once again landed in the north.
There was another thing these infamous mountains were also covered in and that was marijuana.
Morocco is the biggest exporter of “chocolate” (as they call it) in the world and the Rif (the northern region of the country) is where it all comes from. While you’re likely to earn a long and painful stint in a dodgy Moroccan prison if you’re caught carrying even a little of their “chocolate” ironically, it’s not illegal to grow the stuff (and why would it be considering the income it generates).
We felt a little nervous to be in the drug capital of the country but the minute Chefchaouen came into view we were bowled over.
Much of the city is washed in a bright blue paint (traditionally to deter mosquitos) and with its steep streets and charming medina it’s become one of Morocco’s most beautiful.
As we weaved our way uphill into the city’s heart a Mediterranean style intwined itself in the guise of vine crowned alley ways and colourful flowers that hung from walls, ceilings and windows. It was pure magic.
For obvious reasons Chefchaouen is a big tourist destination but whether it was the constant whiff of “chocolate” or the mountain vibe there was nothing that screamed brass and tacky. Hawkers were even more relaxed and prices were surprisingly low.
We booked into a clean and beautifully decorated hotel for just six euros each and lapped up a gloriously hot shower while marvelling at the comfortable mattresses.
There was another reason it was great to arrive in Chefchaouen: we were meeting up with an “old” friend.
Franck, the bright and bubbly French cyclist who had joined us for the first two weeks in Morocco, had done an entire loop of the country while we faffed about in the mountains and desert and would now spend a few days with us before we continued on together by bike to Tanger and the ferry.
We also had another day with Paula and Gaspar and so after food and a long sleep we set off to explore the city the following day.
Within hours we were in love and even a long walk uphill to the Spanish mosque (that overlooks the town) couldn’t dampen our spirits.
We’d planned to spend the afternoon hiking in a nearby mountain with a natural bridge and waterfall but after discovering one of the medina’s hotels served alcohol we ditched those plans a little too easily and instead swapped exercise for beer.
Chefchaouen is the kind of place travellers come for a day and find themselves still lounging around two weeks later and if it hadn’t been for the fact we’d booked our ferry to Italy I knew we’d be in danger of doing the same.
The following day we farewelled our Portuguese friends and geared up for our last few days in Morocco with Franck.
Amid far too many crepes, soups and sweets we looked over the last (almost) two months. We’d climbed north Africa’s highest mountain range, climbed sand dunes in the Sahara, met kind, warm and generous locals, been invited to a wedding and made life long friends.
It was hard to believe this wonderful, frustrating and life changing leg was almost over but the prospect of a new country had its own allure and with the next major stage of the Long Rode Home (from Turkey to China) now on the horizon it was hard not to feel pumped.