There's some fog over the orchards, seemingly resting on the rolls of netting designed to keep the birds away. There are bottles of olive oil on top of wooden boxes, at makeshift stands about every 50 feet along this stretch of road. I rarely see people anywhere near these roadside stands...
As we climb into the Middle Atlas Mountains, we are back into pines and cedars. We reach Azrou, in the heart of the Forest of Cedars. Doug tells us to start watching for monkeys, and no sooner does he say the word "monkey" than we start seeing them as they come down out of the trees. We pull over and park, and are soon surrounded.
These are macaques (also called Barbary Apes) - indigenous to the mountain forests of Morocco and Algeria, and with only a few thousand left in the wild, are an endangered species. They are about twice the size I was expecting, and pretty docile, except for the Leader of the Pack, which the locals point to, with a warning to keep clear. A young guide comes up to me with a handful of broken up crackers, and says "photo" as he hands me a few pieces. I start to toss them at the macaque closest to me, but the guide shakes his head and giving me more crackers. After a few more tosses, the guide motions to me to hold out my hand and wait for the monkey, which I do. He snaps a few photos and then leads me to his horse.
The horse - a beautiful white creature with a fairly ornate saddle, is standing next to a boulder, a convenient aid for mounting. The guide again says "photo" and I climb up onto the horse. He snaps a few more shots, and then unexpectedly grabs the reins, and starts to lead the horse into the forest.
"Oh NO!" What have I gotten myself into??? I frantically try to stop him, and when he continues down the path towards the forest, I twist around in the saddle and try to get Doug's attention. I wave at him, and he waves back. After several more yards I impress upon the guide that I'm with a group and I MUST GO BACK. He slowly turns the horse around, and Doug arrives as I dismount. "Please find out how much that escapade just cost me, I'll be back with my purse." By the time I get back from the van, Doug has negotiated the price down from 300 dirhams ($30) to about 70 dirhams ($7). I give the guide an extra 20 dirham, which puts things right and makes everyone happy.
And now I know what "photo" actually means...
I wander around for a few more minutes, picking metal sequins out of the dirt that have dislodged themselves from the horse saddles. We take a 45 minute detour in search of a tree that we had been told was the source of aspirin. Mark is a doctor, so it's pretty important to him. We drive up a rocky road and find a tree in the center of a clearing. There are signs all over the place in French, and a placard on the tree itself. It's a very tall, and very dead tree.... about 800 years old, thought to be the oldest tree in the Atlas Mountains. But it is not where aspirin comes from. We do however, see more monkeys here, scampering across the roofs of the rustic split log structures that are lined up along the dirt road.
Back onto the highway, we reach Ifrane, also known as Little Bavaria or Little Switzerland. It was built as a summer resort in 1929 by the French; the cream-colored buildings with their sharply gabled red tile roofs make the town look more like Europe than Morocco. Although Moroccans come here in the summer to escape the heat, it's also a popular ski resort in the winter. There's a very large stone lion on the main drag, surrounded by tourists, I presume another memorial to the wild lions that once roamed the countryside.
Beyond the city, we continue past cherry and plum orchards in bloom, and something that looks like ponderosa pine. There's an apple orchard, some goats, and a flock of sheep with red faces. Off in the distance I see a conical tent set into a stone wall. Here are pomegranate trees, and stone walls made from volcanic rock. Doug points out Ephreda bushes, a common desert plant useful as fire starter but for not much else. The landscape starts to shift, and there are red striated outcroppings that Doug describes as uplift from the teutonic plate activity in this area.
We are on the outskirts of Midelt, when we are pulled over at a security checkpoint, where our vehicle registration is checked, and we are asked why we don't have a tour sign on our van. The police officer asks Mohamed for 50 dirhams, but after a few more minutes of dialog, we are allowed to pass through, free of charge...
We stop for lunch in Midelt, the City of Apples - a gigantic red apple sculpture at the edge of town tells us so! At the Restaurant Diafa, most of our group orders pizza, while I welcome a salad. The corner of the mezzanine is curtained off for a prayer room, where men and women take turns behind the curtain for a few minutes of midday prayer. As we depart, we are barraged by men wanting to sell us fossils. Morocco was once a sea bed, so ammonites and other fossilized sea life are a pretty big business here.
Back in the car, we pass juniper trees, and roadside honey stands. As we pass a lake, we are pulled over at another security checkpoint, this time for speeding. The ticket is 800 dirham, but the officer will lower the ticket to 500 dirham if our driver pays it on the spot. They accept the 100 dirham that Mohamed has in his pocket, and we are back on the road. We're starting to think that checkpoint patrols are a pretty lucrative line of work here.
Well after dark, we reach Mergouza, and the Kasbah Mohayut. My. Oh. My. Even in the dark, this mud brick oasis on the edge of the desert it is very beautiful, and I cannot wait to explore it in the daylight. I find my room at the far end, and walk through a very deceptive door, into a space that I swear is bigger than my apartment. I am thankful for the directional signs that prevent me from losing my way back to the restaurant for dinner.
Dinner in the kasbah consists of two meat tagines shared amongst the group, accompanied by a plate of couscous topped with grilled eggplant. I'm exhausted and not very hungry and try to leave the table early, but the waiter would have none of that until he had served tea and dessert - a lemon-bar pastry with a torched marshmallow cream topping. It is very dense and flavorful, and I am glad the waiter was so insistent.
I wake early the next morning to see the sunrise and to explore this wonderful kasbah. After wandering around the roof and the courtyard, I follow the signs for the restaurant and am the first to arrive for breakfast. The buffet offers whatever you want to eat - as long as it is a form of bread! There's chourizo soaked in honey, and little chocolate stardrop cookies, hard rolls, soft breads, and deep fried chickpeas rolled in sesame seeds. Hard boiled eggs, cheese wedges and two styles of peanuts offer some protein. The mint tea here is not as syrupy-sweet as what we had been served up to this point, and is poured into glasses that each have a fresh sprig of mint. I drink several helpings out of the classic, ornate tea glass.
I wish I could capture the sounds and smells of this place, as I sit at the edge of one of the fountain courtyards, tea in hand, incense wafting over me... above my head an iron chandelier, with palms and birds... waitstaff wearing the blue and gold caftan that the men wear here, smiling at me as they light incense in the other four corners of the courtyard.
It is very, very hard to leave. But leave we must.
The Red Dunes await ...