After the hot Sahara camel safari we had a long driving day to the cooler climes of the Todra Gorge, basically a chance to cool off, relax, and go for a wander. There was even a pool! And tepid showers!
It was more of a temperate climate in the gorge which was a nice change, though made the swim a little cool.
We were mostly just chilling out here, the tour guide took it upon himself to try and play the recorder – he can't – it was like being back in primary school… my sister took one for the team by going to talk to him providing crucial diversion. Later on half of us went and hid in the breakfast room to escape from his awful music and eventually he found us and tried to make noise there again! Needs to learn how to take a hint. also, whoopee cushions not funny past age 10, dude, especially when you're REALLY OBVIOUS about it.
Anyway griping aside we played some cards and had a relaxed evening. The next day we had to wander around and do our own thing which was great. Half the group went on a loop walk up the hills with a local guide, while our own tour guide redeemed himself after the recordering by offering to take the rest of us for a casual walk up towards the gorge and filling us in on the flora along the way.
The gorge itself is a fairly deep and narrow ravine, though it's still broad enough to lay a good solid road down one side – I see some bigwigs pulling up to stay at the hotel in the middle so a bit of money has been spent on it. Below the ravine it broadens out into a comfortable valley, with settlements clumped all the way down it around the green oasis it provides for.
The locals in that part of the valley cultivate their food in a raised area off to the side of the river, raised above it a couple of meters so protected against floods. To get the water up there they run aqueducts from further up the valley where the stream runs at a higher level, and it's alloted out into the individual plots each for a day out of every so many.
They were growing everything from staple crops to rosehip and pomegranate. One interesting tree Brahim showed us was the Tamarisk, which wikipedia tells me is cool because it can not only tolerate harsh climates, it actually draws salt up via the root system and secreting it onto its leaves, eventually salinating the soil around the tree – thus making the conditions much poorer for other plants, since salt is generally hard to tolerate. I like to think it's kind of like the plant equivalent of pouring petrol over yourself in a parking lot and going “come on then!”, no-one can really go near you.
After we split up I wandered back down and met some local kids who spoke mostly French, which sadly I didn't, and a bit of English, which we had a quick chat in about school. They were very friendly and just keen to talk. After I crossed back over the river at an auspicious point and walked up perpendicular to the river, arriving at an old almost-completely abandoned group of adobe buildings, all 1-3 stories. Most of the towns folk had I presume moved to the more modern block buildings across the river. The old ones definitely had more character but wouldn't have been as tidy to live in. It is actually a fairly sensible building material for hot climates though, so it would be interesting to see how the newer places compare if you can't afford power-hungry aircon.
I clambered up the top of the nearby hill, trying to get a GPS fix on my iphone so I could go geocaching – great view of the sky but unlike a “real” dedicated GPS unit the iphone has a lot of trouble picking up a first fix when it doesn't get the location “hint” a modern cellsite gives it (filling it in on approximately where it is and what the precise time is, which ironically is what you need in order to quickly find a GPS signal – which will then tell you exactly where you are and exactly what the time is).
The hills were very dry and hot, but there was still vastly more scrubby vegetation than in the desert we'd just come from; the hills would spring into life in Spring.
I could see the group returning from their loop walk so went down and met them through the fields, and then carried on down past the hotel to try and find a geocache, having finally got a fix. Having wasted most of the battery trying to get to that point – the iphone burns power like crazy when it's searching for a GPS fix the hard way – I ran out on the way but decided to press on and go down as far as the huge palmerie I'd seen on the drive in.
After a very hot walk down the road and into the main town I was rewarded with a great view across the palmerie, another wide stripe of fertile green in between the dry hills, like that we'd seen from above a couple of days prior – the contrast between the irrigated and unirrigated land is very dramatic. Across the river on the other side of the palmerie there was another, very scenic abandoned mud-brick settlement, rich brown in the afternoon sun.
I knew the geocache was in the palmerie there somewhere but it was pretty hopeless trying to find it with a flat battery so I just went for a walk. I was surprised to find that although the palmerie looks from side on to be mostly date palms and other tall trees and shrubs, they're actually mostly just around the walkways and borders breaking up the land area into individual plots, like the more open fields higher in the valley. So they were actually growing all sorts of things in the palmerie, not just dates.
I walked down as far as the river and after cooling off in the shade I looped back along another path. I came upon an older family – an old woman and her equally aged husband, plus I think their daughter, all engaged harvesting dates from their palm tree. I was really surprised to see these because they weren't anything like the brown dates we eat – they were bright yellow, glossy and rounded.
I mimed to ask if I could take photos of the dates (pretty sure they won't let me take photos of themselves) and maybe she misunderstood what I was asking for, but I think she was just being really nice – she made wait a minute signs and rushed off to her bucket and dug out a handful of the ripe ones, browning and shrivelling to be ready for eat, and gave them to me. Really cool.
They tasted just like regular good dates, but a bit plumper. Those that still had a bit of yellow on them didn't taste quite ready. So I guess they harvest them when they're mostly fully yellow, and then they finish ripening in the sun.
I stopped for a while above the palmerie and watched the world go by, writing in my diary (and occasionally trying to grab a taxi – not interested). People with a donkey bringing harvested dates up from the palmerie, An old man wearing wearing blue overcoats (like a British workshop man from decades ago) slowly passed by and down the path into the palmerie with a donkey-load of manure, then slowly back up again. Old women in headscarfs (usually black) and long jelabas ambled past, and another dude in a black jelaba and a little round cap stood nearby and shared the peaceful postcard-like view of the palmerie.
I cut through the newer town on the way back, where a gaggle of schoolgirls who'd been let out for the day came over to say hello, one of whom knew a little English and introduced everyone – giggles from all the rest for a few minutes until they meet up with their friends around the school.
On the walk back I met a group of guys probably in their 20s hanging around a flash bike. Did I want some kif? No thanks. We chatted for a bit amicably, mostly about the local climate and jobs, they seemed alright, but did I want to head over to one of theirs and try/buy some date palm liquor? Hmm, do I want to go with the local mini-bike-gang/drug dealers/illegal alcohol producers (this is an Muslim country)? No not really. I politely declined, citing going easy on my body, and made my excuses.
After a swim (cold!) and shower (lukewarm!) back at the hotel, dinner was “Berber pizza” made by some local woman – turned out to be kinda like a calzone. The young lads running the hotel were in a bit of trouble after having evidently drunk considerable amount of the bottle of gin Kathie left in the fridge… just a bit too tempting it seems (one had made the mistake of saying he liked gin and could he have some earlier – answer was no, since it's illegal for them to – so didn't take long to figure out whodunnit!).
All in all, a fun day, nice chance to relax and go at my own pace and meet some locals doing their own thing. Despite the exercise and trying for an early night I didn't sleep easily that night, between the ill-advised mint tea after dinner (it still has actual tea in it, so it's caffeinated), and the group of dogs having a barking contest out in front of the hotel. Still a lot more restful than Fez!
Off to Ait Benhaddou the next morning.