Posts Tagged With: sand

They Don’t Call It Iceland For Nothing

We’ve been variously too busy or to exhausted for the last couple of nights to keep up with daily blog posts, and as of about 6 hours ago as I type this, we are in Paris. So this is going to be a quick “catch up” post, heavy on the photos, to wrap up our stay in Iceland.

I’ll go through our last two Icelandic days (Sept 14 and 15) in more or less chronological order, with one big exception, which was our excitement on the night of Friday the 14th. At about 8 PM we were almost home from a day of legendary photographic luck — which is to say, clear sunny skies and mild temperatures — when Janet suddenly screamed, “The aurora!” This seemed improbable since the aurora prediction gave it a very low probability for that night, and we had barely seen it a few nights earlier when the prediction called for high activity. Which only goes to show that aurora forecasts can be as wildly off base as weather forecasts, for there was indeed a greenish glow in the sky that an hour or so later looked like this (admittedly with a 5 second time exposure):

To which I can only say, “Ta-da!” It shimmered, it moved, it waxed and waned, it was cooler than all get-out. This was only the second time in my life that I had seen it, and the (very excited) first for Alice, Janet, and Tim. It was Iceland coming through for us, bigly.

The day began promisingly enough, as we walked out of our farm bungalows to a beautiful day. Here is our cabin, complete with waterfall on the cliffside behind us. (You can just see it to the left of the of the peak of the rooftop.)

We had a couple of major ice-related destinations that day, all of them various aspects of the Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón glaciers. (You may have figured out by now that “jökul”, pronounced “yerkle”, means “glacier”. At the end of a word it has two L’s and is for some reason pronounced “yerktle”, with a T-sound stuck in there to keep you of balance.)

Anyway, these two masses of ice are pretty close to each other, which created a large number of opportunities for Janet and me to shout “Stop the car!” so that we could get out and photograph one or another random roadside vista like this one.

I mean, seriously, this location wasn’t even flagged as a scenic viewpoint or anything. It was just there, reflecting in a big puddle.

Our first “official” stop was the so-called “Diamond Beach” at the foot of Jökulsárlón. Why do they call it the “Diamond Beach”? Oh, I dunno. Probably because of all the little glacier bits flowing around in the surf, like this:

You will note that the sand is black, which heightens the effect of a landscape of 50,000-carat diamonds displayed on a field of black velvet. Adding to the surrealism is the speedy current exiting the lake from which the bergs originate, castoffs from Jökulsárlón. There is a narrow throat where the lake empties into the sea, and so the ice chunks bob and swirl around, bumping into each other and eddying in the surf.

That lake, just a few hundred meters upstream from the Diamond Beach, is itself quite the sight, since it is basically the collection point for all the icebergs that calve off of Jökulsárlón at this location.

The lake is otherwise very still, and you can rent kayaks or a buy a ride in a Zodiac boat to weave in and out of the bergs. The lake was also full of seals: we counted at least a dozen, barking and sounding and clapping their flippers against the water.

Just a few miles down the road was another location where we could get up close and personal with Jökulsárlón. There, the tongue of the glacier extruded into a smaller lake, virtually tiled with small bergs and floes that made it seem as though, if you were sufficiently careful and balanced, you could gingerly walk or hop from one to the next and so approach the face of the glacier itself. And by “sufficiently careful”, I mean, “You would without any doubt whatsoever fall in and drown whilst freezing to death.” Here’s the scene from the top of the access path:

…and from lake level:

And here is Alice doing her best Ice Queen:

Her cheery photogenic smile completely masks her bitter complaints about getting a cold wet butt just so I could get a “We were There” photo.

We headed back to the farm in Vik (population 300, not counting us), then, realizing that this might be the last clear skies we’d have, turned around and headed back into town to visit Reynisfjara, the best-known black sand beach in the area. Iceland is littered with such beaches, but Reynisfjara is famous for its offshore basaltic rock formations. In the northwestern US they’d be called “hoodoos”, but here they are called Reynisdrangar because, well, it’s Iceland. And they aren’t basaltic columns, they’re frozen trolls. Story goes that they originated when two trolls tried to drag a three-masted ship to land (I don’t remember why). They worked through the night — trolls can’t stand sunlight –but didn’t make it before dawn broke, and they froze into rock columns. It’s a Lot’s wife/vampire sort of thing. Anyway, here they are at sunset.

A little further down the beach is a larger, flat-topped formation that at sunset reminded me of Stonehenge. See if you agree:

As you can tell, it was a hell of a day, photographically, and it was on the way back from the frozen trolls that Janet spotted the aurora, which was the capstone of the day’s travels.

Our last day on the island, Sunday the 15th, dawned chilly, heavily overcast, and rainy, and pretty much stayed that way. In other words, it was the perfect day for an indoor activity, like strapping on crampons and mining helmets to explore frigid, drippy ice caves. So we did that.

We put on every article of clothing we had, including waterproof slickers and rain pants, and drove to the rendezvous point in Vik to board the world’s most masculine tourism vehicle, a massive 4×4 with tires the size of large toroidal children. Our guide was the equally outsized and suitably Nordic David, who took off across the black sand desert, speeding up the sides of ebon dunes and doing donuts at the top as AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blared on the sound system. It was that kind of experience. But it brought us to here:

This is where, if you go trick-or-treating, Sauron answers the door wearing a Darth Vader costume. The greenish stuff in the foreground and distant hills is moss, the only kind of ground cover that can grow here. The ominous structure in the center is our destination, part of Myrdalsjökull glacier. The reason it is black is that it is covered in volcanic grit, as were we and everything we owned after tramping around there for a while.

Myrdalsjökull actually sits above Katla volcano, essentially capping it. Except that it is really hard to cap a volcano: when it blows, along with the lava, ash, and pyroclastic flows, you get bonus flooding and chunks of glacier. This has happened in the past.

Like everything else in Iceland, Katla has a legend associated with it. Katla was a witch who owned a pair of magic pants. Someone stole the pants, and it only gets more complicated from there. Suffice it to say that like all Icelandic legends we have heard to date, it involves someone getting thrown off a cliff and someone else getting eaten, and makes no sense whatsoever. It sounds like it was written by the same guy who gave us the little girl and the gold ring and the giant magical slug living at the bottom of the lake. You’d think that with the Brothers Grimm living just across the sea in Denmark, the Icelanders could have made up more comprehensible legends.

Anyway, the point is that there are caves in the glacier face, so we set off, Hobbit-like, with our crampons and mining helmets to explore them. Look at the photo below and mentally insert “Lord of the Rings” music.

I’m sure that that photo is your image of an ideal vacation. (And for the record, I did no alteration to the colors in that photo. Everything except us really was black and white. David carried an ice axe, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to trust it to one of us, and rightly so. The ice was white or clear, and the coarse volcanic sand was black and ubiquitous, including in our clothing afterwards. So here is a view looking out from within the cave.

..and here are Janet and Tim thwarting our fiendish attempt to entomb them in ice forever so we can steal the snacks that brought along for the trip.

The inside of the caves — being ice — was wet, cold, slippery, gritty, and very dark, with claustrophobically low ceilings. The walls were sculpted into smooth pained-looking curves, like the sky and face in the famous Munch painting, “The Scream.” There were rivulets of glacial runoff running across the crude path, spanned by short, narrow planks that we had to negotiate while crouching. Our mining helmets were a strict necessity both for the light and the overhead protection. It is not for nothing that movies like “Aliens” get filmed here and elsewhere in the area; the whole place just seems not of this Earth.

It’s kind of ironic that the last outing we had in Iceland was all in shades of black and white, since the previous day had given us such colorful skies, culminating in the aurora. But it’s that kind of place, all extremes. It was a great ten days and we felt like we had really seen much of the country. As I type this Janet and Tim are en route home to Ohio while we are in Paris. So with luck I’ll get up the gumption to report on our stay here. (Don’t expect much; this is about our sixth time here so we don’t do a huge amount of the “standard” Paris tourism.)


Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Droning Over OBX

If you’re not from the east coast of the US, you may not be entirely familiar with the Outer Banks, an enormous barrier island beach vacation destination in North Carolina. The term “OBX” to describe them is a relatively recent marketing invention; I don’t recall ever hearing it when I was a kid. In fact, the term “Outer Banks” itself only dates from the 1930’s.

The area is one of the longest pleasure beaches in the world: a 200-mile (320 km) strong of barrier islands more or less waiting to be destroyed by a hurricane. Unlike many barrier islands, OBX is (are?) not anchored by a coral reef, making them particularly vulnerable. Mother Nature likes un-anchored barrier islands to be movable: the oceanward sides of them erode away while the landward sides silt up and eventually merge with the mainland. Wave action then causes the barrier to re-form on the ocean side, and the cycle begins anew.

The problem, of course, is that houses are a lot less mobile than sand, and so the tourism and real estate powers-that-be engage in a constant and ultimately losing battle with the laws of physics.  But until that final capitulation occurs, it’s a great place to vacation, and my family and I have done so regularly. The tradition is to rent one of the gigantic multi-bedroom beach houses and to overeat for a week. Such houses are lined up along the beach, patiently generating tourist revenue and awaiting their destruction.

OBX 2018 Canon-044-Edit

This year was no exception, the new twist being that I now had a drone to fly. So here’s our house from the air (it’s the one in the foreground), followed by two panoramic views of the beach itself. (The lower one is looking northward at sunset.)

OBX 2018-003

OBX 2018-001

OBX sunset drone

That pier on the left side of the middle photo has a name of some historical significance. Here’s a ground-based shot that gives it away:

OBX 2018 Canon-037 In case you’re not viewing this on a big screen, it says “Kitty Hawk Pier”. Here’s a drone’s-eye view of it.

OBX 2018-002

This is the area where the Wright brothers inaugurated the air travel age in 1903, and do not imagine for one moment that the local tourism gurus let you forget it. The actual event took place a mile or two from this pier, in Kill Devil Hills, and there is of course a memorial there. There is also the actual course of the flight marked out, and you can easily walk its length in about 30 seconds as it is only 120′ (36m) long. (For comparison, the wingspan of a 747 is about 60% longer than that.) The flight took 12 seconds, and their luggage showed up three days later.

Another historical name that pops up frequently in the area is Virginia Dare. Roads, restaurants, you name it, she’s everywhere. Which is somewhat remarkable, because her sole claim to fame is being born here, the first child born to English settlers in the New World. That was in August 1587. Three months later her grandfather sailed back to England on a supply run, and when he returned Virginia, her parents, and the entire colony had disappeared altogether, thereby creating one of the enduring mysteries of American history. Ms. Dare — or at least her name — has had quite a good run of it since then, however, as everything from a soft drink to an icon of women’s suffrage, which is not a bad legacy considering that absolutely nothing else is known about her.

I’ll end this note with a non-drone picture, taken at night underneath the pier. I post it here entirely because (a) I like how the shot came out (it’s a 3-second time exposure) and (b) it’s my blog, dammit.

OBX 2018 Canon-024

Our next travel adventure will be in less than 4 weeks, to Iceland, Paris, and Prague. Watch this space!

Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Hapuna a me ka Lapakahi

…which is not as complicated as it looks. It simply means “Hapuna and Lapakahi” in Hawaii, those being the names of two places on the Big Island that we visited yesterday.

Hapuna Beach is one of the best known beaches on the island, an achingly photogenic stretch of dun-colored sand caressed by a gentle turquoise surf, and framed by two jagged lava promontories at either end. Here’s a panorama from the drone, taken during yesterday’s visit:

Hapuna Beach drone-001

Besides the obvious beach and surf, there are two other features of note: Kohala mountain bulging gently above the horizon at left, and the luxurious Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel at far left, regally overlooking the scene. The hotel is enormous and beautiful; several years ago we had the privilege of staying there for four or five days on someone else’s dime while attending a boondoggle conference. The mountain is also enormous: a mile-high, 200 square mile (500 square km) extinct volcano that essentially is the entire northwest corner of the Big Island.

Conditions are not always this idyllic at Hapuna. The surf can be rough, although the bottom is sandy — unlike the other, rockier beaches on the island — and so a rough surf is far less dangerous than elsewhere. And if the wind is high you can get sandblasted whilst attempting to enjoy yourself. But these are the exceptions. Most frequently the place looks like a postcard and it is a popular destination for sunning and body surfing. Here’s a 2-minute drone flyover video to give you a sense of the place:

(As you can tell, I’ve gotten heavily into flying my drone on this trip. But I dare you to tell me that this is not seriously cool.)

Neither Alice nor I are sunbather types. For one thing, when I am in strong sunlight my mottled pasty complexion moves the state of my skin almost instantly from “Anemic Vampire” to “Crimson Crispy”. In the words of Woody Allen, “I don’t tan, I stroke.” And Alice grew up in Oregon, where one’s best opportunity to get a tan requires dodging the raindrops. So we hung out for 45 or minutes or so with our visiting friends, then moved on.

Our next stop, further up the coast in Kohala, was a little more cerebral: Lapakahi State Historical Park. It’s the ruins of an ancient coastal village, about 600 years old. The name means “single ridge” and it is an array of ruins and reconstructed structures spread out along a rough lava coast and threaded by a mile-long interpretive trail. Like so many archaelogical sites it seems to make the most sense when viewed from above, so here are a couple of aerial shots:

Lapakahi drone-002Lapakahi drone-001

In addition to the ruins, the offshore area is a Marine Life Conservation District. The interpretive path takes you past a variety of structures in various stages of deterioration or, in some cases, reconstruction. There are dwellings, canoe storage houses, salt-making pans, and a couple of kōnane games, the latter being a lot like Chinese checkers. It’s played on a lava “board” with a grid of hollowed out pits, with alternating black and white stones placed in the pits and variously moved around per the rules.

The aerial views give you a sense of the layout of the place, but, truth to tell, when you are following the path it mostly feels like you are walking among a random collection of low lava walls of uncertain purpose. Which, I suppose, is why I am not an archaeologist. Nonetheless, the place has an enjoyably eldritch feel to it, the susurration of the surf and the dark rough lava walls invoking a real sense of mystery and age. Or to put it another way, it feels just a bit like being inside the beautiful old computer game Myst. Here’s a video that I took by flying along the coast, so that you can see how large and spread out it is.

The surf has been high and the weather on the windward (eastern) side of the island rainy for the past few days, so we have confined our roamings to the Kona coast and the western side of Kohala to escape it. But things look better for the next few days. Tomorrow we will try and make it to the 13,802′ (4205 m) summit of Mauna Kea where the conditions are expected to be clear, provided one is willing to tolerate sub-freezing temperatures and 20 mph winds. They’ve had a lot of snow up there this winter, so if we are lucky then I will have some “snow in Hawaii” photos to post.



Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fish Poop Beach

… is not the name of my new emo band, though perhaps it should be. It is, rather, the answer to the question that I was puzzling over in my previous post, namely: where do the Big Island’s white sand beaches come from? And the answer is: fish poop. Parrotfish poop, to be specific.

(Photo from Waikiki aquarium, not me)

Yes, really. This guy and his cousins eat coral and excrete prodigious quantities of white sand. You can actually hear them in action when you’re snorkeling: a ubiquitous crunching, crackling sound. (You’ve got to have really good teeth to eat coral.) And you  also frequently see them, um, producing the end product: a granular white stream from their posterior. I have seen that countless times and never made the connection, for which I doubt anyone would blame me.

I was quite inebriated with this outré new knowledge, and so immediately attempted to show off by interrogating our weekend visitor, the daughter of some old friends who is here with her husband and children. “Hey Johanna,” I  crowed, “you know where all this white sand comes from?” Unfortunately in my excitement I had momentarily forgotten the critical fact that Johanna has a PhD in Science and Public Policy relating to….. coral reefs. She looked at me contemptuously and said, “Parrotfish poop. Have you forgotten what I do for a living?” Damn.

Despite my humiliation, we enjoyed an outing to one of the few Parrotfish Poop beaches on the Big Island, a nearby scenic venue variously called White Sand, Magic Sands, and Disappearing Sands. The latter two monikers stem from the historical propensity of this particular beach to  disappear for a while every year or so. Some fluke of the local topography makes it particularly susceptible to being washed away by storm surges. You can see it happening on a very small scale on the seaward side of the surf in this aerial shot, light brown clouds of sand being stirred up and carried away behind the waves.

I of course took the photo with my new drone, whilst flying up and down the coastline surrounding the beach. So I’ll close with this four-minute video of that flight, which though not much of a cinematic achievement will give you a pretty good sense of the environs:





Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments


The Namib Desert is believed to be the oldest desert in the world, but I have not asked to see its driver’s license to confirm this. It is also one of the driest places in the world, which I can definitely attest to on the basis of my cracked leathery lips. It’s long and skinny in shape, paralleling the Atlantic coastline of the country and totaling roughly 4000 square miles (10,000 sq km) in area. With a sand covering that averages about 10 meters in depth, I calculate that it holds on the order of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 grains of sand (yes, that is an actual calculation… it’s what I do), which is very roughly equal to the number of stars in the observable universe. (This is why I became an astronomer.)

Interestingly, it has several geological distinct areas with different surface characteristics. We are in the southern Namib, known for its dune fields, e.g.,

02 Kulula Day 2 2017-089

More on those in a moment.

We flew into the Kulala region, in the south, on a pair of smallish planes over terrain like what you see above. The airstrip was, well, a desert airstrip:

02a Lodge and Flight Out 2017-005

And here we are in the sophisticated VIP lounge of the main terminal building…

02a Lodge and Flight Out 2017-006

(That is actually the entire airport.)  We loaded ourselves into our van and trundled off over the moonscape to a nearby hill, our 4×4 grinding through the steep sand to an outcropping at the rocky  summit from which we could watch this boring and not at all colorful sunset.02 Kalula Day 1 2017-090

I should emphasize that despite a healthy dose of self-congratulation and genial self-delusion, even given the stark and sere surroundings one would have a hard time making the case that we are roughing it. Our first evening’s hilltop “sundowner” (repeated each of the subsequent two nights) included the ever-affable Lloyd and our two drivers — Michael and Castro — serving us drinks and canapes as we marveled at what intrepid explorers we all were. (Side note: yes, “Castro”.  Cuba and Russia were big supporters of Namibian independence. We have so far on this trip had two drivers named Castro.) But hey, this is how we roll. Overseas Adventure Travel, our most excellent tour operator, caters to active, educated, affluent seniors or, as we like to call ourselves, “The Reason Our Children Won’t Have Social Security.”

But I digress. Another short 4 x 4 drive brought us to the Kulala Desert Lodge, our home in the desert. Our accommodations are notionally tents but are really comfortable cabins (electricity, full bathroom with shower, plenty of hot water, and marginal wifi) with canvas walls.

02a Lodge and Flight Out 2017-002

Those are solar water heaters at far left. Notice also the ladder at the left side of each cabin, leaning against the adobe (I think) rear wall.  The top of that structure is a flat surface with a low wall, and upon request the staff will set up a mattress and bedding there so that you can sleep under the African stars. We did this last night, and it is quite the primal and even romantic experience to do so, especially when you wake up in the middle of the night and open your eyes to the vault of the Milky Way arcing overhead through the velvet sky. Though it is, admittedly, somewhat less romantic to then climb down the ladder in pitch blackness and work your way around to the front of the cabin in order to go inside to pee. Plus you run the risk of running into an antelope whilst doing so. We were actually awakened in the middle of the night by an oryx clopping around next to our cabin and brushing against the ladder. (Trust me, it puts a whole new spin on the old “Honey, wake up! I think I here something downstairs!” trope.)

Notice my clever segue into the animal life here. It is astonishing to me that many of the large African mammals — elands, oryx, zebras — have adapted subspecies of themselves to survive in a climate that gets bare millimeters of rain in a good month. They look like their savanna counterparts but have evolved sophisticated hydration and cooling systems to survive. The oryx, or gemsbok, is probably the iconic Namibian animal, a regal antelope that stands about 4 feet (1.3 m) high at the shoulder and can weigh up to 600 lbs (290 kg) or so. They are all over the place, including marching through our camp at night. The Hartman’s Mountain Zebra looks like your regular Kenya/Tanzania/your local zoo zebra but has adapted to survive on, well, pretty much nothing at all.

02 Kalula Day 1 2017-216

02 Kulula Day 1 2017-276

02 Kulula Day 1 2017-266

There is even a species of bird in which the female absorbs water through pores in her breast and stores it there, then suckles her young (after a fashion) by allowing them to suck the water out through the pores. Such is life in the dunes.

Ah, the dunes. Massive, orange fields of them. This area, called Sossusvlei, is rich with them. The largest have numbers or names, the numbers representing their distance in kilometers from some fiducial measuring point. The tallest of them all in this area is aptly known as Big Daddy, towering at 1,066 ft (325 m) high. That was a bit too ambitious for us, and so we undertook instead to conquer the most popular of the touristic dunes, the locally-famous Dune 45 at a mere 100 m or so high. Up we trekked, along with dozens of others, on the ridge of the dune that in some places was only about a meter wide. When you crane your head to admire the view, or to let someone pass, there’s a real risk of tumbling off the ridge and rolling down the face of the dune, which might or might not be fun but would definitely obviate your upward progress.

02 Kalula Day 1 2017-164

Hiking up a sand dune is hard, hard work. You’ve gotten a very small taste of it if you have ever run across a sandy beach — not the packed sand closest to the water line but the deep, loose stuff, say 15 meters further inland. Now imagine tilting that up to about a 30 degree angle. You take your stride, say 2 feet (60 cm) in length, plant your foot, start your step… and your leading leg ends up pushing a six inch depth of sand downhill towards your lower foot, so despite expending all that muscle power your 2 foot stride buys you about six inches of forward motion. It is slow and exhausting, pushing all that sand around for such slow progress, and you end up at the top with aching legs, heaving lungs, two shoes full of sand, and a satisfyingly spectacular view.

02 Kalula Day 1 2017-178

Now you’ve got to get down, and you’ve got a decision to make. Your options are (1) go back along the ridge the way you came up, or (2) screw it and go barreling down the face of the dune like the two figures in the photo above. We opted for the latter, thus:

02 Kalula Day 1 2017-194

That’s our travelmate Cheryl in the middle, on her butt. This was a deliberate strategy on her part because she has a bad knee and figured (correctly) that this would be hard on it. Her posterior technique was successful, in addition demonstrating that is possible to go for the better part of a day wearing a pair of underwear that holds over 3 kilos of sand.

The more traditional technique is being demonstrated by Al, in the white shirt on the left. You lean back a bit and step downhill heel first, which slides you down by several inches with the flat of your foot acting as a brake. Then you repeat the operation with the other leg, shifting your weight back and forth sort of like ice skating. It gets you down fast and is rather exhilarating. Then you spend the next twenty minutes shaking sand out of your shoes and socks, which is a lot harder than it sounds because the dune sand is as fine as dust.

Not far from Dune 45 is Deadvlei, another peculiarity of Namibian desert geography. It’s a former — very former, as in 800 years ago — oasis, now a hard clay pan because the river that fed it changed course. The dried clay has a top layer of white calcium carbonate (chalk, basically) and the bed is dotted with 800 year old dead acacia trees, making for an extraterrestrial landscape that has been the setting for a number of films and countless surreal photos, including mine:

02 Kalula Day 1 2017-245 The following day dawned dark and early as we awoke pre-dawn for the highlight of the trip so far. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

02 Kulula Day 2 2017-001

02 Kulula Day 2 2017-092

02 Kulula Day 2 2017-123

02 Kulula Day 2 2017-130

We were part of a flotilla of three balloons, each holding up to 16 passengers in a large waist-high wicker basket. Our pilot was the owner of the company, a genially cocky, ponytailed Jack-Sparrow-like native Namibian named Dennis. All of the women had a crush on him, and man, he controlled that balloon like nobody’s business, eventually setting us down at the landing site onto the back of a flatbed truck. (Admittedly with some help from the ground crew, who pulled us over to the truck as we hovered about five feet off the ground. But even so….) Here’s Alice with Dashing Dennis, along with the champagne breakfast in the desert that followed our successful flight.

02 Kulula Day 2 2017-16302 Kulula Day 2 2017-162

One of the many remarkable things about the flight — and if you’re bored by the images above, please check your pulse — was the bird’s eye view that it afforded of Namibia’s famous “fairy circles”. These are flat bare circular areas in the landscape, ranging from about 2 meters to 10 meters in diameter, ringed with tufts of grass, and of utterly mysterious origin. Here’s what some large ones look like from the balloon. (That’s a dirt roadway for size comparison.)

02 Kulula Day 2 2017-067

Biological phenomenon or M. Night Shyamalan movie?

Explanations for their existence include fungi; termites; a complicated moisture feedback loop involving the surrounding grasses’ root systems; local radioactivity; and aliens. Pick your favorite.

It’s hard to overstate the sense of wonder and transcendence that this balloon flight affords. The scenery was beyond spectacular, the sense of scale and otherworldliness overwhelming.  When we first booked it, the flight seemed a little pricey at US$350 or so, not a small amount. It was worth it. If you ever make it to this region, bite the bullet and do not fail to do this with Namib Sky Balloon Safaris.  Tell them Rich and Alice sent you. They’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but it’ll make us feel good.

Our final stop of the day was Sesriem Canyon, a sight that to be honest was so utterly anticlimactic after the balloon ride that my laptop is sneering at me as I write about this. In a nutshell, it is a canyon, about 100 ft (30 m) high, carved by a recently-dried-up river and composed entirely of knobbly conglomerate rock. When the river was flowing, local travelers used it as a water source, gauging its depth by tying lengths of leather thongs or belts together; the name itself means “six belts” (or “thongs”) in Dutch and Afrikaans.

02 Kulala Day 2 2017-180-Edit

This fascinating geological phenomezzzzzzzzzz……….

We hiked down to the bottom and followed the riverbed upstream for a few hundred meters. The walls are dotted with rock pigeon dens (with corresponding collections of guano on the ground), and the ground hosts poisonous horned adders (sidewinder snakes) as a welcoming committee. We encountered a couple of these, which our guides herded out of the way with long sticks.

OK, better quit now as this post is clocking in at over 1900 words, about twice as long as usual. We’re out of the desert as I write this, having moved on to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, both on the cloudy coast. About which more in the next day or two….


Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Sons at the Beach

For about the past 30 years, my family has enjoyed a reunion week at the beach. The gathering has near-religious significance; we didn’t even miss the year my father died. It’s very gratifying to watch the family grow over the years — we’re up to four generations now — and since this year is Alice’s and my 20th wedding anniversary we splurged on a more elaborate setting, an 11-bedroom house right on the dunes at Virginia Beach. Here is our temporary Gatsby-esque mansion:

Virginia Beach 2017-031-Edit

How did this whole vacation-at-the-beach thing start, anyway? (I mean the whole cultural concept, not just my family.) Turns out it’s mostly a phenomenon of the past couple of hundred years. Although there are records of elite ancient Romans taking the waters at the coast, the historical reputation of the ocean was traditionally a little dark and intimidating: mariners lost at sea, biblical Jonah-eating whales, and so forth.  Plus, for most of recorded history, outside of Polynesia the hoi polloi were too busy starving and/or dying of the pestilence du jour to do a lot of vacation planning or practice body surfing.

But when it comes to not fearing the sea, it’s hard to beat the Dutch — they’ve basically fought it to a standstill for the last several centuries — and it was Dutch landscape artists of the early 17th century whose pastoral seaside imagery started establishing the beach as an attractive place to visit.

Things really stated rolling in 1778 when French nobleman and chemist Antoine Lavoisier discovered oxygen. Yes, really. Assorted hucksters and promoters of the day seized on the discovery: oxygen is good for you! And the sea air has more and better oxygen than whatever hovel you’re occupying at home, so come to the beach! Oddly enough, there was some truth to this, the Industrial Revolution having recently taken hold, and the air quality in cities like London ranking somewhere between “toxic” and “carbonaceous solid”.

So here we are. Virginia Beach is officially the largest city in Virginia, with a population of about a half a million, but it has grown largely by accretion, having absorbed a number smaller seaside suburbs. There is a downtown resort area with a big boardwalk, but we are a little farther down the coast in an area called Sandbridge, on the northern end of an enormous barrier island that extends southward for roughly 150 miles (250 km) down through North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  The Guinness people cite it as the longest pleasure beach on the planet.

Virginia Beach 2017-070

Barrier islands, as you probably know, are threatened by the rising oceans, “threatened” in this case being the reassuring first cousin of the more accurate “doomed”. They are designed by nature to be ephemeral: sand and silt accumulate on the inland side as the ocean washes away the shoreline, causing them to migrate inland and merge with the mainland as the tide creates replacement islands further out to sea. Beach houses are not so mobile, however, so every property owner is fighting what must ultimately be a losing battle against flooding.

A related problem, of course, are storms. Virginia Beach is extremely lucky in that regard, being generally far enough north to be mostly out of reach of the tropical-forming hurricanes, and too far south to be touched by northern storms. So it is in a meteorological “Goldilocks zone”, being jusssst in the right place to perpetually avoid being blown away. (The rising seas will still get it in the end, though.)

Our weather this week has been mostly good, if a little windy on the beach. That can be good news if you’re flying a suitably heavy kite.

Virginia Beach 2017-063-Edit

We’ve also had one or two ominous looking days, which if nothing else make for nice dramatic photos… black and white of course.

Virginia Beach 2017-071

Virginia Beach 2017-057-Edit


Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Escape to Tineghir, Hours Ahead of a Sandstorm

(This is a repost of an entry prematurely posted and titled “TBD” due to a flaky internet connection.)

My postscript in yesterday’s post described a rising wind and some rain. The rain passed, but the wind blew off most of the clouds and left us with a glorious night sky, two photos of which I offer you here. The first shows the constellation of Sagittarius in the middle, and you can see the Milky Way extending up out of the dunes; the orange glow is from another camp. The second photo is looking west, and shows the stars above the lit tents.

The wind continued to rise through the night, and few of us got much sleep, both from the racket and from the continuous influx of fine sand into our tents, driven through our screens by the wind. All four of our canvas walls bowed inwards as the near-gale tried to collapse our tents, and by the middle of the night both ourselves and all our possessions were coated with the finest grit. Have you ever tried to sleep while sand was blowing into your mouth? 

It did grace us with a much more colorful sunrise than we had had the previous day, and our camp had acquired two new features: a Berber child who had appeared out of the dunes during the wee hours and positioned herself on the sandy “avenue” between our two facing rows of tents, and a new layer of sand, complete with tiny dunes, in that same space. So here was the view, at about 7:15 AM.


What these shots do not show was that the wind was still full force, driving the fine sand everywhere, and making it very uncomfortable to be outside. We had breakfast in the mess tent, loaded up the 4 x 4s, and got the hell out of there.

Not a moment too soon, as it turns out. The wind continued to rise and, we learned some hours later, had risen to gale force and birthed a full-blown sandstorm that completely cut off the camp and forced its closure. Had our departure been delayed by as little as two hours we would have been “sanded in” (as opposed to “snowed in”, right?). This may sound very romantic and exciting to you, and probably would be too, for about 20 minutes. But based on our small taste of it in the morning and last night I can guarantee you that it would quickly have turned into an Extremely Not Fun experience, and not without actual danger.

But we did not get sanded in, and we hotdogged out of camp across the dunes and bounced across the hard packed desert to retrace our route back to Erfoud to join the highway westward. As we approached the outskirts of town we encountered a date market — this is date harvest season — so we made a short unscheduled stop and wandered among the farmers as Momo pointed out the various kinds of dates and the prices they would bring. (Top quality Medjool dates go for about $5 a pound here at the market, much more by the time you buy them at retail.)

“I’ve got dates for sale!” “I’ve got dates for sale too!” “Jeez, is there anybody here who’s NOT selling dates?”

“So this girl said, ‘Want lots of dates?’ and I said, ‘Sure!’ and, well, turns out that we were talking about two different things, so here I am.”

Our destination today was the town of Tineghir, about 80 miles to the west of our desert camp. We stopped for lunch at about the halfway point, in the town of Ksar el Khorbat. “Ksar” means “village”, and within the town was an old walled village where the locals have created a sort of crafts commune for lwomen to make goods for sale, as well as a small museum showing the history of the place. This is a Berber region, and so it has a fairly complex ethnic heritage that includes an admixture of Jews (all of whom are now gone). The relationship between the locals with the town Jews was convincingly illustrated by a display of a stockade with inward-pointing nails around the inside of the wrist and neck holes.

A little outside of town, we passed a hillside with gigantic words painted on the side above a green star, the country’s emblem. The words, in Arabic, said “God, Country, King”, which is the motto of the Moroccan army and is intended to reflect their priorities in decreasing order. One of the locals got a little crosswise with this slogan, however, and paid a price. Ksar el Khorbat has a strong Spanish heritage and in particular identify strongly with the Catalan region. A local soccer enthusiastic got a little too gung-ho about his favorite Spanish soccer team and spray-painted “God, Country, Barcelona”, for which cleverness he went to jail. Moroccans enjoy a pretty healthy freedom of speech, but they draw the line at lèse majeste: you absolutely cannot diss the king, which includes implying that the Barcelona soccer team is more important to you than Hassan II.

As approached Tineghir, we encountered yet another indication that we are far from home. Here it is:

You think hitting a deer with your car is bad, try running into a camel.

Tineghir is known for a number of things, one being an old part of the city that is built from Adobe and clay from the adjacent mountainsides and thus blends into the mountain with a rather New World pueblo look, as you can see below. (Alice and I both observed that it also looks like the setting of any number of our video games.)

It is also known for the scenic Torda Gorge, a narrow canyon with a shallow river running through it, flanked by towering cliffs something like 500 feet high. We walked a few hundred yards through it, ogled the view, then boarded the bus back to the hotel.

Our hotel overlooks the “new city”, which looks like this: 

It’s pretty completely urbanized and of modest size. Our hotel is comfortable and generally unremarkable, save for two things, one being a very unreliable wifi connection (which is why you may have received this post out of order), and the other being food whose taste has been meticulously and thoroughly drained away prior to serving it. We’re not sure how this is even possible, but we may know the “why”, which is that the hotel’s clientele include a large number of Germans, for whom the concept of actual flavor in food is highly alien. Thumper complained to Momo, who was also unhappy with it for the same reason and so confronted the manager about it. The manager did not look happy and we can only speculate about what actually got said; to the non-Arab-speaking listener, even a friendly Arabic conversation is so loud and intense as to be indistinguishable from an exchange of death threats. I fully expect our breakfast tomorrow to be laced with some exotic local poison, part of our immersive experience.


Assuming we survive and the wifi stays up, you’ll hear about our “day in the life of Tineghir” tomorrow.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

One Hump or Two?

We had a comfortable night, punctuated by occasional sounds from the dunes of varying familiarity: a dog barking, percussive music wafting from some other distant camp, and braying by some wayward beast, either a donkey or a camel. And if darkness had a sound, the night would have been deafening, because it was dark, very dark indeed, eyes-closed-while-standing-in-a-closet dark, so dark that when you wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, if you don’t find the bedside flashlight you might as well just keep your eyes closed. 

Despite our diligence in keep the screens of our tent zippered, we nonetheless awakened this morning to find a microtome-thin patina of fine sand covering absolutely everything. Moreover, in the “unintended consequences” department, the camp staff did us a favor of leaving the power on all night so we could charge iPads and the like, which drained the solar-powered batteries, which in turn meant that the water pumps could not operate, which yet in turn meant that we could not shower this morning. So it was not only our room furniture, blankets, and clothing that were covered with Saharan dust: we were too, and would remain so for most of the day. So it goes; this sort of thing is just part of the landscape. Literally.

We awakened early enough to throw on some clothes and climb the nearest dune to watch the desert sunrise, which you can see below. There were tracks in the sand: fox, stag beetles, and something big, presumably last night’s braying Mystery Animal. The sunrise itself was evocative though not the colorful extravaganza that one might hope for: there was a layer of dust haze near the horizon that muted the illumination of the clouds. Still, how often will we see a sunrise over the Sahara? (Answer: once more, tomorrow.)

And here is a picture of Alice at the base of our sunrise-viewing dune, her smile belying the sandiness of her underwear.


Breakfast included a “Berber omelet” which is made with olives and a kind of local salsa. I would probably wax rapturous about it if I didn’t hate olives, as I have previously confessed. So I ate around them and joined everyone else in declaring my approval. Then we climbed into our convoy of 4 x 4s and made dusty tracks across the rocks and sand to our day’s first destination, a one-room Berber schoolhouse, pictured below. A slightly harried teacher was giving Arabic lessons to about 30 children, half of them girls.

I say “lessons“, plural, because she was teaching two classes at once, side by side in the room. The right half of the room, viewed from the back where we stood, seated about 10 fifth graders; the left half, 20 sixth graders. So in addition to answering our questions she was simultaneously ping-ponging her attention between the two groups. She spoke and wrote on the blackboard in Arabic, and the posters around the room were variously in Arabic and French. Until recently Berber was purely a spoken language, but under government auspices a project was undertaken about a dozen years ago to create a written Berber alphabet. It looks a bit like Greek, and reads from left to right like English (unlike Arabic or Hebrew). Some of the children had Berber reading primers.

I mentioned that half the students were girls. This is obviously a good thing. The problem is follow-up; it is not at all certain that most of those girls will still be in school a year from now, since, appallingly, they are getting close to marrying age.

Our next stop was (for us, anyway) the day’s main event: camel ride! The handlers divided us into three groups, each with its own handler and “train” of camels tethered single-file. (No, I have not forgotten that they are dromedaries, and I also have no idea whether “train” is a correct term.) We mounted them (not that kind of mounted, you pervert) by stepping on overturned plastic milk crates as the camels knelt on all fours, positioning ourselves in the saddle and gripping the T-shaped handlebar for all we were worth, as the beasts rose one by one. Then we bobbed off into the dunes. We were out for about 45 minutes, just enough time for our thigh muscles to start begging for mercy. Here are some shots of the experience, starting with Alice grinning naively after mounting and seconds before the beast lurched skyward by standing up.

..and now we are under way, Alice in front of me, then Thumper and Steve.

Here’s another part of our group. 

Now Alice is attempting to film her entry for World’s Shakiest Home Videos:

…while I bring up the rear. The rear rider bears the heavy responsibility of being the most likely person to have an article of clothing blown away by the wind, which I did. (One of the handlers recovered my bandanna.)

 And at the conclusion of the ride, we share a self-congratulatory moment with Steve and Thumper. So was the whole thing “touristy”? Of course. But was it nonetheless fun and cool as all get-out? Absolutely.

Our next stop was a fossil bed, or perhaps more accurately, The Mother of All Fossil Beds. A paleontologist might find the whole thing rather pedestrian, since the variety of fossils in this region is pretty limited… basically the three sorts that I mentioned yesterday. But for sheer numbers, I have never seen anything remotely like it. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that every rock was covered in mineralized squids, nautilus-like ammonites, and — much more rarely — trilobites, all more than 300 million years old. The things were literally underfoot as we walked upon intact little ammonites a half inch across. Here are a couple of examples: for scale, the rock in the first photo was about 3 ft across;the big creature in the center of the second photo was about a foot long. (To put things in perspective, the largest one of this type ever found was a 40 ft monster in Israel.)

We probably spent about a half hour there, spreading out over the small plateau and into the shallow valley that were littered with little fossil bonanzas. Sound carries extremely well in the desert, and for that half hour the plateau echoed with our shouts to each other: “Hey, come look at this!”  “Look what I found!” “Look at the size of this one!” 

It’s a protected area, as you’d suppose, and commercial harvesting of the fossils is forbidden. (God knows there must be vast numbers of them around since every fly specked backwater souvenir store sells them.) But Momo said that taking a few small ones was not a big deal, and so we somewhat guiltily pocketed about a half dozen tiny ones, the biggest about 3/4″ long. Those included two completely intact ammonites, perfect little stone snail-like spirals less than a half inch across.

Our last stop of the day was at the canvas dwelling of a truly nomadic nomadic. No semipermanent corrugated aluminum walls and satellite dish for this 51 year old nomadic widow: she lives in the home that you see here for a few months at a time, then literally folds her tent and moves on. 

She lives at present with her 20 year daughter and granddaughter; the daughter’s husband is a shepherd who was away tending his flocks for long periods. The daughter was baking bread in a tiny outdoor “beehive” oven while we were there, a little stone or clay dome perhaps two feet high, identical in concept to what we saw in the mountains near Chefchaouen but much smaller. The bread came our of the oven steaming hot and irresistibly appetizing in appearance, crusty and puffy. After removing it from the oven and letting it cool for, oh, 30 seconds, she scooped it up on a blanket and handed it to Momo to allow us to sample it. And so we did, including Momo, one by one burning our fingers because that loaf of bread was way too damn hot to touch, let alone eat, because it looked to good to wait for. It was indeed possibly the best bread we have had so far, and I’m sure our fingers will heal quickly.

After all this driving around it developed that this particular nomad was about a half mile from our own camp, so we made the two minute drive there and basically rested up for an hour or two. (Happily, the camp batteries had since recharged and we once again had running water.)

In a couple of days we will be having a discussion session with a Sunni imam, so to give us some background for this (and possibly to forestall the likelihood of anyone sticking a religious foot in his or her mouth), Momo lectured us for about 45 minutes on the precepts of Islam. We had already inferred that he was a very moderate, live-and-let-live sort, and he confirmed this at length, giving us not only some Islamic history (including the Sunni-Shia schism) but making it abundantly clear that he regards all the current flavors of Islamic extremism as evil and stupid.

The conversation was interesting and led to a a uprising observation — one might even say epiphany — from Alice. During the discussion Steve asked Momo about the origins and justification of jihad as a weapon of Islam. Momo explained that jihad as currently defined is a perversion of its Koranic definition. According to him, the Koran defines jihad as a struggle to perform godly acts; these may include self defense (but never offense), acts of charitable sacrifice, and the imperative of providing for and defending one’s family. Whereupon Alice leaned over to me and said one word: “Mitzvahs.” So think about that connection for a while.

After the discussion I sought out Momo and asked him if he knew what a bar mitzvah was, which he did not. So I explained the whole thing to him, including the concept of a mitzvah. (Note to Gentile friends: a mitzvah is a godly act, a good deed of any sort, performed without the expectation of any kind of reward, simply because God commanded that everyone should do good deeds, period.) He saw the connection immediately and lit up, shaking my hand delightedly before we returned to our tent. Alice went barefoot as we walked, and so I took my sandals off too. Everyone should walk barefoot in the Sahara at least once.

We leave the tent camp tomorrow morning and drive to the town of Tineghir, which we are told is an oasis. So I guess we’ll learn (a) what an oasis is in practice, and (b) whether they have wifi.

Postscript: RAIN! About 20 minutes ago as I type this, the wind picked up ferociously. Sand came blowing throug the screens into our tent, and the space between the two rows of tent was snaking with windblown serpentines of fine sand, sidewinding  down from the dunes. The clouds had been building through the day and finally coalesced into dark and pendulous omens, and just now the wind reached a crescendo and the rain started. It’s not heavy, more of a wind-driven drizzle, but the fact that it is happening at all is pretty neat.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Our Just Deserts

I’m typing this from our tent in the middle (more like the western edge) of the Sahara desert on Wednesday October 7, but it will be at least a couple of days before I can actually post it, there being, well, nothing here.

This morning we left our beautiful hotel in Erfoud with a certain amount of reluctance, knowing that we would be trading our enormous comfy air conditioned rooms for extremely non-air-conditioned tents located far deeper into the middle of nowhere than we already were. So I had this brief word with the staff, shown below, thanking them for their hospitality. (How many hotels do you know keep camels on the grounds?) And so we set off, divided up into a convoy of four 4 x 4s instead of our bus because the latter would not do so well on sand dunes and generally functions much better when there is an actual road.

“And next time, don’t forget the mints on the pillows.”

This region is known for its fossils, and so our first stop was a place that receives the quarried fossil-rich slabs of sedimentary rock (not granite) and turns them into exceedingly cool tabletops, counter slabs, fountains, etc., all swimming with the particular Precambrian creatures that were endemic here. They fall mostly into three types: ammonites (which look like nautilus shells), trilobites (which look like giant sow bugs), and a long pointy cylindrical squid-like creature. (We would actually have gotten our own granite countertops in this style, but they were astronomically expensive.) in any case, the factory guide showed us the raw stones, the cutting and polishing process (diamond drills), and so forth, all culminating in the inevitable showroom where they assured us they would ship to the US. There was in fact a lot of interesting stuff, and several of our group bought things Steve and Thumper bought a set of fossil-laden dishes, while we bought a couple of small ammonites variously for Alice and the teenager who lives across the street from us and looks after our house while were away.

“Huh, I could’ve sworn we had Han Solo frozen in here.”

Our next stop was a Berber town where we visited a rather poor household, of which there are many. This was a family of a mother (at left below), father, and five children, two of whom were grown and married while the other three were still at home. One of those three had Down’s Syndrome, which led to a discussion of how they handled and treated him. And the answer was: they don’t. It is considered a failure, essentially a mark of shame, to have had such a child, and so they let him wander the streets, sometimes not seeing him for days at a time. This is arguably an improvement of how some local families treat such children, which is by chaining them up in a back room so no one can see them.

This led to a discussion of health care — Momo translating all the while — which is free in this country if your income falls below a certain threshold (which hers does).

Our hostess’ husband is a porter, who earns very little. She makes ends meet by weaving and selling fabrics and dresses, one of whom she demonstrated on one of our group, as you see here. It was wound pretty tight; our travel partner/dressmaker’s dummy reports that she would have a hard time moving around in it.

I should mention that no visit to a Moroccan home is complete without achingly sweet mint tea, and this was no exception. We smiled with pleasure as the enamel of our teeth dissolved, and thanked our hostess for her hospitality. (More about the Berbers later.)

By this point we were far enough into the desert that the rate of camel sightings was climbing noticeably, and so it was no coincidence that our next stop was a camel farm, one specializing in camel milk. They had a small herd of the beasts, the lactating females penned with their offspring but kept separate from the males, who were uninterested in the milk but very interested in — wait for it — humping. (Rim shot) So to milk a camel (an activity that thankfully they did not offer to teach us), you first have to shoulder the hungry camel children out of the way so that you (the farmer) can grab the teats and spritz the milk into a waiting metal bowl. It took two guys, as you can see here: the guy with his back to us is holding the shiny bowl while keeping the disgruntled juvenile (at left) out of the way, while the guy on the far side of the camel is spritzing. It’s a lot: it only takes a minute or two to get 1 1/2 liters (~3 pints), and you see the result in the picture that follows.

Very fresh, yet strangely unappetizing

It is very white and creamy looking, and tastes — yes, we tasted it — rather like plain old whole milk.

I should say something about camel vocabulary here (I mean out vocabulary, not the camels’, which is mostly limited to FNAAAAUUURRRRNK, though I may be spelling that wrong. The main point that I need to convey is that these are not actually camels, but rather dromedaries. In the immortal words of humor poet Ogden Nash:

“The camel has a single hump, the dromedary two. / Perhaps the other way around / I’m never sure, are you?”

It is in fact the other way around: dromedaries have one hump, and those are the guys you see around here. The two-hump animals are technically Bactrian camels. But everybody seems to call the dromedaries camels except when they’re trying to look smarter than you. I’ll continue to call them camels for convenience. (But I reserve the right to correct you if you call them camels, because I am a hypocrite and want to look smarter than you.)

As we headed deeper into the Sahara we saw more and more of less and less. Here’s the view out my window as we drive; the other car is one of our convoy. We tend to drive in staggered formation so as to avoid eating each other’s dust, of which there is an infinite about. The terrain is mostly flat, a mixture of hard-packed orange sand and black volcanic rubble. There is an occasional milkwood tree or patch of rough scrubby grass. The Atlas Mountains lie in the distance, and there is the occasional field of sand dunes, some the size of small mountains. We traverse a few of these, which is great fun in a roller coaster sort of way, but overall it would be an understatement to say that the landscape is uninviting. The weather is of course hot, though not blisteringly so: no higher than the mid-80s, time bone dry. But the sunlight is like an ultraviolet laser that fills the sky, very very intense.

And of course, amidst the expanse of nothing, there are camels:

We stop for a lunch at a restaurant that incongruously emerges in the midst of a filed of sand dunes. Here’s the scene as we arrive:



The walls are canvas over a frame, the interior walls and ceiling embroidered hangings. The interior space is appointed in traditional style, and if you have a mental image of Aladdin walking among cushions and the embroidered walls to round tables with ornate silver tea sets, you are pretty close to the mark. Lunch was quite good, a beef tagine.

We continued on til a stop at another Berber village, these Berbers being if rather different ethnic heritage. Remember that Berbers are ethnically very heterogeneous, some being pale skinned and of European provenance, others descended from sub-Saharan Africans. This group is descended from slaves imported from Sudan and Mali, and they put on a musical performance (“colorful native dances”, as we cynically characterize them in these trips) in which they played drums, castanets (that’s what they’re holding in the picture) and a stringed instrument. They danced a shuffling line dance while chanting nostalgic songs about the pre-slavery era, e.g., about returning to Timbuktu (which is in Mali, to answer a question it may never have occurred to you to ask).

The performance involved inveigling the audience (i.e. the 16 of us) into getting up and participating in a circle dance,my he Sudanese version of Hava Nagila. I gave in, but frankly would rather have been in Timbuktu myself.

Still further on we encountered a Berber cemetery, seen here. Primitive and sad, with way too many 4′ long graves, indicating that children were buried the. The headstones are I carved rough stone, with no information at all about the deceased. The only fact that each grave conveys is the sex of the departed, which is indicated by the position of the headstone: when positioned in the way that you (the reader) are used to, there lies here a male; when turned 90 degrees, a female. You can see a few of the latter in the photo, e.g., all the way in the back, about a quarter of the way over from the right.


We reached our camp at about 4:15PM, a cluster of a dozen semipermanent canvas-walled one-room tents at the edge of a field of sand dunes. They’re primitive looking from the outside and basic but comfortable on the inside: the canvas hangs on a wood and wire frame, and the floor is wood with a large carpet. Each room has a flush toilet and very basic cold shower. There is a generator or solar-powered batteries in the c amp (I don’t yet know which) so we have electricity at night; there is a single lightbulb but also an electrical outlet so we can charge our various devices overnight. So in ither words, extremely basic but not altogether roughing it. The main problem is the sand, which is everywhere and gets into everything; we have zippered screen doors front and rear that work reasonably well to keep the outside outside.

Not the Hilton.

But make no mistake, we really are in the Sahara desert. If you need any additional convincing, here is the view out our back door.

You might correctly infer from that image that strolling into town to do some shopping is not a realistic option. But it is all very exciting and interesting. We received a cooking lesson (tagine) in the late afternoon, followed by a very good dinner (tagine, do you see the pattern?). The skies are quite beautiful here as you would expect, the Milky Way a glorious highway from horizon to horizon across the zenith. So I gave a little astronomy lecture, enthusiastically received, and led a star party, pointing out constellations and stars to end the evening.

Tomorrow: camel ride! We have been cautioned to wear long pants for this, so I suspect that some apprehension may be warranted.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at