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David and Rose Rojas, both Retired Management Analysts at the LAPD, enjoyed Lake Louise in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
Letter From Morocco, Pt. 4
Hot-Air Balloons and Ships of the Desert
Our once-in-a-lifetime experience of taking a hot-air balloon ride began when we were picked up well before dawn in a minibus and driven some distance across the dark countryside before arriving at the launching point in the desert. Hot tea and coffee were served around a blazing fire which provided welcome heat to ward off the early morning desert cold while we watched the crews inflate the balloons to ready them for takeoff.
Although I am no stranger to balloon rides (having spent my youth jumping out of them while training to be a paratrooper in the British Army), the ascent was the highlight of this trip to Morocco.
When the balloon was fully inflated, boarding had to be done very quickly due to the high wind; it was no easy task as it entailed scrambling over the very high sides of a moving basket. Once airborne, the pilot explained the safety rules above the roar of the hot air flame blower, and explained how the balloon was made from the same fireproof material as firemen’s safety suits (a comforting thought!).
The cold morning seemed to disappear in the excitement of leaving the ground and the heat from the central motor’s flame. Soaring to the dizzying height of 3,500 feet enabled views of other balloons gently rising in the distance and racing away across the early morning sky. Slowly the red sun rose over the Atlas Mountains, covering the landscape below with a stunning soft dusty red hue stretching all the way to Marrakech in the distance.
The views from the flight were amazing, and there was ample time to take lots of photographic memories. The landing was very fast and smooth, and the equipment-retrieval vehicles and return transportation appeared like magic, making the ride back to camp brief and taking no time whatsoever. A wonderful breakfast spread of special pastries and fresh fruit awaited us in a beautiful carpeted tent lit with candles and oversized Moroccan lamps.
To complete the experience, not only did the white-clad servers ensure everyone’s plate and tea glass were always full but presented every male with a red fez to wear for photo opportunities.
Ships of the Desert: The Mighty Camel
There is only one way to explore the Sahara desert and that is by camel, from one to ten days and beyond. My personal boyhood fantasy was riding a camel in the desert like Lawrence of Arabia, charging headlong into the sand dunes shouting unintelligible battle cries and waving a scimitar at some invisible enemy, not exactly what took place on this little adventure. Although a camel is the most graceful way to traverse the desert’s vast spaces, getting on and off for the first time is anything but graceful.
It is also not the best time to dress to impress, as loose, stretchy long pants are so much more suitable and comfortable than tight jeans, shorts and skirts; socks are also a great idea as the camel’s stiff straw-like hair will irritate the skin with its odd, side-to-side gait. A hat, bandanna or long scarf and sunglasses are also recommended.
Always approach a sitting camel from the side, slowly and with confidence, and try not to look it in the eyes if you’re nervous. Mounting a camel requires the act of throwing one leg over the back of a very large animal to straddle it. This could prove difficult if you are physically challenged, and likely more difficult for the guys who, to be honest, are not as flexible as the ladies. Fortunately, there is usually a foot stirrup on one side to help with mounting as camels stand up with their back legs first, so lean back and hold on to the handle on the front of the saddle or you may well end up on the camel’s neck.
Unlike the measured gait of a horse, a camel’s walk is irregular, so crossing one or both legs over the saddle distributes the weight, and holding onto the saddle post for support allows for swaying with the camel’s natural gait, and less sitting discomfort. Make sure any cell phones, wallets or loose valuables are secure and cannot fall out onto the desert floor; there is always the possibility of the following camel eating your backpack or spitting on you. If a camel becomes nervous or starts moving too quickly, stay calm and if possible, try to use the reins to pull the camel head into a circle and speak quietly until it calms down.
Dismounting is much easier: Wait until the camel sits back down, push up with the handle, swing a leg over the hump and jump off, quietly wondering if walking straight will ever again be an option. Feeling a little sore is all part of the experience, so it might be worthwhile popping an ibuprofen 30 minutes or so before the ride to help ease any potential discomfort.
Overall, my experience on a camel was more than a simple tourist activity; the ride taught me that sometimes your childhood dreams are better left unfulfilled. Merci, Monsieur Camel.
Jusqu’à la prochaine fois, voyagez maintenant payez plus tard.