Monday, April 5, 2010

MOROCCO TRIP - Day Four - Merzouga to Todra Gorge

After a peaceful night dreaming of starry night skies in the desert we woke up early to photograph the sunrise as it reflected on the dunes - well worth the effort. What a truly beautiful place, I could have stood there captivated for hours but we had places to be.

This morning was to be my big treat, I was to have a personal bird guide! I had been really looking forward to this as Morocco is rich in ornithological diversity and although I can look at most birds and usually work out roughly what type they are and then pour over a field guide until I work out exactly which species it is, there is something very luxurious about going to a new region and have a local expert show you the native species - yes I know, I'm lazy! But it is nice and actually very rewarding, and a lot less frustrating! When you are on your own you can very often narrow the bird down to a couple of possibilities which have subtle field markings that differentiate them and when you go to cross check the pesky bird has flown away and so the puzzle is left unresolved!

So we met up with our bird guide and set off. I had requested that we head straight for a nearby lake which was a well known birding spot and particularly productive first thing in the morning so imagine my surprise when we started heading off in the opposite direction! Now I know that my sense of direction is not good but even I could tell this was not where I was hoping to be going. My husband has an excellent sense of direction so I waited for him and sure enough he soon commented. Only to be told that we were going somewhere 'just down the road' first. Now I have lived in Africa long enough to know that the 'just down the road' phrase should have rung alarm bells with me immediately but instead I kept quiet.

Said our guide, explained to me that our bird guide was taking us to an area to see Bustards. I was a little surprised by this as everything I had read prior to our visit had said that the Bustards had been pretty much eradicated by Saudi Arabians hunting in the area with falcons. But hey - who doesn't want to see a Bustard? I had seen them a couple of times in Zambia but they are, none the less, a rare sight. So again I kept quiet. We drove further and further away from civilization and we actually started heading towards the Algerian Border! (Eeek!) Still no Bustards. It was around this time that I started noticing that we were driving past various other bird species and my precious bird guide was not saying a word. So the next bird I spotted I asked Brahim to stop and I asked what the bird was. The bird guide rattled something off in Berber to Said but dear Said's area of expertise is the vast history and culture of his country, not the bird life. I asked what the bird was again but of course Said didn't know what the English name was - totally not his fault, he's not the bird guide. It is then that Said explains to me that the bird guide only speaks Berber and so won't be able to tell me the names of any of the birds! The whole time that this circuitous discussion is going on, the obliging little bird is sitting patiently beside the vehicle. I now have a driver, a guide, a bird guide and my husband looking at me expectantly.............
So what is it? Wait a minute, I've only been in this country for four days, I don't even have a field guide for the region and now I am the guide! How did this happen? I look carefully at the LBJ (Little Brown Job!) Jeez could the damn thing be any less remarkable? OK think - well it looks kind of like a lark, well of course it would! One of the hardest groups of birds that all look very similar and oh guess what there are about twenty possible species of lark for Morocco! Whoopee! I have a field guide for birds of Europe so I start flicking through the lark section - Hoopoe Lark! Brahim and Said are very pleased with this funny sounding name and repeat it to each other several times. Well you would think in all that time that my husband who had the seat nearest the bird, would have got off some decent photos - not so much! So ladies and gentlemen, I give you - the Hoopoe Lark (I did warn you it was unremarkable!)

So now I knew the tone the morning was going to take. My dream of trundling along being told the names of numerous new and wonderful bird species was just that, a dream. I had stepped back ten years and I was the guide again - ho hum.
In the mean time we were driving into more and more barren desert! But I did hit it lucky with the next avian spotted - Shrike! Now Brahim and Said are looking seriously impressed! I pour over the field guide again, pretty clearly a Great Grey Shrike but of course there are seven different sub-species! (What is this, 'lets screw with Celeste Day?') So going purely on range I hit on Lanius excubitor elegans.

Oh yes and needless to say, still no sign of a Bustard!

Well we are driving deeper and deeper into barren desert, and closer and closer to the Algerian border. The morning is ticking away, my cherished lake is far away and, well you tell me, does this look like productive birding country to you?

I thought not!

I did get one small consolation prize, a brief glimpse of some wild donkeys! And yes they do look very different from their domesticated cousins.

So there we are three and a half hours later, one lark and one shrike to our names and yours truly was beginning to get a little fed-up! 'Do you think we could possibly go to the lake now?' 'What, you don't want to see the Bustard?' I grit my teeth, smile and manage to say 'No I'm fine if we don't see the Bustard.' Finally we start to head to the Lake.

Of course by now it is past ten in the morning but I am just happy to be heading towards the water.

Oh you want to see Flamingos! Well not specifically but I had heard that was one of the species we might hope to see. We drove down to near the waters edge and on the distant shore were a group of flamingos. Again I am surprised how none of the waterfowl allow us to approach anywhere near the waters edge without them flying far away. Even in intense hunting areas I have never seen such nervous birds.

I sit down quietly on the edge of the shore hoping to use that age old trick of changing my outline from a threatening biped to an odd legless little lump, but to no avail, the birds stay as far away as they possibly can and this is a big lake so that is pretty far!
This shot is maximally zoomed in and it is still a tough call for ID's but I think we have three Ruddy Shelducks, a ton of Little Egrets and I think four Black Storks, I was torn between Glossy Ibis and Black Storks but the beaks just didn't look like Ibis.

Slowly some of the birds started to get within camera range, a pair of Ruddy Shelducks

A Kentish Plover

and Little Ringed Plovers

I looked further down towards the end of the lake and realised that it was alive with birds, there were dozens of cormorants which my 'bird guide' reliably informed me, via Said, were Crows! Well can we try and get nearer so I can look at the crows? No I didn't really say that - I just thought it! Anyway we drove down towards the end of the lake but before we even got remotely close the usual mass evacuation occurred.

It really was a shame that the birds were so shy because there were clearly masses of different species in the mix. The majority that you can see in this shot are Marbled Ducks.
My Husband did manage to get a reasonable picture of a personal favorite of mine, the Black-winged Stilt.

And then in the blink of an eye the area was cleared of birds. So it seemed like a sensible point to hit the road again, time to head for the hills.
As we were leaving this sweet little procession was making it's way towards the water.

How very orderly they were!

Time to head back into the mountains and, unfortunately the day continued to go 'pear shaped'. My husband loves mountains and so his specific request was that this afternoon we would drive up into the mountains and camp somewhere so that he could wake up in the mountains and hopefully go hiking in the morning. That was the itinerary but somehow things just didn't quite work out that way.

We did head back into the mountains, stopping at various points to stretch our legs,

enjoy the view or walk through a gorge

and it was all achingly beautiful

and I personally wouldn't have missed it for the world.

We stopped in a small mining town

and were told that if we wanted to pick up any extra food supplies we should do so as we were now heading off road. Our needs are pretty simple so we were a little bemused by this as all the food we had had so far had been fabulous. None the less we dutifully poked around in the local 'supermarket' and picked up a couple of bits and pieces.

By now it was late afternoon and as we started climbing the steep rocky track into the mountains we both started looking out for potential camping sites.

At one point I even said, 'if you see a good spot you should say something to Brahim and Said' but to no avail.

We kept climbing. And climbing, and climbing and climbing. By now it was dark so we couldn't even distract ourselves by admiring the scenery anymore. The road was bad, the recent heavy rains had made sure of that but Brahim is an absolutely brilliant driver and he steered us expertly along our precipitous trail, never putting a wheel wrong. We saw a tiny dot of light in the distance and as it drew closer Said explained to us that it was a hostel and that if we wanted we could stay there tonight but if we wanted a more 'genuine' experience we should continue to the next place. So we, of course wanting the genuine experience, agreed to do that. What wasn't explained to us was that the 'next place' involved another two hours driving, over the top of the pass and all the way back down the other side of the mountain! When we finally arrived Said went off to start preparing dinner while Brahim started to unpack the tents. My husband is a shade over 6' 5" tall and as the tents were unfolded it rapidly became apparent that my 5' 5" frame would be hard pressed to fit inside one, let alone his! At one point he picked up one end of the tent and held it up against himself, there were several inches of him protruding from either end. Brahim started to laugh, which was a good thing! There we were in the pitch black, who knew where, trying to put up tents designed for children! The only thing to do was laugh. So we put the tents back in the Land Cruiser and drove back to the 'farm' where Said was cooking which also had simple Berber rooms for rent and after a very late dinner we fell into a deep and somewhat thankful sleep.

Photo Credits - CJT & Dominick V


Romantic bed and breakfasts said...

The Morocco is blessed with beautiful lakes, hills and steep mountains. The birds are found there in different species. The flamingos are the wonderful birds can be seen at lake shore.

Pat Cafferata said...

Your blog with commentary and photos of your trip to Morocco is wonderful. I loved your snide little comments that sound so British...and funny. Wonderful. It was fun to experience Morocco in such an entertaining and interesting way. Kudos to Dominick on the wonderful photos.

Pat C.

Parag said...

The dunes of Erg Chebbi near Merzouga is 30 miles (50km) south east of Erfoud and has the highest and most spectacular sand dunes in Morocco. These golden dunes dramatically 50m from the desert floor.
Morocco merzouga