A Blog-u-mentary
about one family's experience moving from a
tropical Caribbean paradise
to another type of paradise in the
heart of Provence.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Marrakesh by Air

Marrakesh’s famed Medina is oddly quiet at 6AM, an hour after the first of the five daily ‘calls to prayer’ has been broadcast over hundreds of loudspeakers throughout the walled city. Most everyone seems to have gone back to bed after performing their obligations, and only a few scattered robed figures shuffle through the dark alley ways.  The hustle and bustle of the souks and the famed Djemaa el-Fna square is still hours away from springing to full chaotic vibrancy. 

We make our way to the nearest entry gate separating the walled city from the more modern Ville Nouvelle. It’s only about 500 meters from the entrance to our Riad (Raid Dix Neuf La Ksour), which is highly recommend both for its location and well as service and comfort) but the wall separates two different worlds. 

This where we are to meet Lina, who will transport us to the launch point for a sunrise balloon ride with her company, Marrakesh By Air. She arrives promptly with a cheery smile and a warm Japanese SUV, which we gratefully jump into to escape the early morning chill. Lina, a Moroccan by birth but raised in Belgium, navigates her way through the empty streets of the new city and we are quickly on a narrow highway that dissects the desert that begins on the outskirts of the town. We drive for about 45 minutes, learning a bit about the history of both her company and her country, as we speed in the general direction of the Atlas Mountains, the stunning snow capped natural backdrop to the centuries-old man made chaos of Marrakesh.

In the darkness Lina finds an unmarked dirt tack turnoff and exits the paved highway. We wind our way through barren desert and dried riverbeds until we come upon a lone earthen structure in complete darkness. The only sign of a connection to the modern world is a large propane gas tank, as various critters wander about the connected low rise buildings. It’s a Berber house, a residence of a family from one of the world’s oldest know civilizations.

Sunrise: Atlas Mountains
Lina backs up the SUV to a garage-like building and three figures quietly emerge from the shadows to quickly hitch the trailer to the back of the SUV. We pull away from the small compound and drive another ten minutes through the scrub just as the sun peaks over the peaks of the Atlas Range (which contains Africa’s second highest point at 4300 meters, after Mount Kilimanjaro). 

A small bonfire attracts us to an open area and Lina positions the trailer in the middle of it. Within minutes a worn Land Rover joins us, and the same crew that hitched the trailer begins busily unloading it, assembling our balloon for a sunrise departure. We join a few other guests who had arrived in the Land Rover, snacking on a light breakfast as we watch the balloon inflate in the disappearing darkness. Captain Hamid, the affable Belgian-trained pilot and owner of the operations (and Lina’s husband) introduces himself, and gives a quick overview of the flight plan.

The balloon fully inflated, we clamber into its four compartments, ten of us in total, plus the captain who gets his own compartment from which to operate the surprisingly simple-looking mechanisms which will guide our flight – a couple of handles and switches to regulate the helium and a few ropes, plus a hand held radio to guide the ground crew to our landing spot (which is apparently unknown even to the captain at this point).
Once Lina has taken the obligatory departure photos and Hamid has given us the briefest of safety instructions (a quick drill on the ‘crash’ position in the event of  a rough landing), we lift off quickly. The captain expertly controls the helium mechanism that not only gives us elevation but warms the basket each time he gives it a spurt. In short order we are at a couple thousand feet over the desert, giving us a dramatic view of the random patchwork of  multi-color earth tones, interrupted by irrigated stretches of green, various Berber houses, farms and animal pens, and all connected by a simple network of dirt tracks.

Captain Hamid
It’s eerily quiet as we glide over the sprawling landscape, the silence only interrupted by the occasional blast of helium and Captain’s Hamid’s witty commentary. He’s not just the captain, he’s the star of the show and keeps us entertained the entire 45 minute flight.
We can see the skyline of Marrakesh in the distance rising abruptly from the flatness of the desert, and dominated by the Koutoubia Minaret, the iconic mosque in the center of the old city. The captain advises us that today’s flight was in jeopardy because of a planned visit by King Mohammed VI, the ruler of Morocco. His presence would mean that all air traffic around the city is limited, and private craft – including balloons - are grounded for security reasons. But his majesty had graciously delayed his visit by a day, so our trip goes as scheduled, although Hamid will be grounded for the next several days while the King oversees the openings of a new hospital and roads. 

We glide along at a surprisingly brisk 45kilometers per hour ground speed, hardly the Marrakesh Express but at the brink of being almost too windy for an enjoyable trip, according to Hamid. For the most part weather conditions are ideal in this part of the world for ballooning for a good portion for year – the hot desert summers keep them grounded from June to September.  On this day, the trip will be shorter than normal because the wind pushes us along faster and we have to land within a designated area.
Our horizontal landing
The captain doesn't miss anything
Hamid prepares us for his signature ‘touch and go’ pre-landing routine, where he drops the balloon to just above ground level, scrapes it long the desert floor, then elevates again. As we recover from that act, we notice the two vehicles speeding toward us in the distance, two dust balls growing larger as we again descend to the agreed upon landing spot Hamid has radioed to them. The actual landing is a bit more gentle upon first touch, but steadying the balloon to a full stop proves to be a challenge we hadn’t considered. The crew tries to stabilize the basket as the wind tugs on the balloon above us. Hamid prepares us for the inevitable, invoking the crash command, and the basket rolls gently 90 degrees, leaving us all in a suspended horizontal position. We have to crawl and shimmy out of basket, but not before Hamid and Lina have collected all our cameras and joyfully snap pictures of us awkwardly squirming out on to the desert floor. “A Ryan Air landing,” Hamid declares. 

As the crew deflates and packs the balloon almost as quickly as they assembled it, Hamid signs our official flight certificates to great fanfare and applause. We load into vehicles, and this time we drive with Hamid in the Land Rover. He is dying to show me his other touch-and-go trick – while driving through an empty field, he jumps out of the moving Land Rover and runs alongside it while we continue bumping along, driverless, over the barren wheat fields. After a short run, he climbs back in to appreciative laughter, and a sign of relief from the two Japanese tourists in the back of the truck.
Certified fliers

We head back to the Berber house, with Hamid enjoying games of chicken on the narrow highways with each on-coming vehicle. He wins each time. Once at the house a generous spread of fresh baked breads and other simple local delicacies, fresh squeezed fruit juices, tea and fruits awaits us. They all hit the spot and we marvel to ourselves at what we have already achieved by 8AM. The Berber family that lives here have apparently struck something of a pot of gold with their arrangement with Hamid and Lina – they not only provide jobs for the three men who serve as the crew, but the company has helped spruce up their home a bit, including the addition of a new kitchen with gas powered oven and solar powered lights (no electricity in these parts). In exchange the women serve us breakfast, and allow us to tour their simple but comfortable dwelling. It’s an eye opening experience and a true insight into a whole other way of life.

A traditional Berber breakfast
The 'old' kitchen at the Berber house
Lina explains that the Berbers are very family-oriented and the sons, one of whom in our crew is soon to be married, will stay in the same house their whole lives, bringing their wives to the compound as they get married. In total 13 family members live in this particular home, with the matriarch being a gentle women of about 80 years. She has recently lost her husband, who died at close to 100, so Nina asks us to not interrupt he mourning by taking pictures of her. Nonetheless the woman greets us warmly, proudly shows us how her new lights work in the new kitchen, and caringly caresses Lindsey's cheek.

After breakfast and a tour of the compound, we pile in the vehicles and head back toward Marrakesh, but not before a stop just outside of the old town in the upscale Palmerie area (where many celebrities have homes and there are upscale hotels and golf courses). Here we will take a traditional camel ride.  We all mount the docile beasts, and get to meet three of the newest members of the clan who were born just three weeks ago. They tag along our walk through one of Marrakesh’s  several parks, in an enjoyable but unadventurous tour.
Savannah rode the Mom, with the kids in tow

Lindsey & Toni take the lead
Hamid and Lina pride themselves on the personal service and view into local life and culture that their operation provides. It is true – Marrakesh by Air is more than just about the balloon ride, although that certainly is the most memorable aspect of it. Back at our riad by 11AM we felt like we had put in a full day, and had gained a unique view into Berber life as much as we enjoyed the views from Hamid’s balloon.

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