Our guide is named Said, and the driver is Ahmed. We later learn that they are brothers. In the first half an hour Said tells us about the five principles of Islam, the Morrocan demographics and monarch, and olives.
Turns out that black and green olives grow on the same trees. The black ones are just riper. Olives are harvested by spreading blankets on the ground under the trees and shaking/picking.
We get pulled over at a police checkpoint. The cops look like soviet ГАИшники in dress uniforms, white cuffs and all. They are using a tripod-mounted radar that looks more like a surveyor's tool. Ahmed shows them his ID and some Arabic is exchanged (but no money that I can see) and we're on our way again. These checkpoint are pretty frequent, but most just wave us through. They seem easy enough to spot that any speeders would be able to slow down in time.
Ifran - a rich town in the Middle Atlas mountains. It has a very western look to it - almost like we're in the Alps - with sloping red tiled roofs on the modern looking houses and patches of snow on the ground. Said says that the king is visiting here now, so the local police is more "proactive".
Our first "scheduled" stop is to look at monkeys in a cedar forest. They are adventurous enough to grab peanuts from people's hands. The smaller ones retreat quickly, while the bigger ones are so brave as to pull on my pant leg requesting more.
The terrain changes a few times. The top of Middle Atlas is covered in snow - the road was only cleared a day or two before. Descending on the other side we pass some picturesque gorges before hitting a barren plain.
Unscheduled stops happen whenever Vitya sees anything worth photographing. They offer a welcome opportunity to stretch my legs.
All told, the drive from Fez to Merzouga takes over nine hours.
The owner makes smalltalk while offering us hospitality tea - no doubt included into whatever deal he's worked out with our guide. Then, it's time for dinner. As always, it's Tajine, and again - delicious and hearty.
Next - an outing to the roof to look at the stars. We bring along an ipod with speakers, and a pipe. There is no moon, and the stars swarm the sky. You can see the Milky Way, and probably a ton of constellations, but I can only remember Orion. We have fun taking some long exposure pictures and debate the occupational hazards of nighttime guards in the Middle Ages. Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are sublime as never before.
The room itself is not huge, but roomy due to lack of any furniture beyond the two large beds - each easily King sized. There's not much light. It's also cold. But the thick, heavy blankets look very inviting. In fact, very soon, they are keeping me warm - as long as I can manage to keep my hands under them.