Mint tea and starry skies at an ecolodge in Morocco’s desert

Sustainable and ethical practices are something we value highly and the moment I learned about ‘Green Tourism’, I became fascinated with their methods of achieving environmental wellness. After all mass tourism is incredibly damaging to our environment and I wasn’t even sure if there was an alternative way.

I still wasn’t convinced that ‘green tourism’ wasn’t an oxymoron and an excuse to increase the price tag, so when I came across an Eco-Lodge on the fringes of Morocco’s southern desert, I jumped at the chance to stay.

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The ecolodge

The bigger picture

Green tourism, eco tourism or responsible tourism as it’s sometimes known revolves around making sustainable choices that reduce the impact on the planet. A fundamental belief in harmonious environmental practices which benefit the local community as well as the wider world. An idea of minimum waste, water and energy are used to have as little impact as possible.

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The welcoming gates at the ecolodge

Where is it?

On the outskirts of Ouarzazate, nearly four hours south of Marrakech and five hours east of Agadir lies the l’ile ecolodge.  It is on the edge of the desert where the local land is pale, flat and a combination of sand and stone.

Although the area is baron and flat it is surrounded by a ridge of mountains. These weren’t particularly visible when we went due to the low winter cloud but in the summer you can see the Atlas mountains surrounding the ecolodge.

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The land around the lodge is baron, flat and one person described it as looking like Mars.

Traditional Berber Houses

There are eight individual, traditional Berber houses built on site that each accommodate between one and six people.

Bricks made with mud, sand and straw (sometimes animal dung) are laid out in the sun to dry. They are then stacked on top of a stone foundation and covered with a mud and straw plaster.

Berber houses are usually rectangular and the doorways face ‘Qibla’ – an Arabic word that describes the direction one faces towards Mecca at prayer time. The word Qibla also refers to a doorway that faces east. The east facing door is seen as ‘Qabel’ –  honourable and looks too the future, the morning.

The windows are typically small and only allow a small amount of light in. This keeps the heat out and the cool in. Ceilings are often made with bamboo stalks, the trunks of olive trees and covered with rocks and more mud plaster.

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The eight Berber houses
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The eight houses from the terrace.

Gas heaters for the ecolodge rooms?

The rooms were particularly cold at night. Of course, when the sun goes down it’s cold. Luckily we took our sleeping bags with us and we used those underneath the sheets and blankets provided!

The rooms are HUGE and the beds are enormous so it’s of little surprise that they’re cold, especially in the winter.  The kids had their own separate annex with two beds in which was cosy and dark – great for parents who want their kids to sleep lol.

Outside every room is a portable gas heater which we were reluctant to use however I just did some research which shows that these heaters are quite environmentally friendly! Silly us, so much of our knowledge base seems to be outdated or incorrect!

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Our room at the ecolodge
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The kids room with traditional straw ceiling

Berber rugs

Traditional Berber rugs can be seen in the rooms and on the floors of the Berber tents.

The origin of carpet weaving by the Berber populations dates back several millenia. Hand-woven from the hair of goat and sheep, they are used to decorate walls and floor as well as keep the dust levels down.

 

Berber tents

There are two Berber tents within the walls where we sat and drank mint tea – when it actually arrived. There was no working wifi on the grounds so it was a good job we took our own.  It was very relaxing to sit on the cushions of the tents and have the world wide web at my finger tips.

Much of Morocco reminded me of Europe, pre Industrial revolution but with a sprinkling of technology thrown in too. It was a bizarre combo!

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Rich and the boy enjoying the morning’s fire

And the lighting?

The electricity at the Ecolodge is created entirely by solar panels.  Interestingly to save more electricity, each light had its own separate switch. Something I’ve not seen before and I thought it was a great idea. That way the lights don’t drain the solar battery.

Because the lighting is entirely powered by the sun, we found the rooms a little dim. I suspect this was because the sun outside is just so bright that the lighting could never compare.

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The gardens at the ecolodge

What about the water?

I’ve asked about the water’s source and this question wasn’t answered instead I was told that the water came from the solar-power hot water system.  I did a little bit of research which did indicate that there are solar panels that can create fresh water so this is a possibility although I’m unsure if it’s used here.

On the roofs of the houses are solar tanks which provide hot water. These tanks provide some sort of filter to make the water drinkable but I’m not sure how.

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The reservoir

bio garden & restaurant

The bio garden is carefully tendered by a gardener and its reported that the vegetables and meals prepared are from the kitchen gardens.

Breakfast comprised of orange juice, Msemen pancakes which are made from semolina flour and served square, honey, jams, olive oil, cake and mint tea. The first night we stayed at the lodge there were a large number of other people staying and breakfast was really jovial and provided on a serve yourself basis.  On the second day we were one of only two families staying and the breakfast was served to our table.  Breakfast was complimentary and

Dinner comprised of Moroccan soup, couscous tagine or vegetable tagine and for dessert oranges with cinnamon or an orange. We were charged 100 dinar per person, per night for the dinner which is extortionately expensive in comparison to other Moroccan restaurants . In my opinion the food served was nothing more than average and a real disappointment.

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The ecolodge garden and houses.

peacocks

There’s a range of wildlife that live on the premises including doves, peacocks, peahens, guinea fowl, chickens, a turkey, rabbits and a donkey.

The peacocks, peahens and guinea fowl are allowed to wander freely but the other animals are caged or tethered.

There was a lot of peacock shit on all of the pathways which are very dark at night.  I felt as if staff should have cleaned it up at the end of every day as it’s a bugger to get out of your shoes!

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Fanning its tail to impress the ladies
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A tail display

But where are the women?

During our stay we only saw one woman in the entire complex and she was cleaning on the last day. Rich apparently saw a female chef in the kitchens the night before although I didn’t.

All the staff on show in the Ecolodge are men and whilst a few of them are very nice I got a distinct feeling of superficiality from the majority of them.  Richard said he was made to feel as if he were a hindrance when he asked for mint tea (which never arrived) and I got the feeling that our presence was not appreciated.

I appreciate that this might be a cultural but it would elevate some of the problems we felt existed.

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A peacock a the ecolodge

Singing around the fire

After dinner on our first night we were invited round the camp fire to join in with Arabic drums and singing.  I should have really taken a video because they were so good.

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Singing around the campfire at the ecolodge
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The first night’s sing song around the fire
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Ecolodge campfire

 Starry, starry nights

There was quite a bit of cloud when we visited and although some stars were visible to the eye, they weren’t half as good as at Hamilton Island. There was a lot of light pollution coming from Ouarzazate which made them difficult to photograph.

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Orion’s belt

It isn’t vegan!

The ecolodge is definitely more sustainable than staying in a hotel but it isn’t vegan and some of the treatment of the animals, that we witnessed, wouldn’t be considered caring but again these are probably cultural differences. Animals are not respected in Morocco and are seem as mere tools.

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Turkey and chicken.

Barrage El Mansour Eddahbi

The ecolodge is situated directly next to the Barrage El Mansour Eddahbi. It was the height of winter when we visited so we didn’t make the most of the lake (which is actually a reservoir-dam). In the summer months you can canoe here and spot birds.

I found these videos on YOUTUBE if you’re interested in seeing the reservoir.

Is it actually a proper eco lodge?

I’m not sure whether it is or it isn’t as I have nothing to compare it to.  I would say that it has made definite steps to be more sustainable than other forms of hotelierism but it needs to be more transparent in answering guest questions.

I have read other blogs from people who stayed at very experienced and established eco lodges and their knowledge about the practices were far more indepth.

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A peacock and peahen on the perimeter wall at the ecolodge.

What we learnt from our experience

We definitely should have done more research and asked more questions prior to staying there and we’ll take this away for next time.

Some of the questions we have learnt to ask are:

Where does the water actually come from?
What is the balance used between combustible and renewable energy forms?
How do you deal with recycling and what do you do with your waste?
When you don’t grow the food, where do you buy it from?
How does the local community benefit from you?
Are you an equal opportunities employer?

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A peacock straddling the gardens

 

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Review: Windows Lumia 640 XL LTE

Once upon a time back when dinosaurs were still extinct, I can remember owning a Nokia phone so small it fit, entirely hidden, in the palm of my hand.  Do you remember the one I’m talking about?  The buttons were minute and each had to pressed up to three times to select the correct letter. That seems like a decade ago and that’s because it was! Well we seem to have turned full circle now with phones so big they look like tablets and this one is no exception.

The Lumia 640 XL LTE, Windows 8 (10 on upgrade).

Released in April 2015 this phone isn’t yet a year old, so let’s see what we think of it.

Will it fit in my pocket?

The 640 is a whopping 15.7cm x 8 cm x .9cm wide. It’s quite big but not chunky. So, does it fit into my pocket? Well that depends on which pocket lol. It fits in my back pocket but with at least half still sticking out. It fits in my jacket, front pocket but let’s be honest; it isn’t a discreet phone.

It comes with a hard protective backing which you cannot remove without exposing the phone’s battery. Ours is bright orange because we have a tendency to lose phones easily.

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The windows lumia 640, xl lte, lock screen

Will my arm fall off using it?

Actually, no. It weighs 171g which is quite light. It certainly doesn’t feel heavy when you’re using it.

Screen size

The screen is almost as big as the phone – a 69.1% screen to body ratio.  It’s a nice sized screen for using as a GPS system or watching films on. The colour definition is relatively good too: 720 x 1280 pixels

Home page

The home page is entirely self-designed which gives you a lot of freedom. I like this much better than androids I’ve used before (Samsung). It means I can have all the essential apps to hand straight away. I can always cluster them or re-size them, so some are bigger than others.

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The lumia 640 home screen

Battery life

Get yourself a super-charging cable because charging this beast up can take over 4 hours with a normal cable. It is slow to charge.

Battery life I have found to be quite good.  Even when I’m using it as a GPS system, I have drive 150km before I need to charge it up.

Apps

Urgh. Terrible apps. What can I say but they are awful. This is where the phone is REALLY let down. In fact I’d go so far as to say, the apps are horrendous.

As a travel blogger, I want an office in the palm of my hand, so let’s see how the apps measure up professionally.

Instagram was a BETA version and was utterly unreliable. It is no longer showing in the store as a download but as I have previously downloaded it, I have access to it. It crashes a lot; the photos are a square size again (urgh I thought we’d got rid of that!?); the page doesn’t load properly so I can only see 10 posts and the notifications page never loads. The double tab is very responsive though and the typeset is nicely big and set out.

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The lumia 640’s store

Pages manager works well in comparison to Instagram. I have all my pages well set out in rows. One click and I’m on the timeline. The colours are much more defined than Instagram and photos are the correct size.  The downside is the advertising that runs along the bottom and the necessity to pay to get rid of this. Notifications are sometimes hit and miss.

Hootsuite – NONE. Yes, there’s no Hootsuite App.

What’sAPP is well laid out and easy to use. I use this app a lot and have positive reviews all round. I like the black background which makes the green and white typeset easily stand out.

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Using WhatsApp on the lumia 640

Skype is skype is skype. It works well but despite the large screen size, I have never been able to centre my face properly lol.

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Skype on the lumia 640

The banking apps we use are: Natwest (UK); CommBank (Australia) and BNP (France). No problems. Easy set up and use.

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Downloading an app

It comes with Office which is useful although I haven’t really used it. I’ve opened the odd file in xl when it’s been sent through to me but I haven’t sat down and created something with it. I like the large font size and the typesets used.

You also have the option to use OneDrive which I don’t.  I am not a fan of cloud storage.

There is no official wordpress app although there are a few third party apps.  I haven’t tried these as I don’t trust third parties.

 

Camera

The camera is 8mp and produces photos of around 4-5mb in size. It has both a front camera and a rear camera but only a rear flash.

These two photos were taken at midday, the first shooting with the sun and the second shooting into it.

The highlights are quite blown out and in comparison to other phone cameras it isn’t as hot!

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Photo taken with the sun behind us
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Shooting into the sun with the lumia 640, windows phone.

Video

There are more videos on our Facebook page however here are two we took earlier.

The video is easy to use and the sound quality is great. It has a very good microphone which sadly seems to pick my kids up when I least want it to!

I am reluctant to use my DSLR as a camera due to file sizes but I would definitely use this to start vlogging.  The camera struggled to automatic focus well during the fog but what camera doesn’t?

connectivity

Connectivity seems to better than our other phones which range from Samsung to Iphone. It picks up signals very easily but doesn’t seem to remain connected if there’s much movement.

SAT NAV: Here Drive+. HERE maps

This is when the phone comes into its own. It works as a GPS system incredibly well and to be honest, this and the video is the only reason why we keep this phone.

All country’s maps can be downloaded for free, they take up little space and can be used offline. They’re super easy to follow as the screen is so big. The very large icons make it easy to change the settings and you can change the maps between 2d, 3d and north facing.

A minor problem is that when you’re in small cars, it’s difficult to find somewhere to suspend the phone from due to its length. At the moment ours is suspended from the passenger windscreen area. It doesn’t make much difference but I do prefer it a bit closer.

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GPS with Here Maps+ on the lumia 640
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GPS
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Setting the destination on the GPS
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Map overview and icons to change settings

Star rating

5.5/10

WHY

As travellers and bloggers on the road, I really wanted a mobile office that was reliable and effective to use in relation to social media and blogging.  Sadly because of a lack of workable apps this phone doesn’t make that criteria.

The only reason I keep it is because I can download free maps and use them offline with incredible accuracy.

DDR Museum, Berlin

At Richard’s request we visited the DDR museum in Berlin this summer. Now, usually I am not amazingly keen on museums and the kids hate being cooped up inside, so, unless they super hands on, they tend not to suit us so well. I was quite relieved then, when Richard told me it was a ‘touchy-feely, life experience, type of museum‘. I’m pretty sure those are the words he used to sell it me!

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This really is a museum where you must touch everything.

He also reminded me that earlier in the year, we had enjoyed the three part series Deutschland 83 which depicts east German life in 1983, under communist rule.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

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The DDR museum which gives an insight into life in communist east Germany.

The wall

As a child I remember the wall coming down. I remember watching people climb on it and tear it down with their hands and knock it down with sledge-hammers. I remember it being a monumentally spectacular occasion and people around me being very happy.  But what I didn’t remember was why it was there in the first place. I knew it had something to do with communism (the iron curtain) but I was a bit confused as to why WWII and communism were interlinked. In case you are too, I shall try to explain it as quickly and as simply as possible.

  1. WWII finished on the 8th May, 1945. However, it divided Germany into FOUR zones.
  2. Those four zones were controlled by the USA, the UK, France and the Soviet Union (now know as Russian Federation).
  3. The soviet zone (east Germany) developed into a communist dictatorship and many residents were dissatisfied.
  4. Those who could, voted with their feet and left eastern communist Germany for the west.
  5. In 1961 east Germany was given permission by the Soviet Union to build the wall, entrapping thousands of eastern Germans and preventing them from leaving.
  6. Those in the west were freely able to visit those in the east however those in the east could not leave.
  7. On eastern Germany’s 40th birthday (7th Nov 1989), mass demonstrations took place in and around Berlin and the amount of demonstrators forced open the eastern border.
  8. On the 9th November, 1989, eastern Germany announced that all its citizens were free to visit west Berlin and Germany.

This is a very simplified version of events and of course I have glossed over many of the other facts that happened, mostly for time’s sake but this is roughly what happened.

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The border wall was 156.4km long

The DDR museum

True to Richard’s word the DDR museum is hands on. It is a dynamic and informative introduction to experiencing what life was really like for the east Germans. The whole museum is full of 1980’s soviet artefacts and requires that you read and look as well as touch. You can pull out drawers, open closets, sit in a car, listen to music, pretend to be a spy, make phone calls, use a typewriter and watch films. It’s of no surprise that it has been nominated twice as the European Museum of the year.

You will learn how children were all toilet trained at the same time on a row of potties; how students were or weren’t able to go to school and how this inhibitied their life choices; how people’s lives were controlled and how futile it was to vote. You are totally immersed into a world of communism and gain a considerable insight into what life must have been like. There was a lot to take in but it was in an interesting way.

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Potty training east German style
Open all the doors and see what it was like for workers in communist east Germany.

How it makes you feel

The museum is very dark with lots of effective spot lights. The ceilings are quite low which enhances feelings of powerlessness and oppression. At times the museum can be quite busy as well which exacerbates feelings of escapism (which for me were already quite high).  Although I found the museum fascinating, I had to take a break and go outside for 5 minutes.  It was an awful feeling of constant surveillance and control. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t real and these feelings were just temporary lol. It sounds ridiculous but I was fine after I’d had a break outside.

My kid’s favourite part of the museum

A Trabant, the most common vehicle in the former East Germany Photograph is on display in the museum. You can attempt to drive it down a street and turn left with use of a projection screened onto the windscreen – which is almost impossible and then if you haven’t crashed, it’ll run out of petrol.

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The car which you can drive.
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Learning how the engine worked
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Easy to read explanations of how the motor worked
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Attempting to drive it
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He had about twenty goes!!!!

Surveillance

Spying and being surveyed were large parts of life under comunnist regime. The museum has a small booth set up with hand written, spy notes and headphones listening to the lives of others.

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Information plaques are everywhere in the DDR museum.
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Learning how to spy
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DDR museum spy corner

 

Family life

Family life was an important aspect of living in east Germany. It was one of the ways to exist with a degree of happiness and normality.   In some cases I found the information signs to be mocking of east German lives and I think it’s important that we don’t. People had to live like this or face death or extradition to the west. Normalising a very difficult situation is a beneficial coping strategy and we shouldn’t take away from east Germans that this was their life but that there were elements that were fun and happy.

DDR

 

 

As explained the eastern Germans never went without jobs or money but there was little in the way of ‘things’ to buy. As a result they became immensely resourceful. In the face of adversity they learnt to create their own wallpaper!! I guess in a land where everything is supposed to be the same, a touch of personal kept you sane.

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Explanation of life in east Germany
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Living room
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DDR kicthen

Everything is brown and orange

A big chunk of my early memory is brown and orange! I’m sure those are not my only memories of the 80’s but brown and orange featured strongly in clothes, curtains, carpets and any decor.  Here is no different. Step back in time and see how old fashioned it all now looks.

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Explaining fashion
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1980s fashion
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A deck chair from the 1980s
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Artifact from communist rule

Other photos

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A shop cash machine
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Books and jeans
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Type writer
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hands on fun at the DDR

 

DDR Museum

We got there early but when we came out there was a large queue. I suggest getting there early before the people, if you can or you might face a wait time.  Ticket prices are VERY reasonable at €9.50 for adults and €6 for children.

I really recommend visiting the museum. There are still a large number of countries in this world that are communist run.  Spending time in the museum gave me a much better understanding of what it must have been like for Eastern Germans but also an inkling into what it must be like NOW.  If you’re in any doubt as to why some people want to flee their countries (aside from the war, famine, terror and inability to work) this will make you more empathetic to their plight.

Credits

Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: Sigma 24-70mm