We could not come to Morocco without trekking into the Sahara Desert on camel back and staying the night in a tented village surrounded by sand dunes. It had been on our “bucket lists” for quite some time and this was our chance to do it.
We rounded up a few other interested parties in the marina, and set to organising 8 of us to travel to Marrakech, then do an organised 3 night tour through the Atlas Mountains and down into the Sahara. I felt like I had returned to a previous life working for Thomas Cook Travel as tour operators were researched, emails fired off, quotes received, comparisons made, itineraries chosen, hotels booked and train schedules investigated.
So we left our boats safely tied up in Rabat Marina and travelled by train the 4 hours down to Marrakech, arriving early afternoon. We piled into a minibus taxi, gave the driver the riahs (small Moroccan hotels) name and address and headed for our prebooked accommodation. However after 2 phone calls the poor taxi driver still could not find the riah, hidden away down a tiny lane that was definitely not designed for cars!! Eventually we were met by a riah staff member on the road and taken on a magical mystery tour the short distance to Riad Nouzha (see our next posting for other Marrakech options closer to the centre). As we had been in Fes, we were immensely impressed by what can lie behind the doors in some of these ancient medinas. An open courtyard alive with ferns was the centrepiece, our beautifully decorated rooms opened out onto the 1st floor balcony and open atrium, 2nd floor was home to the hamman (Moroccan bathhouse) and massage suite and the rooftop terrace was furnished with sun loungers and comfy seating and there was even a plunge pool. Everything was going well so far!!!
After mint tea and Moroccan cookies, swims or snoozes - or both - we were revitalized enough to hit the maze and attempt to navigate our way to the centre. The 20 minute walk was along a dusty, noisy, busy road, the footpath was an obstacle course littered with potential hazards for the unwary, but eventually we arrived unscathed at the entrance to Place Dejmáa el Fna, “the place” to visit in Marrakech by night.
Coaches lined the road and there were tourists everywhere, the square was abuzz with life. Street performers were setting up for evening performances, snake charmers approached the unsuspecting and placed snakes around there necks – yes, that really is a snake around Marks neck!!! then they demanded the equivalent of €20 for the pleasure of getting up close and personal with a snake and getting a photo (no €20 from us!) – around a hundred small food vendors set up each evening and the smells of various meats cooking wafted through the air as the staff anxiously tried to get our business. There were stalls selling almost everything, from freshly squeezed orange juice, to Moroccan teapots to Eritrean baskets and Nigerian beads - it was total sensory overload and a little overwhelming. After dinner from a street stall followed by a reasonable look around we decided to head back to the peace and tranquillity of our riah and enjoyed the night time vista from our peaceful rooftop terrace.
Next morning we were collected on time by Sahara Services, the company we had booked our 4 day/3 night “Nomad Living” tour through. We had 2 very comfortable Toyota Landcruisers, and 2 drivers called Mohammed (well it is the most popular name in the world), and we were off on an adventure of a lifetime. We headed southeast, away from the sprawls of Marrakech and into rural Morocco. The countryside was spectacular, changing each time we turned another corner. The road wove along an almost dry riverbed for a while but then we were soon climbing, high up over the Tizi n’ Tichka switchback pass to the summit of this part of the High Atlas Mountains. Enroute we stopped at a roadside women's co-operative where oil was extracted from argan nuts, a somewhat labour intensive operation, and then processed into cosmetics or food products. We even managed to sneak in a coffee break – Moroccan coffee is very good and a necessity after a 6am alarm!!
We started our descent down the other side, again the scenery changing all the time, sheer cliffs gave way to rolling hillsides of rubble and scree, then hardened volcanic mounds were followed by high peaks with almost vertical strata lines. The geology and landscapes were outstanding. Around here somewhere the movie Babel was filmed, we were hoping we didn’t have the same experience they did. There was always something different to look at, no chance at all for napping!! We took a turning off the main road for a short detour to the village of Aít-Benhaddou. This 11th century kasbah (walled village) is well preserved as it is a popular location for filming exotic movies, Lawrence of Arabia and more recently scenes from Gladiator to name just a couple.
Then came our first meal break, boy oh boy did they feed us well, all our meals were included and they were exceptional; excellent quality, quantity, service and in some stunning locations, all 8 of us were very impressed, and probably gained a few pounds too!!
It was a long afternoon as we had many miles to cover. We dropped down into the Dráa Valley, an oasis of green bordering the slow flowing Dráa River, the longest river in Morocco coming down from the High Atlas Mountains and meandering all the way to the Atlantic. It is a beautiful area, the vibrant green dates palms weighed down with fruit ready for picking went for miles and miles, mud brick Berber villages lay hidden against the valley walls, women were camouflaged under bundles of palm fronds, children fished at the rivers edge, goat herders watched their herds; we sat back and took it all in.
It was just after dark when we reached our overnight accommodation outside Zagora, no roughing it tonight – CNN and BBC satellite TV in the rooms, WIFI in the lobby and dinner served al fresco by candlelight adjacent to the swimming pool. Day One had been absolutely superb and we hadn’t even got to the ‘good bits’ yet.
A late 9am start on Day 2 was welcome. The skies were overcast and the BBC Weather was showing a band of cloud and thunder storms for the Sahara over the next couple of days – what!!!, didn’t they know this was a desert, and the reason it is a desert is that it doesn’t rain there? The 2 Mohammeds arrived and it was off for another day of exploration. First stop was the small town of Tamegroute. The town has been an important base for learning the Quran for centuries and houses a small, old and dusty Quranic library. What it lacks in glamour is certainly made up for in authenticity – a collection of astrological guides, dictionaries and religious works bound with gazelle hides dating back to the 13th century lay displayed behind murky glass doors. We had a long walk around the partly subterranean kasbah here, it was dark and closed in, with overhead beams going across the alleys, something we had not seen before. A sneaky peak into a couple of open doors revealed few signs of the 21st or even 20th century having arrived, donkeys nudged past us, children played happily with a few broken twigs, women carried their trays of bread to the local baker for cooking, men squatted in doorways discussing the days events – time has stood still here.
We visited a local pottery co-operative and followed the various steps undertaken to make Moroccan pottery. The pottery colour of the area was a vivid olive, almost lime green and there were hundreds of beautiful pieces on display. Our group did well in contributing to the local community and we purchased some lovely pieces. It was time to leave the lush Dráa Valley and head for the desert. We followed the road to the end of the line, M’Hamid about 40 miles from the Algerian boarder. After another excellent meal all we felt like doing was snoozing in the Sahara but our camels awaited ….. it was time to trek off into the dunes.
And so began our trek on camel back, firstly we went through some cute little “mini dunes”, there were a couple of tented villages nestled amongst them and we all thought this was to be our home for the night, but no, on and on we went. Through these sandy dunes, over dried river beds, up over ledges, down the other side across pebbly rubble and still we continued, not a tent in sight – for a while not even a sand dune. Our Berber camel handlers seemed happy enough, singing together as they lead us on, into fading light and strengthening winds. At last we went over the final ridge and glimpsed “the dunes” just as the last light of day vanished.
Lowering the camels and disembarking is a challenge in itself, especially after a long afternoon in the saddle, but as we watched fork lightening strike and thunder roar in the distance we were pleased to have arrived at our home for the night. We all hobbled inside the comfortable Berber tent, collapsed onto cushions, drunk tea and wondered if we would ever be able to walk again!!! We were treated to another excellent meal, watched the lightening show in the distance then retired early to our cosy tents, it had been another excellent day.
The skies had cleared by daybreak and dawn on top of the dunes was a magical sight, it was just beautiful and certainly worth 3 hours on a camel! We had the option of returning by 4WD, but all 8 of us voted to retain the services of the camels, what a hardy bunch we were. So after an early breakfast it was back onboard our humpy friends and we headed for M’Hamid before the heat of the day. It was a good trip back, its amazing how different landscapes can look from the other direction. We were back before noon, said our farewells to our camels and camel drivers, had some tea, took showers then headed off on our next big adventure.
We joined the old “Paris to Dakar” off road rally track and into the desert we went. It soon became apparent that the spectacular lightening show we had witnessed the previous evening had dumped a lot of rain into the desert, it wasn’t long before we came across another 4WD well and truly sunk in the mud. Despite all efforts to free them they remained stuck in the Sahara, back up was called for so we continued on our way. Our drivers, both from local Berber villages, seemed very knowledgeable about where to go and areas to avoid and did a great job of keeping us out of the sticky stuff.
We stopped at a sacred oasis for lunch under the palm trees,. You can understand why these places were sacred, barren landscapes for miles around and then this tiny pocket of greenery, a trickle of water bubbling up through the sand from an underground spring, sustaining life for centuries past and to come. This had been an important stopover for camel trains across the desert from Africa to the main trading hub of Marrakech , amazing how they ever found it.
Soon after, we completed our 60 km’s of off-roading for the day and arrived on the fringe of the Erg Chigaga dunes. Our tented village lay hidden between dunes and first impressions were that it looked good. Second and forever lasting impressions are that it was one of the most special places you could ever hope to visit. Great tented accommodation even with ensuite bathroom tents, very impressive, but the highlight – just a short climb up the adjacent sand dune revealed a 40km stretch of Saharan sand dunes 300m high, as far as you could see – it was just magical. The boys went off to explore distant dunes, the wind started picking up and it got dark prematurely, a quick look in the opposite direction showed why -a sand storm was heading our way and approaching fast.
Everyone managed to safely return to camp but it put a stop to any further exploration activities for the day.
Eventually the sandstorm eased but then the rains came, along with thunder and lightening late into the night, not quite the picture we had pre-painted for our starry starry night in the Sahara, but how many people get storms in the Sahara – we were special !! We had another tasty meal and even some local live music to keep spirits up, the tents kept us dry and eventually the storms passed us by.
Mark and I were up before the sun, we had come all this way and we weren’t going to miss sunrise on these dunes. The rains had cleared the air, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We climbed to the top of the highest dune and sat in total peace as we watched the sun peak over the horizon and slowly turn the desert from shades of browns to beige, then as the sun rose higher the Sahara turned golden. Wow!! For miles and miles we could see towering dunes, shadows lay between them and formed folds and layers, it all looked totally untouched – not a sign of life, not a whisper of wind, total silence…it was a magical vista, it was better than we could have hoped for.
We walked off into the folds of the dunes away from our camp, it was an amazing feeling, they just drew us in, each one we climbed seemed to want to catapult us on towards the next, it really was quite an uncanny feeling and the others that ventured away from camp had the same sense, being pulled towards the heart of the Sahara. Sadly we had to be practical, and reluctantly returned to camp in time for breakfast.
Because of the overnight heavy rains our itinerary for returning had to be changed. Our drivers weren’t happy with taking us on our original route off road via Foum Zguid and Tazenakht back to Marrakech, there was no phone coverage out there so they were unable to check whether it would all be passable. Not wanting to be stuck in the mud like the other 4WD we had passed the previous day we were more than happy to follow their guidance, go for Plan B and retrace our steps.
Instead we were off on the ride of our lives, Plan C kicked in when yesterdays dried out river beds turned into todays fast flowing rivers, what a difference some rain can make. What ensued was a most entertaining and very bumpy totally off road ride across parts of Morocco that I suspect very few tourists ever get the opportunity to see. Just how they knew where they were going or if we would get through we are not sure, but we can not compliment the 2 Mohammeds highly enough for their excellent driving and navigational skills for several hours to get us back to civilisation (a paved road!!!).
But a paved road did not necessarily mean a passable road, several section of the road we had travelled south on just 2 days prior were now washed out, most cars could not get through but our trusty Toyota Landcruisers just climbed up the rubble and went down the other side, then came a bridge totally underwater and the swollen river flowing really quite fast over it. We watched a couple of trucks go across, then a van, then another 4WD then the first of our 2, then it was our turn – exciting stuff I can tell you!!
It had been a very long morning and our lunch stop back in the Dráa Valley at Chez Yacob in Tamnougalte was an unexpected treat. Tucked away down a maze of alleys in yet another spectacular setting was this restored restaurant and riah, we sat down to the best meal we experienced in Morocco and recapped on the fabulous 4 days we had just experienced. We carried on all afternoon and into the evening: our drivers safely negotiated us past the never ending convoy of trucks which travel after dark, up and down the twisting narrow bends on the High Atlas Mountains and eventually the loom of the lights in Marrakech got closer and closer.
Just after 9pm we were back in crazy, busy, noisy, dusty Marrakech - read more on Marrakech and then Casablanca in our next update.