Journey to the Sahara
Once Ibrahim had managed to navigate the craziness of Marrakech traffic with apparent ease and we were out of the city we stopped by the roadside to check out the day’s game plan.
Over the next three days we were driving all the way across the High Atlas Mountain range to the north – western tip of the Sahara Desert and back. Going to the Sahara has been something I have longed to do for years and I couldn’t wait to see it. Even though it was a long way out to the desert we got to stop at some pretty awesome places along the way. After leaving Marrakech we crossed the High Atlas Mountains through the Tizi-n-Tichka Atlas Pass. The views from the top of this long, windy road were incredible.
The mountains are quite barren yet when there is even a tiny bit of water available green splashes across the arid landscape. The road through this pass allows you to travel through the full range of the Atlas environments, from the Haouz plains, the lush foothills of the Oued Zat, to the barren peaks of the Atlas and the arid regions around Ouarzazate.
The local people who have lived in these mountains for hundreds and hundreds of years are called ‘Berber’ people. They have traditional Berber villages in the high mountains and keep livestock, usually sheep and goats and are excellent carpet makers as well as connoisseurs of fine Berber whiskey. As the day was so hot, around 40 degrees, we stopped for water a fair bit. At one water stop a man was selling cactus fruit by the roadside and in the spirit of trying all things new I bought a few for us to taste. I quite enjoyed it but none of the others really took to it. It was fun using French again since thanks to colonization the Moroccan people speak French as well as Arabic and Berber. I offered some to Ibrahim already forgetting he couldn’t eat or drink all day even though it was so hot, opps.
Around lunch time we stopped at a restaurant that had a pool so everyone went for a swim. It was the heat of the day and I had a thumping headache, but before we could get back into the car we were lead off the see the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ait Benhaddou explore the old town.
Ait Benhaddou is a fortified mud brick village on the old caravan route between Marrakech and the Sahara. There are 8 families that still live in this village, however the rest of the population live in a town opposite that has better water supply. A lot of movies were filmed here and in the surrounding area including The Mummy, Gladiator, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, Babel, Prince of Persia and its also used in Game of Thrones.
It was beautiful and so old but I only made it halfway up the hill before starting to cry then spewing several times?! Desert 1, Clare 0. I felt pretty bad since it’s a beautiful UNESCO village haha but I couldn’t help it and its not like there’s much garden around in Morocco to hide it in. Once we got going again Jared looked after me with a cool cloth to the head and I got to sit up front with the air on, winning! Or I was until I had to make Ibrahim pull over so I could spew in the middle of a towns main intersection – shaaame.
That afternoon we stopped at Ouarzazate briefly to see the amazingly decorative kasbahs and the Atlas studios, which (when measured by area) is the world’s largest film studio. The last part of the day was spent driving through the awesome Rose Valley where every year massive amounts of roses are grown and harvested for rose oil and the Dades valley. Ibrahim drove us right to the top of the Dades Gorge Mountain pass and the view from the top was awesome!
When we arrived at our hotel we had finally completed our longest journey ever…40hrs of travel by taxi, train, ferry, bus, taxi, foot, taxi, train and 4wd! The boys all went and swam in the creek while I had a shower and discovered I’d been bitten by some funky bug and had big welts on my back. Desert 2, Clare 0.
During the day Ibrahim had said we would have some Berber whiskey with dinner. The boys thought we should try the local stuff so they tried to order some with dinner only to be told they didn’t have any whiskey. We were all sitting around after later and Ibrahim joined us since he’d broken his fast. The boys joked with him about there not being any whiskey and so off he went to get some. By this stage none of us wanted any alcohol and we tried to say ‘no don’t worry about it’…! Back he comes with this huge teapot, everyone’s thinking crap that’s a lot a whiskey but guess we’re going have to drink it so we don’t cause offence. Next minute much to everyone’s confusion he’s pouring us all glasses of mint tea aka Berber Whisky. It was delicious.
After an early breakfast the next morning Ibrahim was keen to be on the road again though none of us really wanted to get back into the car. We passed by the town of Tenhir and into the Todra Gorge. We wandered through the Gorge with our feet in the deliciously cool water. Many people where lying on little rocky platforms along the river bed or river side napping and trying to keep cool. I really take my hat off to people who can get through Ramandan in August in Morocco.
Throughout the day we drove through the Berber towns of Tinjdad, Jorf and Erfoud and stopped for lunch. While we ate Ibrahim slept in a little dark room the restaurant keeps for tour guides to have a nap in. Feels weird being driven by someone who hasn’t really slept all night and who hasn’t eaten all day either. Ibrahim pulled over on the side of the road for us to take a wicked picture when these kids came up to the window trying to sell us reeds woven into play swords. Ibrahim told them to go away (that’s what I’m guessing he said anyway) then when they wouldn’t he got out and chased them! He explained they are supposed to be in school and have skipped out, if you buy things from them it doesn’t encourage them to go back to school where they need to be.
Eventually the scenery started to change and when we got to Tafilalet, the most important oasis of the Moroccan Sahara and also one of the largest oases in the world, we passed km’s of wells dug out of the flat, dry earth. In southern Morocco, the people used a water management system that was invented by the Persians around 3000 years ago called a ‘qanat’ (in Morocco its called a khettara). As it is on the edge of the Sahara Desert and is an isolated oasis, Tafilalt has relied on qanat water for irrigation since the late 1300’s. The black Berbers of the south were the hereditary class of qanat diggers in Morocco who still build and repair these systems. Their work, digging these wells is very dangerous.
Finally we make it to Merzouga and the Sahara, dump our bags and hop on the camels. It was so fun and exciting to get out into the desert even if it wasn’t very far. The sun was setting but the sky was so hazy thanks to a dust storm we didn’t catch the sunset. We rode the camels for about and hour after which we arrived at a small campsite surrounded by the desert sand. There were 4 tents in a semi circle at the bottom of several huge sand dunes.
The Sahara (which in Arabic means ‘the Greatest Desert’) is the world’s hottest desert and according to google is the third largest desert after Antarctica and the Arctic, which I think is just getting a bit picky. The desert area covers most of North Africa, a similar size to America! Most of the Sahara consists of rocky, dry areas. The ergs are large areas covered with sand dunes formed by wind blown sand and these form only a minor part of the Sahara Desert. Where we had travelled to was the Erg Chebbi, one of Morocco’s two Saharan ergs. The dunes of Erg Chebbi reach a height of up to 150 meters, and what a view it is from the top.
By the time we’d made it to the camp the wind was really blowing the sand around! It’s true what people say, it gets in everywhere. We all had turbans round our heads trying some what unsuccessfully to keep it from going in our eyes and ears and up our nose. We all ran up the dunes which turned out to be so much harder than it looked and sat on the summit soaking it all in. The guides were cooking us dinner so as it got dark we sat outside the tent under the stars and drank Berber whiskey. It was just the 5 of us and 2 American guys who were great company. Dinner was incredible. Not only was it delicious and included all my favorite Moroccan meals but we were in the desert, with no electricity, miles away from anywhere, eating a 3 course meal by candle light while we all sat around a big table on cushions. I was giddy with happiness.
All the Moroccan guys who had taken us out into the desert and cooked dinner then took us all out side and we danced and danced like idiots in the balmy night to their drums and chants. Awesome! When it was getting late and the dancing was done we climbed up the moonlit dunes again. Jared took the snow board that was for sandboarding and once at the top thought it’d be a great idea to take off his clothes and sand board down.
It was super steep and he’d last for about 4m then nail him self, get covered in orange sand and hit the deck again and again until he was just a slivery shadow falling down the dune. Needless to say we laughed and laughed. He slogged it back up the steep part of the dune lugging the board behind him until the final 20m which he thought would be best tackled at a run. By the time he made it to where we were perched he lay right down in the sand and moaned. Next minute he rolls over and vomits and vomits! We all lost it, I’m not sure why his misery was so funny, writing about it now seems cruel but it was just hilarious circumstances. We were on top of a massive desert sand dune, in the sahara, he had just fallen down the mountain, the run up mostly naked and covered in sand and lay vomiting on the top. Gold.
That night the wind stopped blowing and we slept under the stars in the vast expanse of the desert. The guides woke us before the sunrise which was very very early and we once again made the climb up to the top of the dunes to watch the sunrise. By the time we’d ridden the camels back to the hotel on the edge of the desert it was only 7am and we were absolutely sweating. We got away pretty early headed for Marrakech and would drive all day to get back there around 7.
We took a different route back to Marakech and stopped at a fossil factory. It was one of those places you get taken to buy things by your guide but it was interesting to see it anyway. They quarry stones from the desert that seem to have a massive amounts of fossils in and then in the small factories they make them in to table tops, benchs, jewelery etc.
During the return trip we were all pretty tired. By this stage everyone had pretty much let down all their barriers of personal space and I’d stopped apologizing every time we went round a corner and id bumped them. Over the tree days we’d all fallen asleep on someone else, sweated on other people and basically just gotten way to close. When I fall asleep in the car I seem to end up with my mouth embarrassingly wide and invariably someone would take a photo. Matt showed me one that day which was horrible! So when he was sitting next to me and fell deeply asleep it was payback time. Sorry matt.