Slender camels trailing slowly, with purpose, across desert-swept golden dunes, whilst moving deep into Morocco’s Sahara Desert…
Forget the madness of Marrakech, away from snake-charmers and spice sellers.
Instead, travel with me on a former caravan route across the stunning Atlas Mountains and into the desert.
Far-off in the distance, a nothingness with just sand swirling in the breeze, eyes blinking from the sun’s glare, as a mirage unfolds itself into a Bedouin camp.
Lawrence of Arabia’s dream-like romantic desert scenes emerge – the purity of travelling in this expansive and desolate part of the globe, where the only insignificance is you.
Starting the tour from Marrakech
Vibrant Marrakech is an excellent hub to organise your trips from to anywhere in Morocco, but especially, across the Atlas Mountains. Lots of competition from many tour companies operating from this city, offering a one-day tour or if times permits, up to five nights away – the desert is your oyster.
Tips: Check the number of people on your tour and shop around for your tour as prices vary greatly. I much prefer a small group in a mini bus.
Opting for a two-night/three-day package from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains and with a Bedouin camp sleepover in the Sahara Desert thrown in, the exciting day finally arrived. But, before we venture off as desert travellers along our romantic centuries-old camel trek seeking the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, our modern-day transport awaits…
Day 1: Aït Benhaddou
This morning’s meeting point at seven with our “Agent” is at the frequented Café de France, where another couple also arrived. Piling into a car, we continued for only a couple of blocks before stopping. Piling back out and into a waiting minibus, fourteen more passengers arrived over the forty-five-minute wait, until we left, only to stop again about twenty minutes later, for fuel.
Our eclectic mix of nomads included: Moroccan driver and agent, two Moroccan girls, an American brother and sister, two Swiss travellers, one Argentinian, three Italians, and two Australians (us). I am always the ‘fossil’ on any tour.
A tricky drive through the busy and crammed streets in Marrakech finally sees our minibus turn onto the long smooth N9 Highway.
Stunning scenery materialises across the spectacular desolate High Atlas Mountains. The only way I can explain the scenery through these mountains is dreamlike and breathtaking, in its emptiness.
A hairy ride awaits along the infamous Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass, our gateway to the Sahara.
In 1936, the French military constructed this road, which runs along the ancient caravan trail. Our skilled driver now wound the minibus around the tightest of bends, as we climbed to three-thousand metres.
Stopping off at small quaint mountain villages with pricey cafes and restaurants along the way, is a welcomed break.
With a brief drive through Ouarzazate, Morocco’s film-making location, the minibus turns right onto the N10 highway for the Dades Valley and the Vallée des Roses. This valley is renown for its picturesque flowers but out of season, there are no flowers to be seen, anywhere.
The weather turned quickly and we reached the first night’s accommodation at Aït Benhaddou (also Aït Haini) in the pouring rain at around 18:30 hrs.
A pretty stream bubbles away noisily behind the hotel, competing with the sound of heavy rain.
The hotel is a reproduction of an old castle and just as cold but impressive from the outside. Our room is sparse and marginally warmer than the freezing outside ambience.
The open fireplace in the dining room is inviting but our group is pointed to the table further from the fire – many groups are staying here tonight.
I think our group is on the budget tour as there is a definite difference in service and food from the groups across the room.
Although, a wonderfully delicious hearty meal of chicken and vegetable Tagine with Couscous is consumed within minutes, we are made to pay for the warming mint tea – seriously? And we only discover the extra charge after the tea is served and devoured. The tour’s price is supposed to include everything – no extras.
Day 2 – Erg Chebbi, somewhere deep in the Sahara
Following breakfast the next morning, the tour continued to Agoudal, some 3,200 metres up the High Atlas Mountains, in the grey, cold, and rainy morning.
Back-tracking to Todgha Gorge, we stopped at Todgha, a small town with very friendly locals and super cheap coffee. Quite a refreshing town and not a tourist trap as previous stops on this tour.
Perhaps our requests are finally answered. One of the annoying parts of the tour is that you only stop at tourist places and out-of-the-way cafes and restaurants; not in towns where food is of better quality and cheaper.
The tour takes in a Fossil Museum, which is really a shop stop, but a welcomed break nonetheless.
With weather clearing on the further one and a half-hour-drive to Merzouga, we finally arrived and stopped for more mint tea.
Scarfing up, our desert guide finally leads us to our smelly furry new-found friends, for the anxiously-anticipated ride through the desert.
Our destination – Erg Chebbi, which is deep into the Western Sahara Desert to seek our Bedouin camp, for the second night’s accommodation. Sand dunes in certain places are as high as 150 metres. Collectively, this area of stark desert spans some fifty kilometres (north to south) and from five to ten kilometres (east to west), and lines the Algerian border.
The windy conditions from the increasing sandstorm make for a dramatic ride, with coarse Saharan sand biting and stinging any slither of exposed skin. This seems not to bother our guide, who incidentally, is on foot and never drinks water for the duration of the trek.
An immensely beautiful and desolate place, which makes you feel insignificant amongst mystical dunes that have witnessed thousands of camel trains through infinite time.
Quite surreal riding slowly and lazily across the dunes with enough time to appreciate and absorb the vast boundless surrounds.
Incredible is how the guide knows this invisible path, day or night.
I search hard for traces of defining markers in the sand. Special sand dunes that may be differentiated by another. But there are no signs, no path, no trail, nothingness, to an outsider’s untrained eye.
Rain in the Sahara?
No sooner did we arrive at the camp nestled in the hollows in the middle of Saharan dunes that it actually started pouring with rain. Our guide tended to the camels whilst we rushed into our communal tent.
Looking around, I noticed a lack of any beds.
The welcoming Bedouin with the serene face made warming mint tea for everyone. Calmly, he poured his fragrantly strong but delicate liquid with a timeless skill and precision, passed down through the ages – a ritual of time.
After a delicious Moroccan meal, our hosts played and sang traditional music in an infectious trancelike mood, creating an otherworldly atmosphere against the sounds of rain.
With continuing heavy rain throughout the night, we are reminded that it only ever rains here two to three times per year, and then this is only for a five-minute splash.
The Bedouins took our visit as bringing luck to their camp.
The rain did stop briefly with enough time to race outside to get some fresh air but also to find a patch of sand to heed nature’s call.
The pitch black starless night against shadowed dunes, created a vastness of eternal infinity.
With only a short-lived break, the rain started once more as we raced into the tent’s shelter.
Who would have thought it would rain in the desert, and rain hard?
Of course, our cloth tent lined inside with flimsy plastic and not used to any heavy rain, became porous as muslin cloth, leaking profusely.
Moving our partly sodden bedding from the damp ground across to the dining tent’s marginally dryer ground, fifteen others decided to also sleep in this cosy spot.
Since the Bedouins smoke…a lot, most stayed up enjoying the rain, chain smoking, and chatting into the early hours of the morning.
Sleep escaped most, as thick plumes of choking smoke twirled high into the dull glow of the gas lantern, to hover over us and drift into the tent’s ceiling. The dense haze made for suffocating conditions and streaming eyes.
Day 3 – Marrakech
With raspy gravelly throats from the previous night’s smoke and with only sporadic sleep, everyone arose to a beautifully fresh, clean, and dazzling endless morning.
A stunning sunrise against a clear and crisp blue sky, contrasted by rich burnt orange-hued swirling sand dunes, awaited us in a dreamlike barren wilderness.
Climbing back on our damp camels for the return journey in our sodden jeans on rustic saddles, proved most uncomfortable. Made of two crude pieces of rough timber with a welded metal T-section to hang onto, the saddle is not conducive to comfort. A lot of pain whilst riding, resulted in terrible chafing in unmentionable places.
Press on we did however, as unless you walk through heavy drenched sand, there is no other way to return to civilisation.
Along the curving trail, perpetual shapes and shadows dance in the dunes, taunting and forever burning into the library of memories, a magical Saharan sojourn.
Finally, back in Merzouga breakfast awaited our return.
Piling into the minibus once more, we headed back for the long journey to Marrakech. Over six-hundred kilometres during a slow journey, back over the Atlas Mountains.
Having snowed in the mountains since crossing just a couple of days ago, the now white-laden stark scenery is both breath-taking and bitterly cold. Such contrasting vistas from the previous drive that we could be travelling through a different country altogether.
Dropped off with much chafing and famished after the long drive, gingerly we walked back through the Medina. Seeking our little Chez Fatima Bérbére restaurant to indulge in a splendid three-course scrumptious meal, is the mission.
Only a brief rest in Marrakech, before continuing to Morocco’s imperial city, Fes.