We decided to escape the fire smoke and drum beats of the bedouin camp and slipped out of the circle of heat and light into the dark wilderness, the rhythms, singing and laughter fading just a bit with each step. The sand was cool, and the sky dark – we were still caught in those moments between after-dark and before-moonrise. As our eyes adjusted to the night, we could make out what is to us the alien shapes of the large herd of camels who brought us here from the edge of the Sahara desert. We laid down on the cool sand somewhere in the darkness, our eyes now flitting in between the millions of stars canopied above the desert. And then we spent the next few hours gazing, reminiscing about where we are and how we came to be here. It was a spectacularly unfamiliar moment – our backs on the cradling desert and our eyes in the stars, sometimes accompanied by the grunts and chews of 30 or 40 camels just a stone’s throw away, the soft beating of the bedouin drums filling in the spaces in the background. Then I noticed a soft, yellow light glowing just off the edge of dunes in front of us, and, assuming it was another camp, wondered just how many nomads have set up camp and lit campfire for the night over this vast ocean of sand, from us all the way over to the Mediterranean. But the light wasn’t coming from another camp – it was the moon. Rising. Big and strong and full and orange like these dunes. Rising slowly and steadily, yet too fast even, turning quicksilver as it hiked up the sky. Then the sand waves were bathed in silver and we were floating on it. Bliss.
Two mornings earlier we were in Marrakech, and the following evening we would be back in Marrakech, yet where we were couldn’t feel farther from Marrakech or anything else. It had taken us 2 days to drive here, and for two people whose knowledge of Morocco stems solely from flipping through a DK Eyewitness Top 10 Marrakech book purchased a week before our departure, it could not have been more spectacular.
Marrakesh – Boumalne du Dadès
After grabbing some Moroccan pancakes from a medina stand set up for early commuters, we headed to the Jemaa al Fna square in Marrakech to set off on our desert adventure. Not long after we left behind the city and her suburbs we were met with the foothills of the Atlas mountains, and then we started the snakiest mountain pass, up and up and up and up. The minibus made careful turns, and at each turn our eyes were wide with awe. When we finally stopped in a shoulder, it was just immense to take it all in. We were surrounded by lush green hills and peaks, with tiny Berber villages dotted across, every part of the slopes made useful for date palms, wheat fields, and orange groves – often in small tiered gardens against the mountain face. And then out far in the haziness rises an enormous snow-capped Atlas peak, which felt so surreal in the heat that we were still experiencing even this high on the mountain.
At some stage we crossed from the North West to the South East part of the mountain, and we followed the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass through what seemed like the desert side of the High Atlas Mountain. The road had become somehow even windier and snakier, but the lushness had receded and the mountain now seemed more unforgiving than before.
But let me just add that the road was fantastic the whole way through, and where it were anything less, roadworks were being executed to improve it even more. Also, dotted along the mountain were a sufficient amount of road side stops where you could find relatively well-maintained bathrooms, drinks, cats and dogs, THE BEST ROADSIDE COFFEE EVER, and also my FAVOURITE ice cream: the Maxibon (which they stopped selling in South Africa some time during my childhood, but we often find it in the Middle East and a few European countries). Look out for that Maxibon – you will not be disappointed. (P.S. save the sandwich half for last).
By midday we had arrived at the much-anticipated UNESCO site of Aït Benhaddou, a fortified Berber village on the caravan route between the Sahara and the High Atlas Mountains. AKA, Yunkai from Game of Thrones, where Khaleesi exercised her glorious wrath (fangirl moment). Also, one of the sets of Gladiator and a bunch of other stuff. It’s an ancient city of red clay made up out of kasbahs that form a shaded tunnels and alleys that lead you to the top of the hill. Aït Benhaddou has a suburban new town across the river where most citizens live, but there are still 4 – 6 families that maintain the ancient fortress on the hill, which offers sweeping views of the valley in all directions.
After passing Ouarzazate, the ‘gateway to the Sahara’ (basically the last big city before the desert) we arrived at our accommodation in the Dades valley, which consists of a network of towns and villages in the valleys and on the plateaus of the gorges that had been carved out by rivers from the high atlas mountains, and watched the sunset while the last call-to-prayer echoed down in the valley below.
Dades valley – Merzouga
The next morning we were shown around a gorgeously lush palmery by a local Berber in the valley. The palmeries are used for self-sustaining family farming, where an entire range of vegetation is nursed by mostly women. We strolled past wheat fields, date palms, pomegranate bushes, fig trees, olive groves – the diversity of the crops yielded is quite astonishing. On top of that, this region is well-known for its roses, around which a massive rose water industry has evolved. Then we were taken into the cool streets of the kasbah, before we were all herded into a carpet ‘museum’, where the vibrant and beautiful handiwork were played out in front of us before all the awkward sales pitches commenced. Oh well.
After lunch we stopped briefly in the cool shade of the monumental Todra gorge, where we dipped our feet in the forgiving fresh water running over the smooth rocks, along with picnicking families and Berbers bringing their donkeys to the river.
By late afternoon, the landscape had started to flatten out, and patches of green became scarce before nearly all vegetation disappeared. We arrived at Merzouga at sunset, a tiny village at the edge of the Sahara – about 50 kms from Algeria – and were shown to our train of camels, resting in some palm shade with their always-content-looking faces. Then we were off. Slowly we swayed, clutching with the saddled humps with our thighs (riding a camel is hard work! But much easier on the soft sand than the rocky roads up Mt Sinai), into the waves of nomadic sands of Erg Chebbi, where dunes can rise up to 150 meters (!!!!). We watched the shadows shift and the colours change as we rode into dusk, and arrived at camp about two hours later in the darkness, where we filled our bellies with the rich, soupy glory of Moroccan tagine and cous cous.
Merzouga – Marrakech
We set off on the same camels (who we’ve come to love) at about 5am the next day, swaying and dipping and clutching back to Merzouga to the most spectacular display of light in the sand and sky as we dipped gently towards the sun. We stopped an hour in, climbed up some dunes and basked in the first rays of the morning sun coming up over the Sahara desert. I can’t possibly describe the feeling in those moments as day broke over an ocean of sand, dipping and rising for an unimaginable eternity over an incalculable distance. Feeling like we were right in the midst of it, yet being only tiny insignificant specks teetering on the very edge of a desert that spans the breadth of this continent.
Then began the long drive back, stopping minimally, once to switch vehicles before the mountain pass as ours had some apparently technical issues. After stopping to take in the sunset in the lush green valleys of the High Atlas Mountains on last time, we drove the last few hours to Marrakesh with visions of sunsets, moonrises, dusks and dawns, oases and deserts.
This was the highlight of our Moroccan adventure, but booking a tour like this with a company definitely has its pros and cons. And after seeing how great the roads were all the way to the edge of the desert, I think we would definitely consider just renting a car and hitting the road by ourselves and on our own pace.
PROS about company tour
You don’t have to lift a finger organising anything, i.e. it is EASY (great for those not knowing anything about the country)
Included is a bunch of guided tours which colour in all the amazing things you encounter.
You get to meet people and make friends from all over the world, and share your experiences!
Lots of napping opportunity on the long drives in the minibus.
PROS about self-drive tour
Take it at your own pace and manage your own road trip playlist (I think I’ve heard ‘Purple Rain’ enough to last me a lifetime)
Manage your own accommodation
Stop to take pictures whenever you want, or, don’t stop to take pictures whenever you want!
Anyways, there’s more than one way to doing anything, and either way – you should do it. Morocco is just a spectacular country – mountains, valleys, rivers, oceans, unforgiving deserts and life-giving oases, snow-capped mountains and lush, rolling sunny hills, and lots and lots of palm trees. The pictures do a better job expressing this than I can, even though they feel insufficient too. But what I mean to say is this: once in your life on this one earth that we live on, you should drive over those mountains and through those valleys to the Saharan desert in South East Morocco.