Moroccan Mountains & Sleepless in Sahara
july 24, 2019
It was every superlative in the book, but all that’s left is the memories and a whole lot of sand in the bottom of my backpack. My journey to Merzouga, Morocco, the Northwestern border of the Sahara was a trip of epic proportions - of wonder, surprise, and depth. Leaving from Marrakech in a van full of strangers, my expectations were modest and realistic, which made my experience that much more of a treat as I watched the increasingly impressive landscape change colors and textures from my window seat with unwavering curiosity.
I’ve traveled a lot on my own, and I recognize the value in a solo experience - what a joy it is to find oneself in a foreign place. Yet, I’ve also learned that the most epic experiences are best shared. In other words, it’s one thing to trot around London by yourself, stumbling into museums and strolling the Borough market, but it’s another to enjoy the vastness of the desert sky in a place as isolated and grand as the Sahara. I feel the same way about going on safaris or seeing the northern lights. And so, I had intended to make this wild journey with a friend - I even had one committed, flights booked and all! But, life gets in the way, and he had to cancel. I scrambled to find another friend to join, and failed.
Now, I’m not one to usually book travel in a tour group. I’ve learned from experience that I get rather claustrophobic around strangers and annoyed by the strict itineraries. But, under the circumstances of such an epic trip and considering the reality of traveling alone in Morocco into the harsh conditions of the Sahara, I elected to give it a go with Rouge Travel.
Thankfully, the trip wasn’t much of a financial risk. $90 for the full 3 day/2 night trip included all transport, camel rides, most activities, breakfast, dinner, and basic shared accommodation (you could splurge for private, luxury accommodation for $360/person, which I almost did, but I elected for the more social route). All in all, $90 is a steal for this tour. I was super impressed by all we were able to see, and my chance travel companions weren’t too bad either.
We were fast friends, in the same way kindergartners band together on the first day of school. Actually, I felt like a child on a consistent basis throughout this trip - in all the best ways. My feet sloshed in streams and I tried and failed at skipping rocks. My time was structured by others, with all sorts of fun activities. I was told when I would eat and was scolded if I didn’t make it back to the van in time. It was like the road trips of my childhood - only this time the scenery was nicer and I had a better control of my bladder.
The first day, started much like that of a family road trip as well, our driver corralled myself and 14 other bleary eyed travelers into the van at dawn. We made small introductions and settled in for the first leg of the trip. Departing Marrakech, we headed south into the Atlas Mountains. We made a few short stops for photos as we wound our way through the Tishka Pass. We then stopped in the ancient village of Kasbah Ait Benhaddou. The red, earthen buildings fall onto one another and climb up the land in a way that seems alien to the western eye. The settlement, dating back to 757 AD, was once an important stop on caravan trading routes, but is now mostly known for its starring role in Hollywood, as a filming location for Game of Thrones, The Gladiator, The Mummy, and more.
From there, we continued onto Ouarzazate - also known as the gateway to the Sahara. We took a quick glance and fast photo at Kasbah of Taourirt, before retreating from the high-afternoon heat and continuing our journey into the whispering canyons of the Dades Gorge.
I was pleasantly surprised by our quaint accommodation for the first evening. The bed and breakfast, outfitted with traditional berber decor, was located just opposite the most magical little stream, in which I immediately sauntered. The cool water, fresh from the mountains gave new life to my sore feet and sweaty limbs. I also stumbled on the best bit of luck, being the only one in our party of 14 to get a single room and bathroom all to myself! A further bonus was the delightful view of my beloved stream trickling below the immense, rocky canyon wall.
That night, we filled our bellies with delightfully fresh veggies from the region alongside traditional bread, followed by a hearty chicken tagine. I especially enjoyed the crisp and sweet watermelon that came at the close of the meal. After dinner, most of our group went for a walk and then swapped travel stories on the roof of our hotel.
I slept like a baby that night, exhausted from a day in the heat and the introduction of so many new places and faces. I greeted the morning with gusto just after sunrise, as our position at the bottom of the canyon blocked first light and created a delightful delay of rays streaming in my bedroom. Breakfast consisted of Moroccan pancakes and a myriad of jams, butters, and syrups. The coffee ran out twice, as we all fueled up for another day of adventure. We packed up our things and stocked up on liters of water, before we bid our host goodbye and made a new friend a few towns over.
The happiest little man led us through a garden and spoke to my soul in evident respect for others and eagerness to share his own culture. We learned about how locals plant and harvest their food and then learned about weaving traditions over mint tea in the home of a traditional rug manufacturer. I especially enjoyed this glimpse of life for average Moroccans, before we set off for the impressive Todra Gorge.
The scale of this river forged between two curving cliffs offered our last sweet image of respite before the Sahara. The cool water was populated by tourists, locals, and goats alike - coexisting peacefully, enjoying this pleasant gift of mother nature. After a thorough wading and sloshing, we paused for lunch overlooking the gorge and finished with one last dip in the stream as we skipped rocks over the shallow water.
Piling back in the van for the final leg of our long drive, the climate of the interior of the vehicle changed quickly as we approached the heat of the desert. Pulling up to Merzouga, we met our camel companions at the base of a series of dunes, which would span roughly a third of the entire continent of Africa. This thought alone gave one feelings of trepidation, as the Sahara is a place of terrific extremes. But we were all smiles, as our resilient, humpy friends carried us over the dunes to watch the sun sink into the pillowy, orange landscape surrounding us.
Settling into our berber camp in a valley of dunes felt like landing on Mars, but with basic comforts and hospitality that we found to be relatively consistent in Morocco. We enjoyed even more tajine and melons, as we pondered our unique evening ahead in this very hot and dry place.
After dinner we hiked the dunes, marveling at the extended horizons. The moon was waxing into a fullness that would culminate the following evening. Thus, the stars were not as bright or visible with the moon stealing the show, yet the visibility of the landscape was an unexpected treat. As were two “full moons” made by my fellow companions who took to stripping down for a memorable streak in the Sahara.
When our bodies begged for sleep, we found our black tents had retained all the heat of the day, so we elected for a night under the saharan sky on beds of sand. The ground was delightfully warm and incredibly comfortable. Laying on the sandy Earth was like sinking into a bathtub. And it would have been perfect, if the sand storm hadn’t kicked up.
Specks of sand pelted us from every angle and maneuvered its way into mouths and ears and eyes. We surrendered to a sleepless night, as we braved the elements and sheltered our faces beneath scarves, and later, a childlike fort made of broken chairs and sheets stolen from our still sweltering tents. The largest gusts of sand seemed to die down as dawn approached, and we managed to get an hour, or maybe two, of decent shuteye, before it was time to climb the dunes and welcome morning.
Unfortunately, the mighty winds of the night brought with them a sky of clouds, leaving much to be desired in regards to a sunrise. On the bright (dark?) side, it kept the morning cool and more bearable as we sipped mint tea and enjoyed a camp breakfast before making our way back to the van for what was next in our respective journeys. About half of us (me included) would return to Marrakech and the other half would continue on to Fez. After such an intense experience as is spending dozens of hours in a car together, broken up by incredible sights and long meals, finishing with an epic evening in the Sahara, it was a bittersweet parting. We exchanged information to share photos and offer beds in our respective homes all over the world.
The half of us that continued on to Marrakech spent our 8 hour drive back making up for lost sleep and digging deeper into ourselves and each other with thought provoking conversation and inside jokes realized on our trip. As we pulled back into the chaos of Marrakech, exhausted as I was, I couldn’t help but feel what was more within me. I took a little piece of this corner of the world and made it a part of myself, as I am a product of this experience and a million others that came before it. I am a compilation of the places I’ve been, the choices I’ve made, and the people who have given life to the moments along the way. So I carry these dear memories with me, along with the few grains of sand that seem to have found a permanent home in the depths of my backpack.