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Morocco in a Month (Part 4/6) - The Sahara

Updated: Mar 30, 2019

To the Desert

Ourzazate, in the southern part of 'proper' Morocco (it's actually quite central if you count the immense wilderness that is the disputed territory of the western Sahara), is the jumping-off point for excursions to the Sahara. We had organised a short excursion to the Sahara from there the day before, taking in Todra and Dades Gorges, before doing a camel trip from Merzouga to spend a night in the Sahara. We got up there early on the first day of September to a glorious breakfast of coffee and bread with marmalade. Which is pretty much the only kind of breakfast available, anywhere in Morocco, give or take the odd glass of orange juice, or optional mint tea. Still, it always did the job and was never more than a few Dirhams. It had been a last minute decision to go to the Sahara; we had considered it too hot, too far away, too expensive and difficult to get to when we were further west near the coast. I talked my girlfriend round, mainly based on the rationale that we probably would never get a better chance to see the desert, in a way which was not following a line of tourists on camels as you you see in Egypt or wherever. It was a three day excursion, reduced to two days for us because we weren't coming back to Ourzazate but getting dropped off to head north.

Valleys of Kings and Roses

We would see two of the most dramatic valleys in Morocco en-route to it, all from the luxury of a 4x4 Landrover. We were accompanied by a rather shy French couple who appeared to speak no English. As my French is distinctly average, conversation was stilted and embarrassing, mainly because they were so shy. As we all sat around in total silence with our driver a couple of hours after leaving Ourzazate, sipping our mint teas, I wondered if this excursion might not have been such a great idea. However, after getting back in the car, we veered off the road on to 'piste', basically rough track which led through some marvellous palmerais and abandoned kasbahs. This part of the country, to the east of Ourzazate, is known as the Valley of Kings, and has some magnificent scenery, punctuated by these magnificent red structures, crumbling majestically on the edge of the desert.

Before long, we were ascending the 'Valley of Roses', so called because it is swathed in pink from April through to June, and the crop of roses is used for perfumes, scents and potions which are quite valuable for the locals. Unfortunately we had arrived to late to see this but as the road climbed higher and we climbed on top of the landrover to get a better view of the surroundings and take pictures, we certainly weren't complaining. The gorgeous mountains ahead of us closed in and we were suddenly surrounded by stunning red cliffs and boulders, as ever changing in hue as we barrelled past at speeds which, from our precarious perch on top of the landrover, seemed a bit excessive. Our driver seemed to be enjoying himself. We passed a bus, surprisingly, given the nature of the road, and it too had people on its roof and hanging dangerously out of the back doors.

They waved and grinned as we passed. before long, we reached the summit and paused to take in and admire the scenery: a vast impressive valley which stretched out beneath us, red and brown dappled with large areas of green. Clearly there was some water in the valley here, unlike most of the areas we had seen so far. As we descended, the valley became clearer, and it was planted with argan and orange trees with plenty of grass for sheep to graze. We stopped for lunch and a light doze, necessary in the searing heat at 2pm. I had bought a straw hat to protect my head, but I felt quite dehydrated, and was taking on a lot of water. My pocket thermometer read 37 degrees.

The Dades Gorge

The road led after lunch to the famous Dades Gorge. This was another pleasantly stunning valley, and the drive up it took us past almond and fig trees, and some fabulous rock formations and more impressive kasbahs and 'ksars' (fortified strongholds). The road snaked up in a leisurely fashion past a partcularly striking kasbah at a place called Ait Youl. A few kilometers further on, we came to some more wonderfully weird rock formations and stopped to take pictures. It's well worth the detour to go there if you can. If there is a downside to excursions like this, it is the perfunctory nature of getting to these places; you stop, take a few pictures then clamber back in and move on to the next photo opportunity. I'd have liked much longer to get out, stroll around and take it all in, but before we knew it we were off and travelling down the valley to Tinerhir, our destination for the night, past yet more ruined kasbahs and little villages tucked into the mountainside. Essentially a mining town famous for little and of little interest to tourists, we simply used it as a sleeping stop. We got to Tinerhir about 6.30pm, as darkness was falling, and we had the rare treat of being able to buy some alcohol - beer and wine - from a shop on the way into town. It had been almost a week since my last beer, so I eagerly made my purchases and wasted no time in swigging down the cold 'Stork' from an unusually normal sized can. Our auberge was friendly and comfy, and we had a nap on arrival. Dinner consisted of a delicious hashed meat and egg tagine. Delish.

The Todra Gorge

Next day, we got up relatively late - we had been more tired than we expected. We had a brisk breakfast then went on a stroll around town, past more palmerais and, you guessed it, abandoned kasbahs, which were again beautiful. We passed through another Berber village and gave some money and sweets to the begging children. We were given some nice little camels woven from grass in exchange. The main attraction of that day however was the Todra Gorge. This had been one of my Lonely Planet guide's big recommendations on the way to the Sahara, and luckily it didn't disappoint. Only 15km distant from Tinehir, at the end of a valley thick with stunning palmeraies and berber villages, the Todra gorge is created by a massive fault in the plateau dividing the High Atlas from the Jebel Sarhro, with a crystal-clear river emerging from it. It rises to 300m at its narrowest point, where the rocks on either side of the valley are no more than 20m apart, so that you feel almost as if you are going into a tunnel as you drive up it. It's best in the morning, when the sun penetrates to the bottom of the gorge, turning the rock from rose pink to a deep ochre. As we walked through the deep, sun-dappled gorge, I couldn't stop taking pictures. We thankfully had plenty of time here to take it all in and wander around, pausing long enough to order a decent couscous from a restaraunt set just off the road and in the shade. Again, I'd have liked to have stopped longer but we were on our way again by two, for the final leg to the desert.

The Todra Gorge, Morocco
The Todra Gorge, Morocco

The Sahara

The mountains faded into the distance behind us and the scenery became more and more barren, until eventually there was no vegetation or green left at all, just dust and scrub. This gave way gradually to a more definite sandy surface, and all of a sudden the huge dunes of Erg Chebi, the only true desert dunes in Morocco, appeared majestically from the haze. The 4x4 had left the tarmac by this time, and we had stocked up on water at the final town before the wilderness, Rissani. The piste we were bumping along was quite unnavigable other than by jeep; travelling in the dark would have been out of the question. The dunes loomed closer and closer out of the haze, and presently we arrived in Merzouga, the last bit of habitation before the Algerian border.

Berbers at the edge of the Sahara, near Merzouga, Morocco
Berbers at the edge of the Sahara, near Merzouga

Algeria is absolutely a no-go area these days of course, and has been since the mid 90's when terrorism made it far too dangerous. There is little cross-border traffic at all and no communications between the two countries. No one gets in or out it seems, other than a few nomadic desert Berber people and their camels, and there is more than a little resentment between the nations over the exact whereabouts of the border. (*). You wouldn't know it though. The place was incredibly calm and peaceful, and all we could hear on disembarking was the sound of camels chewing their cud, and the distant roar of a quad bike engine on the dunes. We had a quick cup of mint tea, then readied ourselves for the evening: we had a 90 minute camel trek to a camp in the desert, where we would sleep for the night and get up to watch the sun rise. It certainly wasn't going to be luxury accommodation for the night, and the likelihood of plumbed toilets was not high. Thankfully, my stomach problems had subsided.

Camels are the oddest creatures I have ever seen. They have a haughty, almost arrogant air about them, and look at you with infinite indifference, as if to say "I expect you're another bloody tourist wanting a ride. Sod off and leave me alone" They move in a bizarre, languid way too, from the way they set themselves down, front legs first then rear, like collapsible tables. You certainly need to hold on tight as you're getting on and off, and once on, it's hardly the most comfortable mode of transport. These 'ships of the desert' are actually one of the best adapted creatures on earth though, able to survive the harshest, hottest conditions possible, and possibly, I concede, justified in their snooty manner. If you were a camel you probably wouldn't have much time for anyone else. What other animal can survive in the harshest, hottest conditions on Earth for six or seven months without food or water? The ride to the camp, through stunning, silent dunes, led by a blue-clad Berber, was magnificent. We did pass through a crowd of tourists who had gathered on one dune to watch the sunset, but once past them, we were on our own, and as dusk fell and the moon rose in the evening sky, we were totally alone. We eventually reached the camp, just as my legs and arse were beginning to ache quite badly, and our camels obligingly collapsed themselves so we could get off, then went off to search for something to munch on.

A night in the Desert

We were given tea and roasted chicken by our Berber guide, with hot bread. The moon had risen and was shedding quite a lot of light, which was just as well because we didn't have torches although we did have candles. The French couple had thawed out a bit and it turned out the girl had been learning English for years but was too shy to speak it. They were actually quite nice people and we ended up having an enjoyable evening, though the repartee was hardly Wildean. Our guide didn't speak much French or English and didn't join in but he prepared our beds for the night underneath the canvas of the Berber tent. A wind had whipped up and there were a few rumbles of thunder in the distance and we were glad to go under the tent, but the French guys slept under the stars.

People say that it gets freezing in the desert, but it was quite a mild night despite the breeze. We did use blankets though. I slept soundly and felt a closeness to nature I have never felt nor am likely to ever again. Next morning, we were woken at 5.30. I drowsily shook the sand from my hair and felt vaguely annoyed that I couldn't do my normal ablutions; it's quite hard putting contact lenses in when you are in the desert without a sink or a mirror. Somehow we both managed this irksome task though, and we set off up the closest dune to witness the sunrise. I can't really describe how great it is to watch the sun rise over the desert from the top of a tall dune, but I think you can picture it; absolutely perfect - cathartic and unforgettable.

The focal point of the trip and an image that will remain with me for ever. After an hour or so of this blissful feeling, we trudged back down to the still unimpressed-looking camels and rode back to Merzouga, where we had a shower and breakfast. We left soon after, back on the piste to Rissani then Erfoud, where we left the group and took a grand taxi first to Er-Rachidia and then another to Midelt. It wasn't long enough of course; but essentially the desert doesn't change much and you could argue that one night is enough to get a feel for it and see what it's like. I'm certainly glad we did it, but having read Palin's 'Sahara', I don't think I could handle it there for very long. We had seen it essentially late in the evening and early in the morning, at cool times, but even at 9am the thermometer was pushing 30 degrees. When he was in parts of the southern Sahara, it was more like 40 for the majority of the time, even in winter. That's what your average camel has to deal with every day. Give them a break next time you meet one.

* Relations since 2006 between Algeria and its neighbours have improved, and citizens of Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Libya can enter the country visa-free. EU passport holders, however, still need a visa, as do the majority of other citizens. Israelis are banned from entry.


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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous part, on the Anti-Atlas region, including Tafraoute and Ait Benhaddou, please go here:

Part 3/6: Tafraoute & Ait-Benhaddou

And to see the next part, on the Imperial Cities of Meknes and Fes, please go here:

Part 5/6: Meknes & Fes

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