Journey into the Moroccan Sahara
A great expanse of sand covering 3.6 million miles2, the Saharan desert is to many a dreamed-of mystery, a little terrifying and awe-inspiring. I first saw it in the film of Michael Ondaatje’s book The English Patient (a nightmare-inducing film for an 8-year-old!), then again in the Mummy trilogy of films, and again in Paulo Coelho’s famous best-selling novel The Alchemist. Aged 19 I had snaked down the Nile through Egypt on a riverboat, on the fringes of the Sahara, exploring ancient Egyptian temples and structures, but never wandered too far into the vast desert.
Then last October I found myself at Marrakesh Airport with my Venezuelan friend Diego, about to head off into the Sahara at last!
Through word of mouth Diego had managed to find the son of nomadic Berber family called Lahcen Seggaoui who could take us to his hometown of Merzouga and from there into the Sahara and the dunes of Erg Chebbi on camel-back. From Marrakech we drove for 4 hours south-east through the winding hairpins of the Atlas Mountains to Ourzazate, joining a couple of other people and spending a night there before driving through the Valley of Roses, into the impressive Todgha Gorge and on towards Merzouga. Seeing Morocco’s landscape change over several hours’ drive as we approached the desert only made our eventual arrival all the sweeter. For the last half hour of the drive we sat atop the roof of our 4×4, with the wind in our hair, the African sun on our skin and our eyes fixed on the sand dunes on the horizon as they gradually grew into great mountains of sand before us.
Once in Merzouga, originally a resting post for nomad communities and traders who roamed the Sahara, we picked up turban’s to protect us from the desert sand the sun. We mounted camels (or dromedaries to be precise) and travelled for an hour and a half into the endless desert, peacefully lolloping back and forth in a sort of hypnotic trance, the rhythm of the camel’s plods providing such a sense of tranquility in our august surroundings. I thought of all the thousands of desert-dwellers who have crossed the great Sahara, travelling for months on end in such heat, with so few landmarks to navigate by, with so little water to keep them alive. I thought of all the people who must have succumbed to the conditions out there and died. All was so very still and quiet. I came to my senses when we saw a trio of tents nestled ahead of us in little dip.
The camels came to a stop and mine kneeled down to let me to jump off. Then to my horror I saw our camel-master tie their legs together so they couldn’t wander off into the distance – what an unfair way to tie up an animal! However it’s true that there’s literally nothing out there to tie them to, although I did feel bad for the camel stuck there all night without food or water… We set about playing in the sand dunes until dusk fell, drinking peppermint tea, learning to sandboard (amazingly I didn’t fall off!) and playing around with a quad bike that emerged from somewhere.
A couple of men who occupied the small dip in the sand that we called home for the night set about building fires and cooking a camel tagine and preparing a huge salad. After dinner we lazed around the bonfire admiring how bright the Milky Way appeared out here, so far from light pollution, counting shooting stars (20 or 30 I swear), smoking shisha, drinking surprisingly decent Moroccan red wine, telling stories and jokes and learning about our intriguing guide Lahcen.
Spending a few days in the company of Lahcen has completely changed my perception of Moroccans. On my Third Year Abroad when I was living in Italy, my then-boyfriend was mugged and got into a fight with a group of Moroccans in Genova and, although I shouldn’t have judged a book by its cover (or an entire nationality by a handful of ruffians!), that incident unfortunately soured my impression of Moroccan people. But Lahcen by contrast was fantastic company and exceptionally cheerful at all times, even after a day of driving I never caught him looking weary or grumpy, although he must make that same trip every few days with a new bunch of tourists. He runs his company Morocco Sahara 4×4 himself and caters to small groups in his 4×4. There were just 6 of us with him. A word of warning, the trip we took with him was entirely in Spanish as we found him through Diego’s contacts, and a lot of Lahcen’s clients are Spanish-speaking. However he does speak English too and you could enquire about dates when he’d have an English-language group. For 48 hours with Lahcen including all accommodation, food and transport to/from Marrakech we paid €185 per person, which I personally think was worth every penny, as we didn’t have to arrange or research anything ourselves and it was the real highlight of our trip to Morocco.
For more on our stay in Marrakech after venturing out to the Sahara desert, look out for an upcoming blog post about the riads, hammams and Medina of Marrakech.