In the knowledge that an entire week in Marrakesh would be too much, I had arranged for a three day desert trip. We never got to ride a camel in Jordan, so the combination of exploring the periphery of Sahara, seeing a less travelled part of Morocco and riding a camel, made this trip seem the perfect fit.
I can only say that had we not had the good fortune to sit in front with a first row seat of the beautiful and ever changing Southern Moroccan landscape, I would have found this trip one of the biggest wastes of time.
We set out in the early hours of the first day, spending the morning travelling up into the High Atlas. Our first and only real stop that day was at the world famous ksar Aït Benhaddou, which proved a ridiculous experience.
A ksar is a fortified Berber village which is most commonly build out of adobe, which is the Spanish word for mudbrick. As such there are not many historic ksour (plural word) left, since they deteriorate in a matter of years if not kept and rebuild annually. We have seen several ruins from ksour, which have been left to perish in the sun. But some are still maintained, while others are fortified with modern materials to stand the test of time. One of the most famous ksour in the world is Aït Benhaddou.
Aït Benhaddou has been a world heritage site since 1987 and used as scenery in countless movies, such as Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Babel (2006) and Prince of Persia (2010). Four families still live in the ksar, but otherwise it is mostly used as a tourist hotspot today.
I would have loved to explore the place on my own, but we were greeted by the most silly of hosts – a tall Moroccan man with cowboy hat and boots and the weakest and most high pitched voice I can recall to ever have heard. The poor guy seemed to be stuck in the uncomfortable teen years with a voice that had settled for the most embarrassing. He was also a waste of time.
Had we known the guided tour was an option we could forego, we would have run from him immediately. First he and his crony Muhammed left us at a balcony overlooking the ksar, and while we were happy to take pictures there for a few minutes, we ended up waiting there in the beating sun for 30 minutes. Where he went I know not, but out of a two hours visit, it was rather frustrating to stand around.
Finally, he took us through the lower parts of town, where he said remarkably little. This off course could be explained by his thin, but I felt it was more a calculation of us as price cattle. This seemed to be confirmed as he took us to some weird painter to buy a painting we didn’t want.
It had been our impression that he would take us to the very top of the ksar, but before long we were let out of the old ksar again with Muhammed explaining that there was no time. No way, wonder if the 30 minutes wait and the visit to the painter could have made up the time for a climb to the top. Ridiculous.
Even more so, when we stopped at a strategically well placed shop for buying shawls for protection in the desert. Yes, it was required to wear a shawl around your head. No, the cheap ones of 20 dirham would colour your face blue, so rather take the more expensive. And yes, this was definitely the cheapest place to buy shawls before reaching Sahara.
After having secured a famous business for his friend in the shop, he took us to a massive restaurant where we were joined by the hundreds of others on these bus tours into Southern Morocco. Here we were served expensive and far from impressionable tagines and were forced to pay our guide with cowboy hat and boots 50 dirham each for the made up entrance to the ksar as well as whatever tips we might feel he deserved. He got surprisingly few money from our tour group and the ridiculousness of the tour seemed to break the ice of the group over the dirty tables of the tourist restaurant.
Looking back I can say that I saw Aït Benhaddou, but what I remember is the feeling of being cheated, goated and ripped without being able to stop it.
On the road though mountains and desert
After Aït Benhaddou, we spent the most of the day crossing the High Atlas and driving the long stretch of desert through Ouarzazate and onwards to Boumalne Dades, where we were to make up for the night.
If I had not been in the front being able to see the road ahead of me, I would have been barking mad and felt very claustrophobic from the trip.
We stopped a few places such as Ouarzazate, the provincial capital, but I felt highly cheated having understood from the material of the website that we would get to walk around the city and other places. The three days promised to be an excessively long drive for very little action and with a driver who said the bare minimum about the places we saw.
Finally at Boumalne Dades, we made it to a large hotel complex catering to the many mini vans with tourists just like our own. For the second time that day, we got a dismal and dry tagine with chicken, before heading off to bed.
At some point I’d realised I’d lost my phone and looking around for it, I asked at the desk of the hotel if they had found it. For whatever reason they were angered by my question claiming that I should try searching for it instead of blaming them. I don’t know about Morocco, but where I come from a reception is a good place to start a search since they often have a lost and found box.
In general it was a strange place. A member of our travelling party could tell how he’d caught the hotel staff getting high through the night. Comforting thought.
The palmeries and roseries of Southern Morocco
After a terrible nights sleep, I found my phone in the cracks between the seats in the front of the minivan. I was pretty pessimistic about the day to come considering how the day before had been a very long drive with only short breaks a apart from Aït Benhaddou. This second part of our journey through Southern Morocco would take us almost within spitting distance of the Algerian border and out into the famous sand dunes of Erg Chebbi.
Again we had the fortune of sitting in front. The desert road from the High Atlas and south-east runs through vast areas of green. Here were both rose fields and massive palmeries. It seemed a magic place and on the map it was evident that we were driving alongside a waterway which assured the survival of the people in this remote part of Morocco.
It was once again a long stretch, but we were fortunate to make a stop at Tinghir, which to me became the highlight of our trip.
At first I was sceptical. We were set off by the side of the road in the middle of what seemed a bridge. Here stood a group of locals greeting the driver. Another guided tour. Free me from it.
But this time around was quite a different experience. In the hours before mid day, we ventured out into the vast palmery of Tinghir. Walking in the shade of palms and trees which supplied the locals with dates, figs, almonds, and so much more. A true oasis in the flat and dry Southern Morocco.
Tinghir, unlike Äit Benhaddou, was not a tourist trap, but a wonderful and peaceful middle-sized town full of local life. I would have loved to have more time here. Not because we did not have time and a friendly guide who showed us much of both the palmeries and the centre, but because I would have loved to spend a day just soaking up the sleepy atmosphere in town.
Our guide made a great deal of fun with how it was the women working while the men hung around drinking tea. He’d lived for several years in the Netherlands and under his humour, I thought there might be a slight critique of himself and his fellow Moroccan men. For it was true. The palmeries were filled with women of all ages working, while the men were in town. They might have a shop, but the hard labour was left for the women.
After my pessimism at the outlook of the day, I had cheered up greatly from our visit to Tinghir and bore it well that we spent the next couple of hours driving east.
We reached the edges of the desert well past midday, driving past several advertisements for fossils and minerals. As a last stop before reaching Erg Chebbi and the town Merzuoga, we held in at a small kiosk out in a remote stretch of nothingness. Here was our last chance to buy water for the night as well as a fossil or two. We loaded up on the first item, while noting that the price on water was a third of what it had been in Äit Benhaddou. Not that it was of any surprise that our guide with the cowboy hat and weak voice had been lying.
The guy in the kiosk however was a wonderfully friendly young man with a large and honest smile and leagues apart from the general hassle of Moroccan vendors. Leaving his small shop behind in the horizon, we were in excellent form and ready to take on a camel or two at the dunes of Erg Chebbi.
An erg is a flat desert landscape covered with wind-swept sand and clear of vegetation. It often takes form as sand dunes or a sea of sand. Morocco has two ergs or sand dunes: Erg Chebbi and the smaller Erg Chigaga. At Erg Chebbi the dunes reach up to 150 meters covering an area of 50 kilometres, but only 5 to 10 kilometres wide from east to west.
At the border of Erg Chebbi lies the small tourist town Merzuoga from where tourists are sent into the dunes on camel back.
I’ve never been good at sitting on top of an animal, and this was no different, though this time around I feel positive that the camel saddlebag was loose making my ride to the camp extremely difficult.
As we passed a jeep, I could hear the occupants of the jeep laughing as they pointed their finger directly at me. That some of them exclaimed something about “that woman looks ridiculous” was another indicator that my riding skills were being scrutinised and found lacking.
The fact that my camel was the only camel in the caravan wearing a mask against biting didn’t help the matter. Moreover, it was a pain riding downhill feeling as if you would tip over the head of the camel, because of the loose saddle.
But I survived and enjoyed it tremendously as we slowly made our way through the dunes of Erg Chebbi, reaching a tall dune from where there was an amazing view of the sunset.
Getting up on that hill, however, proved nearly impossible and I was more than once ready to give up if not for my internal stubbornness. Each step took a massive amount of effort as your foot was buried in the red sand. I was a wreck when I finally reached a proper viewpoint, but proud to have made it that far.
We didn’t stay long to enjoy the view however as a strong wind made the sand fly all over the place.
Camping in Erg Chebbi
We spent the night in a desert camp along with 200 other camel riding tourists.
The evening was a bit too much for me. Too set-up, but the food was the best we had had since leaving behind Marrakesh.
Though we missed seeing the traditional Berber music being as tired as we were, we herd it through the rough tent walls. It was intriguing and I preferred hearing it in solitude to sitting amongst the 200 other camp guests.
Returning to Marrakesh
On the following morning, hours before the sun rose, we were woken and sent towards the camels that lay around in large circle sleeping as we had done.
After a confusing half an hour we were once again riding on top of a camel – this time in pitch darkness.
Fortunately, the camel I rode on the way back was a pleasant fellow and the saddle tightly secured. If the guys in the jeep had been around, they would have been impressed. But well, you only ever meet the neighbour looking your worst.
We crossed Erg Chebbi as morning light slowly began to creep over the horizons. It was a refreshing ride after being awoken so early. Before long we reached the edge of Erg Chebbi and could see Merzuoga off in the distance.
Here we stopped and from the too of a small hill we looked towards East as the sun slowly crossed the horizon announcing a new day’s beginning.
After a breakfast at the hotel arranging the camel rides, we started off on a long ride back to Marrakesh. Too long in my opinion and once again I was thrilled that we were sitting in front where I could spent the many hours watching as the South Moroccan landscape turned from desert to high mountains.
By 7 in the evening we were set off near our new Marrakesh hotel with only one thought in mind. A shower.