The Great Moroccan Goodbye Tour, Part 4: The Sahara
After departing from the Dades Gorge on Monday morning, we drove southeast toward the Algerian border. We stopped a couple of times for views, lunch, and craft cooperatives, but the day was spent mostly in the van. In an area called the Valley of the Roses, we sampled rosewater lotions and soaps. (To read about the annual rose festival in M’Goun Valley, check out this article from Lonely Planet.)
Later, we toured a traditional carpet cooperative, where we drank tea and listened to a Tuareg man explain how each style of carpet is made. The process was fascinating, but then predictably they pressured us hard to buy. I paid too much for a rug that I didn’t need, which left me feeling sour throughout the early afternoon. I often struggle with being assertive, but in Morocco I had quickly learned to walk away from vendors who were too pushy. However, in this circumstance, because it was a stop on our tour, we were a captive audience. I eventually caved just to be left alone. I regretted it the moment we were back in the van but resolved to shrug off $80 poorly spent, because that afternoon we would arrive at the most anticipated stop on our tour…
We stopped one more time to learn about traditional jelabas and headscarves. We each picked out a long, lightweight scarf to wear for protection from the wind and sand in the desert. Finally, driving across the dusty, desolate highway of southeast Morocco, we could see dunes on the horizon. They were huge, and in the late afternoon light they were a bright reddish gold. There was no gradual transition like I expected. Instead, the flat, rocky brown terrain gave way to mountains of fine sand abruptly, the small town of Merzouga as the only border between the two. This was the southeast edge of Morocco, only a few kilometers from Algeria.
This picture was taken through the van window, so it doesn't capture the colors very well, but you can see how suddenly the dunes begin.
We stopped and repacked at a hotel in Merzouga, stuffing only what we would need for the night into small packs. A few other tour groups congregated there as well, and we would all share a Berber camp out in the dunes for the night, guided by local Tuareg “blue men,” so called due to their indigo-dyed turbans. Ibrahim helped us wrap our long scarves into turbans of our own that could be adjusted for more or less coverage depending on the conditions. Then without further preamble, he led us out the back of the hotel, and there we were. The sand underfoot was softer than at the beach, and a line of camels waited against a backdrop of dunes.
I’m an avid equestrian, but I had never ridden a camel before, and it had long been on my bucket list. We looped our bags over the camels’ saddles, and then we were instructed to swing one leg over the camel’s back. It’s easier than getting on a horse because the camel is lying down… but then the camel has to stand up. It rises with its hind legs first and then front, so first you’re tipped forward in a startling lurch, and then you're lifted high off the ground. We were all linked together in a caravan so we had no individual control over our camels, which left our hands free to take lots of photos. The motion of the camel was a comfortable sway, but eventually I felt myself getting stiff. There were no stirrups like on a horse’s saddle, so you couldn’t stand temporarily to relieve the pressure on your seat bones.
We rode the camels about 45 minutes into the desert, but mere minutes after departing, we crossed over the first couple of dunes and lost sight of Merzouga behind us. Just like that, the desert was all-encompassing, and if you didn’t know better, you might think you were days from any civilization. It was sunset, and that camel ride through the Sahara was one of the coolest things I have ever done.
At dusk we reached the camp, where carpets covered the sand and tents were arranged in a large square. We were each assigned our quarters, and while it felt very remote, we still had an electric lightbulb in each tent powered by the generator at the edge of the camp, and there was a bathroom with a flush toilet a few meters beyond. The sun had disappeared, but in the last light of the evening, Brittany and I decided to try sandboarding. We carried plastic snowboards up the largest nearby dune. This turned out to be an exhausting endeavor. The dunes were much steeper than any beach I’d ever seen, and our feet sank deep into the fine sand with every step. Our hearts were hammering from exertion by the time we reached the ridge line. We walked along a little higher and then sat down on the boards like sleds to slide down the dune. Even though sand infiltrated every seam in our clothing, we had a blast, and we hauled the boards up for one more run before it grew too dark to stray from the glowing lights of the camp.
After a delicious meal and more tea, we joined the rest of the tourists and guides at a bonfire outside the camp. The guides played local instruments and sang, while one led us in a dance around the fire. Later they invited us to try the drums and cymbals or sing our own songs. The English speakers in the group attempted one classic rock or pop song after another, and a few Chinese tourists sang songs in Chinese. Eventually we grew quiet and just admired the stars. The moon was bright that night, and there were a few clouds in the sky, but the guides said that on a clear night with a new moon, the Milky Way is visible from one end of the sky to the other.
It was cold at night in the desert in late November, but we had seven or eight layers of blankets piled on each bed, so we kept warm. Early the next morning, we rose and followed Ibrahim on a challenging walk through the sand to the top of another dune where we could watch the sunrise. It was chilly, but we enjoyed watching the blue-gray desert bloom into purple, then pink, then gold. Occasionally over the vast open desert, you could hear the guttural calls of the camels like a creature out of the Star Wars universe.
(This gorgeous sunrise photo is Amanda's because she managed to capture it much better than I did!)
In order to keep our schedule for the day, Ibrahim hustled us back to the camp, and we loaded up once again on the camels. We joked they needed coffee too, because they were a little ornery compared to the evening before. Although we all felt tired from the early start and dirty from all the time in the sand, the forty minutes back to Merzouga passed too quickly. Once again, we loaded into the van and left the desert behind.