Desert Rose – my trip to the Sahara

One of the best parts of my trip to Morocco was a three day tour through the Atlas mountains into the Sahara Desert. I went the day after I arrived in Marrakech, having been talked into it by Sara and Iggy, two Australian girls staying in my hostel. In fact I nearly missed the trip altogether, having unwisely relied on my iPhone to display the correct time for Morocco, when in actual fact it had automatically set itself to daylight savings time…

We set off from the hostel at 7:03 am (between 7:00 and 7:03 I had managed to spring out of bed, pack, break my shoes, forget my camera, go back to collect it, race to the bathroom and also wake up. Usually that takes me a good hour), and met the other people who were coming on the tour with us. In our minibus were a couple from Poland, his sister, a honeymooning French Canadian couple, and me, Sara and Iggy. The bus wasn’t exactly comfortable, owing to a total lack of suspension and air conditioning, and so started our bumpy journey into the mountains.

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Now picture for a minute, if you would, the bumpiest vehicle you have ever been a passenger in. Reduce the padding in the seat you are sitting in, and make the seat a bit narrower. Imagine this vehicle is driving in zig zags across the road, which is full of potholes, at 120 km/h, swerving in and out of other vehicles which also don’t strictly adhere to the ‘drive on one side of the road’ convention. Throw a busted rib into the mix and it makes for an interesting three days.

We set off from Marrakech and headed towards Ouarzazate by climbing up into the High Atlas mountains (2260m), stopping at various view points along the way. The mountain terrain was beautiful, and if you looked closely at the hillsides you could see that some of the red rocks were actually whole villages.

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We also stopped at a few sites where the minute we stepped out of the van we were descended upon by children giving us ‘gifts’ of flax-woven camels. Then they’d chase you for payment. Other sites were selling ‘authentic’ rocks and fossils from the desert.

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I bought some freshly squeezed orange juice from a street seller and it was like drinking a glass of heaven, even though they charged a bit more than the orange stands in the Place Djemaa el Fna. Stocking up on water was also another opportunity to be ripped off, with prices roughly double what they’d ask for a bottle in Marrakech. However, being in the middle of nowhere there wasn’t much of a choice.

Our first major site was at Ait Benhaddou, which is a berber village on a hill and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987. UNESCO built the villagers a big bridge, because the old one would get washed out every year and was leading to fewer families living there. It’s a site that you may recognise from various movies; Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator were filmed there.

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All the buildings are made out of straw-clad mud, with bamboo rooves that are meant to prevent water from washing away the walls, however some of the houses we saw were looking a bit worse for wear.

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Walking up to the top of the village we saw a man making little pictures by burning wood with a magnifying glass. There are so many creative things made in Morocco as souvenirs, and the locals probably make about €0.50 per item. It’s a bit different to the knitted jerseys with kiwis on them that tourists are played with in New Zealand!

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As you can see it was lovely and hot!

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This crazy Italian lady was also loitering around the place with her nearly naked husband:

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In the streets of the adjacent village was an interesting tally board spray painted on a wall. Every village had one of these, and apparently it is for counting votes when there are elections:

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There wasn’t a lot else around:

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Our next stop was in an oasis. I always pictured oases to contain a large pool of water and not much else, but luckily I am now in the know that they are actually very big and provide opportunities for farming and agriculture in the desert. We were shown around by a local chap, who then took us through the Jewish quarter of the village:

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This donkey has a bucket over its mouth so it can’t eat the crops:

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The general quality of the buildings and streets were pretty basic.

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Then we were taken to a local Berber family’s home, where they make carpets for the months of the year that they are in the oasis. The rest of the year they live in the desert. Apparently about 20% of the population in rural areas of Morocco live this way.

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Every carpet this man’s wife has ever made was paraded in front of us, and it soon became quite obvious that we wouldn’t escape alive without someone buying one. Luckily, Sara was in the market for a carpet:

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After the oasis and carpet adventure we got back in the van (which I was beginning to hate) and our next stop was on the side of the road where we had a magnificent view of another oasis and the table-like mountain that towered over it.

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As we drove through the village a throng of people came towards us en masse. Apparently they were protesting that the local bus that takes them all to school had stopped service.

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Why you’d want to go to school when you have a view like this I do not understand

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We then headed to the Dades Gorge, where we stayed for the night. The road there gave us a great view of some very interesting rocks.

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We stayed the night in a motel near these funny rocks, and ate some really good food. Although I have eaten things for years with ‘Moroccan Seasoning’ the majority of the food I ate in Marrakech was a bit rubbish. Not the spicy hot, flavoursome concoctions I was expecting, at all. The restaurants we stopped at on our three day tour were also pretty bland, and generally had only two types of food on the menu: tagines, or couscous. You could get most types of meat or vegetarian options of both, but I tended to stick to the tagines, as I found a whole plate of vegeterian couscous a bit overwhelming (e.g. couscous for Africa, with potatoes and pumpkin over the top – a marathon runner’s ideal pre-race dinner). Tagines are made in a… wait for it… tagine, and is usually meat or vegetables or both which has been slowly cooked with some broth. They were usually served with bread, and were a better way to get your 5+ a day.

The next morning we headed off through the mountains to the Todras Gorge.

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I spied a frog.

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The photos don’t really do this gorge justice, it was absolutely massive, with the cliffs towering over buildings and dwarfing everything else.

After that, shit got really boring. We had a lot of mileage to cover to get to Merzouga, the desert camp where we were to meet our camels, and so we drove for about six hours. This was our view for all of it:

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Finally we reached our stop!

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That was my camel, Bob Marley. He wasn’t exactly a smooth ride; it made the suspension in the bus feel like an S Class Mercedes. He was cute though, and I got to be at the front of the line of camels.

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The sand was amazing. In the Dubai desert the sand was a lot paler, more of a grey colour, whereas the Sahara sand was like crushed malt biscuits, a warm red colour. The dunes were perfectly sculpted by the wind and it was like being in a totally different world.

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Bob had a wee rest

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While we watched the sun set

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Iggy and Sara posed with Bob

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Then I did

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The next stop was our desert camp. We were prepared an amazing dinner by the Berbers who ran it, and then we were treated to a campfire-esque drums, singing and clapping show.

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I found out the hard way that there is no toilet in the desert camp. “You have the whole Sahara!!” the man told me when asked, and we were advised to shimmy up into the dunes to do our business. I’m all for getting back to nature, but it was a full moon that night and I had picked up a bit of an upset gut from something I ate or drank, so it was an awkward situation. It was also very windy, sand everywhere… so I of course got sand stuck to a lot of places that it didn’t need to be, and had to chase wayward toilet paper all over the place to bury it. Yet another time when my digestive system is the bane of my life…

I had an average sleep in the tent, and woke up in the morning absolutely savaged by bed bugs. The little pricks had eaten my legs, my toes, my arms and my sanity. This was my first ever bed bug encounter and I think they are evil. I had huge welts all over me, far worse that I’ve ever had from sand flies or Mosquitos, and it drove me nuts.

We got up at the crack of dawn to ride out of the desert during sunrise.

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Another eight hours on the bus and we arrived back in Marrakech again. It was an incredible trip, I absolutely loved the camels but could have done without the bed bugs. If you ever go to Morocco you definitely need to go out into the mountains and desert. It is so very different to the city, and stunning scenery.

I’ll finish up Morocco with a few final pictures of Marrakech.

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And, as a final treat, a man with a cooked lamb’s head propped up on a pot

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What did you think? Let me know!

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