Sunday, 22 June 2014

On gorges, desert camps and grumpy drivers (my Sahara trip)

"You have 15 minutes to walk until the end of the canyon and come back!", the driver shouted at us. He sounded like a prison warden allowing an hour outside of the cell to his prisoners. Astonished, we looked at each other, the Brazilian guys just shrugging their shoulders and having a look around, while some sellers tried to lure us into buying scarfs and hippie pants. Once again, I had to look at my battered Lonely Planet book to find out where we were. It was a gorge, that much I could see, and it must have been somewhere between Dadès and the dunes of Merzouga. We didn't have a tour guide, and our driver was grumpy, with limited English, and not much of a help in puzzling out the mysteries of the pre-Saharan region of Morocco, with its unfamiliar architecture and weird rock formations.

Todra gorge, Morocco
Where were we?

It took me just a minute to realize that we were inside the Todra Gorge, but as soon as I got this, I closed my book and admired the landscape around me. The gorge was wide, the rocks of a brown rusted colour, with a small stream flowing in the middle. School children on a field trip, and Moroccan families camping with small stoves and colourful Tupperware containers completed the picture.

Camping at the Todra Gorge, Morocco
Camping at the Todra Gorge

"At least we got to visit THIS gorge", I thought, thinking of the place where we slept the night before, another amazing gorge that we got to see from the terrace of the hotel but never got to explore properly.

As you may have gathered from the introduction, there were good things and bad things about this three-day tour to the pre-Saharan region of Morocco. While I was grateful that I got to visit some amazing places, I would have appreciated more information on the landscapes we were seeing.

The first day ran smoothly, for the most part: we had a guide that led us through Ait Benhaddou, and crossed the Atlas Mountains without inconveniences. As the day came to an end, however, things began to get creepy. We were dropped at around 7 in the evening in front of a hotel with the driver shouting: "Breakfast tomorrow at 7.30, and be back on the bus at 8.30!". The driver had barely spoken the whole day, mysteriously disappearing whenever there was a stop planned. The problem is that we had no idea where we were! With the help of my guidebook I figured out that we were at the Dadès Gorge, because the hotel had a terrace overlooking a beautiful canyon. Truth is, we never really visited the canyon, but only admired the gorge from the hotel before it became to dark to see anything.

The terrace of our hotel in the Dadès gorge (picture taken by Veronica)

This hotel must have been quite something in the past, with its decorated halls and the rooms all with a view, but now it appeared rather decadent: the room smelled of disinfectant, the sheets were stiff, and the breakfast poor. Isn't it this the give and take of travelling, nevertheless? To learn to adapt, to look to the open road, and leave at home all our acquired comforts, getting back to the basics, that is to explore a new country? All we needed was a shower and a night's rest, anyway, because we would be leaving the following morning.
There is so much driving involved in a trip to the pre-Saharan region that your days are mostly spent in the mini-van, either sleeping, looking out of the window or trying to read something. When you finally step out of the car, you're grateful to be able to stretch your legs.

A part of the trip I really enjoyed was when we stopped near a field cultivated with traditional herbs and learned a little about the different kind of palm trees and the simple but efficient irrigation systems in this part of Morocco. The nature here was so green, and yet so exotic! There were women with handkerchiefs on their heads cutting the grass with a small sickle, crouching on the ground as if machines for these sorts of jobs were never invented.

Women in the countryside of Morocco
Women in the countryside of Morocco

It's hard to face the fact that to these peasant women we were just tourists, and not normal people wanting to learn about another culture. I really perceived this in this place, beautiful as it was, and I will elaborate more about it in another post.
In the countryside of Morocco
Women in the countryside of Morocco

Afterwards, we tackled the inevitable: the visit to a hut that also served as a carpet shop, where a man offered us tea and explained about Berber carpets. This part of the trip was a bit awkward, because it was obvious that its purpose was to sell us a carpet. Traditional Berber carpets are hand-made with natural colours by the women in the villages, and that is why they are so valuable. The designs were very intricate, and the prices steep. After an exhausting negotiation, one of the Brazilian girls bought a rug for 45 €.

Just before sunset on our second day, after what felt like too many hours of driving, we finally began to see the dunes at the level of the horizon. In this part of Morocco, they start abruptly, after hundreds of kilometres of rocky desert.

We stopped for refreshments and got our daypacks ready for our camel ride and night in the desert.
In the desert, Morocco
Camels resting on the sand

I had read all sorts of accounts about riding a camel in the desert: people had told me it was scary, fun, nightmarish, smelly, sore, and many other things that now I can't recall. When I sat on my camel - they are actually dromedaries because they have only one hump, but nevermind - I was fine. Then the camel got up, and I was screaming and laughing at the same time. The movements of the camel aren't exactly smooth, so I hold on to my handle as much as I could. It took a while before I was comfortable enough to take out my camera. The camel wasn't that smelly, and the ride didn't hurt that much. Is it touristy? Yes, it's touristy. Did I enjoy it? Hell yeah!
Sahara trip, Morocco
Riding a camel in the Sahara Desert

After some riding, we stopped near a big dune. We were encouraged to climb it to watch the sunset and have a better view of the place we were exploring. Climbing a dune is hard! You never know this until you try it, but your legs keep sinking as if you were dealing with quicksand! I had sand everywhere: they kept filling up my shoes, and when I decided to get rid of them I found out that my socks got ripped from the climb! How weird!

Climbing a dune

The reward is of course magnificent: there is so much peace and so much mystery in the landscape that it almost looks as if you were on another, uninhabited planet. Even though the part of the desert we got to see is close to villages and small towns, the experience is unique. To stare at the ridge caused by the wind at the top of the dune, to see with your own eyes that there is no one around is an experience that is hard to describe with words.
Looking like a windows background
Finally in the desert

Not all desert camps are the same, I have learned. I guess we had a very basic one. We had no running water, no real bathroom to speak of, just a makeshift bed to sleep on, inside a stuffy and smelly tent in the middle of the dunes. I've seen the pictures of luxury camps in the desert, where  the tents have real furniture, including king-size beds, hot shower and electricity, solar-powered lamps and expensive linen. They basically look like luxurious hotel rooms. I'm sorry but why did you go camping in the desert in the first place if you wanted to sleep in a hotel room? I don't think nomads take expensive furniture around. And where's the fun in that plush accmmodation, when a night in the desert is all about gazing at the stars and playing the bongos while singing whatever comes to your mind? I'm really proud of our uncomfortable and somewhat rough experience in the desert!

Moreover, I had heard people complaining that they could see the lights - and hear the music - of other camps all around them, and so it wasn't as magic as they had expected. I had feared that, but in our case, it was not so: we were literally the only ones around. At one point we saw another small group of people riding their camels, but they disappeared behind a dune and we never saw them again. 
We waited what seemed to be a long time for our dinner - we were so hungry! - but finally our chicken tajine came! We ate with the bread instead of knife and fork, Moroccan-style apparently.

Tajine in the desert

One of our guide spoke very little English, but decent French, so I overheard a conversation he had with a French couple on our tour. He was not originally from Morocco, but from a country further south, though I didn't get which one. We played the bongos and sang, the guide improvising with a mix of Berber and other languages he picked up here and there.

Camping in the desert was a smelly thing, but absolutely worth it. We had a very basic toilet, no running water, our tents were in the pitch dark by the time we went to bed, but we really had fun!

After a good sleep (well, more or less good) we were up to see the dawn, so back on our camels without even the possibility to wash your eyes from the sleep! The sand at this time of the day has a completely different colour: salmon pink! The dawn itself was something subtle, rather than grandiose. We remained on our camels, admiring the sun slowly rising in the direction of the Algerian border.

Dawn in the desert, Morocco
Dawn in the desert
It was now time for breakfast in the welcoming centre. There was only one shower, and we were 13, so we put up with not taking a proper shower, but allowed ourselves a quick wash or a change of clothes. By the time we got back to Marrakesh - after more than 8 hours of driving - we were dirty, with matted hair and smelly clothes, but happy to have seen so many things in just three days!
Have you ever had an experience like this, uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating, but still rewarding?


  1. Amazing pictures! I have been to a desert only once (in Rajasthan). But I guess, Sahara desert has different atmosphere and texture to it.

    1. Yes, I guess that every desert is a bit different. I'd love to see the Thar desert: at one time I was about to join a tour of northern India that included Rajasthan and the desert. Too bad the whole idea fell through!

  2. Sorry that your trip started out rough with an unhelpful, cranky driver. But it sounds like everything worked out in the end. It's good to see that you got to have a range of experiences while in Morocco, and your pictures are gorgeous!

    1. Yes, well, there were definitely some problems in this tour, but we managed to see so much and have fun anyway!

  3. Very useful post. This is my first time I visit here. I found so many interesting information in your blog. Really it’s great article. Keep it up.

    Desert Camps Jaisalmer


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