So this is how I am going to die! It was our second day in Morocco and I was reading a travel blog over breakfast about the perilous mountains passes through the Atlas mountains. Seemingly the steep winding road through the infamous Dades Gorge that provided the route from Marrakech to the Sahara, is frequently included in the most deadly roads worldwide! Fantastic – I knew my experience of driving through Loggos on a busy August day would come in handy one day.
Most adventurers planning such an endeavour needn’t worry, as, for a price, one can enlist the help of a trusted local guide to navigate the tricky and totally unprotected hairpins of the road south. All well and good, however, we, in our infinite wisdom had opted instead to hire a car and make the journey solo. We were due to set off later that morning on the first leg of a four hundred kilometre journey that would take us south-east towards the Algerian border and to the edge of the vast Sahara desert. Even more unsettling for both me and my travellers, was the fact that I had offered to start the drive!
Driving in Marrakech, indeed driving in Africa at all, has to be regarded as a rite of passage. Our smart little Renault Clio was handed over amidst heated debate by three local Medina boys. Signatures were required, while local street kids kicked the tyres, offering mock judgemental grins, all of this right in the middle of a busy market street off the main square. The initial three-point turn out of the narrow alley was further complicated by a rather determined and seemingly bad-tempered donkey that seemed set on a mid-morning siesta. With less than tactile persuasion, he was eventually moved on and we were away to join the traffic of the old town where intuition and ‘mirror signal, manoeuvre’ is left by the roadside! The streets were a buzz of noise and sound but slowly, slowly we escaped the medina, passed by the Koutoubia mosque and were thankful to see the road signs for Fez.
After clearing the city, it has to be said the journey was thankfully rather straightforward and we all settled in to enjoy the sights and sounds of the North African countryside. Our destination was the small desert town of Merzouga where the dunes of the Sahara rise majestically from the sand and where we would continue our journey on camel-back to a traditional Berber sand camp. However, standing in our way was the imposing Atlas mountain range, stretching two and a half thousand kilometres, across Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, it separates the coastlines of the Mediterranean and Atlantic from the Sahara Desert and contains some of the most dangerous passes in the whole of Africa.
After an hour or so the road ahead slowly began to change complexion both in its geology and elevation. The wide autoroute lying flat on the arid, red landscape was gradually replaced by a narrowing road ahead, creeping its way through the gentle foothills that sat in the foreground of the distant mountains. The road soon began ascending further, passing backwood Moroccan mountain settlements, where makeshift open-air kitchens filled with steaming tagines sat on roadside coal to welcome hungry travellers. The scenery was spectacular, a spectrum of autumn as the mid-afternoon sun splashed the mountain creases with reds and yellows. As we progressed, the imposing alpine peaks became clearer in detail, the jagged rocks and ice chiselled ridges standing in stark contrast to the road behind us. Up ahead the pass narrowed yet further, with a notable absence of barriers as the rattling little car passed precariously close to the edge. In front of us a double-decker, overburdened cattle wagon carrier occupied both lanes of the narrow pass, swaying from side to side as we tried to navigate a safe overtake. No sooner were we past him when a second one turned up seemingly out of nowhere occupying an even more precarious position and all the while taxis hurtled down the mountain passes, and through the hairpins at breakneck speed. It has to be said I was more than a little relieved when we reached our summit and began to creep down the south face. Was it over??
By late afternoon, the warm November sun had dipped low in the sky and the landscape had flattened out. The Moroccan mountains stood as remote reminders to the distance we had covered, and either side of the single road, the distant hills flanked our journey south. Looking ahead, the landscape was changing yet again, as barely visible sand dunes could be observed rising out of the barren horizon and signs for Merzouga began to become more frequent. The sun continued its descent and we charged forward to get to our meeting point before it slipped beyond the horizon and out of sight.
We were met in Merzouga by our guide Mohammad as late afternoon further slipped into early evening. The sun was casting shadows over the old town of Merzouga as Mohammad led us to our waiting transport, four patient camels that sat in the cool sand. Ahead of them, the largest sand desert in the world, the Sahara, stretched impossibly onward, neverending dunes towards the distant sun. Only surpassed by the wilderness of the Arctic and the Antarctic the Sahara is truly one of the last great frontiers. We had travelled over four hundred kilometres from the chaos of the medina, through the snow-capped ridges of the high Atlas mountains to reach our destination and there was a genuine sense of expectation as the four of us mounted our steeds, rising high above the sand and set off.
The journey was long and as it turned out perfectly timed. By the time our camels began their journey towards our desert camp the cool Sahara evening had begun its transition. The sky was a canvas of colour as the setting desert sun cast shadows of purples, yellows and reds across the silhouetted dunes. The camels behaved well enough given their excited passengers who travelled excitedly, singing Greek folk songs and took last pictures of the fading light. Within half an hour the night sky was getting darker still and silence fell as a long day caught up with five weary travellers, the steady rhythm of the camel’s footsteps the only sound. Thank goodness for our guide, as by seven pm the night sky was pitch black, and the distant light of the Merzouga taverns having slipped out of sight and the cooling desert air promising a cold, late autumn night.
A little over an hour on camelback, we were happy to hear the faint sounds of nomad drums and the smells of cooked meat. After navigating a particularly steep dune, we descended to the sight of our torchlit Berber camp, – eight, neat, white tents, each the size of a large hut stood, as permanent fixtures in the desert sand. Small lanterns standing either side of a long traditional rug that ran the length of the camp, at the end of which a wooden pavilion sheltered five men sharing tea. They welcomed us and introduced us to Theresa, a visitor from Mexico, who made regular trips to Morocco and we all sat down and listened to their stories. The camps men were obviously enjoying the relative downtime of the offseason and after topping up our tea they laughed, danced and rolled cigarettes, never fussing over us but instantly putting us at ease. The camp was empty and we sat for longer than we expected, picking Theresa’s brains on how we should proceed on our adventure and where to avoid. The men’s native Arabic was discarded in favour of a mix of French, Spanish and English as they kept our sugary tea topped up and offered round hashish and tobacco. Gone was the aggressive touting of the Marrakech marketplace, and it was nice to see friends in such a remote location be at ease within their own surroundings.
As the night air grew colder still, and our hunger became too difficult to ignore we decided to move ‘indoors’. Sofianne and Mohammad beckoned us into the large central tent at the base of the camp which was all set out for dinner for us. The whole experience felt more like ‘glamping’ than camping, plumbed in toilets, kitchen facilities and a beautifully laid table. Given that our hosts were unaware in advance of what we would, or would not eat, they had prepared everything and it was welcomingly received. Proceedings kicked off with harissa marinated olives and a perfect salad of finely diced tomatoes, cucumber and onions, garnished with perfumed coriander and mint. It was wonderfully fresh and fragrant paired with more mint tea and traditional wholemeal mahrash bread. To follow a simple rabartahro soup, hearty and warming, consisting of vegetables cooked slowly in bulgar wheat, perfectly spiced and warming against the cool night air, of which we all had seconds! Tagines followed, clay bowls of m’chermel chicken with preserved lemons, unexpectedly sweet sultanas and onions as well as Kefta meatballs, rich in a tomato and spice.
After our appetites were appeased we left the chilly tent to join our chefs to construct a small fire to fight the cold night. Neighbouring workers from emptier camps joined us, treading through the night towards the flickering fire. Each one was wrapped from the elements in traditional djellabas and cloth turbans, and they carried Berber drums, bound in camel leather which they warmed and tightened on the juvenile fire. As the fire grew they sang and played seemingly simple, but as we found out, difficult to master rhythms while the men sang out nomad songs that were obviously important to them. We attempted to participate with varying degrees of success before we all stomped around the fire kicking up the sand and falling about laughing. We settled comfortably into each others company and I began to understand why people like Theresa, single travellers who consistently return to this country, love so much, its people and their ways. Jokes were passed around and it was wonderful to see Fotini and Eleni, so comfortable in the company of fellow travellers, relax after the baptism of fire that was Marrakech.
It was around 2am when we finally left the dying embers of the fire and returned to our camp beds. It was to be a short, deep sleep as by early morning the camp guides quietly called us outside to silently tread the desert sands in the cold morning air. We walked for five minutes, through squinted eyes, over small dunes to escape the perimeters of the camp and to the top of a large dune on the edge of the camp. As we reached the top we were glad of our decision for such an early start as the three of us sat in silence as the bland morning air was set on fire by the rising Sahara sun. No words were exchanged or needed as we quietly took in the embrace of something so special, that we had travelled so far for. Watching the African sun gradually lighting up the terracotta sands was a truly special moment and we closed our eyes succumbing to our fatigue. The road ahead promised another long journey but for now, we enjoyed our new found company in the warm embrace and perfect isolation of a Sahara morning.