Europe is pretty great. I’ve thoroughly been enjoying seeing all of the diverse landscapes, cultures, and histories in the places I have been visiting. Each destination has its own specific flair; an attitude, a way of life, a style. However despite all of the obvious variety I can point out, sometimes a change of pace can be refreshing. In my case, that refreshment came in 100 degree heat among massive sand dunes in the Sahara Desert in southeastern Morocco. Let me take you on a journey to North Africa.
Our trip started around lunch time on Thursday. Due to the Easter holiday my group had time off of work on Friday and Monday. I knew I would want a bit more than a weekend in Morocco, so the holiday made for perfect timing. We had booked a budget flight via RyanAir and had to drive 2.5 hours to a tiny airport located centrally in nowhere. The airport is labelled as “Frankfurt-Hahn” but don’t let the name fool you – the airport is about as close to Frankfurt as it is to Luxembourg. No trains go there, and bus service is spotty. We opted to drive.
When we made it to the airport, we first had to have our boarding passes stamped indicating our passports were ok. RyanAir’s policies make no sense to me; if you fail to print your boarding pass in advance, they charge you a 50EUR fee to check-in at the airport. Makes sense, it’s a scheme to profit off forgetful travelers. However, they require (at least for this flight leaving the EU) that all travelers wait in line and talk to the check-in agent *anyway* just to get a stamp of approval which doesn’t seem to mean anything, as we had our passports checked later regardless.
In any case, we had arrived early enough to make the flight comfortably but did not have to wait long after going through security and pre-checks before boarding our plane. I knew we had an early wake-up the next day and consequently I did not sleep on the plane, as I didn’t want to make it a late night. Around 4 hours later we touched down at the Marrakesh airport. The airport was impressive – clean and modern, you got a sense that the airport was much larger than it really was. High ceilings, big open spaces, and tidiness were the norm. One notable thing was that there was no conventional gate at the airport – we de-planed on the tarmac and walked into the airport ourselves.
We went through passport control and eventually found an ATM. After getting out some cash, we opted to walk from the airport to our Riad (traditional Moroccan guesthouse). The cabs were not particularly expensive, but there were some parks along the way and we decided after the drive and flight that stretching our legs would do us a little good.
Walking into town, we immediately noticed the abundance of scooters, dirt-bikes, and motorcycles. In Morocco it seemed like a motorcycle could be a family vehicle; we saw more than one example of 3-4 people riding on a single bike. Often these vehicles let out toxic-smelling fumes. I assume the pollution regulations there aren’t so strict.
The parks turned out not to be so nice, although a lot of locals seemed to hang out there. The largest one was a huge grove of trees. People parked cars in the shade and would listen to music while lounging.
A long walk later, we crossed the old city wall and found ourselves in the sprawling Medina. We found our Riad without too much trouble, at least when you consider that it was hidden away in a back-alley. Our host was there waiting to meet us, and invited us in for tea and some small cakes. The tea was delicious with a slight hint of mint.
We were shown our room shortly thereafter. A riad is comprised of an open area surrounded by rooms on all sides. You can imagine it a bit like a courtyard (but smaller) or a hollow box. We were up on the third floor with easy access to a rooftop terrace. There were some couches and cushions up there which we briefly took advantage of while taking in the city-scape view.
Hungry after the long walk, we ventured out towards the main market square, Jemaa el Fna. It didn’t take us too long to find it as there was quite a commotion going on at the square. Dancers, storytellers, and performers of all kinds drew large crowds into tight rings to observe and participate. Towards the far side of the square were rows of food trucks hawking all kinds of tasty options. We spent some time watching the dancers and seeing some games being played, but eventually our stomachs got the better of us and we made our way over to the dining area. There, we purchased our first (of many!) glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice for 40 cents and proceeded to survey the fares and find something we liked.
Insistent “greeters” faced down tourists like us to try and convince them to go to one stall or another. The stalls are all numbered, which led to some of the guys making fun of one another’s tents. “At 123 your diarrhea is free!” one of them informed me. I had read about the food stalls and learned that they’re all strictly regulated for health and safety, so I wasn’t too concerned. It was amusing to see though.
A lot of the food was similar between our options, so we picked one more or less at random. It was a little awkward at dinner because the servers allegedly were trying to rip off the family who we had been seated next to. While they eventually backed down, there was a lot of heated discussion before they agreed on the family’s price. Our food however, was pretty good for street food. They served a “salad” of diced tomatoes, peppers, and onions, some bread, and meat skewers of all varieties. The meal was simple overall but I enjoyed it simply because it was so different.
After dinner we had some more energy, so we decided to foray into the Souks. The Souks in Marrakesh are a winding labyrinth of street markets where you can buy almost anything. We didn’t spend too long inside but we got very lost. Fortunately we happened to accidentally wind back towards our riad and consequently found ourselves on the street where we needed to be by mistake.
When we got back to our room I noticed a small turtle decoration on the floor next to the bed. Curious, I picked it up, only to find that it was a live turtle! We named him Winston and set him down gently. Excited for what was to come, we headed to bed.
Around 5AM I was woken up by the loud Islamic call to prayer. I knew we were not in Europe anymore. I went back to sleep for a bit.
Later in the morning we were treated to a Moroccan breakfast. If there’s anything I like more than staying in cool places, its staying in cool places which offer free breakfast. The meal consisted of a few types of bread, some honey and other spreads, and more mint tea. It was another simple meal but I really enjoyed the sweet taste complimented by the mint drink.
At 8, we were met by the tour company I had booked. The first guy we met didn’t end up being our guide for most of the trip – he escorted us to the street and showed us to our real guide, a Berber from one of the Southern towns we would be passing through. We had a Toyota Land Rover, which would be necessary for off-roading in the desert later. With a long journey ahead of us, we set off to leave Marrakesh and made for some passes through the Atlas mountains.
We left town and began climbing hills. Our first stop was a small cafe right by the road overlooking an expansive valley. The view was great, and we sampled more orange juice. There were a lot of tourists here, but we didn’t mind too much as it was just a brief stop. Before long we were back on the road again.
Our guide occasionally pointed out things to us. Olive and date trees, herds of mountain sheep, or the names of small villages. We learned a few phrases in Arabic (he spoke Arabic, Berber, and a little English). At the time I was questioning whether a guide with better English would have been more suitable, but later on I realized why our guide was so important for the navigation tasks to come.
After winding down through the mountains, we turned off the road seemingly into a patch of dirt and dust. We were offroading for the first time in our tour, and drove for 10-20 minutes before reaching a tiny fortified village (Kasbah) of Air Ben Haddou. The Kasbah served as the backdrop for lots of famous film and TV productions, including Gladiator and Game of Thrones. Looking at the village, it’s easy to see why. You get a very “exotic” feel from the construction style, and the way the town is clumped up on a hill gives the whole thing a fortified temperament.
In the town, we were led by a local up through the winding streets. We stopped by an artist’s workshop where we saw a special process in which ink was heated to darken a drawing. Our guide informed us that this had been done in the past to send hidden messages, as one could write with colorless ink and have the text become visible over a fire.
We climbed to the top of the Kasbah, enjoyed the view, and strolled back down. Crossing the river we sat down to lunch at a nearby restaurant our tour company had picked out. I had tagine, which is a dish referring to the specially shaped pottery used to slow-cook the food. Soft and savory, the mixed veggies and couscous complimented the chicken fairly well. I liked the dish.
After lunch we hit the road again. We drove up through another large pass, this time with massive canyon walls in the distance. We stopped to take a few pictures but it was clear we had a lot of driving to do. We also stopped for some snacks. I grabbed a chocolate bar which was nicely refrigerated. At first I thought the cool chocolate was just a nice way to eat it but soon realized the necessity of the temperature as the bar began to melt in the hot sun.
After some more driving we finally arrived at a bed and breakfast arranged by the tour company. Or rather, we first arrived at the wrong place and had to drive down a narrow dirt road to find the correct one. The home was beautiful and we were greeted by our host and his wife, after which we were of course served mint tea. We arrived early enough to relax in the late afternoon sun. We explored the immediate vicinity, then laid out on some lawn furniture as other guests arrived.
Dinner was more tagine, and this one was even better than lunch. We were served from a single large dish with lots more veggies and chicken with a different spice. We stuffed ourselves only to find out they also were serving dessert, so we had to make room for the fruit salad which came after our meal. Tough life.
The room was neat in that the bed had a flynet. I had never stayed anywhere like that; the whole place had a charmingly rustic feeling, with interesting interior decoration and lots of character. The area got amazingly quiet at night (at least until a nearby donkey started making loud noises!). I had a pretty good night’s sleep, capped with another lovely breakfast similar to our previous one. We again had breads and spreads, but this meal also included a delicious milkshake-type-thing. We weren’t sure what it was- I thought it tasted more like chocolate but my friend said it was closer to berry. Dates maybe?
Our guide pulled up in the truck as we sat down to breakfast. We took our time and were on the road shortly after. Today was more driving in the morning, punctuated by a few stops for pictures. Our first notable stop was at a small village where they make pottery. We saw someone working the clay by hand, and my buddy even had a chance to give it a try.
After our visit we ate lunch in a little town called Zagora; I had couscous. Our last stop before we reached the desert was the tiny town of M’Hamid, where our guide had grown up and where our tour company had a base of operations. Here we stocked up on water, made sure we had a full fuel tank, and prepared ourselves. Driving out of town, we reached the literal end of the road. There was a sign in French and Arabic (presumably warning about the desert) and the end of the pavement.
We drove off into the dirt and dust. It was a bumpy ride but our Toyota handled well. Our guide locked the rear differential and we made our way, including taking on a few steep inclines for fun. We stopped for a little shade with our guide and another vehicle. The two guides were friends. The guys had bought a watermelon and were sharing it in the shade of a small tree. Apparently they grow watermelons near the desert. Who knew?
We stopped by a small oasis and were treated to a lush scene of greenery. Lots of animal droppings too, as the spot was frequented by many creatures passing by. The watering hole was cool to see, and it was strange seeing all the plants thriving out in the middle of the otherwise barren landscape. We continued on and eventually reached our destination, a desert camp near Erg Chigaga. These sand dunes dominated the horizon- an endless sea of sand. This is why we had come.
At our camp we were again treated to the customary “welcome tea”. We were met by a nomadic guide who showed us around our small camp. We put up our belongings in our tent. Before long it was time for our camel ride!
We walked over and found two camels with a guide waiting for us. The camels were fit with lots of padding and a sturdy metal handle. This turned out to be a good thing- the handle in particular was needed for the standing up and sitting down maneuvers. If you haven’t seen a camel up-close you may not realize how big they are. When they stand up, their tall legs rocket you up into the air in a very sudden maneuver. You feel really tall atop one, though they feel sturdy. I haven’t ridden a horse in recent memory but I can’t imagine it would feel any more solid than this camel did. We rode for about 30 minutes, crossing over sand dunes out to the largest nearby dunes. The camels’ feet spread out slightly whenever they stepped. I assume this helps them traverse the loose sand. They felt quite stable even going down steep sand dunes, which was a bit of an odd feeling as it seemed like you should lurch forward and fall.
After our first ride we were giddy with excitement. My legs started to feel tense from instinctively maintaining pressure on the camel’s sides, though this probably wasn’t necessary. At our destination we stayed atop the camels as they rapidly plunged downwards to sit down and rest. I could feel my stomach rise up as the drop felt almost like a brief moment of free fall.
Off our camels, we found ourselves in an endless playground of loose sand. It was the biggest sandbox I had ever seen. We spent some time just running up the dunes, taking pictures, and messing around. There was a Canadian couple who had been on the same tour as us (but in separate accommodations and vehicle- we had shared watermelon with them earlier), we had gotten to know them a little and played with them at the sand dunes. Their guide had brought a snowboard which they were using to take brief rides down the dunes. A confident snowboarder myself, I decided to give it a go.
I hiked up to a large dune nearby and strapped in. At first I wasn’t used to the way the sand felt underneath me, but after a second I shifted my weight backwards a bit and was able to cruise down the hill. Satisfied, I started to undo the snowboard bindings, only to find one of them was stuck, having been locked up by the grit of the sand.
Let me paint a picture for you. There I was, sitting in the middle of the desert, stuck to a snowboard, trying to free myself. Eventually our nomad guide came and began to try to help. He didn’t speak a word of English but offered me his belt buckle as a makeshift tool to help pry the ratchet mechanism free. The Canadian couple and my friend all got involved too. It took us around 20-30 minutes but we did eventually manage to free the mechanism. The guide tried to help but ended up tightening the ratchet to the point that my boot was getting slightly uncomfortable. I was glad to be free.
We caught sunset at the dunes then rode our camels back towards camp. I was thoroughly happy with the experience, though I wish we’d had more time out at the dunes. I suppose there’s always a reason to come back.
We had a little time at camp before dinner would be served. While we were out at the dunes a couple from Australia arrived, so we sat around and talked about our travels and a bit about where we worked, etc. I enjoy meeting people when I travel, and given our remote location, it was neat just to find anyone, let alone more English speakers.
We were called to dinner shortly after it got dark. Having gotten to know each other a bit, we (the Americans, Canadians, and Australians) all opted to eat together. There was a French family which was a little standoffish. We joked about that but I think it had as much to do with the group dynamic (they had young children, while we were all in our twenties), with the language or cultural barrier.
We had more tagine. This wasn’t as good as we had at the guesthouse but it was still plenty tasty. It was a nice having new company to eat with. After dinner, our hosts lit a campfire and provided a bit of Berber music. We were encouraged to sing songs too. We started with the timeless classic “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and advanced to some song (I think it was Justin Bieber?) someone pulled up on their phone. I didn’t know the second song we tried so I manned the drums. I’ll add I did quite a good job too, thank you very much.
The Canadians had to leave early the next morning to make their flight back in Marrakesh, so we didn’t stay up late with the campfire. However, after we put out the fire we asked the guides to turn off all the lights, and were rewarded to a dazzling light show of stars overhead. I went outside to snap a few pictures, and we spent some time admiring the constellations we could find. At night I also gained an appreciation for a few massive bugs which came out. There was a beetle almost the size of the palm of my hand, and a big millipede hanging out in the bathroom tent running very fast.
After we had our fill of stars we went to bed around 12:30. We decided we wanted to try and catch the sunrise on the dunes, so we didn’t sleep very long. Our tent, by the way, had full twin-beds and rugs on the ground, making everything quite comfortable. I wouldn’t have minded roughing it a bit more, but this was the package we had found so we went with it. If I thought the previous night had been quiet, the night in the Sahara was dead silent by comparison. The only thing you could hear was the occasional flapping of the tent in the wind.
I slept soundly and didn’t feel too tired despite the relatively short night. We woke up in time to catch the sunrise and say goodbye to our Canadian friends. We were served (what I’m now assuming is) a typical Moroccan breakfast with more breads, spreads, and orange juice. After breakfast we took one last minute to admire the camp and the dunes, then set off in our vehicle back towards civilization.
We were heading back a different way. Our guide took us through a dry lake-bed, which was cool to see because it was so flat. You could view dunes off in the distance – it seemed like the field of sand stretched for miles. Oddly, there were a few cafes and restaurants out here. I suppose this was the more frequented tourist route, as the drive didn’t feel as long as yesterday’s had before we reached the first town at the edge of the desert. One of the restaurants in the desert had a big painted facade shaped like a boat and was named ‘the titanic’. I suppose they were ready if the lake would flood again! We took a brief stop to look at some fossils preserved in the lake-bed. They weren’t all that impressive, but it was strange to think of fish living here.
We reached the road again after maybe an hour of driving. Oddly, we had to pass through a military checkpoint. I suppose no one wants to control the real border in the middle of the Sahara, so they monitor things at the edges.
We stopped in the second town, our guide had friends there and wanted to eat with them. We weren’t too hungry, having had breakfast, but we grabbed some orange juice and hung out. Our first notable stop of the trip home was a small village where we got to see carpets being hand-crafted. It was cool to see old women working the looms, weaving intricate patterns and creating beautiful designs. I think they were trying to get us to buy one, but I wasn’t prepared to spend that kind of money. Still, I enjoyed our brief visit to learn about the craftsmanship.
We stopped for lunch at a place I wasn’t a huge fan of. It was up in the foothills of the mountains but the view was not like our previous stops had been. The food was okay, I had a couscous dish I believe. The French family which had stayed with us at the camp was eating there too, so I assume the company normally takes its visitors there.
After lunch we drove for several more hours, barely making any stops. Our guide stopped once to buy us chocolate and soft drinks, which was a nice gesture. He did a great job getting us through all the checkpoints and I was really impressed at how well he knew all the roads. After long hours of driving we arrived back in Marrakesh around 4:30 or 5:00PM. We checked into our riad and got cleaned up.
That’s where I’ll leave you for now. Safely back in Marrakesh, we still had a few days to explore the city. We were tired but exhilarated after our desert adventure. While it was a lot of driving, I enjoyed all the little stops and detours they had planned for us so that we got to see a good bit of southeast Morocco. I was extremely grateful for all our guide had done for us and so made sure to tip him pretty generously.
Next time, I’ll tell you about our experience of the ancient yet bustling city of Marrakesh. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, it was a bit longer than my usual posts but I felt it was important to recall details as everything was so new and exotic to me. As always, thanks for following along and I look forward to writing again. Until then,
Best wishes and safe travels everyone,