The Road to the Sahara

 

 

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An oasis at the foot of Mount Kissane

 

After spending three days in Marrakesh, my friends and I took a trip to the Sahara.

There are dozens of people in the city’s downtown that offer to take you to the desert. However, we’d been warned about scams and overpricing, and decided to book in advance to avoid any trouble. A tour guide in Spain recommended us his friend, Ismail, who went to pick us up with Mohammed, his driver, early in the morning outside the walls of Marrakesh to take us in his van on our adventure to the Sahara Desert.

 

 

I must warn you now that driving in Morocco is not for the weak at heart. People on the roads very seldom obey the transit rules, and drivers don’t care about passing others when they are on a curve, which is kind of scary in the winding roads of the Atlas Mountains.

As we traveled south, we left the mountain range behind and entered the region of Ouarzazate, also known as The Gate to the Desert, and is easy to see why. The vegetation decreases, revealing the ground of that characteristic Mediterranean orange hue we’d seen before in Marrakesh.

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Taourirt Kasbah

 

 

After passing several small Berber villages, we made our first stop in the Taourirt Kasbah, a fortification built in the 19th Century strategically placed to control the old caravan route. On the other side of the road, there’s a movie museum and a restaurant that serves the most refreshing orange juices ever.

We spent around six more hours in the car surrounded by desert, which gave us enough time to learn some Arabic and Berber words from Ismail. Mohammed, on the other side, didn’t speak a word of Spanish, French or English, so he just laughed when everybody in the car did.

We entered the region of Zagora, where we started spotting small oasis and occasionally, Berber caravans beside the road. We learned that though more and more Berbers are migrating to the cities, caravans are frequent when you travel to the south of the country.

 

 

Mohammed dropped us off on a dirt road, where a small Berber caravan was already waiting for us, and waved goodbye. Despite our questions, Ismail never told us where our driver spent the night.

The Berbers helped us hop on the camels’ backs, and we adventured deeper into the desert. As cool as it sounds, riding a camel was my least comfortable experience in the desert. An hour later, when we reached our camp, we couldn’t wait to climb off their backs, and, for the next couple of days, it was hard to find a comfortable position to sit down.

 

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Into the desert

 

I was surprised when we enter to the camp. I had imagined that we would sleep in small tents and eat the dark, but this place was nothing as I expected. The camping tents were big enough to fit two large beds inside and even had electricity. In the back, there were showers with hot running water (a bad investment for the hottest desert in the world) and toilets.

We climbed to the dunes to watch the sunset. The sand was illuminated orange by the sun, and little by little the stars started to show up. Once the sun was gone, the only light we had came from the sky. We lay down on our backs and watch the Milky way become brighter as our eyes got used to the darkness. The starry night was like a door to the universe. Coming from a big polluted city, there’s never a chance to look at the sky like that.

 

 

Half an hour later another group of travelers arrived at the camp and it was time for dinner. Again, we were surprised by the service we got on a trip we thought it was going to be way more modest. We had a Mediterranean salad; chicken tajine; a very interesting dessert made of noodles, sour cream, sugar and cinnamon; and the biggest plate of fruit we’d ever seen. It was the best meal we had in Morocco.

Then it was time for the party. The Berbers lit a fire and took out their musical instruments to play all kinds of music, from local songs to classic rock songs translated into Arabic. They taught us how to tie our headscarves, play their instruments, sing their songs and the proper steps to dance around the fire. I even got a marriage proposal, but I knew I wouldn’t survive riding a camel for the rest of my days (plus, my true love was waiting for me in Canada).

After realizing my friends and I were not going to bed anytime soon, the rest of the camp decided to leave us alone and go to sleep. We went up again to the dunes and stayed there for a long time in silence to let the people and the camels sleep.

I think people in the cities are always stressed out because we don’t get the chance to see the night sky as we did in the Sahara. The Berbers in the caravans live simpler day-to-day lives and sleep every night under the sky, while we forget how insignificant our problems are because we cannot see the wide-open universe above us. I’ve never felt so peaceful as I felt that night.

 

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Technical stop at Zagora

 

At 4 pm we decided that if we wanted to see the sunrise, we’d better get some sleep. So we headed back to our camping tents and slept a couple of hours, just until the sun began to rise. Though I like the evening colors better than the morning ones, the sunrise was still spectacular, as it illuminated the sea of dunes around us again.

Before we left, we had a traditional Moroccan pastry breakfast and coffee. We said goodbye to our new friends of the caravan and rode back to the highway where Mohammed picked us up at the same spot we’d last seen him.

 

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Aït Benhaddou

 

Our last stop was the fortified city of Aït Benhaddou. If you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Mummy, Kingdom of Heaven, Game of Thrones, or any other movie set in a desert, you’ll surely recognize this place. Dating from the 17th Century, it served as a resting point for the caravans traveling through the Sahara from Sudan to Marrakesh and has now been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The village is entirely made of mudbrick. We wandered around the old abandoned houses and walked along the alleys where all the merchants are waiting for their next victim. Finally, we climbed to the top of the city, where we had our last panoramic view of the Sahara before making our way through the Altas Mountains, back to Marrakesh.

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Donkey at Aït Benhaddou

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Artist painting by burning sugar

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Inside Aït Benhaddou

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Colors of Aït Benhaddou

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Palm trees and desert

 

 

 

 

 

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