Tonight it’s promised we’ll be transported to a haven of Arabian nights amongst the golden sand dunes of Erg Chebbi; Morocco’s slice of Africa’s expansive Sahara Desert. So it comes as a surprise there’s snow outside my window as we drive through a bleak inhospitable landscape, past nomadic sheepherders bundled from the bitter wind and rocky highlands of the Middle Atlas Mountains.
Each travel day of our private 4WD excursion with Your Morocco Tour has uncovered countless new layers of this dynamic country; its diverse and dramatic scenery, regal kasbahs, remote villages and rural way of life.
In a section of the mountains forested with red cedars, we stopped and our guide Ali bought peanuts from the local men. Erratically scampering back and forth across the road, macaques or Barbary apes (similar to those in Gibraltar, imported from North Africa) greeted us pulling at trouser pants and outstretching tiny hands in search of a snack.
After climbing some 1,400 metres the inclines gave way to desolate tree-less plateaus, where ramshackle dwellings of the indigenous Berber nomads were constructed with plastic, scrap wood and animal hides. Villages of mud brick were insulated with straw and mirrored the surrounding colours of the orange, red-brown or taupe earth from which they were constructed. Whilst their beloved King Mohammed VI works to ensure all villages have access to running water and electricity, the residents otherwise live simply often in the most basic conditions.
Amongst Ziz Valley’s barren red-rock we encountered lush oasis-like palmeries; valleys where date palms flourished with the appearance of a green flooding river in the fertile alluvial soil.
The fifth day with our affable Berber guide Ali was a tiring 10-hour drive from Fez to our special desert camp. Ali confessed he’d driven this road through the Middle Atlas Mountains “maybe 1,000 times” and knew every bend, village and panoramic viewpoint like the back of his hand. With the constantly changing scenery and glimpses of authentic regional working life, that day the door was thrown wide open – a captivating insight to the real Morocco.
The Sahara Desert covers a staggering 25 per cent (or over 9.4 million square kilometres) of the African continent. On its north western-most edges the Sahara touches Morocco near Merzouga and again more extensively through the country’s south. Thirty-five kilometres from the Algerian border, the rose-gold dunes of Erg Chebbi revealed yet another face of Morocco and included a novel two-night stay in a luxury desert camp. In a previous life Ali was a desert four-wheel driving guide. With the sun setting at the end of a long day, when finally turning off the asphalt I could sense his relief to switch the Prado into all-wheel drive and power effortlessly through the soft sand.
Desert Luxury Camp does not claim to be a five-star property, instead treating us to small luxuries in the middle of the desert: canvas Bedouin tents with Berber rug floors, king-size beds heavy-laden for the brisk nights, flushing toilets, running water, wood furnace-heated showers, lovingly prepared meals and attentive service from our gentle turban-wearing host Hassan. By chance we were the only guests and enjoyed the smaller private camp all to ourselves. Another slightly larger camp with six accommodation tents sat quietly a few dunes away.
We were told majority of Erg Chebbi’s desert camps sit on the edge of the sand dunes and close to the town of Merzouga. They were often busy and noisy with quad bike excursions racing past and large tour bus groups on camel back or sunset 4WD tours. The owners of Desert Luxury Camp were disillusioned the original magic of the camps had been lost and sought to find a perfect location deep in the dunes where their guests could experience the idyllic silence and remoteness of Morocco’s Sahara.
Ample time was available to relax and appreciate our surroundings: quietly wandering the dunes following tiny tracks of jerboas and desert beetles, resting on a lounger watching the sun melt into the sandy horizon, reading a book by flickering campfire light or being mesmerised by a night sky bursting with stars.
On the other hand, our hosts were happy to action-pack our only full day at the camp. Following a filling breakfast we started out with a rhythmic but crotch-torturing dromedary over the golden dunes, tracing ancient Sahara trading routes by camel caravan. After several hours our camels were guided across flat desolate tracks of hammada (stony desert) to a parched mud brick hut on the edge of an isolated village. From the log stove outside wafted smells of our tagine lunch, inside sunlight filtered through a small window and two petite Berber ladies worked together on a jalabah coat. They patted the ground between them, offering me a seat and guiding my hands to show the intricate and arduous technique of hand-threading camel wool through the loom. Receiving visitors only once every few weeks, those precious minutes with the softly spoken local woman was the most intimate experience of my Morocco visit.
Ali was content, later conceding: “visiting this village reminds me of my childhood, as this is how we lived.” In the mud brick house we sat cross-legged on the floor and ate a filling lunch of salad, couscous and tagine (named after the traditional earthen-pot it’s cooked in). Afterwards Ali found it hard to contain his grin on offering a return trip in the Prado rather than camelback. When our camp host Hassan climbed into the driver’s seat, it twigged we were in for no ordinary ride.
The dunes are constantly buffeted by wind – shape shifting and covering 4WD and camel tracks. His backyard, Hassan was the expert in this terrain. As if by memory he manoeuvred up and over blind ridgelines and accelerated out of gullies. I tried to film whilst gripping the door handle; it was bumpy and fruitless. Putting the camera down we were gasping and laughing as the Prado tackled slopes at awkwardly acute angels and roller coaster traversed the undulating terrain. It was seriously epic fun.
Back at the camp I inspected a parched turtle shell beside my tent. “You can take it,” offered Hassan generously, “I will find another one.” In pre-historic times an expansive shallow sea once covered this region; prevalent were fossilised cone-shaped orthoceras shells and other crustaceans. Many locals in neighbouring towns made a living from mining and selling the ancient specimens to visitors.
Later that night the ambience around our camp’s fire pit was electric. A half dozen men from a nearby village joined us, treating us to a private lila concert as they sung, chanted and rapped tam tam drums and castanets. Accentuated by an infectious and hypnotic beat, Gnawa music originated from freed Sudanese slaves; it signifies brotherhood and freedom. Singing enthusiastically, the Berber men were soon on their feet dancing and stamping their way around the common area, next collapsing in laughter and applause.
An optional upgrade, our short stay at Desert Luxury Camp was a highlight of our tailored Your Morocco Tour itinerary and I was spent; sleepily drifting off with the rhythmic music in my head. It had been a truly momentous day.
PS: video to follow soon – please check back!