If you have been reading my website at endlessroaming.com you would be aware that I have been blogging about previous adventures across the USA, specifically 2012. Ill also write further about other experiences in the USA and other countries. I am located in the UK at the moment attempting to work out where to next so in the meantime I thought I’d continue to write about Roaming around Morocco.
After three days in Marrakesh I felt it was time to leave the city, my destination the Sahara Desert. Id organised a tour through the Riad I was staying at; the tour involved a night in a hotel and the second in the Sahara itself. I hadn’t exactly researched what I would be up to, I just took the advice of the Riad manager that this was the “must do” tour in Morocco and for the moderate price I was paying I figured Id hop on the bus and go for it TIP It appears to be much cheaper to book a tour when in Morocco than through an online website. Up at 7am I boarded a mini bus with 11 other backpackers and we headed west towards the Sahara Desert. It was exciting to go on a tour which Id no research into, sometimes that’s part of the fun.
We headed towards our first destination up though the Atlas Mountains passing through many Berber villages on the way. The villages themselves were mostly made of clay, reddish brown in appearance and appeared frantically busy, or at least in the morning, the afternoon gets to hot to be out. This mountain range goes from Morocco through Algeria to Tunisia stretching around 2500km and its highest elevation is around 4100 metres in Morocco. The going was slow as the road was single lane, the road was very windy and traffic including donkeys and cart slowed us down, however the views of the mountain range and towns were quite the sight, there was plenty of landscape to view and it was a nice distraction from the slow journey. After a few toilet breaks we eventually made our first stop, the town of Ait Benhaddou.
I haven’t seen a city like this before, around 1000 years old its located on an old caravan route that crosses the Sahara. There is a river located next to it and is surrounded by vegetation which makes it stand out compared to the barren desert landscape we were progressively passing through on the bus. There are markets located within the town however it lays mostly abandoned and locked up, the locals living the more modern adjoining town where our bus was parked. The reason for this is the city is made out of mostly clay and therefore can’t be air conditioned, clay doesn’t mix with water but is excellent for cooling in the hot sun, so the locals live in concrete buildings. The city sits on a hill overlooking the valley below and is surrounded by walls like a lot of old Moroccan cities.
If you haven’t heard of this city (and to be honest I had not) then more than likely have seen parts of the city on the television. Ait Benhaddou is a popular location for dozens of movie productions, this includes “Gladiator”, “Laurence of Arabia” and most recently “Game of Thrones”. Indeed this area and Morocco generally is the movie making capital of Africa due to its relative safety in the region, natural beauty and a ready made horde of extra’s on call when required. We wandered the city and I haggled with a store owner to by a traditional blue Shesh (like a turban), our group then headed back to the bus to continue our journey TIP some tour operators may imply there is an entry fee to the city and charge you an additional cost, this is rubbish. You may also be asked to tip your guide; I did but not sure that is necessary either though its a nice gesture.
We then continued our windy bus journey through the mountains, stopping off for lunch for some traditional tajine with couscous which was quite tasty in the town of Quarazazate. This city wasn’t particularly interesting though it does contain some movie studios and our guide took us to meet a famous local that has played in a lot of movies, in particular cast as Osama Bin Laden, the desert can be quite a crazy area. TIP lunches are not included on a tour and the bus driver or guide will take you to a restaurant which will charge significantly more money than if you wanted to get a meal somewhere else so keep that in mind. We made a few more stops to take some photos of the valleys and rivers we were passing though and eventually after 9 hours we made our accommodation for the night near Dades Gorge. The hotel road and nearby river were all next to each no more than approximately 100 metres wide in total. It was quite surreal to be staying between two tall walls of rock, essentially in the middle of an extended gorge. The hotel served tajine which was included in the price so our bus group sat together, enjoyed the food and a few beers we managed to find and then we went to the roof where some of the locals were playing drums. It was a really nice evening and from that experience I had high expectations regarding our stay in the desert the following night.
The following day after some breakfast and Moroccan mint tea (which I’m now addicted its so tasty) the driver took us down some more windy roads to the Dades River and the Todgha Gorge. This gorge like our accommodation the night before is surround by very tall cliffs and the fresh water runs down the middle of it. It was cool and refreshing and there were a lot of tourists walking around taking photos and enjoying themselves. After about an hour or so we got back on the bus and were taken to another restaurant for more tajine for lunch and then another town for a small tour and a rug making demonstration. This was kind of interesting but as I had no intention of purchasing a rug it so essentially a waste of time as I was now keen to get to the Sahara. I did manage to get the bus driver to pull up to a restaurant however as a few of us on the bus were keen on having some beers for the evening.
After about 7 hours or driving, lunch and sale pitches in a few Berber villages we made our camp area on the edge of the Sahara itself. Morocco is on the edge of the Sahara, it is a perfect place to view the desert landscape of sweeping white sands and no vegetation or sign of life. There are other places to access the desert from in Tunisia and Egypt, however Morocco you can’t head to far into the desert as the country borders Algeria and the border is closed. After sitting on a bus for quite a while it was now our groups turn to sit on a camel. There were a lot of other tourists and a lot of camels so not very quiet.
I am experienced in riding a horse but unlike a horse a camel has no reins for the rider to hold and no stirrups for your feet to get leverage, instead the rider holds onto the saddle. Its all perfectly safe as each camel is hooked up to the camel in front of it. We got on our camels and then road about in the desert for about an hour with a guide walking beside us. I would liked to have gone longer a lot of riders were starting to complain about their sore arses from the saddle (my arse was fine) so we headed back to the camp. Riding a camel in the Sahara Desert during sunset is totally an amazing experience and with my blue turban wrapped around my head I appeared like a Bedouin watching the sun go down over the barren sand dunes, its a whole lot of orange colours.
The evening lived up to expectations I was hoping for and maybe even excelled them. Our group joined a few others and were set up in a Bedouin style camp, but with electricity and separate flushing toilet, apart from that if felt very authentic. The evening was spent sitting at a large table with all the tajine and couscous we could eat, our table was the envy of everyone else as no one thought to bring some beer TIP If you want alcohol bring it from Marrakesh, its cheaper and easier to get than trying to find it somewhere on the road. After stuffing our faces, we headed out of the village where the Bedouin guides were playing drums and dancing around the bonfire, it was a very pleasant experience under a full moon and bright stars.
I stayed up a while and then watched the sun come up at about 430am, didn’t have time for sleep. I hiked my own sand dune, the sand so fine that it doesn’t stick to you or a bottle of water, sat down and watched the sun slowly rise, first orange then yellow. I felt like Luke Skywalker looking for R2D2 on Tatooine and if you don’t understand the reference I recommend you watch Star Wars, the first one or watch this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gpXMGit4P8. I then checked my phone, great reception in the Sahara, and found out my house that was on the market had just sold, such a glorious morning. I returned and said goodbye to some of my camel riding friends as they were heading to Fez. I was returning to Marrakesh and onto Essaouira the following day. The bus return itself was 12 hours, nothing remarkable and now Ill be fast forwarding to Essaouira in the next blog.
I absolutely loved my trip to the Sahara Desert and must say its one of the more amazing things I have done. The people Id met on the bus were a good laugh which I think was a great and most were also solo travelers. We had a few guides that asked for tips which I was happy enough to give, I think we were luck as I was told of other tours charging city entrances and making people by turbans but this is not necessary. Once you have paid for a tour besides the lunches which you don’t have to purchase either, everything is included in the cost. The Atlas Mountains are great but there is nothing particularly unique about them though prepare to be patient as the buses are slow The city of Ait Benhaddou is amazing and do buy a turban there or somewhere as it makes the camel riding experience more special. The Dades valley is amazing but its all about the Sahara, its beautiful and like an ocean of endless smooth sand, I’ve seen a lot of deserts but there isn’t anything like it in my experience. So if you’re prepared for a lot of tanjines, time on the bus, guides possibly trying to rip you off then I say its completely worth it…. and as Luke says “may the force be with you”, if you make it hope you love it as much as I do.
ps Star Wars is not shot on location in Morocco