When I think of Morocco I think of ancient medinas, rolling deserts, blue painted hillside towns. I think of colourful tiles and piled Tagines and Berber men wrapped in blue turbans. I think of so many things; colour, sounds, religion, tradition. Yet I never really thought of mountains.
Whilst in Meknes we checked the weather forecast for the following few days and found that a incoming weather front was due to bring snow and temperatures of –11 . Although our plan had been to visit Fez, we decided instead to head over the mountains earlier than planned to try and get ahead of the incoming storm. We already know that this will not be our last visit to Morocco, so didn’t feel too bad about missing some places out this time, after all it gives us a good reason to return. Our sights were now firmly set on reaching the Sahara Desert and staying put for Christmas.
Coming from the north, in particular, the landscape offers some breathtaking views, especially of the eastern High Atlas, which seem to rise out of nowhere. Its saw-toothed Jurassic peaks act as a weather barrier between the mild, Mediterranean climate to the north and the encroaching Sahara to the south. With a weather front fast approaching we didn’t linger this time, instead making ourselves a promise to return at a warmer time of year so that we can fully enjoy the magnificence of this every changing landscape.
Our friends Jan & Trevor who we first met in Hungary in 2017 were a few weeks ahead of us on their Moroccan tour, but our sprint over the mountains meant we had now caught them up, so we headed for the desert in tandem, planning to stay for Christmas.
On route we stopped at the town of Rissani, although not really on the tourist trail, it is often used by visitors as a stopping point on the way to or from the Sahara. It is also well known for its market, or souk. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays are the busiest market days, where locals and visitors can be seen shopping for jewellery, souvenirs, gifts, spices, art and crafts and local produce. The huge souk and surrounding streets could keep you busy for hours, so it was a perfect place for us to barter for items we needed for our trip to the desert. Coming away with a new mat for outside the motorhome (the Moroccans make these from recycled plastic), a tagine and brazier and lots of meat, fruit and veg. We are now becoming accustomed to locals surrounding the motorhome as soon as we park up, children will often hang around in the hope of receiving sweets or money, touts and guides will be there to offer their services and a guardian to mind your vehicle. Although they can be very persistent, if they really do hang on to your coat tails then a sharp “LA” (no) will eventually make them realise that their service is not required. Rissani is filled with flavour and colour and although a few hours wandering around can be exhausting with all the bartering and persistence from locals, it’s certainly worth the stop.
From here it was onto the Sahara Desert – Oh the Sahara Desert! Would it be like in films? Dunes for miles? The softest of sand? Stars illuminating the entire sky? The answer is Yes and More!
I’ve never seen sand so orange, with the reflection of the sun’s rays at sunrise and sunset, it really comes alive. The incredible region of Erg Chebbi on the edge of the Sahara is a 30 mile wide stretch of dunes shaped by the wind and in some places 150 metres high. An ever growing collection of Auberges, camp sites and restaurants have sprung up in and around the village of Merzeuga, making it the central hub for tour groups and independent visitors. Although a mecca for the visiting hoards this place has a charm all of it’s own and it’s an easy place to while away warm sunny days and cold starry nights.
Our first choice of campsite was at the walled La Gazelle Bleu on the edge of the Grand Dune. The walled area offered protection from the deserts sometime fierce winds and sandstorms whilst the rooftop viewing platform offered the perfect place to photograph the rising sun. An exploration on bikes though found us a little piece of Saharan heaven at camping Haven La Chance, the relaxed site opens right onto the dunes and with no walls the desert became our back garden.
Now we are not normally very good at staying put in one place for very long, but with Christmas looming we were not going anywhere, so the days here passed very quickly and suddenly we’d become black belts at not doing very much. Our travelling companion Jan is an absolute wizz in kitchen and so I became a willing student and began soaking up her never ending skills, . What she doesn’t know about food and cooking is probably not really worth knowing, so for a keen cook like myself I’m enjoying learning new skills and ingesting her superior knowledge . As you can imagine we have cooked and eaten some amazing cuisine here from lamb tagines and Cous Cous (think of this dish not as we have it in the UK as an accompaniment but as a whole meal in itself, layered with meat and seven different vegetables) to spit roast chicken and half a lamb cooked on a rotisserie over an open fire for Christmas lunch. We’ve swapped travel stories, trapesed through the dunes, cycled into the village for supplies and sat putting the world to rights around an open fire, looking up at the star filled sky and second guessing the constellations.
We wanted to get a real feel of the desert and decided one of the best ways to enjoy it was in a 4 x 4 tour. We booked the tour via the campsite and paid 1200 MAD (€120) for the whole day including lunch. Although this is a popular way of seeing the desert our driver Barak ensured we had each stop almost to ourselves (either it was very well planned or we were just very lucky).
Our first stop was at a lake – yeah you read that right a lake right there in the Sahara desert, it was only a short drive from our campsite, but without the tour we’d have just not known it was there. Called Lac Dayet Siri at this time of year it’s pretty devoid of both water and birdlife. Just one stray flamingo was left behind from the 100’s that normally reside here – maybe his GPS had a malfunction. The lake grows in the rainy season and can be up to 4m deep in places. Such an unexpected sight in the middle of the desert.
Pigeon De Sable African Music Centre
According to Marocopedea the music from Les Pigeons des sables is what they like to call therapeutic music. . These local Gnaouis from Khamlia sing the “Koyo”, songs about memories of the past, adventures and legends, though sometimes they also compose new songs. They sing in both Moroccan Darija and Bambara. The ancestors of the Gnaouas of Khamlia are from Sahel who arrived in Morocco centuries ago through the trans-Saharan trade. The group all dressed in white and put their hearts into their performance whilst their audience enjoyed a Berber tea listening to them perform. At the end you are offered the opportunity to purchase a CD for 100 MAD or make a small donation.
Barak our guide helped us identify an array of fossils right in the middle of the desert. The area that had once obviously been underwater had dozens of fossils. Even as novices we were able to identify ammonites and turtle shells and take some small ones with us as a souvenir of our trip. Fascinating.
The next stop was at an operational mine site and a place where health and safety is not considered. Vast gaping holes tunnelled deep below the ground and used the mine several different minerals including lead sulphide, which is used for making kohl for eye makeup. At each stop locals make an appearance seemingly from nowhere to offer fossils and jewellery for sale. it’s a tough way to make a living especially as each one of them seem to have exactly the same items for sale. Having already purchased an amethyst on our drive over the mountains, on this occasion we politely declined.
Lunch with the Berber Nomads
Our lunch stop was a real highlight and a delicious treat. We were able to see first hand how the hard the life of a Berber Nomad is. Living in a series of small tents, these industrious people build ovens out of mud where they were able to cook us a delightful Berber pizza. The freshly made bread is stuffed with turkey, turmeric, onion and veg and then cooked directly on top of hot coals and served with a fresh salad and rice.
A drive alongside the Algerian Border
Our route back to camp took us close to the Algerian border , separated by a mountain range the border is closely monitored by both Moroccans and Algerians. The border was closed by the Algerian government in 1994 after Morocco imposed visa restrictions following a deadly terrorist attack in Marrakech. This has been disastrous for the nomadic Berber people who have always roamed far and wide across these lands as they search for water and food for their livestock. The closed border has shut down this traditional way of life and sadly separated many families.
Our guide informed us that the road through this part of the desert makes up part of the Dakar Rally course. The noise and dust as the vehicles screech across this sandy land must be incredible.
After a 10 day stint in the desert we were ready for a change of scenery and so left to head towards our next stop at the Todra gorge.
Camping Hakkou GPS 31.674093 -4.196662 Campsite in the palms. Good stop off on the way to the desert. All facilities. Cost 85 MAD (€8.50) per night in EHU.
La Gazelle Bleu GPS 31.091131 -4.004478 camp site by the grand dune on the edge of the Sahara. Hot showers (sometimes), roof terrace and basic facilities. 70 MAD (€7) per night inc EHU. Washing 50 MAD for 5 kgs returned dried and folded. The owner Mohammed was very friendly and bought us fresh bread every morning. We priced up a 4×4 trip with him and he wanted €240! Ouch.
Haven La Chance This campsite is in a beautiful setting right on the dunes. Electric was a bit unstable and on the low side and dropped out completely a few times, but you have to remember where you are. Washing was done for 3o MAD for 7 kgs. 80 MAD per night inc elec and hot showers.