The lonely road into the desert
I sunk deeper into my chair; soothed by the sounds of Ulrich Schnauss, as the morning cries of Marrakech faded into a tranquil bliss. The engine roared to life, and the bus pulled out of the station, weaving through the rush of traffic, as kids on motorbikes screamed past, protected by religious helmets. My transcendental gaze out of the window was soon broken as we made the steep, winding ascent up and over the pass, testing my stomach to its limits. The descent to Ouarzazate brought a dramatic change in landscape, as the rocky terrain was overcome by sand, shrubs, and small stones. In the distance stood huge, red, rock formations, like mountains which had lost their peaks – I immediately grew fond of them.
Ouarzazate offered the usual services, just like any other town, yet it felt so different. I quickly realized why, nobody was harassing me. It was the only place in Morocco where nobody asked where I was going, and damn, it felt good to regain my solitude. My wanderings led me to the outskirts of town to the famous film studio where films such as Prince of Persia were shot. My arrival was fortunate to coincide with the filming of the Game of Thrones, so I slipped on my blacked out wayfarer shades, tried to look important, and blended into the crew for some sneaky pictures.
It wasn’t long before the picturesque red, rock formations reeled me in all the way to the small town of Ait Benhaddou where they stood proudly, inviting me in to walk their land. The mud brick Kasbah which rose high above Ait Benhaddou was the backdrop for many famous films such as Gladiator – I quickly included it in my morning run. If they had filmed Rocky in the desert, it would have been here – I thought, as I made a quick ascent to the top, encouraged by local shopkeepers, preparing for another day’s haggling. The film set for the Game of Thrones had also arrived; I hope they hadn’t followed me thinking I was the director.
Three nights passed by quickly, and I was on the road again, continuing south to the small town of Agdz which marks the start of the Draa Valley. Upon arrival, you can’t help but notice the tagine shaped mountain which overlooks the town. I took a long walk through the forest of palm trees to get closer, and experienced some Berber hospitality in a small village at the base of the mountain – what I mean by Berber hospitality is losing badly at Dama whilst drowning my sorrows in Berber whisky. Just outside the town I found a café with a pool table, so decided to give the locals a lesson by streaking seven wins in a row with virtually the whole café watching – it was my time to give something back to the community.
After Agdz, I took a local bus to Zagora, passing through the Mars like landscape of the Draa Valley. The landscapes are what I love most about Morocco, as they change completely after every few hours of travel, it’s truly fascinating. I made a change in Zagora to a local minibus, where my backpack was secured under some netting on the roof, and I squeezed into the front seat, virtually on the lap of my Moroccan neighbor. The next few hours were spent with me hanging out of the window as the heat of the desert took its toll. The road was as narrow as they come, and the local thing was to play chicken with oncoming drivers, and then dodge out of the way at the last minute onto the gravel – another crazy Moroccan norm.
We soon arrived at the small, lonely town of M’Hamid; from the start I felt suffocated; it was the end of the road, and the locals knew it. I had come to see the sand dunes, and have a go at riding a camel, so I spent two days getting quotes. I chose Zbar Travel, much to the frustration of the family running the accommodation where I was staying, but it was their own fault for quoting me double the going rate. Morning came for the day of the tour, and I clutched onto the handle, as the 4×4 roared into the desert, hungry for sand. The journey to the camp took just over an hour through vast, deserted landscape of rocks and sand until we reached out camp for the night at Erg Chigaga. Erg Chigaga is where you go to see the big sand dunes of the Sahara. They were a source of fun, as I sand boarded down them, and a source of wonder and mystery as the sun melted into the dunes in the distance. As the light faded, and the stars filled the sky, I mounted my camel for a nomadic trek into the dunes – I had a big grin on my face the whole way, I just couldn’t believe where I was, and what I was doing. That night, we all enjoyed local music by the fire, and danced around to the rhythm of the drums, holding hands and laughing like kids. The whole experience was liberating, and it all ended with me staying up later than usual dreaming into the stars, watching them shoot across the sky like rockets.
The next morning, we arrived back in M’Hamid, leaving behind the dunes as if they were nothing but a distant dream. The feeling of suffocation quickly returned, but luckily I managed to catch a ride to Ouarzazate in a 4×4 giving me the escape I much needed. I looked back into a cloud of dusty sand, as the 4×4 screamed off towards Ouarzazate. I started to breathe again, knowing that in the next few days, I would be roaming nomadically through the huge, mountain gorges of the High Atlas, east of Ouarzazate, on yet another journey of discovery and wonder.
P.S – I broke my camera in the desert, so I won’t be taking any photos until I buy a new one, sorry!
Backpackers Tips and Advice
Hotel Royal in Ouarzazate is a cheap, clean hotel which I highly recommend.
Book your trip into the desert before arriving in M’Hamid. I had a fantastic experience with Zbar Travel who offer cheap, friendly, professional services – they have an office in both Ouarzazate and M’Hamid (tell them you were recommended by this website). I recommend booking it all in Ouarzazate.
Do understand there will be other people in your camp, as they are often shared by other tour groups, if you’re bothered by the amount, make sure you ask how many people will be staying.
You need to bring your own water on the camel trek.
Don’t take your camera into the desert if it has an extending lens, the sand will quickly break it.
Bring money to M’Hamid, as there is no bank.
If you do choose to stay in M’Hamid, there is cheap accommodation on the right of Zbar Travel, they also do good food.
Don’t forget to haggle, its part of the culture, and its fun!