From our hotel in Marrakesh, we booked a 3-day tour of Morocco that would take us through the Atlas Mountains to Merzouga. From there, we would ride camels to the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi to see the Saharan sunset and spend the night in Berber tents. We would also make a few stops along to way to see Aït Ben Haddou and tour a Berber village near the Todra Gorge.
We met our driver in the Jemaa el Fna and loaded into a van with four strangers—three women from London and a man from Germany. Then we headed toward the Atlas Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks could be seen from many points in Marrakesh. As we rode, we watched the landscape change from green valleys to dry, rocky terrain. We snaked our way through the mountains on narrow roads, stopping a few times for photos and to close the broken side door of the van which occasionally whipped open as we drove. Eventually, our driver tied the door shut with rope.
After a few hours, we arrived at Aït Ben Haddou, a fortified city of earthen buildings built hundreds of years ago. There were camels sitting near a narrow stream and donkeys carrying loads of vegetation. The sky was cloudless with the sun beating down us. Palm trees dotted the landscape. It was easy to understand why this site was used in dozens of movies like Gladiator and why it was designated a UNESCO world heritage site. It was a place that had preserved time.
We walked through the village with our guide as he discussed the few remaining families that still lived there and name dropped some Hollywood actors he had once met on set. Our guide himself had been an extra in several movies. We called him a celebrity and took a picture with him.
Before heading back down for lunch, we climbed to the top of the old granary for a view of the area. The landscape was layered around us, green and fertile near the river, then dry and rocky, the mountains a third layer in the background.
From there we drove toward Dades Gorge to have dinner and stay the night at Hotel Tamlalte which was surrounded by immense rock formations that reminded me of the American West. Before dinner, we wandered a short distance from the hotel to see the area and catch the last of the sunset. Then a local boy approached us on a bicycle. He asked us for something, but we didn’t know what he wanted. I had heard that children ask for pens, but I didn’t have one to give him. Since we couldn’t understand one another, he rode away and we headed back to the hotel.
At dinner, we made friends with an American woman named Mimsie who was teaching English in Korea, and a Japanese woman named Ayano. Our waiter, like others we encountered on our tour, yelled “Japan!” at Ayano. Apparently Japan is known for teaching the Berber language, something the Berbers in Morocco quite appreciate.
For dinner, we ate large hunks of bread, a staple during our two weeks in Morocco, plus Moroccan soup served with a wooden spoon, and chicken tagine with couscous. Then we retired to our rooms, excited that the next day we would see the Sahara.
After breakfast, we drove to Todra Gorge. We parked our van on the highway and started walking through fields toward a Berber village. There was a narrow stream, palm trees and olive trees, and fields of alfalfa. Beside us, women were picking the alfalfa, hunched over at the waist, and we were asked not to take photos of them.
When we reached the village, we gathered for a demonstration on making Berber carpets. We sat on the floor in a small room whose walls and floors were covered in colorful rugs of different shapes and sizes. Then we were served mint tea while we listened to our guide explain the Berber lifestyle and watched a woman make a rug, weaving the fibers in and out with her fingers.
Afterwards, we browsed the rugs for sale, but instead purchased a blue scarf, a traditional Berber color, which later came in handy on the camel trek.
On our way out of the village, a small boy approached me and asked for something. Again, I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but I gave him my pen. It was short with a floral design, part of a Vera Bradley stationery kit I received as a gift. He smiled and walked away.
From there we headed back to the highway and left for Merzouga, our meeting place for the camel trek. After a couple of hours on the road, a sandstorm began, turning everything into a uniform wall of beige. At points, we could hardly see the road ahead. The driver seemed nervous, which made us nervous too. I was also worried about how this would affect our camel trek, whether it would be cancelled, and if not, whether we would miss the famed Saharan sunset.
When we arrived at our meeting point, we were told to leave our luggage. We were to be led by Berber guides to Erg Chebbi and we would stay overnight in tents. I kept a small bag with my passport and a few necessities and left my backpack behind.
While waiting on the others, I noticed a map on the wall that showed how close we were to the jagged Algerian border. At that moment, I felt very far from home. It was a little frightening, but also freeing, knowing I was about to be led into the desert in a sandstorm.
We gathered outside to be paired with our camels. The buildings and the palm trees offered a slight reprieve from the wind and sand. The camels were tethered together in a line, each with a saddle and bridle. I was expecting them to be tan so I was surprised to see them in white, brown and black. My husband was assigned to a pretty white one and I assumed I would be placed next to him. Instead, I was seated two camels away with one more suited for my height.
The camels remained seated as we mounted them, their legs folded neatly beneath them, the knees on their back legs bending backwards. Then the guide instructed them to rise, back legs first, slinging each of us forward until the camel was on all fours. Once my camel stood, I felt very small on top of it.
By the time everyone was saddled up, it was late afternoon and we headed toward camp. As we rode, the wind and sand whirled around us, creeping through the pores of our clothes and bags. Even with sunglasses and a scarf wrapped around my face, I got sand in my mouth, eyes and ears. The trek was supposed to take an hour and a half but it felt much longer. Perhaps the storm slowed us down.
As we rode, the palm trees and shrubbery of our meeting point vanished. At some point, I realized there was nothing around but the sand and we were finally in the desert. Everything was dull and hazy as we rode through the storm, quiet, listening to the wind and watching evening creep upon us. We wound our way through the dunes and by the time we reached camp, it was pitch black. That night, there was no sunset.
We each dismounted our camels and the Berbers assigned us to tents for sleeping. Then we gathered in another tent to wait for dinner. Our guides left to prepare our meal while we sat with our new friends on pillows that surrounded small tables.
For dinner, our table shared a chicken tagine with rice and onions, followed, of course, by hot mint tea. Afterward, the Berbers entertained us with music. A young man sat next to me and showed me how to beat the drums. It was a simple beat, but I had a difficult time. Some people have rhythm and others do not. He was persistent so I tried a few more times until I was able to recreate his beat well enough to satisfy him. Then I excused myself from the tent. Outside, the storm had stopped and the stars shone bright in the black sky.
Soon after, I went to sleep. I was so tired that I didn’t bother changing or brushing my teeth. I slept in my clothes under a pile of heavy blankets inside the tent. The tent was flapping in the wind and the night was getting cold. In a few hours, we would wake to see the sunrise.
We woke the next morning to the sounds of shouting. Our guides wanted us up and ready to see the sunrise. My husband and I were quick to rise and we walked around the sand dunes alone taking pictures just before the sun peeked over the horizon. Then we saddled up and headed back to Merzouga.
With the sandstorm over, our camel trek was a different experience. This time we were able to see the desert and appreciate the immense height of the dunes, their soft, shifting peaks, and the wind-blown pattern the desert had taken. It was a different desert than the day before.
As the sun rose higher, the sand changed colors from gray to tan to the deep orange you associate with the Sahara. We could also see our shadows as we rode, gently bobbing with the camels gait.
The trip back was much faster and toward the end, several in my group opted to walk instead of riding their camels; a few of them had motion sickness.
When we reached our meeting point, breakfast was waiting for us. There was coffee and sugar, plus bread, cheese, honey and several kinds of olives. Then we loaded back into the van for the long ride back to Marrakesh.
Along the way, we stopped for a lunch of chicken kebabs and French fries. Then I walked around to take pictures of the valley and shop at the store next door. I bought rose-scented moisturizer and a scarf. On our next stop, it snowed. I’ve only seen snow a few times in my life, and it felt like the perfect addition to our trip.
In the same day, I had ridden a camel, seen the Sahara desert and felt snowfall in the Atlas Mountains.
The ride back was long, eight or ten hours, and we were exhausted. But the roads were so dangerous we were afraid to sleep. It was raining and the roads were narrow and winding so we talked to stay awake.
I listened to stories from the others—Peter’s work-a-year, travel-a-year method, and Mimsie’s decision to move from a small town in Mississippi to Korea. Everyone had such interesting lives and I was glad to have met them, realizing they enriched my trip as much as the locals I was so fond of.
When we arrived back in Marrakesh, we all went our separate ways. My husband and I went to bed to rest up for our last day in Marrakesh before moving on to Rabat.