Who wants to go spend a night in the middle of the Sahara, 15 km from the Algerian border, in the hottest part of Morocco’s summertime? I do I do!
So call us crazy (it’s true, we’re a bit crazy) but Katie, Cale, and I booked a three day tour with cameltrekking.com to guide us out to the desert and back. They picked us up in Marrakech and we drove to the airport to meet the two other travelers who would be joining us on the trip. I thought: “who else could be stupid enough to book this trip in the summer, and during Ramadan when our guides will be driving us around without consuming any food or water? It must be another American.” Sure enough, we soon met Libby, from the USA and her boyfriend Rob from Germany.
We had two tour guides- one named Hossein who didn’t speak English but did all the driving (he was an extremely safe driver which made us feel very comfortable considering we were in the car driving for 7 to 11 hours per day), and Ali who did speak English and knows everything about Morocco. They both grew up in the same small town in the desert near where our tour was headed.
Day 1: we drove out of Marrakech through the high Atlas mountains and stopped for lunch in Ait Benhaddou. This Kasbah is still the home of about 8 families but used to belong all to one guy with a zillion wives (I’m sure that’s historically accurate, you’re welcome). It’s on an old caravan route between the Sahara desert and Marrakech. The town is built on a hill and structured so that all the town’s valuables/produce, etc would be stored in one structure at the very top of the hill, with a 360 degree view of the area. Ait Benhaddou is still used as the backdrop for various movies (Gladiator is probably the most famous) and is located just outside of Ouarzazate, nicknamed ‘Gateway to the Desert’ and home of a major filming studio- Atlas Studios.
Kasbah structures are made of clay and straw, with bamboo roofing. It works great in the desert where it doesn’t rain and Ali mentioned these structures would last 100 years before needing to get refurbished.
We continued on through the Valley of Roses- the locals here determined where their farmland ended and the next one began by planting roses as the property line. These roses only bloom for about a month each year, between April and May, and at harvest time there is a big festival and people attend from miles around.
After a long day in and out of the car, we slept the first night in the Dades Gorge, which was a cool 91 degrees.
Day 2: We drove to another gorge, Todra Gorge, on through the Sahara, and to Merzouga at the end of the road.
We arrived in Merzouga and hopped on our camels. Actually, I made that sound too easy. When camels stand up they pitch you forward and back again and we were instructed to lean back as they were standing so we didn’t get tossed over the camel’s head. Ali and Hossein said ‘see ya, suckers!’ and left us with our Berber hosts to trek into camp for the night.
Turns out, riding a camel is extremely uncomfortable. And we were only on the camels for about an hour and a half each way! It took a while to get used to it- our camels were the most steady going uphill, but I always thought they were going to topple over in the sliding sand on downhills. When we asked our Berber host whether people fall ever fall off he said “yes.” But then he elaborated, explaining that it was mostly their fault- by letting go of the saddle handle to take photos or something. By the way, it’s nearly impossible to get a good photo on a moving camel.
We arrived at camp and were shown to our tents. It was hot, as expected. Almost as unbearable as Houston. But way better than Houston.
Our Berber hosts made us an amazing Tagine meal and we spent time re-hydrating, stargazing, hearing Berber riddles (how do you get a camel into a fridge in three steps? Anyone?) and playing drums.
After a hot night of 1/3 sleep, 1/3 heat stroke, and 1/3 concern about various desert bugs, we awoke to make the trek back to Merzouga.
This happened to be the end of Ramadan (Eid Mubarak!) so Hossein and Ali could eat and hydrate again for our long drive back to Marrakech. All in all, it was a wonderful trip.