Sand Castles, Golden Dunes & Camel Love

The sun painted the sand a peachy light, at times switching to rosy stripes. My scarf protected my head, shielding the sun and the midday fieriness. My legs dangled on each sides of his ribs, 6 feet from the sandfield. He wasn’t the most cushy ride, but I couldn’t criticize, I was the one sitting on his back. His hoofs softly brushed the golden sand. His lashes were lengthy and thick, mighty and majestic. Sometimes he would turn at me, requesting a scratch on his long wool neck. His name was Africa. An athletic and elegant 21-year-old dromedary, worker of the desert people.

When my mom announced she would meet with me in Morocco, I was overly excited at the idea of travelling with such a cultivated and well-travelled woman. At 63 years old, she was ready to jump on local buses, eat from street stalls, ride a camel through the desert and get lost in the chaotic Arab country. A few years earlier, she travelled solo, within an organized group, to Morocco where she experienced it all. She didn’t want me to leave the country without seeing the Great South so, after travelling Marrakech and Essaouira together, we jumped into a 5 day road trip through the High Atlas Mountains, all the way to the entrance of the Sahara Desert.

We could have rented a car and done the drive ourselves, since the roads are well maintained, it is easy to navigate and traffic fairly makes sense. But we treated ourselves with a driver, to avoid confusion, save time and get to know more about the country from a resident’s perspective. We met Hocine, a young Berber who was going to chauffeur us on our journey aboard a spacious and comfortable wagon.

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Day 1: The Road to Ouarzazate

We left Marrakech early this morning and headed south towards Ouarzazate. The two Kasbahs we visited didn’t impressed me as much as the drive itself. The winding road through the Atlas was stunning, with earthy mountains and vast dunes forming the view, and a variety of fruit trees such as olives, oranges, lemons, dates and figs colouring the lunar landscape. Berger and their goats were seen climbing the mountains in search of a meal, accidentally throwing rocks on the paved road. I glimpsed at men travelling long distances on donkeys, artists selling handmade pottery and crafts and vendors selling fossils and mineral rocks from the Atlas.

We arrived in Zagora where Ismael, our 16-year-old chamelier, guided us through the obscurity of the night. Aboard our own camels, we ventured to what seemed to be a space odyssey through a lunar sandfield. We had no control on our animal, had left all our belongings in the car (requested to only bring the essential) and put all our trust in this boy. What was thought to be a 20 min camel ride ended up being an hour journey through the darkest night. We finally arrived at the bivouac, where we laughed about what just happened, glad we made it safe. We were invited to join fellow travellers sitting on the sand. Tea was served and conversations were shared with the Berber. A delicious couscous was prepared then served in the main tent.  There were chanting and dancing around the bonfire, feet in the sand while the moon slowly climbed into the darkness.

Day 2: Sunrise camel trek in Zagora

When Ismael whispered “it’s time” at the door of our tent, it wasn’t 6am yet. There was no possibility to sleep in or snooze for an other 15. It was time. I put on my hoodie, wrapped my scarf around my neck and grabbed my camera. Barefoot I left the tent and climbed the dune ahead. Fellow early rising companions were sitting atop the dune, blankets around their shoulders, camera on tripod ready for action. I looked at the horizon. At the end of this terrain of sand, stood the mountains. And there it was. The first ray of the sun, penetrating the blue morning light.

We cameled back to our vehicle as the sun slowly reached up to the sky. We were relieved to see Hocine, along with all our belongings. Back into the car and en route to Mergouza.

Day 3: Entering the door of the Sahara in Mergouza

I got introduced to Africa.  Entering the doors of the Sahara, we embarked on a scenic and pleasant 2 hour journey through the silent dunes of Erg Chebbi.

We arrived on time at the bivouac for the sunset. I jumped off Africa’s back, feet landing in the cool shaded sand. I scratched his head as a thankful gesture, also giving him a slight break from the resting flies on his face.

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I challenged myself in a race against time towards the highest dune ahead. I wanted to be a spectator of the most impressive sunset. I’ve seen a lot of setting suns, over oceans, mountains, cities and landscapes. Therefore, I was still a virgin of this upcoming spectacle. Sitting atop this challenged dune, the sand slowly cooling off underneath my feet, I admired a sea of seemingly endless sand dunes: quiet, scenic, majestic. The scarf that once protected my head soon covered my shoulders. The sun slowly disappeared behind the dunes, cooling the air and leaving room for the moon to take over the sky.

Berber carpets were placed on the sand in front of each tent. A short table was placed on top, with cushions at its sides. handmade blankets for extra comfort. Dinner was cooked and served by the chameliers on each table. A delicious traditional couscous paired with an authentic Moroccan mint tea. Romantic candlelit dinner in the middle of the desert, in the comfort of the cushiony sand, under a shimmering African sky.

Day 4: Todra Gorge in Tinerhir and the Road of the Thousand Kasbahs

Watching the sun rise over a sea of sand dunes was revitalizing. I jumped on Africa and we took the road back to civilization.

On our way to Tinerhir to go explore the Todgha Gorge. My stomach is upset and I can’t even swallow a sip of water. While my mom is dining solo downstairs, sharing my sickness with fellow travellers, I am stuck in bed with the worst dizziness. If it wasn’t for the kindness of the guesthouse host bringing me a Vervaine tea and some rice, I would’ve not eaten in 3 days. I managed to rest, have one bite of rice and magically finished the tea. The next morning I was welcomed by everyone in the dining room, asking how I felt. Thanks mom!

Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding and language barrier between our guide, our driver and us, we ended up skipping the Gorge, at my greatest disappointment. Instead, and little did we know, we were brought to a Berber women carpet factory where our guide strongly forced us to purchase a product, making us feel bad towards the hard work of women. I’ve been travelling Morocco for 6 weeks now and I’ve heard the song before. I have already did my part and I hate when people see us as travelling banks. I friendly told him that I came to volunteer in Morocco. He understood right away that my finances weren’t similar as a wealthy European traveller. However, he turned to my mom who felt so bad that she ended up buying an expensive piece of carpet that she’ll never use. Oh mom! Things like that unfortunately happen when travelling in foreign countries where tourism has a challenging impact on locals. We were very disappointed in not seeing the gorge, but at this point it is what it is.

We headed west on the “Road of the thousand Kasbahs”, a spectacular drive along desert landscapes, snow-capped mountains and palm groves. We also stopped in El Kelaa M’gouna, the “Valley of the Roses”, to grab rose water spray bottles, which made for great presents to bring home.

Day 5: Wrapping up in Ouarzazate

I felt like I froze up in time when I entered the 11th century Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou. The walls made of red mudbrick formed a labyrinth of inhabited homes, souvenir stalls and view points. While most residents now live in a more modern village at the other end of the river, 8 families still inhabit this fortified city.

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Last stop is at the Atlas Studio where many Hollywood and famous movies have been filmed. We walked through the impressive decor, fighting the gusty sandy wind.

Back in Marrakesh, we thank Hocine and generously tip him. He’s been a helpful and attentionate chauffeur and we wish him the best. It’s been a great adventure here in the Great South of Morocco and am so fortunate I got to share this amazing experience with my mother.

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For more information about the excursions, check out www.clickexcursions.com

2 responses to “Sand Castles, Golden Dunes & Camel Love

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