A Road Trip to the Gateway of the Sahara

The sun painted the golden sand in beauteous shades of bright orange and gentle pink. My scarf protected my head, shielding it from the fieriness of the midday sun. We travelled through the Erg Chebbi dunes at a desert pace. My legs dangled on each sides of his rib cage, 6 feet from the yellow sea of sand. He wasn’t the cushiest ride, but I couldn’t criticize – I was the one sitting on his back. His hoofs softly brushed the sun-scorched sand. His lashes were lengthy and thick. Sometimes he’d turn towards 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. 

When my mom announced she’d meet me in Morocco after I completed my volunteering program, I was eager to explore the rest of the country with her. My mother is my favourite travelling partner – cultivated, wordly and well-travelled, she always seeks the best ways to fully immerse in local culture. At 63 years old, she was ready to jump on local buses, eat from street stalls, ride a dromedary through the desert and even try camel milk. Since I already covered the Northern part of the country, including Rabat, Fes, and Chefchaouen, we decided to meet in Marrakech. My mom had already been to Morocco before and didn’t want me to leave the country before I visited the Great South. So, after a detour to Essaouira, we headed south and embarked on a 5-day road trip through the High Atlas Mountains, all the way to the gateway of the Sahara Desert.

Day 1: Marrakech to Zagora

We could have rented a car and done the drive ourselves since the roads are well-maintained and fairly easy to navigate. But to be able to safely make the most of this trip, we chose to hire a local driver. We met Hocine, a young, knowledgeable and hard working Berber who was going to chauffeur us on our journey to Ouarzazate.

We left Marrakech early in the morning and headed south towards Zagora. The two Kasbahs we visited were as impressive 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.

As we travelled through the High Atlas Mountains, Hocine explained that the name Berber was attributed to the oldest known inhabitants of the Barbary Coast of North Africa. The term comes from the Greek bárbaros, used to refer to any foreigner, and which is the root of the derogatory term barbarian. He continued informing that Berbers prefer to call themselves Imazighen, which means “Free People” in the indigenous Tamazight language.

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 through a Star Wars decor. We had absolutely no control of our animal, had left all of our belongings in the car (requested to only bring the essential) and put all our trust in this courteous young boy. What was thought to be a 20-minute camel ride ended up being an hour journey through the lunar landscape into the darkness of the night. We finally arrived at the bivouac, nervously laughing about what had just happened and slightly relieved we made it safely to camp. We were invited to join fellow travellers sitting by the campfire. Tea was served and conversations were shared with the Imazighen. A delicious couscous was prepared then served in the main tent. There were chantings and dancing around the bonfire, feet in the sand while the moon slowly climbed into the starry sky.

Day 2: Sunrise camel trek in Zagora

When Ismael whispered “it’s time” at the door of our tent, it wasn’t even 6am yet. There was no time to sleep in or snooze for an other 15. We had to go. I put on my hoodie, wrapped my scarf around my neck and grabbed my camera. Barefeet, I left the tent and climbed the dune ahead. Fellow early risers 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 sea of sand, I perceived the mountains standing. And there it was, between two rocky peaks: the first rays of the sun, penetrating the blue morning light.

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

Day 3: Entering the gateway of the Sahara in Mergouza

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

We arrived on time at the bivouac for 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 and ran with all I could to the peak of the highest dune ahead, eager to finally witness one of the most impressive sunsets. I’ve seen a lot of setting suns, over oceans, mountains, and cities. But I was new to this upcoming spectacle. I patiently waiting while admiring a sea of seemingly endless sand dunes. 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.

Beautifully knitted Imazighen carpets were placed on the sand in front of each tent. A short table was placed on top, with cushions at its sides and 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. Candel light dinner in the middle of the desert in the comfort of the cushiony sand and under a shimmering African sky.

After dinner, I raced Hocine to the top of the dune nearby. We sat at the top on the cool sand and contemplated the dazzling display of shooting stars. A mesmerizing starry sky in the Greater Sahara.

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

Watching the sun rise over the desert was the perfect way to start the day. 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 started to ache. I couldn’t even swallow a sip of water. Every turn made me feel even more nauseous. The worse part was that, being a woman, I wasn’t allowed in any bathrooms along the way. When we finally made it to our guesthouse, I retired to the room for the night. While my mom was dining solo downstairs, sharing my sickness with fellow travellers, I was 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, we were brought to a Imazighen women carpet factory where our guide strongly encouraged us to purchase a product, making us feel incredibly uncomfortable in the eyes of the hardworking women. I’ve heard the song before. I try my best to support the local communities when I’m abroad and encourage merchants more than I can probably afford. I respectfully declined his offers. 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! Situations like that unfortunately happen often when travelling in foreign countries where tourism has a challenging impact on locals. Best we can do is stay kind while standing our ground… and if you give up, that souvenir will be attached to a laughable (by then) story.

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 breathtaking 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 was at the Atlas Studio where many Hollywood and famous movies were 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 such an informative, safe and attentionate chauffeur and we wish him all the best. It’s been a great adventure here in the Great South of Morocco and am so fortunate I got to share this incredible experience with my mother.

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For more information about the excursion and trips similar to this one, check out Click Excursion.