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Morocco: Into to the Sahara

Experience the ethereal beauty of the Sahara desert on a hardy trek, where the sand dunes are smooth and flawless against a brilliant blue sky and, by night, there’s a phenomenal blanket of stars

Morocco: Into to the Sahara
Sunset at the dunes. Image: Julian McLean

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Several years ago, I was lying on the floor of the Australian desert, wrapped in a swag and basking in the moonlight beneath a mesmerising sky of stars. There was a clutch of travellers, a guide and cook. And then there was Byron, a Swede with a whisker-like moustache and floppy hair who liked to ask questions and quizzed me on my favourite spots around the world. “This is pretty spectacular,” I replied, among the dry dunes and clear-as-glass skies.

“Desert, eh?” He smirked and stretched his arms towards the sky. “If you want to see a sky like this again, go to the Sahara. It’s pretty special — you’ll see,” he said.

And so I find myself outside a roadside cafe in Morocco. I’ve crossed the towering Atlas Mountains to the edge of this strange and spectacular desert, stretching across most of North Africa for a bamboozling 3,600,000 square miles, and I’ve joined a group of six travellers for a four-day trek.

As I hop up the steps of the cafe, past thick slabs of ribs hanging from the ceiling and piles of offal, local men pause from chomping on huge portions of meat to stare; others suck on rolled-up cigarettes in between mouthfuls of bread and tomatoes, while an aged chap with deep wrinkles etched into his face picks at his teeth with his fingernails.

I’m ushered upstairs to a smaller room and served sugary sweet mint tea as I perch on a couple of mottled green and red cushions. The cold bites at my toes and fingers; winter is in full swing here in Morocco.

“OK, so this is the plan,” enthuses Hamid, my upbeat guide. He carefully unfolds a map and spreads it out among the tea glasses, smoothing his palm down the creases. He circles the route with his finger: “We’ll walk for around six hours a day, maybe 10 to 15 miles a day.” He taps on a small red dot: “This is where we enter the desert,” he says, conspiratorially, a smile creeping into the corner of his mouth. “And this is where the fun begins,” he winks.

It had been a long drive from Marrakech to our starting point — an eight-hour schlep across the Atlas Mountains to the town of Ouarzazate and then through the desolate Draa Valley. We drive past lonely rusty red houses, their owners perched outside, surrounded by shelves of tagines and brightly coloured plates for sale; solitary walkers, pulling on the lead of a donkey; and the surreal sight of Egyptian statues at Atlas Film Studios — where blockbuster movies, including Babel, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Alexander were filmed.

Our destination is the small town of Ouled Driss, pitted on the Sahara’s edge, laced with date palms and surrounded by small dunes. There’s little to it — a small market, a clutch of hotels, several travel agents. We’re here merely to bed down for the night in a fixed camp.

I wake the next morning at the sound of my alarm and groan as I glance at the time: 6.30am. Slowly I slip on my walking gear and bang my boots against the dusty floor — a large scorpion had been inches from my bed the night before.

The early morning air is cool and calm. I find my group eating salty porridge and bread and jam. Out the corner of my eye, I spot our five camels being loaded up with tents, stoves and supplies; their beautiful long eyelashes casting shadows across their imperious faces.

“Camels and their owners have a special bond,” Hamid later tells me. “You can’t just walk over and stroke one like a horse, they don’t like it.” He teasingly ruffles the head of one and quickly jumps out of its firing line.

The trek starts gently on flat scrubland and any signs of civilisation soon fade away. For now, there’s virtually nothing to see but orange-tinted plateaux and solitary thorn trees. And then there’s me, my fellow walkers and the camels. Miles away, are the dunes in the haze. At first specks on the horizon, they soon come into focus, smooth and flawless against a brilliant blue sky. Chatter ceases and a contented silence descends and as I walk, my thoughts sweep restlessly, until the grumbles from my stomach form images of buttery crumpets and huge mugs of tea in my mind.

Ahead, I spot our cook and one of the camel handlers wrestling with the kitchen tent that’s billowing in the breeze. We settle beneath a spindly tree, away from the sun’s rays that have quickly intensified over the morning, and to my horror, everyone begins to comment on the harsh red line that’s appeared on my neck. I swig from my water bottle and slap some of the cool liquid on my forehead, beaming as it spirals down my neck. The four-hour walk thus far had been a flat one, but with the temperature around the high twenties, I’m soon tinged with a layer of sweat and sand.

Morocco - Kouttoubia mosque at sunset.

Kouttoubia mosque at sunset. Image: David Bardsley

Nomadic guide
I always knew deserts were inhospitable, but to feel it and breathe it — the heat, the parched plains, the emptiness — well, it’s mind-boggling. It’s not just the sand in every orifice. Nor is it the lack of shade and intense sun. It’s that Hamid, astonishingly, isn’t using GPS, in a landscape which is unbroken, perpetual and seemingly infinite. It all looks the same. Although he didn’t grow up in the desert, he’s traversed these paths time and time again, and somehow navigates us from camp to camp with the ease of a desert ant. These insects, I learn, travel around a third of a mile from their nesting sites to search for food, finding their way using polarised light patterns as well as counting their steps.

That evening at Sidi Naji, a shrine for nomad tribes — that’s 15 miles or so ticked off — I grill Hamid. “Are you sure you’re not hiding a GPS device in your pocket,” I ask him bluntly.

He giggles but flatly denies it. I try another tack.

“If I was to suddenly lose you guys, what three survival tips would you give me?” I thought it was a good question. Hamid tosses back his head and laughs. “Phone me,” he cackles. “It’s your only chance.”

As dusk descends on camp, shadows run like ink across the dunes and it’s not long before I’m in the thick of darkness, with just the faint glow of the kitchen tent to guide me. Nights in the desert are at times, beautiful, beneath a phenomenal blanket of stars; at others, sinister, wrapped in an impenetrable, empty silence. Even a little trip to the toilet (a hole in the ground) is a little adventure — I’ve never felt so far from home. Snuggled in my sleeping bag that night, I ponder the question: how many miles am I from the nearest village, hotel, wi-fi hotspot? I’ve still got one bar of phone signal — and that’ll disappear tomorrow.

I discover why people pick desert treks for charity challenges the following day. Flat plateaux had given way to the great dunes of Zahar — they’re the dunes of your imagination; perfect orange mounds that rise and fall like coral-coloured waves.

Climbing them is as tough as you’d expect. I feel the murmur of the earth turning under my feet as I ascend, and my boots drown under the weight of the sand bringing a flush to my face. I pause on the ridge, my water bottle sitting greasy and heavy in my palm. I can hear the faint pulse of my heart. We’re working ourselves up for the ‘big one’; our aim for the day is to climb one of the highest in the region — Erg Ez-Zahar at around 300m high — before sunset.

On the approach she looks like a huge overripe peach, her surface rippled and imperfect. Hamid takes the lead and navigates her ridge. We plod in unison, heads down and grimacing as our leg muscles ache. Breathing hard, I reach the top and we slump down in a line on the summit, basking in our admiration. I blink as the wind puffs sand into my face, unable to comprehend the size of this magnificent desert; from my sandy seat there’s just dune after dune in every direction, as far as the eye can see.

The sun drops and we half fall, half scramble down to camp where a meal of rice and cooked vegetables awaits. The summit of Erg Ez is now a black silhouette, illuminated by moonlight filtering through broken clouds.

As the evening draws in, the light breezes intensify. I feel utterly alone in my tent that night, head perched on my fleece and knees bent towards my chin. Outside, there’s an incessant flapping of tent ropes and as the seconds, minutes, or hours creep on — all sense of time has left me — the wind ferociously picks up. At times, the walls of my tent are  blown inwards, pressing into my face, and my sleep is littered with sudden moments of wide-awake panic and absurd notions I’ll be buried alive. The sweats come and go. Will my tent collapse? Is that a camel breathing hard outside the tent? I huddle into my fleece, burying my ears in the palms of my hands to shut out the noise.

Morocco: Rescue arrives.

Rescue arrives. Image: David Bardsley

The sand awaits
I awake to the stirrings of breakfast. The stillness is a revelation — there’s not a whisper of wind. “Morning.” I try to sound chirpy and immediately reach for the caffeine.

“Did everyone sleep well?” It seems I wasn’t the only one to have had a bad night. But a lack of sleep does nothing to stave off our determination, however, and before long we’re trudging up the orange ridges once again, my feet labouring inside the folds of sand. Beneath the wide basin of the sky, the dunes appear like forlorn giants buried in the sand.

I munch on some dates and plonk on my headscarf and sunglasses as the wind, once more, whips up into a frenzy. We didn’t know it at that point, but we were about to trek into the midst of a huge sandstorm.

It came on gradually. I pull my headscarf tighter around my face and narrow my eyes, attempting to shield them from the aggressive torrents of dust by holding up my hands and arms. Talking becomes almost impossible without hoovering up a mouthful of sand, and we plod on, eyes fixed on the ground — neither looking left nor right — fumbling through the storm. With nowhere to shelter, the best we can do is stick close together and keep walking; it would be easy to lose sight of Hamid and the group, enveloped in blurred clouds of dust.

I recall a story I was told by a fellow traveller. Having been caught in a sandstorm, his guide instructed him to lie on the floor, cover his face with his arms and backpack and wait it out. He was there for 10 hours. It’s not very reassuring.

Suddenly up ahead, Hamid pipes up excitedly, shouting at us above the savage call of the wind, “Shelter, straight ahead. Go, go, go!” Feeling a rush of relief, I stagger and run towards what looks like a makeshift shed and collapse in a heap on the stone floor. I want to laugh hysterically. I throw my scarf and glasses off, wiping the sand that’s encrusted around my eyelids and nostrils. I take a selfie — I’m the filthiest I’ve ever been, my face a dirty orange, like a bad fake tan. “What the hell just happened there, then?” I say, bemused.

“This is one of the worst sandstorms I’ve ever seen — the winds are off the scale,” says Hamid, his eyes crinkled. “We cannot walk to camp tonight — there’s no way we could even put the tents up. I’ll have to phone for the 4WDs to rescue us.”

We sit with bewildered smiles, bemused at our being holed up in what’s effectively a white shed in the Sahara. Graffiti smears the walls and mounds of sand litter the ground. I settle into a pile, moulding the sand to fit my body and have a snooze. Outside, the wind screams like a thunderstorm.

I awake to the group chatting in soothing tones, though I have the uneasy sense we might have to stay here all night. That is, until around six hours later, I hear the growl of an engine.

“The cars are here,” shouts Hamid, and scooping up our belongings, we dash into the 4WDs, scrunching our eyes. We’re a day’s walk from our finishing point, the fixed camp at Ouled Driss, which is just a couple of hours by car, and our journey flits between moments of thoughtful silence and overwhelmed giggling as we fly across the desert — once again navigated through thick clouds of sand by local drivers with their seemingly innate map of the land.

The Sahara is astounding, challenging, humbling. It’s one of those places that reminds us how tiny we are, of how the world dwarfs us. And even now, as if to remind me, I still find grains of sand in socks and shoes and suitcase edges.

Essentials

Getting there
British Airways flies from Gatwick and Heathrow to Marrakech. EasyJet flies from Gatwick and Manchester, Ryanair flies from Luton and Stansted, while Royal Air Maroc flies via Casablanca from Heathrow.
Average flight time: 4h.

 

Getting around
Ouled Driss, a town on the edge of the Sahara, is around eight hours’ drive from Marrakech. Numerous operators within Morocco can arrange private cars or minibuses. Expect to pay hire car €20-30 (£16-24) per day; 4WD car and driver €120-150 (£96-120) per day; grande taxi (shared) €15-20 (£12-16).

 

When to go
Treks into the desert run from October to May, when (winter) daytime temperatures are a more pleasant 20-25C.

 

Need to know
Currency: Moroccan dirham (MAD). £1 = 14 MAD.
Health: Make sure your general vaccines and boosters are up to date.
Time difference: GMT+1.
International dial code: 00 212.

 

More info
The Rough Guide to Morocco. RRP: £16.99.

 

How to do it
KE Adventure’s seven-night Edge of Sahara trek costs from £495 per person, including two nights in a hotel in Marrakech, two nights at the fixed camp in Ouled Driss, three nights wild camping, all meals, guides, camels, drivers and transport. Excludes international flights. keadventure.com


 

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Published in the September issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)