I fell in love with Marrakech, it is so romantic and the food is amazing, but I wanted the Wandering Kiwi family to go on a Morocco desert adventure. It felt important to me to get out of the city that has become in part a tourist town and see something of the rest of the Morocco during our week-long visit.
There are two places where tours take travellers to see the Moroccan desert, on two or three-day adventures from Marrakech. Erg Chebbi is the long-established contender while Erg Chegaga is a more recent addition. I wasn’t sure which to choose until I read this useful blog post and talked to the Desert Candles tour company.
Ultimately the Erg Chegaga option was the most appealing. It is 45 kilometres from the nearest road, in the Sahara. Nomadic people still dwell there and this area still retains some of the charm of the real desert.
We took the road to Ouzarzarte in our 4X4 Landcruiser, getting to know Abdellah our guide, as we passed rows of pencil pines and palm trees, and the plush golf courses and villas of the Palmeraie.
As we climbed into the Atlas Mountains the hills became thickly forested with evergreen conifers that harbour wild boar. The road winds through green and red ranges, following the stony river with its brown trickle of water.
There are mud brick villages, the same colour as the hills, with silver olives and the square, single minarets of Moroccan mosques. Oleanders grow here beside the river, and prickly pears bowing under their load of fruit. Even what looks like a puddle of water seems to sustain small crops. In one valley there are orchards of apple trees and there are signs for cooperatives working in Morocco’s famous argan oil industry.
The wind whipped through the ravines when we stop for a coffee break. Gradually the landscape becomes more desert-like; incredibly dry, with dust-devils swirling. There are fewer and fewer toeholds of green but blue mountains are rising on the horizon.
After Ouzazarte the land is dry as far as the eye can see, the hills marked with great swirls and striations of sedimentary rock; monumental, table-topped peaks.
We climbed up to a pass with magnificent views through rocky gorges; rock struck through with patterns that look like the work of a divine artist. Then it was down the winding road to the beginning of the fabled Draa Valley.
I saw the green haze from far away. A vast ocean of waving palm trees under a lowering sky. The Draa strikes through the land for a thousand kilometres: all the way to the Sahara and then on through the desert to its rendezvous with the Atlantic Ocean.
Since ancient times agricultural communities have cultivated the rich soil of the river valley to grow dates. Close up the lush green contrasts dramatically with the bright reds of the fruit and yellow stalks.
Beneath the trees, overlooked by dramatic Mount Kissane, people till the soil for crops, women walk carrying baskets on their heads, and donkeys complain under loads that obscure them nearly completely. Beside some road works I saw a silver platter with a teapot and glasses – it’s always time for Moroccan mint tea.
The Draa Valley begins 150 miles south-east of Marrakesh, over the Atlas Mountains, and travels 160 miles to where it enters the Sahara near the oasis village of M’hamid. Here agricultural communities have cultivated the rich soil and dwelt in towered kasbahs amid a sea of waving date palm trees for millenia.
The towered kasbahs are walled berber villages that were once resting places along the caravan trail between the Mediterranean and faraway Timbuktu. The traditional four towers were used for security and food storage.
At last we reached Ait Benhaddou, probably the world’s most famous Kasbah. A local guide showed us this spectacular hill town and even welcomed us into the traditional home of his family. We walked up to the high point of the village and posed against the rising wind. Maybe rain is coming. This stark beauty has been well utilised as the backdrop in hundreds of films and there are two large movie lots nearby.
We stopped for the night at the magical Riad Lemane in the town of Zagora. This beautiful riad is set in a garden overhung by the palm groves. The room is comfortable and spacious but we couldn’t enjoy the lovely pool because the earlier wind storm had indeed presaged rain. It was pouring steadily and under our feet the desert was turning into churning mud! A delicious meal and a good night’s sleep were just what we needed.
On day two of our Moroccan desert adventure we crossed the valley and continued to Tamegroute, where we stopped to watch the creation of Morocco’s famous ceramic wares.
We drove on through blackened, basalt-shard steppes scattered with thorny acacia trees. The backdrop was the buttresses of the Madwar range. The land looks even less hospitable than yesterdays views but it has a blasted magnificence that kept me mesmerised.
There would be nothing but the occasional goat herd and his flock for miles and then suddenly, in the middle of nowhere would be a modern building – a high school – with ranks of bicycles lined up outside. Students must remain at school in Morocco until they are 18 these days and the teenagers cycle from surrounding villages to attend.
The settlement of M’Hamid is the end of the road and the beginning of the true desert. Where the sand dunes rise high, shaped into waves by the wind.
The Wandering Kiwi family ran and climbed in the dunes and my daughter gathered up her courage and rode on a camel.
We ate a delicious meal prepared seemingly by magic in this isolated place, and listened to the infectious rhythms of Sahrawi music into the night. We had our Sahara desert experience.
But more importantly, on this trip I felt like I had been given a glimpse of the real Morocco.
Seen the colour of the landscape change from red to black, to green, and back to red again; seen the children going to school and the ancient agriculture that is the backbone of the land. Felt a little of the rugged isolation and harsh environment of this beautiful country.
A perfect example of how the journey is more important than the destination.
On the return journey the river valleys were churning with brown water. The landscape was transformed. It will be a good year for the farmers of the Draa.
By Natasha von Geldern
I travelled to the Sahara in Morocco with Desert Candles, a Moroccan/Norwegian partnership tour company. Desert Candles offer a wide range of tours and the Morocco desert adventure we chose was the three-day, two-night trip to their luxury desert camp at Erg Chegaga costs €245 per person.
Have you experienced a Morocco desert adventure?
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