Morocco: Quest for the Sahara

November 1999


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Time was drifting by and it was now the middle of the afternoon. It was unlikely that we would get anywhere near Merzouga today. Travelling in a group of five had one main advantage; we never had to wait long for a grand taxi to depart. When we walked into the taxi station at the western end of town we found a taxi and didn't have to wait long for one more passenger, before we were on our way again.

The road followed the Oued Dades, which formed a shallow valley between the High Atlas Mountains towering over us to the west and the lower Jebel Sarhro, a range of rocky volcanic hills to the east. We drove at speed through Skoura and Boumaine du Dades, past the Dades gorge. The tarred road was becoming ever narrower until it was only wide enough for one and a half vehicles. The journey became a game of chicken, careering towards the on coming traffic and only at the last minute pulling over on to the rough verge of the road, kicking up stones and a cloud of dust in our wake. By dusk we arrived in Tinerhir, which today would be journeys end. Tinerhir is a small town, two main streets with the bus station at one end and the taxi station at the other and a park between the two streets fenced off from the public by a wall and white railings. As we stepped out of the taxi and realised that we would be going no further this evening we went in search for a suitable hotel for the night. After walking down to the bus station and down a couple of side streets we decided on staying at the Hotel L'Oasis on the main street, Avenue Mohammed V. It was now dark and the place looked pleasant enough from the road with a restaurant downstairs and a patio. The price was reasonable enough too, and we were led through a door at the back of the hotel to what I can only describe as a prison block.

We consoled ourselves by saying we were only staying for a night and tomorrow morning we would be back on the road. One night here would not break us. The rooms, or should I say cells, stretched down a concrete corridor. Each room was uniform with just one small window, which looked back out on to the corridor rather than the outside world.

It was a great hotel to leave early in the morning. Negotiating for a taxi to take us to Rissani, the town at the end of the road on the edge of the Sahara Desert, was more problematic than we at first imagined. Little did we know then that this would be the easiest part of the journey. It seemed to be a problem for the taxi drivers to go to Rissani. They claimed if they went there they would have to come back with an empty taxi, as they would not be able to find any passengers in Rissani. Whether this was because no one from Rissani ever came to Tinerhir or because of some complicated licensing system for the taxis that prevented a taxi from Tinerhir picking up passengers in Rissani, I could not work out. We stood at the taxi station huddled in a group; the drivers leaned against a car running their little cartel. I would go and approach the drivers to negotiate a fare for the five of us and then walk back to our little group to report on their offer. This continued for some time walking back and forth between the two groups trying to hammer out a deal which would suit all of us. Unfortunately this was a small town and there was solidarity amongst the drivers. They knew that we had no option but to pay what they asked for if we wanted to get to Rissani quickly. I was in the opinion that we were in a strong negotiating position as there were five of us. Eventually I had to resign to the fact that faced with these drivers, no one would ever be in a strong position.

In the end we settled for a fare almost twice what we expected to pay; the logic behind this was that we had to pay for the empty taxi to return to Tinerhir. Okay, I admit it, we were ripped off; it happens.

About two hours later we arrived in Rissani, quickly renamed by us as Hell, the town at the end of the road. It was market day and the town was a chaotic mass of people. Before the taxi even reached a stop the hustlers were chasing us down the road shouting the infamous words, 'you want taxi Berber?' We stopped in a small parking lot along the main street. You could hardly move for the other taxis trying to depart and people milling around. I thought to myself; so the driver won't find anyone here going to Tinerhir. The realisation of the Tinerhir drivers hustle sunk home. We stepped out of the taxi to more shouts of, 'you want taxi Berber?' and before we knew what had happened we found ourselves sitting in a carpet shop waiting for this infamous taxi Berber. Half an hour later there was no sign of any taxi and we had managed to shrug off the hard sell on carpets; it's really quite easy when you have absolutely no intention of making a purchase. As the drinks arrived I'm afraid we declined and left. I wouldn't have trusted this man as far as I could throw him; the last thing we wanted to do was accept hospitality from a man we didn't trust and obviously had many other intentions than the simple task of arranging a taxi.

As we walked down the main street through the crowds we could hear his shouts in the distance, which we ignored. We had decided we would take control of this situation and arrange our own transport across the desert to Merzouga. How difficult could it be to arrange a taxi?

The answer was, very difficult. We talked to other drivers but no one seemed to want to leave for a couple of hours or so. We finally arranged to charter a taxi just for ourselves to go to Merzouga. We thought that we had finally solved our transport problems and loaded our luggage into the back of the van and climbed aboard. We drove slowly out of the square, winding our way through the crowds and made our way at a snails pace along the road. After five minutes it became apparent that we were taking a circular route through the town and ten minutes later we arrived back in the square, which we had just departed from. The driver turned off the engine, jumped out and walked away disappearing into the crowd without a word of explanation.

That was enough; we unloaded our luggage and sat down in the square almost resigning to our failure to escape out of this hellhole of a town. Another hustler, whom we had already tried negotiating with, found us sitting there looking rather forlorn. He told us that his taxi would be leaving in about half an hour and pointed to his transit van parked on the opposite side of the square. We agreed on a fare and sat and waited. We no longer had the energy or patience to deal with any more taxi touts.

At nearly three o clock that afternoon we saw about half a dozen other passengers appear by the van with the driver and load up their luggage. We hiked across the square and once again loaded our bags into the back of the van. After being stuck in this town for almost three hours, we were finally on our way once again. We wound our way out of the square and back down the same road we had travelled on our earlier doomed expedition. This time we kept following the road and soon found ourselves travelling along a bumpy dirt road. We past low mud brick buildings at the edge of town surrounded by a few palm trees and fields enclosed by mud brick walls which had been badly eroded over time. The whole town had the feel of decay and neglect. Soon the dirt road ended and we continued travelling across a large flat, rocky desert plateau leaving a billowing cloud of dust behind us. The dust was choking and found its way through every crack, gap and hole in the van. In the far distance we could see the orange sand dunes of the Sahara spilling down onto this rugged plateau.

The trip of about 30km took the best part of an hour. I was quietly impressed with the driver's navigation skills at finding Merzouga out in this featureless desert. There were no landmarks or signposts out here, just a network of tyre tracks criss-crossing the desert in all directions.

Merzouga is a small place, just a collection of one-storey mud brick houses, all in uniform colour. To the west the desert plateau stretched in to the distance back towards Rissani and on the doorstep to the east the Sahara dunes; they were not dunes, they were hills. I have never seen sand dunes this size before, the highest ones must have been between 150 and 200m high. The town was quiet, no traffic, no crowds and no noise. Some children played in small groups along the road. The only vehicle moving was the van, which had just dropped us off, as it made its way out of town. Our backpacks were now covered in a fine layer of dust as we went in search of a guesthouse.

Our plan for the rest of the day was to find a guide and a camel each and trek out into the desert and spend the night sleeping out under the stars. A friendly hotel owner approached us and took us back to his hotel. After our experience of hustlers, touts and conmen in Rissani, we knew immediately that we could trust this man. Back at his hotel, which was arranged around a central courtyard, we sat down and discussed our camel requirements over a glass of mint tea. The itinerary and price were agreed over a further cup of mint tea and half an hour later we could hear our camels complaining in the yard to the front as they were saddled up. We left most of our luggage at the hotel and just loaded up what we needed for the night onto our camels.

In the late afternoon sunshine we mounted our camels and slowly plodded through the town led by our guide. Children standing in doorways waved as our camel-caravan past by. At the northern end of town we took a right turn and climbed up into the dunes leaving the last remnants of civilisation behind us. The hassles of the day at Tinerhir and Rissani became distant memories as we unwound to the rhythm of the desert. It was deeply relaxing meandering our way around and over the dunes. From the top of a dune, as far as you could see, dunes undulated off into the distance. Somewhere out here in this wilderness was the border with Algeria. As the sun edged lower and lower in the sky our shadows stretched out before us silhouetting us against the sand that almost glowed orange in the last golden rays of the setting sun.

It was dark by the time we arrived at a small oasis, which would be our home for the night. During the last half hour of our trek, after the sun had set, the sky turned a dark inky blue. One by one stars began to appear above us and along the horizon to the east. When we dismounted from our beasts you knew that you had been riding a camel for the last two hours. We walked, bandy legged, exploring the oasis by the light of the moon. It was small, with only about four palm trees and some rough ground covered in tussocks of dried grass, set at the base of a giant dune rising above us to the west.

Our guide unsaddled the camels and led them off into the desert for the night while we unrolled a blanket and made ourselves at home. That night our guide cooked us dinner and made us plenty of glasses of sweet mint tea and when his cousin joined us, sang traditional songs with a couple of drums for accompaniment. I lay on my back staring up at the sky watching the constellations slowly rotate, shooting stars leaving their trail across the black sky and satellites as they proceeded in their orbit around the planet. The night sky was a dazzling display of lights; the heavens were alive. It's not often these days that I get the opportunity to view the night sky unpolluted by the glow of man made light. Eventually we fell asleep on the desert floor to the sound of perfect silence.

I woke at about five thirty, the chill of the night air had nudged my consciousness. I stared out of my sleeping bag to the east where the horizon was beginning to get light and start to glow pink. Everyone else was still asleep scattered on the blankets around me. I went and climbed about half way up the giant sand dune and sat there overlooking our camp, watching the sunrise on the horizon far to the east. The desert was so peaceful and quiet; I could not even hear an insect buzzing. After all the noise and bustle of the towns and cities I had passed through, especially Rissani yesterday, this was the perfect tonic to unwind to. Our guide was the next one to wake up and he walked off into the desert to find our camels. As the first rays of sun lit up the surrounding dunes our five camels reappeared, led by our guide back to the oasis.

After a breakfast of bread and date jam, washed down with more mint tea, we loaded up our camels for the trek back to civilisation. Sitting back on a camel again suddenly stirred all the pains from yesterday evening, which had eased overnight. Arriving back in the dusty town of Merzouga I felt spiritually refreshed after my night in the desert and ready to face the day-to-day hassles of travelling. The first of these hassles would be our return to Rissani.

Continue reading this journey: Todra gorge & Marrakesh