Yala, yala! Let’s go, let’s go! Our valiant group of five couples make our way to the 4x4s in the thin dust of a setting sun over the north-western corner of the African continent, Morocco. The road twisted and wound through the High Atlas Mountains, past crumbling kasbahs and goat herders and the most magnificent vistas… the Sahara Desert was calling!
By KERRY FRASER
Our adventure – booked through Ultimate Adventures – began in Marrakesh with the handover of a mixed bag of 4×4’s from the rental agency. Andy and Sonja Johnstone joined Michael Barton and I in a Land Cruiser Prado, with Russell and Joanie Tarr in a Jeep Cherokee. Sander and Stienie Silva were given a Volkswagen Touareg, and Vicky Johnstone and Richard Hayman travelled in a Fiat Fullback double cab. This marked the moment we all learned what we dubbed the ‘Arabic Shuffle’ – wrong car door, erroneous seatbelt-grab, empty handbrake snatch – before setting off in our left-hand drive vehicles on the right-hand side of the road.
Our guide, Khalid, threw us straight into the deep end as we exited the Lé Meridien N’Fis hotel into a roundabout on the main road. From there, we all negotiated the roads remarkably well, scaling the impressive Tizi n‘ Tichkan Pass through the mountains towards lunch in the little village of Telouet, home to the historic and fascinating Kasbah Glaoui. This kasbah – situated along the former route of the caravans from the Sahara over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech – was the seat of the El Glaoui family’s power and is also sometimes called the Palace of Glaoui. The Glaoui family was one the most powerful political clans in Morocco in the late 19th century (Thami El Glaoui was the Pasha of Marrakesh from 1912 to 1956), and the lavish kasbah was constructed in 1860.
Rashid, the local guide, gave us a glimpse into the life of a Pasha (a regional governor of a district) of old with his stories of harems and dancing girls and the kasbah’s exquisite art of intricate mosaic and stucco. For lunch, we feasted on chicken and beef tagines with couscous and bread before continuing our journey. After a reprisal of our earlier learned ‘Arabic Shuffle’, we wound off into the hills towards our French accommodation, Kasbah Ellouze, en route to the film-making oasis town of Ouarzazate. Situated south of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains, this town is known as the gateway to the Sahara Desert and has been the backdrop to various Hollywood productions. The following morning, we enjoyed a splendid Moroccan breakfast (with coffee served in soup bowls!) before setting off for the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ait-Ben-Haddou. This fortified village has been the grand backdrop for many great Hollywood movies: Lawrence of Arabia, Asterix, Gladiator and more recently, Game of Thrones. The vibrant streets were lined with colourful vendors and passionate artists and is home to many Moroccans within its mud walls.
A few members in our group reperformed the now famous shuffle for our unrestrained enjoyment before we set forth for a view of the Atlas Film Studio and on into Ouarzazate town. Here we managed to draw cash from the ATM before enjoying shopping at a local supermarket for excitingly different snacks, fresh cold drink flavours, and Moroccan beers and wines.
Our accommodation for that night lay at the end of a drive through the lush, fertile oasis of Skoura. It was here where we explored the historic fortified Kasbah Amridil. This important kasbah – previously featured on the Moroccan 50 dirham note – offered spectacular views of the surrounding valley. After a much shorter and sheepishly performed Arabic shuffle, we pushed on – eagerly anticipating green tea, expertly poured from on high, and traditional Arabic sweet treats (at Dar Blues) at the end of the day. This was desert living opulence!
The next day we followed the Dades Valley, ascending the steep switchbacks up to the precariously perched and rather hazardous-looking hotel for a spectacular view over the valley. The constant dust in the air filtered the light, providing a magical illusion of romance in a previous era when life was simpler, with beauty and comfort within the towering mountains of the Atlas. Our group then retraced our route back along the valley and towards our first night of wild camping and sleeping out amongst the dunes near the Draa Valley.
Here we met up with Ali and his team as our additional guides on this leg of the journey. Our camp of pop-up tents included a private bathroom and kitchen, and heavy carpets with matrasses to sit on. That night we lounged under the stars sharing wine and food, serenaded by drums and song around the fire as the sky circled above us. Spectacular!
Freshly squeezed orange juice awaited us the following morning, and this became our regular treat with every breakfast, along with delicious flatbread, syrupy honey, jams, cheeses, mint or green tea and a fresh pot of aromatic coffee. As our group trekked further into the Sahara, the support vehicle – loaded with rugs, tents and cooking equipment – raced ahead to recreate our romantic accommodation as we were to wild camp once more, this time in the Ghe desert. Sander and Stienie joined our guides in their vehicle before we entered the legendary Sahara Desert itself. We were told that the possibility of getting stuck in the sand and the excitement of a vehicle recovery makes desert driving adventures particularly thrilling… so, 50m from our lunch stop, Vicky and Richard obliged with the first vehicle recovery of the trip!
That afternoon Khalid, with a broad smile, brought out swathes of cloth for everyone, and we were surprised to hear that each of us was to be outfitted with a turban – blue for the gents, white for the ladies. How special! Andy supplied the second vehicle recovery for the day before we settled into camp. That night, Ali and his team placed candles in hand-dug niches in the dunes, illuminating our camp with a dreamy, warm, soft light. We slept a mere stone’s throw from the Algerian border and grabbed some additional blankets to fend off the early morning chill.
Our day started with a slight breeze, adding that extra wincing crunch of sand between your teeth at breakfast, which quickly escalated into a severe wind while we prepared to make a driving start to the day. A heavy sandstorm was coming our way as we continued to our fixed camp at Al Koutban. The winds whipped the desert into such a violent froth of sand that you had to focus on driving and staying alert for fear of losing sight of the vehicle ahead due to a wall of churning beige and white. Out of the intensely swirling dust, an abandoned mud military base emerged. We wound our turbans expertly around our heads and faces before leaving the protection of our 4x4s to brave the weather and explore. Most of us delighted in playing with our vehicles in the Saharan dunes. It was tricky, though. The technique included driving on the hard-packed earth, zigzagging around the sand, and crossing over the dune when the route became impossible. As most of the dunes we encountered were exceptionally soft and tractionless, it required a good deal of momentum to carry you over. Two vehicles fell victim to these marshy sands, providing great entertainment for those of us observing in the stinging dust and whipping winds. We enjoyed lunch sheltered among the trees on our sand rugs, munching olives and magnificent meaty tagines, sand-cooked bread, figs and dates.
The afternoon’s adventure included visiting a nomadic Berber tribe where they baked bread for us in the hot sand and shared green tea brewed over red coals. As the day wore on, the sun could be seen glowing through the quietening sky and by sunset back at camp, we mounted camels to trek deeper into the desert before climbing a dune to watch the white orb make its way down to where the hazy sky became black. We opted to stay another night at the fixed camp as there were shower facilities and flushing toilets.
The following morning, we said our farewells to Ali and his team and set off on the long Saharan flats, back towards the Atlas Mountains and the town of Tafraoute. Our days had begun blurring into a comfortable pattern of about a two-hour drive, stopping at a couple of viewpoints en route, sampling exotic dishes such as harira soup, skewers, tagines, fresh fruit and salads, and then another couple of hours’ drive through unbelievably beautiful scenery. Tafroute included a visit to the somewhat controversial Blue Rocks (these are – as the name suggests – a pile of rocks painted in bright sky-blue by Belgian artist Jean Verame in 1984 as a tribute to his late wife) and a scenic drive to the Amtoudi oasis, which is filled with date palms.
We spent our last night in Taroudant, just outside the walled city, appreciating the pool and green gardens with the lively sound of birdsong. On our last day, Morocco showed off with a scenic drive into Marrakesh, crossing the most picturesque landscape of the Tizi n’ Test Pass, which curves through the Atlas past Berber villages for stunning views into charming verdant valleys and on into the hustle and bustle of the city.
American author Edith Warton famously said that visiting Morocco is like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript, all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines. I can concur – this gem of North Africa is startlingly beautiful, and the ten-day journey with these endearing companions left a mark on each of us. Shukrun (Thank you).