Morocco: The Sahara

Typing this is bittersweet but we are on to the final part of my Morocco series. The past few blog posts have been some of my favourite to write as I remember one of my favourite trips. I hope I’ve been able to impart at least some of my love for Morocco onto you and that you might consider Morocco for a future trip! If you do, let me know and I’m happy to talk to you about it, give you even more recommendations and hell, even go with you. Despite all my love for Morocco and the incredible time I had there, the fourth and final part of my week in Morocco is a little different in that I don’t have 100% positive things to say about it. I will preface what I’m about to tell you with the fact that none of that is Morocco’s fault. It comes down to trying to see as much as I could in the limited amount of time that I had and maybe pushing things a little far.

With all that out of the way, and as you can probably tell from the title, I spent my last few days on a trip to the Sahara desert! This was something that Hiba and I had decided on together as it would be something new for her as well. We looked at a couple of places but we were limited by the amount of time I had. When we were planning the trip, I only really had one night to spare for a trip to the Sahara if I was to fit in everything else that I wanted to do. This ruled out a few places such as Merzouga, a town deeper into the desert close to the Algerian border. We considered Ouarzazate, known as the Hollywood of Africa but it’s only really on the edge of the Sahara and we wanted something more immersive (more on Ouarzazate later though).

We had originally booked something through Tripadvisor but when we got to our riad in Marrakesh, Hiba and Rania got chatting to the guy checking us in who was able to get us a similar trip as we had booked but for a bit cheaper. I think we were reassured by being able to talk to someone about it, someone who was really welcoming to us in the riad and had already been super helpful. We were also able to see some pictures of the camp. We decided to go for it because we were getting good vibes from him and I’m all about listening to people in the place, in the hotel or hostel because they’re the ones that know. I’m sure he got something out of it as well but I can’t blame him for seizing the opportunity!

So Thursday rolls around, five days since I arrived in Morocco, and we had an early start – 6am to be exact. We had spoken to the guys in the riad the day before and they had said someone would be up to prepare breakfast for us and then take us out to meet the trip organisers. After a slightly stressful start because our contact in the riad overslept after a late check in the night before, we made it to our tour van and met our driver and the other people on the trip. It was a very German heavy group but there was also a French mother and daughter couple, a Portuguese and French couple, a half-Belgian half-Moroccan guy and an Argentinian plus this Scot and my two Moroccan companions.

We were heading out of Marrakesh by 8am and drove for a few hours until our first stop. By the time we stopped we were in the Atlas mountains, a mountain range that stretches for 2,500km across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. It was obviously a popular spot because there were a lot of other tour buses there but not much about other than a little cafe and a balcony with a gorgeous view. I took advantage of it because as soon as we were back off in the bus I was incapable of staying awake. I think the last few days were catching up with me and a year of travelling on chicken buses through Central America means that I’m pretty adept at falling asleep in moving vehicles, however uncomfortable. After another couple of hours of driving, we had another brief stop to stretch our legs at Tizi n ‘Tichka, a well known mountain pass that is 2,212m above sea level. Apparently Tizi n ‘Tichka means ‘difficult mountain pasture’ in Berber which is a fair enough designation. It had absolutely spectacular views though.

Around 12.30pm, so four and a half hours into the journey, we reached our first proper stop. Aït Benhaddou has been a filming location for many films and TV series including most recently Game of Thrones but also Lawrence of Arabia, Asterix and Obelix, Gladiator, The Mummy and Indiana Jones. At one point it was also a stop along the caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakesh. Traders would spend a few nights there before going on to traverse the Atlas Mountains via the mountain pass of Tizi n ‘Tichka, where we had passed through earlier. Nowadays the ksar (a fortified village) still has a few families that live there, benefiting from the tourism related to the film industry. The old village lies across the dried up bed of the Ounila river, across from the new town where most people live now. Included in the price of our tour to Zagora was a guide to take us around Aït Benhaddou. He spoke incredible English, French and Spanish as well as Arabic and some Berber, all of which we heard on our tour. We were taken into a traditional Berber house and able to look around and also stopped in at an artisan’s workshop. He was using saffron and tea to paint a barely visible scene onto the paper. This is then heated over a flame, bringing out and fixing the colours onto the paper. The pictures often depict kasbahs or ksars, desert scenery and camels. If you bought one you could also have your name added in Berber.

Aït Benhaddou

I’ve mentioned Berber a few times in the past few blogs, most notably when we visited the Berber museum in the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh. Berbers are the indigenous people of the Maghreb region in North Africa, covering what is now Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, They are also known as the Amazigh as is their language. The Berber language is actually a collection of languages that is written using the Tifinagh script. An interesting crossover is that the indigenous people of the Canary Islands (where you’ll find Tenerife, 100 km west of Morocco), the Guanches, are believed to have spoken a now extinct branch of the Berber languages. Morocco has the largest number of Berber speakers with an estimated 24% of the population speaking at least one Berber language. Berber suffered during the post-independence years as Morocco and other North African countries tried to replace the influence of France and the French language with a policy of ‘Arabisation’ during which time all forms of Berber were oppressed. Berber is now an official language of Morocco. To give you an idea of what Berber looks like written down, this means ‘Morocco’ in Standard Moroccan Berber, also known as Standard Moroccan Amazigh or Tamazight – ⵜⴰⴳⵍⴷⵉⵜ ⵏ ⵍⵎⵖⵔⵉⴱ.

After Aït Benhaddou we carried on to Ouarzazate which we would come back to the next day. For now it was only a quick lunch stop. It wasn’t the best food that I had in Morocco, a bit of a tourist trap judging by the high price and lower quality than I expected. I did get to try couscous though and tick that off my Moroccan food list although I’ve eaten it before and it wasn’t my favourite, I have to say. After a quick lunch it was back in the van and a race to our final destination before sunset.

Moroccan couscous

We were running a little behind so we only saw the sunset from the van and arrived at Zagora in the light of twilight. I personally hadn’t realised this but the final stage of our journey was going to be made by camel! We could only take what we could carry so just what we needed overnight. We were able to leave our bigger bags in the van with our driver who wasn’t coming to the camp and would look after them. If you are going to do something like this, I would probably recommend leaving your bigger bags back at your riad or hotel in Marrakesh, especially if you are going back to the same place like we were. Everything was perfectly safe the way we did it but we had been given the option to leave it at our riad and I think that would have been easier in the end.

Here I have to admit that I’m not the biggest animal person. I have slowly come around to cats in the last few years after our wee girl Anna wormed her way into my heart and anyone that knows me or follows me on Instagram knows that I’m OBSESSED with my dog (and all dogs) but aside from them, most animals make me a little nervous. Enter a two metre tall Dromedary camel that was going to carry me to our camp. Getting on them was fine but the lurching movement when they stood up almost had me calling the whole thing off. The movement of the camel once we started moving was actually very jarring, nothing like what I remember riding a horse to be like from my (admittedly limited) experience. Juggling my hastily packed assortment of tote bags also proved difficult and I almost dropped them several times. In the growing darkness, I feel like that would have been the last time I would have seen them. I was so uncomfortable, borderline in pain, and then I heard someone ask how long it would take to get to camp and I genuinely thought it must be a joke when they replied an hour! No joke, but I was finally able to get my bags in a better position. Comfortable might be taking it too far but I was definitely more at ease.

We finally reached the camp after passing several others on the way, my hopes rising each time a collection of lights grew larger and then sinking again as we passed them and continued on. Finally we did approach our camp and we were able to get off the bloody camels. One of my knees had started hurting from just hanging there and my inner thighs were screaming from having to grip on. One of the things going through my head during the journey was that, for me, riding a camel was really a once in a lifetime experience – as in, I was only going to do this once in my life because there was no way I was ever going to get back on a camel ever again!

Our camp was simple but homely, a circle of tents for sleeping, a larger one for eating and a few carpets laid out in the middle where we could gather. The toilets were just outside of the circle. The group from our van were joining up with another tour group in the camp that were already sitting having some tea. We joined them and got to know each other a bit more as well as meeting the hosts of the camp. It was already 8pm by the time we arrived so it wasn’t long before we were all taken into the dining tent for some food. A Moroccan classic, we had soup to start followed by chicken and olive tagine with potatoes, vegetable and of course some bread. I’ll speak for myself, Hiba and Rania but after a 12 hour day, at least 8 of which were driving or riding a camel, we were very tired and getting a bit delirious. I won’t say it wasn’t fun, as we broke down in laughter over the smallest thing, the way only very fatigued minds and very close friends are able to. I was on the verge of going to bed when instead we were ushered outside to a bonfire and our hosts with their musical instruments. We enjoyed the music for a while and danced a bit before we got to have a go on the drums as well! We had a little walk outside of the camp to look at the stars away from the light before calling it a night.

Obviously it gets quite cold at night in the desert, at least compared to during the day, but I wasn’t too bad. I slept just in a t-shirt and shorts but still wrapped up in a big blanket and I was fine! I started to get cold just before we had to get up at 7am but I pulled on some trousers and a jumper and it was all good! Our group had breakfast, a little spread of bread, jam, cheese, boiled eggs, coffee and tea before packing ourselves up. Now the night before I had thought that I would never, ever get on a camel again but sleep had made the pain and discomfort more distant. We had been promised that the ride out of camp would be half the length of the night before, so only half an hour, and when else am I going to get to ride a camel? This time though, there was a camel with panniers where I was able to tuck one of my wee bags so that I could arrange myself more comfortably. I’ve already said that I would recommend leaving any big bags or suitcases in Marrakesh but for the bag you bring with you, make sure it’s a backpack! You need something that doesn’t require any hands to hold on to, unlike a tote bag, so you can focus all your energy on not falling off! Most people had had the same change of heart as me, after feeling the same as me the day before, although there were a couple of people that decided to take the journey on foot.

We rode back out to meet our driver and the van, ready to start the 8 hours of driving back to Marrakesh. We left around 8am again and were going for several hours with just a few short bathroom breaks before arriving back in Ouarzazate around 12.30. This time we got to see a little bit more during a short walking tour with a guide. Ouarzazate is known as the ‘Hollywood of Morocco’ because it is home to a number of film studios. It acts as a base for productions filming in Aït Ben Haddou for example. It also has the nickname of the Door of the Desert because of its position at the far edges of the Sahara and 70% of the population speaks Berber. It is a popular tourist destination, is known for the Ouazgita carpets made by Berber women and plays host to the ‘marathon des sables’, a gruelling 6 day, 250km race across the desert.

We wandered through the medina where the guide talked to us about the castle and the old town. We stopped in a women’s artisan association as well and had some tea. After our tea and being entertained by an absolutely adorable cat, we went down into the shop and got to see some of the carpet designs. Carpet weaving is a traditional Berber art made by the women. It takes hours and hours especially because they only do a couple of hours at a time because it’s bad for their eyes. I did think it was interesting that even in an association of and for women, the only woman we saw was the one that brought us tea. It was men that showed us the carpets and explained them to us. We had a look around the shop and the carpets were gorgeous and they had some really nice earrings as well but it was all pretty expensive.

It was back in the car and another hour or two before we arrived at our lunch spot. It was the same kind of place as the day before, definitely made to serve these bus trips with a set menu price. However it was a little better in terms of quality than the other place. Between the three of us we split a mixed kebab plate and a kefta plate. The kebab plate had two chicken skewers and some keftas which are basically little beef meatballs with chips and salad. Not the best and not the worst thing I ate during my trip. We were back in the bus with a few more toilet stops before getting back to Marrakesh around 7.30pm, about 36 hours after we left. We got dropped off first and hobbled our way back to Riad Chennaoui. After hours and hours in the van and with aching muscles from the camel riding, all we wanted was to lie down. It was our last night in Marrakesh and my last night in Morocco so we felt like we needed to make the most of it but once we got back, there was no way we were leaving again. Instead we ordered a pizza and called it a night.

In all honesty, I’m torn about whether this trip to Zagora was worth it. The experience of being in the camp in the desert and the stops we had in Aït Benhaddou and Ouarzazate were a lot of fun and very interesting. On the other hand, the journey on either side was SO. LONG. We left Marrakesh at 8am and arrived at camp at 8pm. We had stops but at least 8 of those hours were driving or on camel. And then the same to get back to Marrakesh. It was a lot. I think if we had stayed a day in the camp before going back it would have been better. There was also the option of going to Merzouga which is 300km or 4 hours further into the Sahara but that was a multi-day trip which I didn’t have time for. I already know that I’ll be back to Morocco and maybe then I can do a longer trip at a slower pace but I don’t think that trying to fit it into one night away really did it justice.

Sara in the Sahara!

After one more night in Marrakesh, it was time to go home. I had a slightly rushed final morning as I wanted to nip out and get a few souvenirs before my taxi to the airport that the riad had helped me organise. It was sad to say goodbye to Hiba and Rania because we’d had such an amazing week. It was so nice that me and Hiba were able to pick up where we left off and then me and Rania have formed such a good friendship in such a short amount of time.

My return journey was via London with a pretty long layover but it was surprisingly nice to be back in an English speaking country, however briefly. I arrived back in Paris around 10.30pm so it wasn’t possible for me to get back to Mulhouse on the same day but luckily I have a very lovely friend, Lizzie, who has a very lovely couch that I was able to crash on. It was nice to catch up with someone else, even if I was barely there for 12 hours, before finally arriving back in Mulhouse the Sunday after I left.

I can’t believe that everything included in the last four blogs all happened within a week. Despite how much I’ve enjoyed writing them, I worry that I haven’t and won’t ever be able to fully convey how incredible and special this week was. It wasn’t just that the food was delicious (maybe more so than I expected) or that the history was fascinating, the culture was rich and vibrant, the people were some of the most welcoming that I’ve ever met. It was so much more than that. I had been thinking about this trip for three years since I met my friends in China in 2019. A lot has changed in the world since then but I’m so glad to have met them and be able to pick up where we left off as well as have them show me around their home. Reconnecting with Cheima, Aymen and particularly Hiba, my beautiful, kind, generous and funny tour guide for the week, as well as becoming fast friends with Rania was the heart and soul of this trip and to me is really what drives me to travel as much as I do. It’s all about making, and then sustaining, these connections. As I look forward to the travelling that is to come in 2023, a lot more of what I have planned is built around people rather than places and I’m thrilled about that.

I have this philosophy when it comes to saying goodbye. I used to get really upset or emotional when saying goodbye to something, somewhere or someone that means a lot to me. The first time I remember this was at the end of a month-long trip to Costa Rica when I was 17, a trip that was a catalyst for pretty much everything that has happened since. I was distraught at the thought of leaving when so much had changed since I had been there, when I had changed so much since I had been there. Now, that is a rare thing to happen. I usually don’t get upset or even vaguely teary eyed because I’m at the stage where if somewhere or someone is important enough to me that I might get upset at the thought of leaving them, then I know I will see them again. I know that I will be back to Morocco. There’s so much more to see! And whether they like it or not, these people are stuck with me for life.

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