Visiting Marrakech and Camel Trekking in Sahara
Our journey to Morocco started on the luton airport in the UK. We booked two round trip tickets from London to Marrakech for $170 on Ryan Air. While waiting for our flight we met a couple from Morocco who told us about Harera soup, the riad they operated, Marrakech market and the hassles that sometimes go with it. Ryan air prides itself on being on time and from detailed emails to boarding through planes front and back doors, they do everything they can, to make the boarding as fast as possible. The flight was comfortable and only about 3hrs long.
A Riad (Maison Mnabha) we were staying at arranged a driver to pick us up from Marrakech airport. We quickly exchanged some money met the driver and left the airport. The streets of Marrakech are well maintained and busy. In addition to a traffic you may see in any big city there was an overwhelming number of motorcycles, bicycles and occasional horse carriage driving tourists around. However, the city is very oriental and modern. With big park in the city center and perfectly maintained orange trees along the wide sidewalks I couldn’t wait to go for a run.
As we got closer to the old part of town where Maison Mnabha was located, the streets got narrower and busier. What should have been narrow walking alleys are two way streets overcrowded with shops, cars, locals, tourists, motorcycles and donkeys.
As the doors to our Riad opened we were in awe of it’s beauty. We chatted with the owners a bit then hit the town.
The old city is so full of life, it left us feeling overwhelmed excited and happy. Happy we came to experience it.
Every shop owner wanted us to get inside their little shop. They were the most amazing multilingual sales people I’ve ever seen. Often they tried to guess what country we were from in that coutry language. I was wearing a Canada hoodie and between Khara and i, we spoke English, Bosnian, Spanish and German.This threw them off a little none of them took me for Bosnian, only one guessed we were Americans and most thought we were Spaniards. Some even thought we were locals as the two words we learned quickly were “la shukran”, which means “no thank you” in Arabic.
All in all, everybody was very polite, and we quickly dropped our defenses and started interacting with locals as much as we could.
One thing we didnt do in Marrakech was run. Not because it wasn’t safe, we felt actually pretty safe, but because of pollution. Our throats were irritated from all the motorcycle exhaust.
In fact, pollution was one of the reasons we decided to change our plan and cancel out car rental and hop on a bus to Merzouga, a town on the edge of Sahara, 12 hrs away from Marrakech.
The winding roads through the mountains made me feel a little nauseous and I never get motion sickness. After just one Dramamine, I was able to sit back and enjoy the views.
We passed through Ouarzazate, which later I learned is the Hollywood of Morocco. It was the home of studios where “sahara”, “gladiator” and “the mummy” were filmed. Suddenly I wished we kept our car rental.
It was pitch black as we got closer to Merzouga. The road was surrounded by lushes palm trees that looked like fireworks in the bus’s headlights. Above us a full moon, stars decorated sky.
Looking out in the distance I couldn’t believe how many patches of land were lit by residential lights. They seemed so far they left me wonder if I would even see them if it wasn’t dark.
By the time we arrived in Merzouga, there were only few of us, tourists, on the bus and a big group of locals at the station trying to get our attention.
To our surprise, Moha, our camel tracking guide, and the owner of Auberge la Petit Prince showed up at the bus station and spotted us quickly. He explained later that many local hotels and b&b’s try to trick you into staying with them by imposing as owners of the place you reserved. They start by asking simple questions such as “Where are you staying?”, “Can I help you find your hotel?” and answer “I work for that hotel. It’s completely booked, so we send customer to this one”, or they simply take you to their place. But they couldn’t trick us as we became friends with Moha on Facebook before we even left the US :)
Auberge la Petit Prince was a charming little place. It was clean, had friendly staff and palm trees and sand dunes right in its back yard.
While we were waiting for dinner to be served, Moha made some Moroccan tea, which he referred to as “Berber whiskey”. They prepared this amazing three course traditional meal that started with a soup, main dish and ended with fruit for desert. There was no food menu, however he knew Khara was a vegetarian and he accommodated for it.
The next day he took us around the “village” where we bought our turbans, then he showed us the gardens with their basic but amazing Eco friendly irrigation system and finally treated us to more Berber whiskey at a rooftop cafe.
Later, we packed three days worth of food and water, and rode our camels into Erg Chebbi dunes. The sand in the desert is unbelievably fine, almost liquid, and vibrant orange. I couldn’t believe that sand like that could form dunes as high as 500 feet. Tourists come and ride 4×4′s through the sand and at first I was surprised by the amount of wheel tracks and plastic bottles sticking out of the sand. But as we got deeper in the desert those tracks got less and less obvious.
Our camp was located on the other side of the dunes. It included three big Berber tents plus two sturdier structures, one was the kitchen, and the other “the restaurant.”
Moha cooked us a delicious dinner, vegetarian meal for Khara, and a chicken for me. It’s surprising how he pulled it of in the middle of nowhere. We ate played some drums, drank more Berber whiskey and later made a camp fire which we sat around, joked and talked for hours.
Sleeping in the tent was actually not bad. The floor was covered with solid rugs, plus we had small mattresses and plenty of blankets to keep us comfortable and warm.
When we woke up, the sun was shining and a little table with breakfast was set up and waiting for us. We ate and then attempted to sand board.
We had no idea what we were doing plus the board had broken straps, so we were limited in what we could do with it. At first we tried to go down the wrong side of the dune which was a bust. In order for it to work you have to go down the “scary” steep side. The dune we were on was really small, but it was still fun to slide down it. Climbing it back up was a challange. I was out of breath every time I reached the top of it. I can’t imagine, climbing a huge dune, however, sliding down one would be awesome. Unfortunately, there were no big dunes close by and we were running out of time.
We packed and left for the “black desert”. This time we decided to give camels a break and walk. Walking up and down the dunes is freakin’ hard. Fortunately it wasn’t a long walk before we reached the hard, flat, black rock covered ground of the ” black desert”. It took us about hour an half to reach the tents of the nomad family where we were greeted by three cute nomad kids.
Khara and I immediately decided to give away most of our food and instead of eating lunch there, move on to our next destination “the oasis”. We only had a little food left so we had to move quickly and get across the desert before sunset. This was the most memorable hike for me. It was windy and exhausting. We were happy we were wearing the most functional, usable and comfortable desert apparel you can have, the turbans. No hoodie, benie or baseball cap can replace turbans in the desert. So if you ever decide to hike the desert, drop your sense of fashion and comfort and buy a turban. You wont regret it.
The oasis was beautiful. It had proper toilets, places to buy your favorite coke products, rent a tent, skies or snow boards. We ate a lunch and rested there for few minutes before we hopped on the camels and rode into the dunes arriving at the la petit prince at the sun down. I could get enough of that last ride. The sun was low, creating amazing textures in the sand and casting long shadows of our little caravan riding over the tops of the dunes.
Moha loved to sing and chant “mama Africa” as he was guiding us. Eventually I joined him in his chants, and that’s when I noticed that there was no echo in the desert. Not even between the huge dunes. And at times we were completely quite, the only sounds I could hear were the sounds of our feet stirring the sand below us, and the wind blowing the sand over razor sharp dunes above us.
I was reminded, no mater how beautiful, the desert is it can be a hostile place that deserves a lot of respect. Moha told us a story of a young tourist who decided to follow a caravan into a desert, but on her way back a sand storm erased all the tracks. After a 7 day search and rescue she was found dead.
Still, with a good guide like Moha, I would never refuse an excursion into desert. And I hope I’ll get to do it again.
“Inshallah”, as Moha would say.