By Dave S. Clark
The Sahara Desert – its name alone conjures up images of sand, extreme heat and a quest for survival. It’s the world’s third largest desert and the largest desert that will kill you with heat rather than cold.
It’s something you can’t miss when you go to Morocco and if you haven’t already added it, you should tack it on to your bucket list.
There are two large expanses of sand dunes in Morocco that tourists go to – Erg Chigaga and Erg Chebbi. While we had heard Erb Chebbi was extremely beautiful, we also heard people call it the ‘Coca Cola desert’ because you can sit in your hotel or a café and sip your favourite American beverage while looking out over the dunes. Erg Chigaga, however, was very remote, which was what we were after. When I picture myself being in the desert, I don’t imagine other people around. It’s a place of solitude. A place where you wander alone to try to find yourself. It’s not a place to be around other tourists. Erg Chigaga it was. And remote it is.
We hired a company called Sahara Services to drive us there and it was a long, full day of driving from Marrakech, up through the snow capped High Atlas Mountains, across the suburbs of the Sahara and finally to M’Hamid, a dusty one-camel town well into the desert and 60 kilometres from the actual dunes. The drive was highlighted by brief stops in Ait Benhaddou and the kashbahs of a few other Berber villages. That night we stayed in Sahara Services’ own little motel, where we were the only guests until another couple showed up late in the evening.
The drive from Marrakech had been an epic one. It was only 460 kilometers, but there were no motorways, freeways or autobahns. The drive started out in the plumes of exhaust and traffic in busy Marrakech. I was thankful as we headed out towards the Atlas Mountains as the city traffic eventually started to thin out. But just as it thinned, we reached the foothills of the High Atlas. Soon our driver, Mohammed, was throwing us around the guardrail-less hairpin corners as we made our way up 2,300 metres to the snow-capped peaks. After descending on the other side of the mountain pass, the roads straightened out a bit but the surface deteriorated. Sometimes, it had seemed as if the pavement was in such short supply, only the middle of the road was paved, barely wide enough for the track of our truck.
There wasn’t much happening in the village of M’Hamid. I don’t think it’s much more than a rest stop for travelers heading into the desert and, on this day, there weren’t any other travelers in sight. The mud brick hotel was sparse but decent other than the fact that when you turned on the tap for hot water nothing came out. It was very odd being the only guests there for the majority of the evening, yet having four or five hotel staff always hanging around and often smoking shisha. With not much to do, we had an early night to rest up for a great day in the desert the next morning.
As usual in Morocco, we were awoken by the enchanting call to prayer and soon we were buckled up in the 200 Series Land Cruiser and making the final leg to Erg Chigaga. The 60-kilometre trip was completely off road and took a little less than two hours. Mohammed was a very skilled and aware driver and now that we was off road, he had come alive at the wheel. There were dozens of different tracks to take through the loose sand and you could tell he had shifted his brain in to Rally Mode. Some parts of this route, although I’m not really sure which, were part of the original Paris-Dakar route and Mohammed was driving like he was training for a seat in the legendary race.
There was very little to see but so much to take in. We were surrounded by vast nothingness. Sand stretched to every horizon with only a few little shrubs breaking up the golden ocean. We saw a few nomads leading trains of camels and another group of nomads huddled around a well. Water sources were certainly rare sites in these parts.
To take a break from the rough driving, we stopped and got out at an oasis, which was just like in the cartoons. We were in the middle of the desert then right before us there was a grove of palm trees, a little stream and after traveling through so much desolation, it seemed bizarrely alive.
Beside the oasis sat a stripped shell of an old Land Rover. If your truck was going to break down anywhere in the Sahara, this was as good of a place as any, with water and shade just steps away. I hadn’t seen any vultures, but someone had picked off every last usable part old British 4×4. Seeing it sit there made me wonder how long it will actually stay there for. I don’t think rust will ever be a big factor considering where it is parked and I can’t see anyone hauling it out for scrap anytime soon.
Leaving the oasis, we started to catch the first sights of the main attraction – the dunes of Erg Chigaga. On the horizon, waves of sand peaked and crested. As we got closer, we skimmed across a massive lake, or at least what used to be a massive lake. In the last decade it had dried up to the point that I was convinced it never was a lake, but a mirage that just finally stopped fooling people.
As we got closer to the imposing dunes, the sand loosened up and Mohammed used the truck’s speed to stay on top of it. We pulled up to a camp of a dozen tents on the very edge of the dunes, where we’d spend the day and the night, before heading back in the morning.
We got settled in our tent, went for a short walk on the nearby dunes and then headed back to camp for lunch. Thankfully, some lightly-seasoned chicken was on the menu that day which was good for our stomachs, which still hadn’t completely settled after getting sick earlier in the trip. There was also a giant green salad, sitting there ominously with lettuce and tomatoes. I felt a wave of nausea come over me by just looking at it, as I suspect it was a few pieces of salad that made me sick back in Fes. Then there was a peculiar dish served to us – fish. I don’t know what kind of fish, but I don’t think there are any species native to the Sahara desert. Moroccan food is known for being fresh and sourced locally, so having seafood hundreds of miles from the ocean seemed even more puzzling. The pesky cat that hung around at the camp seemed to enjoy it, though.
One thing I was truly excited about was sandboarding. It was an addition to my bucket list after I had seen it on Departures. I love snowboarding and wakeboarding, so boarding down the sandy slopes of the Sahara would be exhilarating. It turned out to be anything but. I had dreamt about strapping on a board, carving hard and spraying up layers or fine golden sand as I made my way down the 300-metre high slopes. Unfortunately that wasn’t possible with a beat up binding-less snowboard that had either been retired or stolen from a French ski resort many years ago. If it wasn’t the lack of bindings that hampered the experience, it was the delaminated base that made the once-smooth bottom rough, jagged and incredibly resistant. I hopped on the board once and it slid a few feet before friction became too much for the jagged surface of the board and I came to a halt. It was a disappointment.
We ventured further out after lunch, rolling down the dunes, making sand angels and just spending some quiet time trying to take in the magnitude of the beauty that surrounded us. Spending time in one of the most desolate places on earth gave me a great opportunity to reflect although I think spending a hot afternoon pondering life while in the desert seems to leave you with more questions than answers.
After a few hours of getting sand lodged in my eyes, mouth, nose and ears, it was time for a camel ride. We decided to go just before sunset when the sand looks its most radiant and it was a wise choice. Getting up on the camel was an experience in itself as they aren’t the most graceful of animals. They have a giant round body stuck on long twig legs and that makes them a bit awkward. Our guide, on foot, led our train of four camels back into the mountains of sand. We rode for about an hour before stopping, dismounting and hiking up a large dune to catch the sun as it set before us. We could neither see nor hear anyone around us. We had the spectacular natural show all to ourselves. It felt so much different than just a few hours before when the hot midday sun was beating down on us. The evening light had turned the golden ocean to a deep, glowing orange. When the sun disappeared, we headed back for the camels then made our way back to camp with the light slowly fading.
The next day it was a marathon back to Marrakech. We didn’t backtrack to M’Hamid, but rather headed west on a 100 kilometre path to Foum Zguid. Although I was loving the first day of off-road driving, after nearly five hours over two days of being thrown around, I was getting a bit worn out. After 160 kilometres of driving over very hard, rough terrain, we reached smooth road again. I was ready to get out of the truck and kiss the tarmac, just as Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman did in Long Way Round.
The drive back didn’t have many stops, just for the bathroom and to eat at a chilly little restaurant in the Atlas Mountains. It was surreal to wake up surrounded by sand and by the afternoon we were high up in the mountains, surrounded by snow. After what seemed like an eternity in the back seat of the Land Cruiser we finally made it to our riad in Marrakech. I can’t remember a better feeling than hopping in the shower for the first time in three days to rinse off all of the sand, dirt and sweat that I’d collected in the Sahara.