Article by : Ian McCurah
In a world where weekend city breaks have become ten-a-penny a whole new breed of mini-adventures have sprung to satisfy our travel hungry time starved nation. So it was to my delight that I stumbled across a Saharan Escape adventure where I could follow in the footsteps of T. E. Lawrence over the course of just a long weekend. As I fly out from Heathrow after work on a Thursday, I’m excited at the prospect of spending three days in the Moroccan Sahara. After a brief stopover at Casablanca and a further 40-minute flight, my plane lands at Ouarzazate, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere and the front line of the desert. The bright lights of the airbus pick out the tiny terminal building in front of which are silhouetted small groups of military and palm trees.
Amidst ancient white Mercedes are three waiting Land Rover Defenders, which will carry our mixed group of twelve explorers across some 500 miles of desert. We are met by Mustapha our guide, who is dressed in traditional costume of djebella and pointy turned-up-toe slippers. After a short drive through this dusty frontier town we reach our final resting point, the Hotel La Vallee, at nearly midnight. This former French administrative centre is divided in two by a wide dried up riverbed. One side has become more European as a result of the local film studio complex on the outskirts of town, which has played host to movies such as Gladiator, The Sheltering Sky, Star Wars and The Mummy.
We are staying in the African side, which when morning breaks I see is very run down and filled with half-baked buildings. Before turning in for the night I go out by the pool and look up at a dark sky, heavy with bright constellations. As I gaze at the stars I wonder what the night sky will look like in the Sahara without any kind of light pollution.
At just after six, the local alarm of barking dogs echoes around town and I wake with a start. The scene from the hotel terrace is magnificent. As the sun begins to rise it casts pastel shades across a Hollywood skyline. The snow capped Atlas Mountains soar in the distance and the foreground is punctuated with minarets, desert fortresses and oases of palm trees, in a scene straight from Lawrence of Arabia, which was also filmed here. Mustapha gives us a basic briefing. All of our group have been on this type of trip before and I begin to worry about sleeping in a tent, which I only did once when I was twenty and hated it then, let alone have no running water to wash with for three days and nowhere to go to the loo. Well there would be plenty of places to go to the loo, but none of them would be a toilet as I know it. And it was at this point that Mustapha chose to hand out our toiletry essentials: a plastic bag, one roll of toilet paper and a box of matches. You burn the paper leaving what biodegradable waste you’ve produced behind you, get the picture? So for a man who generally likes his creature comforts five-star and going to places where Bulgari toiletries come as standard, this was rather a testing moment.
Leaving Ouarzazate behind us we head out on one of the great southern oasis roads towards Zagora, following an old caravan route along which gold, silver, salt and slaves were once plied. The desert here is a rocky and barren lunarscape and the potholed single track tarmac road picks its way across dried up riverbeds and ribbons out ahead of us towards the High Atlas Mountains. Occasionally people appear from nowhere carrying vast square bales of scrub on their backs, doubled over under the weight. As we drive over the Djebel hills the Anti Atlas Mountains tower in the distance through layers of pink mist.
We go off-road on a bumpy piste, (an unsurfaced road) towards the ksar (village) of Tamnougalt. Driving through a dense oasis of palm groves and irrigated plots of alfalfa, almond trees, barley and henna shrubs, we pass small armies of women who wash colourful clothes in a stream and lay them out to dry on bushes. A young couple draws water from the communal well and what at first appears to be a biblical scene is betrayed by the 21st century satellite dishes, which stick out from the ancient dwellings.
The central four-gated kasbah, which dates from the early 1500’s, is a crumbling adobe affair and we are guided through its pitch black labyrinth of tunnels by a beautiful young Berber. Suddenly the darkness gives way to filtered sunlight and we find ourselves in a beautiful courtyard lined with large man-size urns. Our Friday morning coffee break consists of mint tea and a vast assortment of dates and nuts, which is passed around the group on a large silver plate.
Further up the Draa Valley we encounter a throng of pilgrims who have just returned high from Mecca to their small ksar in the dust. Dressed in white and gold, they sing at the tops of their voices and dazzle in the sunlight. We stop for lunch in the middle of nowhere in a shady oasis. Our drivers turn cooks and hurriedly produce a delicious feast of mezze. We tuck in Berber-style, sitting on low mattresses, which double up later as bedding. Before eating we endure the ceremonial ritual of group hand washing, which Mustapha assures us will prevent us getting Moroccan tummy. I’m skeptical but dutifully get in line to wash my hands in a shared bowl of soapy water followed by a quick dip in the bleach bowl, which leaves my hands with more than just a hint of Harpic.
The next stretch of the great southern oasis road is punctuated by strips of creamy-pink coloured ksour (villages) with their forbidding inward-looking buildings and crumbling kasbahs. On the outskirts of Zagora, the road is a melee of cyclists, chickens, schoolchildren and goats, and what little motor traffic there is, has to slowly career around the road to avoid them. After a brief stop here to pose against the timeworn sign reading ‘Timbouctou – 52 jours ‘ (by camel caravan), we make for our first camp at Tinfou Dunes, which suddenly appear as if conjured up from nowhere, isolated in the middle of the vast rocky desert bowl.
This small patch of golden sand dunes has been blown here over the centuries and is what I imagine the Sahara will look like. Our group intention is to sleep here under the stars, but most of us pitch our easy-to-assemble two-man tents (provided), as a fallback. Throwing my bag and belongings into the tent I go off for a camel ride across the dunes. As the sun begins to set, casting long camel and rider shadows on the sand dunes, I feel every inch the desert adventurer. With dusk comes an ethereal quality to the light. The dunes turn luminous gold and the sky on the horizon becomes intensely bright, making it very difficult to see the immediate surroundings. With the darkness also comes an incredible silence, broken only by the strains of music drifting over the dunes on the air from a nearby Berber camp.
We down dinner in the communal Berber-style tent that has been pitched as there is a chill in the spring air. By ten most of us are ready to turn in and I make a catastrophic attempt to sleep under the amazing star encrusted sky, putting my foam mattress on the edge of a dune. I’m as blind as a bat without my contact lenses and after taking them out, all the sparkling constellations simply roll into one bright blur, lessening the effect somewhat. Added to which, my slippery nylon sleeping bag keeps sliding off my mattress and after I’ve moaned for an hour, a fellow group member suggests I retire to my tent, which I duly do, trailing my mattress and bag between my tail.
With only a torch to guide me I throw both mattress and bag into what is an already jumbled mess in my tent, taking what appears to be half of the sand dune with me. And after several torch lit odysseys over the dune to pee during the night, I wake next morning at dawn with matted hair, sand everywhere, an unwashed body and aching legs from yesterdays camel ride. I feel like I’m a contestant on ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’, only I’m not a celebrity and no-one is going to get me out of there. After tucking into breakfast at the top of a dune, and doing my minimal ablutions behind a different dune, which brings a whole new meaning to squatter’s rights, I begin to feel on top of the world again. Whilst our drivers pack away our camp we walk across the desert toward the nearby ksar of Tamegroute, a cluster of kasbahs and low passageways wedged together to keep out the desert. A tall white minaret marks out the shrine here. Groups of the mentally ill and physically disabled are camped out around a cloistered courtyard seeking refuge and a miraculous cure, and a squealing goat is dragged across the courtyard, being led to the sacrifice.
After crossing a final mountain pass we meet the front line of the Sahara desert at M’hamid, where the piste finally gives way to sand. We drive through a sandy palm grove and mirages start to appear shimmering in the distance. With some solitary camels as our only dining companions for hundreds of miles, we stop for lunch under the shade of some trees and devour delicious platefuls of couscous and vegetables.
A dust devil twists in the distance along the horizon. Berbers believe that if you get hit by one of these lesser-tornados that you are being touched by Lucifer. An hour later we are in the Lawrence of Arabia country I had been dreaming of. For hundreds of miles ahead of us stretch undulating dunes and as soon as I’ve rigged my tent, I go nomad-style and walk barefoot across the desert and climb the highest dune to watch the sunset. Dinner is downed around the crackling camp fire under a dark blue sky carpeted with twinkling constellations. After some Moroccan wine I’m more than ready for my mattress and on night two of camping I’m far more organised and I hate to admit it, I even enjoy it. I only have to make one starlit sojourn behind a dune but have a mid-pee panic and think if I take the wrong turning at the next dune, I could end up in Mauritania.
After a good night’s sleep I am woken by the distant groaning of some grumpy old camels. The sun is already a big blazing orange ball and I leap out of my tent having discovered my inner boy scout and am as happy as a sand boy. Members of the group have already begun disappearing behind different dunes for their morning ablutions and their footsteps on the smooth-sided, sharply crested dunes resemble a sea of Jurassic stegasorous backs.
Again our day begins with a walk across the sandy desert as our drivers pack up camp. Eventually the sand gives way to a dried up lake and we drive across a plane punctuated with dense green vegetation. From here we follow a piste across the pass at Tizi Taguergoust, where there are some fascinating 68-million year old fossils of old reptiles littered about before arriving back at Ouarzazate late on Sunday afternoon. This leaves plenty of time to explore the town and you would do well to take a tour of the nearby film studios, which lay behind vast walls lined with giant mummies. We say goodbye early on Monday morning, flying out at sunrise. The unfortunately timed connection back to London leaves you with a five-hour stopover at Casablanca airport, which leaves you just enough time to take a whirlwind tour of Casablanca. When I arrive home at teatime I feel I’ve had more than a mini-adventure and as I open my bag a cloud of dust mushrooms out of it. I’ve certainly brought a little of the Sahara back with me.