Festival in the Desert
We leave Fes on friendly terms. A day to relax does wonders for our psyche and we realize that nobody is out to get us. Traveling in Morocco simply takes us a little longer to assimilate…good for the soul.
The long drive to Merzouga takes us through the mid and high Atlas Mountains. We roll quickly along straight, well-paved roads, and make a few stops, despite facing a good eight-hour drive. We stock-up on bread and cheese in the Alpine-style village of Ifrane, home to a University, as well as a refuge for affluent Moroccans. The route offers vast, mountainous scenery. Plus, nobody tailgates us, or tries to pull us over with offers to take us to their house. We almost miss them.
We enjoy another small town, Coldu Zad, where a roadside merchant, Aziz, brags about the friendliness of the Berber culture. The King of Morocco instituted teaching of the Berber verbal language in all schools in the country, in an effort to preserve the traditional culture. Berbers are the indigenous people, with no standard, written language. Romans coined the term “Berber,” meaning “barbarian.” No longer considered a slur, being Berber, or partly so, is now a source of pride. Berber-style architecture resembles rectangular boxes, made from lime and straw rather than concrete. This type of block also absorbs sound.
Aziz sells us some fresh produce, and then jumps into our car to takes us on a secret mission to purchase ten beers. Thank you, Aziz.
Several hours later, we stop along the road to eat lunch. As I slice tomatoes, bread and cheese on the car’s trunk, a traditionally dressed man appears suddenly out of the desert, and eats with us. Before long, we share lunch with several women, a donkey, and a French traveler. One woman pours a white, milky substance into our used water bottle, as a gift. We each take a sip, and tell her how good it tastes. She keeps making a motion with her hands, as if washing clothes. Mare asks me if we just drank laundry soap. Either way, we figure it’s organic. The robed man gives me air-kisses, past each cheek. Lunch lasts over an hour, and reaffirms our newfound comfort with the Moroccan people.
The high Atlas Mountains hold glacier looking ice, and the smooth road twists comfortably. Once we overtake the mountain pass, the vastness of the Ziz valley offers a glimpse of the Sahara desert, as it opens up in the distance. We can’t resist toasting each other, so we crack a beer, wondering if the penalty for such an infraction could be a be-heading. Eventually, we pull into the town our destination, Merzouga, which snuggles up against the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert. The end of this road is only about 12 miles away, close to the closed border of Algeria.
Before we can even get out of the car, a guide asks if we want to take a camel trek into the desert. Of course we do! He jumps into the car and we drive a dirt road to the Hotel La Tradition.
Within 30 minutes, Mare and I are sitting on camels, led by a walking guide through the massive, tan-shaded dunes of the Sahara. The camels gurgle and groan as we sway back and forth on top of them. The sun sets and we feel we’re floating in a fantasy land. Some dunes seem to have spines. The descending darkness displays a great glimpse of the Milky Way Galaxy. A notion that there are more stars in the Cosmos than grains of sand on Earth blows me away.
Two hours later we arrive at a camp, complete with short, boxed Berber tents in place. Mare and I sit outside our tent by candlelight, marvel at the most stars we’ve ever seen, and chill in the coldness of a Sahara night. A wool blanket covers the fine-grain sand, making for a soft landing. Several other camel-campers get served food. We are starving, and once again deal with the lack of food issue. We gave our food away at lunch on the road, and Mare’s stomach is growling like a camel. Finally, our guide appears and serves us big bowl of potatoes, carrots, peas and chicken. That just about does us in for the evening. The stars disappear from the light of a not-quite full moon, which casts its own milky white glow onto the sand.
We lie in our tent, wrapped in our sleeping bags, as well as some extra blankets. Outside, the guides build a small fire, bang on some bongos, and the singing begins. It’s not the festival in the desert in Mali, which we had hoped to attend, but perhaps even more magical because of its spontaneity.
In the morning we sit on top of a dune and watch the sun rise. The sand glows with an orange tint from the light of the African sun. We could stay here, in this calm, meditative state, but guides are loading up camels. It’s time to go. Our guide is from the town of Taouz, where the road ends. He leads this camel trip daily, sometimes twice. He doesn’t say much, only that he loves the desert.
It’s hard to imagine that a small town exists just two hours away, from what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Hotel La Tradition provides us breakfast, and then we head out…for a quick drive to the end of the road, where this part of the Sahara runs across the closed border of Algeria. We have to see the end. It’s in our nature.