So far my plan had been to visit Fez, Marrakech, the desert and the mountains. But after being in Fez for a few days I realised that I’ve had enough of cities and also it would be a better route to visit the desert first. The usual jumping off point for desert tours is Merzouga so that’s where I set my sights. I already informed my guesthouse hosts of my plans to go there. Most of them are actually from that area and they suggested I take their tour with stops along the way at a few picturesque places, a stay in their kasbah (a walled compound) and a camel tour with some nights in the desert. Their quoted price seemed a little high at about 145 Euro for two nights and while it could likely be talked down, there was another reason I turned them down. I wanted to go at my own pace, make my own arrangements, slow down and not be handed off from one agent to another and carted from one photo opportunity to the next. By the end of my Sahara leg I came to realise that the difference between travelers and tourists is that the former seek difficulties while the latter avoid them, as trite as that is.
So I bought a ticket for Rissani, the closest town to which I could find tickets at the bus station and wasted a day waiting for my overnight bus. I skipped dinner that day and realised I should keep a supply of snacks handy. Luckily I still had a bag of dates but I will need more diversity. The bus journey was really uncofmortable. Somehow this Moroccan tour bus was the least comfortable of all the ones I’ve taken. Maybe it was the missing arm rest? Though at least I had both seats to myself. At some point we stopped for a bathroom/food break. I love these late night stops at some unknown road crossing – harsh road lamps giving everything a yellow cast; taking a leak in the bush just off the road as the insects and frogs make their noises just beyond; a few of the other passengers buying a snack from the roadside joints; youth on scooters darting past; a little bubble of activity in the middle of a monotony both spatial and temporal.
Maybe I was misinformed or simply misunderstood but I arrived at my destination at 4:30am. This was three hours earlier than I planned and finding a taxi would be difficult. The other passengers dissolved into the night and as soon as I left the gates of the station a car pulled up with two dudes. One jumped out, kitted out in a blue djellabah and jovially addressed me in good English. He somehow guessed where I was staying in Fez and knew all the guys working there and I quickly learned he was from the same kasbah as what the guesthouse guys were trying to sell me. That simultaneously put me at ease that they weren’t some strnagers and alarmed me, because what are the odds? I suspected later that the guys in Fez called them up since there was only one bus and they knew when I would arrive. I turned their offer down even though they came down on the price as I made up my mind already.
They drove off but came back a couple times to try to talk me into it. But I held firm. Meanwhile sounds of a party were reaching me from a place not far and a wedding party drove by honking their horn. The sun still hadn’t come up. Soon a white SUV pulled up and an middle-aged man in a blue djellabah inroduced himself and asked if I wanted a taxi to Merzouga for 10 dhirams. Now taxis as far as I knew are Mercedes sedans but maybe things are different in the desert? So I took his offer and waved goodbye to the other guys. Then we went to another bus station and spent an hour and a half waiting for the other bus line’s bus to arrive. This is the company more popular with tourists since their busses are nicer and you can get an assigned seat. But no one wanted to come with us as they all had pre-bookings and would probably be picked up by their tour guides. We moved on. I asked if the price would still be 10 dirham since I would be the only passenger and my driver confirmed. I found it odd but went with it.
Along the way we passed two bicyclists and picked them up since they worked here according to my driver (Mohammed, one of many I have met in my few days here). So I wasn’t concerned when we got off road even though I knew there’s a paved road to Merzouga center, I thought we’d just be dropping them off. I have read that there’s a sort of scam where you are picked up by a driver, driven to their kasbah and then offered a hard sell on their tours. But that is exactly what I fell for. The surprising twist was that I was driven to the very same place I already turned down twice. These guys are very persistent. So I had to turn him down once more and argue that of course I meant “Merzouga Centre” and not some random kasbah in the middle of nowhere to his claims that this is Merzouga too. Anyway, he told me he’d drive me there when some of the tourists ending their tour would be returning an hour later. After some tea, making use of their squat toilet (my first, but by no means last in this country), checking out the facilities but mostly just moodily sitting around an hour had passed. But I was no closer to getting a ride. At this point I got up and went to talk to some of the tourists. The first couple I talked to had their own car so I begged for a ride and got it. They had a friend from Morocco traveling with them which obviously helps a ton in terms of not being taken advantage of. They gave me a ride to Rissani and helped me get on the taxi.
After my third time going on the same road I finally made it to the center. Immediately one of my fellow passengers asked me if I had anywhere to stay or do a tour and led me to his “brother’s” (or whatever) tour place. It’s a really small place and everyone knows each other. After some customary tea and such and some pretty decent bargaining on my part I booked myself a two night tour. I didn’t really get a good deal but I did knock about 30% off the initial price and they had decent trip advisor reviews. I’m sure all these places are pretty much the same anyway. it was still about 10 o’clock and the camels leave at 5:30 on account of the heat so I would be taken to a hotel to while away the hours.
I did not know what hell was but I think I found it – a modern kind of hell, not so much evil as banal, irritating you to death with small things and crushing you with boredom. The hotel’s two vast dining rooms were deserted except for a few employees smoking and watching no-budget american action films with barely any dialogue (the channel was switched at one point to a long parliamentary speech in Arabic showing me that it could always get worse). The flies were relentless and the only thing moving with any kind of vigor in the oppresive heat. There was a pool but I wasn’t getting into it if only because I didn’t want to get sunburned. No food or drink was offered though I supposed I could have ordered some. I tried to sleep since doing so on the bus provided no rest but couldn’t really do it here either. I read my book, wandered around, changed my seat multiple times, splashed some water on my neck and tried to distract myself from hunger. Eventually the agency guy came back for me, drove me to his house so I could lock up my things and inroduced me to my camel guide. I couldn’t wait to get on the way.
As many know through experience riding a camel is not very comfortable at all. I’ve already done it once in Israel but the pain is forgotten while the romantic image remains. At least this camel did not smell. But about an hour later my butt really hurt. I took a photo opportunity to get down off the camel and continued the rest of the way on foot. The reason Merzouga is such a popular spot is because it is right on edge of Erg Chebbi dunes. This is one of the few sand desert regions in the Sahara but for some reason this is how the desert is pictured in most people’s imaginations. I suppose rolling dunes are much more poetic than what looks like a vast parking lot. So obviously the dunes are very pretty during sunset, changing colors with the light and forming interesting patterns in the wind. I don’t know how the locals cope but the sand kept getting into my eyes even with sunglasses on and I spent a lot of the evening blowing my nose and rubbing my eyes.
The camp was on the other end of the dunes, you can cross the whole thing in under two hours on foot. The facilities are pretty classy for what looks like a temporary outpost: flush toilets, shower cabins and so on. The only other guests were an elderly Italian couple. The dinner was possibly the best I’ve had in Morocco and that is quite a high standard. Of course I was ravenous but that shouldn’t take away anything from the three amazing courses (soup, a kind of salady dish and a rich kafta tagine). One of the main attractions of going out into the desert is seeing the stars. I did get to look at them from the matress set out in the middle of the camp but passed out from exhaustion very soon.
Sometime during the night I stumbled into my tent as it got too cold for my bare feet and the wind started blowing sand around. After a standard breakfast – lots of different kinds of bread plus butter and jam – we set off into the storm that was still going. The guide wrapped my head and face in the berber fashion using a sheet of cloth that was too unwieldy for me to handle, it was 30 yards long. The problem was that the wind undid some of it so I just kept piling up coils around my neck. We passed by a nearly abandoned nomad village that looked like rock craigs from a distance and went to an oasis. By this time the wind ended but now the heat started. There wasn’t really anything to do at the oasis. Luckily there were a couple of Australian young women staying there and at least I had some company other than the couple local young men living/working at the oasis. We parted once the heat started dying down around 5pm. That’s the great thing about the Sahara – sure it gets pretty hot, but only for about 8 hours a day.
Back to my original camp I had another dinner though not as sumptuous since I was the only guest. Our camel, Bob Marley (every other camel in the desert is named that) whom I called Bob Mali on account of his origin, also had dinner despite being hobbled by hopping around on three legs to the next dune and finding some forage. A loose dog ran around and barked at the camel. Between the sunset and the breeze it was a beautiful scene made even more special by a cloud that sprinkled some rain on us. My plans of lying down on a dune to gaze at the stars were again dashed by the strong wind. But I did go out for a bit to look. The moon was just a sliver and it was very hard to see. I remembered my guide showing me some scorpions he captured a few hours back and I got paranoid about being stung. I couldn’t remember if they sleep at nighr or are active at night.
I did get a song as “Sahara drums” are another one of the selling points of these tours though it was little half-assed. I don’t blame them, kind of weird to outnumber your audience. I got a quick run through some drum patterns and we called it a night.