A sea of endless, sweeping, sand dunes which change colour in tandem with the sun. A night sky bristling with stars brighter than diamonds. The pin-drop silence that only nature can muster. Aah, the immensity of life and being part of it one-on-one!
Camping under a silver full moon in the Sahara Desert was the reason I travelled to Morocco last November. It was something I had fantasized about since as long as I could remember. It was the reason my heart thumped a little harder and my goose bumps rose a wee bit higher whilst I packed for my three-week trip. Yes, I knew there were going to be lots of other wonderful experiences, but this, this was special.
In my ignorance I expected to simply walk into the bone-dry fringes of the Sahara Desert which fell inside Morocco’s borders, once I left Fes. Wrong.
My journey of 470 kilometres took me through European-styled pristine and chilly hill-stations to 360-million-year-old fossil land choc-o-bloc with ammonites, trilobites, and orthoceras. I met proud, independent, solitary Amazigh nomads in their bare tents in the Middle Atlas and broke into giggles with schoolgirls at Rissani, once the ancient gold-trading centre of Sijilmasa.
Though it was the Sahara Desert which I was in search of, the road trip once again reinforced the oft-proclaimed piece of wisdom. Enjoy the journey itself, for it is no less spectacular.
Back in my high-rise Mumbai apartment, as I zeroed in on the images I wanted to include in this post, I ended up selecting half of them from the 2-day road trip itself. The Sahara Desert, albeit if it was only its fringes, will always be my favourite place in this big, beautiful world. But it was all the more special for the road I took to reach it. 😊
This was my first stop, and my first surprise. I had to pinch myself to check I was not dreaming, because this was straight from alpine Europe. Ifrane, in the Middle Atlas, modelled on the lines of a “garden city,” was built by the French administration in 1928 so its officers would “feel at home” in Morocco.
Now, humans could learn a thing or two from these endangered Barbary Apes on how to pose for the camera. Unique to the Atlas Mountains, and unlike most species, the male monkeys play a key role in raising the young.
As I travelled south, the Amazigh presence became more pronounced. I met this Amazigh nomad family on my way through the mountains. Amazigh meaning “free-born,” are the pre-Arab, fiercely-independent inhabitants of North Africa. All this lady wanted from me was cream for her winter-chapped hands. Yes, I gave her my jar. 🙂
The one on the extreme right in the back row was my lunch. Just kidding. But hey, this little restaurant had the most amazing bean soup.
Gorge du Ziz in the Middle Atlas. One of the world’s most dangerous roads, the cliff highway is lined with dramatic sheer drops plunging deep into the Ziz river.
A row of medieval Amazigh kataras [underground irrigation canals] to move water beneath the arid Sahara Desert.
Meet 360-million-year-old Ms. [or maybe it is Mr.] Trilobite, now a little souvenir in a fossil factory in Erfoud. Back in the Devonian Period, Erfoud formed part of a large prehistoric sea-bed. This has resulted in the land being rich in fossils. Why, even all the local hotels have fossil-filled bathroom counters!
Legendary Sijilmasa, the gold-trading centre of the trans-Saharan caravan route up until the 14th Century. At one time it was brimming with palaces and souks, and was one of the most powerful cities in Africa. Its modern name is Rissani.
Amazigh culture is typified by bright symbolic colours and designs. The above are just two variants of their carpets, a key part of their homes, be it in the mountains or desert, on built-up farmhouses or make-shift tents.
Lunch on Day 2, this time a Berber pizza aka Calzone indigenous to Southern Morocco. Amazighs were given the nomenclature “Berber” [derived from the term Barbarian] by the Arabs. There is an active ongoing drive by the Amazighs to reclaim their identity.
Moroccan happiness. Most of that huge turban in Amazigh ethnic flag colours is meant to be used as a shield from the desert sand. The red [partly showing] mark in the background is the Amazigh people’s symbol.
And finally, I reach Merzouga, near the Algerian border, from where I set off for Erg Chebbi in the north Saharan steppes with my very own camel, who went by the name of Bob Marley, and guide, Salim.
Loving my work as I do [I am an instructional designer and training facilitator by profession], our evening was spent singing Bob Marley songs in honour of my camel and English spelling lessons for Salim. Salim, a desert nomad, had never been to school. He did not even know how old he was. Yet, his love for learning and grasping power was mind-blowing.
My overnight camp. The room on the left with the kilim spread out was my tent. Don’t miss the full moon.
The Sahara. More beautiful than how I had ever conceived it to be. More ethereal. More magical. 9.2 million sq. kms. The size of China or the US. The largest hot desert in the world. The harshest environment on earth. Not all of it is surreal sand dunes though. Large tracts of barren mountains, shrub, and rock comprise most of the expanse. Erg Chebbi, which I explored, lies on its fringes and spreads for 28 km, with dunes up to 150 metres high. My trip was an afternoon, night, and morning long with sunset, moonlight, and sunrise thrown in for full effect.
Time to leave. I bring back with me memories and conversations, and a deeper understanding of the desert and the Amazigh people. I leave behind footsteps … on shifting sands. ❤
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my travels to Morocco for 3 weeks in November-December, 2018. To read more posts in my Morocco series, click here.]