After an afternoon of shopping around in Marrakech, we booked our trip to the desert. We don’t usually book group tours – we try to travel the way locals do – but this ended up being much more efficient (in both time and money).
We joined a van with six other travelers, and we were off through the mountains. Before lunch we made it to Ait Benhaddou.
Ait Benhaddou and the nearby city of Ouazazate are famous for their roles in film. American film in particular. Parts of Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones were filmed here (for GoT fans, parts of Astapor and Yunkai were filmed here). Some buildings built for Lawrence of Arabia still stand, but since the 1980s the city has been designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO, so the fighting pit from Gladiator had to be taken apart before the film crew left.
Our next stop, Ouarzazate, was uneventful but we replaced a couple of passengers who had switched vehicles at Ait Benhaddou. Despite our efforts at finding the best tour company to book with, all of the other passengers had booked through other agencies (though some had paid more). They were three couples: one from Barranquilla, Colombia and living in Belgium, one from France/Brazil/Lebanon, and one from Switzerland/India. We spoke most with the Colombians, who were pleased that we had previously enjoyed two trips to Colombia. Their English was better than our Spanish, but after we told them of our plans to visit Spain, they pushed me to practice my Spanish a bit. It was interesting that of the three other couples, only one individual presently lived in the country of her birth.
The eight of us went where the van went, often with little explanation. We knew up front that we hadn’t purchased a tour with an English speaking guide, so it’s not as though this was unexpected but still a little odd at times. Instead, the driver would randomly stop, declare it was picture time, and use the break for a smoke. For instance, near the end of the first day we stopped at a canyon with interesting rock formations, and dutifully took a bunch of pictures.
That evening we stayed at a hotel in beautiful Dades Gorge, east of the Atlas Mountains. Although in the middle of nowhere, the hotel had a tv/satellite connection where we watched a soccer match between Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich (another subject to discuss with my new Colombian friends). We even finally had the opportunity to sample some Moroccan wine. The bottle said “Cabernet Sauvignon” but, based on taste, I wouldn’t have guessed.
The next morning we went to the Tudra Gorge, which again reminded us of the Southwest. It’s a tall and narrow gorge, and isn’t particularly long – we walked the full length.
While there was no currently active hotel in the Tudra Gorge, there was one that had been open until about a year ago, when I giant rock fell on it. Luckily, the rock fell about 30 minutes after lunch was over and the crushed room had cleared out.
We then loaded back into the van and made our way to our second roadside lunch. Neither of the tour lunches were great, and they were above normal Moroccan prices (not included in the tour price of course), but they were ok.
Then the van took us to the town of Merzouga, where we could see that we were at the edge of the big dunes of the Sahara. While the book says these dunes don’t stretch all the way across the Sahara, they looked like it.
And then our driver left. No guide, no camels, no nothing. Just hanging out in a building at the edge of the desert. The wind picked up and it started raining. We waited. Probably for a couple hours.
Finally a couple guys and eight camels showed up, so up on the camels we went. This was the moment that we had been waiting for — riding our camels across the sands of the Sahara. Unfortunately, it rained a bit on the camel ride. Our fellow travelers had packed for dry Morocco, but since we were packed for a year we luckily had our rain jackets and bag covers.
After an hour, we reached our camp. The camp consisted of Berber tents in (what felt like) the middle of desert. Moroccan carpets covered the floors and simple mattresses were placed on the floor. The local cat quickly introduced himself before we had dinner and an authentic (maybe?) Berber drum circle.
It rained overnight, meaning that we had wet camels for our return. It was a beautiful sunrise over the dunes nonetheless.
After making it back and our van eventually showing up, we were dropped by the side of the road to connect to Fes. Four of our fellow travelers had booked ongoing transit to Fes as part of their tour, but our agency told us we would need to work it out along the way. Elizabeth asked the driver the price to go to Fes, which the driver told us (presumably with some markup, but you’re in the desert so what are you going to do?). And since there were three couples, we offered to pay a third. Of course, as soon as the new driver spoke to our tour driver, our price increased. We tried to bargain — and we are usually pretty good at bargaining — but we were stuck on the side of the road in the desert so what were we going to do? Another tourist tax.
Next up: Fes.