Erg Chebbi - off to the desert

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Africa » Morocco » Souss-Massa-Draâ » Boumalne Dades
February 5th 2019
Published: February 7th 2019
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Today we’re off to the desert. We set off north east, on a good, straight road running through the usual arid landscape. The route is the main rose growing region of Morocco, which comes alive in spring when the roses flower and production of rose water and other products is in full swing, but right now the bushes are bare and the shops all closed. Well, except for one which has opened up specially to accommodate yet another coach party of Chinese tourists. We take a couple of detours to visit two famous gorges which are, picturesque but don’t live up to their billing as the “Moroccan Grand Canyon”. The Dades gorge has finger like rock formations, while the Todra gorge is an impressive deep slash through the rock. We’re let out of our vehicle to walk along the road next to the river, which runs through a narrow canyon with near vertical walls 1000 feet high. It’s a popular place for rock climbers, who cling precariously to the cliffs as we watch in fascinated horror. It’s also the only place we’ve been bothered by beggars. The nomad women come down from the hills nearby where the men are tending their animals to collect water in plastic containers, while the urchin children beg from foreigners and locals alike. On the way back to the main road, we stop for lunch at a small tourist cafe which offers average food at highly inflated prices for – yes, mostly the Chinese.

Eventually we turn east before dropping south again towards Merzouga, which is the starting point for the desert camp. From the car, we can see long lines of mounds of earth, about ten feet high. Aziz explains these are access points to an extensive underground irrigation system, possibly before the Romans conquered “Mauretania”, and we stop to see one in more detail. Each mound provides access to the water tunnel, and is there not to pull up water but to allow someone to be lowered down and clean dirt out of that section of the tunnel. We go down into the tunnel and are surprised how large it is. We can stand upright in it, and it’s about three feet wide and at this point about 50 feet deep. Aziz says that it doesn’t carry water for most of the year these days, but still fills up after the winter snow in the High Atlas melts. It feeds oases which are miles away. As it’s a communally owned system, every farmer in the oasis has to take responsibility for keeping a section clean.

As we drive on, Aziz points out areas where the farmers have built a latticework structure of sand defences from palm fronds, in a losing battle to stop the sand encroaching ever further into the non sandy section of the desert. Merzouga and the small towns beyond it are mostly occupied by Berbers, who have abandoned their traditional nomadic existence in favour of a settled life. Tourism is now the fifth largest contributor to the Moroccan economy (behind agriculture, phosphates, minerals and money sent home from abroad) and it’s an easier, more comfortable life to live in a proper house and rent your camels out for tourists to ride on. It makes sense, but it still seems sad that the nomadic customs are dying out and will presumably be entirely forgotten at some point in the future.

We arrive at the departure point for our camp. Our luggage is loaded into a 4x4 while we are led to our camels. David’s camel is still a youngster and is not at all keen on work. He needs a lot of encouragement to get down to allow David to get on, and makes loud complaining noises for the entire journey. It’s easy enough to climb onto the camels, but distinctly unnerving when the camel stands up, pitching first forwards then backwards before levelling out. The first few minutes feel very precarious, but we soon settle into a soothing rhythm. We acquire a ridiculous belief that we are expert riders. The ride to the camp takes about 50 minutes, crossing through large fixed dunes called ergs, which are starting to turn a beautiful shade or red as the sun drops. We decline the offer to dismount and climb a relatively low dune to sit and wait an hour to watch the sunset, and carry on to the camp. The camels spend the night in a sand depression on the other side of the camp, so we have to scramble up and down a small dune to reach camp, which rapidly reminds us how hard it is to walk in sand, and how much sand gets in your shoes. We’re welcomed with a refreshing glass of mint tea and biscuits, and shown to our tent, one of eight arranged round a small campfire. The tent feels almost hot, having been in the full sun for several hours, and has its own en suite facilities. Mindful of how cold it will get, we add extra blankets to the bed, and take a solar powered hot shower while it’s still warm. This turns out to be a very sensible move!

We decide against spending half an hour or more climbing a huge, very steep dune to watch the sun set, and instead opt to sit on a couple of chairs on the small dune just above our camp. We’re just thinking how peaceful it is when eight motorbikes roar up and stop on a dune a few hundred feet away. We can hear the guide instructing the party on the correct technique to get to the top of the biggest erg. Surely not? It’s 500 feet high and looks to have an angle of nearly 45 degrees. But yes, the first bike sets off and heads up the erg. Towards the top, the engine sounds as it is about to cut out, but the bike manages a left turn and traverses its way to the top safely. It is followed by the next bike, and the next.... the noise of the bikes stops just in time for the sunset, which is OK but not as amazing as we’d hoped. Time for dinner. We pick a table in the dining tent and slowly get to meet the other guests. Two Australian teachers working in Hong Kong, two Italians, a Pakistani couple, a Chinese lad working in the USA and four Americans who all originally met in Hong Kong. We’re served soup, and then each table receives two massive plates of extremely tasty food – goat, breaded turkey, rice, and lots of vegetables.

By the time we leave dinner it is absolutely freezing. Sara starts to shake uncontrollably with the cold. We decide to clean our teeth, add another blanket to the bed, and climb into bed to keep warm. The staff are putting on a display of Berber music, but we can hear it absolutely fine from the warmth and comfort of the bed. We’ve donned long sleeved T shirts and pyjama legs, and kept our socks on. This is enough to keep us warm in bed, though it’s necessary to put the sheet over our faces, and the weight of so many blankets makes it surprisingly hard to turn over in bed. These are big thick camel hair felt blankets, not the ubiquitous colourful Chinese ones you see everywhere.

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