Sahara Desert, Erg Chebbi / Outside Merzouga, Morocco / May 2016
On the vastly varied landscapes of Morocco, the journey out to the sands, and the dream-like stillness of the Sahara Desert.
Immediately when you arrive in Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute silence prevails outside the towns; and within, even in busy places like the markets, there is a hushed quality in the air, as if the quiet were a conscious force which, resenting the intrusion of sound, minimizes and disperses sound straightaway. … Perhaps the logical question to ask at this point is: Why go? The answer is that when a man has been there and undergone the baptism of solitude he can’t help himself. Once he has been under the spell of the vast luminous, silent country, no other place is quite strong enough for him, no other surroundings can provide the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something that is absolute. He will go back, whatever the cost in time or money, for the absolute has no price.
– Paul Bowles
We took the long way from Marrakesh to Fez (as many visitors do) primarily for a detour to the Sahara Desert. The desert has long occupied a significant place in popular imagination, and for years it had dominated mine with the promise of a night spent amidst endless sand dunes under a million stars. Our last trip to Morocco had focused largely on the Atlantic coast, so the journey to the desert and back provided a continually surprising glimpse of the varied landscapes of the interior.
From Marrakesh we headed west for the High Atlas mountains, followed by threatening rain clouds that eventually opened on us at Tizi n’Tichka. We snaked up and over the mountains via hairpin turns and switchbacks, and at the top looked back down on the road we’d come by, silvery with rain and looking impossibly circuitous. On the other side of the mountains, the land flattened out into a red and rocky Martian landscape with the occasional Berber village crafted from stones and mud bricks. Eventually we entered the Dades Valley, where lush green oases began to appear, filled with date palms standing erect like sentries.
We could guess our arrival into the “valley of 1000 kasbahs” by the ruins of fortified mud citadels and watchtowers around every corner.1One of the best preserved examples, Ait Ben Haddou, is so picturesque in all its mud-brick majesty that it has been featured in numerous films and television series, including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones. A thriving film business has developed in the area outside the desert, with the barren landscape serving as a stand-in for all manner of countries, and several film studios and schools have popped up in remote Ouarzazate (or “Ouallywood”) to meet the growing demand.
Further on, near Skoura, the surprises continued, particularly an extensive oasis and pink roses (now in season), growing wild and in bloom everywhere. A local industry has developed around these roses, which grow only in Iran and Morocco and are used for beauty as well as food products. We garlanded ourselves and for the rest of the journey the sweet fragrance filled the air. A bit of driving further and we reached Todra Gorge, where we watched daredevil climbers scaling the sheer rock faces. In Rissani we stopped to share Berber pizza and Berber whiskey with a local family before wandering through the local market and its donkey parking lot, where dozens of donkeys waited patiently for their owners to finish the day’s shopping.
At Merzouga, the last stop before the desert, we walked through an oasis planted in full view of the sea of dunes of Erg Chebbi, the tangle of vegetation supported by a complex system of irrigation channels tapping into reserves of water deep beneath the sands. Each slim plot of land in the oasis was packed with plants – pomegranate, alfalfa, dates, spring onions, almonds – awaiting the prescribed times for residents to use water. Around 10,500 years ago, the whole desert was like this, lush and filled with water, but as we watched a farmer painstakingly carrying water around his plot we sensed how precious the resource has now become.
To reach the desert, we hopped onto camels who padded sure-footedly through the shifting sands, never slipping and largely oblivious to our discomfort at the lurching that comes from sitting astride their hump. They are impossibly large, and the sensation of being atop one is something I might describe as riding a dinosaur with false eyelashes. The vantage point, though, is unparalleled, as the sands stretch out in all directions, glowing a deep rose gold and seeming to undulate in the changing shadows. The blue of the sky is exactly complementary and the contrast is therefore magnified, lending the landscape its surreal quality.
Upon reaching our tents, we feasted on tagines until we were so full we had to lie down, and above us were only the stars. We fell asleep to the sounds of Berber drumming, and when this faded away the silence felt full, as if laden with a thousand and one more stories and secrets. In the morning, the nocturnal life of the desert revealed itself in tracks everywhere – foxes, mice, insects – and two birds chased each other in the air, whistling a haunting tune. Back in Merzouga the experience seemed already a dream, were it not for the dunes still rising behind us in the distance. One night in the desert had been like entering an hourglass and living inside it, where there is only sand and the concept of time is irrelevant.
And . . .