Next it was time for a road trip! Through a recommendation from a friend, we booked a private tour to the Sahara desert, since via 4X4 is pretty much the only way to get there. The desert is quite far from both Fes and Marrakech, so we decided to do the trip over 4 days so we could stop and see all the stuff along the way.
Barbary Apes and Ziz Gorges
From Fes we headed southeast towards the desert. Along the way we passed through the cedar forests of the Middle Altas Mountains, where the barbary apes live. Conveniently a lot of them seem to just hang out along the roadside so tourists can stop to take pictures. I suspect they may be lured there by enterprising individuals who then try to convince you tip them to take a picture with their extravagantly dressed horse. No joke.
Further along we passed by the Ziz Gorges. The contrast is pretty crazy because the gorge is so lush and green while everything around it is barren rocky desert. No wonder that’s where all the houses are.
Before arriving in Merzouga we stopped off at the hometown of our guide to pick up some scarves from the market. We got some complimentary red and blue ones and practiced our turban tying skills; we are pretty much pro now.
We arrived for the night at the small town of Merzouga, which is basically on the edge of the Sahara desert. It was dusty and hot (as expected) and Chris was sad our hotel didn’t have a pool, since the guy at our last hotel who tried to convince us to switch to his tour had promised a hotel pool. Ah well. It cooled off once the sun started going down, so we took a walk out onto the dunes since they were basically right outside our hotel. There were also some camels parked out there. The part of the Sahara they seem to have set up for tourists is called the Erg Chebbi sand dunes. We climbed up to the top of some nearby dunes and watched the sun set before heading back to the hotel for dinner, where we were joined by some very cute cats that I befriended by giving a few snacks.
The next day I got up to watch the sunrise (while Chris slept in) before we headed out on our 4X4 through the desert. We stopped at a nearby Gnawa camp to listen to some traditional music, before hitting a couple of lookout points.
We drove further into the desert, stopping at the home of a Berber family to have tea in a traditional tent with a very adorable child. We had our tea with bread and ghee, which Chris very proudly identified as clarified butter, though I’m pretty sure our guide didn’t understand the phrase “clarified butter” and just agreed anyways.
We continued on through the desert, doing some exciting sand driving past more berber camps and donkeys. We also came across another 4X4 which had gotten super stuck on a sand dune. They must not have had training like us (Hi Norm!) because they didn’t even have a shovel on them! Fortunately Chris and our guide helped out and after some digging by hand and pushing they were freed.
We were good and hungry after the morning excitement, so we stopped in Rissini and had “Berber pizza” for lunch. I think it’s only similar to pizza in shape, more like a giant flatbread stuffed with veggies and meat. But still delicious. As this was basically the hottest time of the day, we headed back to our hotel to rest for the afternoon, and prepare for our camel trek!
Camels and Sahara stargazing
By late afternoon, it was camel time! We got our turbans on and headed out across the dunes. The funny thing about camel riding is that I’m pretty sure it’s entirely for tourists, because the camels were never traditionally for riding. They were for carrying all your supplies while being led around by hand. This is pretty evident in the fact that the reins don’t actually allow the rider to steer the camel, which is why whenever you see a camel procession they’re all roped together and lead by one guy in front guiding the first camel. It’s a lie for lazy westerners! But still super fun, if also kind of uncomfortable.
Anyways, we trekked across the desert as the sun went down, reaching our camp in about an hour. We disembarked on the top of a big dune (our guide led the camels the rest of the way to camp) so we could try out sandboarding. I was hestitant because it seemed kind of dangerous since your feet aren’t really strapped to the board like in snowboarding, but fortunately it turns out sand is a lot slower than snow, so it wasn’t that scary in the end.
Once it was dark we made our way down to camp, where we were shown our cute little tent and mingled with the other couples staying at our camp, who were all from various parts of Europe. We were served a small feast for dinner, which was followed by some traditional drumming. We all got to try out the drums, and I’m pretty sure I’m a pro.
Also, somehow there were cats at the camp! In the middle of the desert! Do they live there? Eating desert mice or something?!
After we were tired from all the drumming, we dragged a mattress out onto a nearby sand dune to look at the stars, since you can see like all of them in the desert. It was pretty crazy.
Once Chris started falling asleep we went back to camp and snuggled into our tent for the night.
We were up early the next morning to watch the sun rise and ride back to Merzouga on our camels before it got too hot out. Since it was our last time on the camels I took about a billion pictures. That being said, I don’t think we could have ridden much longer because man did my bum hurt by then. I think because camels have an uneven and bumpy gait or something they are not nearly as comfortable as horses.
After freshening up and eating at the hotel, it was time to start the long drive down to Marrakech. First we had to pass through the dessert though. It seemed like every little region along the way had their “thing”, be it dates or argan oil or rosewater or fossils. We refrained from buying anything until we got to the fossil place. There are so many fossils in the area that they can carve big things out of the fossil-littered rock, like tables and sinks and even toilets. Chris bought a plate for his dad and I got a little camel as a memento of our desert trip.
We continued on, passing by more gorges and little towns made of red brick and mud. Some of them looked like they had been around for a long time. The most impressive was the Todra Gorge, a super deep and narrow canyon. We got out and walked that part.
Eventually we reached the Dades Valley, where there are some weird rock formations called the Monkey Toes (because they look like monkey toes). We also drove on the twistiest road ever, ending up at a cute hotel in the middle of the gorge for the night.
We were up early the next morning to complete the final leg of the drive. We started the morning with a visit to Kasbah Amridil, a very big and well restored kasbah. It’s famous for being on the 50 dirham note, as well as one of the filming locations of the movie “Hanna“.
Next up was Ouarzazate, also known as the “the Hollywood of Africa” because so many movies are filmed there. They have a bit of a museum full of old props, sets, and film equipment. Big movies including Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Kingdom of Heaven, and Gladiator have been filmed there, as well as various parts of Game of Thrones.
Our last stop before lunch was Ait Ben Haddou, a huge ancient fortified city. It’s made up of a whole bunch of clay walls and kasbahs, with a winding maze of streets and stairs up to the top. It’s pretty crazy looking and is featured in a lot of the movies filmed in Ouarzazate.
Our climb to the top made us pretty hungry, so we had lunch at a nearby restaurant before continuing on.
Tizi n’tichka Pass
It wasn’t too much farther to Marrakech, but first we had to cross the High Atlas Mountains, via the Tizi n’tichka Pass. This section of the mountains was very striking because of the contrast between the red rock and green trees.
By the end of the day we had reached our last stop, Marrakech!