The Sahara

Trip Start May 15, 2009
Trip End Jun 07, 2009

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009


This past weekend we took a road trip to the Sahara, rode camels and camped out under the stars.  I'm so glad we chose to drive rather than fly because we got to see so much of the country - we essentially drove across Morocco (northwest-ish to southeast'ish) right through the Atlas Mountains.  What better way to see the country?  Suffice it to say it was f'ing AWESOME!  I've been looking forward to the Sahara for months and it totally exceeded expectations.  Thirteen people from our group went, and we left home base at 3pm on Friday.  The CCS staff was so sweet when we left - Mohamed, Abdellah, Khadija and Abdu all walked us out and waved us off.  Khadija was taking pictures of us (in case we didn't make it back??  ha ha).  Seriously though, I thought it was so nice and special of them to take such interest in our adventure.  It was a big deal trip for us and I think they were excited for us (and maybe just to be rid of us for a weekend).  :-) 

We had a guide named Hamsa who coordinated the logistics and then traveled with us every step of the way.  He is Berber and grew up in Southern Morocco.  He is well connected and coordinated everything we needed for the weekend - transportation, food, hostel and camels for a really good deal.  We were so lucky to have him.  I was geeked out when he put on his traditional Berber garb at the gas station just outside of Rabat.  The jelleba went on and then . . . the turban!!  Yes, yes, yes.  I really felt we were on our way when I saw Hamsa don his turban!  I'm not sure why he chose to take it off in Rabat, but he wore it the rest of the weekend and I think it is part of his typical everyday wear.  We saw many men wearing that style of dress when we got further south in Morocco.  He kept apologizing that his English was limited, but I thought he spoke it pretty well.  A heck of a lot better than we speak Arabic!  At our first gas station stop I pulled out my handy dandy Moroccan Arabic phrase book and dove into conversation with him.  It was fun - he shared that he went to University and has a degree; he used to speak English but lost much of the vocabulary from lack of practice; and that he's been taking people on trips to the Sahara for the last few years.  He was a little shy at first, but came out of his shell as the weekend went on. 

It was a nice drive even though the weather was overcast and misty - the first time without sunshine since I've been here.  After we got out of Rabat, the terrain shifted to farm country.  Miles and miles of fields with goats and sheep, and herders tending their flocks.  There aren't any fences to keep the animals off the road so the herders and sheep dogs have their work cut out for them.  We saw a lot of the animals perilously close to the highway.  Several times we had to stop for donkeys and sheep in the roads.  We saw a rainbow, and then . . . we passed by several fields of blooming sunflowers!  What an awesome sight. 

We stopped for the night in a small town called Azrou located on the cusp of the Atlas Mountains.  We had tea and dinner, then settled in for the evening.  It was a hostel and there were four people in my room.  The bathroom was interesting - there was a sink, toilet stool, and shower all right next to each other with no separation whatsoever.  The shower drained into a hole in the floor about two feet away from the toilet stool.  It was cramped but served the purpose.  I took a picture.  I have a theme going - the bathrooms of Morocco.  Should make quite a slide show!  Unfortunately, I couldn't sleep because a pack of dogs somewhere nearby barked all night long (and I mean all night).  I forgot my earplugs.  Got about 3 hours of sleep tops.  Everyone else in my room slept through it.  I wish I could do that!

We were up at 7am Saturday morning, had breakfast and hit the road by 8am.  We stopped about 30 minutes outside Azrou to see monkeys who live in a forest there.  The monkeys were friendly and came right up to us for some peanuts.  Apparently the forest is full of monkeys.  It would be fun to walk deeper in to see them in their natural habitat, but we stayed near the main drag so we could get back on the road.  We met several friendly monkeys and got some fun pics so it was all good.  We stopped for lunch and for pictures along the way.  It was such an amazing drive.  The landscape shifted from farmland to dry rocky terrain, to prairies full of blooming flowers in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.  As we approached the mountains we saw snow covering the peaks in the distance.  We drove up and through the mountains and back down the other side into the hot arrid desert country with rocky gorges, palm trees and stone dwellings (similar to Mesa Verde) built into the mountainside (all this within one day!).  I was listening to music on my Zune and set it to U2 - in my opinion the most appropriate soundtrack for this life experience.  When 'Heartland' came on I really think I had some sort of spiritual experience (I won't say religious experience because that wouldn't be appropriate for me, but I do think something happened).  I had such a zen feeling of awe as I took in the view, and everything else fell away.  I am in Africa, baby! 

All along the journey - especially in the High Atlas - we saw shacks standing in the "middle of nowhere".  Some were built out of mud and brick, and some looked like they were practically built of garbage with plastic tarps covering the roofs and bricks or tires holding the tarps on.  I spotted a few people here and there working the land - by hand.  Men were in the fields planting acres of land with hoes and shovels.  I saw one man tilling his field with a donkey pulling an old-fashioned plow.  I didn't see many women, just a few here and there walking along the road.  Also saw some kids (boys) riding mules hauling materials.  There were shepherds in the hills, either standing or sitting, keeping watch over the animals.  There weren't any other people or buildings for miles around, so I imagine they stay out there for days at a time. 

I saw a couple of pregnant women and it reminded me of our conversation with Mohamed last week.  He said that last winter 18 women died during childbirth in the High Atlas.  It is very remote, the weather gets bad and there isn't any medical support to speak of.  They're on their own.  They are uneducated and the illiteracy rate is 80%.  Women don't get any prenatal care and pregnancies are very difficult - the death rate from childbirth is high.  It's hard to imagine this in 2009, but it is a different world here.  It was fascinating to see these people in their environment and I couldn't help but wonder what their lives are like day to day.  They looked so weathered and worn.  We don't know anything about hard work compared to these people.

We drove through several remote villages along the way, which I loved.  People looked at us as we drove through, probably wondering what we were doing there (not many tourists!).  Kids waved.  We saw open-air shops with freshly slaughtered animals hanging, fruit and vegetable stands, rudimentary cafes, etc.  The FDA definitely hasn't found this area - it takes some getting used to seeing these poor goats and sheep hanging - butchers will just slice off what a customer wants right then and there.  No refrigeration.  Old men were sitting outside on stoops in front of their buildings - many were in traditional jellebas and white hats.  Others wore plain pants and shirts.  The women were dressed in veils, but some towns were much more conservative than others.  We went through one where all of the women wore black veils and robes - and that was close to the desert so must've been SO hot!  I just can't imagine.  We went through another where many wore white veils.  There isn't a one-size-fits-all for how the women dress in rural Morocco - they're all conservative but the colors and styles seem to vary somewhat by towns and some are more extreme than others.            

We arrived at the Merzouga Dunes around 4:30pm on Saturday.  Welcome to the Sahara!!  We had tea and got our stuff organized for the night.  We donned our turbans, with some help from Hamsa and a couple others who work there.  I still don't know how to do it - they make it look so easy.  I still have the scarf and will have to practice my technique at home.  :-)  We boarded our camels and were on our way by 5pm or so.  Riding a camel isn't hard once you get the hang of it.  They are really tall, though!  For the first 15 minutes I felt like I was going to fall off with every step we took, and going downhill - wow!  I thought I was going to topple right off and somersault over my camel's head.  Then, I got the hang of it and it was really fun.  I named my camel Rodney.  

We got to our campsite just before sunset, and attempted to climb the dunes.  We wanted to see sunset from the highest point possible, but . . . it's really hard to climb a mountain of sand!  I gave up halfway up the dune and just dropped into the sand for about 15 minutes.  A couple people made it all the way up and then slid back down.  Hamsa basically ran up the dune, which blew our minds.  After dinner, our camel guides drummed and sang Berber songs.  They wanted us to sing too and put us on the spot to share song ideas and try out the drums.  We blanked out on songs, but tried some Bob Marley plus a few cheesy camp tunes.  I preferred when they sang the tribal songs - just love the sound of the drums and the tribal chants - it is so hypnotic!  I recorded a little so check out the attached videos.  It was pitch black so you can't see them, but can hear them!

Several of us decided to sleep outside, rather than in the Berber tents.  I'm so glad I chose to do that - it's a once in a lifetime kind of thing and it was warm enough.  I pulled a mat out of the tent, found a spot on the sand and settled in under a blanket (that had been used as cushion on the camels!).  The guys were still drumming when I went to bed, so I listened to them while looking at the stars.  I could see the big and little dipper (once someone pointed them out) and saw three shooting stars within 30 minutes.  I stayed awake as long as I could - I didn't want to fall asleep and miss star gazing in the Sahara.  I slept about 3.5 hours that night. 

We were up at 4:45am and back on our camels by 5am.  It was liberating not having to worry about clean clothes or showers.  We slept in our clothes from the day before and just up and went.  (turbans are fabulous for hiding bed-head hair!)  We boarded our camels, rode a few minutes, and stopped to watch the sunrise from atop our camels. 

Then we rode back out of the desert.  I wasn't sore at first . . . but about halfway in every step Rodney took hurt my legs, bottom - everything.  Especially going downhill.  I'm still a little sore!  As we left out on Saturday night, one of the guys called out "See you tomorrow, inshallah!" (god willing).  When we returned Sunday morning, he said "Welcome back, hamdullah!" (thanks be to god).  No truer words.  Some people in our group are more outdoorsy than others and I think some were wondering if or when they would make it out of the desert!  :-)  (Sidebar:  It's funny but I haven't been worried about anything on this trip.  Even going with the guides - I have to laugh thinking about it.  We all just gave this guy our money, piled into a van with a driver (whose name I still don't know) and Hamsa who we met just then and took off driving on a 20 hour round trip road trip - they barely spoke English and we barely speak Arabic.  We didn't know where we were going except that we were desert bound.  Pure trust at it's finest.  They were great, though, and there was absolutely nothing to worry about.)

Our drive home was uneventful - for the most part.  We had to stop once for camels crossing the road outside of Merzouga.  Then, we got stopped by the cops for "speeding".  How could they tell with no radar detectors?  I guess we just looked like we were moving too fast.  Our poor driver had to get out and talk to the cops - Hamsa stayed in the passenger seat and explained we were going 62 in a 60 kilometer/hour zone.  The cop just wanted money.  Our driver refused to pay him off and took a ticket instead, which cost him 400 dirham.  We felt so bad, we took up a collection to help him pay for it.  Hamsa refused our offer saying he'd help the driver cover it, but one of the ladies snuck the envelope to the driver later.  He was so nice and we didn't want him losing any income from the trip.  This was the first time I'd seen this type of corrupt police activity in action - had only heard about it until then.  Anyway, that was the extent of the excitement. 

Everyone was exhausted and many slept most of the way - not me though.  I still can't sleep in moving vehicles.  I just stared out the window, trying to take it all in.  I was practically delerious from exhaustion, and then we stopped for tea in Azrou.  Tea??!!!  Can't we just keep going?  But, it turns out Mohamed had been hiking in the monkey forest.  He had been in touch with Hamsa and stopped by the hostel we stayed in Friday night to meet up with us and catch a ride back to Rabat.  Our van pulls in, and there's Mohamed!  He just pops up in random places.  

We had tea and said our goodbyes to Hamsa (he turned back home from there rather than going on to Rabat).  It was sad saying goodbye to him after such a great weekend, and all the girls gave him hugs.  He was shy to begin with, and I don't think he knew what to do when 12 Western girls lined up for hugs.  

We got home at 7:30pm Sunday night.  It was a lot of driving but worth every minute.  I am feeling so fortunate and thankful.  How many people get to road trip across Morocco with the locals, ride camels into the Sahara and camp out under the stars?  It was a pure Moroccan experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life.  Hamdullah!
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cleo2471 on

Re: Wow!
Shokran bezzef! (thank you very much) It was an outstanding weekend!

cleo2471 on

Re: Patty On a Camel!!!
Shokran bezzef! (thank you very much) It was fabulous! I loved the desert! on


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