The Road to Merzouga

Trip Start Jan 31, 1996
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Auberge L' Oasis

Flag of Morocco  ,
Tuesday, April 24, 2001

From the town of Tetouan just south of Ceuta, we caught a local bus for Fez, a mostly picturesque 5- hour ride. We were the only non-Moroccans throughout the whole trip.

The imperial city of Fez (two others are Marrakech and Meknes). The Fez medina, where we chose to stay is like being at another place at another time. We hired a guide for a 1/2 day and were taken to places in the depths of the medina where no foreigners were seen. We visited tanneries, mosques, ancient bakeries and carpet factories. We saw for sale a meat market that still hung heads of some sort of small animal. One of the heads had been placed on the ground, beside the table where a cat was having a fine feast. Cats have the good life here. They're everywhere and not underfed. Cats are the animals that the prophet Mohammed singled out for kind treatment. Dogs aren't so lucky. After patting a dog, Muslims must wash their hands seven times before entering a mosque it is said. We stayed at a neat little hotel with a terrace overlooking the late night action, wondering what Fez was like when it was founded back in 789 AD. We were up at the crack of dawn the following morning for a 9-hour journey through the High Atlas Mountains and onward to the Sahara. For this part of the trip we rented a car. Upon arrival at the last town, Rissani, before entering the desert, you are descended upon by hordes of guides. This is a very uncomfortable experience. We weren't sure if we needed a guide and were equally not sure if we wanted one of these guides. It was however about an hour and a half before sundown and we reluctantly decided to hire one. It was probably a good idea (for the first time traveler) as there are no signs and it is a 35 km journey across the piste to the outpost of Merzouga. Pistes by definition is "poor track", however, there is very little track so that getting lost in the desert could have been a real possibility.

The sun was beginning to set upon our arrival in Merzouga. We found a great place right in front of the highest sand dune in the area. From Auberge L'Oasis you have a breathtaking view of the dune. We chose, for $3.00 p.p. to sleep on the roof top terrace. Mats, pillows and blankets provided, our ceiling, the desert sky. We were awakened by the light of day at 5:30 a.m. Fortunately, the sun had not risen over our dune. It wasn't until 5:45 a.m. that it appeared. The colours that appear at that time of day are fascinating as the sun shines through the cloud. Depending on conditions, the colour can change from almost black to clay type red in seconds. After downing a quickly prepared, high-octane cafe au lait, we decided to walk up the 615-foot dune. 615 feet up a hill of sand is kind of difficult. It took almost an hour, but the view from the summit was remarkable.

That afternoon, Ellen and I mounted our camels. Along with our Arabic speaking only guide, Mustafa, we were off on a 2- hour trek into the Sahara. We arrived at a two bush, one-tree oasis a couple of hours before sundown. We helped Mustafa construct a 10' x 25' Berber tent, then watched as he prepared a tajine pot dinner of meat and vegetables. After a wonderful belly-filling of tagine and cheese, we were ready for bed. Mustafa had tied the camels' front legs together so they wouldn't leave us in the desert to fend for ourselves. It seemed cruel, but the thought being in the desert without camels was a much more unpleasant thought. As the sun went down so did the temperature. We had no way of knowing the actual temperature but it took five woolen blankets to keep us warm. It wasn't until about an hour after Ellen and Mustafa started sawing logs that my little pea-brain went on automatic pilot. My eyes opened wide as I stared at the complete darkness, wind whistling through the tent seams. What if Mustafa slits our throats and steals our wallets? What if a band of angry nocturnal Arab villains slits both our throats and Mustafa's taking all of our wallets. What if Mustafa simply doesn't want to be around Westerners any more and leaves us there all alone? This thought caused the most dread. In the desert, knowing the direction you want to travel means little. If you try walking where you shouldn't you'll find yourself trudging in ankle deep sand. If you walk down a little hill, the one you have to go back up could seem ten times as high. Within an hour or so, you would be exhausted, no further ahead and you would die. There would not likely be anyone to come to you rescue.

That being said, I did fall into a deep sleep. The sun again rose at 5:30 a.m. My strong sense of bravery overtook me, I'd made it through the night. As I made my way towards the door a scorpion scampered past my bare feet. I sheepishly pointed it out to Mustafa who shrugged his shoulders as if to say "yeah, so what". After a breakfast of cheese, bread and fruit, we were on our way back to Auberge L'Oaisis. Our Saharan adventure complete, we packed and made ready for our trip back across the piste and so called civilization. The owner of the Auberge, one of many brothers (I should add that there was a total absence of women at this place) suggested that we travel back the same way that we had come. We had read in our guidebook that there was a better way of getting back, which would bring us into the town of Erfoud. Erfoud was a little further than the way we came in via Rissani, but we wanted to try it. The owner implored us not to go that way, saying that the piste was in very bad shape and that we would bet lost. He said that for only a few Dirhan (Moroccan money) he would provide us with a reliable guide; back to the safety of Rissani. Ellen and I talked it over, asked ourselves how the piste could be worse on one stretch of flat land than the other, then said thanks but no thanks to the owner. We were of course a little bit nervous about setting out on our own to Erfoud (40km), but what the hell, this was an adventure trip wasn't it? We made it, quite uneventfully, to Erfoud in about an hour. It wasn't until we reached Erfoud that we both realized the owner was essentially asking us to give his guide a ride to Rissani and then pay him as well.
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