In search of just deserts
The word desert is an evocative one and conjures up visions of endless sand dunes, a barren landscape interrupted only by lush but rare oasis and scenes from films with men driven mad with thirst searching for water.
The desert environment is an unfamiliar one for most of us and for this reason alone attracts those looking for adventure and the ‘romance’ of alien surroundings. The dictionary definition however is not so charismatic:
“A barren or desolate area, especially a dry, often sandy region of little rainfall, extreme temperatures, and sparse vegetation, largely devoid of life.”
Deserts of course can also be ice landscapes, but we usually think of deserts as hot during the daytime, cold at night and vast expanses of sand as far as the eye can see in all directions. This may not sound particularly inviting but the lure of the desert is often hard to resist.
Atlas Mountains roadtrip
It requires a long, but worthwhile day travelling from Marrakech to reach the Moroccan desert. The Sahara; the largest of the Worlds hot deserts, is usually envisaged when thinking of Morocco. A particularly evocative name, but much of it is actually a rocky plain which stretches almost from the Atlantic in the North East to South of Agadir.
It requires a long drive from Marrakech, several hours in fact, it is not boring or tiresome however. There are plenty of stops for photographs and refreshments along the route. A word of advice; avoid the restaurants the driver recommends, take a walk down the road, there are plenty of excellent cheaper alternatives.
There is much to see along the route with some amazing towns such as Ouarzazate, with its great ‘kasbah’ (Qassabah). This is actually the fortressed citadelle, old quarter or medina of any town or city. The challenge is attempting to find time to really dig deep and have a good explore, excursions often do not allow for this.
When Zagora is finally reached, a town on the edge of the expanse of the desert, there is an opportunity to answer the call of nature and buy a Berber headscarf for protection from the sun. The trader insists this is essential despite the fact the sun is about to drop out of the sky, maybe he means for tomorrow?
Camels and kids
Getting introduced to the camels, our new best friends and transportation into the wilderness of the desolate Moroccan desert; they seemed friendly enough and climbing aboard was fairly trouble-free. The ride out to the overnight bivouac took a little over an hour, passing through small villages with ramshackle buildings and cheeky ragamuffin children. These kids optimistically followed in the wake of our little camel train, asking each rider in turn for some money, sweets or other treats, it is the most uncomfortable part of the journey.
Arriving at our campsite which is merely a series of tents in the middle of the desert, well what more did anybody expect? Just enough time to pick one to sleep in later and then the main tent to wait for our hosts to serve up dinner.
The Berbers are the indigenous people from this part of North Africa, speaking several dialects of Berber, as well as Arabic, Darija, and either French or Spanish dependent on any former European influence. Apparently Berber women speak Arabic and as well as their own language, whilst Arabic women only speak their native language.
Traditionally considered nomadic they are originally a farmer nation, inhabiting the mountainous regions within reach of the North African coast.
Being mostly Muslim they do not drink alcohol, so when offered Berber whisky do not be too surprised that it’s a sweet mint tea! It was very refreshing and a pleasant start before serving the main courses, vegetable tangine and chicken couscous.
By the time this modest but very tasty and filling feast was finished, it was already dark outside. Looking forward to a clear sky, this one turned out a little disappointing, deserts are famous for star filled skies, this did not live up to the billing however. There was little light pollution but only a relatively small number of stars came out, obviously not aware they were part of this particular paid excursion!
We spent the evening around the campfire, our Berber hosts sang and played hand drums, encouraging us to get involved as much as possible. Music really is a universal language; none of us understood the words, but played with drums or improvised percussion instruments, such as my tripod, danced and generally had a great time. It seems likely our hosts enjoyed a few jokes at our expense, but was also equally obvious they enjoyed themselves too. This is just as well as they repeat the performance every night for most of the year.
The sleeping arrangements were less than salubrious, basically a couple of dirty blankets on top of a rotting pile of sand bags. For this reason I patted myself on the back for having the foresight to include my silk cocoon and anti-bedbug mattress cover, and actually enjoyed a decent night’s sleep.
A desert sunrise
The showers were located in a special ablutions tent, but it was soon clear these were just for show. There was not even a drip of water, but hey this was the desert after all, what else was seriously expected?
After some more mint tea it was time to head back, a shorter camel ride this time, although some still opted to walk instead. Preferring this to what had been a very uncomfortable camel ride for them the previous day.
The return mini-bus trip to Marrakech was somewhat quicker as there were fewer stops.
This was quite frustrating for me, as there were so many great photograph opportunities missed. This of course cannot be helped the driver has instructions and is there for the benefit of all passengers not just one eager photographer that would have happily stopped every few miles.
Passing through the various townships with people going about their everyday tasks, tending their crops in the neighbouring fields on land reclaimed from the desert or a river flood plain. Even in the middle of nowhere often a local would suddenly appear carrying an impossibly heavy load, or children would be walking home from school. There were just too many amazing sights that were begging for attention from my lens, this is a journey requires completing independently.
However my biggest disappointment was that this was my fourth visit to a desert and as yet I have not seen those sweeping vast expanses of sand dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see. They currently only live in my imagination and from the romanticised images of the silver screen.
Maybe next time there will be a Lawrence of Arabia moment!