The Road to Timbuktu – Sahara Desert, Morocco
I drove 9 HOURS from Marrakech to a place called Merzouga, and I only stopped once😁 For some reason, it went really fast. I listened to my precious podcasts the whole way, mainly Fresh Air episodes (love you, Terry!). The changing landscape was really entertaining too.
It turns out, I was following “The Road to Timbuktu”, a trade route used in the Middle Ages to move ‘goods’ (mainly, gold, ivory, salt, and also slaves) from the coast to Timbuktu. Timbuktu is still a town… I didn’t know this. It’s in present-day country of Mali, but during medieval times was a part of Morocco. I went on the route through Morocco: Marrakech, to what is present-day Rissani (then called Sijilmasa), and through the rest of Morocco (where I stopped near Merzouga, in a village called Hassilabied, which is only 20 kms away from the Algerian border).
The area outside of Marrakech is green and relatively flat, but it changes quickly, with the Atlas Mountains starting about an hour away from the city.
Following the mountains, the Dades Gorge (with Dades River at the bottom) slices through the landscape and gives interesting scenery at every switchback turn of the road.
Then, the rocks and mountains get redder, look like clay, and more vegetation grows…
I passed through a town called Ouarzazate, and it has a huge film lot, called Atlas Studios, used by the movie industry as a filming location (some of the movies filmed there: Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Kindgom of Heaven, some Game of Thrones episodes, etc.) I didn’t stop (because, like I mentioned, I ONLY STOPPED ONCE IN 9 HOURS, but you can see the film lot from the road, it was really cool to see.)
Continuing on towards Merzouga, the landscape looks hilly and sparsely green, with small villages that are every 20 kms or so that are built into the red clay cliffs. This leads into the flat, true desert part of Morocco and the red sand dunes in the distance. I was so in awe of this sight – it was absolutely spectacular.
I was ultimately headed for Erg Chebbi, which is one of two ergs in Morocco. ‘Erg’ is the name for a large sand dune, formed by shifting sand that is pushed around by the wind.
I was staying at Riad Mamouche, in Hassilabied. I had a night’s rest before leaving the next day on my desert camel ride and to overnight in the Sahara. A few minutes after I arrived, the sun started to set, and it was a beautiful one! The weather was perfect, warm but not hot, the sounds of the night in the small village were encapsulating me, and I felt so relaxed and appreciative of life.
I met a great family from The Netherlands (not Holland) at my hotel and went on the camel trip with them the next day. They were such a nice family – the kids were sweet, the parents were friendly and sweet – loved them. The desert was absolutely beautiful. I had never seen sand dunes like this, never walked on sand like this – it was a truly wonderful experience. I didn’t love riding the camel, even though nothing happened, but it was slightly unnerving to be on this beast while it’s walking on the edge of a dune and seems like it could very easily topple over.
We were to see the sunset that night, have dinner, and then see the sunset the following morning. The camels were funny. The first one was being led by the guide (who walked the whole way), and the others simply followed the camel in front of him. There were three times the camels stopped walking – twice when the lead camel didn’t have a flat spot on the sand to step, so he stopped… then, the guide bent down and pushed the sand over in one place, to give the camel a small, flat place to step. The camel immediately continued once he had his flat spot. The other time, the rope of the second camel came untied from the first camel. As soon as the rope dropped, the second camel stopped and started looking around. It was awesome. He could’ve run away, or even started just going his own way, or simply could’ve kept following without the rope tied. But, nope, he stopped in his tracks, and we told the guide, and he re-tied them together, and then we were on our way again😂 The camels step on the same hole in the sand that the first camel makes, so that both of their right legs step in the same hole, and both left legs step in the same hole.
Yes, the camels are laying in a large area of their own poop. When they get done walking, to keep the camels in place, the guides take the rope that was tied to the camel in front of them, and they tie that end to their leg, while the other end of the rope stays on their neck. They can stand up and move around a little bit but not much. They don’t get food until they get back to base the next morning, so – as our guide told me: “They eat a really big breakfast.” These were the tents… the site is run by a few solar panels. It powers a light in every tent and a light in the toilet tent. The guides cook over fire, with a tagine… it was sooooooooo good.
I felt the need to ‘write’ my name with 10-ft tall letters:) The next morning, it had disappeared, and the landscape had totally changed. During the night, the wind had moved the sand around, and our surroundings were different. That was really cool. Sunrise… not spectacular, but that’s okay:)
That morning, I went back to the hotel and checked-out so I could start my 11 HOUR drive to the coast.
Next up: From Desert Sand to Ocean Sand: Essaouira