Into Erg Chebbi
We took the early bus from Marrakech, the only one going all the way to the end of the road. It started off easy, and soon we were making our way up the western side of the Atlas Mountains. The mountains are impressive, with small villages terraced into the hillsides and many people selling fossils and cool rocks along the road. The road was in great shape but it was kind of a scary ride with the clouds beneath us. The bus driver had a few pretty sketchy passes on the switch backs; he wasn’t stopping for anyone. Some of the highest peaks even had some early snow cover.
On the back side of the mountains we passed through a lot of small villages with square houses made of mud and straw. They blended right into the natural landscape, which by now was straight desert. We had made it to the Sahara!!! Soon we were passing through Ourzazate, famous for the filming of many desert movies including Lawrence of Arabia. By now there were a lot of the Berber people around, dressed in their standard long robes. They all had pointed hoods to block the sun that made them look a little like wizards. Historically nomadic, the Berbers used to roam back and forth through the Sahara from Morocco to Yemen, but now modern borders restrict their movements.
The landscape became more and more barren with oases popping up along the way, always with an accompanying village. We saw signs warning about camels crossing the road, but besides that there were very few signs of life. We reached Merzouga after dark; the desert was flat around us but we could make out shadows of the huge dunes in the distance because of the amazingly-bright full moon.
Upon exiting the bus, a bunch of people came at us. “Do you have reservation for tours?” they kept asking. We said “Yes, we already have one!” but they would not leave us alone. They gave us a lot of bad info, saying there would be no taxis and such, trying to lead us astray and into their hotel or whatever. Typical hassler shenanigans. After only 10 minutes a taxi showed up and he took us the five kilometers to Hassi Labied, the village near the Erg Chebbi dunes where we would be spending the night before our journey into the nothing.
Mohammed was a Berber and owned a shop and house right up against the dunes. He was also in the process of building a hostel which he currently lets Couchsurfers stay in for free. He also had a cousin that did tours into the dunes, so he hooked us up with a good price for a two night adventure. The hostel was dusty but comfortable, so we got a great night sleep – it was almost too quiet.
The next morning we were shown around town, purchased some turbans and got some last minute emails written. We would leave at 5pm and spend two nights at Berber camps in the dunes, then return before sunrise the following day. With us would be an older French couple, and a couple our age from Moscow. We learned that we were not going to ride camels (two humps), but dromedaries (one hump). A technicality we never knew about until now!
Riding the dromedaries took a while to get used to, stretching weird muscles us in all the wrong directions. Sand, as far as the eye can see.
When we reached the tops of the dunes, we could see a large mesa in the distance, the border of Algeria. Along we went, on top of our beasts, adoring the simple beauty of the erg, like giant waves, no two the same. We made it to our Berber camp just after dark. It was a collection of square tents made of carpet with a center table for diner. It was peaceful and the moon bright, and we wandered off into the sand while dinner was being made.
Happy with life and loving the adventure. Food came late, tajine of course. We went to bed tired as usual but slept extremely well again.
In the morning we hiked up the large dune overlooking our camp. The sunrise was grand, casting amazing shadows over the sandy hills. We screwed around with the GoPro and rolled around in the sand. After breakfast we got the dromedaries lined up and started off deeper into the nothing. We really got to know the term “lurching” as we slowly made our way through the desert. Three hours quickly passed and, just as we were becoming super sore, we made our way into a small camp. By this time we were dehydrated, tired, and hurting in all new places from the ride, ready for lunch and a small break from the midday heat. Other travelers greeted us at a camp, including a rather talkative Turk, very reminiscent of the character Dennis Hopper plays in “Apocalypse Now”. Where are we?!!?
After lunch the wind was really starting to pick up. It started as kinda cool, and turned into “I can’t see, breath, or talk,” without sand getting into everything. The sun was becoming eerily fogged over with the ever-growing sand being thrown hundreds or thousands of feet into the atmosphere. Every bit of exposed skin stung like small needle pricks during the big gusts. We hid our cameras, except for the GoPro, and covered our eyes as well as we could. If we didn’t have a guide it would have been scary. Getting lost out there is no joke.
Luckily we were close to our final camp and the wind started to die down as soon as we got there. Our eyes were a mess from the sand and it took a few days for them to feel normal again. But we had felt the thrill of adventure, getting “out there” where humans are not supposed to be, the real desert, hot, windy, and unforgiving. We longed for a shower but settled for a dusty bed beneath the stars. Our Berber guides played some traditional songs on their drums and we relaxed under the bright moon, feeling privileged and carefree. What a life, what a life.