Day 7: Into the Sahara

Saturday April 13, 2013

I rose before 7am and bundled everything I had together before stumbling out to reception and wandering bleary eyed out onto the street in search of the tour organiser’s Land Cruiser. The tour guide and driver were there right on time so I hopped into the jeep and off we went straight out of town to start our long journey to the Erg Chicaga dunes.

The tour I had organised the day before would be a one and a half day trip. We would drive from Zagora to Tagounite in the morning, taking an off piste route for part of the journey through some oases (that doesn’t look right at all but it’s apparently the plural of oasis!) before heading north along the tarmac to Tagounite. From there we would head off road to a high end camp in a set of small dunes where I would spend the majority of the day. The reason we were going here was that the driver had already been hired to take an insanely rich couple (who were flying in by helicopter to the middle of the desert!) out to another location to go quad biking that day. During this time I would stay at this small set of dunes before the driver would come back and pick up myself and the guide and bring us to the larger Erg Chicaga dunes. Here I would have dinner and spend the night in one of the large tents provided before being driven all the way back to Zagora 3-4 hours away early the next morning.

My view for a good chunk of the day
Speeding along the tarmac towards Tagounite

For company I had 3 others, there was the main tour guide, the driver and another Moroccan man who was trying to sell me a camel trip who came along for the ride. Unfortunately I cannot recall the names now as I’m writing this far too long after the trip. They were a pretty nice bunch of guys though.

The day started off with a bit of off piste driving though some small villages off the main road. The area was pretty nice with lush palm trees surrounding most of the villages. Soon enough we arrived back on the tarmac and the driver sped on flat out all the way to the next town on the road, Tagounite. Here we stopped to stock up on food and water for the trip into the desert. While waiting the driver bought a watermelon to split between us. An ice cold slice of watermelon on a scorching day like this is very hard to beat.

A general shop on the left and a butcher’s on the right. Most butchers had carcasses like this hanging outside their store.
Vegetable stalls by the side of the road

With a boot packed full of fruit, vegetables, meat and water we set off again, soon reaching the turn off into the desert. This part of the desert was very rocky and the driver sped along various different rocky tracks quickly distancing us from the tarmac behind us. There was little to see out here except for a vast expanse of stony desert in all directions. After a good bit of driving we arrived at an oasis in the desert. There wasn’t too much to see here and the driver seemed to be running late on picking up the rich couple so I didn’t spend too long here. The further we went into the desert the more interesting the tracks got. We were soon coming across long, deep patches of sand which required a good bit of maneuvering to get through without becoming stuck. We had been off road for over an hour now and the scenery was getting a good bit sandier the further we progressed. Soon enough we came across a jeep stuck in some deep sand so we pulled up nearby and the driver set about pulling him out.

With the other jeep rescued we continued on through the desert. It seemed the driver was slightly lost so we ended up pulling up beside the first group of people we saw, a group of Berbers leading a caravan of camels through the desert. They seemed to have an idea about the general direction of the camp. One of these men needed a lift so he hopped in beside us and we continued on in search of this high end camp. This guy hopped out after a few more minutes (seemingly in the middle of nowhere!) and we were left on our own again. The driver knew the general direction now. Unfortunately for the other occupants of the jeep, what lay ahead was some very rocky and rough terrain. With the driver behind schedule already this section of terrain was hit with a fair bit of gusto by him! He sped along the bedrock as fast as he could with the car jerking all over the place. We were all being thrown up into the air and from left to right the entire way through this, it ended up being a lot of fun in the end!

After this section, the terrain turned much sandier and we were presented with an expanse of low sandy dunes in front of us. The driver and the guide knew that the camp lay in the centre of these dunes but unfortunately no one knew how to get there. We ended up driving straight into the expanse of dunes. As we made our way through this the jeep would become regularly stuck and we would all have to pile out and help dig the jeep out of the scorching sand. This required each of us picking a wheel, leaning down and digging out a large hole right behind the wheel. The trick was to dig fast enough so that the hot sand didn’t burn your hands. We must have gotten stuck at least 10 times overall. One time in particular was pretty bad. We would dig out a hole behind the tyres and each time the driver tried to move we would get stuck deeper. While we were badly stuck here the growing frustration of the other passengers was evident. The guide wandered off to the highest dune he could find to get a better view of where the camp might be. Luckily he was able to spot it so when he came back we put in one last big effort and managed to get the jeep out of the dune that was trying to drag it in. We soon got back to rocky ground and sped even faster than usual around to the other side of the dunes where we met a sandy track which led through to the centre of these dunes all the way to the high end camp.

The Oasis
Rescuing a stuck jeep
One of the many times we got stuck. I did start helping after this one!

After arriving in the camp I was brought into the hut where the men who ran the camp lived and slept. It was pretty small with just a bed, a couple of chairs and some cardboard in the corner where others slept. The thing that stuck out the most though, was the number of flies, I had never seen so many in one place before. The heat outside was unbearable now as it was nearly the hottest part of the day so I joined the others and sat down inside. Some of the others started preparing the food. The couple had already arrived by helicopter and were being put up in one of the fancy tents while I was stuck in the hut! It costs a fortune to go to this specific camp however so I didn’t mind too much. While waiting for the food we sat chatting as best as we could with the language barrier and drinking copious amounts of tea. The tea was regular mint tea but it was the best tea I had ever tasted. I’d imagine though that this was most likely due to my unquenchable thirst in this heat. Food finally arrived and I ended up getting a huge salad which again tasted unbelievable. It’s quite possible that anything edible tastes fantastic in the desert though! Once this was finished, the driver left with the couple and I was left hanging around in the hut for what would be a long wait.

The sun was at it’s highest now so everyone was gathered inside the hut, most people were trying to catch some sleep on the bed or on the cardboard on the floor. I had brought a book with me so I was able to sit back and read away to my hearts content. The book I had brought with me was Terry Pratchett’s “Mort”. I had never read any of Terry Pratchett’s work before. I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading any of his stuff as this book was fantastic and easily helped me pass the time whenever there was nothing to do.

After nearly 2 hours in the hut I was itching to get out into the dunes and away from all the flies! The sun was still nearly at it’s highest but I decided to head out and see what true desert heat was like. As I wandered into the kitchen of the hut I was blinded by the view out of the window. Going from 2 hours in the dark to this view was an assault on the eyes. The view out the window was almost surreal, the sky was white for me and I could just make out the bright yellow of the dunes. Finally my eyes adjusted and I was able to wander out of the hut, straight into the desert heat.

The view of the dunes from inside the hut
The mascot the owners of the camp had set up
The well furnished tents that made up the camp

I spent nearly an hour wandering around the dunes. I didn’t see much of note apart from several dung beetles scuttling around but it was great to experience what the real, centre of the Sahara might be like. The dunes only existed in patches in this Northern area of the Sahara so these parts are the only places this far north where you can experience what the real Sahara is like.

The heat out here was unbearable and the sand had been heated up far warmer than it had been in the morning. Me, being the smart person that I am, had decided to bring only sandals and my bare feet out with me on this day and a half trip. Every time I climbed or descended a dune I got warm sand stuck between my sandals and feet. Every time this happened, my feet would feel like they were on fire so I would have to kick my feet until the hot sand flew out of the sandal. This usually took a few kicks to do. Unfortunately, sand usually got in both sandals at the same time so I would have to go from foot to foot kicking sand out of my sandals. And of course every time I put one foot down to kick with the other, more sand would inevitably go into the sandal on the ground. I’m sure I looked like a mad man doing a crazy dance going from foot to foot and kicking at the air furiously! Luckily there was no one around to see me.

After stumbling around in the heat for an hour I ventured back into the cool hut and it’s overly friendly selection of flies. Eventually news filtered through that the couple had decided on an impulse not to fly back from the desert that day and instead stay in a fancy hotel back near the town they were quad biking in. With this news, the helicopter pilot who had been hanging around in the hut with us decided to head off. Watching the helicopter take off from the dunes was pretty impressive. With the helicopter gone everything went silent again. The men who owned the camp soon had everything cleaned up, locked up the hut and wished us the best of luck as they set off back to civilisation.

This left myself, the guide and the camel guide seller left waiting for our driver to return. The plan had been to catch the sunset at the larger Erg Chicaga dunes but unfortunately it looked like I wasn’t going to make it. There was still no sign of the driver so I instead climbed to the highest dune I could find around the camp and relaxed watching the sun set over the plains to the west.

The Helicopter kicking up sand as it takes off
The sun beginning to set over the plains to the west
The sun reflecting the dust trail left behind by a jeep travelling across the plain

Finally, not too long after sunset the driver returned. The couple had decided that they wanted to go to a swimming pool in a nearby hotel after the quad bike trip so the driver had to wait for them to finish there. By the time they were finished there and let the driver know that they were instead going to stay at that hotel it was already pretty late. This meant a long wait until his return. I must have spent 6+ hours that day hanging around the hut but I guess this was the price I had to pay for getting a cheaper all round trip out here. We continued on in the dark across the plains to the Erg Chicaga dunes. We arrived at the camp here in the pitch black. This was the first chance I had got to look at the stars. I had always heard how impressive the stars look from somewhere this far out in the desert. Needless to say it was pretty impressive but it was hard to catch on camera as the below shots show!

Soon enough dinner was ready and was served in a large open tent. The meal was very good however it wasn’t the most comfortable setting for a meal. Due to there being candles lit inside the tent, this was one of the only light sources in the area. This of course meant that every single bug in the area was being drawn to the interior of the tent! The worst of these were the grasshoppers, some of them were regular sized grasshoppers, smaller than my little finger but a large chunk of them were these giant grasshoppers which I’d never seen before. They were a fair bit longer than my middle finger and far thicker to go with it. These were regularly flying into the tent. They would land on something and then launch themselves full pelt across the tent onto something else and then continue the process by launching again. These giant grasshoppers kept increasing in numbers as the meal went on. I was ducking and diving the entire time I was eating. I got hit a couple of times by these feckers, once I got a hard slap right in the face as one propelled himself from across the room into my cheek! I had spent the earlier part of the day in a hut plagued with flies, now I was spending the evening in a tent filled with giant grasshoppers! I made quick work of the meal as the number of grasshoppers just kept increasing and I got the hell out of there.

In between the insect dodging I got talking properly to the tour guide and the driver about what Morocco is really like for someone around our age. They filled me in on a lot of the details of life out here. About the surprising amount of older single women who come out on the various desert tours out here and hook up with their Moroccan tour guides! And they also explained some of the details about the nightclub scene in Morocco which was a bit of an eye opener. I was invited to try one of the clubs out the next night back in Zagora, which I’m sure would have been an interesting experience, but I had to get going the next morning as I was on a strict schedule. I ended up being invited over to the hut where the men who prepared the meal and the guide and driver were sleeping. They offered to let me join the meal they were sitting down to eat. I was absolutely full to the brim but sat down with them to eat from the communal bowl in the centre of the room. After only a small bit of food I retired to bed all ready for an early start to see the sunrise over the dunes the next morning.

The insect trap!
Attempting to take a shot of all the stars in the sky
My tent for the night

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