Morocco: The Vast Sahara Desert

‘The Poor Man’s North Pole’: Camping in the Sahara Desert

By Chris Watson

Climbing a dune in Morocco's vast Sahara desert. photos by Chris Watson
Climbing a dune in Morocco’s vast Sahara desert. photos by Chris Watson

I had a hankering to get into the desert. It was all Robert Twigger’s fault. I’d read his book Lost Oasis: Adventures in and out of the Egyptian Desert whilst on holiday in Turkey, some of which was spent in the starkness and aridity of Cappadocia.

Consequently, on the drive back from Gatwick, my mind had been feverishly plotting and fantasizing around a central idea of buying a Toyota Landcruiser for a couple of grand on Autotrader and driving it down to Dakhla oasis where I would sell it to a grateful Bedu tribesman for the equivalent of £10000 Sterling.

However, the whole process of seriously entertaining such a far-fetched notion made lesser plans seem much more easily attainable. It’s like jumping a gap easily by aiming to land much further across than you need to.

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Morocco

So I started to think about Morocco. Marrakech is reached cheaply using Easyjet and the country extends into the desert far enough for a total greenhorn to risk dying of thirst. In which case where exactly should I aim for?

Looking in the trusty Lonely Planet guide there appeared to be two main jumping-off points from which it is possible to experience rolling erg, big desert skies, and minimalist solitude. Merzouga looked like it would be far busier – Google Earth shots of the dunes showed them to be tagged with hundreds of visitor’s photos – and might be more difficult to get out of without getting embroiled with local guides trying to flog you a big, expensive package when all you wanted was a lift for a few miles.

M’Hamid seemed like a much better option. A little oasis settlement of only 3500 or so people, it looked like it would be an easier spot to just buy some water and walk out town into the wilderness. And it seemed like not too many others had done the same since the photo count on Google Earth was way lower. It was settled.

Hiking n the desert
Hiking n the desert

Traveling Companions

I had intended originally to do it alone. However thinking of Chris McCandless’ note in his journal that “Happiness[ is] only real when shared” and being fundamentally cowardly I invited my son, Izaak. We flew to Marrakesh.

Heading directly to the bus station at Bab Doukkala we weaved through a phalanx of touts to get to the CTM counter where we reserved tickets on the 0030 bus to Zagora, the last major town before our destination of M’Hamid, and the start of the desert. Then we had a few hours free to unwind.

Arriving at the Djemaa el Fna in search of sustenance, we found its madness and wonder unfolding beneath a huge, lambent moon. We dived deep into the chaos and clamour of the food stalls and reveled in greasy-fingered pleasure as the stallholders punted calamar and conger eel to jaded Moroccans and their eager children.

Then came a brisk walk out to the CTM station that gave us the satisfaction of turning down the petitions of the Djemaa’s predatory taxi drivers. The bus station waiting room was full of Moroccans huddling in winter coats while we sat in shirt sleeves. At about 1:45 the long bus journey to Zagora got under way. We woke early, after a fitful night of trying to find the elusive comfortable position one assumes might be possible on a cramped coach seat.

It was a clear blue morning and the honeyed lilt of a neverending devotional song spilled from the bus stereo, allowing time to stretch like elastic. Winding its way between the spectacular ramparts of the Draa Valley the bus passed through date palms and mud-walled kasbahs stirring into yawning life under a shroud of smoke from breakfast fires.

Olives, Cheese and Apricot Jam

an-old-well
An old well

At the bus stop in Zagora, we faced down some distinctly languorous hassle from the local touts and breakfasted at a street corner café, warming ourselves like lizards in the morning sun. The garcon was young and dapper in his waistcoat and turban and fed us well with olives, cheese, and apricot jam. Another patron tried a somewhat more sophisticated pitch for our business than usual, seducing us with some verbal foreplay around our origins and language.

We declined his advances and warmed and replete we got up to seek out the share-taxi stand on a corner further up the main street. As soon as we arrived a gang of slightly villainous looking men with no obvious leader bundled us into the rear right corner of a battered white Mercedes van stuffed with quiet Moroccans.

The vast Sahara in Morocco.
The vast Sahara in Morocco.

Surprisingly there were lots of tracks in the sand. Some were clearly made by lizards – the footprints and the drag mark from the tail being very clear. Others, we surmised, might be the traces left by snakes. However, the only life we actually saw, aside from the ever-present flies and an occasional bird, was a bulbous black beetle ticking along like a mechanical toy and leaving a precise double row of commas with its feet.

The dunes themselves were arrayed over a base of hardpan whose texture varied enormously. Sometimes it had the look of gum-tree bark, at others resembling fish scales or rhinoceros hide, or even becoming akin to clusters of dinosaur eggs or shards of pottery.

Camping in Morocco's vast Sahara. Chris Watson photo.
Camping in Morocco’s vast Sahara. Chris Watson photo.

There were scrubby bushes here and there that provided abundant dry sticks for making a fire to brew tea. In other places, there were clusters of plants a couple of meters high that had the look of gangly Brussels sprouts and dropped fruit that became desiccated, withered and pallid and resembled the shriveled abdomen of the cadaver of some species of horrible spider.

At the northern border of the dunes, we buried four liters of water to lighten our packs and tagged the spot with the GPS. We then struck out onto a gravel plain that was actually the southern extent of a huge alluvial fan issuing from the mouth of the valley that was our target. Some dune buggy riders were racing around a mile or so in but they studiously ignored us.

Forging into the fan for a few miles we eventually camped under an acacia in the sandy hollows of one of the dry drainage channels that radiated out across the fan, and whose convergence at the valley mouth afforded us a useful navigational aid. When we stopped doing camp tasks the silence was immense and so absolute it lay like a thick blanket over our ears. Izaak explored how far he could stretch his arm and still hear the ticking of his watch.

The second day we continued on our line-of-sight bearing towards the peak and keeping the water tower at M’Hamid to our backs. We eventually crossed the 4×4 track that bisects the alluvial fan so prominently if you look on Google Earth and as we approached the massif the mouth of the valley became more obvious, with drainage channels and lines of acacias marching towards it. As we came into the jaws of the valley it was obvious that at times a raging torrent flowed out of these eroded and mesa-topped hills. The channel was broad and braided and bounded in places by tall bluffs but now was completely dry.

A Family of Nomads

A mesa in the Sahara.
A mesa in the Sahara.

The valley swung around due west and just beyond the bend we encountered a family of nomads in a hair tent. They stood in the entrance to the tent and waved but no invitations to tea were forthcoming! Heading further along the valley we kept to the channel with the going sometimes easier as we moved along meandering trails made by the pastoralists, becoming much harder when these petered out until we could find another.

After another couple of miles, we encountered a second nomad camp, this time in stone built huts. As we passed by no people were evident, just their goats, the youngest of these capering up and down the river bluff. I turned to look back at the camp when we were about a half mile beyond and there was a dark clad figure standing motionless outside one of the huts. I raised an arm in salute and the figure returned the gesture.

The final couple of miles before the confluence were hellish – we were exhausted after twelve miles with heavy packs, the last few across ankle-snapping terrain. We approached yet another set of pastoralist huts and pens but these proved to be deserted and we dropped our packs in one of the huts. Invigorated by the sudden loss of our burdens we friskily followed the GPS unit’s urgings up the southern valley side and over the lip onto a stony plateau.

The next day we woke to a silence punctuated by the cough and clatter of pigeons on the cliffs at the top of the valley side. We found a beautifully clear trail on the southern bank of the channel and made fantastic time, eventually being disgorged onto the alluvial fan once more via a side valley shortly before the main valley mouth.

Energized by our progress we decided to continue to the water cache and finished the day having done 17 miles. We camped just into the dunes, forming a triangle with two groups of local youths camping and revving themselves up for a party. I was dreading sleeplessly listening to foreign-language debauchery extending deep into the night but they went silent by ten o’clock as if they were on a curfew.

Walking Towards M’Hamid

Waking the next morning the atmosphere was very different from poor visibility and a feeling of foreboding. We headed towards M’Hamid, making fast time across the hardpan between the dunes as the radius of the world closed and the wind became thicker and thicker with carried particles. We saw a number of specimens of an unusual bird that would fly straight up into the air as if thrown and then fall back down to earth, only opening its wings at the last moment to decelerate, and emitting a single piercing note as it fell like an avian missile.

Reaching the town we were surprised to feel something of an air of excitement and people were still out and about, rather than holed-up. Booking in at the splendid refuge of a maisond’hotes on the main street we lounged in the salon feeling sleek with satisfaction and waiting for a feast of omelets and French fries. Mission accomplished.

Chris Watson
Chris Watson is a 48-year old physiotherapist, rock climber, mountain biker, adventurer with a taste for outlandish philosophies and steampunk literature. He lives in Flintshire, England.

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