By Karlie Marrazzo
Ten days after arriving in Morocco, after visiting sublime Chefchaouen, the capital city Rabat, dreamy Marrakech and a feverish stay in Fes, all while struggling with minor illnesses that slowed us down significantly, the biggest day of all had come. Uncertain if we would be able to make it or not, we were doing it. We were going to the Moroccan Sahara.
The day got off to a rocky start. We awoke early to meet the driver from Sahara Services for a 7:30am pickup. Promptness is not a strong suit in Morocco, so when he was a few minutes late, we didn’t stress. Then a few more minutes passed, and a few more. Dave stood watch outside to see if he could spot anyone wandering around looking lost, which is exactly what happened. Anxious to get started on the long drive, we had to wait even longer for the driver and the dar owner to wrap up their heated discussion about the unmarked location of the dar. After 10 minutes of hurried walking we arrived at the beefy new Toyota Land Cruiser, threw our packs in the back and settled in for the long journey. We wound through the busy Marrakech streets, seemingly getting deeper into the city rather than leaving it. After stopping at their office to pay for our trip and an hour after pick up, we finally hit the highway.
It promised to be a full day, with fantastic scenery from Marrakech, up through the Atlas Mountains to the 2260m Tizi n’Tichka pass, the highest road pass in those mountains, with stops at UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular filming location Aït Benhaddou, Ourzazate, passing through the Draa Valley and spending the night in the desert town of M’Hamid. I was excited to get out of the bustling cities and see the natural side of this beautiful country. Sadly, there weren’t as many stops as we expected. In the 200km from Marrakech to Aït Benhaddou we only stopped once or twice, and this was as much of a chance for our driver, Mohammed, to stop for tea as it was for us to get a “photo op” and use the WC.
As we climbed through the High Atlas Mountains, I was struck with reminders of home. The towering, snow-capped mountains were reminiscent of the Rockies, and if I tried hard enough, breathing in the crisp air, I could almost believe I was in Canada rather than Africa. The only thing that broke the illusion were the cacti lining the road.
We approached the fortified city of Aït Benhaddou and then passed it by, not getting out of the car until we were across a small valley. I asked Mohammed if we were actually visiting the ksar and its kasbahs and without much explanation, received a no. Supremely disappointed, we snapped a few shots and hoped that we would get to visit on the way back. Empty, silent hours crawled by as I grew accustomed to the back seat of the SUV, slowly accepting that the day wasn’t turning out as hoped and expected.
We stopped for lunch in Ourzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco where many movie studios are located. We sat outside in the scorching sun, surrounded by at least five identical stray cats begging for a bite of our meals, which consisted of soup and the nicest tagine we had eaten to date, fragrant with olives and lemon. There was an adorable old Moroccan man playing a rebab with enthusiasm and a beautiful smile on his face, even though the tiny audience consisted of us and one other table.
Time stretched on as we passed through the Draa Valley, driving down a dusty road through the shadows of lush date trees. Dave and I waited outside another café while Mohammed had another mint tea, shy Moroccan children approaching us with boxes of dates. The sun slowly started to sink in the vast African sky, providing a slice of relief from the constant heat. Even though the temperature in the SUV was in the high 20s and Mohammed was wearing a long sleeved dress shirt, he rarely turned on the A/C unless we asked for it.
After what seemed like an eternity, but what was actually only 10 hours, we pulled up to the deserted Hotel Kasbah in M’Hamid, the ghostly town on the edge of the Saharan dunes. The low-slung building was empty of guests except for us, and we were outnumbered by staff and their friends 6 to 1. An energetic guy around our age named Radwan, a.k.a. Red Wine, showed us around the grounds, to our room and to the empty swimming pool, which, he assured us, tongue in check, was empty due to cleaning and would re-open the following day. Our room was cozy, the bed comfortable, the water from the tap weak and only a trickle out of the shower. We were served a huge Moroccan meal in the equally huge and empty dining room. As the evening wound down, we sat outside with the men smoking their shisha, reveling in the weirdness of our isolation juxtaposed with the wifi connection and contemplating the monumental day awaiting us.
For more photos from my Morocco trip, click here.