From Marrakech, we were collected by our jovial driver/guide Ibrahim for our four-day desert excursion. He set the mood right away; as we zipped toward the Atlas Mountains separating us from the Sahara, his music jumped from 80’s hits to the most viral of today’s music and a smattering of international pop.
So this mountain pass we were going up had been causing minor anxiety for me since we decided to do this trip: stories of buses and hapless tourists losing control are too common for comfort, and it was a major reason why we decided to book with a legitimate, well-reviewed guided tour rather than trying to do it ourselves in a rental. Ibrahim boasted of making this trip sometimes three times a week, and we were in a very comfortable, very new 4×4—and yet, when he was shuffling around for a dropped CD or answering his cell phone as we went around hairpin turns, well, there was a collective sucking in of breath from the rest of us.
But we made it, of course, and the payoff was magnificent. We stopped at the picturesque kasbah of Ain Ben Haddou, supported entirely by UNESCO and Hollywood (Sodom and Gomorrah, The Jewel of the Nile, The Sheltering Sky, Alexander, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Prince of Persia, and possibly the newest season of Game of Thrones) and uninhabited but for the trinket shops.
We drove through the Valley of Roses, which sadly doesn’t bloom until May. We had to settle for second best: the almond trees were flowering, and I like them quite a lot.
As we passed through different towns, Ibrahim pointed out the different styles the women were wearing: “This is an Arabic town. See all the women are in black.” Most of the women we saw on our trip and have seen elsewhere in Morocco wear brightly colored djellebas and headscarves—it is very rare that we see a “black ghost” in Rabat—and here away from the cities, we were seeing more bright blue hues, a Berber custom.
Our first night was at Chez Pierre in the Dades Gorges, towering red rock cut by a swift-moving river and shaped by the wind. The inn was outfitted like a European lodge with some minimal Moroccan touches, and its gardens were bright with flowers and herbs. We had an amazing French meal paired with a mediocre Moroccan wine—the place was nice enough to make Colin concerned he’d misunderstood the price of our tour. He had not.
By that afternoon, though, we were decidedly on our way to the dunes. We stopped for a mint tea and to change for our camel trek. Ibrahim’s brother (it’s a family business) arranged our headscarves to protect against the wind that was picking up. Good thing, too! If I called what we rode through a sand storm, or even a little sand storm, it would be an exaggeration; however, the wind was blowing the sand strongly enough that we were all glad to be able to wrap up against it.
After about two hours, our camel caravan arrived at our desert camp. Our guide advised us to hurry up the hill to catch the sunset, which we did with some success. Then it was back to camp for a tajine dinner, a campfire, some drumming, and some riddles.
Climbing back on the camel the next day was no pleasant task, and I think I’ve had enough camel riding for life, maybe. That’s not to say I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the experience, and in fact, I would recommend it to anyone looking for a little adventure.
Getting back to Marrakech required two long car days, overnighting in a dazzling hotel in Ouarzazate, a town that didn’t have much else going on. Ibrahim’s music selections now were mostly Moroccan, specifically Berber, and we zipped over the mountain pass again, stopping to see a women’s coop processing argan nuts. That night we would be again in Marrakech, but only as a stopover before heading to the beach.