Friday morning, October 15th we are up and on the road, heading south out of the city. Destination – the High Atlas Mountains! A few hours later we stopped for lunch in Ifrane, a hill station town at an elevation close to one mile. Ifrane is a popular vacation spot summer & winter, with heavy snowfall most winters. Across the street was a larger-than-life stone statue of an Atlas Lion, a subspecies of lions that became extinct in the ‘60s. Shortly after that we pulled off the road to visit with some monkeys that inhabited this area. Don’t tease the monkeys!
Continuing our drive south and upwards we noted the landscape was mostly bare and rocky with some patches of green, and the Atlas Mountains becoming larger in the distance. About 3 in the afternoon, we arrived in Midelt, with gigantic green apple sculptures decorating the roundabouts.
Midelt is a relatively new town, settled by the French in the early 1900s to support the mining of lead, gypsum, and other minerals. As such, it was the 2nd town in Morocco to become electrified. Since then, agriculture has flourished around the Moulouya River and tourism has become increasingly important. The largest wind farm in Morocco with 210 MW, was completed in January of 2021, just outside of Midelt.
After checking into our rooms at a nice local hotel, Jamal drove us out of town to Berram Village for a late afternoon nature walk. Mustapha led us through groves of apple trees and plums, and small fields of grain and alfalfa. I noticed the water flow in the river was down to a trickle, the result of several years of reduced rainfall, and less snow in the mountains.
Leaving the valley we followed a path uphill into the village, home of Berber people as is most of Midelt. Berbers (or Amazigh or Imazighen) are an ethnic group that inhabited northwestern Africa since 10,000 BC. Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia have retained much of the rich Berber culture and language.
As we walked through the narrow streets a few children poked their heads out of doorways or windows. A few of the braver ones came closer to inspect us, and probably to see if we brought any gifts, which our leader discouraged. Current thought is that it is better to donate funds or merchandise to local organizations such as schools, etc., instead of handing out food or gifts to individuals.
Mustapha has been here many times before, and as a Berber himself has a connection with the local folks. He chatted with several adults and some of the braver kids, gaining their trust and respect. None of them were teenagers, of course, as they were "too cool" to be seen with us, like teens everywhere! As we continued up the road, we accumulated more kids and some of the young girls were holding hands with the women in our group. Towards the end one of the young boys grabbed my hand and held it for a while. It really was a magical moment for all of us that evening, and one of my fondest memories of the trip.
Continuing our southern progress through the mountains the next morning, we pass several military installations used for training in this remote area. The rocky and barren hills are broken by a swath of green, bordering the Ziz River snaking through a shallow valley. Stopping at a parking area with a nice vantage point, Mustapha points out the date palm trees below, mixed in with other palms and deciduous trees, making this a true oasis. No palms – not an oasis! Farther along we saw that many hectares of the trees were blackened from several wildfires that ravaged the area during the last two dry years.
Traveling farther south and east we leave the mountains behind, and the roads deteriorate as well. Approaching Merzouga the rocky plains give way to a huge expanse of sand and dirt, with minimal vegetation. We are now on the edge of the Sahara Desert - only 20 km from the Algerian border. Just before reaching our camp, we see some big tents and hundreds of off-road racing cars, dune buggies and radical ATVs. Apparently, there was a huge event in progress called the Morocco Desert Challenge, with different classes (some women only) competing from many countries.
After parking next to a large hotel, we carry our bags to our camp – a collection of tents set up at the foot of the dunes. Each tent has a comfortable bed and blankets and there is a separate tent with showers, sinks & toilets. No sleeping on bedrolls on the hard sand for us!
Our camp is set on the western edge of Erg Chebbi – a large, wind-swept area of undulating sand dunes, rising to 150 meters. Overnight camps had formerly been placed some distance into the erg but recently moved out by the government to protect the environment from increased traffic. The temperature during the day was warm, but not any more than Miami in October.
After a lunch of tasty Moroccan pizza, we had some free time, so Susie and I took a stroll over to the off-road camp to look around. There was a large variety of cars and trucks, with Toyota having a slight majority. Different groups took off each day and several were women’s leagues. We were not there long before some officious types chased us out for not having proper credentials!
OK – time for the main attraction – we are going for a camel ride in the desert! Everyone put on their best desert attire and assembled at the staging area. Two local guides appeared leading strings of the large beasts and had them all sit down to prepare for boarding. And these guys are big, single hump camels which are dromedaries. (2 humped Bactrians are only 6% of camels today). Perfectly adapted for life in the arid desert, they can go up to 10 days without water, and can gulp down 200 liters in 3 minutes when they finally arrive at the oasis. Their long legs keep their bodies farther above the hot sand and wide feet prevent sinking into the soft terrain.
There is a metal frame straddling their back with large pads under it, and a t-handle in front to grip. A large roll of cloth surrounds the hump with a blanket over the top, so we basically sat on the hump. My skinny butt got sore after an hour - can't imagine weeks at a time.
So, I named my camel Lawrence, and gave him a good pep talk before mounting! (go slow and easy!) I was just able to swing my leg over while standing beside him, and settled in. Then the handler gives him a signal and he straightens out his rear legs, and suddenly I am at a 45° angle looking at the sand! Hang on! Next is the front legs and now we are level again. OK. Made it this far.
Starting at the rear, each animal stands up and stabilizes, and then the one in front him, until all are up and ready. The handler holds the lead from the front camel and off we go, a caravan trekking across the dunes! The sensation was much different than a horse – more of a rolling motion. Not too difficult on level ground, but going up and down the dunes, especially down was unnerving. I was hanging on tight to keep from pitching forward over Lawrence.
Once we were settled in it was a wonderful experience. The weather was perfect with a setting sun in clear blue skies casting mesmerizing shadows across the dunes. Several times we could see the iconic shadows of our caravan playing projected onto the sand. Mustapha shadowed us on foot and took turns using our phones to capture some awesome photos as we plodded along.
30 minutes later our troop came to a halt, and we all dismounted in reverse order. The lead camel bent his front knees and tucked his legs under, then the rear legs, and on down the line. Several of our group brought snow boards from the camp to try some sand-surfing on a small dune, whilst the rest of us began climbing the tallest mound in front of us. It did not look too high, but I was stopping for a breather before reaching the top, on my hands and knees and bare feet in the sand! But what a wonderful vista from the top! The sun was just setting, throwing that perfect light of the “golden hour” that makes everyone look like movie stars.
With darkness coming on, we walked/slid back down the dunes to our beasts for the peaceful ride back to camp. After a quick bite at the hotel, Mustapha told us we were having a special performance by the White Nights, a local singing and dancing group of 6 men playing drums & percussion. They performed several lively numbers around the fire, playing, singing and chanting as they did traditional dance steps. It wasn’t long before everyone in our group was on their feet, dancing with White Knights or playing along on various drums sitting around the cushions. We might have had a few bottles of wine & vodka as well.
After the men left we continued the party and were joined by a young man from the hotel with a large boom box, who picked up the pace with some Moroccan House mix. Later, his friends, who were all from the local prestigious university, drug him and his music back to the hotel patio. Well, what are we to do, but follow the music! Those of us still standing (you know who you are) trucked back up to the hotel where we partied with the kids all night! Well – until the hotel staff shut us down. What fun!
Right. Now for a good night’s sleep. What? Time to get up? It’s 5am!?!? Ugh. Forgot we were doing a sunrise camel ride. I think Susie took me out by my toes and threw me over Lawrence. But it was totally worth it, for another beautiful ride to watch the sun rise over Erg Chebbi. And the almost total silence of the early morning was so calming and peaceful.
And thus ends our desert experience. Although it was only a short time, it felt like the quintessential North African experience, even if it was tailored to the tourists. It gave us a little insight as to what it may have felt like to be part of a caravan carrying gold and spices across the desert 500 years ago.
To be continued….