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Morocco Days 13-17: The Sahara

Morocco Days 13-17: The Sahara

After a day and a half spent in Aroumd and Imlil in the High Atlas Mountains, we began making our way downhill (so to speak) into easily the hottest place I’ve ever been in my life. I know it’s expected that the Sahara desert might be a little toasty, but this fact cannot be understated (especially in August, what was I thinking?). Fortunately, we started in a beautiful little village in a guesthouse/hotel that had a pool!

Our first stop into the brightly-colored orange architecture of the south was in Ait Benhaddou, an ancient fortified village in the Ounila Valley on the southern slopes of the High Atlas Mountains. We arrived at our hotel in time to take a walk over to the ancient village, where very few people now live as it is a protected UNESCO Heritage site, as well as a favorite spot for film producers!

This beautiful village was an incredible spot to visit- it’s amazing that these intricately woven streets are still there for us to wander through, and I really enjoyed the experience. We spent some time saying hello to the shopkeepers working in the village and the local wildlife (read: cats and donkeys, of course) before we made it to the highest point in the village with an absolutely incredible view over the valley.

This is a great village to stop at on your way south, as it’s an interesting waypoint between the mountains and desert. If you’re a film or TV fan, this is also one of the filming locations of Game of Thrones, The Mummy, Prince of Persia, among many others. Plus, the Atlas Film Studio is just down the road that’s available to tour, making this the ideal spot for movie buffs.

After our day spent in Ait Benhaddou, it was time to move a little closer to the beautiful orange sand that we were starting to see springing up around us.

On our way into the Sahara, we stopped in a small village where we learned more about traditional pottery in the south of Morocco. This experience was vastly different to the experience we had in Fez because it was clearly a much smaller operation, the style of the pottery was very different, and we were in a village rather than such a cosmopolitan city like Fez. I absolutely loved this style of pottery, and I actually regretted buying so many things in Fez after seeing what was available here. So of course, I purchased some more small items to take on the road with me!

Once we finished our brief culture (read: shopping) stop, we were finally making our way to the literal end of the road at the edge of the Sahara near Zagora.

I really thought that Mohamed was joking, but it’s true! There is an actual end-of-the-road at the entrance to the desert. Intrepid made the decision to accommodate us outside of the desert at a fixed camp rather than a proper Sahara camp due to safety concerns because the trip took place in August, arguably the hottest time of the year. In all honesty, hot is hot and the fixed camp was HOT, but I appreciate that they were protecting our wellbeing. I can imagine if there was a medical emergency out in the actual desert, it would have been a pretty severe situation in that heat! In any case, visiting at another time of year might be an even better experience since you’d be able to sleep surrounded by the orange sand dunes.

We were staying at a fixed camp in a very small village that was incredibly beautiful. The town felt like a very real community with children playing in the streets, men sitting outside at the cafe, and the call to prayer ringing through the vast spaces of the desert before us. I couldn’t imagine a better introduction to this place! We arrived at the camp, dropped off our bags, and headed out for a camel ride at sunset. I really enjoyed the ride, although some of my travel companions found the mode of transport less than comfortable- perhaps my horse riding experience helped me in this respect! We rode through the town on our camels and then out in to the dunes to catch the last rays of sunshine that made the sand absolutely glow.

They might seem cute and slow-moving, but it turns out that camels can be pretty feisty. While attempting to take an obligatory selfie with my trusty steed, I was yelled at by the camel handlers that mine in particular tends to bite. Figures.

Anyway, after our ride, we came back to camp where the attendants made us a delicious couscous meal to enjoy outside under the brightest stars I think I’ve ever seen. After dinner, we headed over to our bunks which had been moved outside of the cabins. The inside of the cabins were like saunas, the driest and hottest environment I’ve ever experienced, so I was thankful for the decision to sleep outside. Our bunks were all lined up next to each other and were out in the open amongst the Moroccan cats that had been following us around all evening. Sleeping under the stars in the desert like that was an unparalleled experience, definitely a must-do when in the Sahara!

The next day at around 3 am, our 4×4 vehicles showed up to take us across the Sahara by way of sand dunes at sunrise. I don’t know exactly what I expected from this part of the adventure, but it surely wasn’t what followed. The ride out to the dunes was nerve-wracking to a nervous passenger like myself, to say the least. We were split up in to cars with approximately 4 people each, and we pulled slowly out of the village towards the dunes that we had visited the evening prior. The difference this time, however, was that the drivers of this particular mode of transportation were much more interested in racing each other to our next location than the camels had been. The other interesting part of this experience that I honestly should have expected by now was that there were absolutely no roads in the desert, which left each 4×4 driver to decide his best path over the dunes and vast space we came across. At one point, one of the cars seemed to stop working, which left our driver amongst others to try to help his friend and our fellow travelers to get back on the “road”.

After our ride seemed to come to a conclusion, we were dropped at the camp that we would have slept at had it not been August, and were brought on a hike to the massive dunes spread before us. I definitely underestimated the hike that would be required, and was obviously constantly thinking about what snakes and other sand-dwelling creatures might appear at any moment. Nevertheless, once we made it to the top of the dunes, all concerns seemed to disappear entirely. While it was a bit overcast and we didn’t get the full effect of the sunrise over the desert, the colors and vastness of this space were breathtaking. We sat upon our dune for a while to soak in the beauty spread before us, and to reflect upon the journey that was now nearly at an end. It’s still hard for me to believe that I was actually there and witness to one of the most beautiful and remote sites in the world.

After the sun had joined the party, we made our way back to our cars (much to my dismay). Now, it was daylight, and maybe not surprisingly, driving off-road through the Sahara in the daylight is actually more terrifying than at night. In any case, this journey was significantly easier because we made it to a giant dried lake in the middle of our trip that was totally flat and seemed to go on forever. Of course this meant that the drivers were more prone to high speeds and racing behavior, but it was still an incredible experience.

On our way out of the lake and desert, we ran across some nomadic people that still inhabit the area. These particular people were herding camels, and they had several grouped together traveling through this brutal environment. We learned that there aren’t a ton of nomads left living in this part of the Sahara, but that the practice of camel herding is still quite common among them, as camels are fairly valuable.

Once we left the desert behind us, we began our journey back towards the coast of Morocco to end our trip with some stunning beach views in Essaouria. My journey into the Sahara Desert was absolutely magical, and certainly everything I was hoping for prior to embarking on this experience. While not the easiest place in the world to reach, I think it’s one of the most incredible, natural places that I’ve ever visited- I highly recommend including it in your Moroccan itinerary!

Next up I have a recap of my final days in Morocco including some of the most beautiful sunsets and sea-scenes I’ve ever seen. For more of my Moroccan adventures, check out Days 1-3 in Casablanca, Days 4 & 5 in Rabat, Moulay Idriss and Volubilis, Days 5 & 6 in Fes, Days 7 & 8 in Chefchaouen, and Day 12 in the High Atlas Mountains!

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