Travelling around the world changes the way you see things so most of the time you need to experience some things first hand in order to get the real feel of them. The more we travel, the more we find out that a magnificent natural wonder, no matter how touristic it gets, still keeps its charm. Merzouga’s main sand dune, Erg Chebbi, was another example of just that. Climbing it among other people didn’t ruin the experience at all and although it tested our stamina, the top of this huge sand dune proved to be majestic. The views over the desert from this tall ‘screaming’ dune were unparalleled and the
sunset setting amid a sea of smaller dunes was breathtaking. Just to top up the experience, and as we always manage to do, we delayed our descent. As walking on sand is slow, the night caught up with us halfway to our camp, adding a bit more adrenaline and special sky views full of stars to our Merzouga experience. We also got a little lost in the dark because there was no moon.
With all of the above ticked off the list, we were eager to get a more real taste of the Sahara. While still in the Dadès Gorge, we called Akis from “The World Off Road” crew and he mentioned an old Dakar route that departs Merzouga and should take us through the piste (off road back roads) to the oasis of M’Hamid, which lies just 40km south from the Algerian border. We were hooked to the idea and decided to go ahead with it. We did a little over 300 km in a pure unspoiled desert with scenery that blows your mind. It was probably “the best highlight“of the trip so far. Two full days of off road adventure with our cameras literally on fire, recording the scene and a great overnight in the middle of the Sahara, with just the stars and the arc
of the Milky Way keeping us entertained, in the “absolute silence” of the desert night. Two days later, this mini adventure within the adventure brought us to the lonesome oasis of M’Hamid that definitely has a frontier-town feel to it. The old kasbah, where our campsite was, sits in the palm forest, 3km away, across the Oued Drâa (the “so called river”). The rest of the more modern part of the village on the other side is filled with dusty cafés, where local tough guys in their turbans and their cool looking sunglasses hang out gossiping the day away. We were there on Tuesday, which is market day, when all the locals bring their fresh products for sale, something that completed our already authentic experience.
The truth is that after a while the desert gets to you somehow and although it is a wonderful experience, at some point you need to move away. And so we did, to the strategically located city of Ouarzazate (war-zazat), our next stop. This city served as a crossroad of trade between the people from the Atlas, Drâa and Dadès Valleys for centuries, before it turned itself into the Mecca of movie business, with great film studios out in the desert in modern times. Nothing more than a stopover for us, as after a nice dinner at a Greek restaurant we found, we took the road with direction Marrakesh. It is a great looking modern city and although we got lost in the beginning, we ended up with a comfy camping ground outside the city and based ourselves there for a week’s long exploring. A must see and at the top of the to do list in all tourist brochures is the action-packed Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakesh main attraction, a huge square that is used as an open air market. Someone can come across from magicians and snake charmers to pop up restaurants and fruit stalls.
This place has it all and you can keep yourself busy for a day or two just exploring it. But as in all imperial cities, it is the old souks where the heart of the city always is. North from the square is where Marrakesh’s maze of souks is located. Here Berber tribes once traded slaves, gold, ivory and leather. Nowadays modern tourists score carpet bargains and babouches (leather slippers). When Rochelle had a more careful look, she also spotted a number of creative new boutiques and galleries that signify the evolving era of the medina, as a new generation of artists try to connect the city’s modernity to its traditional craft heritage. In simple words, WE WERE IN FOR TROUBLE NOW. She got business cards and wholesaler details. OMG! Beyond the souks, the medina is also an ideal place to explore a series of riad mansions, which now provide the city’s atmospheric accommodation. Next up was supposed to be Casablanca, the country’s business center, but as we will be coming back this way, for us it was just a drive through to stock up in supplies and replace my camera lens that after 15 years of great pictures, it gave away in the desert.
Then there was Essaouira, the city of fortified walls, fishing harbor and seagulls roaming the long windy beach. Moving deeper in land and once you enter its walls, the city’s beauty reveals. Easy to navigate narrow alleyways, women in white haiks and sounds of drums and Gnaoua singing mix with smells of fish, sea air and aromas of spices and thuya wood. All of this gives Essaouira, the Wind City of Africa, its character. The charm of the town is that it has not been entirely taken over by tourism. The fishing harbor is just as busy as it has always been, the woodworkers are still working on their craft and the medina is just as important for locals as it is popular with tourists. After a day and unable to find a campground in Essaouira, we left it also for the way back and moved a bit more to the south, where we reached Sidi Kaouki. Constant blustery wind, wild beach and decent restaurant scene is some of the characteristics that have fast turned Kaouki into one of Morocco’s top windsurfing destinations.
Our advice, based on Rochelle’s long surfing culture: around here it’s not for the faint-hearted as the waters can be really dangerous. We didn’t even attempt the surfing part. Instead we minimized our activity buzz to long beach walks from our campground till a large scenic building on the rocks, at the end of the beach washed by the sea. As we found out from the camp attendant, this was the final resting place of Sufi saint Sidi Kaouki, who was known for his healing abilities. People still visit the shrine.
Still on a surf quest, we moved to Imsouane, another surf village known for its break, where we “hanged ten” to our surfing skills (always from the shore and dry) by watching the rest of the village surfers get smashed by the big waves, while we were sipping our café au lait. It was fun, I must admit, from our point of view at least.
Probably because of bad karma from watching the surfers fighting with the waves dry, we almost ran out of diesel as we moved towards Agadir, since the two village gas stations we went by had no diesel available. Lesson learned, once away from the big cities, always keep your tank full. To add drama to this situation, we rolled into a gas station some 100km further down, with literally 1liter left in our tank. It was a close call that caused me a small heart attack while Rochelle was making fun of me. I will get back at her, as I told her, when she is all stressed about something, like coloring her hair. It happened when she came out a brunette in Argentina. Only her problem cost 500 USD to fix.
Tackling the rest of the coast, we passed Agadir leaving it for the way back and headed to Mirleft, taking one of the region’s most beautiful roads that offers wonderful views of the ocean, rugged hills and empty coves. This cosmopolitan little spot (literally a one-street village on the highway) has developed in a must do stop over time. So we did follow the tradition and spent three nights chilling out here as the climate was finally perfect for our outdoor setup.
Our days were filled with planning our trip further ahead and socializing with other overlanders. Rochelle even went swimming for the first time in 16 degrees water! Worth mentioning here is that from this part of Morocco and all the way to the Mauritanian border, the massive tourism organized by corporations or chains gives way to personal work of individuals. That makes a huge difference as small private owned businesses have much more feeling into them, plus we really enjoy helping them out. Making our way towards the disputed area of Western Sahara, we crossed the towns of Guelmim and Tan Tan. In both cases we stayed in camps in the middle of nowhere, deep in the desert. Once again sleeping under the stars, in the “absolute silence” of the desert night, made us appreciate more and more this part of our planet.
Layoune, “the revolutionary” capital of Western Sahara, was our first stop in this region. Below you can read a bit of the story behind the conflict that I found online in Wikipedia. ”The Western Sahara conflict is an ongoing conflict between the Polisario Front and the Kingdom of Morocco. The conflict originated from an insurgency by the Polisario Front against Spanish colonial forces from 1973 to 1975 and the subsequent Western Sahara War against Morocco between 1975 and 199. The conflict escalated after the withdrawal of Spain from the Spanish Sahara, in accordance with the Madrid Accords. Beginning in 1975, the Polisario Front, backed and supported by Algeria, waged a 16-year-long war for independence against Mauritania and Morocco.
In February 1976, the Polisario Front declared the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which was not admitted into the United Nations, but won limited recognition by a number of other states. Following the annexation of Western Sahara by Morocco and Mauritania in 1976, and the Polisario Front’s declaration of independence, the UN addressed the conflict via a resolution reaffirming the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people.
In 1979, Mauritania withdrew from the conflict and territories, leading to a stalemate through most of the 1980s. After several more engagements between 1989 and 1991, a cease-fire agreement was reached between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government. At the time, most of the Western Sahara territory remained under Moroccan control, while the Polisario controlled some 20% of the territory in its capacity as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, with additional pockets of control in the Sahrawi refugee camps along the Algerian border. At present, these borders are largely unchanged. In late 2010, the protests re-erupted in the Gdeim Izik refugee camp, in Western Sahara. While the protests were initially peaceful, they were later marked by clashes between civilians and security forces, resulting in dozens of casualties on both sides. To date, large parts of Western Sahara are controlled by the Moroccan Government and known as the Southern Provinces, where as some 20% of the Western Sahara territory remains controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the Polisario state with limited international recognition.
The questions of mutual recognition, establishment of a possible Sahrawi state and the large numbers of Sahrawi refugees displaced by the conflict are among the key issues of the ongoing Western Sahara peace process.”
Worth mentioning here is the infrastructure that nowadays the Moroccan kingdom is putting into the area which is still under debate. That started our debate in the long stretches of road ahead of us with Rochelle, as the question still stands.”Would you exchange your freedom in the desert for a less free but much more structured life in a modern controlled city? “
All this brought us to Dakhla that after so many hours on the road feels like you are arriving at the end of the earth. It is certainly the end of Morocco, as it is closer to Nouâdhibou (Mauritania) than any other Moroccan city.
The city itself now, miraculously felt less remote than many other southern towns on the way here and certainly looked more prosperous. The Western Saharan tensions here fade under the carefree, sea-breeze surface. Fishing rights are probably the only issue between the Sahrawi and Moroccan settlers. Leaving all the debates behind, Dakhla’s inhabitants appeared to us relatively modern and progressive. So we decided to stay a bit longer and celebrate Rochelle’s birthday before our crossing into Mauritania. To be continued…