Exhausted after our Sahara adventures, but utterly satisfied and happy, we left our Caravan-de-Rev crew and drove to meet our long missed ‘little Mr. Sunshine’ Mohammed in M’Hamid to head to our next destination. On the way we hit a bit of a sandstorm, which was kind of cool.
We stopped at the riad called Sahara Sky, not too far from Tamegrout. Tamegrout is a village not too far from M’Hamid, in the valley of the Draa River. It has a history as an important center of learning and religion through its famous Sufi zawiya, historical center of the Nasiriyya Sufi order, one of the most influential – and at one time one of the largest – Sufi orders. Tamegroute library still contains many ancient manuscripts, some as old as 1063, with most being written between 11-15th century. There is a 14th-century Quran with beautiful calligraphy in Kufic script, writings of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), a translation of Pythagoras, treatises on theology, astronomy, geography and pharmacology. All books are handwritten and some are written on skins of gazelle. The library comes with an ancient man in a wheelchair, who speaks just enough English to explain you what books are all about, that’s about it. It’s such an amazing treasure for such tiny little town in the middle of nowhere… Now they have built a koranic school, adjoined to the library, where kids spent many years studying koran and becoming religious scholars.
Tamegrout is also famous for the type of pottery, particularly its greed glaze, which has infinite variations, thanks to the ancient techniques. The founders of the religious brotherhood Nasiriyya wanted to raise the status of the village of Tamegroute to that of a ‘Medina’, or a city. They assembled the merchants and craftsmen that they had brought from Fes. But even though Tamegrout is a small village again, there are still a lot of potters whose families has been doing pottery for many generations and it’s exported all over Morocco and the world.
But the main reason we stayed in that particular hotel, is because of the stars. The hotel is built by a quirky German dude, who used to be an entrepreneur in the US and then advised king of Morocco on economic and business development, and now retired. He told us that he was always interested in astronomy and decided to build his own observatory as a hobby. And since he is a born entrepreneur, he also built a riad, so he can share his passion with others. The riad is literally in the middle on nowhere, in order to avoid light pollution. He has few serious telescopes and a professional astrologer on staff to educate those like us, who have never seen a telescope up close before (OK, we did. Once).
We were worried about not being able to see anything, because the sky was clouded for an entire week which is very unusual for October in this area. Plus the moon was almost full and bright, so if we wanted to see anything, we had to catch it before the moonrise. So, right after dinner we went upstairs to the roof, where the astronomer, who is originally from Belgium, showed us some pretty cool things. We got to see Andromeda, the galaxy closest to ours, couple of nebulas — ring and dumbbell — and Mars, which was pretty far and it appeared as a tiny orange dot. But the coolest thing was the moon. By that time the clouds started to move in and hang pretty low, but there was a small gap between the clouds and the horizon. We could see the moon in that gap, and it was so amazingly clear and beautiful, you could see every crater, every line. And partially hidden by the clouds it even looked even more intriguing and demure. As it was rising it was moving so fast, you could literally see it rolling higher and higher behind the clouds with the speed of a mad roadster. It was magical.
In the morning we got to see the sun through the telescope too, which was pretty cool. Having a professional astronomer was an icing on a cake – it’s always so much fun to talk to someone who is so passionate about their job.
We are heading to the Sahara Desert today. What a dream…
This morning we headed down to a small town of M’Hamid. M’Hamid is about 1.5 hours from Zagora, but the road is one lane only. Not one lane each way, but one lane literally. Every time a car moving towards us gets close enough, both cars have to go off-road on one side in order for them to pass. Thankfully, most drivers are courteous enough and everybody waves and thanks each other. We were stopped for about 10 minutes before M’Hamid to do a passport control check, apparently it’s a very common thing and they check everyone who comes there, probably because of the past conflict with Angola. We stopped for lunch at the Chez Pasha Kasbah and our driver Mohammed called Ali, our guide for the desert part of the trip. Ali is also the owner of the company Caravan de Reve. He is quite a character with his fedora, dreadlocks and berber blue muslim dress, like some confused berber Rastafarian.
At 4:30, we drove to M’Hamid El Ghizlane, which means “plain of gazelles.” It’s a small oasis town with about 7500 inhabitants, consisting of a bunch of dusty desert outfitters and tour companies. There are no hotels, restaurants or shops. Most people come, hop into a 4 wheel drive and head off to the dunes.
Well that’s exactly what we did. We piled our gear into Ali’s 4X4, leaving most of our luggage behind with Mohammed and took off. Our first night was at the Erg l’Houdi dunes. The drive to the camp is only 30 minutes, two hours if you go by camel. When I think of desert, or Sahara in particular, I think of sand dunes, of course, but in reality, sand dunes are only a part of it. As per Wikipedia: Regions of sand dunes (erg) occupy only about 15% of the Sahara; “stone deserts,” consisting of plateaus of denuded rock (hammada) or areas of coarse gravel (reg), cover about 70% of the region; mountains, oases, and transition zones account for the remainder. So, most of our drive was through dry flat hammada (the rocks), with an occasional patch of sand or a tree on the way. We were surprised by the abundance of the vegetation in the desert: trees, bushes, cacti, birds. Apparently there are a lot of animals too, but we didn’t see any. The drive was a little bit of a rollercoaster ride, with may bumps on the way, but driving through sand patches was particularly fun! It feels like driving through thick molasses, soft, sticky and somewhat slippery. The driver decided that we enjoyed the thrills and did a few special sand swerves for our entertainment.
We drove by our camels, which were walking all the way there, with the guide. Those guys get a lot of exercise going back and forth. When we got to the camp, we were welcomed again with the mint tea so strong, we thought it would keep us up for at least a camel ride. But we didn’t care for the tea, we saw the dunes and immediately went running up and down them. The dunes there are truly glorious, even if not to huge. Perfect curves and geometric lines, ripples, occasional dry patch of grass, picture perfect, just as expected. But compared to the rest of the desert, the dunes looked like a tiny patch of sand that spilled out of toddler’s pocket.
Kids of course saw the sandboards and wanted to go riding. They first found a tiny little slope, where they practiced, but then have gotten brave and went all the way up the big dunes. Sandboarding is somewhat like snowboarding, but very different. The idea is the same – you are strapped to the board, you go down the hill, that’s about it. In reality, sandboarding is very different. First, there is not enough friction on the sand, so the slope has to be pretty steep, otherwise the board gets stuck. Second, the board moves pretty slow, so there is no such thing as carving or having to be on the edge, you just go down the hill. The worst part is that for every 5 seconds of riding down, you have to spend 30 minutes climbing the dune, which is not and easy task. But kids didn’t care. They climbed up and down about 300 hundred times and were ready for more, but our camels have finally made it there and we were ready for the sunset ride.
We’ve done some camel riding in India before, so it wasn’t as new, but kids had never done it, and they were very excited. Getting on a camel and getting off is probably the worst part of the trip. Camel has to sit down for you to mount it, and then it first straightens its front legs, and you feel like you are about to topple over backward, then the back legs, when you are absolutely sure you will eat it head first, and then the first steps feel like you are going to topple off it any second. But after a few minutes you get a hang of it and fall into some sort of rhythm of gentle swaying with the step. That is until you hit the dunes. You would think that camels and dunes go together like milk and cookies. Well, maybe, but not when you are riding one. When they go up or down the dune, they take really big steps, almost jumps, to make sure they can stay steady and not fall, which is like jumping on a trampoline on a 4X4, scary as hell. I thought that I was going to rip that tiny little handle off in a first dune. So we kindly asked our cameleer not to do any extreme cameling, and stay off the steep dunes. Camel guide does not ride the camel, he walks the entire time. Even when he brings camels to the camp. Berbers don’t usually ride camels, they use them to carry goods and gear.
I would like to say that I really enjoyed the camel ride, but all I remember is gripping the handle with all my might and trying not to fall off. And sore thighs for the next few days.
After the ride we spent some time settling at the camp. The camp seemed pretty permanent for a movable camp. The beds were real, even though covered with a thin layer of desert sand. But I guess it’s a part of the experience, pretty soon we had sand in every crevice and on every surface, including the camera and all the laptops.
After the camel ride we had pretty unmemorable dinner and after everything was cleaned up the guides, cook and Ali all whipped out a couple of jambes and other drums and had a little jamming session, drumming and singing. Kids decided it would be fun to play drums too, so they were goofing around with one extra drum they had, making a lot of noise. We were lucky to not have had too many people, the only other campers were the two Swiss brothers, who came to Morocco for a quick vacation and drove 900 miles around the country.
The sky was quite cloudy so we didn’t see any stars. Unfortunately. But the sunrise the next morning was quite spectacular. I went to see the sunrise twice. Once at 5AM, when it appeared to me that the sun was rising. I went out and sat on a dune for a while. And then, after it not getting any brighter, I had enough smarts to check what time the sunrise really is. It was at 6:45AM, so I went to bed, hoping I would oversleep, but no, I was up bright and early ready for sunset at 6:30.
After breakfast we did more sandboarding and then got in the car to go to the mighty Erg Chigaga Dunes. Erg Chigaga (or Chegaga) is one of two major dunes of the Sahara in Morocco, the other being the Erg Chebbi of Merzouga. Erg Chigaga is approximately 40 km to 15 km wide, with some dunes around a 360 m tall (170 m more than Erg Chebbi) and because it is relatively difficulty of access – it is only accessible by 4×4, camel or on foot – Erg Chigaga remains relatively untouched. And magnificent, of course.
Being untouched, there are no camps in the Erg Chigaga dunes themselves. Most of the camps are in the driving distance. Short driving distance, but still. So the kids couldn’t just jump out of the car and run up and down the dunes, the whole experience was a lot more subdued. The camp was a lot bigger and much more crowded. The sense of being alone at the end of the world was lost, as well as the sense of camaraderie that seems to appear in small, intimate groups of travelers.
At one point we went out and followed Ali all the way up to the highest dune. I think he said it was over 350m. It was quite a journey, but we all made it! The wind up on the top was abominable and I after having my hat get blown off and having to tie it to my head with a scarf, the whole bedouin get up started to make a total sense.