Tuesday-Wednesday - The Sahara Desert

Zagora Travel Blog

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I took a two day and one night excursion to the Sahara Desert.  I organized it through my hotel.  My tour company was called Mami Tours, but there were a bunch of vans doing the exact same thing.  From our frequent stops at rest stops, I could tell that our van was by far the nicest compared to other tour vans.  Seventeen people on my tour, filling the tour bus.  Besides me, there were four other English speakers: a guy and girl from England, and two girls from Canada who were studing in London.  There were also four very proud and loud Catalans (from around Barcelona) who referred to me as the "Americano".

The drive from Marrakesh to the desert is at least 8 hours, but it was hard to keep track because we stopped every 30-90 minutes to see a site and take pictures or go to a rest stop (with the inevitable souvenier shops).  The breaks lasted 10-30 minutes each, and there were some really cool sites.  Unforunately, there wasn't a guide, just a driver, but we figured out what we were looking at at each of these sites, and I knew this was how the tour was from the outset.  Apparently this lack of guide is why Lonely Planet doesn't like these excursions (they do not even list these tours in the 2009 edition), but as long as you know what you are signing up for, I think they were fine.  The real reason Lonely Planet shuns these trip probably has more to do with the animal riding and the pollution that vans cause anyway.  That's the thing with LP: decent guidebook, but too agenda driven.  The trip was really cheap too, about 60 bucks for the two days.

The coolest stop was in Ouarzazate ("Wa-za-zet") and Ait Benhaddou, the Moroccan film studio capital.  They film pretty much every desert movie here, starting from Lawrence of Arabia, and extending to Gladiator and the upcoming Prince of Persia.  Ait Benhaddou is actually a traditional village built completely out of adobe (mud and straw and stuff).  It's like a big apartment complex, and it feels like you are going through ancient ruins, but people still live there.  We were shown around by natives Houssam, who worked as head of security for Prince of Persia, and Ismael, who is from the Tuareg tribe and wears robes and scarves of all blue.  I have to email them both the pictures that I took of us.

We got to Zagora, the farthest city before the desert starts, and then took camels about an hour and a half out into the desert to some tents.  Each tour group had a tent, so ours had at least 17 mats in it, and this is where we would all sleep.  They served dinner (I had my La Briut meal) and had this kumzitz with Berber music.  By the way, Berber = native Moroccans.  They were originally (and in some cases still are) nomadic tribes, and 60% of Moroccans are ethnically Berber.  Obviously, not all practice traditional Berber culture.  One interesting Berber tradition that permeates all Moroccan culture (even in Jewish homes) is the tea.  Moroccan tea is really delicious, it's tea and nana and lots of sugar, but I still can't get how these nomadic tribes wandering through the desert thought it was a good idea to drink piping hot tea when it's 100+ degrees outside.  They swear by it, though, and say that hot tea quenches your thirst on a hot day like no cold drink can.

It was surprising warm, even in the middle of the night, even with a nice breeze.  It was really serene, except the lights from the highway out in the distance kind of ruined the mood, so I turned the other direction toward the desert.  I slept outside until I woke up around 2 when a sandstorm came through our camp and there was sand everywhere, in my mouth, in my pockets, everywhere.  I groggily got up and went into the tent and found the one open mat and promptly fell back asleep.  Some sand got in my camera and it was wonky for a little bit, but I think it's ok now.  I should have wrapped it in a Zip-Lock bag.  Oh well.  In the morning we saddled up our camels again and headed back to Zagora, and then we drove back, making a couple more stops on the way.  We got back to Marrakech in the late afternoon.

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photo by: rsvpme