The Desert’s Door
Daggers of dark pierced the red-brown earth of the High Atlas Mountains. As the sun slowly set beneath the snowy peaks of North Africa’s highest mountains, the eastern slopes slowly succumbed to the encroaching darkness. The Captain and I had left Marrakech that morning, crossed the High Atlas, and had descended its jagged slopes via the Tizi n’ Tichka toward Ouarzazate. Travelers in this frontier town usually have one of three goals: to see the famed Atlas movie studios and the associated sets from The Mummy, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and countless others; to find a little rest and relaxation before continuing northeast to the Dades Gorges; or to find a guide for the less traveled path southeast towards the Sahara Desert. Our goal was the third.
The city is dominated by the Kasbah Taourirt near the eastern souk. Once a seat of power for the Glaoui clan, its dusty brown walls have seen centuries of history. The Glaoui were a powerful Berber clan from the south, best known for the exploits of their leader T’hami el Glaoui. Know as the “Lion of the Atlas”, T’hami was a power player in Moroccan politics for over half a century. The son of the caid of Telouet, T’hami rose to national prominence after he saved Sultan Moulay Hassan’s life during a High Atlas snowstorm. Later on, in 1907, he backed a coup against Moulay Hassan’s successor Moulay Abdelaziz and put Moulay Hafid on the throne. Hafid rewarded T’hami by making him Pasha of Marrakech, one of the most powerful positions in all of North Africa. T’hami lined his pockets and consolidated his power, but fell out with Sultan Mohammed V in the 1950s. He aligned himself with the French and was instrumental in forcing Mohammed V into exile. Ben Arafa was proclaimed sultan and T’hami continued his reign as Pasha of Marrakech. The rising tide of popular nationalism, however, soon turned against him. The French withdrew and T’hami realigned himself with Mohammed V. Although he died in 1956, the lion’s influence can still be felt. He was one of the world’s richest men, and his realm stretched from the plains of Marrakech across the High Atlas, and encompassed most of southern Morocco. Modern Morocco may focus on the sultan and his heirs, but Ouarzazate still remembers T’hami el Glaoui.
Our riad, Rose Noire was located deep within the Kasbah Taourirt itself, the only hotel within the walls. Directions for finding it ranged from the anecdotal: “look for a stork’s nest on top of a mosque and try and keep it on your left as you enter a tunnel”, to the familiar “ask a local”. Given our experience in Marrakech (See A Dark Night in the Red City), we decided to meet our guide before trying to find our riad.
The Captain turned the Peugeot down one of central Ouarzazate’s wide streets and parked outside of the Desert Dream travel company, the outfit we had chosen to take us into the Sahara. We soon met our contact Allal and also Ali, our guide for the next 3 days. Intelligent and subtly witty, Ali spoke 5 languages fluently and hailed from the small town of Erfoud, near the dunes of Erg Chebbi. Despite never having left Morocco, he displayed a remarkable understanding of the world, the cultural divides that separate East and West, and his role as an ambassador for his country, his culture, and his people. The Sahara dominates the eastern reaches of Morocco, but the ways to experience it are as varied as the desert itself. Fortunately for us, our excursion was completely customizable: we could head in any direction for any destination, and the only passengers would be the Captain and I. As Allal and Ali unveiled a map of the Sahara and asked us to choose our route, I felt more than a twinge of anticipation. I have always been fascinated with expeditions and adventure, and the map seemed to shimmer like something out of a fantasy. The Algerian border stretched along the eastern sands and the mapped roads would wind their way through the desert only to wither and die in the arid sands. To visit Africa was one thing, to visit Africa and leave the roads behind was another. And I couldn’t wait.
We soon settled on two routes. We could leave Ouarzazate and take the “Road of a Thousand Kasbahs” to the northeast. More of these ancient mudbrick fortresses dot this path than anywhere else on Earth. Beyond that lay the Dades Gorges, the highest gorges on the continent. We could then continue on to Erg Chebbi, a stunning vista of red-gold sand, whose dunes are the highest in Morocco. As exciting as that sounded, the route south beckoned like the call of a siren. Going north would be beautiful no doubt, but going south was wild. We would leave Ouarzazate heading southeast through the Draa valley. The palms of this valley form one of the largest oases in the world, over 100 kilometers of endless green bordered immediately by harsh gold. We would hike through the oasis at Agdz and then continue on to Zagora. While Ouazazate claims the unofficial moniker of “The Desert’s Door”, that name more aptly applies to Zagora. Throughout its history, Zagora has always been a place of transition. Here the desert caravans from Timbuktu would interchange with the mountain caravans heading across the Atlas mountains to Marrakech. Travelers expecting to find the desert on the doorstep of Ouarzazate would be disappointed. The ground is rocky and the trees of the oases are lush. But at Zagora, the leviathan of the Sahara begins to make its presence known. Sand drifts start lazily, but ominously hint at the empty vastness to the east. From Zagora we would continue southeast to M’hamid, a town seemingly at the ends of the Earth. The road ends at M’hamid, and so does any semblance of civilization. The French Foreign Legion built a garrison there and in the decades since inhabitants have fended off sandstorms and separatist guerillas from the Polisario Front in equal measure. It truly feels like a town on the edge of an abyss. One could walk east from M’hamid and not find water until they hit the Nile, over 2000 miles away. But our route would not end there. After spending the night outside the city, we would head offroad, traveling half a day’s journey southeast right to the edge of Algeria, to the dunes of Erg Chigaga. Erg Chebbi may have the height, but Erg Chigaga has the isolation. Located deep in the Sahara, the only way in is by camel or 4X4. A paved road leads to the edge of Erg Chebbi, but Erg Chigaga can only be reached by leaving the beaten path behind. The dunes there are absolutely stunning, a vista unrivaled by any place on Earth. And unlike the more popular Erg Chebbi, they are almost completely free of tourists. I knew where I wanted to go.
We informed Ali of our chosen path, and he was kind enough to escort us to our riad. A good thing too, as the Kasbah Taourirt can be a labyrinth. Much like the medina in Marrakech, the paths branch and twist into a warren of stone and earth. For some stretches, it was pitch black so I was glad I had come prepared with a flashlight. When we reached our riad, we were welcomed by the owner, Bernard, and Steve his assistant. One of the most memorable things about traveling to new places is getting to meet new people, and the Rose Noire had two of the most memorable people I would meet in all Morocco. Bernard was a large and gregarious Frenchman who had married a local girl and never left the laid-back vibe of Ouarzazate. When the Captain attempted to produce our passports (standard procedure at hotels abroad), he was good-naturedly waved away. “I am not the police”, Bernard explained with a smile. In fact, he wanted nothing from us at all. No ID, no credit card, just for us to relax and enjoy his city. He then introduced us to Steve, who grabbed our bags and headed upstairs. When I first heard Steve speak I was amazed, his English was absolutely flawless! Not just clear and natural, but with the practiced ease of one who had used it for much of his life. Sure enough, when I inquired about his past he told us that he had lived in America for over 20 years. A native Moroccan born near Meknes, he moved to Houston and had lived in Texas for most of his adult life. Missing the slower pace of Berber life, he returned to Morocco and settled in Ouarzazate. His rugged Moroccan looks had proved confusing to his Texan neighbors who assumed he was Hispanic, prompting many a bewildered look and an ensuing geography lesson.
Steve led us to a local restaurant for dinner, giving the Captain tips for navigating the dark passages back to the riad as we went. We chose a table on the second floor of an unnamed establishment near the souk, with a stunning view of the silent Kasbah. The Captain ordered tajine, a traditional Moroccan dish cooked in a conical clay pot while I had a mixed kabob of chicken, beef, and lamb. The desert stars shone brightly against the Kasbah’s stone walls and the muezzin broke the evening’s silence with haunting clarity. As we enjoyed our food, I breathed in the intoxicating unfamiliarity of it all. The spice of the mint tea, the beauty of the call to prayer, the darkly chilling western wind. This was why we were here. This is why travelers are called to leave their comfort zone and learn about the world on a very primal level. Africa is wondrous, but its not for the timid. And I loved it.
The Captain and I wound our way back through the Kasbah’s ancient pathways, passing children playing soccer and men returning from evening prayer. Without Steve as a deterrent, we were hassled by several youths offering a variety of guidance, goods, and “special deals”. Fortunately our experience in Marrakech had prepared us well, and the Captain was firm in his denials. We reached the riad, climbed the wooden stairs to our room, and relaxed in its quiet embrace. As the chill of the desert night crept in, I prepared myself for the morrow. My husband is equally at home in the jungles of Central America as he is in the streets of Europe, but deserts are a unique and deadly animal. And I was a desert girl. Having grown up in the Northern Chihuahuan desert, I knew the dangers, but I also knew the rewards. As I nestled my medical pouch and pashmina next to my Canon 60D, I zipped up my Osprey pack and headed for bed. Deserts are as unique as the grains of sand they contain. The white gypsum dunes of New Mexico are haunting in their purity, and the Kalahari stands as a living contrast to the waters of the Okavango. But the emperor on the throne is the Sahara. Vast, untamed, and utterly unpredictable, the shifting sands of its western reaches lay at our doorstep, and tomorrow would take us into the very teeth of it. Our wait was almost over.