The Edge of the Anvil

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The muezzin’s voice flooded the streets of Ouarzazate like a rising tide of rhythmic sound, shattering the cold still air of a February morning.  I awoke with the sun, its bright rays seemingly powerless to combat the chill of dawn.  I knew, however, that it would not last long.  Temperature variations in the Sahara can encompass swings of 60 degrees Farenheit or more in a matter of hours, and unprepared travelers can suffer severe exposure if not properly equipped.  Marechal Hubert Lyautey, France’s first Resident-General of Morocco once described his adopted homeland as “a cold country with a hot sun”.  As I glanced ruefully at my oxide sunscreen neatly juxtaposed next to my faded travel jacket I knew he was right.  I packed the last of my survival kit into my Osprey pack, layered a wool pashmina around my neck, and headed up to the roof of our tiny riad for breakfast.  Nestled within the heart of the Kasbah Taorirt, it overlooked the sleeping city and the peaks of the High Atlas to the west.  To the east the rising sun lit up the Draa valley like a beacon, beckoning us to follow.  The air was heavy with silence and the only other souls in sight were the Captain and a large stork who had taken up residence on the minaret of the local mosque.

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Gathering my luggage and slinging my Canon 60D around my shoulder, the Captain and I headed downstairs and out into the sunshine, navigating the paths through the old kasbah to where our Peugeot 206 was waiting.  We drove northwest to where we would rendezvous with our local guide Ali, stopping at a local Banque Populaire du Maroc on the way.  Visiting an ATM in country has always been our preferred way of acquiring local currency, and with Morocco it was an absolute must as the export of their currency is illegal.  Few places in eastern Morocco take credit cards anyway, and with our path lying in the remote areas near the Algerian border, the number of merchants taking anything but cash would soon drop from few to none.

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We met up with Ali and transferred our bags from the Peugeot into the Toyota Prado we would take into the desert.  4 wheel drive and a few spare air filters are an absolute must for any expedition into the Sahara as the sand often seems to defy physics with its ability to permeate critical areas of machinery.  We had planned our route the day before (See Desert’s Door), and we set out southeast from Ouarzazate and into the rising sun.

The High Atlas stood as sentinels in the rear-view mirror as we headed further into the African interior.  For thousands of years those peaks had stood as guardians of this region.  Impassable roads and hostile tribesmen had ensured that the land southeast of the Atlas mountains remained almost untouched by foreigners.  It was not until the 20th century that globalization finally tempered the region’s fire.  As we drove, the rocky landscape around Ouarzazate gradually shifted from the reddish-hued stone of the High Atlas to the sand colored tracts that mark the Sahara’s western reaches.  In front of us lay Draa valley and the route of the ancient trans-Saharan caravans.

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At Agdz, we turned off the main road and into the heart of the valley.  The palette of sand and ochre turned suddenly, almost violently into a beautiful deep green.  Verdant palm trees shouldered together to create a rich tapestry of color on the valley floor.  To the north it stretched for miles, to the east and west there was no end to it.  The Draa valley follows the path of its namesake river, and its fertile waters give rise to one of the largest oases on Earth, over 100 kilometers long.  Ali stopped the Prado near an old French Foreign Legion base and I grabbed a canteen and my 60D; this was the kind of vista that had to be seen up close.  My boots hit the dust and the Captain bid Ali drive on towards the river.  With the Captain at my side, I watched the outline of the Prado fade amongst the palms.  With one last look at the Atlas, I secured my pashmina and headed down into them.  The temperature dropped almost immediately and the air felt heavier.  It was easy to see how these oases were beacons of life amid a sea of fire.  Horned Vipers and Cobras often make their homes amongst the palms, but it was hard to take my eyes off the amazing view.

After about a half hour hike, the palms cleared and we came upon the Draa river.  The longest river in Morocco, the Draa flows down from the Atlas, well fed by snow melt and its tributaries, the Dades and the Imini.  But like all rivers that dare to flow towards the Sahara, a quick end awaits them.  The sun beats upon southeast Morocco like an Apollonian anvil and any water that breaches the desert’s door quickly evaporates into the ether.  6000 years ago, a change in the Earth’s orbit changed the climate of the African continent.  The rains shifted south and the lush green valleys of North Africa fell to the Saharan sun.   In Adgz, however, the water still flows.

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I climbed back into the Prado as we crossed the Draa and headed down the valley towards Zagora, stopping at a half-ruined kasbah for tea.  Mint tea is ubiquitous in Morocco and you can find it served equally well in Moroccan homes as you can in the finest resorts.  Locals take Chinese gunpowder green tea, muddle in mint, and add a copious amount of sugar.  The result is a piping hot dose of Berber hospitality that feels opulent, even when far from civilization.

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As we neared Zagora, Ali pointed out a ruined tower high on a hill looking east.  A vestige from the past, these towers served as beacons to guide and provide warning to caravans.  When danger threatened, the tower would provide a signal visible for miles around.  During the day, it would be the flash of sunlight off a polished mirror, at night, fire.  Zagora is ancient, long serving as the point of transition for caravans crossing the High Atlas to Marrakech and those traversing the mighty Sahara southeast towards Timbuktu.  A sign on the outskirts of the town pays homage to the past: “Timbuktu 51 and 1/2 days”.  By camel of course.  We had lunch among the palms and continued on, stopping at Tamegroute to buy some local pottery.  Pottery in Morocco is very region specific, from the bright colors of Marrakech to the stunning blue and white patterns of Fez.  Tamegroute is known for its green glazed pieces colored with copper from the region’s rocky terrain.  Cash is king in this part of the globe, however, we were cheerfully informed of an alternative: Berber credit, which is half now and half immediately.  Tamegroute has a large population of native Malians, many from Timbuktu.  They spoke fondly of their homeland, at the time under siege by Islamic militants, just a desert away.

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South of Tamegroute, my anticipation began to build.  I had the distinct feeling that Tamegroute and Zagora were bastions against the encroaching sands.  Bulwarks against something beyond the taming of men.  Leaving such protection behind and heading into the unknown filled me with a haunting excitement.

As if to reinforce the sense of leaving civilization behind, sand began to drift across the increasingly fragmented road, dust particles turned the sun an ominous dull yellow, and the landscape began to change from the rocky Anti Atlas to the sun-beaten desert of the Sahara itself.  At Tinfou, we glimpsed our first sand dunes, pale against the glare of the sun.  Tinfou is a popular destination for desert day trips from Ouarzazate, but compared to dunes deep in the Sahara, it is a man amongst giants, and isolated it is not.  Both Tinfou and Erg Chebbi can be reached by paved road; the nearest road to Erg Chigaga is merely a dusty track and even that is over 50 miles away.

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As we left Tinfou in the Prado’s rear-view mirror, the road turned towards the south.  The small villages that had dotted our path became few and far between.  Sandstorms wrack this region and those villages we did see often had buildings worn away by the hot desert wind.  When blown fast enough, the sand can cut and each structure we saw bore its own individual scars.  As the road turned again, just outside M’Hamid, we caught our first glimpse of Algeria.  Long a political foe of Morocco, Algeria has had its Moroccan border crossings closed since 1994.  The issue of Western Sahara and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front has created further tensions between these two powers of the Maghreb.

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Erg Lihoudi

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Just prior to M’Hamid, the sun hung low in the horizon and Ali announced that we had reached our campsite for the night: the dunes of Erg Lihoudi.  Ali made arrangements with a local camel driver and haggled with a merchant for a new air filter for the Prado.  Our camel driver, Mohammed, saddled one of his camels and beckoned the Captain to get on.  Kneeling in the hot sand, it is easy to underestimate a camel’s true height.  As I straddled the padded cushions on the camel’s great hump, it stood up and I was blown away by how high up it was!  Higher than any horse, the perch atop a camel is a naturally precarious position as the cushions can only partially shallow the slope of the camel’s hump.  As we headed into the dunes we soon got the hang of the camel’s unique gait.  As the Captain leaned back horizontally to snap some pictures, my camel decided it was time for lunch!  Unlike the rest of the camels in the train which stayed nicely in a row, mine continually veered off to the side to much on whatever scrub brush and palm leaves were available.  The Captain later joked that my camel shared my often rebellious nature.  The winds soon kicked up out of the west, creating halos of blowing sand around the shifting dunes.  I had to cover my camera, glad of the giant freezer bag I had brought just in case.  The blowing sand seemed a living thing, a part of the Sahara itself, flung eastward by the hot desert wind.  I tightened my pashmina, crouched low on the camel and rode on.  After about an hour trekking into the desert, we arrived at our camp for the night.  A series of tents with mud brick foundations lay in a circle around a firepit.  The roofs were straw and the doorways thick flaps of Moorish blankets.  We both dismounted, the Captain acquainting himself with his newly discovered saddle sores.  It took a while to adjust to solid ground after the continually swaying motion of our dromedaries.  Our tent featured a single small bed with a mattress of straw, but no bed ever feels half as comfortable as the one that awaits after a long day’s journey.  I shook the sand out of my pashmina, kicked off my boots, and enjoyed a welcome respite from the howling winds outside.

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Darkness brought a welcome respite from the wind, and after a tasty repast of chicken tajine and mint tea, I headed outside where Ali had built a large fire.  Two Italians had also made camp there, and the two of them, the Captain, and I huddled close to the flames as the night air, robbed of the sun’s searing gaze quickly cooled the sands around us.  The two men who ran the campsite brought out a drum and Ali joined in.  The flames danced in time with the hypnotic rhythm of the drums.  As our hosts sang about the beauty and ferocity of their homeland, my thoughts turned to what lay before us.  For tomorrow we would leave all roads behind and strike out into the open desert.  The flames flickered and shifted with the western wind and the sands blew over the dunes like a dark shadow.  I walked back toward our tent, the Captain threw back the heavy flap, and I fell asleep to the sound of drums and the roar of the desert wind.  We had finally reached the great Sahara, but our adventure was only beginning.

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