By area, Morocco is largely a semi-arid and desert nation, and it is no coincidence that the vast majority of the population lives in the region of more Mediterranean climate north of the Atlas. The desert is harsh, and vast swaths of the nation, particularly including the territory of Western Sahara (more on this below), are practically empty. Personally, my preference is not the desert... it is a place with mountains, lush jungle or forest, and beautiful, warm seas (think Hawaii, French Polynesia, or my personal favorite, New Zealand). However, I appreciate the desert. It is clean, and hauntingly beautiful. Deserts seem so sterile and desolate on the outside, but just beneath those rocky or sandy surfaces lie entire ecosystems of intriguing, rugged, and enduring species. Anyone who has spent a night out on dunes and woken up to take in all the fresh tracks in the sand around them knows how alive the desert really is. Desert landscapes are also incredibly photogenic... and I hope I do some justice to that with this post.
Back in the car... out of the mountains, we continued driving south and east, with only a brief stop for some food and water in Ouarzazate, a small city (but the largest in the area) and a very successful player in the film industry (Gladiator was partially filmed here, as were several other heavy hitters). Anyway, the roads were well maintained, and the driving was smooth and easy. The landscape continued to get harsher and more desolate as we went. We stopped along the road at one of the seemingly nature defying palmeries (former oases that have been converted into massive plantations of date palms and other commercially profitable desert plants) for a lunch of sardines in spiced olive oil (Morocco is a major exporter of the small, tasty fish), fresh bread, fresh figs (I was very, very fortunate to be there in fig season... so delicious), bananas, and cheese. Since it was Ramadan, we tucked away out of view of the road alongside the old, stone wall marking the edge of the palmery land. Technically though, by the rules of Ramadan, we were still allowed to eat since we were traveling, but the day away from fasting was supposed to be made up at a later time, which I know for a fact that I did not do.
We traveled along the "Route of the Kasbahs," and most of the oases along the way are still overlooked by the old mud and brick fortresses. A kasbah is just a walled fortress or citadel typical of North Africa, and kasbahs were often established near desert oases to stand guard and administer over the precious sources of life and agriculture. The contrast between the brown desert and the green oases was about as extreme as it gets... from no life on one side, to abundant life on the other. It is truly incredible what water can do. It was also interesting that the plants obviously had priority over the people, since they were always closest to the source of water with the houses, buildings and kasbah closer to or venturing into the surrounding desert.
It is amazing how well the buildings blend into the desert as well, though it makes perfect sense when you consider that the materials were all locally sourced. It would definitely be a simpler life, living in such a community. Your livelihood depends on the palmery, which of course depends on the source of water, whether it be a creek or well.
Some of the kasbahs were obviously abandoned, like this one. Left to themselves, I wonder if and how long it would take for the introduced species in the palmery to be overtaken by better adapted native plants as the palmery returns to a more natural oasis state. Without regular maintenance and repair, the kasbahs themselves return to the desert much faster.
Finally, we approached our destination, Merzouga and its beautiful sea of sand dunes, the Erg Chebbi. Compared to the Grand Erg Occidental and Oriental in neighboring Algeria (100's of km x 100's of km each in area), this relatively small set of dunes, at ~28 km x 7 km, still seems pretty massive in person.
We saw these guys tearing off the main highway towards the dunes... off to have some fun I'm sure. This blackened stretch they are moving through here is known as hammada; it is a pebbly, very flat surface, just perfect for blazing across the landscape in dune buggies like these.
Merzouga is just about the end of the road. It ends 24 km south in Taouz. Further south lies the full bulk of the Western Sahara and the Algerian border.
The dromedary camel, the epitome of domesticated desert animals. As a species, dromedaries are thought to have originated in the Arabian peninsula and were one of the large mammals successfully domesticated by prehistoric humans. These highly specialized beasts of burden likely spread across North Africa and the Sahara with the Arabs in the 7th century (common era). Camels are truly amazing creatures... having evolved special characteristics to survive in the desert, from their water storing hump to dehydration resistant systems and sand-proofed eyes and nostrils. As with most places with desert access throughout North Africa and the Middle East, you can sign up for came treks into the desert. These range from just a couple hours bumping along to spending more than a month traveling ancient trading routes (like Merzouga to Timbuktu for example, a journey lasting over 50 days). We took an overnight trip, riding out ~5 miles or more across the dunes before sunset and spending the night in the desert at a Tuareg camp with our guides. It was an incredible deal, since it also included a traditional dinner and entertainment (drum circle with the Tuaregs), plus it was just the 5 of us from our group, so we had the place to ourselves.
There is just something entirely enchanting about dunes... they seem so smooth and uniform from a distance, but the sand is really quite abrasive and there is plenty of fine detail when viewed up close. It is amazing how dunes are continually shifting... they flow slowly over time, the grains slowly but steadily transported with the winds, engulfing the landscape around them. They are like waves of earth moving over the terrain.
The Tuareg people are native to the Sahara. They are traditionally nomadic, moving from oasis to oasis depending on the climate and availability of food and water. They have their own language and a new alphabet, one letter of which can be seen as graffiti throughout southern Morocco, a symbol of Berber pride. Relying on tourism for their income, our Tuareg guides spoke great English, but they were very pleasantly surprised to find out that my friends in the Peace Corps spoke some Tamazight. At one point, they even quizzed my friend on their alphabet. They would draw a letter in the sand, and he would tell them the sound it made. When they broke out the drums, it got even more fun. They were experts on the bongo-type instruments, and we all had a good laugh when my friends and I tried (and failed) to keep the beat along with them.
This was my first time riding a camel. After a few miles, I felt as though my testicles were being put through a dull meat grinder. I don't know how people travel that way, day after day for weeks on end. It is incredible though, especially to see the relationship between the guide and the camels. They are obviously well trained, yet temperamental animals, each with their own personality. We had a young sprite one with a notched ear and an old, crotchety one with rotting teeth and patchy fur.
I can't say much more, so I'll just let some of these pictures speak for themselves.
Back to the dunes...
Our trek took us across the sea of dunes to near the easter edge. Along the way we were treated to a very nice sunset. The Tuareg camp where we would spend the night consisted of a circle of tents with carpets laid out throughout the center. We were served a delicious vegetarian tajine dinner (special request) with rice and vegetables on the side. Then the guides took out some drums and played while chatting, with us doing the same. There was no fire, since the air was more than warm enough (and honestly, wood is a bit of a scarce commodity in the middle of the desert!). We learned a bit about Tuareg culture and their pride in their new alphabet. I decided to move my cot out of the still boiling hot tent to sleep in the cool summer air under the stars. Before bed, I spotted a gnarly looking camel spider by the latrine. Camel spiders can grow to very large sizes (this one was small), and in WWII the British used to pit the creatures in death matches against scorpions and place bets on the winner. It was pretty neat to see one, though I have to admit it scared the crap out of me when I first noticed it just inches from my hand! The stars at night were brilliantly clear and we were treated to some pretty spectacular meteor entries (shooting stars) as well.
There you have it. My first encounter with the Sahara. It was a good one, and I hope to return to the region to explore more of the world's largest desert. It is most definitely a place of harsh and extreme beauty.