Innumerable stars scatter across the heavens like diamond dust on a blanket of total blackness. Some are dull, merely flickering into existence, but many are brilliant enough to illuminate the dark, moonless night. Occasionally across the quiet panorama, a meteor plummets; usually faint, glimpsed only from the eye’s periphery, gone before it registers in my brain. Suddenly, from the campfire in the middle of the desert echoes the deep and melodious plucking of the ginbri and the clashing of the qarqaba, blending with the soulful voices of our Africans guides. For a moment I am whisked away from reality by a magic carpet, which takes me on a whirlwind ride over the gigantic dunes of the Sahara Desert.
The Sahara, which is Arabic for “the greatest desert”, is indeed the world’s largest hot desert, covering 9 million square kilometers, or about 31% of Africa. It covers huge parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia. The desert is one of the driest and hottest spots in the world, with temperature soaring as high as 58 degrees Celsius. Practically uninhabitable, although there is a small group of livestock-raising nomads called the Tuareg who lives on its outer edges.
As the sweltering madness of Marrakech begins to wear me out, I hop into a van with ten other backpackers from different continents and set off for the Sahara. Tapping our fingers to the African beats on the radio, we drive through dusty roads that snake from imperial Marrakech to rusty red hillside villages that camouflage the mountains. The scenery mutates at every bend; one moment cliffs, the next vast landscape peppered with bald acacia trees and date palms. Quintessential Africa. Some twelve kilometers from Marrakech we reach the beginning of the Atlas Mountain chain, where we drive past biblical-looking Berbers pulling on the lead of their donkeys and tending to their sheep. Some are perched on the roadside, surrounded by shelves of tagines and brightly colored plates for sale. The Berbers, I find out, are the indigenous North Africans who were forced to move to the Atlas Mountains during the Arab invasion in the 7th century. Occasionally we pull over at roadside cliffs a thousand meters above the ground to stretch our legs and to oooh and aaah at the breathtaking sceneries.
The sun is hammering its fiery red fists on our head when we arrive in Ouarzazate, where we find a crumbling walled village that wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones. And I am right, our guide Youssef confirms that the ancient village of Ait-Benhaddou, which layers its way up a hillside, indeed backdropped the popular TV show and a string of movies including Gladiator, Indiana Jones and The Mummy. Sweat is pouring from my head down into my eyes as I climb up the streets to the granary on the hilltop, but the view of the palmeraie, the stony desert that stretches out to infinity and the russet mud house village below is a breathtaking novelty (at least for me). Recognized as a UNESCO Heritage site and a striking example of Southern Moroccan architecture, Ait-Benhaddou is massive fortification which has six kasbahs (citadels)and around fifty ksours (mud houses), all built using local organic materials and covered with thick red mud plaster. It is believed that the village was founded in 757 AD when merchants from Sudan and the imperial cities of Morocco used the site as a trading post. The locals took advantage of the bustle along the trade route and earned a living by offering food and shelter to travelling merchants. The presence of valuable goods such as gold and spices attracted bandits, so high defensive walls were also built around the village. Today, only six families remain in Ait-Benhaddou as most of its inhabitants have moved to the modern town across the river.
Youssef then takes us to a house where his friend Ahmed delightfully receives us with sweet Moroccan mint tea, poured high above our cups in a streaming waterfall. “We call this the Berber whiskey,” he says with an ear-to-ear smile. I suddenly remember those aggressive merchants in Marrakesh, who try to hook their prospective customers with tea and sweet talk. Is Ahmed going to sell us rugs? Caftans? Or maybe there is no motive at all, just genuine hospitality. After a cheerful banter with the group, Ahmed asks his daughter to show us how to spin combed wool into yarn, which they use to weave carpets. I knew it! Halfway through our tea, brightly colored carpets made of camel and sheep wools come flying onto the floor. Ahmed spreads carpet after carpet for our perusal. “No obligation to buy. Just take a look,” he says. To be fair, the carpets have a topnotch quality- thick fibers, closely knitted and intricate designs. “Sometimes it takes almost a year to finish one,” he continues. There are two problems though: First, we’re all stringent “carry-on only” backpackers and second, the carpets are too expensive. I’d certainly feel terrible haggling for a gorgeous carpet, which took his poor daughter eight months to finish. So we politely decline, walk away before any on us succumb to his insistence and disappear into a roadside hostel to spend the night.
Early morning the following day, we are zig-zagging on the road and zooming past red adobe towns strewn with goats, sheep and donkeys. Vast farmlands dotted with pomegranate trees and olive groves roll up into red and mauve barren hills. Despite the wind whipping up clouds of dust that gets into my eyes, I do not dare blink and miss a roadside scenery. Soon, massive orange limestone cliffs push out of the ground toward the sky, engulfing us in every direction. Gravity-defying boulders stack up threateningly on the hillside, looking like they’ll crumble on us anytime. Arriving at Todra Gorge has me gawking in awe, with half my body out the window to make sure I absorb the details of this grand visual symphony. At the foot of the towering rock walls is the Todra River, which has now dried up a little and is crowded with partially submerged children trying to escape the blistering summer heat. It is said that the river and the harsh weather conditions have sculpted the rock walls into the landscape over time. Walking along the gorge, I see a man in a fedora bursting out of a crevice on a horse (cue in the Indiana Jones music). Some locals here actually offer horseback riding activities to reenact the adventures of Indiana Jones.
After soaking up on the glorious scenery, we drive a few more hours along a rugged terrain, which eventually smoothens out into fine sand. Then we see it! Wavering above the scorching desert horizon, as if yearning for rain, are the golden-orange peaks of the gigantic dunes, flawless and velvety against the brilliant blue sky. Finally, we have arrived at the legendary Sahara Desert! The Sahara Desert represents those exotic places that I only heard of from my father’s car stereo or read about in encyclopedias when I was a child, so actually seeing it is beyond surreal.
It is too hot to do anything other than sit in the shade and stare into the distance as we wait for the camels to take us to our camp. The wind sculpts Zen waves in the dunes, erasing bird and human footprints. We excitedly swath our heads with thick and colorful tagelmust (turbans), which the Tuaregs use to protect themselves from the blasts of biting sand during the day and for warmth when the temperature plunges at night. Soon, our Bedouin guides beckon us to hop on the camels, whose legs splay out in the sand like cars with flat tires. Our camel procession starts barely an hour before dusk when the sun, round and full like a giant yolk about to be pricked, casts a gorgeous pattern of dark shadows and golden highlights on the sand. Up and down the towering dunes we go, gripping on to the handlebars for our lives while trying to comprehend the size of the magnificent desert, which rolls out as far as the eyes can see.
The deep blue sky fades into soft mauve when we arrive at the campsite. Expecting only shabby tents to shelter us for the night, we are surprised to find large tents draped in lush fabrics and fully decked out with king-size beds, mattresses, Berber carpets, toilets and bathrooms. Shortly, we are served with chobbes (round Moroccan bread) and a piping hot buffet of couscous, vegetable salad and beef tagine. Chatter ceases and a gratified silence descends as we eat hungrily to the last morsel. Hardly do we know that the day is far from over. The Sahara may be breathtaking by day but by night, it is out of this world. A phenomenal blanket of stars bedecks the heavens and the Milky Way sweeps its arc across the center. Soon, our guides, who coax us to sing and clap with them, serenade us with their anthems. We gather around a bonfire and let the hypnotic beats of African music chase the silence away.
For arranged tours to Sahara Desert, please visit www.discovermorocco-tours.com.