Edge of the Sahara Trek January 2010
“10 go mad in the sand”
A blogpost on a recent trip to Morocco with 4 days trekking in the Sahara. Apologies in advance to my fellow trekkers for the liberties I have taken with the facts and events of the trip – the heat and the sand can play tricks on the mind and the names of the innocent have been changed to protect the guilty. For those people fortunate not to have been present on the trip, this will probably be quite tedious and dull – so if you want to get some real information I’d just skip to the end!
Day 1 Arrival in Marrakech
Having been pleasantly surprised by the space and service on the Easyjet flight out from Manchester, we are greeted at Marrakech airport by Ben, our friendly guide for the week. Trek bags are thrown onto the top of the minibus and we take the short ride to the hotel, the Royal Mogador. The least said about this hotel the better. To sum it up – it’s built above a supermarket, it has direct access to the supermarket from inside the hotel, you can’t buy beer in it. Nuff said. Meet up with fellow trekkers, a moteley crew of serial walkers all keen to experience the wonders of the Sahara, and none too keen on our first night’s accommodation…
Day 2 Ten Tedious Hours in a Bus
After an uninspiring breakfast in our “hotel” we cram into a minibus for the drive to our start point. 10 hours later we arrive. In the meantime we drove through the Atlas mountains – beautiful views and snow, had lunch opposite a building site in Ouarzazate, stopped off for a comfort break in a decent hotel, and drove through countless picturesque villages. How to sum up Moroccan architecture? In a word, “unfinished”. With the notable exception of the mosques, there didn’t seem to be a single village where building had made it past the first floor, and most had that “work once in progress but since abandoned” look about them. Anyway suffice to say that when we finally arrived at our destination we were happy to unfold ourselves from the bus and camp down in the Berbar tents that had been allocated to us (although we did wonder why we couldn’t use the perfectly serviceable chalets which looked empty and inviting!)
Day 3 Meet the Camels and Find the Dunes
After an interesting night of disturbed sleep culminating in the call to prayer being delivered from the back of a moped driven at speed past the camp, we emerged eager to get cracking. We met our porters for the week, 6 camels, and their friendly crew of carers, Yousef, Omar, Mohammed and Salman. It seemed to take a while to get going and we were soon to realise that this was a sign of things to come – “Ben Time” existed on a slightly parallel time dimension which meant that an 08:30 kick-off could occur at anytime from 09:00 to 10:00.
Anyway we finally set off and within a few minutes had cleared the village and were out into the open countryside, eager to engage our first dunes. The sun was shining and there was a gentle breeze so we set off in high spirits. Encountering some strange fruits which looked like mini-melons, yours truly and Vince gamely sliced one up and looked inside, all the while wondering why Yousef was gesticulating wildly. Eventually Ben arrived and told us that there were highly poisonous and not even the camels touched them. Always nice to be forewarned of these things I think…
So on we went and eventually found our first proper dune. At last. We’ve all been to the beach and are used to walking on sand and up the odd dune, but nothing quite prepares you (or at least me) for walking up the side of dune and seeing you feet and calves disappear into soft sand and realise you’re going to have to suck them out and plant them again and again to get up the damn thing. The same thing happens on the way down, assuming you manage to stay up right. Vince had told me that Lesson 1 in the desert was to follow the person in front and use their footsteps. Nice idea but sadly it was soon apparent that as the heaviest in the group by a large and rather wide margin, I was most likely to be the one being followed. I did try and follow Yousef a couple of times, but on the basis he was walking in jeans and open toed sandals and seemed to make no impression in the sand at all, it was quickly clear that I would be spending the next 4 days making steps for others..
The other thing that became apparent was that the desert here, far from being your classic “Lawrence of Arabia dune upon dune” landscape, was more a series of dunes interspersed with flat plains of dried mud and broken rock. This lunar like landscape was to become rather familiar over the coming days.
Not much other excitement to tell from that first morning, other than an encounter with some rather forlorn looking Moroccan conscripts (we found out at this point that we were walking near the “no mans land” that separates Morocco and Algeria, who seem to have a similar relationship to the French and the Germans..). Lunch was taken on a particular stretch of moonscape, under the shade of the one Acacia tree for a mile in all directions. It was our first encounter with our “lunchtime camel”, who quickly established himself as a colourful character keen to scavenge any food he could, including at one point a 2 foot lump of sugar. We also had our first taste of what Hussein, our excellent cook, could conjure up from the back of said camel. The results were and continued to be throughout the trek truly excellent (Apologies to Mike at this point who would beg to differ on the basis that there was too much fresh veg and fruit and not enough dead and roasted animal on the menu…)
The afternoon’s trek continued through the desert until we chanced upon our other camels and their friends who had started to make camp. We set up the tents and then Ben announced he would be leading a trip to a nearby shrine. Sounds exciting. In “Bentime” this was said to about 10 minutes away, and so we wouldn’t need water or anything, just ourselves and a camera. Hmmmm. Well after 40 minutes of the hardest dune walking we’d done all day we made it to the “shrine”. How to describe it? Well it was at least finished, and had a roof with no attempt to build a second storey, but that was about it. Of far more interest was the ruined village next to it which made for some atmospheric sunset photos. Back to camp and despite being told we were not allowed a campfire luckily Omar and Mohammed were not daft and had lit up a good one and were soon brewing up some mint tea (which for them seem to constitute 95% sugar, 1%mint, 4%water and then some more sugar to taste). Anyway after another excellent meal we settled down for the night, with Vince and some others opting for the full rugged “sleep under the stars” experience and the rest of us diving into our tents. Soon realised Lesson 2 in the desert – it’s damn cold at night! Realised that by gamely ignoring the “pack a 4 season sleeping bag” advice on the kit list and bringing my compact teabag instead I was going to be spending every night in 4 layers of clothes. So to bed..
Day 3 – Just how far is that Damn Dune Away
Another bright sunny day and the walk started with another visit to the shrine, in case we’d missed something of interest the night before. We hadn’t. Much excitement mid morning though when we came across an old fort with a well in it, where our camel team stocked up on water, which leads me to Lesson 3 in the desert – take enough bottled water so you don’t have to rely on iodine flavoured well water. It’s minging. Just don’t go there if you can avoid it.
We also quickly established that our “guide’s” knowledge of the local geology and history was about as good as his timekeeping. Having found what was clearly a bit of old pottery we asked him how old it was. He immediately claimed it was not pottery but a piece of volcanic rock, and even when we found the round handle that attached to the pot was still not convinced. It was a good job he was a nice fella otherwise there might have been more mutiny in the ranks.
By lunchtime I’d finally succumbed to the need to do what comes naturally and so availed myself of the desert toilet facilities. Lesson 4 in the desert – make sure you cover your tracks and tell the guide where you’ve deposited so he doesn’t lead the group straight past your output. Well at least I only made that mistake the once…
We were heading for the largest dune in the Moroccan Sahara which we could see on the horizon all day and which seemed to get no nearer. A tough afternoons walking up and down dunes was not made any easier by the “Bentime” estimates of our likely arrival time which seemed to be “about 30 minutes” for the last 3 hours of walking. It struck as all again how sad it was that Ben didn’t have a watch. Anyway eventually we made it to the camp at the foot of said Sand dune, a monster about 150 feet high. Needless to say there were fewer volunteers that night for the evenings excursion up the dune…
Day 4 & Day 5 – When will it ever end…
This is where it all started to fall apart slightly on the trek front. Having made it to the “big dune”, it soon became clear that the walk out was going to involve 2 days of fairly tedious trekking across moonscape with the occasional dune thrown in for variety. Highlights included the Day 4 camp near a well with the added benefit of a camel trough which doubled up as a paddling pool – much appreciated. Also notable was Vince’s comprehensive victory over Mike in the gadget war when Mike’s astronaut watch died on him and his intergalactic solar charger was trumped by Vince’s fag packet version. Such things make these treks worthwhile and entertaining. On the last day our lunchtime camel also gamely volunteered to allow some of the group to have a quick ride. Luckily for him I was over the weight limit…
Suffice to say that by the end of Day 5 as we approached our final camp we were all keen to conclude the trek, especially as much of the last day was spent trekking across a plain that was also home to a road on which numerous luxury air-conned 4x4s ploughed merrily past us with their occupants smugly waving.
Sadly the last night’s camp, on the outskirts of a village, was not set to be our best. The location on the village edge meant that the dunes we were camping on doubled up as a rubbish tip, so a far from scenic end to the trek. However we still managed to rouse ourselves sufficiently for the traditional end of trek meal and handout of tips – with no complaints over the amounts for the cook or Yousef and the boys, but much debate over whether we should give Ben any money or just the address of a watch shop. That night I also cracked after 5 days with no booze and tucked into my duty free bottle of Bells. Apologies and thanks in equal measure are therefore due to Mike and Vince for accompanying me on that evening’s voyage, and Chris for his forgiveness when I tried to stumble into his side of the tent at some ungodly hour of the night….
Day 6 – Not another Bus Journey
The trip back to Marrakech was far more pleasant than our outward journey given that the bus at least had enough seats for everyone. We eventually made it back into Marrakech and having arrived back at the hotel quickly wanted to leave again and so made our way out into the Souks and Main Square of Marrakech. A contrast from the desert to say the least. I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone planning a romantic break to Marrakech except to say that you should be prepared to haggle aggressively with the Souk vendors and check out the prices in some of the shops near the hotels first as they are often cheaper than the market!
A Thank you to my Fellow Travellers
A quick word of thanks to my fellow trekkers. For Chris and Mike for persuading me that the trip was a good idea (just shows how wrong you can be). For Vince, a top bloke who claimed he was on holiday but having seen his photos it is now clear he was actually on an undercover operation to unmask Hussain the international orange smuggler. To Robert, a true gent from the US of A who outwalked us all. To Maurice who came on the trek despite knowing Chris and Mike were going to be there. To Zita who was I suspect on day release from another planet but who kept the spirits of the group up throughout the week. To Alan and Linda, especially Alan for the ease with which he won the “photo gadget” war within minutes of whipping out his tripod, and to Louise, who despite her lack of appreciation for Vince’s dubious desert musical tastes, managed to maintain her good humour throughout. Thank you one and all.
Assuming you skipped the boring narrative, then for anyone wanting to know more about the trek it was booked through KE Adventure Travel. Most of my fellow travellers are KE Vets and swear by them, so please don’t be put off by my jaundiced view of the trip!
Thanks to the “friendly” nature of relations between Morocco and Algeria there are no maps of the areas we walked freely available. However for a rough map see below: