A trip to this country opens Zalina Mohd Som’s eyes to its vast beauty
“YOU are coming with me,” says the man standing just an arm’s reach from me while pulling my hand towards his camel without waiting for my answer.
I can’t tell whether he’s joking or serious for the tail of his bright orange turban covers his face and only leaves his deep dark brown eyes exposed. And those eyes share no clue whatsoever.
Everything happened quite fast. We had just got down from our 4x4 vehicles after a 45-minute drive from our four-star hotel in the nearby town of Erfoud when the drivers of our cars signalled to the group of Berber men to come closer.
By the look of it, these men — the indigenous people of Morocco — have been waiting for our arrival. With their loyal camels sitting next to them, they look like they’re all ready to take us somewhere.
It’s another hour or so before the sun comes down.
But the sun is somewhere hiding behind the thick clouds. And the strong wind brings the temperature much lower than the usual late afternoon weather in the desert.
As I half-heartedly let the man pull my hand, I look around, searching for help, perhaps more for approval. But everyone is busy with their own thing. Luckily, my eyes meet a pair of watching eyes. “If I don’t come back, please look for this man,” I cry for help from Aberrahim Soukani, the managing director of Travel Expert Morocco who has been with us since the day we landed in Casablanca four days ago.
He just laughs while signalling to me to look around. I oblige. They all look the same — all in blue deeras (a loose traditional Moroccan robe) and turbans that cover everything except their eyes. And I laugh.
AT HER MERCY
When our four-wheel drive steered into Merzouga — a small town in the Moroccan side of the Sahara Desert, from the long straight tarmac road, I could already sense something “amiss”.
The convoy of four-wheel drives did not stop to reduce the air pressure of their tyres — a practice I experienced in a desert safari excursion in Qatar a few years ago. But instead, the cars drove straight ahead going further from the town into the desert before stopping at a cluster of tents. To the waiting group of Berber men and their camels.
I expected to enjoy the thrills as our 4x4 vehicle goes up and down the sand dunes, and on the sides of the dunes, in high speed — the very reason I’ve asked to sit at the co-pilot seat so that I can get good pictures of the whole adventure. But they’re just the transfer between our hotel and Merzouga, and vice versa. The transport that will take us to Erg Chebbi, a vast expanse of Sahara sand dunes, are those camels.
“We will go to the highest sand dune to see the sunset,” says Muhammad, the Berber man as he helps me to hop on his camel, “and this is Jimmy Hendrix.”
Jimmy obliges when Muhammad tells him to stand up in a language I can hardly make out. It’s not Arab, not English either. Perhaps, it’s the language only these two understand.
When Jimmy nonchalantly straightens his rear legs, my upper body is pushed forward and if not for Muhammad’s quick save, I would probably fall face-down on the desert. Soft and fine as it may, going down on the desert face-down is not the way I want to start my desert experience.
But when Jimmy the camel is all on its four legs, I finally manage to find my balance and a comfortable position. Then when everyone in my group of 21 members is ready, the ride goes in one long line of a human-and-camel chain.
We cheer and celebrate as our rides unhurriedly take us deeper into the Sahara. Up and down, down and up. Not too long after we started to move, I turn back just to see how far we’ve gone.
I can no longer see the tents. All around us are golden sands that form the rolling sand dunes. The wind is getting stronger, blowing fine sand on our face. I can actually hear a tick-tick sound coming from my sunglasses! Now, I understand why these men cover their faces.
In the middle of nowhere with the sunlight fading sooner than expected, the intense sound of the blowing wind and the hissing sound of the moving sands do not sound thrilling to my ears.
What if the strong wind changes the landscape and our Berber guides aren’t be able to find the way back to the tents and the awaiting cars? And if we’re lost, do we have enough water and food to survive until rescue comes? Suddenly, my throat feels so dry!
Just before my mind can wander too far, our ride stops in a flat area surrounded by towering sand dunes. So this is where we climb up the sand dune to see the sunset?
Muhammad quickly instructs Jimmy to lower his body for me to get down on my feet. Jimmy obligingly sits on his belly and watches Muhammad drag me up the nearby sand dune. Yes, drag-climbing up loose sand in such an incline is not easy.
Looking up I can see fine sands being blown away from the sharp ridge of the dune at every sweep of the wind. But Muhammad keeps walking. Well, I guess this is nothing to him.
When we finally reach the top, Muhammad spreads a thick rug for me to sit facing the other side of the dune. Behind me, my tour mates slowly scale the dune with the help of their Berber guides.
“No, no. Sand is not good for camera. Keep it, keep it!” instructs Muhammad while blocking the sandy wind from my camera. Just as I zip my bag, a strong gust of wind comes with what seems like a bucket of sand thrown at me!
We sit at the top of the dune like little kids who have no worries about the sand and the unforgiving weather, waiting for a spectacular Sahara sunset. But no, spectacular it is not. Just a meek sun ball behind the thick cloud. Nevertheless, this short three-hour excursion in the Sahara leaves us smiling cheek to cheek throughout our days in Morocco.
IN THE BUCKET LIST
The sunset camel trekking in Sahara was never on my Moroccan bucket list. But its world-famous Jamaa Al-fana square and the neighbouring Grand Bazaar Marrakesh, its tannery in Fez and the blue city of Chefchaouen are.
I ticked off the old medina of Marrakesh on the second day of the 10-day Discover Morocco Tour, even though the square and the grand bazaar only came in at the later part of the day.
The day kicked off with a visit to Menara Gardens — a botanical gardens established in the 12th century, and Bahia Palace — a palace that has a stark similarity with the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain though in a smaller scale and the Mosque of Koutoubia, the country’s largest mosque.
The highlight of the day was of course the square. While the walk in the souq only made me think of the better looking grand bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey, the walk outside the souq in the square confused me with the constant haggles by the vendors, loud music from the street performances and the crowd.
But looking down from the rooftop of a cafe that sits exactly at the edge of the square was for me the best way to complete the whole square experience.
While it didn’t deprive me from taking in the square’s sight, sound, smell and energy, it gave me the comfort to enjoy it with a glass of cafe latte. It was just perfect!
The following day, the tour headed south to Ourzazate, a city located 1,151m above sea level at High Atlas Mountains, the mountain range that mostly covers the central region of Morocco.
The 170km drive via the Tizi n’Tichka Pass a.k.a the Road of 1000 kasbahs was nothing short of grandeur, especially in its scenic mountainous landscape, the dramatic bends and turns and the colourful culture.
The drive reached its peak at the rustic Ait Benhaddou Kasbah, one of the most authentic and spectacular fortress in the south of Morocco, located just 40 minutes from Ourzazate. Then it came to today as we continued the road trip on the mountain pass to Erfoud, passing by a little town called Tinghir and Gorges of Todra, a series of narrow canyon flanked by 300m-high cliffs that drop into the river bed.
Now, here we are. Heading back to our hotel in Erfoud, after a wonderful experience in the Sahara. The scenic mountain drives, the beautiful architectures, the charming locals and the exciting camel adventure all come to an end with this slow night drive. What a way to end the first leg of our Discover Morocco Tour! firstname.lastname@example.org
Next week, the road trip continues up north from Erfoud to Fez and Chefchaouen, before turning west to Rabat and Casablanca.
THE 10-day Discover Morocco Tour is organised by Travel Expert Morocco. Priced from RM8,800 per person, the full-board package includes night stays in four- and five-star hotels, a well-equipped coach, tips (hotels, restaurants and driver), an English-speaking guide, travel insurance and return flights.
For more information, contact Travel Expert Morocco KL representative Sharifah Nor Aini Jamalulail at 013-336 3534 or email@example.com.