Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Merzouga, Morocco

It’s amazing how beautiful such a stark, simple landscape can be.  It’s just before sunset and we are on top of a sand dune a few hundred feet high.  We’re standing with our backs to the wind so that we don’t get sand in our eyes, mouths, noses.  There’s nothing but velvety, shifting hills of sand as far as we can see.  The dunes are the color of weathered brick, or a rosy peach-painted Florida beach house.  The sand is fine and soft to the touch, cool at the surface from the evening wind, but when I dig my fingers in, it’s warm underneath from the daytime sun.

We’re at the western edge of the Sahara Desert, and these dunes are known as Erg Chebbi.  We rented a Peugot in Fez and spent two days driving through the most desolate landscape I’ve ever seen.  For most of the way, there was nothing but flat rocky earth littered with even more rocks.  As Mohit said, it was so flat that you could watch your dog run away for three days straight.  We passed a few herds of sheep grazing, and from far away the sheep looked just like the rocks.  Parts of the road were eroding away into the dirt on either side, leaving a narrow strip of bumpy pavement barely wide enough for one car.  Suddenly, out nowhere, the Middle Atlas Mountains loomed on the horizon.  Battered old trucks loaded three times higher than wide with goat skins and mattresses barreled toward us, in danger of toppling over at a sharp turn, and we bumped onto the dirt on the side of the road to let them pass.

We drove through tiny towns clustered around crumbling old forts (called Kasbahs).  We pulled over so Mohit could get out to take some photos, and as soon as he was out of sight around a corner, a gaggle of kids surrounded the car and pressed their faces against the tinted windows to ogle me like a zoo animal.  I smiled at them, though I’m ashamed to admit that I stayed in the car, intimidated by being so outnumbered and stared at.  They all ran away when Mohit came back around the corner.

We stopped again to explore a Kasbah that looked like it was deserted, but found laundry hanging to dry and could hear a Koran lesson being recited by schoolchildren inside an arched doorway.

We arrived in time for a late lunch at the tiny settlement of Hassi Labied, a few kilometers before Merzouga, at the edge of the sands.  The entire village is maybe two dozen squat mud-brick homes stuccoed with a mixture of hay and more earth.  The buildings are the same color as the desert, so it’d be easy to miss the town and drive right by.  Bouncing along the dirt road (the only road) through town, a cloud of red dust behind us, it looked like the village was deserted since everyone was indoors hiding from the blinding midday sun.

We’re staying in one of those mud-brick buildings, and it’s surprisingly cozy inside, with blue tiled floors and red kilim rugs hanging on the walls.  A French woman and her Berber husband own the four-room guest house, and she whipped up a delicious Berber omelette for our lunch; eggs, tomatoes, onions, and lots of paprika, served with a loaf of flat bread.  She’s a wonderful cook and we’re amazed that she’s got the provisions to make such yummy food at such an isolated location.

After an afternoon siesta, our camels arrived, led by a Berber boy in a royal blue jelaba who spoke Arabic and French.   It’s impossible to climb on a camel gracefully.  The camels were kneeling in the dirt, waiting for us with dusty saddles of folded wool rugs over their humps.  I threw my leg over the camel and then held on to his wooly back for dear life as he unfolded his rear legs first, pitching me forward, and then stood on his front legs, throwing me backward.  The camels’ feet are enormous, wide and soft compared to their knobby-kneed legs.  Big padded hoofs perfect for plodding through the sand.  Mohit managed not to be thrown off his camel after climbing on as well, and so we were off, across the road and into the glowing sand dunes.

The next day we got up early to get back out into the dunes before the heat of midday.  This time, we rented a beat up, rusty old snowboard from a guy who had one board and a single pair of skis.  We walked through the oasis, called a palmeraie, that survives at the edge of town where the people have encouraged palm trees and plots of onions and carrots to grow with careful irrigation by canals fed from a deep well.

The dunes were even more beautiful than the night before.  The sand glowed gold in the full light of day.  Sandboarding was a blast.  It was slow going on all but the steepest dunes, especially since the dilapidated board we were using was de-laminating on its underside.  But still, it was so cool.  Mohit wants me to tell everyone his mad snowboarding *skillz* translated well onto the sand.  We could have used a chairlift since climbing back up the dun was a frustrating exercise of two steps forward, three steps back as the sand avalanched around our ankles.  After a few runs (and more than a few falls on my part), we both had sand in every crevice- inside our ears, our underwear, coating our sweaty skin.  My shoes had so much sand in them that my shoes became too small for my feet.  The sand was displacing my toes.

Exhausted, thirsty, and happy, we trudged back down into the town for quick showers before firing up the Peugot to head off across the desert to our next adventure, the High Atlas Mountains.  


  1. Incredible pictures! It looks so beautiful and isolated.

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