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Sahara Desert, Morocco

Morocco – the land of magic, mystery and wonder.

Nowhere is that felt more than in the heart of the Sahara Desert. After visiting the frenetic souks of Marrakech and the bustling seaside port of Essaouira, we headed out to “The Great Desert.”

We booked a three-day tour of the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert through Halila Tours. In Marrakech, a mini van picked us up early in the morning at our guesthouse, Riad Sabah. From there, we drove to a meeting point where other mini vans converged. Local drivers sorted a cattle of confused tourists and in a few minutes, we were back on the road. We found ourselves among a group of strangers who we’d be with for the next 72 hours.

Like our cross-country trip through the Uyuni Salt Flats & Atacama Desert of Bolivia, our group was quite varied. As we made our introductions, not only did we come from different places, but we were all in different stages of our life.

Our driver, Hassan, an easygoing Marrakech local with sparkling brown eyes, looked at us in the rear view mirror. “Mixed Salad,” he laughed.

Ten people made up Mixed Salad, plus Hassan – who we later nicknamed “DJ Hassan” for his eccentric playlist. First up, there was Carl and Kathleen, the “adults” of the group. They were a young, ambitious couple from Chicago, currently living in Casablanca. Kathleen planned to go to graduate school for urban planning, while Carl was studying finance and trading. They seemed to have their entire life planned out including their upcoming nuptials.

Mark, a friendly guy from Holland, was traveling in Morocco for two weeks. Having recently attended Bible Camp, he happily declared that his faith was his whole life. Clearly, it had made an impact on him. But he wasn’t preachy in any way – just upbeat and optimistic.

At 39, Daniel was the oldest in the group, an avid traveler from northern Brazil and a sweet, introspective guy. He received his degree in dentistry before switching to pharmaceutical sales. Now, he worked for the government. had just begun his two-month sabbatical, traveling solo through Morocco, Spain, Portugal and Turkey. 

The youngest in the group was Christian, age 20, originally from Fort Collins, Colorado. He had already lived a well-travelled life with his father working in international affairs after serving in the Peace Corps. Christian was currently attending the American University in Bulgaria and upon graduating, had his sights set on joining the foreign service.

Last but not least: the Russian trio who brought the most laughs to the group – though not sure they realized it.

With their dry sense of humor and no-nonsense, straight talk, Elaina, Diana and Katrin from Saint Petersburg, definitely kept us on our toes. Their comments were often borderline offensive, but amusing at the same time. Like aloof pet cats, they were along for the ride, but really, could not be bothered with any of us.

Four hours later on a fairly bumpy journey, we reached Ouarzazate. Located on the former caravan route between Marrakech and the Sahara, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou. The fortress, constructed of mud and straw, is particularly dramatic set against the High Atlas Mountains.

The village, located next to the Ounila River, also includes various dwellings and community buildings such as a mosque and public square. Once home to thousands, Ouarzazate has since dwindled to just a few families. The site remains a popular location for filming and has been featured in Hollywood classics from Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator. Most recently, it was the backdrop for the popular series, Game of Thrones.

We ended our first day at Hotel du Vieux Chateau du Dades, a fairly primitive hotel, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner of soup, grilled chicken and vegetable cous cous. We were thankful for the hot meal as the temperatures quickly dropped as the sun went down. Even sleeping under two wool blankets was no match for the drafty old hotel.

In the morning, we turned on the faucet in hopes of a hot shower. A trickle of water, then a few drops. No shower for us.

Seeing Mixed Salad at breakfast was like reuniting with old friends. Conversation had flowed easily the night before and we resumed our conversations where we left off. We couldn’t help but notice that the Russian trio looked particularly refreshed – styled hair, glowing skin and impeccable makeup.

“Wow, you all look amazing,” I remarked. “We didn’t have any water to take showers. Did you?”

Elaina, the trio’s ringleader, gave an unamused look.

“Yes, we got up early to wash our hair,” she stated plainly. “We took all the hot water.” She then proceeded to take the last roll from the bread basket.

Piling into the van to start our adventures, DJ Hassan drove us to our first stop of the day: Todres Gorge.

Over centuries, the Todra and Dades Rivers carved their way through the limestone to form the natural oasis. We felt quite small walking between the canyon walls which stretched up to 500 feet tall. 

Next up: the small village of Tinehir, capital of Tinghir Province.

Set in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, the palm oasis is hardly what you’d imagine for the region. A guide walked us through the arid outlying farmlands which were lush and beautiful due to a robust irrigation system.

Once in the village, we wandered the dirt paths among sandstone structures, similar in size and color. We noticed each home featured a colorful, ornate door, usually with a symbol. We learned the symbols mean different things: a diamond with four quadrants represents the different seasons, whereas a moon stands for “nomad.” Berber rugs and carpets also incorporate these symbols.

A few village kids walked alongside us, asking for money, until we reached a local Moroccan carpet and rug store. The Berber shopkeeper, dressed in a traditional djellaba (robe) and turban, treated us to mint tea while telling us the history of the celebrated craft of Moroccan rug making. The Berbers (a.k.a. Amazigh) are the indigenous people of North Africa and descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants.

In 2nd century BC, Berber women living in the Middle Atlas and surrounding plains of Marrakech began the treadition of Morrocan carpet weaving. They were responsible for passing down their weaving knowledge through the generations. Since 7th century AD, Moroccan Berber rugs have been in continuous manufacture. 

Back in the van, we drove an hour to the next town, Tinejdad, where we stopped at roadside Belle Vue Cafe Restaurant for Berber omelettes – poached eggs in a spicy sauce of tomatoes, onions and peppers. An enterprising Moroccan salesman approached Elaina with his collection of ancient minerals and fossils.

“What will I do with a rock?” Elaina asked him plainly. “I do not want it.”

Two more hours and at last, we reached the Sahara Desert, just in time for our sunset desert trek.

Our trusty camels were lined up and waiting for us. Everyone’s style of climbing aboard their camel was entertainment in and of itself. Once we were all safely atop our assigned camels, three Berber guides and one faithful pup led us out into the vast desert.

The Sahara is the world’s largest (dry) desert, spanning over 3,300,000 square miles. It covers nearly a third of the African continent, reaching a total of 11 countries. 

The trek was magical – from the scenery to riding on the majestic camels. The word “camel” actually comes from the word “beautiful” in Arabic. Native to the African desert, they can carry up to 600 pounds and run up to 25 miles an hour. At birth, they weigh between 55-100 pounds and an adult can reach up to 2500 pounds.

After an hour, we dismounted from our camels (a welcome break) to climb one of the enormous sand dunes to catch the sunset. Mixed Salad sat along the top of the ridge in silence watching the sun slowly sink into the horizon. A spectacular performance by nature.

Taking advantage of the lingering light, we quickly mounted our camels for the remaining trek to our campsite.

The temperature dropped quickly and the winds began to pick up. The multi-tent camp was already set up and after dropping off our backpacks, we gathered in the main tent for dinner. Our guides fixed us mint tea and proceeded to lead us in a Berber drum circle, freestyle dancing – even limbo!

“But seriously… where is dinner?” Elaina remarked, looking unimpressed.

For once, we agreed with Elaina – we were all starving. Eventually, the guides got around to cooking. The meal was worth the wait: a delicious tajine of chicken and fresh vegetables.

Afterwards, everyone except the Russion trio who went to bed, braved the chilly air to hike up the sand dune by our camp. Lining up along the ridge, we could hardly see anything in front of us. But looking up revealed a blanket of a million stars in the silent, night sky.

Far from a mirage but indeed, a glorious sight.

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