The drive from Fes to Merzouga was our longest in Morocco. We left the green hills and fields surrounding Fes and began our drive south, armed with a detailed road map. Fortunately, once you get out of the cities your options for which road to take decrease significantly, so it makes navigating much easier.
Just an hour south of Fes we drove up into the Middle Atlas mountains. We passed through some charming mountain towns, including one called Ifrane that the French build in the 1930s to look like a Swiss mountain town. And driving through it did feel like we were in the Alps. Giant pine trees lined mountains up to the snow line and the roads were lined with wooden chalet homes. Ifrane seemed like it would be quite the getaway spot for rich Fessis in winter.
From there the mountains sloped downwards to a barren landscape of wide, brown black valleys surrounded by plateaus. We occasionally slowed down to pass through small towns but there wasn't much of consequence around. Eventually the road ran along side a valley that was lush with greenery, bordered on each side by the standard brick home.
After weaving through a large town the buildings and trees dropped away and we sped along a two way road, really truly in the desert. On either side of the road was rough, dark dirt and rocks, known as the black desert. In the distance ahead of us loomed the dunes, glowing orange in the late afternoon sun.
Merzouga wasn't much to look at. It's a small clump of dusty looking, single-story buildings that would blend together if not divided by dusty streets. We pulled up to the dusty building providing us with lodging: the Guest House Merzouga. Despite it's outward appearance it had been one of the most recommended places on TripAdvisor and it didn't disappoint. One of the owners, Hassan, met us outside and invited us up to the roof of the guest house to enjoy some mint tea and snacks. This was, by now, standard (and welcome) practice. But Hassan also sat down with us and we chatted for a good half hour. He talked about how he grew up in a one-room home. His mom slept in the corner with the kids and his father slept by the door so he could protect the family if anyone came in.
Now he had a huge house and was a leader in the community. He talked about how his daughter wanted to become a doctor, which he thought was great -- female doctors weren't accepted when he was younger and all the women would give you contradictory advice until, he said, in the worst case scenario you died. And if you didn't die then all the women argued over who gave the best advice for getting better.He'd also taken a big role in protecting the dunes. Several people -- foreigners from Spain looking to make a quick buck, he said -- had opened up quad bike rentals in town. The quads caused a lot of damage to the dunes. And trying to enjoy watching the setting sun play colors on the sand was made somewhat less inspiring by the wheeze of the quad bikes' engines as their riders zipped around.
We had, literally, the best tagine of the trip at the guest house after starting with a fantastic harissa soup. Hassan and a couple other guys made their way to the corner of the big room and starting playing traditional instruments and singing. The next day we woke up, had a hearty breakfast, and piled into an SUV with Hassan's cousin Ali, who was going to drive us around the dunes. ...All the way around. The Erg Chebbi dunes are not very extensive -- about 15 miles long and 3 miles wide. We bounced along the desert tracks along the perimeter of the dunes, making stops along the way. The first was for a couple kids with a desert fox who came sprinting towards our truck as soon as they saw us coming, looking for a few dirhams. They had a 3 week old Fennec with them. It was the size of a kitten with large French Bulldog sized ears and clung to the boy's chest. For a few dirham Sharon got to hold it and instantly fell in love. The Fennec's mom was back at the boys' home, Ali translated for us. After that dose of cuteness (and, probably, desert fox germs) we hopped back in the SUV.
Our next stop was near a long-abandoned French military base that was set up to support mining in the middle of the 20th century. There are still active mines in the area and we clambered up some rocks to see one in action. When I say 'mine' I'm not talking about the massive pits seen in the Western world. Imagine a hole the width of a well and going down maybe 20 or 30 feet. A small manually-operated crane perched precariously on the edge of the mine shaft and was used to lower the man (since only one man could fit) and raise out the minerals. The men working were blackened with soot. The whole setup looked extremely rickety and Ali confirmed that mining is very dangerous.
We drove on to the next stop, a rocky Martian landscape devoid of any signs of life. We got out of the truck again and Ali pointed out how many of the rocks had the imprints of ancient shellfish, a relic of the time when this part of the world was underwater.
We stopped at a nomadic family's mud home for a lunch of freshly baked flat bread with jam and tea. The family's goats and camel huddled around a water trough a short distance a way.
We arrived back at our guesthouse in the late afternoon and had just a couple hours to relax before heading out for our night in the dunes. Hassan dropped us off at the starting point on the edge of the dune and Sharon and I were loaded up on our own camels which were laying on the ground for easier access. Just hanging on the camel as it stands up was a challenge. The extend their back legs first, lurching your forward. Then quickly straighten out their front legs, lurching you back. Camels, it turns out, are not comfortable to sit on. Their humps aren't broad and soft -- it's more like straddling the back of your sofa. As our small party -- me and Sharon, another couple, and two guides -- meandered into and through the dunes I contemplated a mode of transportation that had been the backbone of this part of the world for centuries. I could have walked faster. And my ass was going to hurt.
Our guides were friendly and chatty and were always cracking jokes. Despite never being outside the Merzouga region they both spoke Berber, Arabic, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and "a little bit of Japanese" thanks to all the visitors they hosted. I was extremely impressed.
The journey to our camp took about an hour and a half. As the day grew late the dunes' color change from yellow to orange. We finally made it to a small cluster of sturdy looking tents sitting in the bottom of a natural bowl, protected from the wind. The guides told us we had about half an hour to find a good spot to watch the sunset while they set up camp. I looked around, pointed to the tallest dune peak I saw, and told Sharon we should climb to the top. She wasn't enthused.
I convinced her to climb about halfway up even though she was content to stop anytime and watch the sun dip below the horizon. We sat down. I glanced behind me at the dune peak taunting me. The sun was setting quickly. "I'm just going to go to the top real quick and then I'll come right back to watch the sunset," I said. I started sprinting uphill. As I halved the distance to the top my lungs began screaming. Not only was I not in running shape but there was no moisture in the air at all. My heavy breathing was drying me out. Part of me thought I would collapse and should turn back, but the idiot part of me kept saying how close I was. I plodded ahead, wheezing the whole way. When I came to the dune crest I discovered that it was not the top; it just appeared that way from my point of view looking up. There was actually a lot left to climb, and who knew if the "new" peak was the actual peak. I admitted defeat and stumbled back down the dune to sit with Sharon as the sun disappeared.
With the sun gone the desert got dark -- and cold -- quickly. We walked down to the camp, which had tents arranged in a U shape around an open area with a table. The guides had been preparing dinner in a separate tent and brought out bread, hot mint tea, and tagine.
Once dinner was cleared and we turned out the single light around off, the sky just popped with stars. We climbed into our tent. Despite having no heater the blankets were incredibly warm. In the morning we had some mint tea, back on the camels, and rode back to the guest house. We had a hearty breakfast and a shower, said goodbye to our great hosts, and left Merzouga for our next destination.