29 Mar 2017

There are an endless number of reasons to visit Morocco – the fragrant, drool-worthy cuisine, the luxurious hammam spas, the artisan craftsmanship in the architecture, the treasure-filled souks. While I revelled in all of these delights, I had fixed my sights on this North African country specifically so that I could ride a camel in the desert and fall asleep under the Saharan stars.

However, when I made Marrakech our home base, I didn’t realize just how far this former imperial city was from the Sahara as I’ve never been very adept at gauging distances. Google Maps walking time estimations don’t help the matter as they do not compensate for the abbreviated, high-heeled stride of an individual with fairly stumpy legs.

Just how far IS Marrakech from the Saharan Desert?
From Marrakech to Merzouga – a small town referred to as the “gate of the desert” – it’s approximately an eight to ten hour car ride. From the edge of where the town meets the sand and we piled into a four-by-four vehicle for a half an hour drive to where camels waited patiently to take us the rest of the way to Kam Kam Dunes, the camp we chose to stay at.

How did you get there?
While bus tours are a good option if you’re travelling solo and want to make new friends or you’re on a budget, depending on which operator you go with, your experience may be more touristy. We went a more personalized route and arranged a private driver and guide through our helpful riad hosts. Not only did our guide navigate the tricky roads with easy familiarity but he made several stops along the trip, turning what would’ve been an arduous and exhausting ten-hour journey into a plethora of authentic Moroccan experiences.

If you’re planning a trip to the Sahara Desert, here are 7 Epic Stops To Make For An Authentic Road Trip To The Saharan Desert:

1/ PREPARE A TRADITIONAL GLASS OF MINT TEA
While crossing the mountainous pass of Tizi n’Tichka that links the south-east of Marrakech to the city of Ouarzazate, we stopped at a cafe in a small village called Aguelmous. In a light-filled room with the Atlas Mountains in the background, our guide taught us the proper way to prepare a traditional glass of mint tea. You fill a tea pot with hot water, gunpowder tea, spearmint, and lots of sugar cubes then pour it into a glass from a great height before dumping it back into the pot and repeating the process several times.

2/ LEARN ABOUT ARGAN OIL
Right next to the cafe is a woman’s argan co-operative – a democratically run business that employs women from nearby rural villages to empower them so they can afford healthcare and basic education for their families. Women sat around the room, demonstrating different stages of the process of making argan oil from collecting the nuts to crushing them and preparing them either for food like cooking oil used in couscous, salads, etc…or beauty products for hair or black soap that’s commonly used at hammams.

3/ VISIT AIT BENHADDOU
While the name of this UNESCO World Heritage Site may not be familiar, you’d recognize it at the backdrop of a long list of Hollywood blockbusters including Prince of Persia, The Mummy and Gladiator. It’s a fortified village, or ighrem, made up of Moroccan earthen clay kasbahs that used to be a stop along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. As we ascended the ancient site, our English-speaking guide – who grew up there – would illuminate us with the rich history of Ait Benhaddou.

4/ PERUSE AUTHENTIC MOROCCAN RUGS
Just before we left Ait Benhaddou, we stopped by a rug shop that was owned by a retired Moroccan professor who taught us all about rugs – how they’re constructed, how to distinguish rugs from different tribes, the symbolism used in them, etc…The room was filled with colourful rugs, piles of them leaned against the wall with the largest ones hanging from the ceiling so we could admire them in all their glory as we sipped steaming glasses of mint tea.

5/ SPEND THE NIGHT IN A LEGIT KASBAH
The journey is too exhausting to do in one day so we spent the night in an authentic kasbah. Located in Ouarzazarte, Kasbah Ait Moussa was converted from traditional fortress that defended the city from attacks, into a tranquil bed and breakfast. Almost hidden within dense foliage, the red brick riad had a cottage-like vibe but on a grand scale that served the most delicious tagine that I had the entire trip! The interior was surreal, looking as if they had been carved out of a large block of stone and polished to shine.

6/ MARVEL AT THE DADES GORGE
The next morning we continued our journey, stopping after an hour for a quick visit to the scenic Dades Gorge. The narrow, many-coloured walls of the valley were carved out by the Dades River that originates in the High Atlas area of the Atlas mountains, flowing southwest to join the Draa River at the edge of the Sahara. Standing there in the deep canyon, it was surreal to think it used to be the bottom of the sea millions of years ago!

7/ GET FANCY IN TRADITIONAL BERBER GARB
If you plan on riding a camel in the desert, wearing a traditional turban is essential so the next stop we made was at a little store draped in colourful clothing along Avenue Laayoune in Melaab. We were hustled inside where ladies in the shop started dressing us in traditional berber robes and showed us how to wrap vibrant, lightweight scarves around our heads to form turbans, capping it off with gold circlets of coins that jangled festively when we shimmied. Before we left the shop, the owner’s daughter practiced her henna skills on us, creating intricate designs on our hands out of herbal paste.

So now that I've convinced you to take a road trip from Marrakech to the Saharan Desert, which of these experiences would you look forward to the most?

ETC is the overflow of thoughts in the mind of Teri Yeung. It’s a place full of stories of travel adventures, imparted lessons learned from life’s achievements and failures, behind-the-scenes of projects and experiments, and anything else that inspires excitement and joy.

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