The desert… The simple word is enough to evoke a fertile imagination, nourished since childhood by Tintin, the Pyramids of Egypt, Lawrence of Arabia, the images of the war in Iraq… For my part, it is Profession: Antonioni’s reporter and Bertolucci’s Un thé au Sahara that have permeated me. We then dream of the sublime, of isolation in front of a space that we imagine infinite, an immutable and eternal time. The day that DesertBrise Travel invited me to come and trek in Morocco to discover nomadic life and Sahrawi culture, the child in me came back, with dunes, dromedaries and stars in my eyes.
Day 0: Arrived 3 days before to visit Marrakech, I was eager to leave its hustle and bustle to gain the tranquility of the wide open spaces. The meeting was held at 7:30 am in Jemaâ El-Fna Square. After a totally screwed-up information from the hotel’s night watchman, I join the group 3/4 hours late. “Hello, Edouard. Sorry, guard…” While the driver is loading my bag under the gallery tarpaulin, I get to know my travel buddies Blandine, Marlene, Élian, Hubert and his son Matéïs. “Hello, Edouard. Sorry, guard…” They don’t blame me (well, I think), we’re off to a good start! “One, two, three… Yallah! “leaves us the caffeinated driver. Direction M’Hamid El Ghizlane via the Draa Valley. As the road progresses, it heads towards the snow-covered mountains of the High Atlas. It has been raining and cold these past few days. It is hard to believe in April and, just before the Tichka Pass (Tizi n’Tichka, 2260 m), snow even covered the entire landscape (except the road). Somewhat disconcerted by the context to which our phantasmagoria has not prepared us for this period, we hallucinate when we see families stopped on the roadside making snowmen and a battle of balls! The white gives way to the red of the earth and the green of the vegetation before the yellow ochre of the sand floods the horizon. A short detour to the village of Aït Ben Haddou and its magnificent Ksar before stopping in Ouarzazate.
As night falls, police checks follow one after the other at each entrance to the city. We cross Zagora in celebration then M’Hamid. The driver then sinks into the desert where only one after the other can be seen as the turns unfold. “How does he know which way to go?! “20 minutes later, we arrive at the DesertBrise Camp camp. Khalil welcomes us warmly, shows us our tents “hard” for the night and we spend at table with a traditional soup harira and a tajine. Everyone is already amazed by the starry ceiling above our heads.
Lift 7:30. The temperature is pleasant. A light wind. Not a cloud. A last shower (hot and salty water) before 7 days. We enjoy the breakfast that will accompany our week: bread, jam, laughing cow (#Lons le saunierRepresenteMêmeDesertMarocain), tea, coffee and orange juice. Khalil brings us our cheichs (50 dirhams) that we didn’t have time to buy last night because of our late arrival. He leaves us to our guide Mohamed, accompanied by the camel drivers Ali and Mohamed who have just finished loading the five camels.
That’s it, the long-awaited moment is here, in front of us. Not without a certain excitement mixed with apprehension about the wild unknown, we take the road to discover “the spirit of the desert”. The route alternates between “glades” of dried earth and sand dunes. My first impression goes to the camels, fascinating with their dandy nonchalance. The tranquility of a lazy man underlined by a sardonic smile, slightly pinched like a Mona Lisa. A first stop is in the shade of a tree. Mohammed gives us orange and peanuts to help us get back on our feet. A little further along the route, he will show us ancient ruins and fossils embedded in the stones. The ground is dotted with fragments of pottery. If it rains cats and dogs in England, here it seems to be amphoras and tanjias. At lunchtime, we stop under an islet of tamarisk trees. A large red carpet on which the mattresses are placed. A gentle wind. We are not yet fully enjoying this moment. Although… The caravanners free the camels (even if a rope still handcuffs their front legs to prevent them from taking too much sand) and prepare the meal. When they bring it to us, we are blown away: rice salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and sardines (melon for dessert). A delight as good as it is unexpected here in the middle of nowhere! It will take a long horizontal meridian rest to digest all this. Napping for some, reading or travel diary for others. Walou mine, the camels are gradually making the discreet trunk but this only seems to worry the anxious Westerners as we are (Lahcen will go and get them without worry at the end of the day, they know well who owns the barley bags….). Meanwhile, our supervisors set up the tents and then rest in turn. The heat is really starting to make itself felt.
At 5pm, the temperature starts to drop a little. Excursion with a short walk in the desert to see the kasbah of Marabout Sidi Naji. 1h30 walk with Mohamed only. Walking in the sand dunes looks like walking in the snow with the wave shapes. The step is sinking while the ridge line is harder, the wind has driven away the volatile sand. During a conversation, Mohamed, perfectly bilingual, asked me “who is the journalist in the group? ». By deduction, I conclude that it must be about me. He will call me that for the rest of the trip. It’s flattering, even if it’s well overused. He tells me that he is used to it, that he has already brought Bear Grylls here for Man vs Wild as well as a “Fred” for French television (I think of Échappées Belles but Marlène convinces me with Frédéric Lopez and Rendez-vous en terre inconnue; when I come back, I will do my investigation and it is actually Fred & Jamy for a C’est pas Sorcier dans le désert). In the end, we’re with a television star! He has been a guide since 2001 and has always lived here. If you do this trek in the Moroccan desert with DesertBrise Travel, I wish you to have it, it is as awesome as it is adorable! Once we have reached our goal, Sidi Naji’s tomb looks like an unmarked chalet (made of adobe), a long long long stele on the ground that has been home to the marabout’s body for three centuries (our cook Baddi is his descendant from the 10th generation). Around it, a cemetery bounded by a line of stones. The graves are just marked by a stone raised vertically. A kasbah ruin “stands” still a little further away, some walls remain. Mohamed still shows us fossils caught in the rock.
Return to the bivouac by another route, less bumpy, against a backdrop of sunset. We are working to collect dead wood for the fire and enjoy tea. The heat is still very much present even if the wind starts to drop back down in temperature as the darkness takes place. The shepherd’s star is already there. Soup harira, tagine sheep, apple, verbena and then the celestial spectacle occupies the conversations. “The North Star doesn’t move? What about the Big Dipper? Where is Cassiopeia? Orion?….” Mohamed is also a stellar guide! Then, everyone goes back into their down, mostly under the stars around the fire. The night is a little cool and I have to pull an extra blanket on my old down D4 12° on the early morning.
Wake up smoothly. Absolute silence (otherwise the sound of the zips of the first surveys). The eyes open in a pastel universe. Some will meditate, others will go in search (less spiritual) of a small discreet place to offer food to flies and beetles. The common point between the two practices remains the refocusing of consciousness on the body. The difficulty is to know how to choose the right side of the dune so that the lighter is sheltered from the wind and can ignite the more immaculate paper (like all the technical details, the practice is quite empirical and the experience will come as the days go by). Mohamed put us breakfast on a sand mound. It’s like Aladdin flying on the magic carpet. The orientation marks are lost, each one questions another about the direction of our starting point and the kasbah of Sidi Naji. The caravan is leaving again, it is a little warmer than the day before. Gradually, we sink into the dunes. The “real” desert, the one we have all imagined, is before us. We pass in front of a ruin of which only one well remains, still in good condition.
Apparently, a storm could be coming from the dusty horizon. We arrive on a mound of tamarisk to pitch the tent. On this second day, we begin to dare to participate in the daily tasks of the Sahrawi nomadic life under the impetus of Élian. Unloading the camels that carry more or less 80 kg on the hump (apparently, the strongest of the band can carry “150 kg, no problem”) and then setting up the tent for the kitchen.
Digestive rest in the shade of the branches on the “terrace”, Mohamed says, looking at the dunes with their pure lines, a few columns of sand swirl in the distance, the camels that drift in the foreground in search of plants… We are really facing a gigantic postcard. The mind abandons itself while the eye wanders in the landscape. 20 years later, I let myself be tempted to take up watercolour again.
At the end of the day, we go alone on the sand, our eyes in the water, to climb the great pyramidal dune in the distance and observe the sunset (the dream is still too beautiful). Lots of wind and the feeling from the top of the mountain that you are facing a sea with its waves of dunes. The sun sets but the veil of dust makes it disappear before the horizon. It’s starting to come, but despite what I get in my eyes, the brain still has trouble thinking that it’s there, in the middle of the Moroccan desert.
Descent “dré dans l’pentu” in the east face. The sense of balance is affected by the different densities of the sand. A short tour to fetch wood around the bivouac and Baddi prepares the bread which he then bakes in the fire. The technique of baking with suffocation on sand fascinates us. We all eat together around the fire (the millennia pass by, the wear and tear continue) then Lahcen and Mohamed rage with humour. The collective atmosphere of the trek was born at that time. This is followed by improvised songs in Arabic and French, rhythmed to the sound of percussion on the bread oven.
This morning, we wake up at dawn to see the sunrise from the first foothills of the mountain separating Morocco and Algeria. The basalt rocks in the ground look like sections of tree trunks with its rings. As everything is almost flat around us, the difference in altitude seemed almost impressive but it will only take 10 minutes to get there! When I told you about the loss of landmarks in the desert… Seeing a sunrise always has something magical, perhaps more than a twilight because it is a resurrection, a new future that opens its field.
Back to the camp for breakfast and then our journey resumes by going up on the same rocky ridge line. Martian atmosphere with a red stone floor. The plateau that separates us from the peaks in the background sometimes hosts a lake that can last for a year (but it has been dry for 5 years now). Passing through a new kasbah ruin and, even if no dog barks, we can see our caravan passing below. We go down to find a route of small sand dunes. The water is not very far away, there is more greenery, more animal tracks. Mohamed shows us the footprints of hedgehogs, jackals, birds… and also tells us about lynxes, fennecs, snakes, scorpions. We find Lahcen and Baddi in the shade of a tamarisk tree and Mohamed spotted a nest and the little raven which, tangled in the leg by a plastic bag, was trapped in it. Super Mo will free him.
We then arrive in a setting as we have dreamed of since childhood, the dunes are the only elements that make up the landscape. We climb a sand pass where we snake along the ridge lines. Everyone is amazed by the sublime. Camels almost don’t even struggle in the sand with their big, flat, soft feet. On the other hand, we follow old watercourses until we take our daily orange-peanut break. These little things do everything here.
We wanted desert, here we are in a vast arid expanse to cross. Most of the shrubs are dead. The ground cracks under our feet. I’m trying not to lose sight of the group! We will put the bivouac at the foot of a large dune, there, like that, for no apparent reason other than the heat that forces us to stop. We are all trying to unload the camels and set up the tents to protect ourselves from the sun below and hope for a little wind. Our young Mate is groggy and has probably suffered a small sunstroke.
After the digestive and thermal rest, Mohamed leads us to the great high dune of the desert, Erg Zaher, nicknamed the “Howling Dune” (Jamy’s explanations) even if we didn’t hear her sing that day. I repeat myself but its ascent resembles that of a snow-covered mountain, each in a single file along the ridge line. A last stiff part that pulls on the thigh while the feet sink. At the top, there are already about twenty people with two nomadic guides who had the same idea as us, come and admire the sunset. The 360° panoramic view is sensational.
After the solar show, we do a full gas descent again into the screaming slope. A pure joy! Back at the camp, the general atmosphere goes up around the baked bread, the homemade tagine and then the singing tea. We find a small square on a sandy mound and fall asleep looking at the constellations and imagining the one of the camel…
The night was a little chilly and I enjoyed the blanket. Wake up as peaceful as ever with, as a bonus, the view of the camels almost at our feet and the sun starting to shine behind a dune. Am I really awake to experience such a dreamlike moment? Getting started after a large teapot to rehydrate and return to reality: I will have to experiment with sneakers without socks (the bags are already loaded on the dromedaries). Finally, and quite quickly, the walk is done barefoot on the still fresh sand of the night (we enjoy these small normally harmless pleasures). Lahcen and Baddi having taken another, longer path to facilitate the camels, we take a short break. Mohamed makes us a quiz of animal footprints drawn with his hand and then parts of ladies improvise on the sand, in the middle of “nowhere”. The landscape then becomes a vast expanse of dry land where the view of a camel skeleton completes the Lucky Luck atmosphere.
As we approach the Oued du Draâ, the vegetation becomes denser and we find refuge in a small grove of tamarisk trees. It is very hot, little wind, some sand tornadoes in the distance but above all, the horror of the noise of the engines of a rally on the other side of the Draâ. Renaud’s song then resonates in my head… During the meridian break, Lahcen and Mohamed take the camels to a well to drink.
But the big surprise of the day is that we can go… take a shower!!!!! at the end of the afternoon, Baddi takes us to the well to go “to shine the slime”. Who would have thought that we could wash ourselves on a trek in the middle of the desert!?!! We cross the dry riverbed to reach three concrete cylinders. A small basin as a bowl for camelids, a higher one for humans. Around, the many abandoned cans bring us back to a sad reality… We pull the buckets up about ten meters by pulling on ropes and the arrival of water appears miraculous. An absolutely improbable event for me, I enjoy the freshness that flows on my body while others had, I don’t know by what strange clairvoyance, a soap and shampoo in their bag. In all cases and for all, the presence of water in these places appears as a providence and its degree of preciousness is measured. Everyone goes back to the bivouac and remembers the feeling after the wet clothes have already dried!
In the evening, our three guides invite us to prepare the meal (we had already offered them the previous days but this is it). Collecting wood, preparing tea, peeling vegetables on Baddi’s advice, who supervises from afar while he prepares something else in parallel. Despite the language barrier, implicit complicity is built with simple words and moments of exchange are made at the “aperitif”. Everyone laughs, Lahcen plays the clown by dancing, singing constantly and challenging us. The moon sets as it turns reddish, bats pass over our heads and then we discuss again the stars that take 3/4 of our field of vision.
Matéis, 15, has trouble getting up this morning… With her father Élian, we decide to move her mattress to free the red carpet for breakfast. That’s when a big beige spider appears underneath and comes at us! Lahcen sees us and warns us. Hubert, stoic (or unconscious) puts his hiking shoe down and watches him dig under his sole. Serene, the guy, serene! After this adventure (worth two coffees at the heart level) and a few sandwiches, we take the road again by crossing the bed of the Draâ (and not the other way around) to arrive on an earthy ground, slightly soft like in the parks for children. During the break, our guides decided to call us all by Arabic names (Ahmed, Aïcha, Touda, Abdelkrim for me… Huberbère). The same applies to Jean-Claude, Michel and Louis. This is easier and more fun for everyone! The return journey starts here, we go up the Draâ with the sun in front of us in the morning. We find another well where another nomad came to make these camels drink. Djellaba, cheich, aviator glasses and cigarette in the mouth, the style is somewhat different. We land a little further away, today, we are supplied with water… by motorcycle! Rencard: “in the Moroccan desert, near the well, under a tamarisk tree”. Go get that into your GPS, you! In the meantime, Mohamed tinkers with the branches of the blanket hangers to provide us with shade to eat. “Palace! “After a meal that gains in quantity every day, we spread our whole body over the shaded plots in search of the slightest breeze. We spend our time hunting flies. The delivery man arrives and, to hold the crutch of his mount, he is rested on the flat of the shovel (an object that is certainly multipurpose in the desert! The Swiss have their knife and their…, the nomads have the shovel).
During these meridian breaks, time passes even slower than the wind… We relearn another relationship to life here. Moreover, at the turn of a conversation, Mohamed warns us that he has just seen a trace of a snake around us. Immediately, the survival instinct then comes out of each one’s sleepiness! He’s looking, he’s looking… but nothing. At worst, we still have pasta salad left if the reptile is hungry, there is surely a way to negotiate (especially since we have an ESSEC teacher in the group). After the fright, I relax and watch birds (canaries) in the branches. After 5 days of trekking in the Moroccan desert, we are surprised to discover for the first time clouds in the sky. We also see several sand tornadoes, some of which pass right next to us.
The road that follows runs along the Draâ and its tree-lined surroundings. The light is filtered by a veil of sand that is becoming more and more prominent. Mohamed makes us feel the absinthe of the desert, tastes the rocket of the desert and warns us against an ultra toxic fat plant that is deadly. It is always amazing to see such a willingness to live despite such a hostile environment. A few dunes further on, we set up camp. Setting up tents, collecting wood, preparing vegetables for the evening chicken tagine at the same time as contemplating the sunset.
Lahcen prepares the bread in front of us. Mohamed seems preoccupied by the wind… then tells us about his three trips to Switzerland where he toured the country, a marathon, the Montreux jazz festival, hikes in the Valais, climbing the Argentine Mirror, visiting Martigny, Evian, Tuna, Yvoire… Hilarious! While discussing photography, I suggest to Baddi to test the light painting. I’ve never tried it and I think Arabic calligraphy would be appropriate. He agrees, see you at night….
As usual, night under the stars in the down. But then, surprise, I am awakened by the wind and gradually realize that my face is beset by… grains of sand! We’re in the middle of a (small) storm! Everyone shakes, ruminates and turns in the down to protect themselves under the blanket. I left my bag open and untidy but, come what may, I’m hiding! I see Hubert and Blandine with their foreheads seeking asylum. The awakening is amazing! The wind is still blowing with the sand and it is literally hard to open our eyes for the blow. The camp looks like a field after the battle. Everything is covered with sand and one of the tents was put down at night. During breakfast, I thank Mohamed very much for this show, for allowing us to “suffer” a sandstorm during our trek in the desert, for the timing just on the last day, for his reasonable power that makes us laugh about it. Honestly, I loved it!
Today, we have two men down. Nothing to do with the storm, except that of their belly… There had to be a little grain of sand in this adventure. By dint of mental work and relief from guilt in the face of abandonment, they agreed to be picked up by car to join the base camp at the start. It must be said that we are the last day and that the landscape is no longer of much interest compared to what we have seen before. After 3/4 hours, a 4X4 arrives and takes the two gastric victims on board to rest (and empty themselves in good conditions). While it was planned for one last night in a bivouac, we decide to join them tonight at the camp to share together the last evening.
Relieved for them, we will settle down to be satisfied with what their stomachs refuse. After yesterday’s observation on the clouds, today the sky is white, completely milky. Total absence of wind, suffocation, “the heat is almost suffocating, I feel like I’m wearing an asbestos suit”. This changes completely. We tell ourselves that we were finally happy in the days before. At the same time, it’s quite disturbing since you don’t see the horizon, accentuating the idea of being in the middle of nowhere and/or living a dream. Suddenly, Lahcen, Baddi and Mohamed are busy folding the camp, a new storm arrives. As intense as it is brief, time seems to be frozen after its passage. More wind, more noise, it’s quite striking as an impression. We walk in the direction of what we don’t know because we can’t see the horizon. Everyone takes turns riding on the camel, always impassive.
Arriving at the camp after two monotonous hours (the landscape, the pre-nostalgia of the return…), we applaud our guides this week and ourselves also on the way. khalil welcomes us with the same grace as on the first evening, then Hubert and Élian, more dashing after their nap. One last time the camels are unloaded with a strange feeling, somewhere between the slamming of the finitude of the trek and melancholy. Little Edward is incorrigible and would like it never to stop. The guides go back home and we find ourselves a little stupid. “There, it’s over.” We look at each other but the mood is no longer one of counterfeiting and other riddles. We relax our legs in the neo-comfort of the camp (the ligaments of the toes and behind the quadriceps have suffered a little with the sand dunes, the knees grin because of the repeated position of the legs crossed in the evening). We find a healthy shower in the cabin and Said joins us to discuss his nomadic history, the difference between Arabs, Berbers, Bedouins, Tuaregs… Then, with Omar the camp cook, they take the guitar and the darbouka to play music for us. We wanted to do one last night under the stars but the wind and sand doubled and we left for the fixed tents. One last game of cards and everyone falls asleep while already browsing through their memories of the trek already past.
Wake up at 7:00. The body seems to have understood that the moment of relaxation had come. We’re having trouble emerging. Breakfast is the time for sentences that remind us of the end of summer camp. We load the bags into the 4×4, say goodbye to those we leave and take the road again, sitting, to Marrakech. We turn back the path we made 8 days “1 month” before through the Draa Valley.