One of the main reasons why Morocco is a great traveler’s destination is its vast geographical and natural diversity. From the sweeping coastline over jagged mountains to lush woodlands, the country’s surface area matches that of France. But by far the most prominent and defining landscape is also the most extreme; the desert. Being the largest hot desert in the world, the Sahara covers most of northern Africa, stretching from the Egyptian and Sudanese coast in the east to south-eastern Morocco in the west. As such, visiting this part of the country seemed essential to me, and after an epic eleven hour night bus ride from Fez I reached Merzouga, one of the frontier towns bordering the seemingly endless sea of sand.
The contrast couldn’t be greater. Fez is a monumentally old place, preceding Marrakech and Meknes as Morocco’s first capital and its twelve centuries of history are engrained within the confines of the great walled medina. Letting go of any preconceived route or plan and simply wandering the maze of narrow streets is the best way to draw in the profound atmosphere that lingers here. That and the fact that you’ll get lost whether you intend to or not. The twisting alleyways have managed to even evade the powerful reach of Google Maps and provide an appropriate stage for the hundreds of overly helpful guides and touts that pop up at every street corner. Each turn leads into new scenes, people and animals. In a single minute you might be passing the screeching cart of a fig salesman while simultaneously declining a hash sale, dashing aside to avoid being run over by a donkey thus stumbling inadvertently into a lamp shop where you’ll immediately be sat down for tea and a sales pitch ensuring you that spending your life’s savings on what surely must be Aladdin’s magic lamp is really quite a bargain. This happened. I didn’t buy the lamp, I did drink the tea.
Even though on a long journey the pace of travel can be unpredictable and is often influenced by where you are and who you end up meeting, I like to alternate busier urban stops with calmer, more rural stretches. Just like Chefchaouen provided a welcome respite from hectic Tangier, so too did reaching the desert instill peace after the frantic folly of Fez.
It’s hard to describe the Sahara desert in a way that truly does it justice. But I’m going to give it a go anyway. The landscape is as pristine as it is desolate, with sand as fine as I have ever felt and a red-brown hue that glows in the light of the setting sun. The shapes of the dunes resemble waves in a frozen red sea, with razor-sharp curving crests and slopes as smooth as a baby’s bottom. There is no sound except for that of sand rustling in the wind and your own footsteps, no movement except for the occasional scurrying desert beetle or scorpion. Above all there is near perfect tranquility and silence providing the backdrop for the sound of one’s own thoughts. Without sounding too esoteric, it struck me how spending time in such absence of sensory stimulation revealed the loudness inside my own head. Being used to a lifestyle comprising a constant stream of thoughts mixed with timelines mixed with interactions and constantly varying impressions, it took a while for me to embrace this complete lack of intensity. I only stayed in the desert three days, yet in the end I felt like at least having made some progress towards accepting this solitude of mind. Of the many ways one can be alone, this seems to be a profound one.
Besides that, the journey itself was hilarious and epic. Riding a dromedary might look majestic, it feels more like getting a mild, sustained beating with forcibly spread legs for the duration of the ride. Dromedaries are awesome animals though. They are super kind creatures, can carry heavy loads for hundreds of miles and survive on a diet of only desert grass and water. They also occasionally throw off pretentious selfie-stick wielding package tourists, which made me love them all the more. I stayed the nights in a nomad camp, where our Berber guides prepared the most delicious tagines and played traditional drums. During the day they told about the purity of a faithful and devout Bedouin life, abstaining from the vices of alcohol and respecting nature (“Only the ones who don’t drink wine in life may drink the wine in Paradise”). At night we happily shared the bottle of whisky I had brought along. Maybe there is no whisky in Paradise.
The night’s sky is simply mind-blowing. Never before have I seen so many stars, galaxies and planets as clearly as here. The Milky Way lights up as if having been highlighted with a broad smudgy brush. Constellations are vivid and incredibly pronounced. We laid on our backs in the soft, warm sand immersed in this endless expanse, occasionally making a wish as a shooting star streaked the sky.
Intermezzo on Sahara humor
“What do you call suicide in the desert?”
- “Sahara Kiri”
All things considered, my weekend in the Sahara has been one of the greatest experiences on this trip so far.
On to Marrakech. If the hectic-relaxed dynamic needs any further illustration, Marrakech would be the perfect opposite to Merzouga. It combines the chaotic hustling of Tangier, mazy medina of Fez and metropolitan modernity of Casablanca into a melting pot of cultivated insanity. “Enjoy the medina and whatever you do, never stop walking or show any sign of hesitation.” Sound advice from the hostel staff, because as soon as you do either of those, two or more locals will latch onto you and not let go until they’ve made some money. Hopping between a stall with delicious street food, a supremely relaxing hammam and an underground shisha bar is just one of the many ways to spend an afternoon here. I’m taking it slow here, enjoying the bustle around me, choosing when to engage or just observe, when to get drawn in and back out again.
One week remains of my time in Morocco, and having entered October I’m now officially one month into the year. I can safely say that my journey so far has been a worthwhile undertaking, and the next leg promises to be at least as interesting: three weeks to explore and get to know one of the most ancient civilizations of all: Egypt.
October 6th, 2016