Sahara

On route to the Sahara –  Merzouga

Tinghir to Errachidia brought me into space territory again, the infamous Mars landscape playing his aces boldly. Rocky, rusty landscapes continued all the way into Errachidia. I sucked down my avocado and orange smoothie and pondered over my map for a campsite. A quick drive through town told me all I needed to know – there was nothing here in Errachidia for me. Onward into the Ziz Valley. I was headed for the dunes of Merzouga, and the great Sahara desert.

To the Sahara we go!

To the Sahara we go!

The lush green palmerie Oasis throughout the Ziz Valley was lovely. Following the cliff road which snaked alongside the lower palm filled valley, palms stretched thick and wide across the basin. It was a sea of green amongst the surrounding orange mountains. It seems so crazy that a place that appears to be so devoid of life, can hide such rich nature. Tops of hidden riads poked out above the spiky palm sea, while a maze of trails flooded into the Ziz from every direction. I was barely able to resist the temptation of chasing the shadows deep inside the serene, peaceful valley.

Exiting Rissani through a synonymous potholed, bumpy road, took me through the last of the palm covered S-bends. The long, grainy, desert hammada stretched to the southern Sahara before me. Long stony straights of nothing but dark grainy sands mixed with sunbleached yellows, with the red dunes on the horizon waved at me from their solitude.

Riding the Sahara hammada – Hassilabied

At first the red dunes looked like small mountains, as I grew closer they transformed into huge red sandy dunes. Pulling into Hassilabied, a small, classic desert town just minutes north of Merzouga, I found myself a little mud and straw hut – right on the red dunes of the Sahara. Dumping my luggage in my room I stripped off all my gear within seconds to beat the heat away. I said hello to the small group of geckos in my hut, before joining the local berbers for more tea.

A desert stormtrooper contemplating the nothingness of the hammada near Merzouga

A desert stormtrooper contemplating the nothingness of the hammada near Merzouga

Surprisingly, there was a small produce shop located in the mud and straw town of Hassilabied. Since I don’t mind banging around over a hot stovetop, I picked myself out some food for the next few days.  A stout 5 euros bought me 3 litres of water, 1/2 kilo of tomatoes, 1/2 kilo carrots, 1/2 kilo of foul, 2 cucumbers, 1 kilo of apples, 1 kilo of bananas, 1/2 kilo of olives, 1 melon and a bag of garlic. Arms full of fruit and vegetables, I wandered back through the cool sand underneath the twinkling night sky.

Riding Hammada pistes outside Hassilabied

Riding Hammada pistes outside Hassilabied

The next afternoon was spent riding through the hammada trails on my own in the desert, and praise the gods of motorcycles, without any luggage for once. Of course, I got sandbogged more then once. I suppose road tires aren’t the best choice for sand.

There’s nothing more enjoyable then digging yourself out of hot sand while the sun shines on your back and the sweat drips down your forehead in tiny streams. After all, who doesn’t a enjoy a little digging with their hands when they’re at the beach… What beach, it’s a mirage, I’m in the Saharan desert man! With a soft breeze blowing and the sound of silence carrying across the dusty desert flats, I picked a spot to relax in the middle of nowhere. I did, however scout for scorpions before sitting down and pondering the desert wastes.

Here's a hammada... some sand with rocks and more sandy rocks and rocky sands and stuff.

Here’s a hammada… some sand with rocks and more sandy rocks and rocky sands and stuff.

Sahara – Departing for Alnif via Rissani

Sunrise was spent in the low dunes, a 20 minute walk away from my gecko filled mud Hut.  The sun rose, playing hide and seek between the sparse palms of Merzouga. I sat down and soaked it all up in the warm Sahara sun. I’d made it to the dunes of the Sahara on my own. Well, with the help of a great little motorcycle. With these thoughts in my head, I wandered back over the dunes to my camp, where a breakfast of eggs, olives and figs sat on a mosaic table waiting for me to devour it all. The sweet mint tea was at the perfect temperature to be sucked down. With the road beckoning to me, I jumped on my sandy motorcycle and hit the road towards Alnif.

The occasional tree was the only thing to see besides rocky hammada on the way to Alnif

The occasional tree was the only thing to see besides rocky hammada on the way to Alnif

Exiting Rissani with nods from the police at the town checkpoint, the deserted road to Alnif an unexpectedly beautiful run. Occasional trees had sprung up somehow out of the rocky, sandy hammada that ran as far as the eye could see. I was starting to really feel the African vibe now. Yelling and whooping into my helmet at the joy of riding through the edges of the Sahara, I felt a great rush of happiness welling up inside me.

Having fun on the offroad to Alnif via Rissani

Having fun on the offroad to Alnif via Rissani

Circulating off and on the road to Alnif, I discovered a great many pistes trailing up into the low mountain range. Exploring the yellow pistes took me around between the small flying saucer like mountains surround the tarmac road on either side. At the brink of a small pass, I could see the rocky desert running south into more short lifeless mountains and the sand beyond into the nomad reaches. I could have stayed there for days.

Stopping off in Alnif for a refuel and some orange juice, I located the off road section through the desert shortly after. It was the turn off to somewhere without a sign, the one I had been looking for. This was my road to Zagora, the one I had been looking for.

10km outside Alnif

10km outside Alnif

Sahara – Offroad to Zagora

I passed through more miniscule villages, with a few camel caravans and herds adding to the scenery. At one point, a rather large camel stood in the middle of road, blocking me access to my exciting off road shenanigans. Giving me a stern and unimpressed look, he turned his head and lumbered off in search of more food. Shortly after the asphalt ran out in the old mining area and quickly shifted from rocky ground to sandy desert.

Leaving the town of Tissemoumine behind, I hit the deserted (see what I did there) piste with gusto. Beginning as a sandy desert flat with trees and bushes randomly strewn about, I zoomed into enjoying the serenity of it all. Small clouds of dust were kicking up on the horizon, growing closer and closer to me. Before I knew it, four young Moroccan boys were hurtling my way, having a wild time, putting me to shame on their little c90 mopeds.

Sahara Sand roads to Zagora

Sahara Sand roads to Zagora

These young guys were practically flying through the sandy humps quicker then the thunderbirds on a sugar high. They zoomed by yelling and whooping, giving me the hang loose hand symbol, colourful gelabas flying out behind them. Infinite trails opened up on the way through the sand, and as always, I hoped to return for more off road shenanigans.

Desert piste to Zagora

Desert piste changed between rocky to sandy at random intervals on route to Zagora

Although there was an asphalt road leading to Zagora, it was still under construction, so the trail turned into a heavily beaten dirt road. Only construction trucks were passing on the virtually abandoned brown road, blowing dust into every crevice that I thought was untouchable. I don’t think there was a point in my life where I’d eaten so much dust in one sitting. Churning through the dust clouds at 80 km/h I reached the beginning of the new asphalt road quickly. However, I would have preferred to ride the off road all the way to Zagora – the new road was barely asphalt, more loose gravel then anything.

The rocky road to Zagora

The rocky road to Zagora

No means no!

Entering Zagora, I was covered head to toe in dust, and my beard looked like a drowned rat. I don’t know why I’d even bothered to shower in the morning, evidently it had not been an effective tool in keeping me clean. A passing mechanic in a 4×4 waved me down as I zoomed past the beginning of the green, palmy Draa valley. He began telling me about his garage and how he wanted to ‘fix’ my bike. A no thanks, quick grin and a wave later I squirted across the half built bridge into town for a fuel top-up.

However, the mechanic had set his younger brother on me, who chased me around town on his little moped, insistent that I come to visit their garage.  From one end of town to the other he followed me, even into the gas station while I was filling up. Finally, taking no for an answer, he gave me a business card and left with an ‘Inshallah, maybe tomorrow’. Well, it was a valiant effort nonetheless, I’ll give him that. No means no!

Sahara – M’Hamid the last ‘Town’

I had intended to sleep the night in Zagora before heading through the last few mountain walls of southern Morocco to the saharan town of M’hamid. I was aiming for the towering, yellow, Saharan dunes of Erg Chigaga. The only thing to look at on the way there was the desolate sandy sections between each rocky gate heading south. The low mountain range looked as though it spanned on forever.

The last rock wall 'gate' to M'Hamid and the far south

The last rock wall ‘gate’ to M’Hamid and the far south

Reaching the small crest, the road ran downhill and into the snakelike road through a small palmerie. Just before entering the palmerie is a range of signs in various languages, giving warnings about the perils of the desert, the value of water and other scary things.  Finally after some good riding from central Morocco, I was in the deep south. Time to find some camels and explore the dunes.

Low dunes in the Sahara

Low dunes in the Sahara

After securing myself a mud straw hut on the low yellow dunes, I kicked back with the desert nomads. Negotiations began for a couple of days inside the desert and on the dunes of Erg Chigaga with a guide. Dressed in their soft blues and sipping on berber whiskey (mint tea) we bargained over the price, while chewing our thoughts away on hard dates.

Back and forth like a Sampras vs Agassi match we went, reasoning each price like a set of well salted merchants. Agreeing on a price and after shaking hands, I lay back on the cushions, and sipped on my berber ‘whiskey’.  A few hours later, an immense dinner of vegetable tagine awaited me on the candlelit table set underneath the stars.

Into the Sahara

Ali and his camel

Ali and his camel

The next day brought me a dromedary with attitude, who seemed intent on taking a bite out of me. Ali, my nomad guide just laughed at the thought of it. In traditional garb, young and full of spirit, he led me out into the low dunes of the Sahara. Stopping for some lunch and a nap during the hottest part of the day, we set up under some palms, the hungry dromedary munching away on the small amount of flora surrounding us. I snacked on dates and peanuts while sipping on my tea soaking the silence in. At the last remaining palms visible to the eye, I looked out into the span of sandy nothingness as the wind slowly picked up, blowing grains of sand across the hot, dry dunes.

Klingon exists in the Sahara too

Klingon exists in the Sahara too

Awaking from my nap, I snuck off (well at least I think no one saw me) for an exploration of my own. I discovered some old mud ruins. Partly filled and surrounded by sand, they appeared to be old farming houses of some sort. Wandering inside, I climbed to the top, taking careful steps not to fall in and end up as a human shish on a stick. 2 levels of ceilings had partially fallen in and exposed the now sun bleached timber supports beneath the cracked orange remainders.

As I exited through the tiny door, I heard a man yelling looked for the source of the racket. A shouting nomad was chasing after his small herd of camels, thin stick raised above his head as he roared at them. The group was running all the way out into the deep nothingness of the Sahara Desert, to a place only they seemed to know.

Inside the abandoned, half buried house

Inside the abandoned, half buried house

With the wind picking up, Ali and I continued our walk to the bigger dunes, deeper inside the Sahara. Occasionally chewing on the gritty sand that cheekily snuck into my mouth past my turban, we made steady progress. During our desert hike, I made an interesting discovery – what looked like a bone of some sort.

Very curious to see what might be lying under the surface of the dry sand, we set up camp inbetween a few tall dunes. After playing tag with the flapping tent, we finally got it up, laid all the carpets on the inside. With tea on the boil, we wondered wistfully about the mysterious white bone sticking out of the sand. So off we went into the stinging stand to discover something interesting.

Skeleton in the Sahara

Slowly we began to pick and dig at the dry hardened sand around the bone, which began to round and end up forming a skull. A human skull. Yes, a human skull. Here I was, just going for a leisurely walk in some sand and I discover a human skull buried in the sand. So we dug a little further and uncovered a hip bone and some ribs. Not stopping there, we ending up digging a whole human skeleton up from the warm, hard packed sand.

Everything was there from big toe to pinky finger. Digging up skeleton remains in the middle of the Sahara desert was by far, the weirdest activity I have ever engaged in. All kinds of thoughts bounced around inside my head. I mean, how many people spend their days digging up skeletons? It felt quite surreal. With the wind getting the better of us, Ali and I absolved to come back in the morning in clearer weather to make a further inspection. Marking out the sandy grave with a long stick we made tracks back to our tent.

Digging up a human skeleton in the Sahara by hand is the weirdest thing I've ever done

Digging up a human skeleton in the Sahara by hand is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done

Sahara – The sand is an oven!

As the stars spread out across the night sky, the bright moon shone down on Ali as he worked the hot sand he had been heating underneath a fire pit for the last hour. Working fresh made dough in his hands, he kneaded, slapped and rolled the white dough in tanned brown hands. Wrapping was to be our bread in a towel, Ali stoked the fire and loaded up with a great many dry branches creating a roaring fire.

We sat and talked while the orange flames licked away at the branches and warmed our backs. With the dough now risen, Ali pulled the embers back with a long stick, slapped the dough smack bang into the middle of the heat, and covered it with the hot sand. With the stars now completely spread about, we began picking out constellations while our bread slowly baked underneath the heated sand.

Fresh out of the hot sand, Ali scraped the last clinging grains of sand off the steaming bread with a knife. We headed inside the candlelit tent for a vegetable and chicken tagine, with steaming hot bread to go with it. Finishing up with some fruit, Ali bade me goodnight. I avoided yet another attempt to bite my arm off from the irritable camel and went off for a nighttime wander into a starry night, up and down the dunes.

The moon was almost full and exceptionally bright, continuing to cast the shadows that the sun had left behind. Walking back to the oversized white tent between the dunes, I dodged another grumpy camel bite and slipped under the tent flap to fall asleep on my comfortable bed on the sand.

Sunrise kissing the sand in the Sahara

Sunrise kissing the sand in the Sahara

Morning came right after I lay my head down. I snuck out of the tent, trying hard not to wake Ali, and avoiding the chewing camel who glared at me like a grumpy old man. Climbing the dune right behind our tent, I watched the remainder of the pink sunrise quickly disappear with the arrival of the bright desert sun.

I came back an hour later to Ali preparing mint tea, and a breakfast of fruit, bread and confit. The fruit I’d left outside to eat had been snatched and munched up by my dromedary friend. Caught in the act! This was getting personal now. He just grumbled at me and shitted some more. Packing up camp, we loaded the groaning dromedary up, and headed towards the dry oued to meet my 4×4 driver for the day.

Sahara 4×4 to Erg Chigaga

Yaya was headbanging to loud blaring Touareg music as he rolled up to the agreed meeting point we discussed 2 days before. Dressed in his nomad blues, his twinkling eyes gave off an air of mischeviousness. I threw my pack in the backseat and we rumbled off in our Toyota Landcruiser. Finally, across the hammada and on towards the dunes of Erg Chigaga.

You can find little huts like these strewn across the Sahara

You can find little huts like these strewn across the Sahara

Stopping for a breather, I circled around an aged oasis at which I deeply underestimated the heat of the sand by going barefoot and having to endure the hot sand on my untempered soles (FYI the nomads have feet like leather – Ali walked across the desert barefoot the entire time). Inside the lunch shelter in the middle of nowhere, I crossed paths again with the Canadian duo Scott and Karly. Lunching on grilled chicken, brought steaming off the coals, salad and fruit, I took an afternoon nap in the shade of the thatched shelter.

The abandoned oasis out in the sands of the Sahara

The abandoned oasis out in the sands of the Sahara

Into the reaches of the big dunes we ventured that afternoon after the heat died off, Touareg music blaring with Yaya singing brazenly along. Suddenly the monster dunes of Chigaga appeared – five hundred metres high and seemingly going on forever. The desert camp was epic, and a little luxurious. Large tents lined either side of the camp, while a large dining tent sat at the end, fit for a sheikh. As sure as one can be about mint tea in the Sahara, it was served as soon as we arrived. A welcome refreshment before heading up the dunes together.

Trudging up the huge dunes

Trudging up the huge dunes

We embedded our footprints as we zigzagged along the ridges of the cool yellow sand dunes. The higher we rose the more grand and expensive the views were on the dunes of Erg Chegaga. Cresting the last steep hurdle to the sand peak of Lhabidia (550m), a immense picture of beauty arose. A straight killer view of the sun setting over the shadows of the dunes. Dunes upon dunes stood in curved ranks, soaking in the last of the suns rays. It was a sight to behold.

Top of Lhabidia sand dunes at sunset, Erg Chebbi

Top of Lhabidia sand dunes at sunset, Erg Chegaga

Hauling back through the hammada of the Sahara, we crossed the rocky fields of nothing. Over dunes, sandy 4×4 trails designated our route back to camp (and a well earned shower). Sand this time, had snuck into every little crevice imaginable, especially my beard. It felt like rough, hairy sandpaper. I was glad to wash a good kilogram of sand out of my raggedy beard in the showers. Well, I’d done what I’d come to do, none of which included digging up a human skeleton. It was time to move on to another section of the Sahara – Foum Zguid and the east…

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