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Across The Sahara And Onto Morocco – An Experience Of A Lifetime

Chandana Ghosh

“Were you not scared?” The voice seated across me queried. I could not see the face in the darkness of the night. The sound of silence was interrupted as the voice continued ”… for miles on end we could not see any sign of life, we were worried sick as to what would happen if our vehicle broke down in the middle of the desert.”  My fellow traveler and I lay stretched out on the erg chebbi sand dunes in the middle of Sahara desert. The sky was the only protective canopy above us, busy with millions of stars. Our conversation was interspersed with our attempts to identify the constellation of stars that lit up the night sky above us. No, I was not scared. In fact that was the first time the thought occurred to me. Yes, had been driving solo for 2000 miles through the rugged terrain of Morocco, crossing the Atlas at its highest point- the Tizi n Tichka, plunging to the bottom of the deep Todra gorge, crossing the massive erg chebbi sand dunes of the World’s largest desert − Sahara, staying with locals in their homes called kasbahs, dining with them on fragrant pilaf and freshly cooked Tagines − and on the way befriending the odd Berber and the nomadic Bedouin.

Earlier that day, it seemed that our vehicle was headed to the end of the horizon where the blue cloudless sky met the long stretch of metaled road. On either sides of the road were an expanse of stony desert plains and at a distance we could see the erg chebbi dunes, rising up in the air. The car air conditioning had long since given up in the scorching heat of the desert sun. When suddenly Hassan, our vehicle operator, halted the car. In front of us an apparition emerged out of nothingness − bandaged in bright colors, it looked like a mummy had come alive! As I learnt later, Bedouin Hussain was not an unfamiliar apparition! He enjoyed inviting the rare passer-by to his “home” in the Hamada, to enjoy a cup of Moroccan tea. As he led us towards the desolate desert plains, I could see only a camel lazing by an old style Persian well, and a small sit-out by the side. While I was still trying to figure his home, Hussain pointed towards a small burrow in the ground. In the light of a match we saw a flight of stairs going deep down, underground. The staircase was decorated with artefacts, which looked as if they belonged to the Stone Age. At the bottom of the flight of stairs was a tunnel that led to a large spacious roomy area. The candle flickered out in the cool breeze which wafted across the room- looking up I sighted the sky. The carefully crafted sky light not only filtered in daylight but also acted as an air-conditioning system. There was a 45 km labyrinth of underground rooms and tunnels below the stony plain, to protect the Bedouins from desert storms. I soon learnt Hussain’s family was away visiting another village. Instinctively I felt it was time to leave his underground home and head back towards the open sit out area!

True to his promise, Hussain made us the typical Moroccan tea − sweet and invigorating. As we set out again to conquer the desert, Hussain gifted me a piece of his “bandage”. He swathed my head and face with a 5 foot-long piece of colored silk, adding, it will come in good use in the desert sand.

We journeyed for some miles, till we reached the duneline. Where the road ended and the travelers congregated to make their way into the interiors of the desert, on camel back. It is here I met my fellow traveler. Together we mounted our camels and started our trek across the undulating sandy dunes. As we gained height, we learnt how to sway and steady ourselves in rhythm with the footsteps of the camel. Covered in full-sleeved loose shirt, flowing headgear and large goggles, we looked like modern day Bedouins crossing the desert. Our mirth came to a sudden stop, as we sighted a veil of sand being lifted up from the dunes. Soon the winds caught up, twirling and hurling them around as if in a dance sequence. Instinctively I closed my eyes, mouth and nostrils, before I could feel the impact of a sand blast, full on. I could not even see the camel in front, in the whirlwind of the desert storm. Through all this, the camel trudged on the defined path, treading steadily, led by the Mahout. The minutes seemed like hours and just as suddenly the sandstorm came to stop, and the dunes seemed to have regained their peace. By then we had reached the sunset point on the dunes − sandy dunes surrounded us, punctuated by sparse vegetation. Watching sunset from atop the desert sand dunes is an unforgettable experience. The play of light and shade across the expansive dunes is nothing less than theatrical. A desert drive across the Sahara was in my bucket list alright and I had carefully planned this 3-day road trip from Marrakesh to Fez and at various points in time sought repeated reassurance about the safety of the journey I was to embark upon. But, lying cradled in the infinity of sand dunes, found myself silently surrendering to the power of nature and the genuineness of the people who exuded a particular warmth in spite of their hardships. The 3-day journey is varied in desert colors and experiences. The weather changes from dry hot to cool temperate as you wind your way through the Ziz valley to reach the quaint town of Fez. The scenic drive takes you through many interesting twists and turns; from the fortified Ait Benhaddou to the palatial Kasbah of el Glaoui along the trans-Saharan caravan route; from the colorful handwoven carpets in Telouet to the hand made argan oil near Tahanaout; passing through the valley of roses in Kelaa Mgouna and concluding with the famed cedar forests of Azrou, near a Swiss-like settlement called Ifrane. At the end of my journey as I alighted in Fez, I found myself in a labyrinth of narrow streets, surrounded by the cacophony of traders and passersby, jostling for space along with the occasional donkey. Was unable to comprehend what the magic was behind the earlier capital of Morocco, which captivated many. Till the doors of my Riad, where I was to stay that night, was opened. My jaws dropped as Dominique, the French owner, ushered me into her home. Intricately designed mosaic and inlay work decorated the large courtyard, which gathered around an indoor water-fountain. As I discovered later, wandering through the old Medina in Fez was like being lost in Ali Baba’s Thousand and One Nights. Every time you stood in front of an ominous looking door and said “Open Sesame”, it would open to reveal the rich treasures of hand-woven silks, fragrant spices, silverware, ceramics- you name it.

Lost in my trance, I soon realized I had wandered away from my Riad. I also realized that I did not remember the name of my Riad and I had a flight to catch in a short while. That was the first time during the trip that panic gripped me. As fear engulfed me in this foreign land- a friendly hand nudged me. “I will take you back to Dominique’s, Ma-am”, the little boy who had been unknowingly following me around stood beside me, like a guardian angel. As I traced my steps back to Riad Kettani, I was once again touched and humbled by the warmth of the people of this terrain − and the little things they did to make you feel so much at home.