Would the Sahara be any different from Wadi Rum in Jordan’s Arabian Desert or the Namib Desert town of Sossusvlei in Namibia? With Andrea’s five day Christmas break we had enough days to find out, the only issue being whether we head to Erg Chebbi on the main tourist trail or Erg Chigaga following the road less travelled. With plenty of tours out of Marrakesh heading to the desert town of Merzouga and its famous Erg Chebbi dunes we could easily have let someone else do the planning – for me the fun part, hence the reason to hit the Sixt website, rent an economy size car and plan a route heading east. With a bit of internet research it was easy to come up with an itinerary that would see us discover the main sights eventually arriving in Merzouga, driving back along a different path.
And so on Friday 24th December we indicated to our grand taxi driver as we made our way back from the mountain town of Imlil to pull over, dropped him an extra 10 Dirham for the minor inconvenience, and flagged down another taxi to drop us at the airport. Google told us the distance was no more than a 3km drive so when the driver asked for 100 Dirham, or approx $10 USD I said either we would walk or he would get 30 Dirham – in the end he accepted. A local would still probably have paid significantly less, but that’s the relationship between foreigners and Moroccan taxi drivers! We chose Sixt at the airport for car rental due to the hassles and false damage accusations foreigners seem to get in Morocco, the assumption that a multinational company wouldn’t attempt to screw us over.
After spending a night in the vicinity of Marrakesh our 5 night, potentially 1400 km itinerary went something like this…
Oasis de Fint, Ait Benhaddou, Ait Ben Ali, Erg Chebbi and Bin El Ouidane
The troubling part being that I’d already made most reservations through booking.com, and we could very well be forced to change plans. This was – after all, winter, and our drive would take us up a couple of relentless winding roads to mountain passes. You can research all you like but previous years weather situations typically don’t apply; rock falls and snow are after all natures random occurrences!
Off we go…. Day 1: Marrakesh to Oasis de Fint
This was Christmas Eve, Andrea’s last day at work before the holidays, so we weren’t quite in a position to drive off into the sunset, thus we would have to find a place to spend a night close to the reliable cell phone coverage of Marrakesh. Le Chant des Oliviers, a perfectly kept family run guesthouse was just off the main N9 highway which would lead us towards Ouarzazate (pron. Warzazat), our jumping off point to Fint.
For us Christmas Day would be all about driving and admiring the stunning Morocco scenery – with a little over 200 kilometres and Google stating four and a half hours we had plenty of time for both. The N9 highway would take us all the way to our turn off onto a road less traveled, but first we had to take on the Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass road. Literally translating to a dangerous path and topping out at 2,260 metres the 1930’s built road would take us right through the High Atlas, sometimes providing a barrier, often just leaving a quick way down to the valley below! Construction to widen and increase the roads safety meant the going was slower than usual, a blessing as we had more time to admire the views and see where we had come from.
Once over the pass we opted for what we had read was a gravel road to Ait Benhaddou via Telouet and its off the beaten path kasbah. The road turned out to be paved with zero traffic, a good call that took us away from the constant flow of tourist minivans. Unlike its neighbor an hour away at Ait Benhaddou this kasbah had seen better days – once owned by Thami El Glaoui, a local and powerful ruling pasha (equiv. to a duke), it was seized by the Moroccan government after he was declared a traitor and left to decay. Not sure how far the 10 Dirham entry fee was going to take the Glaoui privately funded renovations!
Continuing on, we zipped straight through Ait Benhaddou before soon hitting the dirt road leading to our oasis accommodation in Fint. The road started off okay but the further we moved from the highway the worse it became, soon turning into a potholed mess – how was our two bit crap rental car going to cope! With one river crossable by concrete bridge we wound our way along narrow sandy tracks before coming to a second water crossing complete with stepping stones for us humans. We had read other blogs that mentioned parking up and walking the remaining short distance – that would have been a pain in the ass so we, I mean I, decided that the car was going through the water. No problem, and a few minutes later we were parked up at La Terrasse des Delices.
Larger than imagined with initial expectations of an oasis being a couple of palm trees and a watering hole, funnily enough, like something out of a Disney cartoon. This wasn’t the case and although we were initially a little underwhelmed further discovery soon changed our minds. Endless hiking opportunities, sunsets and relaxation was what being here was all about – we barely touched the surface but exploring from above and beyond opened our eyes to the vastness of the desert and the smallness of the oasis. Visiting during the winter was almost perfect, the pool maybe a little cold to use but if the offseason meant avoiding the masses then we were happy.
…and we managed to make the drive in and back out without a puncture!
Day 2: Oasis de Fint to Ait Benhaddou
I messed up our accommodation a little causing us to have to backtrack an hour from where we had come from the previous day. Turned out to be no big deal as Auberge Ayouze was the perfect place to spend a night, if not a couple. An ancient berber house, renewed and decorated in a traditional way, with fun staff and great tajines, we couldn’t fault the place, even deciding to spend another night on our return journey. An easy and scenic walk through orchards following the Asif Ounila river took us to the famous Ksah of Ait Ben-Haddou in 40 minutes, a far better option than driving and being harassed for parking in the town itself.
This well preserved UNESCO World Heritage Centre was clearly the main stopover on the tourist trail to the Saraha desert, every parking area in town awash with buses and minivans, the masses with their guides either heading to or coming from the ancient walled village. We hoped that a sunset or sunrise visit would be a lot less crowded and provide the chance to find the scenes from Gladiator and Game of Thrones! The ksar is all but uninhabited nowadays, its modern day merchants choosing to live across the river in the new town – the exception are a handful of people who still rent out rustic amenity-free accommodation. After our self guided walk we came to the conclusion that although the earthen clay buildings had character and provided an amazing insight into how people once lived (and still do in a lot of Morocco we visited) we preferred to be staying on the outside looking in.
Unfortunately the couple of nights we stayed in the area neither offered the epic sunsets that the desert is known for! What we did get was an excellent wine-fueled evening of Berber music and singing back at our auberge. Highly recommended.
It was only a short drive to the “Hollywood” town of Ouarzazate where we get to stock up on food and debate on whether we should spend money on the towns reputedly subpar film studios. Atlas, the worlds largest studio by acreage, and CLA studios are both on the main road through town and with neither involved in any box office filming it was possible to visit for 50 Dirham – we were too tight and thought our time would be better spent hiking later in the day. What we did miss out on was seeing the sets for movies including The Jewel of the Nile, The Passion of the Christ, The Mummy, Babel, and Gladiator – oh well, maybe whilst driving through town we would recognize the extras who played Osama Bin Laden or Jesus Christ!
Day 3: Aït Benhaddou to Aït Ben Ali
Driving distance for today was showing at 150 kilometres and with Aït Ben Ali showing promise for some excellent hiking there was no reason to waste too much time in Ouarzazate. The only place that looked worthy of a stop was Kalaat M’Gouna, known for its roses and a well visited May festival to celebrate the rose harvest. As we passed through the town pretty much every shop was advertising rose, water, rose perfume and various other rose infused cosmetic products – we were four months too early to see everything turn pink but from the sound of it this Valley of the Roses town could be a whole lot of fun.
We had once again lucked out with accommodation; maybe something to do with the length of time it takes me to research every single place we stay. The newly renovated Labyrinth kasbah Dades didn’t quite jump out at you from the road but the impressive interior, the family hospitality and its panoramic views justified a 5 star review. The young entrepreneur owner was a wealth of information regarding the nearby Dades Gorge area and provided perfect advice for hiking the Monkey Fingers.
Heading out from Tamellalt a little further down the gorge the trail would take us through the narrowest of canyons, bending and crawling as we precariously made our way around water obstacles and through a maze of monkey fingers. We had no idea if we were even on the correct trail or just fighting our way into a cave system never to be seen again! We could always see the sky which was a good thing, and with no cause for concern we both clambered up a huge boulder, eventually bringing us out into the most amazing landscape. Following huge finger shaped slabs leaning against each other our circuit continued as we headed further from town and into mesmerizing scenery – we could, and with enough time, would have stayed out here for a night it was such an impressive place.
Daily workout complete it was time for a sunset drive up through the Dades Gorge, following the road through small towns with a backdrop of towering walls. Before long the canyon widened and one of the most spectacular roads sat before us, winding its way up a series of tight switchbacks to a conveniently placed bar and lookout – whilst a bit on the precarious side if the driver was distracted for too long the road was a marvel to see and to navigate. Our only regret was that we weren’t ready for this day to end, in fact we could have easily spent an entire week in the Dades Gorge area.
Day 4: Aït Ben Ali to Merzouga (Erg Chebbi)
With the Sahara calling and a lengthy Moroccan 260 kilometre drive ahead of us (it’s amazing how long a scenic drive can take when photo opportunities present themselves!) we wasted no time on hitting the road. Today we would leave the more mountainous regions behind and take on the heat of the desert.
Although we didn’t stop, the small city of Tinghir (alt: Tinerhir) had the setting of an oasis if viewed from the nearby hillsides and was also the jumping off point for Todra Gorge, another of the hotspots in this Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. The gorge is home to hiking paths and is popular with rock climbers scaling its sometimes 400 metre high walls. Once again we were too short on time to make the detour from Tinghir.
As the road leveled out and moved away from its kinks and hills the heat intensified, a sign that even early afternoon in the heart of winter the desert was a place not to mess with. We got a good taste of the conditions when pulling over in the middle of nowhere to watch a family of camels and eat lunch – the heat was stifling! By 2pm we were pulling into the small single street town of Merzouga, the gateway to the Saraha and dunes of Erg Chebbi – our desert transport was picking us up within an hour so without even bothering to get out and face the towns “desert camp” touts we made a bee line to Galerie Laoun, a recommended cute art and coffee shop.
Being picked up by Toyota 4×4 for a fun 20 minute dune ride to Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace was the beginning of our Sahara adventure. Greeted by the usual customary mint tea we were given a tour of camp, a bigger than expected setup with top notch sleeping tents, separate but private bathrooms, indoor and outdoor dining, chillout tents and a fire pit for evening entertainment. This place was worthy of its $156 half board booking.com price tag (Note: I found the pricing significantly higher when looking at what appeared to be the same deal on airbnb). Although we had done a camel experience in Jordan we opted to take the additional sunset camel ride too – this wasn’t pricey but just consisted of a 30 minute ride over a few dunes, an hour sitting atop a dune waiting for the sun to set, and a return ride; certainly nothing spectacular, but hey, if you’ve never ridden a camel before then I get it!
As well as sunrise and sunset camel safaris we could have raced around the dunes on ATV’s, dune buggies or a fancy Toyota 4×4, taken trips further afield to nomadic Berber communities, and maybe even dipped a foot into Algeria some 50 kilometres to the east.
Whilst we felt a million miles away from everything we were really only separated from countless other camps by a dune or two, and from Merzouga town by a few kilometres. Stars and distant galaxies still filled the night sky and the peacefulness was sublime, The staff made our short visit a blast and with great food and some authentic music it was a fun way to spend our desert trip before the long drive back to Marrakesh.
Day 5-6: Merzouga to Marrakesh
We had the small distance of 750 kilometres back to Marrakesh airport and only a day and a half to make it in. This left us with almost no chance of making it to our planned stop at Bin El Ouidane on the shores of its namesake lake before dark. This sounded like a place we needed to discover and appreciate – arriving after dark wasn’t going to allow that, and returning the car by lunch the following day ensured we would need an early start! Instead our route almost followed the outbound leg with the exception of bearing a little further south passing through Nkob. There was absolutely no reason for this although it did feel more remote, and still popped us out back in Ait Benhaddou for a second night at Auberge Ayouze.
Having to take the same route back was a bit of an anticlimax and having to do it over less than half the time was not much fun.
This trip definitely required an additional couple of nights, maybe even longer to fully appreciate both Dades and Todra gorges, but our time was limited so corners were cut. This isn’t to say that we didn’t thoroughly enjoy the adventure, stayed in some amazing and traditional accommodation, and met great people.
Car rental from Marrakesh airport to Marrakesh airport – 6 days, Company: Sixt, Cost: $228.90
Auberge Ayouze – excellent tagines (Ait Benhaddou)
All of our Riad accommodation served cheap and tasty tagines
Carrier: Maroc Telecom, SIM card & Data: 10Gb, Cost: 140 Dirham ($14.50)
Carrier: Maroc Telecom, SIM card & Data: 5Gb, Cost: 80 Dirham ($8.30)
December 24th – December 30th 2019
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