The penultimate destination on my #30BecomesHerTour may have been the Sahara, but the journey to the arid desert itself was the stuff of which imaginatively fecund fairytales are made. Having arrived in Casablanca from Paris just the night before our three-day trek was to begin, my friend, Farida, and I were met by our driver, Aboud, of Your Morocco Tour, at the godless hour of 7am. Luggage loaded into our grey Hyundai 4×4, I am certain I had sunk back into to slumber by the engine’s first roar. I woke about an hour later to find us whizzing down the autoroute past bustling Marrakech, and then ascending, cruising through the serpentine slopes of the High Atlas mountains, through the Tizi n‘Tichka pass, on the direct route towards Ouarzazate.
This route to the Sahara is a spectacularly dramatic road that presents astonishing views of the snow topped peaks of the Atlas range and sights dotted with berber villages, alive with scurrying denizens that fill one with a deep sense of sonder. Aboud brought the car to its first halt on a plateau in Tchiz for the a standard issue leg stretch and souvenir pit stop: agate-crafted chess boards for us both us it was; chess boards that made it through the 3 day trek by car, camel and wheelbarrow, but, alas, did not survive our flights back home.
Upon our vehicular descent from the mountains, we were escorted to a rooftop restaurant that overlooked the red clay of the cliffs that surrounded us, with a clear and stunning view of southern Morocco’s most renowned cultural heritage site: the Ksour of Ait BenHaddou. The Kasbah itself is a maze of earthen buildings. From the distance, it is redolent of the medievel villages of Tuscany and Provence in the way that its structures jut out like tetris blocks (All the world’s a video game: take that, Shakespeare!). It’s a steep climb to the top of the Kasbah, but the monotony of clay walls is broken by draped hotly-hued textiles, and clay tagines, and silver jewellery, and tea art and plethora of other arcana that line the path way up, not mention the smiles of local tradesmen and, of course, a donkey or three.
A study in contrasts
Finally a the apogee of the settlement, I turned around to look at the earth below. Views are always worth the toil of the climb, are they not? A wide expanse of red earth spilled all about us, bifurcated sharply by the sparkling sliver of water that curled is way through that earth. Wonder (or exhaustion) overcame us and bade us stay a while, and so in silence we sat. Then off we were again, trekking downward to our mechanical chariot, regaled by Aboud’s jokes. Bathed in the glory of air-conditioning once more, we passed the desert city of Ouarzazate and continued along the Road of A Thousand Kasbahs, passing the Skoura Oasis and Rose Valley, all the way to Todra Gorge, where our mind-boggling residence for the night awaited us.
Tucked in obscurity, deep in the belly of the magnificent Todra Gorge, lies a fortress of stone surrounded by nothing but towering wrinkled red earth. This was our dream-like lodging for the night. Our room, carved into the building as an actual cave, was as unusual and imaginative a dwelling as any other. Clean and content after a hot shower, we sat down to a dinner of moussaka and freshly-baked herb bread, with a decadent mousse au chocolat comme dessert. Our happy host insisted I walk with him to see where they grow their herbs in the garden after I had requested mint tea. We fumbled through the foliage in the dark, armed with little but a pea-sized flash light, until we came to a bushel of leaves. He plucked the mint, then turned to a wild rosebush and snapped off a scarlet bloom which he presented to me. I could not help but think of The Little Prince’s rose; the flower that tamed him. I was, in that same sense, tamed, for I shan’t ever forget the gesture or the face of the man who executed it. Still, I had not come to be wooed, but for tea. And once that tea was unceremoniously downed, I retired to the cave to find Farida wandering deep in the land of morpheus. How could she be asleep? I was too exhausted from the day’s experiences to sleep. I recall precious little of what happened between that moment and when I emerged from the cave, Farida still asleep, in search of the sun.
Auberge Le Festival: Our lodging on the first night of our journey
Up before the sun had risen above the high flame- and flora-coloured escapements of the gorge, a crescent moon still hung in a translucent sky that can only be described as the interstice between day and night. From the plunge pool on the hotel’s terrace, I watched the sun make a gradual ascent. The sun rising in the sky often seems so seamless, so easy, when we watch it rise over an ocean or a field. But, knowing that the sun was very much awake behind the walls of the ravine, so much so as to cast some light, but still yet unable to share its full form and brilliance for the height of cliffs, sunrise seemed that day like a struggle. I cannot help, given my rather unfortunate penchant for platitudinous allegory, but feel this moment reflects a struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds in life. Your sun is always there, “in your belly”, as Picasso would have it, but the climb that light within you has to make to fully manifest itself from behind internal and external walls, that birth, takes time and the belief that the sun has ultimately no place to go but to rise.
Of course, none of these thoughts were running through my mind at the moment. I was lost in a sort of anoetic ecstasy. Perhaps this is the true blessing of sublime experience: that we osmotically glean the lessons of existence without necessarily noticing our change in state– this is sublimation. The sun eventually did rear its head, and I eventually did emerge from my trance in the cool pool to throw myself into the fire of a morning yoga asana practice. Kicking up into a supported headstand, nothing could have prepared me for the beauty that would befall me. The cloudless blue sky was now the earth and stone was sky. Ah, the joy of the inversion…and the shock of returning to normalcy when I climbed back down to my feet.
Breakfast at the Auberge was delicious cornucopia: muesli and yoghurt, more fresh bread served with an assortment of jams and honey, freshly-made omelettes, and ice-cold orange juice. Just the fuel we needed, administered against the backdrop of goats rushing down the walls of the ravine, to begin our morning of exploring the gorge itself. As we prepared to leave after the morning’s meal, we heard Berber music blurring from the kitchen of the auberge. We headed towards the music to bid our hosts farewell and walked in on them dancing with unbridled glee. Somehow, we got roped in to the impromptu Berber house party. Unbeknownst to me as I cackled and shook my hips, Farida was promising, in Arabic, to sell me to our hosts for the meagre price of a single camel.
What I Wore: A very old custom-made dress in Woodin print; Dior So Real sunglasses; Hermes and Kenneth Jay Lane bracelets.
No camels were sold that morning. We set off for our desert adventure, travelling towards the city of Erfoud, known for its date palms, and through the gates of the ancient city of Rissani, that thrived from the 8th to 14th century. Home of the Alouite people — the early conquerors of all Morocco — in Rissani one can feel the proximity of the desert. Sparsely populated, the desiccated air has a heavy presence. Somehow, it just felt apparent that the void was nigh.
It was in Risanni that we finally bought our indigo scarves to be tied as teglemusts once we arrived in desert of Merzouga. The hour drew near, finally. Just as the sun began to set, we arrived in Merzouga, a beautiful area of fine, apricot-coloured sand that stretches, like an ocean of cinnamon, straight into the sky. We rode into the the vastness of the dunes by camel caravan accompanied by our camelteer, Hamou, who looked intermittently over his shoulder to determine the position of the sun in the sky and the best vantage point from which to observe its setting. And set it did, in manner most operatic, with the promise to rise and sing its again. And rise it did, over our lodging of tents in the middle of the Erg Chebbi dunes, with the pomp and pageantry befitting the vast void that fills one up with wonder; the void worth every single hour spent cramped in a car, cursing oneself for eating a heaping serving of harissa the night before a fourteen hour drive.