On the Edge in Erg Chebbi

by Tim Dawe

IMGP0429.JPGIt’s a misty morning leaving Fez, slowly chugging up Morocco’s Middle Atlas mountains in a cramped minibus. Images of the medina in Fez el-Bali (old Fez) remain vivid and indelibly etched. Stepping into that huge tangle of alleyways is literally stepping into a medieval city – still bustling and hustling today. A world heritage city unmoved by time.

Today is a totally different day. We grind our way ever upwards to snow-capped mountains, cedar trees and thoughts of a totally different landscape: Erg Chebbi. What an evocative name!

Erg (sand dune) Chebbi is a wilderness highlight of our 15-day tour. It’s an ocean of pure wind-swept sand. On the border with Algeria, it is quintessentially the Sahara desert. Erg Chebbi is of another world and another time, far removed, physically and emotionally, from the recently-visited cosmopolitan towns and cities on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. An Australian comparison of our destination might be the never-never country.

The fertile lands of the Middle Atlas plateau melt downwards; we are no longer up and cool but down, dusty and hot. Or it could be I just had forty winks. In contrast to our featureless journey, spirits in the minibus remain high – as does the temperature! We pass the famous sign “to Timbuktu, 52 days”.

Twelve hours pass, so too towns and villages with exotic names such as Ifrane (a look-alike Swiss village), Azrou, Timahdite, Midelt, Er-Rachidia and Erfoud. Our destination, beyond Mezouga, is a further 55km via road-less open sand-plain. It’s not really a town or a village but a modern, well-appointed auberge, restaurant and faux Kasbah purpose-built for the likes of us. On our arrival, in the gloom of early evening, I notice the entrance sign with the camel motif: “Tombouctou à Mezouga”! We really have arrived.

Here for centuries camel trains have plodded their way through death-defying deserts carrying their precious cargo of gold and salt to Marrakech, Fez and beyond, returning with European and Asian “elaborately transformed manufactures” to the fabled and mysterious city of Timbuktu. It is an exciting thought to hold on to after retiring to my four-star hotel suite – more exciting than the forced, after-dinner tourist entertainment of wailing songs and incessant drumming whilst sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor.

Before sunrise the next day we assemble as requested near some hessian rugs hung out to dry – later identified as the tents of our Touareg cameleers. By the sound and smell we are near the camel compound.

Our treat is to go a short distance into the dunes on camel-back to see the sunrise. Each camel is led by a young Touareg man, from that famous nomadic people of Saharan North and West Africa, resplendent in their distinctive blue djellabas and turbans. Sunrise is not spectacular, producing a tiny ping-pong ball set in a colourless dusty haze.

I sit alone on the crest of a sand dune lost in thought, or rather non-thought, when noiselessly, perhaps mystically, a handsome boy of about 15 in full Touareg uniform appears next to me. Omar speaks to me quietly and gently, in surprisingly good English, about himself and his life. I speak about living on the edge; the edge of a vast desert, the edge of a tourist compound and at the edge of traditional and modern life. Despite this we have a connection of sorts.

It slowly becomes clear Omar has trinkets to sell. It’s also clear he does not believe I have left my money in my room – unlocked, as it happens. We part company without any trace of rancour or lost opportunity. Omar is of the desert and knows the value of conserving energy. Or perhaps he’s just a really nice kid.

With the sun now blazing red and a reasonable size I see my surroundings for the first time. It seems unreal. The hotel and restaurant buildings, set against this postcard-like sandy desert turn into a fort of the French Foreign Legion. Beau Geste would be right at home. It’s a Hollywood film set – then again, lots of movies are shot in Morocco.

But nothing can detract from the beauty and grandeur of the natural setting; the shapes, the shadows, the colours, and the moods of the dunes. It is just sand but it is wonderful, this waterless ocean of frozen waves. It’s powerful and endless, it’s clean and it’s deadly.

Our visit into the interior is to have a “picnic”. Or more accurately, to experience a three-hour camel trek to a squibby bit of oasis with three or four date palms, a two-hour lunch with an uneasy rest chasing shade around a palm, then the three-hour camel trek home.

This is adventure-grade wilderness trekking, and a challenge for over-sized, over-comforted tourists. Interestingly the older man from Auckland and the soft couple from Philadelphia come up trumps in our little ordeal without a murmur. It is one of our Aussies who is worryingly sick with dehydration and is revived by having lots of our precious drinking water poured over his head.

We return home in the late afternoon in some discomfort from six hours in the saddle of a camel that negotiates large sand dunes either straight up or straight down. Forget the romantic notions of Lawrence of Arabia, some bottoms should not be put astride a camel.

Now I know why the Touareg wind five metres of cloth around their heads and walk rather than ride. Now I appreciate four-star accommodation, showers, air-conditioning and cold beer.

Morocco is a wonderfully diverse country with modern cities containing quality shops, cafés and nightlife, ravishing coastlines, high mountain peaks, deep tree-flooded gorges, and amazing Roman ruins and medieval towns. It’s a liberal, peaceful Islamic country with friendly, courteous and helpful people and well worth an extensive tour…all the way to Erg Chebbi.

Just don’t go too far on a camel

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