Since Riad Layla Rouge was partnered with a company that arranges tours in the surrounding areas, I decided rather last minute to cancel my trip to Rabat and go on an overnight excursion into the Sahara instead. As is often the case, spur of the moment decisions lead to some fantastic new experiences!!
As has been the case over the course of the entire trip, my travel group consisted of myself and five other amazing adventurers. I was so pleased that we all got on immediately, which made our long trek from Marrakech to Zagora fly by. Our tour guide (whose name I still don’t know) was a stoic Moroccan man whose only words to use during our time together were to let us know why we were stopping (his opinion was that people who talk too much are naïve, as we learned on our ride home). I already had a rather poor opinion of the driving skills of Moroccans – though they might be more alert drivers than the rest of the world, they don’t seem to follow any rules of the road – and our driver only reinforced that opinion as we weaved our way down winding mountain roads. Needless to say, we all learned very quickly to not pay attention to his driving.
Our drive was easily six hours (without the numerous stops we took for bathroom and coffee breaks, sightseeing, and photo opportunities, that is) and took us through the Atlas mountains toward the small city of Zagora. I was so surprised to see how quickly the landscape would change from hour to hour in color, climate, and type of greenery; in fact, there were moments where I could have sworn that we had left Morocco altogether!
Outside of breaks for photographs and bathroom breaks, our main stop was the kasbah in Aït Benhaddou, which was at one time one of the stops along the caravan route from the Sahara desert to Marrakech. The structure is similar to a castle in structure and built using a mud-clay mixture. When our group took our tour of the kasbah, I was amazed to discover that it was still very much lived in, despite its age. The entire structure was certainly made to withstand the test of time!!
A few hours after visiting the kasbah, we arrived in Zagora and were eager to ride the one and a half hours to the Berber bedouin camp that we would be staying at for the night. Some of the group had never ridden a camel before, and I knew that if memory served correctly from my last camel ride (for which I couldn’t have been more than five years old!), it was going to get old by the time that we got five minutes into the ride. And, of course, I was right! Between the awkward up-and-down/side-to-side swaying and the overall discomfort of having a camel’s hump between your legs, we were all ready to call it quits almost as soon as we had mounted. And we had how much longer to go??
Luckily, we were all an interesting enough bunch to make a game of our camel ride, so the time passed rather quickly. Partway through the ride, our guides stopped us so that we could watch the sunset, enjoy some melon, and chat a little bit about Berber customs, before heading on to the place we would call home for the evening.
When we finally arrived, our guides served us some mint tea before performing a couple traditional songs for us – an unexpected but welcome surprise to be sure! We were then given a little free time to settle in and relax our sore backsides before a second, larger performance was given for our group and the five or so other groups that were participating in the excursion. With Berber music, it seems that simplicity is key – all they needed was a solid rhythm and their voices did all of the work, weaving stories in an unfamiliar language around our hearts and moved not just our bodies but our spirits as well.
Not too long afterward, the larger group was separated back into their respective tour groups, and were then served a delicious three-course meal which of a Moroccan barley soup, chicken tagine, and a dessert of sliced watermelon (which was more than likely freshly-harvested from a watermelon patch that we passed by at the beginning of our camel ride). We then spent the next couple hours laying on blankets under the stars, listening to more traditional music and chatting with our Berber guides, who told us riddles before telling us about their lives and traditions. A fun fact that they shared with us was that if you dig a hole in the desert sand to bury your hands/feet/body, the sand will be able to keep you warm through a cold night. Perhaps the most random bit of information they could have told (and demonstrated!) to us, but definitely vital knowledge if you ever happen to be stranded in the desert during a cold night.
The most wonderful part of the entire experience was definitely the level of service we received throughout the entire overnight adventure. Though we were only six people of a group of forty or more people, our guides truly took the time to make it memorable for us…the night was truly unforgettable.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the pictures on my Facebook page!!: http://www.facebook.com/unwrittenwanderlust