Exploring Marrakech may have been the real reason for our pre-Christmas celebration in Morocco, but with almost a full week, there was no way we were skipping the Sahara. Sandwiched in between our two nights at the Le Merdien N’Fis and our final night at the Riad Monceau, the hubs and I booked a private tour to see what else Morocco has to offer.
After a bit of preliminary research, we ruled out doing any of the 2-day, 1-night excursions, even though it would have given us more time in Marrakech. My end game here was to be atop a camel in the dunes of the Sahara — I didn’t need to stand in some sand just on the outskirts of the city, ahthankyou very much.
After some research, we booked this tour with Trekking in Morocco. We liked that it would be just us and two guides, and the reviews we found were positive across the board. More than a few people told us to figure it out once we got to Morocco, but I’m glad we booked in advance. There were about one billion options advertised in Marrakech, and too many options overwhelm me. I always pick the wrong line at the grocery store, I didn’t want to pick the wrong ride out into the middle of the desert.
We were scheduled to meet our driver, Mohamed, and guide, George, bright and early in our hotel lobby, but we were still surprised when we got downstairs about 30 minutes early to find them already ready and waiting. This meant no coffee or breakfast for us — they seemed anxious to get on the road and we didn’t ask too many questions. First stop: the World Heritage site of Ait Benhaddou, by way of Tizi n’Tichka Pass in the High Atlas Mountains!
As we made our way up the mountains, George asked what we were most interested in learning about on the tour. I mentioned food & local culture, and George let us know we were free to ask any questions over the next few days. We passed Berber villages, chatted about the upcoming itinerary, and briefly discussed the differences between life in the city and life in the mountains. The hubs asked about Moroccan politics, but that topic was notably off limits (soo… not any questions), and George instead directed our attention to the style of houses dotting this side of the mountain. He told us to pay attention, as the style would change dramatically once we got over the pass.
As we drove higher and higher into the mountains, it got colder and colder… I mean, totally frigid. We started to worry. We had packed warm clothes for the desert, but it was getting almost unbearable. Pretty soon, we found out why.
At first, it was a pleasant surprise. How Christmassy! Then, it got crazier and crazier, and we were driving through a whiteout.
A bit of a language barrier had prevented George from explaining earlier that they were in a rush because a storm had been heading toward the pass. We definitely got stuck for about an hour due to some traffic and skidding cars/trucks, and though they assured us they were well equipped for such matters, it was still a little nerve-racking. Eventually, we got through the storm… to find a totally blue, cloudless sky.
It was surreal, because in front of us was an almost summerlike day, and behind us was this:
We carried on until arriving at Ait Benhaddou, where we stopped for a quick lunch before walking through a crazy amount of wind and dust into the fortified city.
I asked if sandstorms were a concern, but George just laughed at me.
Once we walked across the bridge, we tried to hike up to the kasbah at the top. UNFORTUNATELY, I was wearing my glasses, and the wind was seriously so strong it blew them right off my face. Along with feeling like a huge nerd, I also decided I was good to skip the views. I got the point, but I think George was disappointed in me.
As we made our way back down, George explained that the city dates back to the 8th century and was once a part of the trade route from the Sahara to Marrakech. It is now used as a major film & TV background, and has appeared in tons of movies, including Lawrence of Arabia, The Gladiator, The Mummy and Babel. George never met Russell Crowe or Brad Pitt, FYI. He may have met Brendan Fraser, George is pretty mysterious.
Moving on, we drove toward our next destination: the Valley of the Roses. Naturally, rose season is NOT in December (it’s April/May), so instead, we just took a few photos and moved on to the Dades Valley. However, here was where we were able to see just how different the Berber Villages looked compared to the ones we saw on the other side of the Atlas Mountains. In both cases, the homes are built and decorated to almost perfectly blend into their surrounding environment.
Our next stop was our hotel for the night, a riad overlooking the Dades Gorge. We had a pretty low key (and very, very cold) night, before we were up for another early morning. We still had a long stretch before we got to the Sahara.
To kickstart our day, Mohamed took us up a crazy, CRAZY road overlooking the gorge. I was pretty sure we were going to die.
Luckily, the views were well worth it (though the light made it hard to capture), and we met a cute pooch who belonged to a nearby restaurant and acted as our local guide. When I asked his or her name, George told the pup to get lost.
The majority of this day was a bit of a blur, and I really wish that George was a little more clear about what, exactly, we were looking at. He told us everything in bursts — we knew we were going to see the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, possibly a huge oasis full of one million palm trees, and more Berber Villages… but he didn’t really tell us what we were looking at when we were looking at them. So, all I’m really left with is a lot of really cool photos and minimal knowledge of what they’re actually of.
(I found George to be a little frustrating.)
I am 90% positive that this is the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. The jury is out on whether or not these were also the one million palm trees, but either way, there’s a lot of counting involved with Moroccan historical sites.
From here, we drove to the Todra Gorge for a quick walk. I took a picture of nomads with their donkeys, and George told me that was rude. I asked him to take our picture instead, and that is why we look uncomfortable.
After the gorge with George, we were finally heading to Mersouga, where we’d catch our camels for our sunset ride — though not before one more pic from a different angle of the Valley of One Thousand Kasbahs (….I think):
Finally, we made it to a hotel in a small city called Mersouga, where we stopped to unload most of our luggage, stock up on a few bottles of water, and take a quick shower before meeting our rides for the night. These guys would be taking us out to the Erg Chebbi dunes for a night under the stars:
George explained to us that Arabic camels are called dromedaries, and only have one hump (unlike their Asian cousins, who have two.) Our only other camel experience was in Egypt, so we’ve never actually seen a two-humper… at least as far as I can recall. A quick Google image search confirms that two-humped camels look ridiculous.
As we watched the wranglers work their magic, the camels stretched and sighed, slowly waking up to prepare for the trek. Most of them seemed pretty sweet and docile, while the one in the back hemmed and hawed and made terrible groaning noises. Naturally, I was waved over and told to climb up onto his hump. My new friend was NOT happy, but I tried to win him over.
“George, what’s my camel’s name?”
“In Morocco, we don’t name animals.” (This explained why he had brushed that dog away back in the Dades Valley, at least.)
When George realized I wasn’t happy with this response, he told me I could name him if I wanted. I asked for a strong Moroccan name.
“Name for what?”
“…Like, a strong male name. A man’s name! This guy is clearly the boss of this whole operation.”
“You can’t give an animal a human name.”
George had a lot of rules considering he’s never named an animal before. I said I’d just name him Sandy and moved on with it. About five minutes later, after George conversed with some of the other guides, one of them came over, had Sandy sit back down, and told me to climb off. The hubs dryly told me that this was a lesson in why you don’t name your camel. (Actually, I think Sandy was just really, inexplicably cranky and they realized he was not going to make for an enjoyable ride.)
When they put me on my next camel, I decided that, due to her perfectly curled lashes, this one was definitely a she.
“George, how do you say eyelashes?”
(Pointing to my eyes) “Eyelashes? In French? Or Arabic, either one.”
George was so tired of me. But luckily, we were on the move and ready to set off into the desert, just me and, um, Lashy. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the hubs named his camel Jumanji. Yeah, Jumanji. What a nerd.
It was definitely windy and chilly, so if you do plan a trip to Morocco in the winter and want to do this excursion, pack warm. We’re talking tons and tons of layers, here, folks, and don’t forget a scarf. It was helpful for blocking out some of the sand. You’ll note that the hubs is really rocking that Theodora & Callum lady scarf:
The camel in front of me had apparently been drinking a LOT the night before, because he could not stop urinating. This was not pleasant when mixed with all the wind. When I pointed this out to the hubs, George overheard and told me that camel urine is actually very expensive due to its health benefits. He told me that many Moroccans will bring bottles so that they can take the urine home with them. It is especially beneficial for women with early onset breast cancer.
Well, to be honest, that last part is what I deduced from this George gem:
“Women with nipple cancer use it. They drink it. But only very early. You drink the camel urine, but it doesn’t work if the nipple cancer is very bad. Only works for women with nipple cancer early in the morning.”
…that has to mean “early onset breast cancer,” right?
By the time we got to the camp, the sun had pretty much fully set. George showed us to our individual tents, and then a group of about twenty of us made our way to the main tent for dinner. I was a little bit let down by dinner — we were all seated at individual tables with our own little groups, so there was no real chance to meet other travelers, and the food was super basic; just chicken, couscous and aubergine. A small group of Moroccans played music on their iPod and danced, but they appeared to be fellow travelers… so we awkwardly sat by and watched, wishing we had brought a deck of cards or something?
Around 8 PM, everyone started to wrap up and head to bed. George wished us a good night, and said we had to get up early the next morning. “We’re leaving at 5:30 AM! On the dot!” He stressed that we had a long, long drive back to Marrakech, and if we got a late start, it would make the day of driving unbearable. We promised to be up and ready… it clearly wasn’t going to be a problem since we were going to bed at 8 PM.
As we walked out to get ready for bed, I looked up and gasped. The Milky Way was splashed across the sky, and there were more stars than I knew existed — twinkling and shining, and every once in awhile, shooting toward the horizon. I wish I was even remotely skilled enough to capture it on camera. We stood in the middle of the desert and stared up for as long as we could take it, until our necks were sore and we felt like our noses might snap off from the cold.
This night of sleep was rough. We were each wearing all of our clothes — hoods, scarves wrapped around our heads, you name it. Blankets were piled high on both of our legs (to the point that my feet fell asleep from the weight of it all.) I was almost relieved when our alarms went off at 5 AM and it was time to get up.
We freshened up a bit and walked out of the tent, ready to tackle the sunrise ride back to Merzouga. Annnd no one else was awake. Not a peep from any of the tents, nothing. We poked our heads into the main tent and realized that that’s where the guides were sleeping, and none of them seemed to be awake. We walked back out and started climbing the dunes up to the camels, who were yawning and stretching.
It was surprisingly serene to stand under the stars, just the two of us and a little hoard of camels.
But where was everyone? We walked back down to the camp to see if we could figure out what was going on, and finally, around 6 AM, a guide popped out of the tent and told us we would be leaving at 6:30 AM.
God dammit, George.
Finally, everyone was ready, and we mounted our camels to head back. This ride was even more freezing than the day before, and as the stars faded, so did my excitement for camel riding. Though, to be fair, watching the sunrise over the dunes was pretty gorgeous.
We soon thanked our furry friends and wished them well, hopeful that the next riders would give them better names than Lashy and Jumanji. We made a quick pitstop in the hotel room (George said we had enough time to shower, but only if we could both shower and be ready in ten minutes… which we could not), had a quick breakfast and got back on the road.
We stopped a few more times for photo opps, but honestly, I have NO idea what they were. There was a big sitdown lunch somewhere along the way, and a long, long stretch of driving before we got back to Marrakech and bid our guide and driver adieu.
Honestly, if I could do it all over again — and I really, really would — here’s what I would have changed:
- Be more clear in the booking process about what I wanted to get from the tour. I tried to tell George that learning about local culture and food was important to us, but he was far more focused on history. This is totally fine for many travelers, and though I did find some of it interesting, I really wanted to know more about current life in Morocco.
- Make food requests in advance. Though we did stop at one restaurant that we enjoyed, the rest were clear tourist traps. I really wanted guidance on what foods to try, but George didn’t seem to understand what we were asking. One response was simply, “just order what you like!” Seeing as this was my first time eating Moroccan food, I didn’t know. But we did find out we loved Kefta Tajine, and Moroccan crepes are de-freaking-licious. Also, I could live on Moroccan mint tea, though preferably sweetened.
- Bring water, face wipes, and mouthwash. The campsite was super basic, which we were expecting, but we still packed like idiots. We were told we could shower at the hotel before and after camping, but there was barely any hot water and the hotel room was FREEZING. Plus, because of George’s complete inability to convey timing, we didn’t have enough time to shower after we camped, and this made for an exceptionally cranky ride back to Marrakech. Fortunately, Riad Monceau saved the day with a much-needed luxe night as soon as we got back.
Do I wish we had a different guide? Sigh, yes. I do. Luckily, the hubs and I can make the most of anything at this point, and we still managed to have a blast. We still laugh at some of the ridiculousness that happened during our little Moroccan getaway, but I am SO glad we booked an excursion. It’s a beautiful country, and I would have been disappointed if we hadn’t seen more of it. This trip definitely sparked something, and I hope we can get back soon to see more — Essaouira and Chefchaouen are already calling my name.
Plus! I need to properly shop in the souk.
– Please note that Trekking in Morocco did provide me with a media rate in exchange for my coverage, and all opinions are my own. Mohammed was really lovely throughout the booking process, and I have no doubt that he would be happy to work with you if you specify your requests in advance. And, if you’re a history buff, I think George might be more up your alley than he was mine. Just do not name your camel.