A Most Mythical Of Routes Through The Saharan Desert

26 February 2015

The bright black silhouettes of our three-camel caravan shone against a tall sand dune like a background drawing of the Three Kings in a nativity scene.

While Georgie, as I had nicknamed my blonde dromedary camel, plodded through this remote corner of Morocco at the edge of the Saharan Desert, I was transfixed by our reflection - because it was well past sunset and there was no moon.

 Today's caravans retrace the ancient trade routes (Getty)

With the complete lack of artificial lights, the vault of stars was bright enough to cast shadows, but I was struck by how this desert constantly upends expectations.

Shadows without light, luxuriant bursts of palms among stretches of barren land where you'd swear you'll never see water again, canyon rock formations that turn out to be fortified villages — a three-day guided driving loop from Marrakech to the dunes of Erg Chebbi in early summer was one mirage-like surprise after another.

After all, I was following one of Africa's most mythic, and historic, trading routes: the road to Timbuktu, lined with centuries-old castles, oases and the occasional camel-crossing road warning.

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Don't Go Out Without Your Turban

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While he liked to play pop hits and discuss US immigration policies in fluent English, Said Ahnana, my driver and guide from the Desert Majesty tour company, had grown up in a nomadic family, herding camels among these dunes.

It took him a minute in a village sewing store to wrap three metres of turquoise fabric around my head into a sand-proof turban called a shesh, getting me ready for leaving the road behind, stepping out into the dunes and on to the kneeling camel for a sunset ride.

Waveringly perched above Georgie, I watched the nomadic encampments disappear as we climbed nearly 150 metres up the dunes. I clambered up barefoot for the last leg into a sea of orange and pink sand.

 Old fortresses seem carved from sand (Getty)

On the way back, another guide, who was leading us on foot in his flowing blue robe, asked what sounded like an either-or question, of which I only understood the word jamal, camel in Arabic - so of course I picked that choice.

That's how a couple from London and I lucked into riding more than an extra hour in the brilliantly lit, eerily silent night to our camp of wide, round tents nestled in the lower dunes. It turns out I had declined car rides for the last few miles.

Not all my travels were by camel. With temperatures exceeding 48 degrees Celsius, the air-conditioned SUV came in handy as we traveled more than 1,000 kilometres over steep mountain passes and into pink canyons barely wide enough to traverse.


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Winding Roads Could Deceive A Snake Charmer

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The roads climbing over the High Atlas Mountains to the 2,260-metre Col du Tichka, or weaving in and out of the Dades Gorge, are contorted enough for any Marrakech snake-charmer.

But I was too busy marvelling at the unfolding landscape to feel the turns. Colourless flatness turned into a river lined by blooming pink oleanders in the Dades gorge and into sheer cliffs tall enough to block the sun in the Todra gorge.

 Tea cooking with herbs and spices in Marrakech (Getty)

The most astonishing eye trick is to behold what nomadic and Berber civilisations over centuries have eked out of this desert.

Wherever there is water are bursting groves of date palms, olive and pomegranate trees. Just after the Skoura oasis, Said jumped out of the car and came back triumphantly holding a fragrant Damask rose - improbably, the area around Kela'a M'gouna is famous for its flowers.

Literally carved out of the sand and rock are scores of fortified villages, casbahs, and turreted castles, ksars, that served caravans for a thousand years along the Dades and Draa valleys.

From basic square houses to massive forts, they are made of a pressed mixture of clay and straw called pise and decorated with carved geometric patterns reminiscent of indigenous arts from New Mexico to Mali.

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Ancient Routines Of Daily Life

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Perfectly preserved Ait Ben Haddou and Tamnougalt looked like stage sets - Morocco's movie capital, Ourzazate, is nearby.

But in their narrow alleys, I came upon flapping laundry lines, a transport donkey parked outside a garden and a public hammam bath - the ancient routines of daily life.

 Ait Benhaddou on the road to Marrakech (Getty)

I had meals of herb salads, lamb skewers and sweet mint tea in cool, clay courtyards that in other times sheltered traders and their camels.

As we drove away, I kept looking back until the earthen walls and unpaved streets melted into the shimmering desert, disappearing like another mirage.

 

This article was written by Giovanna Dell'Orto from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Giovanna Dell'Orto

Giovanna Dell'Orto is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She has also worked as reporter and editor for The Associated Press, most recently in the capacity of immigration reporter.