Trace the ancient caravan routes through Morocco

“The Sahara is constantly changing, so it has its own charm and character”

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There is sand between my teeth. Waves of warm, dusty air blow across my face. My arm is turning red from the hot sun. But I don’t care.

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Excitement courses through me as I bounce into a 4×4, traversing the ever-changing landscape of the Sahara Desert – the largest hot desert in the world. Dust devils swirl around the arid, sprawling land as we make our way to our camp perched along the massive dunes of Erg Chigaga. It’s a stormy sea of ​​sand in one of the most hostile and humiliating places I know.

“The Sahara is constantly changing, so it has its own charm and character,” says my guide, Khaliad Aitionh. “You have black volcanic mountains, flat land with rocks, small sand dunes, villages and an oasis that can pop up in the middle of nowhere.”

I came to Morocco to join a 10-day tour with Intrepid Travel that takes travelers off the beaten track to explore the rich cultures and varied landscapes of the south of the country.

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Considered a moderate Muslim country, Morocco is ruled by King Mohammed VI – the 23rd king of the Alaouite dynasty, who began his reign in the mid-17th century. Mosques are the centerpiece of the Berber villages that dot the landscape along the High Atlas Mountains to the fringes of the Sahara. Calls to prayer resound across the country five times a day.

The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakech and was erected in the 12th century.  Photo by Pamela Roth
The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest mosque in Marrakech and was erected in the 12th century. Photo by Pamela Roth

I arrived in Marrakech in a sweltering 40C and was immediately drawn to the colorful and chaotic medina, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Marrakech was founded in 1070-1072 by the Almoravids and was a major political, economic and cultural center of the Muslim world.

Surrounded by 16 km of ramparts and gates that once protected the city from invaders, the souks are at the heart of the medina’s maze of narrow streets brimming with assorted items from tagines to decorative lanterns and rugs to live chickens and the products. Shoes made in individual shops 2.5 meters wide line a street. Around the corner, the streets are lined with bags of colorful spices and vendors eager to assault your nose with exotic smells.

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Streets lined with bags of colorful spices in the Marrakech medina.  Photo by Mirko Freund.
Streets lined with bags of colorful spices in the Marrakech medina. Photo by Mirko Freund.

“Do you know what this is?” a man asks, pointing to a piece of wood among a display of colorful spices. “It’s sandalwood,” he said, holding it to my nose, waiting to see my reaction. I smile politely, overwhelmed by the sweet, powerful scent that I recognize as incense.

A man pulls a cart through the narrow streets of the medina in Marrakech.  Photo by Pamela Roth.
A man pulls a cart through the narrow streets of the medina in Marrakech. Photo by Pamela Roth.

Strolling through the medina, where mules still pull carts through the streets, feels like stepping back in time. It reminds me of the ancient caravans with camels that traveled thousands of kilometers across the Sahara to exchange desired goods such as salt, gold, ivory, slaves and luxury goods.

A few days later, I follow one of the old caravan routes to the Sahara. But instead of riding a camel, I’m in an air-conditioned van with 12 sweaty travelers of different ages.

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The massive dunes of Erg Chigaga in the Sahara Desert are Morocco's largest sea of ​​golden sand.  Photo by Pamela Roth
The massive dunes of Erg Chigaga in the Sahara Desert are Morocco’s largest sea of ​​golden sand. Photo by Pamela Roth

Starting from the village of Imlil in the High Atlas Mountains to the end of the paved road at Ouled Driss, I marvel at the ever-changing landscape and the simplicity of everyday life. I see shepherds watching small flocks of sheep and sprawling kasbahs in Berber villages with traditional adobe houses that seem to rise from the red and brown hills that change color with the light. Olive trees dot lush valleys that turn into huge palm groves bordering dry riverbeds as we get closer to the desert.

Ait Benhaddou was once a stopover for passing caravans transporting salt across the Sahara.  The city now has a long list of movies and TV shows, including Game of Thrones and Gladiator.  Photo by Pamela Roth
Ait Benhaddou was once a stopover for passing caravans transporting salt across the Sahara. The city now has a long list of movies and TV shows, including Game of Thrones and Gladiator. Photo by Pamela Roth

In the village of Ouled Driss, where we switch to four-wheel drive for the two-hour trip to the dunes, we explore a 17th-century mudbrick kasbah and wait out the sweltering afternoon heat. Sipping hot mint tea, I think back to the old caravans that once came to rest after crossing the harsh desert at the pace of their camels. The journey through the Sahara could take 40 to 60 days and was only possible by stopping at oases along the way.

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Hot mint tea is a common drink in Morocco.  Photo by Pamela Roth
Hot mint tea is a common drink in Morocco. Photo by Pamela Roth

Aitinoh vividly remembers his first trip to the Sahara in 2010 and has been there several times since then, showing visitors the natural beauty. Every time he goes to the desert, Aitinoh isn’t sure what to expect: he’s experienced rain, vicious sandstorms, and even a car stuck in a river that suddenly came to life.

“When you travel through the Sahara, you realize how precious water is. It will teach you a great lesson about water conservation,” says Aitinoh, who grew up in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. I appreciate the serenity of the Sahara, I encourage people to spend a little time on the sand dunes to enjoy that serenity and silence that we miss these days with the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Walk through giant palm groves near the small oasis town of Zagora on the edge of the Sahara.  Photo by Pamela Roth
Walk through giant palm groves near the small oasis town of Zagora on the edge of the Sahara. Photo by Pamela Roth

IF YOU ARE GOING TO

Intrepid’s 10-day tour, South Morocco Discovery (intrepidtravel.com/ca/morocco/south-morocco-discovery-138711), consists of hiking in the High Atlas Mountains, spending a night in the Sahara and exploring the port city of Essaouira, as well as other villages.

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About Wesley V. Finley

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