Sunrise in the Sahara - From Marrakech, to the Saharan Oasis, and the desert towns of South-Eastern Morocco [Video & Photography]
iSome while back I promised to post a short video of sunrise from the Sahara desert. Well, here it is. I travelled to the Sahara in late November, with a photographer friend of mine, when the temperatures had cooled. We set off from Marrakech on an early morning bus, that for thirteen straight hours took us into the furthest south-east of Morocco. The journey takes you through the rapidly changing landscape of the Atlas Mountains; scaling heights along windy half-finished roads, and through small mud and stone villages and farming hamlets.
Then we descend into the Hollywood of North Africa - Quarzazate. We were now off the mountain, and the landscape gradually became more barren and rocky-red. This city is the largest in the Moroccan Sahara and its name means 'without noise' in Berber language. It is the home of Atlas Studios, where such films as 'Cleopatra, 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'Babel' were filmed. The landscape fits in with the sweeping and the cinematic. And the town itself seemed interesting from the view we got from the bus window.
We continued on into the desert and things definitely felt like they were heating up. The bus began to shed its occupants along the way and we saw more Kasbahs and ancient looking Ksars (Red mud and stone castles) as we drove east. This part of the journey is nothing short of fascinating. The small towns and litany of desert villages surrounded by high crumbling red walls seem to latch onto the roadway for miles ahead, while its vast surrounding landscapes present endless, unforgiving flatlands of red stone and hot sand.
This is the Dades Gorge, and as we enter Boumalne Dades, a magnificent looking Berber town with endless Ksars on approach, you can feel the history around you. A thin mist of the past shows old tribes of the Sahara and trading caravans stopping here as they make the journey across the desert from Niger, Mali, and Algeria. It is a region unlike any in Northern Morocco; and as unique and authentic a place as any adventure traveller could wish for.
Entering the large town of Tinghir further on and we are truly entering Oasis territory. ⵜⵉⵏⵖⵉⵔ as it is written in the Tamazight or Amazigh script; which you will see dotted all across this region, an area dominated by Berber tribes. As a text, it looks vibrant and beautiful. Tinghir is a large town near the Todra Gorge. It is a prime settlement in the Tinghir Oasis where palms and cacti run for approximately 30 kilometres before more desert opens up into the serious Ergs of the Sahara.
The bus continued on to more fascinating towns as we near toward Merzouga. Errachidia, Erfoud and Risanni are as off the beaten track as you can get. These towns are vita for the little communities sprinkled across the region as centres for schooling and commerce. Erfoud is even said to be similar to the landscape and geology of Mars. An odd fact I was surprised to hear about, as the town being host to a Mars Research project in 2013 when the Austrian Space Forum, in conjunction with other space research organisations, conducted experiments in the area. But this region is far from hi-tech. For the traveller it is more like a step back in time (if coming from a westernised background) and a step forward into a new culture and place.
Rissani sits on the edge of the desert dunes and in the spectacular Ziz Valley. It really made me want to get off the bus straight away and explore. The town itself is more of a mix of Arab and Berber communities and is definitely an Oasis town that transports you to another world in the most romantic and escapist of ways.
Next, we arrived at our destination, Merzouga. Here we had our Bed and Breakfast host pick us up to take is even further into the desert, with a short drive to the village of Khamlia. This small and laid back village is a unique place, a Gnawa village who's population (Gnawa and Berber) originate from slaves brought through here in Caravans across desert from West and Central Africa. It sits just kilometres from the Algerian border and amid the dunes of Erg Chebbi. Music is the heartbeat of this little town. And as we sat listening to local musicians and wandering the dunes by day time, at night we drank Berber Whiskey (tea) and ate home cooked Tagine courtesy of our hosts in Dar El Khamlia where we stayed.
The Sahara by evening is fantastic. Our guide led us out from Dar El Khamlia into the vast dunes. The hot sun was falling low in the sky and when we reached our camp it was near dark. Food was served as the dunes surrounded us endlessly for miles while we all drifted off to sleep. In the morning everything lays still in gold tinted shadows and the silence is primal. The sunrise came quick. Looking toward Algeria at 6.10am, its stunningly bright halo peeked up over the horizon; blasting the shadowy dunes with a glimmering red.
Now for some retrospective insights. I would definitely recommend stopping off along this route, as some of these places look intriguing and have an obvious richness in culture. To keep me company during the quiet times, in the late pre-sleeping hours of Agadir, Marrakech and the Sahara, I had a copy of Paul Bowles 'The Sheltering Sky' to immerse myself in.
While 'The Sheltering Sky' tells the story of travel, dark adventure and the limits of the human spirit, it actually depicts a journey into the Algerian Sahara, but is still successful in getting you in the mood for Ksars and Kasbahs across Morocco's Saharan towns; not to mention its epic capturing of the immense atmosphere in the desert dunes.
A beautiful hardback edition of this book has now been issued with other writings by Paul Bowles. And it includes 'Their Heads Are Green', a book I acquired while traveling in Tangier many years back. This book is really worth getting hold of before you embark on a trip into Southern Morocco, as it tells how Paul Bowles set out along the same flank of territory; except to the villages west of Quarzazate where he recorded local musicians. Click on each Bowles book for more on these literary works:
This trip was also a breather and small reward to myself for having finished my first book. The little nonfiction novella 'Summer In The City State - Ceuta To Tangier Through Fortress Europe' is a social documentary narrative of a trip I made from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta through the borders of Fortress Europe, and into the Rif Mountains cities of Northern Morocco. I got the proof copy literally hours before this trip to Morocco. And it was a relief to see it through and to be done with the rewriting and editing of its words. In the end it was a bit like mixing concrete on a hot day :) - a grinding push to get to the end of the job. But Ceuta, Tetouen, Chefchaouan, and Tangier are fantastic places to travel with plenty of stories and characters. This book is something I had to get out into the wild. Hopefully in the next blog post we can explore some of the literary milestones connected with the history of its main obsession - Tangier.
You can read about my trip from Ceuta to Tangier, and meet some of the characters I met, by clicking the book cover below:
Eamonn Sheehy - travel writing with a focus on people and culture.