Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Colette Holden

Where the road ends and the desert begins, I lose my way. Pillars of cinnamon rock rise from the plain like termite mounds. There is a topaz sky. A single dog, unseen, barks. The air smells of donkey *** and tastes of dust. The wind that the Berbers call the Shergui sends ochre sand trickling between my toes. Tomorrow the sky will turn the colour of old powdered ginger as a sandstorm builds and the desert flings itself at the dwellers of the High Atlas. Unaware of what is to come, I sense the tension rising.

We have driven skywards for four hours, and here is the kasbah of Telouet: roofless corridors of sand, where a stork shields its nest with an angry beak and teenage boys kick a half-deflated football between a single rusty pair of goal posts. A red can, a flicker of blue plastic – these are man’s additions to the landscape, but they are quickly dusted in terracotta sand. Nothing lasts in this high arid land. Here, the wind, and the hard sun, and the rain work their elemental magic. Here, a castle crumbles into the earth in fifty years but the landscape is unchanged for millennia.

Across the valley, there is an orchard of a dozen olive trees. A village of single-storey mud-brick houses is silhouetted in the white mountain sunshine. I hear children’s voices and the echo of the dusk muezzin.

All is layered: The sluggish flow of a brown stream upon turmeric sand upon rosy rock; emerald shoots of barley daring to push through the cracked soil; striped hills, mustard and auburn and khaki, stopped rudely by a charcoal ridge. And then the mountains, a gradually retreating line of snow hinting at the promise of spring.

History too forms its layers here. As the red can rusts and the blue plastic whispers against a juniper shrub, I can almost hear the kasbah crumbling. There are gleaming white bones in this landscape. At night, the souls of aged storytellers, and Glaoui princes, and beautiful black-eyed Berbers, their faces wrapped in magenta and lapis cowls, move in on the breeze.

History here has no meaning. As each layer decays, another is added. The desert encroaches and time retreats. Lost in this labyrinth of sand, I feel as if the ruins are subsuming me. I wait.

The next day it arrives. There is sand behind my eyelids, my teeth crunch and the nib of my pen scratches, like the sound of a match striking. The driver blocks his ears with tissue. The storm blasts west. In the murky yellow light, we drive across a vast terrain. In this land of no landmarks, and in this desert fog, it is impossible to judge distance and speed. We cross what seems to be the immense caldera of a spent volcano. The top is long blown, but the inner walls, maybe tens of miles away, close in on me. This road towards one of the world’s largest expanses of nothing is claustrophobic.

Ouarzazate feels like a border town. Date palms bend furiously, one way and then the other, in the wind. The square towers of a series of stark, squat kasbahs fade into the gloom. I expect to see bundles of tumble weed, bowling like dislodged birds’ nests along the road. The cafes are closed, their windows jammed against the invading sand. A clutch of outside tables wobble. Their rusty metal legs scrape on the gritty pavement. There are few people.

I travel with Ahmed, who has lived all his life in the High Atlas. He is a geologist. He tells me I am lucky to witness this sandstorm: the Shergui has risen in the Sahara and rushed through the peaks of the Atlas at a speed and density he has never seen before.

At night, I dream another pillar of cinnamon rock has dissolved into the earth at Telouet.