If you want to get away from it all, there’s nothing quite like the desolate grandeur of the Sahara, writes Conor McGlone; a Moroccan adventure that leaves lasting impressions.
As we roared through the barren, parched landscape in our dusty four-by-four, a gigantic oasis began to emerge on the horizon.
I thought I could just about make out animals stooping to drink at the palm-fringed lake. I imagined I could see Berbers leading their thirsty camels to the inviting watering-hole.
“Il n’y a pas d’eau,” my driver Abdullah patiently explained. My French is rusty but I was incredulous as I began to make out what he was saying.
There was a vast amount of water there, emphatically shimmering under the haze of the Sahara. But eventually it dawned on me and I gasped out: “mirage”!
Sure enough, as we drew closer, the optical illusion disintegrated before our deceiving eyes.
I suppose I was in a bit of a daze at this point. The largest desert on earth is surprisingly accessible from London and my body had to catch up fast to acclimatise. It seemed inconceivable that a three-hour flight to Marrakesh and an eight-hour bus journey later and here I was at the gateway to this 3.5 million square-mile expanse of desert.
I had met Abdullah in Zagora, a dusty working town with an edge-of the-world allure. Keep going south and past a handful of smaller settlements and you are unlikely to stumble upon much in the way of civilisation for thousands of miles.
During the four-hour drive to the Sahara-proper, as the tarmac surfaced roads gave way to dirt tracks, which themselves gave way to nothing – just sand, I couldn’t help noticing that Abdullah was mechanically popping pills at regular intervals. Now Abdullah was not a thin man. His breathing was laborious, irregular and it did make me wonder.
Abdullah had a jovial Sancho Panza charm. “I speak four languages”, he told me pompously: “Arabic, Arabic-French, French and Berber”. No English unfortunately but we made do.
If he was Sancho, I thought, as we pulled up at the last of the trading posts before the sand dunes, I was undoubtedly the deluded knight-errant, saddling up for a far-fetched, quixotic adventure in a suitably surreal setting.
We stopped for a moment to talk, though a mixture of hand gestures and wayward translations, to a toothless nomad herding goats. The weather was good he told us. It had actually rained the night before, which was a once in a blue moon occurrence around these parts.
Now the drive became a whole different ball game.
Abdullah revved up the engine in first gear and we began to drift through the sand hypnotically and noisily. Abdullah clearly wanted a rest so he let me take the wheel after a while, warning me to give it plenty of gas. As I drove, he would indicate with the wave of a hand what direction I should go in. This was impressive given there are no road signs out here and no discernible landmarks. It is just dust and sand.
This was when Abdullah’s health gave me pause for thought. What if those magic pills were to stop having their desired effect? Yes, I could drive the Toyota but I’d be pretty stuck out here without my guide. There’s no phone signal, I thought, hurriedly making a mental calculation of how much water we had on board.
But my nightmarish reverie was broken when Abdullah excitedly whispered the words ‘Erg Chigaga’, as if it were a forbidden incantation.
The fantastical dunes of Erg Chigaga are a storybook sight. Think Lawrence of Arabia or The English Patient. Pristine hills of sand roll towards the horizon each ridge steeper, more demanding than the one before as the sun beats down its glare unmercifully.
As I sat astride Salim, my camel, for an hour it was the sheer tranquillity of the place that struck me.
The only sounds were the whistling of the wind as it reverberated through the perfectly sculptured dunes and the soft crunch of sand as my Berber guide walked in front, lovingly coaxing his beast along.
There is something tragically beautiful about the vastness, the deathly quiet, of a land that has been overcome by the inexorable ravages of time. It feels like the same fate is awaiting the rest of the planet. But it’s also peaceful, like a vacuum, a place where worldly worries are left at the door.
The sun drops like a flash in the desert. Having powered up to the tallest ridge I could find, I had the privilege of witnessing the extraordinary golden colours of my first Saharan sunset.
Then, as quickly as the flick of a switch, a bitterly cold night fell and the stars were lighting up the sky in a blazing cosmic tapestry. Constellations are clear here. Their vividness makes these distant suns seem closer, more tangible.
As my fellow travellers and I lay around the campfire, the flames licking and dancing to the Berbers’ hypnotic djembe rhythms, staring up at the big dipper and tracing the patterns of stars in our minds eyes, conversations naturally took on a philosophical tone.
In the Sahara you feel so distant from everyone but also so close to nature and maybe, to yourself. It’s a pleasantly uncomfortable feeling. Somehow you feel that if you could stay out here the universe would reveal its secrets and that these secrets would be too true to fully comprehend.
I took these thoughts to my ‘tent’ as I turned in for the night. Dwellings at the camp are luxurious and reminiscent more of Kingly pavilions than crude bivouacs and, complete with electricity and hot running water, somewhat of an accomplishment out here in the most inhospitable of terrains. My three-course dinner surpassed any reasonable expectations – it wouldn’t have been out of place in an upmarket French restaurant.
I slept well that night, crooned to sleep by the howling Saharan winds.
On the drive back a shimmering surface became visible in the distance.
“Mirage!” I cried out knowingly.
Exasperated, Abdullah groaned: “Non, c’est l’eau!”
Sure enough, there it was – I got out to make sure – a little stream rippling through the sand, rationing out its precious water to a thirsty land.
It was just as well I hadn’t been stuck out here alone, I concluded. I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes.
Conor used the tour company Amazing Journeys Morocco (www.amazing-morocco.com) it cost €180 to stay for one night the Atta Desert Camp including 4×4 transport from Zagora, dinner and a one hour camel ride