Escape to the Desert - Marrakech to Zagora
Marrakech is a vibrant city; it’s intense, exotic, colourful and chaotic all at the same time. The city is a feast for the senses, filled with culture, souks, delicious food and beautiful architecture.
The famous Djemaa el-Fna square is enthralling and vibrant, but no one ever tells you that this intense and exhilarating city of Marrakech can become overwhelming. From the hagglers and shouting juice sellers by day to the snake charmers and acrobats by night, they had me plotting my escape to a place where there were no souks, no aromas rising like the heat from the blazing sun, and no hawkers.
A place where the only sound you hear is the wind as it blows over the golden sand, your shadow dancing along on the endless sand..
That’s where I would go to find solitude
After spending time in the intoxicating and striking Marrakech, I arranged a Marrakech to Zagora two days/one-night desert tour with authentic-tours-marrakech.com.
There was is no way I could travel to Marrakech without visiting the Atlas Mountains and the desert.
Day 1: Marrakech - Ait Benhaddou - Ouarzazate - Draa Valley - Zagora Dunes
We were picked-up early from our hotel by a Moroccan tour guide. We went in an SUV, so for two people, it definitely had more than enough room. Our guide, Fatah, though born in Morocco, could speak fluent English, French and Arabic.
Fatah said his mother was from the Sahara desert, and as we drove, he shared the story of how she found him his wife in a hammam. After seeing her and asking the older women in the hammam if she would make a good wife for her son, Fatah’s mother arranged a meeting and that was the first time Fatah laid eyes on his future wife.
Fatah proclaimed that she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen, having only seen her for the second time on their wedding day.
A hamman is a type of steam room, like a Turkish bath, where Moroccans go to cleanse themselves.
It is an important part of Moroccan life and culture. Men, women and children visit their local hamman at least once a week, spending time to catch up on gossip with friends. And after the long cleansing rituals practiced in the hamman, they had glowing skins to show for it.
Fatah said there were different tours the company ran, that travelling further into the desert takes him away from his family anywhere from two to seven days at a time.
We were to navigate the High Atlas Mountains via the Tizi n'Tichka towards Ait Benhaddou, the fortified ksar with its beautiful Kasbahs. These roads were dotted with spectacular terrains and varied landscapes.
As we travelled further towards the desert, the vegetation varied from pine trees to thorny bushes and the colour of the hills changed from muddy brown to orange.
The further we drove towards Ait Benhaddou, the lesser cars there were on the road. At one point, ours was the only car for miles, driving over what once seemed to be a large river but was now rocky, dry brown earth with no sign of life.
Ait Benhaddou has served as a natural backdrop since the 1960s for many movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Prince of Persia, The Mummy, Gladiator and parts of Game of Thrones.
Ait Benhaddou’s fortified structure provides a dramatic setting for movies, thanks to the desert landscapes surrounding it. It depicts the perfect environment for sandstorms, scorched earth and isolation.
The heat of the sun overhead and the occasional rustling of dry thorny brushes stirred by the desert wind are the only form of life. It’s nature in perfection; you get the feeling of being on set for one of those movies filmed at Ait Benhaddou.
Arriving at the ksar of Ait Benhaddou (UNESCO world heritage site), we stopped to walk up the quiet and winding hill and explore the pre-Saharan habitats as we walked back through time. The view of the ksar was even more striking from the hilltop and offered a complete panorama of the earthen dwelling below.
Afterwards, we headed to the city of Ouarzazate (known as the doorway to the desert).
We travelled south and across the second pass - Tizi N'Tnifift and Ait Saoun village, the former route of caravans for Sahara traders coming from "Tombouktou" - and arrived at "Agdez Village". This village marks the source of Draa Valley, with its 6 successive palm groves.
After seeing only mountains with varying shades of brown, red and orange, to suddenly be surrounded by green palm trees in the Draa Valley might have you thinking you just stepped into a heavenly garden.
The palm trees stretched along the river valley, and the scent of orange and jasmine from the fruit trees lingered in the air as we drove, with the bare mountains on either side of the valley.
We continued through the lunar landscape until we arrived at Zagora, a small town and the native region of the Saadian dynasty (Saadian tombs in Marrakech), who ruled Morocco in the XVII century.
We arrived at the camel trek and rode the camels at sunset to the camp, led by our guide. No one tells you that riding a camel for the first time will be uncomfortable. It took three attempts before getting on my camel, but it was worth the struggle to look around and see only the golden sands of the desert and the sunset. I watched as my shadow and that of my camel danced along to the beat of the desert undisturbed until we arrived at our tents.
The thing I noticed most about the desert was the stillness; the absolute silence of nothing. Even during dinner in the dunes, sitting around a fire and listening to stories of the Sahara people told by our guide, there was a hushed quality about the atmosphere. Despite millions of visible stars, even the skies seemed still, and any sound that disturbed this desert stillness faded quickly. Our home for the night were nomadic tents.
Day 2: Zagora Dunes - Agdez - High Atlas & Tichka - Marrakech
We rose early to catch sunrise over the dunes and watch the play of shadows across the sand, like children playing a game of chase.
This was followed by breakfast in a bivouac (temporary camp) of Zagora. We rode back on camels to meet our driver, and then drove back to Marrakech, via Ouarzazate where we had lunch in a local restaurant serving traditional Moroccan food. Next door had a small shop with women pressing argan nuts by hand to make Moroccan Argan oil for sale. Argan oil is used in many hair and beauty products, as you may already know.
After, the shopping spree, we continued via the Atlas Mountains to get back to Marrakech.
Leaving the peace and stillness of the desert to return to the noise and bustle of Marrakech, which seemed even louder than before, made me want to turn and run back into the desert.
Whenever I think of Marrakech, it is this side I see in my mind’s eye: the oasis, the palms, the solitude, the desert.
All photos by @thewanderingjam