Ouarzazate, the door of the desert, is located where two rivers unite to the Draa, Morocco’s longest river. This is where our meticulously prepared escapade departs. “It will be exciting and a tad adventurous,” promises the leaflet, “combining long dusty roads and national ones, sandy dunes and lany ways along the high Atlas mountains, there will be stops in plush local hotels, cultural tours and most of all it will offer a superb group experience”.
WHETHER YOU DECIDE to opt for the four, five or six day break (or even for the made-to-measure version), it is here in Ouarzazate caliente that you will pick up your car, a four-wheeled machine which looks dented enough to be taken seriously. An army of fresh water bottles, cheches and a box of local delicacies have been placed at the back of the car while a map of the area is gently waiting in the front door compartment.
The first cultural stop: Studio de l’Atlas Corporation. A local guide unveils the old film studios where The Man Who Would Be King by John Huston, The Sheltering Sky by Bernardo Bertolucci or more recently Werner Herzog’s biopic on British adventurer Gertrude Bell, were all shot.
BACK IN OUR CARS, our newly formed teams blissfully hit the roads, to discover one after the other, the different stages of our trip; slowly we strut along Taourirt Kasbah and the Mansour flood barrier before we eventually stop for a well-deserved pause at Chez Yacob… lamb or chicken skewers with freshly made bowls of mixed vegetables make ourselves ready to head out to the little town of Agdz, located right through the old Marrakech to Timbuktu caravan road. We’ll eventually finish in the little city of Zagora: it is here, at Azalai Lodge and its most refined lodges decorated like an old English country club, that the six girl group that we are, driving three separate cars, come to realise how amazing our first day trip has already been.
WITH A FEW SUN burns on our noses, a large platter of fresh fruits and other local delights happily swallowed with a cup of tea, our venture makes an early start on the day after to drive towards Amezrou where an old Jewish Kasbah, today deserted, still stands proudly. After the visit, once again directed by a local guide, and a large lunch at the local hotel’s restaurant, our procession leaves the tarmac to flirt (at last!) with the sand of the Sahara in the erg of Chegaga.
IF THE FIRST kilometres were the right appetizer to enter Morocco and its beautifully tormented landscape, this part is the dive-in process. This is really where the journey starts, or so it is for me…. Our own boundary markers and bearings will go off. This is nature in its driest and yet most delicate form. This is the desert and to make the feeling last longer, we are invited to settle in our private white canvas tents, which have been scattered in-between dunes for us to spend the night in. A caravan of camels carrying our luggage suddenly appears, weaving its way on the top of the dune ridges. And like the perfect day that it is, the evening finishes around a large banquet, laid with silver and porcelain crockery, lying by a large crackling blaze.
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AFTER A FRESH NIGHT, tucked under thick and warm covers, our group departs at sunrise to pursue its quest through the torrid sky of Morocco. On that third day, we reach Iriki Lake to learn (and forcefully demonstrate) our respective ability in handling those elegant but sketchy sandy dunes. From here, we move on to see the Foum Zguid palm grove, in the small city of Tazenakht, where beautiful hand-woven carpets are made, to finally end our day in the seductive Riad Caravane in the beautiful village of Aït Benhaddou.
AND THEN COMES, all too early or so it seems, the last stretch to Marrakech, with roads nonetheless full of surprises and beauties. It comes in the form of the Salt Road, where we stop to learn more about an intriguing history; the Pacha Glaoui and his palace today renovated, the stories about Ounila valley and its numerous villages all nested around and last, the Telouet Kasbah, which ends our journey through a dramatic scenery, before hitting again the asphalt of modern civilisation. After a short drive and heavy traffic, we finally reach the sleepless city of Marrakech.
After our 1200 km epic journey, one could have felt rather strained. But in fact the exact opposite occurs. Aroused by so much beauty, our little gang agrees to meet shortly after arrival at the hotel, leaving us just enough time for a swim in the hotel pool and to get ready for a girl’s night out! And so we go to the hip Jad Mahal club where we are served fabulous cocktails and exquisite new Moroccan food.
A band of adventurers, just a few hours earlier, has now transformed into stylish city clubbers; we laugh, eat and drink… before heading home a few hours later – or is it morning already?
Back to Marrakesh international airport, proudly bearing a fair tan on our faces, bringing a few magic memories back to our home city of Paris, with at the bottom of our pockets, some grains of sand from the Sahara desert.
The big plus: an escort car leads the group, in it, a guide who takes the rally from one point to another, providing the drivers with cultural and geographical insights and with him, a mechanic-driver who deals with potential practical and car-related problems.
Sounds cool? Check out:
Desert & the City, www.desert-and-the-city.com
Azalai Lodge désert, www.azalaidesertlodge.fr
Riad Caravane, www.riad-caravane.com
Es Saadi hotel, www.essaadi.com
Jad Mahal, www.jad-mahal.com