As soon as I booked a ticket to Marrakech, I planned on taking an excursion into the Sahara Desert. I did extensive research on the timeframe and cost, thinking I would have to secure a reservation, but now I know it is best to show up without a spot in advance. Unless are you rich enough to afford the inauthentic experience of trekking to the desert with porters, showers in industrial-strength tents, and the absence of any inconveniences, then you will get the identical experience as everyone else. Street touts and every riad can refer you to an excursion company, but it seemed to me that they all funnel to the same group of drivers and tourists traps along the way. I received quotes as high as €500. In hindsight, I know how asinine this price is because you can just show up to Marrakech and easily secure a price of €80 for the standard 3-day, 2-night affair.

There is also a 2-day version, but most people who have done this say this was not worthwhile because you do not see the classic desert landscapes. The Sahara Desert is the hottest in the world. It spans 11 countries, but several of them are scary to tour, so Marrakech may be one’s best launching point. I lived in Las Vegas for more than six years, but that desert does not contain any dunes. Huge swathes of wind-blown sand are known as ergs and only exist in the Sahara Desert and a few extraterrestrial bodies, such as Venus and Mars.

When I originally paid for the tour, a man who claimed to work for the riad came in and took my €80 and said to be ready by 7:30 am the following morning. I did not receive a receipt or too many other details. On the morning of the supposed departure, the thought crossed my mind that somehow I was scammed, but sure enough, another guy came and took me to this gathering point of transports.

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I was watching the drivers and a few other men organize which tourists go into which van. It seemed utterly unorganized. In the end, I don’t think it mattered much because we ended up seeing the same groups of people at various stops. My van included the driver, me, a Casablancan husband-and-wife (in their 40s) with a 6-year-old girl, two French couples, a couple from Barcelona (including a guy named Jesus whom we called Iker Casillas to his facial resemblance), and a couple consisting of an Austrian ski instructor (Berhard) and a Danish nurse (Maya). The oldest person out of all the European couples was 30 years old.

 

In a straight line, the destination was less than 400 kilometers from Marrakech, but I spent nearly a full 24 hours in that van over a trip that lasted 75 hours from start to finish. If I were to make a similar trip again, I could be a hero by bringing a bottle of rum. The roads are of poor quality. For long stretches, the road was wide enough for only one vehicle so every time a car came from the opposite direction, both automobiles would have to slow down, and one would have to veer off the road. That maneuver repeated many times will kill the average speed. In addition, there are the usual sheep, camels, horses, donkeys, and feral cats and dogs to avoid. As in many third-world countries, use of headlights and reflective tape is minimal or nonexistent. Driving as the light faded was so treacherous. Sidewalks do not exist, so the pedestrians simply walk on the road.

I need to comment about the driver. His negligence and skills are probably typical of many in Marrakech. His phones rang at least 100 times during the trip. During one hour, it must have rang 20 times. Its annoying ring tone was set at the highest volume and had a faint resemblance to a Black Keys’ song. I sat in the front seat the entire trip because I wanted the best view and thought that position would mitigate any motion sickness from the windy passages. Toward the end of the first night, I saw him produce his iPhone and put earbuds into his ears! Then, he spent much of his time staring into the device in his lap, as he was scanning for the latest Moroccan hits. I did not say anything for fear of incurring his wrath the rest of the way. Don’t forget the absence of road lighting and tons of rain, sheep, pedestrians on a narrow road. At times, he had a phone in each hand. This van was a manual transmission that required frequent shifting. When he regularly had a phone in his left hand, he continued to shift with his right hand and crouched down and maneuvered the steering wheel with his left elbow.

We drove through sparsely inhabited areas. I often though what people are doing out here. How could they not want to live elsewhere?

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This first stop at Ksar d’Aït Ben Haddou was 150 kilometers southeast of Marrakech.

 

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Ksar d’Aït Ben Haddou, a UNES CO World Heritage Site that I had wanted to tour. This area is a popular film location. We ate lunch here, and I immediately noticed that the prices were more than twice as high. All the lunches at these frequent rest stops are homogeneous and over-priced. Per the Morocco way of doing business, I suspect that the drivers or tour operators received a kickback from bringing tourists to their establishments.

 

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This is actually a dry river. The water flows only during the wintertime. The bridge is 150 meters away.

 

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I slept the first night in a hostel in the Dadès Gorges. This area is between the Atlas Mountains and the Jbel Saghro. I don’t know what the elevation was, but we were up there. These mountain passes were quite scenic, but unlike in America, there were no guardrails! I remember thinking at a few points, peering over the edge, that we might have a chance of surviving if we fell over the cliff. Also, it started to rain, making the driving quite treacherous. I definitely felt some nervousness and was caught between admiring the natural beauty and perhaps trying to fall asleep so as not to think about potential catastrophe.

 

All these tours will say breakfast and dinner is included, along with accommodations, but these are at subsistence levels. They were worse than I had expected, but we got used to it. My first night was spent with one of the other drivers along with a chileno student studying in Lyon, France.

The following day, we continued the drive with the routine stops for urinating, smoking, and eating. I got more friendly with my group. I enjoyed this group because I got to use français and español often, as only a few people spoke passable English. The rain started coming down hard. It was quite a joke really. I didn’t mind, as I enjoy the elements and don’t need every experience to be framed in perfect weather. I was more incredulous than disappointed. Check the video out for how hard it is raining. We could not cross that river, so we had to go north to find a passable route.

These roads are not built to first-world standards. I noticed that even the concavity of the roads did not allow for water to run off easily. Drainage was absent too, although you could not blame a poor area for building drainage in the desert!

This rain was all over the news. After I returned from the trip, I talked with the guy who I bought my trip from. I had expected that rain in the Sahara Desert was one of those weird-but-true facts. It is not. There are parts of the Sahara Desert that do not receive any precipitation for decades! Our trip had to take a detour that added hours. He said that the last time tours had to be cancelled or diverted was 1995.

As of this writing, this rain caused the closure of 100 roads in Morocco. Tragically, the flash flooding has claimed at least 32 lives.

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Almost always, there is not even a drop of water here.

 

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Eventually, we got to Merzouga, the last semblance of civilization before the Sahara Desert. Although it was only a little after 17:00, it was incredibly dark since there was almost no lighting. The Berber guides rushed us onto camels, jesting, “The camels do not have headlights. Hurry!” I have never been on a horse, but I can now say I rode a camel. The tour says two hours of camel riding, but it is more like 70 minutes. The ride is simply to and from your camp. You can see other camps nestled at the low points in between the dunes.

The camel is quite tall. It has long steps, so there feels like a real risk of falling when it lurches forward going downhill. I could not take any pictures because I had a death grip onto the metal handles with both hands. It’s hard to explain how weird it was riding a camel in near pitch blackness in the Sahara Desert while it was raining. While I was quite soggy, the experience was tranquil and extraordinary.

 

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It takes a long time to get here. One has to handle long road trips well. This one was windy, climbed and descended substantial elevation, and encountered flash flooding and ridiculous rain in some of the driest areas on Earth. Since we arrived at dark, I could only see the contours of the hilly dunes while we were traveling via camel. The group of us chatted about travel, including the most favorite destination (Sydney, Japan, Paris were among the responses). The Europeans lamented how they had only four to five week of vacation annually, depending on their country. We passed around a couple of joints of hashish and went to bed at 22:30.

I knew that the following morning would be a sweet sight. One of the natives woke us up at 6:30, and I rushed to see the landscape. Unfortunately, due to the rain, the sky was as cloudy as could be and there was no classic desert sky. If you go to Marrakech, you must budget the time for this trip. The €80 price is a bargain.

 

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These dunes can get more than 150 meters high. I climbed one of them, and I felt safe knowing a fall would be pillowy. It’s awesome to think that the wind can pile sand this high in random locations.

 

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This is that classic pattern you see on a default computer desktop background option. They can be more striking if you spend another day or two going deeper into the Sahara Desert.