We had to wake up at 345am (vomit, when am I going to get a full nights sleep on this “holiday”??) to catch the bus to Rissani. We showed up at the near empty bus station and asked someone, “Rissani”. They dashed out into the parking lot and stopped a bus that was about to pull away shouting “autre personne! autre personne!”. We followed along, bewildered. It was 450am and our bus wasn’t meant to depart until 530am. The young Moroccan man in a white turban and black leather jacket (a far cry from the middle-aged man in uniform with a kind smile that ran Supratours) took our tickets, charged us an extra 10dh just to STORE our lugguge underneath (there wasn’t any registration for luggage), and then casually informed us the bus would take us to Erfoud. Erfoud??? What about Rissani? Where is Erfoud?? He told us Erfoud was just 20 minutes north of Rissani, but even still, not what we had been told when handing our precious dirham over to the young un-uniformed man the day previous. It was 5am though, and still dark outside, and we HAD to get to the desert (which was at least 8 hours of travel) by 3pm for our already booked camel trek. We didn’t really see another option. We boarded the bus.
The bus was scattered with a handful of single local men, eyes peaking over the seat at us as we looked for the most secluded empty spots. We immediately put on our hijabs to cover up as much as possible. The seats were old and fabric was ripped and worn. This was one of those great moments when traveling when everything inside you is screaming “GET OFF THE BUS! WHO KNOWS WHERE YOU’LL END UP! SOMETHING ISN’T RIGHT!” but there is no other available option, so you take your chances and chalk up your hesitancy to simply cultural differences. We sat in the darkness of the early morning in complete silence, periodically glancing at each other in hopes of reassurance, as the bus rattled along the roads taking us, hopefully, to Erfoud.
About 7 hours later, the bus pulled up and the driver yelled “Erfoud”. Thank goodness. We weren’t sure if we would ever make it and couldn’t understand what the driver yelled at each stop, so we couldn’t even reference our map to confirm we were on the right route. We raced past the locals and filled the bus (now a mix of women in hijabs with children on their laps and a few men, but no tourists) and dashed to the luggage storage on the opposite side of the bus to see if our luggage had made it along with us, partially expecting to wind up stranded with no clothes in a town we’d never heard of, but our faith was restored when they pulled the heavy bags from below and mounted them onto our backs.
As the bus pulled away, we realized we had not been dropped at a central bus station, just along the side of the road, somewhere in Erfoud, making it difficult to place ourselves on my Lonely Planet map. A tall, thin local man in his twenties or thirties approached us and smiled with a mouthful of rotting teeth and began to offer us information on getting to Rissani and from there, Merzouga. Another young local pulled up in a shiney silver SUV offering us a camel trek with him. When we informed him we alraedy had one booked and simply needed a grande taxi or bus to Merzouga, he offered a ride to the Erfoud grande taxi station. Although we knew there was a great possibility he wasone of all the kind-hearted Moroccans that most of them are (Moroccans are actually overwhelmingly kind and hospitable), we thought on the chance he wasn’t, the risk of jumping into a personal vehicle of a complete stranger in a foreign country was just too great. The initial young turbaned man we had been talking to lead us to the next street where we could get a “bush taxi” to Rissani (only a 20 min ride) for only 10dh. A “bush taxi” is essentially an old, tattered, nearly completely broken down 14-seater van packed with 20+ people – all locals. Men on the right. Women and children on the left. Women mostly looked down or at the babies on their laps and then men, usually missing a good number of teeth, looked at us and smiled. Our hijabs were firmly in place and we wore full linen pants and long sleeves – in heat that begged us to remove our sweaters. But we foudn that as we moved further out into the smaller towns of the country, dress became more and more traditional. Where in Marrakech you could comfortably walk about in a sleeveless shirt and capris, here it felt awkward.
After surviving the near flight of that packed, sweaty, little van (it drove sooooo fast and tailed everyone, nearly touching the bumper of the cars ahead) down the dusty, desert highway, we were, once again, dropped ont he side of the road in what we believed to be Rissani. Once again, before we had time to get our bearings, we were approached by some locals sitting across the street who offered to flag us a grande taxi that would take us the next 45 minutes to Merzouga. We were told 12dh was the going rate. The first taxi that stopped offered us the ride for 10dh, so we climbed in. The driver made a quick stop for me to use the toilette before we left town. He pulled into a restaurant and I went inside and waited patiently for the occupied stall to empty. A local man in the restaurant saw me waiting and lead me into a door next to the restaurant to use the toilet there – his own home! Grateful for my now empty bladder, I offered him some dirham for his hospitality, but he refused it. So kind. Coming back out to the taxi, I found poor Shai cornered by the driver who was launching his agressive sales pitch for his own camel trek. We assured him we had our own booked and simply needed a ride to Merzouga. Then he changed his fee from 10dh to 300dh! We laughed and simply removed our bags from his trunk and walked towards the line up of grande taxis nearby. The driver shouted after us something about us breaking his door – a fast attempt at getting some money out of us – but knowing we had done nothing of the sort, we kept walking. He just grunted and drove off. So I guess some are hustlers, and some are kind hearts.
Anyway, only minutes later we had another taxi lined up that was waiting for two more people to fill up the car for the 12dh/person ride. We welcomed the wait and munched on some cookies from a local nearby shop (where 14yr old local boys flirted and laughed and attempted conversation with me in broken English) and a glass of fresh orange juice from the stand next to us. As time passed on and the hot sun beamed down on us resting on the curb, we decided to pay the extra 2 seats ( a very costly $2.50) and hit the road in the interest of time.
We pulled into the lovely Riad Nezha and Jody and Rob came out from the grandious gates with big hugs. The lead us inside where we unloaded our bags and we all went up to the rooftop terrace, with spectacular views of the Sahara, and had a big lunch of kafta tangine, diced vegetable salad and yogurt for dessert. We relaxed in the sun and traded hilarious stories of the bus trips that got us there. They had arrived a few days earlier and had spent their time dune boarding, mountain biking and touring for minerals and fossils. The Riad Nezha is owned by a man named Brahim who personally took them out each day on these excursions. He gave them rides anywhere they needed to go and made sure they always had an exciting itinerary for the day. All the staff at the Riad were friendly and personable. It was small enough that they easily remembered you once you had checked in. The Riad was absolutely stunning, and we were easily convinced to book the next night (after our camel trek) with them. We were looking forward to a stay that included a massive dinner, massive breakfast, private room and a hot shower. Such luxury.
At 4pm, Hassan, the tour coordinator, arrived to take us on our trek. We were brought to another local hotel called Nasser Palace where we met our guide – an older man in a traditional blue and yellow gown witha wide grin and a funnny sense of humor. We picked up a few bottles of wine from the hotel bar and were lead outside to meet our camels.
I named mine Sophie – after our friend from London who was supposed to be there with us but had something work-related come up at the last minute and couldn’t make it. Wanted her to be there with us in some way, shape or form! We mounted them one by one (yes, I know, that’s what she said, haha) and clasped tight to the saddle handles as they jerked to a stand. And with us all on and ready, our guide lead us on foot into the desert towards the bright orange dunes of the Sahara.
I don’t really know how to capture the experience in writing. The camels walked slowly and without too many dips and jerks so we spent most of the 2 hour trek marvelling at the incredible views as we got further and further into the dunes and taking zillions of photos. The photos are really the best way to share the experience I think. But trust me when I tell you, it was absolutely magical. It is precisely as you imagine it to be – The Sahara. In postcards, movies, books.
We turned around a large dune and below was an area set up with Berber camps. The guide took the camels down to the camp and told us to climb the dune to watch the sunset. Shai and I made it most of the way up, but it was extremely difficult with my head cold and hacking lungs. Jody and Rob made it to the top though. We sat in the sand and watched the sun go down in the Sahara.
Our foursome and another foursome met up at our camp and opened a bottle of wine. The guides served us… take a guess… tangine and bread! We sat around a low table, cross-legged on the cushions. After dinner was finished, our tour coordinator, Hassan, took us to another camp nearby where all the local guides had formed a drum circle. We sat around with a group of ridiculously drunk middle-aged Italians and danced and watched and drank the second bottle of wine. They taught us how to play the bongos and at one point, Jody and I sang Bohemian Rhapsody a capella, haha! We watched the field of stars above us, completely clear in the black sky. No lights. No cars. No civilization. It was so isolated. So silent. (Aside from the drumming I suppose.)
We woke the following morning around 5am (yay, a whole 3 hours rest! no wonder I still have this freakin cold) and mounted our camels, still half asleep. I think Jody’s camel, the one at the back of the group, was also still half asleep as it let itself be dragged along by the mouth rather than keep up pace. We had to get back before the sun got too hot. The morning was a bit windier and the sand blew across our faces. We wore turbans to shield ourselves a bit. After our 2 hour ride the previous day, our “bottoms” were bruised and sore, so the ride home was much more painful, but again, the most spectacular views. The most spectacular experience. Bruised bottom and all. We arrived back to Nasser Palace and were served breakfast by the pool. Then back to the Riad for a lovely 4 hour nap.
It was potentially our last night together and after the long hot trek we’d been on, we all agreed a cold beer would be unbelievably satisfying. The owner of the Riad informed us that there was only one hotel in town that sold alcohol (being that it was a small, traditional Muslim town, a religion that forbids drinking). We walked down the main road, following the directions: turn left and head towards the BIG sand dune. Haha, no street names or anything, just find the BIG sand dune. We sat in the hotel courtyard and polished off a few cold Heineken and took a flat of “Stork” (the local beer that sold for 15dh/can) back with us in clear plastic bags. As we walked down the road, a group of local boys on bikes noticed the cans and followed alongside us, giggling and joking with us, asking for some, trying to convince us they were 20 when they were clearly no older than 14. We spent the evening having beer and a delicious (yep, you guessed it) tangine and couscous dinner in the Riad restaurant. Turns out we over-estimated ourselves and ended up with 12 leftover beers to lug around with us as we traveled back across the country the following day. Sigh. Life is hard, hey?