We were promised sunset in the Sahara is one of the most spectacular sights on earth. So with visions of Omar Sharif riding over the dunes in “Lawrence of Arabia”, we had high expectations.
It was a rather disappointing start to our journey as our 4×4 raced across a characterless landscape of rocks and scrub for several miles with hardly a grain of sand in sight. I wondered how the drivers’ didn´t get lost, with no landmarks and I was glad we managed to keep the vehicle in front within our sights. Just as I was beginning to think the rest of the world was a lifetime away, we finally saw the magnificent Erg Chebbi dunes looming in the background.
Before we reached the dunes, we stopped at a Berber homestead. In the middle of nowhere was a small mud hut and a large tent made from goat and sheep wool. Our guide, Graham, makes a detour on each trip to visit the family and take them fresh fruit; otherwise, in this unforgiving land they would have to walk miles and miles, as almost nothing grows.
Just as dusk was setting, we spotted a twinkling light and as we got closer could see it was a small ‘restaurant’ and camel station. Camels mounted (which were far easier than those in India) a trek into the dunes began. It was surreal, as if we were the only people in the world being surrounded by so much sand.
The sight of the sun setting over the dunes was mesmerizing particularly as the colours changed from lemon to gold to bright orange. The warmth also disappeared the moment the sun went down and there wasn’t a single sound for miles around. The experience was magical.
I’m not quite sure which order the next part of our journey took, the days seemed to run into each other with one sight and experience more wondrous than the last. We were now crossing the High Atlas Mountains along the ‘Road of a 1,000 Kasbahs’ and the views were magnificent. After the flat desert, the dry, dusty mountain roads plunged through canyons and just when you start to think nothing could possibly survive in this land of stark, brown, and red cliffs, out of nowhere appeared a narrow sea of green that stretched as far as the eye could see. Below us, a row of houses and mud castles in a lush green valley, looking wildly out of place in the middle of the desert. So this is what a real oasis looks like, spectacular, rivers, and beautiful palm trees.
We then reached Ouarzazate its name translates to “city without noise”. This dusty Sahara town has immense charm, which is possibly, why it is the film capital of Morocco. In the town centre, opposite the Kasbah Taouirit is the Cinema Museum, at the end of the narrow street is the Atlas Films Studios complete with film sets all made of plywood and plaster and a short distance from town is the wonderful Aït-Ben-Haddou Ksar. This UNESCO site has been the backdrop for several Hollywood blockbusters, including Gladiator, Game of Thrones and Lawrence of Arabia, which means it attracts its fair share of visitors, but well worth a visit.
It is thought the fortified city that rises out of the desert plains was built in 17th Century on the trading route between the Sahara and Marrakech. The crumbling buildings include houses, some still inhabited, mosques and a cemetery. Once across the river you are free to explore the lower level buildings and climb to the top of the hill for a stunning view of the surrounding area.
Our final stop on this part of the journey was the Todra Gorge. In recent years, the gigantic rock walls have attracted climbers but we were happy photographing the spectacular scenery that changes colour throughout the day and admiring the Berber nomads herding their goats through the winding roads.