Keen to see the 'real' Morocco, we left Agadir after only a few days to catch a bus towards the Sahara Desert. Without the 'Lonely Planet' to rely on, we weren't sure exactly what to do and found ourselves at the mercy of the ruthless local bus depot scoundrels!
The moment we jumped out of our taxi, we were quickly ushered to the far end of the station by a shady looking man who kept repeating 'very lucky, the bus leaves in 10 minutes, quickly quickly.' Two hours, forty minutes and a slightly overpriced ticket later, our bus rolled out of the depot.
The town which we spent the night, Ouarzazate, translates to 'without noise' in Berber, the language spoken by the original Moroccans. This desert town also unofficially represents the gateway to the Atlas Mountains, and offered our first glimpse of the original and very hospitable Berber culture and language.
After a few frustrating encounters and unanticipated cultural differences, we were beginning to lose faith in the people of Morocco. Thankfully, Ouarzazate seemed a world away from Agadir, and our opinions were lifted with the overly friendly and obliging hotel staff. To top it off, the next morning a nice Berber man invited us to his place for tea and travel advice. We offered him a few dirham for his help, and he actually refused!
After another crazy bus ride, we eventually arrived in Merzouga by nightfall. Before we had stepped on solid ground, however, we were ambushed with offers of accommodation, left, right and centre. The loudest and most persistent man eventually got our attention with a price that was too good to be true. Tired and disorientated, we followed him down a dark, muddy back street to his hotel. His place was nice and the room even better than we expected. The catch came when we declined a very expensive meal, and proved unwilling to instantly commit to the first desert tour he offered us. All of a sudden the price of the room jumped 200%. After protesting, our room was downgraded three times and the staff became steadily more hostile towards us. We probably shouldn't have expected anything more from a man who insisted that the Arabic word for thankyou, 'shukran', was actually French, and 'merci' simply meant 'hello'... Pretty frustrated at the hotels' dishonesty and ruthlessness we left early the next morning in search of a nicer, more honest place.
This turned out to be a good move as we soon found a nice, comfortable yet modest guesthouse. The owner, Youseff, was really friendly and helped us organise a good overnight camel trek out into the Erg Chebbi dunes of the Sahara. We were due to set off the next morning.
Merzouga is a small village literally metres away from the most incredible desert sand dunes we have ever seen. We had the rest of the day to kill before our trek, so we took off to explore the dunes on foot. After only a few minutes walking, our feet were soon sinking into fine, silky, sunburnt sand. We wandered for a couple of kilometres out to some of the highest of the dunes. While Aidan climbed to the top, Jess watched on as some locals began drumming, dancing and singing down below. The sun was beaming, the sand was warm and we had to keep reminding ourselves that we we're literally wandering through the Sahara Desert!
The weather couldn't have been more perfect as we set off for our trek the next day. We were introduced to our dromedaries (not camels - they only had one hump) who were named Jimmy Hendricks and Bob Marley! Both of them seemed happy and healthy. Jimmy even gave us a big, loud, throaty gurgle to show how excited he was to see us!
We slowly watched the small village disappear as our guide, Mohammed, led us over a huge stretch of rolling red desert sand. The most spectacular Erg Chebbi dunes only stretch 22km north-south and 5km east-west, so before too long we had crossed them and found ourselves walking across a gravelly plain. With Algeria on the horizon, we were still very much in the Sahara, and surrounded by nothing but dust and a few bits of shrubbery.
For lunch we stopped at a small Berber nomad family home. This family were the only ones left in this little isolated, and now deserted, mud-brick village. Their neighbours had left long ago, attracted to the chance of electricity and running water in the cities. They cooked us pizza, Berber style, and shared some tea before we set off again back into the nothingness of the Erg Chebbi dunes.
We stayed the night in a permanent campsite, set-up beneath the trees of an oasis, which was fed by groundwater trickling through the sand. The rest of the tents were empty. It was definitely the low season, and when the sun disappeared and the temperature dropped we could see why. Despite the cold, it was amazing to lay out under the clear star-filled night sky, and listen to nothing but the sound of some distant drum circle..
With an early rise, we climbed half way up one of the biggest sand dunes to watch the sun rise. It was incredible - watching the shadows warp and change, and the colours go from yellow to red to sunburnt orange, as this beautiful landscape was warmed up once again.
Unfortunately, Aidan picked up a little stomach bug somewhere along the way, and after refusing to rest during our desert trek, needed a recovery day in bed when we returned to Merzouga.
Better, but still a little queasy, we are about to board another bus to the Dades Gorge in the Atlas Mountains. We would have stayed longer just to enjoy the desert on our own, but Moroccans don't seem to cope well with our slow traveling style. If we are not on a tour, they assume we want to be, and won't let us relax and just walk around freely. This culture of constant banter might take a bit of getting used to!