A Perfect Surprise in the Sahara Desert
My arrival in Jemaa el-fna was disorienting and full of hustle and bustle. Right after adhan, led by a hostel employee, I walked across the open space in the middle of the Marrakech’s medina towards the hostel where I’d be staying. The first thing I noticed was the liveliness of it. Post-prayer time, in the hazy twilight between day and night, people started to flood the medina. Mothers and kids walking about, groups of men playing drums, fruit sellers yelling at each other, and the night food stalls that had begun to appear.
The second thing I noticed was the number of travel agency touts swarming my vision along the way. Being Asian with oriental features rendered me an easy target. They were taunting me to book the three-day excursion to Merzouga: “Miss, Miss, camels, desert trip, only three days, Miss, Miss…” as if without riding camels, without visiting the Berbers, and without sleeping in the Sahara, you’d might as well not go to Morocco at all.
It hadn’t crossed my mind before, but once I was there, it made perfect sense. After a few discussions with the hostel employees, I decided to book the Merzouga desert three-day excursion through the hostel.
We knew we had to start bonding because we were going to be seeing a lot of each other for the next three days.
The plan was to go to Tishka Pass, the highest point in the High Atlas Mountain, then Kasbah Ait Benhaddou, followed by an overnight stay at Dades Gorge. The next day we’d go to a Berber village near Todra Gorge, and finally the climax of the excursion: staying overnight in the Sahara desert under the stars. It’d be the ultimate Moroccan experience. I began to imagine riding a camel, dancing and laughing by the fire with fellow travelers, and lying under millions of stars sparkling in the night sky, something I’d surely remember for the rest of my life.
When the highly anticipated three-day Sahara excursion finally came, a minibus loaded with 12 people from other hostels picked me up around 9 AM. The atmosphere in the minibus reminded of first day of school: reserved, formal, and wary. We knew we had to start bonding because we were going to be seeing a lot of each other for the next three days. But no one dared to speak first, to break the ice.
After two hours of driving, we finally arrived at a pit stop at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. The line-up for the washroom afforded us the perfect opportunity to start introducing ourselves. Soon after, we hopped back into the bus and starting bonding. There was Maria from Chile; Charlie, Matthew, and Tom from the Midwest; couples from Japan and Quebec; a girl from New York… We all started chattering away, playing guessing games and charades as if we were old friends. Three hours flew quickly until we arrived at the highest point of Atlas mountain.
The rain had stopped, the sun peeked from behind the clouds, and all I could see all the way to the horizon was sand.
Later, we continued our journey down the mountain, and as soon as we had finished exploring Kasbah Ait Benhaddou, it started to rain heavily. Driving through the mountainous passage in the rain was no easy feat, as there was barely space for a two-way lane, yet our driver skillfully mastered the curves and hills until we arrived at a modest hotel in Dades Gorge, where we stayed overnight.
The next morning, the rain came back to greet us. Despite this, as soon as we reconvened in the minibus, there was a buzz, a fervour about us. We were all ready for the day knowing we would be sleeping under the stars in the Sahara Desert that night. Our stop that day was a Berber village, where we learned how Berber people live and how Berber rugs are made. Potholes were filled with puddles, and stone steps turned into slippery clay as we hopped back into the bus. Feeling exhausted from avoiding the rain, I fell asleep instantly.
When we arrived in Merzouga, the rain had stopped, the sun peeked from behind the clouds, and all I could see all the way to the horizon was sand. Lots of sand and dry bushes. I heard squeals from my bus mates at the sight of camels, which had been lined up, ready for us.
When the wind blew, the sand were hoisted up and swayed in unison as if it was carefully orchestrated. The scenery was menacing and beautiful at the same time. Bright orange sand against dark cloudy sky.
Throughout the hour-long camel ride, dark clouds rolled over us and the wind started to pick up. Sand blew dangerously close to my eyes. As I had learned from the locals in Marrakech and Kasbah Ait Benhaddou, I tied a scarf around my mouth so the sand wouldn’t get in. One single thought crossed my mind, and perhaps everyone else’s too: “Would it rain in the Sahara?”
Everywhere we looked there were sand dunes. When the wind blew, the sand were hoisted up and swayed in unison as if it was carefully orchestrated. The scenery was menacing and beautiful at the same time. Bright orange sand against dark cloudy sky. It looked nothing like the pamphlets the promoters had shown me, nothing like what Google Images had promised.
At the campsite, we settled in and had our dinner. Then we went outside to enjoy the fire that had been set up by the Berbers. As soon as I stepped out, the feeling of isolation creeped up on me, as I knew there was no civilization in sight and the dark grey sky above us offered no consolation. Slowly, I felt drops of rain.
It rained in the Sahara.
Half of the Sahara receives less than an inch of rain per year, and the rest receives up to four inches per year. But on the day we had been anticipating, it rained heavily.
There were landslides in the mountains because of the unusual amount of rain. As a result, our drive back would potentially be twenty hours instead of ten. The minibus driver would force each of us to pay an extra 50 dirham to drive us back–or else.
We were all forced to go back into the camp and enjoyed our night in with impromptu drumming and singing that turned into a party. At about one in the morning, exhaustion crept in and soon we all were down on our mattresses. Accompanied by the sound of raindrops falling on the tarp, we drifted off to sleep.
Later in the morning, we were to learn that there were landslides in the mountains because of the unusual amount of rain. As a result, our drive back would potentially be twenty hours instead of ten. The minibus driver would force each of us to pay an extra 50 dirham to drive us back–or else.
On the way, we were to encounter an unusually thick fog would slow us down as we drove past a truck lying on its side. We would be stuck together longer than anticipated, sticky, and in desperate need of a shower. We would quickly discover that charades and guessing games are more fun when executed in Spanish, and that we’d soon be exchanging stories that we might not have the guts to tell even our closest of friends.
We’d learned all of that. But at that moment, we were happy to be lulled to sleep by the gentle tapping of rain, in the starless night of the Sahara.
Photo credits for A Perfect Surprise in the Sahara Desert by Unsplash.