Toby greeted us in the morning with a cheery “hello” telling us that ” the boys did an amazing job last night putting in a new engine and gearbox ….bashed everything straight and made her look a bit more respectable!” It was good to hear. With 377 kilometres to drive today, it would have been a great shame for Michelle and Reg if they had to travel in the crew cars. So we had a good early start out of Ouarzazate and after some fairly flat desert road into the Draa Valley following the river and lush date and henna plantations passing the occasional imposing Kasbah along the way.
Image: Alex Broadway
Our first time control was just outside the village of Agdl where again we attracted a lot of interest from a group of boys wanting to play football on the road. In my broken French I explained that some ‘petit voitures’ would be coming along the road shortly ‘vitesse!’. They decided to hang around and see for themselves and found a good vantage point on a bank parallel with the line we had drawn on the road. There was much anticipation. Daphne, resplendent with her new green bungy pulled up and after a quick exchange of paper work and times being jotted down pulled away from the line to cheers from the small crowd. Alastair and Hayden, arriving a couple of minutes later also did not disappoint, not only did they straddle the line neatly and expertly (of course) but they also did it to the sound of The Rolling Stones pumping through the open sunroof. Everyone passed through the regularity event to increasing excitement of the watching boys, who eventually went back to their business kicking a football down the road chanting “Chelsea” “Chelsea” in boisterous tones.
Turning off the main valley road that would have taken us down to Zagora we continued eastwards, stopping for lunch at the delightful Restaurant Auberge Enakhie where we ate Moroccan salad and soup overlooking regimented palm groves. Some drivers took the opportunity to do a spot of sunbathing next to the very inviting swimming pool.
After lunch the scenery became more arid. With some fairly long (and fairly boring) roads. However as each mile passed through villages and towns hewn from the red rock looking like something straight out of Star Wars, so our excitement increased about getting to our desert camp at Merzouga. We had heard a couple of days ago that the UK was suffering with bad air quality as a result of Saharan dust swirling above the South of England, making air pollution a real problem; as we climbed across the desert on windy roads we were starting to get a sense of those winds. The 2CV’s were being buffeted around a bit, but they were doing well. Because it is so rocky, with sparse vegetation, until you try to open the car door it is impossible to get a sense of how windy it actually is. Yet still we passed lone nomadic Berbers going from A to B – often sitting on donkeys loaded with crops, wrapped up against the elements. You start to see that the traditional dress is also completely practical – keeping the extremes of both wind and heat out in order to go about daily life.
The road fifty clicks away from Rissani is a long stretch of road that was blighted both by huge pot holes and something else quite shocking – rubbish. Thousands of plastic bags littered the area giving a new meaning to scrubland. Disappointing, shocking and a stark reminder to all of us about how ‘modern living’ impacts us all, everywhere.
Eventually the Erg Chebbi dunes stretch to the right and in front of us so we turn off the main road and start to follow a track (and our GPS particularly) out into the desert. We passed through a deserted mining outpost and into what can only be described as ‘moonscape’. Looking ahead the horizon seems large and infinite and yet somehow two-dimensional at the same time. Sometimes we seemed to be heading towards a great cliff of rock in the far distance (the border with Algeria) and other times large dunes loomed up in the middle-distance. Time and space are a bit distorted here but we seemed to be driving for longer than we had anticipated before getting to our camp. According to our GPS we should have been reaching our destination point – but actually we had arrived at well, nothing – no camp, no 2 Cv’s … nothing. Now was an unfortunate time for our GPS to have gone on the blink and we started to feel quite alone in a vast expanse of rock and sand. Without any immediate points of reference it would have been quite easy to have got completely and utterly lost. Luckily the GPS was still showing our route out, so it was quite easy after a slight feeling of mild panic on my part as the navigator, to retrace our route and get back to the little deserted ‘village’.
Images: Alex Broadway
Whilst trying to get our bearings without the use of any technology, it was with absolute joy that we saw John and Judith come to our rescue with their trustworthy sat nav and GPS and off we went again leaving plumes of dust in our wake until we reached the fantastic Camp La Belle Etoile.
I can honestly say it was the best glass of sweet ‘Berber Whiskey’ (mint tea) that we were presented with and that I have ever tasted. The Camp is grouped around a central fire pit with an avenue of traditional tents making up your ‘room’ for the night. Inside there is a double bed covered in a mosquito net and behind two curtains a loo and a shower. The bed is soft, the tent colourful; out of the ordinary indeed – and far more luxurious than I was anticipating!
We just had enough time to drop our bags before walking up and out into the Sahara to watch sunset. Fifteen minutes or so up dunes and along ochre coloured sandy ridges, before we settling down in small groups on different vantage points to watch a golden sun set over a land that only a few of the group had seen before. We were awe-struck by the sheer chameleon-like beauty of it all. Many of us had been a bit parched and tired on arriving, but as soon as the sky and sand started to change colour and depth, that all soon dissipated as we let the beautiful aura and silence of the desert gently wrap itself around us.
Top left hand corner image: Alex Broadway
We all had the most wonderful night. After feasting on traditional Berber food including delicious sweet/savoury ‘pasties’ (or Berber Pizza’s as they were introduced) we were entertained around the fire pit. Unlike the previous experience in Marrakesh which felt a bit Disney-esque, this was completely authentic and soon the rhythmic sound of singing and the beating of drums and percussion instruments (large castanet-type cymbols) had got most of us off our feet and dancing around, clapping and grinning from ear to ear. When this all calmed down a number of us strolled up the dunes to lay on our backs and just look at the stars above (or below?) us. The previous days temperature and fallen away and the sand was cool to touch, like water. We managed to get back into the tent just as the lights most definitely went out at 11.30 as the generator stopped and we were plunged into a total and instant silence and darkness.
Image: Alex Broadway