We left Fes in the wee hours of the morning, while the streets were still quiet. It was cold and got colder as we drove out of the city. I took a quick nap in the car, and woke up to what seemed to be a different world:
The scenery continued changing during the long drive, from snow covered plains to arid hills, to a valley filled with palm trees, and a lake surrounded by the Atlas Mountains.
During the drive we complained to our driver about the lack of variety in terms of food choices, and he told us about his favorite food — Berber pizza. The pizza had to be ordered ahead of time, so we greedily ordered two. Well, it turned out that a large pizza here is more like XXL, and between the five of us we couldn’t even finish. The pizza (called medfouna) was made from the regular round flatbread served with most meals, stuffed with a variety of meat and vegetables. The bread was super crispy, and we loved the spiciness of it. After a few days of tajine, we definitely welcomed the change!
We arrived at the outskirts of Erg Chebbi Desert in the early afternoon, and after a joy ride in our 4×4 around the dunes, it was finally time to get on the camels! The official name for these creatures is dromedary, which only has one hump on its back. It’s the smallest of the three surviving camel species, and make up over 90% of the total number of remaining camels in the world, and is the only type of camel remaining in Africa. I can’t say the ride was super comfortable, but we were too amazed by the beautiful sand dunes to be bothered by the bumpy ride.
Apparently we took too much time taking selfies with the camels, and by the time we got to the bottom of the big dune, the sun was already on its way down. Our camel guide, who spoke little English, pointed to the top of the dune and gestured for us to go up. We squinted at the tiny dots on the ridge of the dunes that were barely moving, and seriously wondered whether we could accomplish the feat. But as we debated our guide already walked away with the camels, we had to accept our fate.
The climb was hard, as every step up is followed by a slip back down. After 10 minutes we were already panting like dogs and taking breaks, and the top of the dune seemed an impossible goal. My boots were filled with a pound or two of sand, and I was very much regretting not leaving the leather jacket on the camel. But we trudged on, inspired by the beautiful Instagram photos we’ve seen and determined to get one of our own, and somehow made it to the top right on time.
We found a quiet side of the ridge and watched the final gleams of the sun covered the already golden desert with another layer of sheen, before fading into a soft shade of pink and lavender. The way down was much easier, and I ran all the way down to the camp, where a fire pit and mint tea awaited us. By now I was pretty happy I had my jacket on, as the temperature dropped some 40 degrees after the sun set. We had dinner in a beautiful tent and then found the way to ours. We had been forewarned about the bare accommodations by other travelers, and were somewhat regretting not spending an extra $70 to get the better tents. Luckily, we were upgraded to the better tents! To our pleasant surprise, there was electricity in the tent! And a flushing toilet! There was even a shower, but it was pretty cold and we decided to stay stinky and warm instead.
The night sky was mesmerizing in the desert, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Milky Way so clear before. I was tempted to stay out for some light painting, but I was not a fan of the cold night, so I stayed in the tent and finished The Search for Meaning with all my clothes on and covered under 5 layers of blankets. The next day, we had an early morning call to climb to the top of another dune for the sunrise. I didn’t think it could beat the sunset, but the sunrise was even more glorious, as the sky lit up bit by bit, brightening to layers of dunes that spread out in front of us toward the horizon. We again stayed past our timeline, busy with our photo shoot.
The camel ride back was short and sweet, and while we were sad our stay in the desert was brief, I’m not sure if I would have liked another night in the cold tent.
The rest of the day was another long road trip. We made an unplanned stop at our guide’s home where he served us some mint tea and cookies, and got a quick peek at what a traditional Moroccan home looked like:
After a few more mediocre touristy stops, we finally arrived at our hotel, a beautifully decorated traditional building on a hill overlooking a ravine. There was even a heater in my room, which I put to use right away, sensing an oncoming cold.