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A night under the stars in the Sahara Desert

Last updated on: November 29, 2010 18:00 IST

A night under the stars in the Sahara Desert

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Jay Singh

Morocco doesn't figure high up on many people's lists when they think of a travel destination. For me, it was an obvious choice. I was in Spain and decided to explore Morocco without having made any plans in advance.

I took a flight on Royal Air Maroc from Madrid to Casablanca. I had heard that the flights are usually delayed and it turned out to be true -- I took off about three hours late and landed in Casablanca in the dead of night, around 2 am. It was warm but breezy as I gingerly hopped onto a cab that took me to my hostel.

Casablanca, probably better known thanks to the Humphrey Bogart movie of the same name, is a port city in the northern part of Morocco and is the country's economical capital. It is a popular spot with the rich businessmen of Europe and tourism thrives here.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is the third largest after Mecca and Medina and sees a lot of tourists from the Muslim world and elsewhere. Located near the Atlantic Ocean, it is one of the most prominent historical sites in Morocco.

After spending some time at the mosque, I decided to head towards Ain Diab on my first day, which is an affluent suburb on the beachfront of the Atlantic. It is lined with boutiques, bars and bistros and is definitely a great place to hang out. I skipped the shopping and took a dip in the Atlantic instead. Then I dug myself into the sand on the beach, watching kids and grownups playing football.

The rest of the time I spent exploring central Casablanca, which boasts of some great architecture. I, however, was already looking forward to my next stop, Marrakesh.

I took a train from Casablanca to Marrakesh. The three-hour train ride was pretty uneventful and the train was full of tourists, as Marrakesh is a big tourist hotspot too.


Image: Ain Diab is an affluent suburb on the beachfront of the Atlantic.
Photographs: Jay Singh
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Carnival days and nights

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Upon reaching Marrakesh, I made my way to Djemaa Al Fna, the market square in the Medina ramparts (the old part of the city). There are quite a few options for accommodation in the heart of Marrakesh, ranging from seedy hostels to well-furnished and well-preserved riads (a traditional Moroccan palace or house).

A word of caution: Be careful of the touts who constantly approach you if you're carrying a backpack and are looking lost.

I checked out a few options before finalising a hostel that looked clean and safe, located in one of the labyrinthine streets. 

As soon as my lodging arrangements were made, I decided to explore my surroundings. The entire area was like a big, non-stop, eclectic carnival that goes on from morning into the wee hours of the night!

Check out the plentiful varieties of food that are prepared right in the square and then quench your thirst with a glass of orange juice, freshly squeezed in front of you. It is basically like a dinner theatre, so grab a nice vantage spot and eat and enjoy the spectacle, made up of all kinds of performers.


Image: Djemaa Al Fna is Marrakech 's most famous square

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A feast for the senses

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I had read about tourists getting sick from the food or the juices but I just threw caution to the wind and tried everything, leaving the rest to my gut! Looking back, I never had a problem on this trip.

The Djemaa el Fna is a cacophony of sights and sounds where the physical melds with the metaphysical. You get transported to a bygone era, with street performers charming tourists and locals with performances by their pet monkeys and roosters, medicine men selling all kinds of bizarre stuff and professing an instant cure for all ailments and a whole lot of Gnaoua musicians just making groovy music!

It is a feast for the senses and one just needs to relax and try to soak it all in.

Other than the main square, one can lose oneself in the numerous souks or covered markets that surround the Medina or visit the nearby Koutoubia Mosque and Garden.

I spent a couple of days exploring the city and then decided to head out to the Sahara Desert.


Image: The Djemaa el Fna is a cacophony of sights and sounds.

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Lawrence Of Arabia, Gladiator and The Mummy have been shot here

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I found an outfitter in the city and made arrangements to go to Erg Chebbi. I spent a night at the riad that was owned by the outfitters and in the morning set out in a van along with four other tourists.

We made our way across the Atlas Mountains and stopped in a village to have Moroccan mint tea and get a glimpse of the local cottage industry of carpet-manufacturing. We kept driving and all around us was a barren landscape of brown rocks and gravel.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere popped up lush green palm trees, signalling an oasis. We stopped at one such place, named Ait-Ben-Haddou. The reason why these surroundings seemed familiar is because movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and The Mummy have been shot here.


Image: Ait-Ben-Haddou, a fortified village or ksar is a world heritage site.

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Night in the Dades Valley

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For the night, we stopped at a place in the Dades Valley. The resort is situated in a valley at the bottom of the ravine (Dades Gorge), between two huge cliffs and because of that not much light filters through to it. As a result, I saw the most amazing night sky in my life.

I never imagined I'd ever see so many stars clustered into any one patch of sky. Just standing on the rooftop, listening to the gurgling of the river, staring at the starlit sky, you're thankful for an experience like that -- you just feel humbled and grateful to be a tiny particle in this whole scheme of things.

We got up early the next morning and started our drive towards Merzouga.


Image: Our resort was situated in a valley at the bottom of the ravine between two huge cliffs.

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The spectacular Todra Gorge

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On the way, we stopped at another gorge for lunch -- the Todra Gorge, which also has some nice places to eat -- and enjoyed the scenery.

The main course for lunch is usually Tajine, which is named after the special pot in which it is cooked. At most places no alcohol is served, although tourists have their ways of getting it. Bottled drinks and mint tea are available abundantly.

Our last stop before entering the Sahara was a tiny place called Merzouga. The road ends here and beyond this place we ride on a 'Berber four-by-four'. Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa and the camel or the 'Berber four-by-four' is their only means of transport.

At Merzouga, we bought our rations and plenty of water since there would be none once we were in the desert. Everyone had a nice cool shower and we set off with our guide, Abdullah the Berber.


Image: The spectacular Todra Gorge

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On a caravan

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There were about six camels in the caravan and it was a journey like no other. The landscape was all variations of yellow, brown, orange and red and the dunes just looked magnificent, changing their shapes ever so slowly with the blowing wind. You could see miles and miles of open desert and not a sign of life anywhere.

It was hard to imagine that there would be a place to camp somewhere in this arid place. The evening was hot, with the mercury hovering around 45-46 degrees Celsius. Thankfully, we didn't have a sandstorm.

This was my first time on camel back in the middle of a desert and I realised I couldn't have picked a better place than the Sahara.

Having seen all kinds of landscapes in my life, I was just amazed at the beauty Mother Earth has to offer in her various forms and couldn't help marvelling at these surroundings in particular.


Image: This was my first time on camel back in the middle of a desert and I realised I couldn't have picked a better place than the Sahara.

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Desert beauty

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The beauty of the desert is just different and I can imagine that it must be hard for most people to appreciate it. 

About three-four hours into the safari, we could make out an oasis on the horizon. The first thought that came to mind was that this was a mirage. It couldn't be!

We have grown up hearing stories of people stranded in the desert and seeing mirages everywhere and now it was my turn, but Abdullah put an end to my daydreaming and declared that it was indeed our camp for the night. 

There were a few locals when we got there and a couple of kids, who are always excited to see foreigners come to their neck of the woods. After setting up the tents, I decided to climb the highest dune in order to watch the sun go down.



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A sight to behold!

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Twenty minutes into the climb I realised it wasn't a great idea after all. I had scaled maybe a quarter of the dune and I was already gasping for air and craving water!

And right there next to me, little munchkins -- a boy of about 7 years and a girl who was maybe 5 -- were effortlessly going up and down!

Anyway, huffing and puffing and summoning every ounce of will I possessed, I was finally up on the summit and in time to bask in the crimson glow of the setting sun.

That was another sight to behold -- the sun going down like a huge ball of fire and me sitting on top of the African Sahara with a 360 degree view of an alien landscape. A very surreal experience indeed!



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Morocco has been a trip like no other

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Having made it up this far, I was in no hurry to get down and descended only after I had seen all the constellations I knew in the night sky. The night ended with some great food, tea and some haunting but melodious music.

The next day was spent emulating the lifestyle of a Berber nomad and exploring the vast emptiness of the Western Sahara, after which I bid farewell to the largest desert on earth and made my way back to Marrakesh.

Morocco has been a trip like no other -- the sights, sounds and smells overload the senses.

The country has so much to offer that all visitors will walk away with their own version of the country, but all versions are no doubt enchanting and exhilarating.



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