Claire Warneke

Claire Warneke explores the shifting sands of Morocco’s Zagora and gets to grips with a camel

The desert. It’s stark. It’s harsh. It’s brutal. And it’s beautiful…

In Morocco we took an overnight excursion, oblivious as to what the tour included. All we had to go on was a brief description in broken English from the riad proprietor and a stock image photo in a French brochure.

Stark, harsh, brutal, and beautiful …

But we were up for an adventure and I wanted to ride a camel, so we paid our 450 dirham each, and said: “Sign us up!”

We expected a few hours’ drive followed by a fun outing on some camels and a comfortable night in an authentic Berber tent… however, it was um, more of a surprise.

Through the Atlas mountains

After fetching us from our riad in Marrakech at 7:30am, the tour bus took a route through the Atlas mountains into utter desolation, a trip of nine hours, including a lunch break, and midday tour of the 1200-year-old fortified mud city of Aït Benhaddou. A highlight of the trip, Aït Benhaddou was used as the location for Lawrence of Arabia, and some of Game of Thrones Season 3. It is also a World Heritage Site.

Dusty building skeletons

It was fascinating to see how families still live in the town, maintaining the infrastructure, and passing on ancient building and construction techniques to their children.

Hemmed in by the Atlas mountains, the road through the desert reminded me of Chapman’s Peak – without the shrubs and safety barriers. Just a perpetual brown snake carved into desolate mountain peaks. That entire communities have thrived for centuries on dust, an occasional trickle of mountain water, and more dust, is unfathomable to me.

Camels at the roadside.

Eventually the bus stopped. There, grumbling and groaning by the gritty roadside, lounged our camels. Each saddled with a thick pile of blankets and a seat which (thankfully) came with a convenient handle to cling to during their awkward ascent to their feet. Like a see-saw with knees!

Like a see-saw with knees!

Their huge eyes are graced by eyelashes that would be the envy of Vegas drag queens, but they stared at us with a mixture of disdain and the wilfulness of a naughty toddler. I was glad that they were tied up in a long train as I had visions of my camel suddenly being overcome by wanderlust for a distant desert oasis, and taking off at high speed while I clung desperately to my life and dignity.

Three young Berber men in handsome headscarves welcomed and directed us to our shared accommodation

young Berber men in handsome headscarves

The desert doesn’t offer five-star amenities. The stuffy tents contained a mattress, a cushion and a spare blanket. Nowhere to change, shower, or check your lipstick. The ‘toilet tent’ was situated a few metres from our ‘sleeping tent’ and included three holes in the ground and a large tank of water from which one could fill a bucket to wash the ‘waste’ away.

I counted myself lucky that I didn’t have to dig the holes myself.

We shared the tented camp with around 30 other adventure-seeking, dusty tourists.

After a dinner of chicken tagine and bread, we settled on the Berber carpet outside the main tent. The heat of the day warmed our backs as we gazed up at the exquisite array of endless stars, trying to spot familiar patterns – was that the Southern Cross? Can you even see the Southern Cross from Morocco?

Tents in the desert

The young Berber men brought out their traditional guitars and barefoot tourists danced while they strummed and sang some traditional folk songs.

We spent a fitful night in our tents listening to distant dogs barking, their discontent carried on the desert breeze, and were woken at dawn with harsh cries of “Hala! Hala! Hala! – Marrakech is far away!”  (The Berbers’ way of saying ‘Hurry up’.)

The 1200-year-old fortified mud city of Aït Benhaddou

We drooped out of our tents, greeted by a hazy dawn and some sweet Berber whiskey (mint tea). We grabbed a couple of stale bread rolls for a quick breakfast and then it was back on the camels, and into the tour bus for the long drive home.

We arrived at our riad that evening utterly exhausted.

But as we reflected on our night in the Zagora desert, we realised that although it was hot, dusty, and basically uncomfortable from start to finish, it was an unforgettable experience and one we will treasure.