Road trip, YEAH! Planes and trains can get us no closer to our destination. Our home for the next week is on the road, traveling south and east past smaller and smaller towns on narrower and narrower roads. Each night will be spent at a different hotel, none with the amenities or the luxury we’ve had anywhere else on the trip. We are pushing to the edge of the travelsphere — to the barren dunes of the Sahara desert.
The name Sahara comes from the Arabic word for desert. They didn’t need a special name for it. The desert is their whole environment. And it still is. Technically, everything in North Africa above a certain latitude is classified as desert. But the endless sandy stretch in the center is the ‘real’ desert we want to visit. And you can’t get there quickly.
Our guide and driver is named Ibrahim, a native of Zagora, the largest city on the border of the desert where we will spend one night. Our four-wheel drive vehicle is just big enough for the family and our bags. Around 9 a.m., our luggage goes out the tiny riad door and is carted in a wheelbarrow through the inner alleys of Marrakesh until we reach a space large enough to park the vehicle. The 4×4 scrapes slowly through the narrow streets until we reach the gate of the old city and hit the highway.
The highway is a well maintained, two-lane thoroughfare around which small towns appear every few miles. It’s a long ride — ten hours including lunch. The girls start out joyfully singing, which we all find unbelievably charming. But by the second hour we get some complaining. It’s hard to sit still in the car and the windows are open. Hot, dry air blows through the vehicle. The air conditioning goes on and each girl takes a Dramamine. They fall asleep shortly.
We drive through the tallest mountain range in Morocco, named the High Atlas. It’s an old mountain range, so it lacks the sharp peaks of the American west, but it has no shortage of cliffs, windy switchbacks and high points. We cross the range at 2,600 meters. The tallest mountain is 4,000 meters. What they lack in height, they gain in texture and color. There is only sparse vegetation, except for a solid green band of palms and olives in the trickling streams that line the valleys between ridges. Everywhere else it’s just broken, stratified, clay rock that looks like the cratered surface of a distant planet or moon. The rock color shifts from mountain to mountain as we wind through the range, red at first, then green from sulfur, finally deep black.
Over the Tizi-n-Tchika pass we stop several times to take in some of the better views along the road. There are always rocks, minerals and fossils to buy from little stands at these scenic overlooks. At one place, I buy a few fossils, and the girls get little pieces of lavender quartz. The seller shows us brilliant geodes in deep black, fluorescent blue and bright red, “Fakes,” he says. “Don’t buy them,” he warns. The black one is dyed with mascara. It would fade to white in a few months time.
We have a lunch at Irocha in a tiny hotel overlooking the highway. It’s the kind of place we would have been happy to find in our backpacking days. A night cost only $20 because it’s in between nowhere and nowhere. Trish and I break our rule and eat the vegetable salad, which is refreshing. They serve chicken tagine again, a braised dish that usually includes potatoes, carrots and olives. Back on the road, the girls fall asleep again and Trish and I enjoy the scenery — blacks, reds, greens and back again as we pass through the foothills on the other side of the pass. In some spots, the striations of sedimentary rock make the entire landscape appear to be a detailed topographical map.
It’s 4 p.m. and the foothills fade. The girls are singing again. We are in the Draa river valley, the main river of the region and the only reason people survive this far into the desert. It’s not deep, but at points it’s 50 feet wide and we see people swimming. On either bank are thousands of date palm trees that grow like weeds in clumps of five or six trunks, each 50 feet high.
Dates are huge here and they are sold on the side of the road everywhere, both fresh and dried. The sweetest dates need high heat at the top of the tree and cool water at the base so the Draa River valley provides the ideal environment. The forests of date palms lining the river seem artificially out of place, but it’s been this way for thousands of years. Civilization ends where the Draa dries up and that’s our final destination, but we won’t get there today. Our home tonight is Villa Zagora, a converted house on the banks of the Draa river with high walls and a small, but gorgeous garden inside. Well, it’s gorgeous for a desert garden anyway.
We are given two small rooms on the main floor and are served sweet, minty green tea upon arrival. The building, like most buildings in the area, is made of casted mud — a combination of straw and local clay mud that gets nearly as hard as concrete. They must have run electrical wires through the mud when wet because they have outlets and switches that are placed as conveniently as any hotel we’ve stayed.
After a quick dip in the pool, we are served dinner on a private table in the garden. There is another family, French, at the hotel, but we hardly see them. The place feels remote. The staff loves our daughters and makes them homemade french fries after they notice the girls’ dinner of chopped salad and grilled meat goes uneaten. Not so for Trisha and I. We eat heartily and Trish uncharacteristically finishes half a bottle of white Moroccan wine.
It’s incredibly hot at night — so hot that you even notice intense heat from light bulbs when you are near one. The adult’s air conditioner is broken, so Trisha and I crowd into the two single beds alongside the kids. Thanks girls. We owe you one.
[Photos by Trisha Creekmore]