The Sahara Desert

It was a grueling, 2-day journey to the Sahara Desert; cramped up in the back seat of a 15 passenger van, crunched over the wheel-well, I never thought I’d feel my legs ever again. Our tourist stops involved all 15 of us being dragged out of the car, usually in the freezing cold and wind to take photos of whatever was in front of us. Our driver spoke no English, but smiled and pointed and kept repeating “Photo! Photo!” It could have been the most famous sight in Morocco, or it could have been a donkey stall: none of us had a clue. We started each morning at least an hour after schedule. The first day we drove around Marrakech for over two hours picking people up, switching cars, realizing we were with the wrong driver, and switching again. The second day we waited 45 minutes for two Moroccan girls from Rabat to put on lipstick and fake eyelashes: only the finest for the desert! Then we piled in the van and hit the road. After our lunch stop, it was a race against the sun to make it to the desert for our sunset camel ride. Every stop seemed to take longer than expected. The 4 minute allotted time at the scarf shop, and 20 minutes at the Berber carpet factory turned into 15 minutes and 45 respectively. I felt like we were sheep being herded around, not knowing quite where to look and what to do. But at least I was a happy sheep.
It took all our skills to keep our driver awake for the final leg of the trip. He kept nodding off as we sped through the Atlas Mountains. We clapped and played music and kept talking to him, even though he didn’t understand us. We were determined to make it there: alive! When we did arrive, there were no camels. The other tour group had made it mere seconds before us, and even though we checked in and were ready before them, they took the camels and left us behind.
“Where are our camels?” We asked various people that looked like they were in charge.
“Yes. It’s no problem! No problem!” They smiled at us. But it was a problem. We were sitting at the edge of the desert with no camels, and the sun was going to set in a half hour.
It turns out, the company had overbooked. They sent us out on the tour, knowing there were limited camels, but figure it could be first come first serve.
“We thought there were 12 of you, not 15” one man said “so three more camels are coming, Inshallah”
Inshallah means “god willing” in Arabic. It is such a common phrase here in Morocco, and one I’ve even picked up saying over the past ten days. “I will come back to Morocco, Inshallah” or “the sun will be out tomorrow, Inshallah” but not “the camels are coming, Inshallah” this left me to believe that maybe the camels weren’t actually coming…
As the rest of the group got upset I stood up and walked over to the man who told us the camels were coming.
“Bonjour Monsieur. Can you please tell me when the last three camels are coming?”
“5 minutes”
“Okay, then shall we get the other twelve people on the camels while we’re waiting. Then we won’t miss the sunset?” After seeing how long it took us to do everything, this seemed like the most logical plan of action.
“It’s no problem, Fatima. The camels will come. You can sit down”
“I’d rather go see the camels thanks. Can we go see the camels?”
“Sure. No problem. That way.” He pointed towards a doorway leading out of the courtyard.
I walked outside with three of the girls I’d become close with during the two day drive. As we walked out, we found that there were not 12 camels, but only 5.
“Come come!” One man urged us over to him. “Get on, we must go” he pulled one of the girls over and dragged her on to the camel.
“But I’m not with this group” she said. The camels were in a line of 8. The first three already had people from the first group on them, the last five were empty.
“It’s ok. Everyone together. Get on” confused, she got on. Then the three of us, and finally one more girl that came along with the rest of our group got on the remaining four.
“Ok. We go now” and our camels stood up (with squeals from the girls as we nearly tumbled off) and started forward.
“But the rest of us…” We stammered.
“It’s okay. They are coming. We are all coming”
So that was that. We started off on the camels and into the desert. It wasn’t minutes later that all was forgotten. The car ride, the waiting, the sore bums, the forgotten group members: we were in the Sahara Desert!
It was truly magical riding on camelback through the desert as the sun set behind us. I’ve always wanted to visit the Sahara. I remember watching a movie as a child called “A Far Off Place” about two kids that were forced to brave crossing the Sahara by foot (upon fact checking, it was actually the Kalahari desert, but I’ve always thought it was the Sahara, and you get the point). Even though I haven’t seen the film in close to 2 decades, it still sticks in my mind as being otherworldly, a place of danger and excitement.
We rode bumpily over the dunes, taking photos and laughing about how uncomfortable downhill camel riding is. About an hour in our bums were as sore as they were in the car, and we remembered our forgotten group members back at Merzouga.
“Do you think they made it on the camels?” We wondered.
Just then, from away in the distance we saw black shapes moving towards us.
“That must be the other camels!” We were delighted that they’d made it, since we felt a little guilty being the ones that made it on. But the black shape moved much faster than any camels we’d seen. Soon we realized that it was a 4×4 driving towards us. We heard screams and yelling as it drove closer.
When it came around a closer dune we saw that it was all our group members, half on top of the 4×4, holding on to the roof rack, plummeting up and down sand dunes towards us. With each dip, they screamed in whoops of half fear and half excitement.
Turns out the camels never arrived. But the alternative was to get a wild ride through the desert to camp. Tomorrow the camels would come, Inshallah.
We arrived at camp, after dark, two hours after we left. The air was still surprisingly warm, and we were beginning to get skeptical about everyone telling us how cold the desert was at night. We were shown to our tent, which was a wooden frame, covered in Berber blankets, with four thin mattresses on the ground. It was sweltering hot inside, so we dropped our things and went for dinner.
The dinner tent was huge. It felt like a wedding or circus tent, with one giant curtain, as the ceiling and walls. It was simply set up with some folding chairs and tables for food. The food they served was some of the best I’d had in Morocco, and by far the best we’d had on our trip. Fresh bread, rice, and a huge Tagine with vegetables and chicken. One massive platter of each was placed in the middle of each table, and it was a free for all, no plates kind of a meal. The food was perfectly seasoned and cooked, I was so impressed that this all came from the desert!
When we’d sufficiently stuffed ourselves, we decided to hike the big sand dune next to camp to watch the stars. This was a bigger task than anticipated, as we climbed one step up and slid two steps back through the sand. It was dark, and windy, and our calves were burning just a quarter of the way up. At three quarters of the way up, it was getting so windy we figured we were better off lower down. So we sat at the midway mark, looking down at the ant-like lights buzzing around below us in the camp. We chatted and watched for shooting stars as we tried to pick out the constellations that we knew. It’s much more difficult to see the patterns when there are a billion stars in the sky! Then out if nowhere a young man came strolling down out of the darkness from the top of the hill to sit with us. He was from Costa Rica, and just happened to study Astrology in school. He showed us all the constellations, and how to properly see stars…
“Don’t look AT the star,” he explained “if you look next to it you will see it. It is our peripheral vision that detects light”
When we’d seen enough shooting stars, and the temperature began to drop, we left the random Costa Rican man and headed for the fire below. We realized afterwards, that in the darkness we had never even seen the guy’s face, and we’d never gotten his name. We didn’t see him again, so we referred to him as our “star angel” who may or may not have been a mirage in the desert.
Downhill was much easier, as we cruised down the sand dune to the campfire that had been lit below. The local guides were playing the drums and singing, so we all got up to dance around the fire. After a little while, however, the guides were right and it did get cold. With a six am start time, we figured it was bed time. So we curled up in our probably bed bug infested mattresses and went to sleep.
At 6am we were woken up and herded towards to camels again. Our guide had said all the camels arrived in the night, so everyone could take a camel back. So we hopped on and started our two-hour journey back to Mergouza. The way back was even more painful. We hadn’t quite recovered from yesterday’s ride, and on top of that our calves were still sore from our dune hike. But the sunrise was worth it! The light coming over the dunes and spreading over the sea of sand that lay in front of us was worth every moment of pain on the journey. But two more hours on the camels was enough time, and our stomachs were growling as we reached camp for breakfast.
When we arrived however, we learned that the camels had not shown up at the camp. Two of the people who had been left behind before were left behind again. They had to take the jeep back to Merzouga and they were not impressed. Nor would I be.
Luckily, they were sent sand boarding while we trekked back, and when our camels arrived, they set out for an hour trek on their own.
The Sahara Desert trek, although sometimes disorganized, was worth every penny. At only $100 for the three days, it was a steal in terms of price. This was definitely a bucket list item crossed off.
To finish our three day journey we spent another 12 hours driving back to Marrakech. It was painful from the get-go. But we made it back in one piece, and I’d do it all over again on a heartbeat!











The little beach town of Essaouira felt like the coastal equivalent of Chefchauoen’s mountain retreat. After spending an evening in Marrakech’s crazy medina, the cozy port town was a welcoming calm. Essaouira’s medina sits directly on the water’s edge. So close in fact, that while walking along it’s outer corridors, you can feel the ocean spray coming in over the massive walls. There aren’t many tourist sites in the little town, but you could easily get accustomed to the relaxing lifestyle the city offers. Strolling through the medina, a leisurely late morning coffee, a casual walk along Essaouira’s long stretch of beach, and a fresh seafood dinner at the port. It’s hard not to feel at ease in the little town.
I spend my one full day in Essa doing just that. It took all my strength not to buy half the medina as I wandered through spice stores and pottery shops. So I opted for a cafe au lait and some people watching instead. In the late afternoon I walked along the beach until I could hardly see the city walls anymore. I must have been lucky, because there was barely any wind that day. I’ve heard more than a few people complain about their beach walk due to the wind. Essaouira is known for it’s windy weather, and what’s normally a leisurely beach stroll can easily become a sandstorm, giving you an unwanted sandpaper scrub.
When I arrived back in the city, it was dinner time. I opted for the cheap, food stalls at the port; a “must” according to my guidebook.
I was feeling a little indulgent, and so figured I’d spend twice as much on dinner as I normally do. I walked up to one food stall that had a huge display of seafood, caught fresh that day.
“I would like 80 dirhams ($10) of food please. I’ll eat pretty much anything, so feel free to mix and match whatever you think is the best” the guy at the stall was so excited, since I was his first customer of the evening. He started grabbing this and that and putting it on a platter for me. Then he sat me down with a fresh salad and some bread rolls.
I think I may have underestimated how much food 80 dirhams was, because when my food started arriving I was overwhelmed. First, prawns. About 20 prawns on a plate were placed in front of me. Then came the fish: two massive sardines, and two other whole fish, splayed out and grilled up, were set down. Just when I thought that was everything, a bowl of calamari was given to me as well. How in the world was I going to eat all this?!
But I did, slowly but surely, one at a time. I read my book, and picked away at the tasty fish. The owner of the stall kept coming out and yelling at his staff, who were supposed to be coercing more people to have dinner, but who preferred instead to sit down at my table and ask about where I was from and how I liked the food. They would all jump up and rush around, yelling at people to come eat. Then the owner smiled at me and gave an exasperated sigh. I had to laugh.
When dinner was over I wandered through the medina again, trying to walk off the crazy amounts of food I’d just eaten. Before long I heard someone yelling.
“Hey, Canada!” I turned around to see Matt, an American guy from my hostel waving at me from across the street. He and an Australian girl were headed to a local restaurant to watch Omar, a local Moroccan they had befriended, play music. I figured I had nothing better to do than to join them.
The restaurant we went to was tiny. It only held about 15 people. The place was dark, and candle lit, and had a bench with Moroccan cushions all around the edge of the restaurant. The Aussie girl, Matt, Omar and I sat down for some tea and coffee and met up with Omar’s friend who would be playing with him. Then the show started. Omar played the guitar, while his friend kept beat on a drum and the two of them sang. The music was almost Latin sounding, with an African beat that was wonderful to listen to! They played for around 45 minutes, then sat back down to join us at the table. We chatted and played music into the evening, until I realized I was falling asleep and had to head back to the hostel.
I’m a little upset I had such little time in Essaouira. I could easily have lounged around the city for days. But there’s so much to see in the country, and my time is limited, so it was back to Marrakech the next afternoon!









The Long Road to Africa

I woke up Friday morning with a bang. Literally. A thunderstorm had rolled into Seville and the crash of thunder at 7am shook the hostel walls, waking everyone up. Rain was bucketing down and the wind pushed the window shutters wide open. After a late night chatting with new friends in the common room the night before, it took all my strength to drag my butt out of bed to close the window. Turns out rain had been pouring into the room for some time, and completely soaked all our bags that were lying under the window sill. Yup, it was going to be a long day.
I opted for paying the extra 4€ to take a taxi to the bus station, instead of fighting public transportation in the storm. I prayed there were still seats open on the bus to Algeciras. The online sites for bus bookings in Spain for some reason don’t accept Canadian credit cards. Which means all my onwards bus trips have involved crossing my fingers for free space. So far I’ve been fairly lucky, and only had to wait 4 hours for one bus onward to Granada. Luckily again, there was still space on this one too!
It was a treacherous 3 and a half hours drive South in the middle of the storm. Fork lightning crashed down a couple hundred meters from the bus, people were screaming from the thunder bangs, and I was fairly certain I was going to see a wind turbine explode as we drove through a field full of giant metal windmills in an electrical storm.
All I could think was, “there’s no way the ferries will be running to Morocco today. Not in this storm”. Then surprisingly enough, just north of the coastline, we popped out into the sunshine again!
The coast was gorgeous! It was surreal to be able to look across the straight of Gibraltar to see the coast of Africa on the other side.
I had decided to cross the straight from Algeciras to Tangier. Not only did my hostel recommend it, but my guidebook had said it was both the cheapest and most popular route across the straight… Not exactly so.
Had I read the fine print, there’s no way I would have gone the route I did. Sure it was cheap. That’s the only thing this route had going for it. 20€ and I could safely cross to Africa… But not exactly Tangier.
When our bus to Algeciras made a pitstop in Tarifa, and 90% of the bus got off, I should have known. The ferry from Tarifa, although 15€ more expensive, takes 35 minutes, and takes you to the edge of the Tangier Medina. Algeciras, which is a further 30 minutes on the bus from Tarifa, has a ferry that takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours, and it takes you to Tangier-Med, which is a port in the middle of nowhere, 45 minutes from Tangier city. By the time I had realized this, it was too late. Looks like this journey just got significantly longer…
I managed to dodge the Algeciras touts that told me, not only did they not sell tickets at the port, but the ferry would cost 40€ and leave at 4:00 pm. My instincts told me he was crazy, and when I arrived at the port I was pleased to learn it would be 20€ and was leaving right away!
Well it was scheduled to leave right away. Our 2:00 ferry didn’t actually leave port until 3:15, but at least I was onboard. And the views of the coastline and the town of Gibraltar were enough to keep me occupied.
The route definitely wasn’t popular either. The ferry was large enough to hold hundreds upon hundreds of people… There were 6 of us that walked on the ferry. A few more drove cars on, but the ship was pretty much empty.
We arrived after nearly 2 hours into the deserted Tangier-med port. I was completely without a plan as we landed on the coast of North Africa. Originally, I wanted to head straight to Chefchauoen, but the hostel was fully booked and the last bus left at 12:30 in the afternoon. I had no money, no place to stay, no idea where to go. And yet I had the most amazing first impression of Morocco…
A local man informed us that exchange rates were much better in Tangier, and that we would only be ripped off getting money from Tangier-med. Since I and another couple I met on the ferry only had euros on us, the man paid for us all to take the 45 minute bus to Tangier. He refused to accept any money, and when we arrived, he pointed us in the right direction to a proper bank.
My card wouldn’t work at the atm, and since Friday is a holy day, the bank was closed. Luckily the couple from the UK switched me $20 worth of cash before we went our separate ways.
With $20 in my pocket and no plans, I almost felt a little anxious about what to do before the sun set. But I saw an Internet cafe across the street and looked up a hostel in the area I could book. The man that ran the VERY local Internet cafe was amazingly sweet. Arabic keyboards are more than just a little confusing, and yet he patiently walked me through how to make symbols like “@” or “.” as I needed them. When I was leaving he asked me “Your first time in Morocco?”
“Yes,” I replied
“Okay, let me tell you something…” He started. I thought he was going to warn me of the dangers, or tell me not to travel alone in the Medinas. Instead he said “you know Argan?”
I thought for a second…
“The oil?”
“Yes!” He said with a smile, “make sure you buy some before you leave Morocco. Put it in your hair and it will make it beautiful! It is the best for all the ladies in Morocco!”
I laughed and promised that I would. He then told me to make sure I didn’t pay more than 10 dirham to get to the medina where my hostel was and sent me on my way.
I was so thankful for a kind face after the unease of not knowing where I was. People in Europe were constantly asking me if I was nervous about travelling Morocco on my own as a woman. I wasn’t really, until everyone kept suggesting I should be. So far, everything seemed fine!
I paid only 10 dirham to get to the center of the medina, where many travellers were charged up to 100 dirham to go the same distance.
When I arrived at the medina I tried to translate the directions to the hostel. Medinas are confusing at best. Tiny side streets, very few signs, a chaos of people and vendors and animals all around. Some men encouraging people to eat at their restaurant gladly helped point me in the right direction, but even then I was all turned around.
Exhausted from the day and totally lost, I sat down in a park to take another look at the directions. As I sat down on the edge of a wall, three little girls that were playing nearby came and sat down near me. They whispered to each other and giggled, then inched their bums closer to me. Before I knew it they were practically sitting on my lap.
“Bonjour!” Said one little girl. They were about five or six years old, one of them younger than the other two.
“Oh, bonjour!” I said back.
They laughed, then broke into fluent French, talking rapidly at me.
I stared blankly.
“Espanol?” They asked me.
“Si, hablo Espanol” I said back.
More excited giggling from their side. As they asked me what my name was.
We did the intros, and chatted for a few minutes. Two of them were sisters and the other one their neighborhood friend. They said they wanted to talk to me because I was “muy guapa”. I laughed and thanked them. After we had run out of things I could talk about in basic Spanish I thought I might as well ask them if they had heard of the street Battouta.
At the sound of the word their eyes went wide.
“Battouta!!!! Battouta!!” They looked at each other and screamed in giddy excitement. I told them I needed to go to Al Andalusi hostel.
More screams.
They were pointing all over, jumping up and down. From what I understood in their excited shouting was that they lived nearby. They ran off to their mother, who was on the phone nearby and pointed wildly. Their mother smiled and waved them off. They ran back to me, grabbed my arm and dragged me off the wall yelling “Battouta! Battouta!”
Two of them held my hand and dragged me through the medina corridors. They paused to talk to their friends, and was slightly distracted by a vendor selling chocolate, but within a few minutes, down a side street I never would have found on my own, they pointed at a door that read. “Al Andalusi Hostal”. I had made it! I couldn’t believe they’d found it for me. I offered them a couple dirhams and said “go buy yourself a chocolate bar on me! You three are my first friends in Morocco and I want to thank you for helping me.” They smiled but refused the money. So I left them to finally check in to my hostel, finishing a long, 12 hour journey from Seville.
The hostel was beautiful, right in the middle of the medina with beautiful rooftop views of the city and the Straight of Gibraltar. The staff at the hostel were wonderful, and were so happy to hear about the little girls helping me. Thomas, one of the guys that ran the place, said he would buy them something special one day soon from me, since he saw them almost every morning in the street.
I quickly met some fellow Travellers from Australia and we all went out for a delicious meatball Tagine dinner and some mint tea. I was in heaven!
I could not have asked for a more pleasant welcome to a country. I have a feeling it’s going to be a wonderful couple weeks here…