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Visit Merzouga

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One of the most popular destinations for visitors to Morocco is a trip to the sand dunes of Merzouga and the famous camping trips to the oasis via camel caravan. Located in the southeast of Morocco, the dunes rise up out of the rocky black desert floor like surreal red-gold hills against the bright blue sky.

Normally, when we leave from Fez for weekend trips, the drive takes about 8 hours to Erfoud where we stop for the first night. The scenic tour along the route is fantastic and proves that Morocco truly is a country that offers everything and all seasons at any time of the year. In fact, in the spring, don’t be surprised to see snowy winter scenery followed by blazing summer temperatures. Wild flowers in the rain one day can just as easily be peeking through snow the next.


First, we pass through Ifrane and Azrou in the mountains where the cedar forest lines both sides of the road. The forest in Azrou is thick with ancient trees that have been designated a World Heritage Site now. If we are lucky, the Barbary Apes are foraging about for food, but generally there is more chance of finding them around sundown.


As we climb higher into the Middle Atlas area, the landscape gradually changes from forests to rocky hillsides covered with scrub grass. Trees at the higher elevations are coniferous only. Nomads camping with their herds of grazing sheep dot the hillsides with their black felt tents and firepits. The sheep almost blend into invisibility in the rocky terrain of the higher elevations. Dogs line the sides of the road, too, patiently waiting for scraps and morsels tossed their way from the passing vehicles. The variety of breeds from mixed English Sheep dogs to mongrel St. Bernards is amazing.


The roads are winding and narrow in the ascending passes that the approach the mountain summits. Cars climb slowly, often using both sides of the road to gain a bit of speed, so extra caution is required for those driving on their own. There is only one main route through the area meaning all vehicles – trucks, cars, buses and bicycles, plus the odd pedestrian – are sharing the same road.


One of the most spectacular sights on the route descending is the dam and reservoir built during the government of Hassan II. The huge reservoir of water gleams with a brilliant turquoise hue beneath the sun of the desert landscape on this side of the mountain range. The Barrage ------- is an engineering feat Moroccans are proud to point out and its presence has changed the economic fortunes of this once barren and sweltering region of the country. Even so, the main commerce in the area of Midelt and Er-rachidia seems to be the presence of the huge military bases. The area is also a center for mining semi-precious vanadium (?) as well.


The pink color of the construction in the area brings to mind Marrakech. But, this area is also distinctly marked with signs of Berber architecture and design. The tops of walls have the unique zig-zag protrusions and the strong geometric patterns painted on the surfaces of walls reminds one of the rug patterns seen in the souks. Another unique feature of the area, for those of us from the North anyway, is the number of bicycles on the roads. In the evening, the bicycles are everywhere competing for space on the busy road as people return home from school and work.


Another spectacular feature of the route south is the oasis of date palms. The trees line both sides of the Oued ----(something river) in perfectly squared off sectors for irrigation. The tops of the surrounding houses and the hillsides descending toward the river have all been leveled into drying areas for the fall harvest. The Date Festival in the fall (coordinated with the harvest season) has become one of the major attractions in the area in the past several years and even features camel races.


The architecture in the south is almost exclusively mud construction. Bricks are made with mixtures of desert mud and straw, laid out in the sun to dry, then stacked with more mud into walls. The interior ceilings of buildings are usually lined with bamboo and supported with mud. The natural construction combined with thick walls insulates the interior from the hot exterior temperatures. The hard surfaces are sometimes painted or white-washed, but more commonly left natural.


There are many nice hotels to choose from in the city of Erfoud now and it’s a pleasant stop for the evening for those who have been traveling all day. For those starting very early or else from a more southerly point, it is possible to continue straight on to Merzouga which is only another couple of hours away. Either way, that first night in the desert is a treat. The air is fresh and the sky is so clear the stars really do resemble diamonds spilling down to the Earth. On a very clear night, it seems as if you could step forward and scoop up a handful. And no matter how hot the day, the evening temperatures drop to a tolerable level that makes sitting outside and enjoying nature a pleasure.


Before you reach what is often called the ‘black desert’, there are more date palm plantations in the Ziz River Valley. The curving roads through the dense palm plantations, the donkey cart taxis and women wrapped head-to-toe in the traditional black haiks make you feel as though you have stepped into a postcard.


Along the route from Erfoud to Merzouga the road also passes through the town of Rissani. If you are inclined, there is a scenic detour along the ruins of the old Kasbahs, but when we visited in June ’07 the road had been washed out by recent flash flooding. Occasionally, when it rains in the desert area, there is severe flash flooding due to the hard-packed surface of the ground and extra caution is required. The rain comes down fast and furious and even a short storm can dump a half meter of water or more in minutes.


Rissani has some nice woodworking and silver jewelry shops. This area is reputedly one of the best sources for henna, too, but the merchants tend to be hustlers. Unless you are a strong bargainer or enjoy being hassled as you sight-see, the stop can be somewhat unpleasant. You might like to get a photo of the beautiful gate entering the town even though it was recently built.


Finally, on the approach to Merzouga, the landscape flattens and becomes barren, black and rocky. The ribbon road cuts straight through nothing toward a seemingly empty horizon. Then, the signs start to appear along the roadside pointing the way to various auberges that have popped up along the front of the famous sand dunes. The roads across the rocky expanse to each auberge are just trails marked by stacked rocks and tire tracks. The dunes are visible in the distance, tiny at first, then getting bigger and more imposing as you approach.


On a clear day the sand is red-gold and the sky is robin’s egg blue. You can’t believe what you are seeing is real and not painted against the landscape. All this loose and shifting sand is also what makes the famous sunsets so spectacular. The camel caravans head out about an hour and half before the sunset and arrive at the night’s camp after about a 2 hour ride. Plan on a sore bottom after two hours of rocking and rolling on what looks like a footstool tied to the camel’s back.


Camels have scratchy hair so it’s advised to wear long pants for the ride. Shoes, not sandals, are also recommended in case you need to get down and walk a bit. The sand is hot. Fair-skinned folks especially should use plenty of sunscreen and everybody needs a scarf wrapped around their head for sun protection. The camel-drivers are more than happy to assist you with wrapping your scarf nomad-style. Sand can get into everything, so keep your camera protected in a plastic bag when not in use. It should go without saying, but bring plenty of drinking water.


At the oasis, everybody eats, enjoys some great southern music and drumming, a bit of dancing and sleep. It’s primitive, no running water or toilets, sleeping on the ground, and waking up in a tent, but well worth the experience. In the morning, the camel train sets out early enough to see the sunrise and heads back to the auberge for breakfast and showers.


Longer excursions are available for those who are eager to see more of the area. The auberges and hotels also offer four-wheel vehicles and dirt bikes for the more adventurous, but the damage to the desert environment is considerable and not recommended. The Merzouga sand dunes are one of the great natural heritage sites of Morocco and as they become more and more popular with tourists, it’s everybody’s business to protect them from damage.. Please be a responsible tourist, enjoy Moroccan nature at its best and leave it as you found it.
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