Erg Chebbi: the Sand Dunes of south-eastern Morocco
We lay side by side on the flat roof of the mud hut, two English boys weakened by diarrohea and confused by a nightime journey across the desert. On the road down we had been driven off the road by the King of Morocco. He was not alone. A phalanx of motorcycle outriders had first cleared the road ahead of all possible impediments. Then suddenly, with no further warning, came two sports-cars with their headlights on, driven side-by side at break neck speed. Four minutes later nine identical black Mercedes-Benz's sped by in a blur of power and sun-reflected crome. In the back of each car there appeared to be a majestic figure in a white gandoura and a red Fez slumped against the back seat. The absence of uniformed police and its reckless speed gave this royal procession a mesmerising authority. Later that day we had stopped off for a drink at the old hotel Sigilmassa outside Erfoud. The place was empty and the staff having waited upon the royal court had collapsed with nervous exhaustion. The old manager gave us a drink, explained that the chef was also asleep and refused to accept any payment.
As we lay on the mud roof thinking over the events of the day we realised that we hadn't had time to worry about scorpions. Later we grew concerned about the number of Moroccan men that joined us on the roof. In the dark with their mysterious pointed hoods they looked throat-slitters to a man but one by one they wrapped themselves up in large blanket and fell asleep almost immediately. We could not sleep. It was our first night out in the open desert. The stars were unbelievably bright and vivid. The glowing tails of falling meteorites streaked across the sky.
We woke up in the cold, well before dawn and walked up the dunes. The sun lit the sands up with a fast changing palet of pinks, mauves and purples. The exceptional clarity of that morning light also revealed to us the snow-covered peaks of the High Atlas mountains. It was even more astonishing than the night sky. The beauty was ephemeral. As the sun rose higher it drained the colour from the landscape, while the crystal clarity grew opaque with heat and the flies started moving again. The whole process from dawn exhiliration to exhausted early morning crabbiness took an hour.
The sand dunes of south-eastern Morocco are a lodestone that draws thousands of visitors to this isolated region. In the company of friend or leading groups I have returned to witness a sunrise on the dunes of the Erg Chebbi some dozens of times. They are always rewarding though nothing can ever match that childhood memory. I have also since been told, with some authority, that it is impossible to see the High Atlas peaks from the dunes. Fortunately it is a region where impossibilities and improbabilities seem to flourish. The Japanese adore the place, they line up on the crest of a dune, bow almost imperciptibly before the sunrise and wear white cotton gloves to gather up a few pinches of sun-kissed sand which they store in plastic bags. Americans often vocalise their sense of religious awe, the Australians like to do some sport over it.
When I was travelling alone I grew so confident about the tracks out to the sand dunes that I used to drive out across the desert in the night. I would arrive in my lowslung Alfa-Romeo in time to listen to local musicians who played to travellers at the candlelit dune-side cafés. One morning I unaccountably drifted away from the well worn tracks in a north-east direction. An hour or so later my car broke down crosing a wadhi. It was only when I got out of the car that I realised that I could not recognize any of the horizons. I was lost, hung-over and in danger of blundering across the military frontier into Algeria. I tasted some of that blind panic that comes from being totally alone and waterless in the desert.
It was a good experience for I learnt for ever afterwards to appreciate the company of local guides. I look forward to my conversations with touts and their attempts to earn a living wage from the commissions of shop keepers. I also like to explore the remnants of the old medieval city of Sigilmassa, once the size of Fes but now just a dispiriting wasteland on the edge of the town of Rissani. On my last trip I was trying to persuade a local guide to take visitors here rather than to the bogus Tuareg tents where jewelry is sold.
"Mr Barnaby you say I am difficult but you know nothing of difficulties. There is no money here accept what comes in the purse of a tourist. We have just sand and the dates. From this we have to make our lives. We do what we can. They come here just to see sand. There are just two sorts of visitors, those who come by coach and stay for one night or those who come by car and stay for three. The first are like sheep, they are led, they bleat and they get shorn. The second are like goats, they make their own tracks but they still get shorn. "
"Who else apart from you, Mr Barnaby, is interested in these things? You will put it in your book and go away for a year. Last year we had the American professor and his students. They woke up very early, they dug very slowly. They were all ill. They were good men, they all brought carpets. Five years ago we had some Italians. Men from the government come, in suits, they come, they go.".
To some lands, like your own, God gives rain, to others he gives oil, here he has given us only tourists.
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