Summiting sand dunes in the Sahara Desert…

I’m not  fan of long days on the road…not at all. So usually, if given the option of spending approximately 26 hours in a warm and stuffy mini van over the course of three days I would say thanks, but no thanks.

Will conquers a desert dune…

But then I wouldn’t have gotten to have seen this… So sometimes I guess you just have to suck it up, right?

The said 26 hours of quality mini van time were due to my partaking on a 3 day ‘desert tour’. The tour began in Marrakech and lead us through the Atlas Mountains, a number of small desert towns, some famous movies sets and alfalfa fields before finally arriving in the Saharan Desert itself.

For a reasonably small and packed mini-van – we were lucky that our company was great! We were joined by a young Canadian couple just out of school, an English guy who was in the middle of a very skint year of backpacking, some Irish students on uni break as well as some South Korean girls who were continuing onto Europe afterwards.

Abdul and Will (and their hats!)

Our driver was also a hilarious Moroccan man by the name of Abdul. For someone who didn’t speak a great deal of English he was pretty entertaining. Check out that hat – what a dude!

One of the glimpses we had whilst driving through the Atlas mountains…

After a relatively mundane drive for the first hour or two out of Marrakech, everything started to get a little more stimulating (and a lot more scenic) as we began winding our way through the Atlas Mountains.

Walking towards the ancient village

Our little van climbed and plunged onwards around the mountains for a solid few hours before we arrived at Aït Benhaddou, not far from the larger town of Ouarzazate, sometimes affectionately known as ‘the door to the desert’. Things definitely felt like they were getting a little more ‘desert’ like, that’s for sure. The place was HOT. And dry. And dusty. It was however, definitely not without its charm…

Beside a section of the Kasbah…

The Berber people who have lived in the town for many centuries are responsible for many of the kasbahs that are found within the town itself. Before this trip my only thoughts on kasbahs were that they should be rocked, ala The Clash in this little number As we were shown around the area by one of the handful of Berber people that continue to reside in the village I learnt that a Kasbah was actually a kind of ancient fortified village or city, usually built with strong high walls.

The view from the highest point in the village…

The mud and straw houses of the village were deliciously cool and brought some welcome relief from the sweltering heat outside. They do seem like a lot of work though; the inhabitants have to constantly apply further layers of mud and straw as the walls crumble away under the pressure of the elements! A little scramble within some of these houses and onto the top of the fortified roofs was rewarded with a fairly impressive view over the surrounding Dades Valley.

One of the locals singing whilst playing a traditional stringed instrument

Whilst puffing up some more stairs we passed by a number of locals painting fat stroked scenes of traditional Berben celebrations onto coarse sheets of people – they were using tea as the paint! Once they’d finished they then held the paper over a flame to burn the tea and make the colour set. It actually smelt delicious!

Just some of the movies that have had scenes filmed at the village

It wasn’t just the striking fortified walls, locals families and magnificent views that have made the village famous. The place itself is actually an extremely popular movie location. And I’m not talking just any type of production – there have been some BIG budget films.

Here’s a glimpse of how the town was transformed to become to slave market in Gladiator.

Gladiator, Babel, Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy…the list goes on. Do you remember one of the first few scenes in Gladiator where Russell Crowe’s character is sold at a slave market? The whole thing was filmed here and the village itself was completely temporarily transformed with the addition of a dirt stadium and a number of false buildings. Apparently all of the crew and actors stay within the village itself when filming.I’m sure roughing it in a mud walled house would have suited Russ just fine!

Dominoes on the terrace of our gorge side guesthouse

We left the Kasbah / movie sets behind and continued on in the minivan past some spectacular rock formations before finally stopping for the night in a hotel that overlooked a flame-coloured gorge and a bubbling shallow stream.

Indulging in an ankle deep dip in the creek to cool off…

I know that it was shallow as we tried to go for a sneaky dip to cool off and it barely covered our ankles! Whilst cooling off my ankles I also happened to glimpse a tiny snake slither into the water a few metres away from my feet. That helped quell my desire for full submersion fairly quickly! After a solid nights rest in our (much swankier than expected!) hotel we began racking up a few more minivan hours as we wound our way through the Dades Gorge.

Being led past some of the hard-working women in the Alfalfa fields…

We stopped for a few hours at the village of Todra where we walked through farm fields filled with woman harvesting Alfafa to use as feed for their stock. When someone asked our local guide why there were no men working in the fields he merely smiled and chuckled that they were ‘far too lazy for that!’. Whether it was a joke or not, when we walked through the nicely shaded stalls in the main area of the village they seemed to only be staffed by men!

We purchased the blue one on the left. Not exactly subtle is it?

We stopped off the see some traditional carpet weaving at work which resulted in Will and I making our token rug purchase for the trip. It ended up being BRIGHT blue and patterned in virtually every colour of the rainbow. It’s probably going to put the whole ‘mature, muted colour scheme’ thing on hold for a bit once we set up camp back at home. Oh well!

Will attempts to assimilate himself into the flock of goats…

After a short drive and the best chicken tajine I had all trip (big call, I know!) we wandered between the sheer walls of the Todra Gorge. Wading into the trickling creek we came across a young local girl keeping watch over a large herd of goats. They (the goats) were not the friendliest bunch. There seemed to be lot of split flying around…

Soon we were off again for another solid minivan session and after a few toasty warm hours I finally caught a glimpse of some monstrous ochre coloured sand dunes looming in the distance!

Jumping aboard!

Now no visit to a sand-duned desert is ever truly complete without the assistance of the trusty but temperamental camel. We had a large group of them already saddled up when we arrived and after tackling the very jerky and sudden mounting of the creatures the group was on its way.

And so the sand dunes began!

After a few hundred metres the rocks and shrubs that had been spotting the landscape cleared away and we began to slowly trudge over the iconic sand dunes themselves. It all started to look a lot like the first few scenes of Aladdin and I was half expecting the big man himself to pop over the next rise on his magic carpet!

Although the scenery was spectacular, the comfort level of the camel saddles was not quite so high so once we caught glimpse of our desert campsite after around a 2 hour ride, I was definitely keen to give more poor buttocks a little rest!

The boys attempt to take the slightly sleeper route up the dune. Fools!

All ideas of a little R&R were dashed to pieces when it was collectively decided that we were going to mount the mammoth sand dune that overshadowed our campsite to watch the sunset.

Now relative to a mountain, the dune wasn’t high. But It was probably still a straight 70m or so in height and trying to tackle it via a steep incline where every step seems to create a minor sand slide was no easy feat. After a lot of swearing, and a lot of ‘screw you Will, I don’t want to do this – I can see the sunset just fine from here’-type exchanges, we made it.

At the top, finally!

Here’s what we were greeted with…

The climb was hard work, and I’d be lying if I said the stuffy hours spent in the minivan were enjoyable by any stretch of the imagination. However seeing the sunset from the top of that dune in the Sahara I think would have to be genuinely one of the highlights of all the travel I’ve ever done and was worth every non-air conditioned minute spent in that van!


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