Left to my own devices, I’d never be up and out by 7am but properly motivated, say by a trip to the Sahara Desert, I was easily persuaded to make the effort. We’d booked the trip through our riad who had arranged for us to be picked up from there. We were met by a guide who led us across town to another meeting point where some sort of order disguised as extreme chaos, saw Liz and I marshalled into a taxi and others on to various minibuses going here, there and everywhere. Not at all confident that we were where we needed to be, the driver took us right back to Jemaa el fna only meters from our riad. We waited here with other confused tourists being moved from one minibus to another like pieces in a bizarre game of Moroccan chess.
As lovely as it was to see the square so peaceful, quiet and relatively cool, by 8am the waiting was starting to wear thin when I considered that I could’ve slept an extra hour! At some time closer to 9am, we were ready for take off having played musical buses several times, not at all convinced we were on the right one but prepared to go wherever it was going just to get out of there! We had an Arabic/French speaking driver but no guide. Our fellow passengers seemed similarly confused and with no common language among us, we were unable to offer each other much assurance.
Luckily the ever changing landscape needed no introduction and no words in any language could have done justice to the incredible scale and grandeur of the unfolding scenery. Our drive to Ouarzazate, aka ‘The door to the desert’, should have taken about four hours non-stop, over the stunning Atlas Mountain range. Luckily, however, we stopped several times along the way to take in the beauty of National-Geographic-esque views that revealed themselves at every twist and turn of the precarious, hairpin turning, cliff hugging roads. None the less, there were moments I just had to close my eyes and hang on tight as we negotiated passes on narrow roads with sheer drops to the valley far below barely an arms length away – the kind you see in over-forwarded emails that make your stomach drop. There were some truly terrifying moments.
As we travelled, trees gave way to cactus’ which gave way to red dirt which gave way to desert sand. Small villages would suddenly appear as though they had organically emerged from their surroundings rather than being purpose built. From the barren dryness, oasis’ would spring up, their lush greeness announcing nearby pockets of habitation.
Our penultimate stop was at the kasbah of Ait Benhaddou – an ancient fortified city that is still inhabited to this day, though not by many. We were free to walk around and explore – it felt quite surreal to be somewhere so ancient and yet have it feel so familiar, a bit like visiting New York for the first time only this actually felt like walking around an abandoned movie set. As it turns out, it has been used in several movies including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and most impressively, Jewel of the Nile which my Nana took me to see in 1985 – I guess I have seen it before! It didn’t take long to use up our allotted time but the desert heat seemed to interfere with our navigational skills so try as we might, we just couldn’t find the path back. We found an exit but it led nowhere and every entrance back in was guarded by groups of local kids wanting to extort an entrance fee. In the end, we decided to cut across what looked like a river bed but the camels who seemed to be quite at home in it, seemed to suggest it had been a long time, if ever, since it had seen water!
Glad to be back in the relative cool of the minibus, we set off to our final destination – Ouarzazate. It was never made entirely clear to us what the itinerary of the day was and the language barrier between everyone involved only led to further confusion so when we pulled into the car park of what appeared to be a super-sized kasbah, we weren’t entirely sure where the Saharah was. We were able to ascertain that this was it! We were on its front doorstep, it was just far more ‘contructed’ than we had anticipated.
The 11 of us headed to the restaurant in our smaller clusters and had lunch separately before dispersing into the surrounding area. Liz and I decided to seek solice in what we took to be a museum – we didn’t care, as long as it was out of the direct sun. We paid our admission and entered to discover it was more like a church that we had full run of. We could stand on the alter, sit in the ornate seats – nothing seemed off limits. We followed stairs down to the basement where there was a prison cell… and then up again to find a royal court… and then a royal chamber… what was this place? We started noticing little plaques around with names of movies that had been filmed there when it finally dawned on us – none of this was real! It was all a set and we were indeed inside a museum, a film museum! It certainly explained why the church had pictures of scorpions rather than deities.
We left the shade of the museum and headed back out into the full desert heat which was pushing the mercury above 50 degrees. Luckily it was dry heat but still stifling. We wandered aimlessly for a while but didn’t get far before making a full retreat to get water. Even out here, we could feel all eyes on us and in the short time it took for me to go get a bottle of water while Liz waited at a table, we were both propositioned and with the last of our energy, declined. Just in case we changed our mind, facebook details were provided.
All that remained was the long drive back to Marrakech. The driver pumped up the volume on his one Arabic album and put it on a constant loop – eventually I had to approximate the lyrics into english so I could sing along – ‘Now we know’ became my favourite.
As the sun set, we pulled over to watch it drop behind the Atlas Mountains. It was one of those moments in life that is so extraordinary, you can’t help but register its significance as its happening – here I was in Africa for the first time in my life, I’d just come from the Sahara Desert having visited kasbahs amid oasis’ with camels roaming free – all these things that live in the furthest reaches of our imaginations and here I was amongst it – a long held dream coming true. But then I felt the space beside me again and turned to see who wasn’t there. This moment felt inevitable and yet I had always imagined it would be shared with Matthew.
But I wasn’t alone, I was with one of the people dearest to me in the world – Elizabeth saw my sadness and shared my grief with such a genuine heart that the moment took on even greater gravity as the sun sunk out of view.
The rest of the trip passed in a sombre silence until we finally arrived back at Jemaa el fna at 10.30pm – only 6 hours later than scheduled. Exhausted by the magnitude of the day and the physical and emotional toll it had taken, we stopped only for a final ice cream before heading back to the riad for well earned showers and bed.