With the sun rising and the sound of the previous night’s festivities still ringing in my ears I emerged blurry-eyed from the tent.
A gentle throb in my temples – the result, no doubt, of some genius spiking the mint tea with liquor to produce the slightly more potent ‘desert tea’ – told me I wouldn’t be climbing Erg Chebbi anytime soon so instead I flopped on the nearest dune to await the approaching new day, Marquise cigarette in hand.
The waiting train of camels had the same idea – save for the cigarette – and together we watched as the Sahara was bathed in light. I was mentally preparing myself for the drive back to Ouarzazate, the ‘gate to the desert’, but still had time to stare in wonder as the true scale of the colossal dune revealed itself: the palm trees scattered around the site were no more than pinpricks as the sand pinnacled itself against the sky.
Already the camps were teeming with activity. Tiny figures could be made out as they headed further into the desert for more adventures and the low drone of quad bikes could be heard echoing around the bowl, but this was as far enough for me; the time to saddle up and head to Merzouga was fast approaching.
A light breakfast of bananas, bread and dates fuelled our appetites and before long we found ourselves swaying once more on our camels, Jakani leading our, slightly subdued, merry band on the way back to civilization.
The vast swathes of sand made it difficult to ascertain our position but of one thing I was certain: as enjoyable as our trip had been, it was clear the Sahara took no prisoners. Jakani and his friends had been excellent guides and we had a plentiful supply of water, but lose any one of those elements and we would have been in serious trouble. This being no time for brooding, however, I pushed such thoughts to one side and eased along with the gentle rocking of my camel.
Soon enough, we had returned to Merzouga where the Suzuki Alto was still ticking over – not a good sign, surely – and fond farewells were made. Carlos and Francesca were heading back to Marrakech whereas Jakani was hitching a ride with me. We motored off together in a vague convoy but soon lost each other in a cloud of sand.
“I can drive if you want, Tom. It’s no problem,” Jakani offered again but spirits buoyed by a night in the desert I declined, attacking the approaching dunes with reckless abandon. I whooped loudly as we finally reached concrete and even the Alto seemed to enjoy the return to terra firma, its attendant rattlings and shakings suddenly stopping as we headed along the N13. The Sahara faded into the distance behind us as I paid it a silent tribute.
The parting with Jakani at Rissani was a bittersweet one. I had barely known my hitchhiking friend for 24 hours, but in that time he had taken me into the desert and shown how welcoming Morocco could be to strangers. He had a smile and a song for every occasion and it felt strange as we went off in our own directions, he to Erfoud, me along the N12 to Tazzarine. His parting words felt apt:
“Farewell, Tom. Welcome to my country. Morocco is good for you, is good for me, is good for us all.” I agreed and felt energised as yet more stirring scenery rushed by; the red sand, squat buildings carved into the side of hills and lush greenery created a genuinely timeless atmosphere as I explored the passing towns. I had enjoyed my circular voyage around the south of Morocco and would certainly miss the omnipresent Atlas Mountains brooding in the background.
With the R108 turning into the N9 and Ouarzazate on the horizon, I tuned into Moroccan talk radio in the vain hope of receiving a traffic update. Perhaps I did, but with my Arabic language skills still floundering I was left none the wiser.
Instead, as my destination loomed into view, I relied on good old-fashioned guesswork to lead me home. I recognised a lot of the city’s landmarks and they all had one thing in common: they were not where I needed to be. Hours were spent circling around in the same fashion as water going down a plughole, until finally I came to a stop and breathed a sigh of relief.
The journey was over. I had seen southern Morocco. The Sahara had been explored. I had spent time in the company of good people. All that remained was to return my rental car.
I looked around. I was at the wrong hotel.