With the sun beating down overhead and no clouds to encumber it, I found myself in motoring along outside Tinejdad, Morocco when the figure stepped into the middle of the dusty road, forcing me to violently apply my car’s brakes.
Fortunately, the little silver Suzuki Alto proved extremely responsive, and after the vehicle came to a rest I scanned the man before me, a beaming smile on his face and a golden cape flowing in the warm breeze. I’d received a warning about the potential dangers of picking up hitchhikers in Morocco and, although I had no reason to panic, my foot hovered over the accelerator.
Brow slightly furrowed, I waited as he approached the car. He seemed unaware of his near-death experience as he stuck his head through the driver’s window.
The man spoke, his grin growing even wider. He radiated such warmth any apprehensions I may have had quickly evaporated. “Hello, sir, how are you? Are you going to Merzouga?”
Luckily, I was. Having journeyed to Morocco to celebrate my 30th birthday, I had sampled the delights of Marrakech and seen Jimi Hendrix’s bachelor pad in Essaouria before soaking in the Atlantic coast off Mirleft and was now driving across the country’s south in search of the Sahara and, more precisely, a camel to ride.
The route seemed simple. Having rented my car in Ouarzazate, the red-earthed ‘door to the desert’, I headed along the N10 toward Errachidia and followed the N13 south to Merzouga via Erfoud.
However, being blessed with neither a natural sense of direction nor the strongest Arabic skills, I often relied on sheer guesswork to find my way. Many times I ended up almost driving the wrong way down busy one-way streets, a blaring horn or indignant shout alerting me to my mistakes.
It took a while to get going, but when I finally did, Morocco’s breath-taking beauty revealed itself once more. There was very little traffic to contend with – save for the occasional train of camels – meaning I was free to revel in the pleasingly mesmeric backdrop. The dusty browns of the hills bled into the white peaks of the distant Atlas Mountains before exploding into a deep and cloudless blue sky above.
With the tapes I’d picked up in Ouarzazate providing an authentic Berber soundtrack I took my time enjoying the surroundings. A welcome overnight stop at Tinerhir saw me exploring the canyons of the spectacular Gorges du Todgha before my hosts introduced me to some fine Moroccan hospitality: a warm welcome, mint tea, fresh dates, delicious tagine and enlightening tales of life near the Sahara.
Fast forward a day or so, and my hitchhiking friend made an appearance.
“Yes,” I said as he hopped in the passenger’s seat, introducing himself as Jakani. “Well, I think I am,” I added as I told him my plan.
As luck would have it, Jakani was a trained camel handler and knew just the place. Within a few minutes, I had a plan – I was now on my way to ride a camel towards Erg Chebbi, the dune sea on the edge of the Sahara.
“Will you be ok driving in the desert? I can drive if you want,” he offered as we took a break in the oasis town of Erfoud, stretching our legs amongst its verdant greenery and sand-coloured buildings.
We’d already passed many carcasses of abandoned 4x4s, and the thought of passing more as we headed closer to the desert didn’t fill me with confidence. If these beasts couldn’t handle the Sahara, how would my little hatchback? We’d find out. I declined Jakani’s kind offer to drive and ploughed on, the road, as expected, stopping after Merzouga.
Before long, after traversing dunes and seemingly unending rocky routes, we had reached the Sahara’s edge, a mirage adding a delightful shimmer as the shifting sands stretched into the horizon. The Alto, it turned out, was surprisingly adept at desert driving and I felt a twinge of excitement as I spied a train of camels waiting for us at our destination. It turned out that driving into a desert wouldn’t be my only adventure of the day . . .
(Originally published in the October 2017 edition of Wanderlust magazine. Read part 2 of Tom’s journey.)