We left Ouarzazate just after noon on Wednesday, headed out on the longer but more scenic route to Merzouga, which would take us through a mix of desert, mountains and gorges, as well as a surprising amount of berber villages and small to mid-sized towns. As the drive ended up taking almost eight hours (including a stop for a game of pool and a serving of abandoned gas station tajine with peach juice on an outdoor patio twenty feet from a gas pump), we drove the remaining portion from Erfoud to Merzouga (one of the more desolate stretches of the drive and the beginning of the true Sahara) in total darkness. Driving at night is not recommended in rural Morocco not because of the threat of banditry, but because both people and animals like to walk down the middle of the highways at night and those that are piloting motor vehicles (mopeds, cars and trucks) tend to not use their lights. Fortunately we had the sense to turn off of the main highway and drive somewhat aimlessly down a secondary road in the direction of the dunes to find a lodge to put us up for the night. Of course we chose the palace (The Nasser Palace) with the gigantic sign with two camels and a wifi logo.
After negotiating with the owner (who spoke no less than eight languages) for a while on the price for a room with dinner and breakfast, he agreed to knock down the price because we were from Chicago and his brother lives there with his new wife who was once a guest at the palace. The dinner- a delicious homemade soup and chicken tajine with a bottle of Moroccan rosé was worth the cost of the room alone. The owner of the palace joined us for a bit of the meal and seemed to be pretty bored with the fact that there were a total of six guests spending the night, two of which were sleeping in tents in the desert. After he went of to talk to the Italians, the one shitty employee came by to pitch himself as a tour guide for the dunes- which are a thirty minute hike from the palace. Though we politely declined by suggesting that we’d show ourselves to the dunes in the morning, he insisted and even offered to “take us to see the black people” (there is a village of Senegalese refugees next to Merzouga) for an extra fifty dirham. After dinner we explored the roof and took some long exposures of the desert, which actually gave us our first real view of the dunes that lie just past the palace.
Thursday morning we woke up at 5:45 to hike to the dunes for sunrise, which is quite possibly the first time in my adult life that I’ve seen a sunrise in a situation where I had not stayed out acting a fool all night beforehand. The dunes themselves (Erg Chebbi, they’re called) are hundreds of feet tall, exist over an area three miles wide and fifteen miles long, and form the buffer between the towns in southeastern Morocco and the border with Algeria. Getting to the base of the sand from the palace took about twenty minutes and climbing to the top another half an hour. We spent a few hours lounging around at the top, enjoying the morning golden hour and looking down at the village in the distance. Listening to R Kelly on Clayton’s iPhone while tumbling down the backside of the dune towards Algeria was pretty much the highlight of my day.
After returning to the palace for breakfast (as well as the stink-eye from our would-be tour guide) and a pool session, we packed up our trusty Dacia and hit the road back to civilization, not knowing whether we’d make it back to Marrakech that night or sleep in the car somewhere along the way. We’d decided to take the shorter, less scenic (relatively), and more desolate (way less towns, no westerners) route back to Ouarzazate, which ended up cutting that leg of the drive from eight to just over five hours. Though we’d stopped halfway through for strawberry wafer cookies and bottled coke at a little village store, we decided to stop back in Ouarzazate for a real dinner (at the upscale Moroccan restaurant immediately next to the lowbrow Moroccan restaurant at which we’d eaten dinner two days earlier), over which we decided to return to the hotel where we’d stayed two nights earlier and negotiate a return customer deal. Surprisingly this worked and we agreed on a rate significantly less than we’d paid earlier in the week, provided we would forego breakfast. This was not an issue, especially considering that they failed to inform us that we were actually entitled to breakfast on our first stay.
That night we decided to call Tarik, the rightful owner of our vehicle, to attempt to make arrangements to deliver said vehicle in Marrakech the next day. Tarik is not fluent in the combination English and Spanish with a few words of mispronounced French and Arabic, and this proved to be a failure. After calling our friend Fadil in Rabat and requesting his skills as a translator, we had an appointment to meet Tarik at the Marrakech train station the next morning between 11:30 and noon. This would require us to leave Ouarzazate by 7:00 in the morning, not drive off a cliff crossing the Atlas mountains, successfully navigate Marrakech traffic on a Friday morning, and find a place to park the car and locate this person in the center of the city. Miraculously, this worked out perfectly and we waited with the car parked illegally in the exit of the taxi turnaround at the station for about ten minutes before Tarik showed up and repossessed the car. As a parting gift, we left him with a burnt cd (we managed to get a few of the discs to work) containing Weezer’s Blue Album and Pinkerton, as well as another containing the first half of the new Kanye album, both which I will, with any luck, not hear again for quite some time.
After buying second class (never again) tickets back to Rabat, we posted up in the upstairs of the station McDonald’s, taking shelter from the 95 degree heat and hoarding wifi and stuffing our faces with freedom frites. Immediately after situating ourselves in an eight person compartment in the car second from the front of the train, I knew second class was a mistake, as the train was full and the air conditioning not in use. The next five hours were somewhat of a fever dream, as I’d dose off and periodically snap back to life dripping sweat wondering how I could still possibly be listing to the same LCD track.
Back in somewhat familiar territory in Rabat and covered in stale sweat, we walked in circles around Fadil’s office for twenty minutes before finally calling him to realize that we’d literally been two blocks away the whole time. We had beers at the French restaurant next door and picked up pizzas to take back to the apartment where we enjoyed more beers and some internet television and music swapping while debating going to “Le Purple”, the club down the street, just to see how bad it could be. Fortunately we did not do this, and instead went to bed at a decent hour so that we could actually accomplish things the next day. These “things” consisted of eating kebabs for lunch in Rabat, jumping on a train to Meknes, and hopefully finding a place to stay. Thinking somewhat ahead, I took care of the place to stay just before we ate lunch, when I booked an absurdly cheap last minute rate at a French chain hotel in the new section of Meknes.
We spent last night investigating the seedy underbelly of Meknes, the bulk of today exploring (getting lost in) the old city of Meknes, this afternoon traveling by urine soaked-second class-standing room only train car to Fes, and this evening wandering the new city of Fes in the rain. More on that soon.
After staying up until sunrise Saturday night eating kabobs, drinking at a fancy hotel bar, and debating the merits (and lack thereof) of metal, we woke up at one in the afternoon on Sunday and decided that instead of heading east to Fes, we’d jump on a train to Marrakech and try to figure out how to eventually drive over the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara. Pretty typical.
I booked two nights at a five star riad turned hostel in the medina a few blocks in from the Djemma el Fna for about $18 per night and after a quick walk through Rabat (taxi boycott continued) and a delicious departure pastilla and coffee, we were sitting in an eight seat compartment on a train to Casablanca, hoping that we’d get there with enough time to transfer to the train that we were supposed to be on originally which left about two minutes after the one that we mistakenly jumped on as it was leaving the station.
Fortunately, crossing tracks in Casablanca ended up being a non-issue, and we were on the proper train within minutes of arriving. Our second class seats were quite comfortable for the four hour trip, despite the standing room only for the first few stops out of the city.
The train station in Marrakech is on the new (relatively speaking) side of town, near the designer shops, boutique hotels, and expensive clubs and restaurants. The station itself is beautiful and much larger than the stations in Casa or Rabat. It’s also a few miles across town from the medina, and after a quick serving of fries and wifi from the station McDonald’s (again, wifi) we walked across every last foot of it on our way to the hostel and were checked in by midnight. Finding it was a good time, as the directions involved walking through arches and alleys, making u-turns, and walking specific amounts of steps in many different directions from the left side of the largest cafe on the square.
The hostel (Equity Point Marrakech) was without a doubt the most beautiful and pleasant I’ve ever stayed at. Besides the fact that they have a pool and incredible rooftop terrace, the guy who works the front desk (gucci mane enthusiast) was able to get us a rental car (which we’re pretty certain is his friend’s personal car) for three nights for less than the price that the international rental chains wanted for one day.
Our time in Marrakech was spent getting lost in the souks, dodging mopeds and donkeys, eating kabobs and olives in the square, drinking delicious fresh squeezed orange juice, and lounging in the pool.
Two nights wasn’t exactly enough, and I’m kind of hoping that after returning
from this outrageously aimless desert roadtrip that we’ve embarked upon, we can spend Friday night back in the city and see what kind of shenanigans we can find in the newer side of town.