One of the best days of our trip took us from Midelt into the Erg Chebbi dunes of the Sahara Desert, near Morocco's border, by van and camel.
It was a long, hot drive, though we had lots of stops on the way – albeit mostly in the morning – first being a place run by some Franciscans where they get the local woman doing weaving and embroidery to give them more options than they would traditionally have to get a little income/some skills…
We went over (and stopped in) a fairly low but dry mountain pass with a few curious trees and some very porous volcanic rock, and stopped again by a oasis by a broad blue-green river, with date palms next to it and a mud-brick settlement beyond.
But for lunch we picnicked above a broad river valley, where you could really easily see the impact that water has on the land – the base of the valley was filled with a thick, lush green stripe of trees while the sides of the valley and the mesa we were on was (in autumn) nothing but nearly-dead dry clay.
As we headed further south-east the country became drier and drier, hotter and hotter, and sandier and sandier.
At one point we could see someone's attempts to hold back the advance of the desert sands – tessellating the area by the roads with low fences made of sticks and some kind of dried grassy foliage. Probably a lot better than nothing, but I think it'd probably be like shoveling back the tide.
Somewhere around this part of the country we could also see repeated lines of mounds of earth, clearly from digging a hole. I asked the guide Brahim what they were for and he said they were for water, which made a certain amount of sense… but was there really artesian well water there?
I've been looking into it, and I think I now know what they were – qanats, otherwise known as khettara. This is a technology thought to probably originate from Persia (now Iran), but used by all peoples around North Africa and the Middle East, with a few Mediterranean civilizations having something very similar too.
The idea is simple – water running down from the mountains (perhaps some way off in the distance) will be continually falling further and further down vertically as it runs down the underground slopes. By the time it gets to where your village happens to be, it'll be so far underground that you'd need to dig a considerable well and then haul the water back up – a burdensome task particularly in the pre-mechanisation era.
But with an investment of engineering effort, you can do a lot better. Water will only naturally run downhill, but it doesn't have to run much downhill. If you tunnel up towards the water sources on a gentler slope you'll still eventually intercept the plane the water is running on, and then voila – line your tunnel appropriately and the water will run down your nice low-resistance channel rather than trickling down through the earth itself, and back at your village it can come out at or near ground level rather than down much lower where wells would have to go to.
Of course, they probably didn't actually start this way around (building a huge tunnel from the village end towards the far-off water). In reality settlements would only be made in places where there was enough water to sustain them – at that time. But as demand increased, the climate changed, or the centuries-old pool of water down in the water plane was drawn out faster than replacement, the water would effectively seem to withdraw back towards the source. Initially, you only need to make a small tunnel to get to it; as time goes on and it withdraws further, you need to dig further and further “uphill” through the ground to reach it, and your qanat grows. There's a helpful animation showing this on that Khettara page.
To make it possible to maintain this infrastructure you'll need to be able to get into the tunnel, and you'll need to breath in there, so you can't just have it open at the village end – and it would be very difficult to mine out in the first place if you had to cart the tailings back to the open end of the tunnel. So in reality you always need to make regular vertical shafts for ventilation and this will look just like a line of well shafts stretching across the desert.
It's possible what I saw was just the results of someone digging a score of holes in the hope of lucking out and hitting a water vein under the ground, but I reckon these were qanats. Morocco definitely has used them fairly widely in the past, and while people are starting to forget about them, there's been a small movement in the Arabic-speaking world in recent decades to try and restore knowledge of how they work and fix up older ones that have fallen into disrepair.
We'd had a merciful stop somewhere with very much appreciated slushy but cold-enough iceblocks and (miraculously) wifi – an unexpected chance to update the Facebook status before we headed into the Sahara!
The drive in to Merzouga, the town on the edge of the dunes, was stinking hot – the temperature readout on the van crept up further and further, peaking around 39°C outside – no aircon in the van!
I realised belatedly that we were already in the Sahara. I guess having seen the classic photos of the dunes, I'd sort of assumed that the Sahara was dunes followed by more dunes, but no – the Erg (dune sea) we were headed towards, Erg Chebbi, is only about 20km long and only about 8km wide. Much of the desert is simply flat and relatively featureless, supporting some vegetation but especially in autumn when we visited, was mostly just sand.
The road isn't paved and doesn't have gravel, it's just the tracks people follow along, with occasional markers. There were more than a few other vehicles on it, the majority of them probably either being for tourists or carrying stuff to service the populations that service the tourists who want to go into the dunes, and despite the flat terrain the road was badly abused enough to be pretty uncomfortable to ride on, with the driver swerving around alot to avoid unseen obstacles (presumably potholes).
So we were glad to finally decamp at the auberg in Merzouga where we would store our bags overnight. We weren't staying there though – and certainly not at the flash-looking Kasbah hotel across the road – we were off to overnight in the Erg.
We wrapped up in our scarfs or whatever (t-shirt in my case – almost internet t-shirt ninja style – and after a fair while of the desert guides faffing about making the camels ready in whatever inscrutable way the camels were not already ready when they bought them over, we piled the thick animal-smelling rugs on the beasts' backs, hooked our day-bags on, clambered on, held on to the “handlebars” attached to the saddle strap, and with a noise the guys got the camels to stand up and we lurched into the air, one by one. The camels were all tied together into a caravan, so one of the Bedouin desert guides simply took the lead of the front one and started walking, and we were off.
A couple of times we had to stop while they rearranged the train, some camels just don't like being behind/in front of certain other camels some days, so they swap them around until no-one's making a fuss. I ended up on the very back of the train which made for excellent photos of the caravan ahead.
And off we went, and it was exactly like you imagine it would be – plodding quietly into a landscape of undulating, increasingly large deep yellow dunes with a blue sky overhead and the sun slowly setting in the distance, casting shadows of the camels on the sand behind us. Really beautiful.
There's a lot of side-to-side sway as the camels walk, so you do pretty much want to have at least one hand on the handlebars at least when you're going up and down slopes, but they're pretty easy to get used to. The flies on the other hand were incredibly persistent and bothersome and I was glad I was wrapped up with my face covered as they were annoying even then!
Our tour guide preferred to walk, and he and one of the Bedouin desert guides wandered off on a different line across the dunes. If you zoom in to that last photo you can see them silhouetted against the last hills the sun disappeared behind.
We met them at the camp, a small cluster of boxy tents at the foot of one of the dunes, near a relative oasis (a patch 10m wide of green grasslike vegetation poking through the dunes – you saw one of these every few minutes in a relatively sheltered spot).
Half a dozen of us clambered up the big dune we were next to. It's a lot harder than it looks, or vastly harder if you try and climb straight up the face of it rather than going around to the “side” and walking up its ridgeline. If you do that and tread very lightly, you can almost put your weight down without breaking through the surface, which is when your feet sink deep in and you have to do far more work. Maybe some old-fashioned snowshoes would work nicely!
If you were a business consultant you would get great wanky anecdote material out of climbing dunes – every time you started to get near your goal of the top of the dune, you'd get high enough to see that actually that was only a kinda inflection point, where the slope gets much shallower, and that what you thought was the dune was actually just a part of a much bigger dune, and you still have a long way to go. Kinda frustrating but amusing too :).
We clambered back down (well OK, Simon rolly-pollyd down the face of the dune, and Angus jumped… the rest of us clambered), and joined the group around the camp table. Pretty soon the stars were bright and clearly visible overhead – obviously miles away from any appreciable pollution you get a fantastic view out there. You could see satellites tracking overhead occasionally too, and every few minutes there'd be a small shooting star, plus a few big ones many of us saw.
Dinner took ages to come but was tasty – juicy olives, tagine with chicken and veges, the everpresent bread, and afterwards delicious yellow melon after which attracted clouds of moths that quickly started piling up dead around the gas lamps. The tour guide had organised a box of fine sweet biscuits which were presented and candles light for Angus, whose birthday it was, and the Bedouin got our their instruments we all sung him a Moroccan-backed ‘happy birthday’.
After some more chatting and watching for shooting stars, we retired to bed. It was mercifully cool at night, they'd provided us with more blankets like the ones we sat on the camel on (but slightly less camel-smelling), which I needed to pull over my sleep sheet partway through the night. It was lovely and quiet out there so I slept well… except for when the cat kept running over the top of the tent sending gentle rains of sand down onto me.
(A bit surprisingly, I read that there is a Sand Cat that's native to the hot deserts like the Sahara too extreme even for the African Wildcat aka. the ‘desert cat’. Both are however fairly rare now, partly because they interbreed easily with regular domestic/feral cats and so have become indistinct as humans move around so much and keep cats. I think this was probably just a regular cat, but then that African Wildcat photo looks exactly like the housecat which was in fact domesticated from them to me, so I don't know how you'd tell if it was one of them! The Sand Cats have a noticeably different face shape – wish I'd known about them before I went to Morocco so I could have looked for them.)
I'd set my alarm for 5:45am the next morning as the guide suggested, and woke up well before it – first up in the camp, I stumbled out of the tent and started clambering around and up the dune again to catch the sunrise. Turns out you didn't need to get up quite that early at that time of year, which is sad since that's f**king early by my standards, but some of the others started coming up too soon after and there was a great view across the dunes in the pre-dawn light. Finally the sun started to rise, a bright yellow point expanding into a disc and then, once it was fully above the horizon, just a bright glowing mass in the sky. Very serene, and cool being able to look straight at it quite safely. Do I look tired in the photo? I was tired.
Once everyone was up and sorted the camels got hitched up again and we trekked back to the auberg where our driver was waiting with the van. The desert colors were very deep at this kind of time, light golden or rich yellow but also all the way down to brown, with a perfect blue sky. I remember seeing some paintings of the desert that I always thought looked really tacky and fake because the colors were all wrong… and yeah, turns out they actually look just like that at some times of day :).
We passed the hat around for the Bedouin guides and gave fairly generously, since we'd all had a great time, and were slightly offended when they thanked the woman who handed it to them and without a pause for breath launched into trying to sell her some jewelery… not very polite and she had to pretty much walk away! One or two of the others gave them a bit more attention though.
After a light breakfast at the auberge (cold showers optional) we hopped back in the van and started heading North-West, starting to close our almost-complete loop around Morocco. The towns on the way were a bit quieter, mainly workshops and convenience-store kind of things with ochre walls and light green doors.
We made a stop too at a fossil place where they saw clean through massive blocks of rock containing fossils, particularly ammonites and fossilised proto-fish, from which they fashioned everything from giant ugly fountains to nice little pendants, after a lot of cutting and polishing.