Morocco: Sandstorm-Dispatch 1

Our drive through Morocco was more an excursion than a journey. At the time, we didn’t realize we were doing a practice run for things to come. We just wanted to see a broad cross-section of the country at our own speed and in a compressed amount of time. It seemed clear to us that the best way to do it would be to rent a 4×4, buy some maps and drive ourselves wherever we wished to go. So, we did.

Even on so short a trip, and with no expectations of applying our experience to something more rigorous in the future, we each fell into what later became our standard roles. Bernard drove. I handled the maps and the snacks.

Early in our five-day excursion, we arrived at a lovely auberge in Derkoua, twenty miles or so from the edge of the Sahara. Stopping only long enough to check in and leave our bags, we continued along a forlorn track to a spot known to offer camel treks into the desert. Not having much time, we hoped we’d at least be able to wander through the dunes for a few hours. Pointing to two dromedaries who looked appealingly sturdy and obedient, we mounted up. A nice breeze was blowing, lifting fine Sahara grains into the air. Our guide, a small Bedouin lad in a white burnous, handed each of us a keffiyeh to wrap around our head and mouth, mine red and white, Bernard’s black and white. In a gentle ploy to avoid having to remember, let alone pronounce, our names, he dubbed Bernard “Moustache” (because he has a big one), and me “Gazelle”, the nickname used for women by guides throughout Morocco. The sun shone and we were ready for our single-humped ships of the desert to carry us forth.

It took next to no time for them to bear us beyond the first dunes, after which no sign of civilization was visible. It was just us, the swaying dromedaries (I’d use “camels” but that would refer to the two-humped beasts), endless waves of sand and the enterprising young boy leading the way. Soon, the breeze turned strong enough to whip the ends of my keffiyeh out of their securing knot. I struggled to retie them as the wind, brisker now, kept tugging them out. It was pleasant, though, to have the cooling effect of this now stiff wind and we enjoyed it. That is, up until the moment when our personal Bedouin asked us to look at the far horizon. I expected to see more dunes in the direction he was pointing, or even better, a camel train making its regal way toward us. I didn’t. Instead, I saw the sky obscured by an undulating grey wall. It spanned the entire horizon. And it was moving toward us.

“Run,” shouted our guide, his voice seeming to reach us from far away. We got back in half the time it had taken us to venture into the dune-scape, by which time the grey wall also had covered half the distance it needed in order to reach us. By then I could see roiling clouds of sand swirling within it, and the entire hulking mass seemed to gain in density and scope as it heaved down upon us. Giving my camel a quick farewell scratch, I jumped into our car and we headed back up the road to our auberge, twenty miles away.

We had barely reached the white-washed rocks someone had thoughtfully placed along the track ages ago –perhaps to mark it for just such an occasion–when the sandstorm enveloped us like Dracula’s cloak, blotting out the sun and turning the smiling day dark, evil yellow-grey dusk. Howling like a banshee, the storm invaded the car through every crack and crevice. It instantly coated the dashboard, permeated my hair, forced me to scrunch my eyes to slits to protect my contact lenses. Pulling my shirt tails over my mouth I yelled at Bernard, “What are we going to do?!”

Bernard, being Bernard, said, “Drive.”

And we did. Bernard inched the car from white marker to white marker for what seemed like hours as the sandstorm shrieked and moaned around us. I sweated with anxiety, my mind creating one scare story after another. In the most heartening, we veered off the road and were buried by the immensity of sand swirling around us. In the most dismal, I imagined the discomfort of slowly suffocating as sand filled my nose and mouth. Through all this I tried to keep myself from expressing my terror to Bernard, who was so obviously in his element, thrilled at the experience of it all. “Copy Bernard,” I said to myself. “ Enjoy this. It’s not everyone who’s had a chance to be in a real Sahara sandstorm.” But I couldn’t. I was terrified and miserable.

It took us four times as long to get back to our inn as it had taken to reach the camels earlier in the day. When finally the vague outline of the auberge appeared in the gloom, I nearly peed myself in relief. We dashed, bent double, into the eerie gloom of the hotel dining room. Sand swirled everywhere inside. With the generator not functioning, the kind French owner had brought up bottles of wine for his guests, to ease our nerves. We didn’t allow the omnipresent sand to dissuade us from uncorking the bottles and sipping a gritty glass of Beaujolais. Thus soothed, and having eaten a cold snack of bread and goat cheese provided solicitously by our host, we went to our sandy beds and tried to pretend we were spending the night on the beach.

As with weather everywhere, the sandstorm abated in its own time. After 18 hours, we were back on the road, this time heading high into the Atlas mountains, to an altitude where sandstorms couldn’t reach us.

If you’d like to know more details about this trek, or have questions about what skill level would enjoy such an experience, post to me below.

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