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July 1, 2013

Adventures in Berberland

Casablanca Tours takes globorati on a private odyssey through the desert dreamscapes of Morocco.

Whenever you surrender to doing a multi-day tour through a travel operator, there are so many what if’s — especially when you want the freedom of carving your own customized itinerary balanced with the wisdom of a true on-the-ground expert who can navigate all the cultural nuances of a country, not to mention a fast-changing topography of desert, mountain and verdant valleys.

In Morocco, we went with Casablanca Tours — which, thankfully for us, meant a stress-free and illuminating experience. Private driver-guide who speaks perfect English (his fourth language, after Arabic, French and Spanish): check. Said guide who turns up every day in a suit and tie (and regulation secret-service shades) and always makes sure to fill up the gas tank when you’re asleep at your hotel: check. Said guide who understands what “off-the-beaten-track” means, and takes you there: check.

Heading east from Marrakech, our guide, Ahmed Sellam, took us to the desert outpost of Ouarzazate, soon to be the site of the world’s largest solar power plant. There’s not much in Ouarzazate beyond the surrounding desert emptiness — which is why it’s blossomed as Morocco’s Hollywood (the long list of productions filmed here includes Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones). But it’s what you see en route to this oasis town that’s so beguiling: this is kasbah country, and the dusty horizon is lined with ancient sun-baked forts (made from nothing more than mud and straw), some crumbling more than others.

If you’re susceptible to car sickness then this isn’t the journey for you: to get to Ouarzazate you must cross the High Atlas mountains through the hairpins of the Tizi’n Tichka pass, aka the most ridiculously twisty-turny cliffside highway you’ll ever see (pictured). At least we weren’t there in the snowy season.

This is also the heart of Berber country (Morocco’s pre-Arab ethnic group), and in Tinghir we found a third-generation carpet shop, Maison Berbere (no website), that is the model antidote to the war-of-attrition style of sales found in Marrakech. They’re not shy on the prices but it’s all entertaining stuff with plenty of mint tea flowing and an education on carpet making (plus, in the end the missus came away with a necklace as a gift from the owner).

The big draw of the region, though, is the Sahara. To reach our desert base camp we transferred to a Land Rover at Erfoud, and drove the remaining 45 miles over a roadless moonscape to Merzouga (a road linking the two is now under construction). There we found Kasbah Hotel Lahmada (one of dozens of auberges that now line the fringes of the iconic Erg Chebbi dunes), with its own enclave of luxury tents (pictured).

Luxury can mean many different things in the desert. At Lahmada it means a beautiful patchwork of Berber carpets on which to stargaze, listen to visiting musicians and eat chicken and olive tagine. All of the tents have en suite bathrooms (I made the mistake of asking about the sewage system; there isn’t one), and the whole camp is wired with electricity and wifi (so long as you’re traveling with Ahmed, who took great pride in booting a 4G wifi hub through his smart phone).

The nearby dunes can be accessed early morning or late afternoon (or anytime in between if you prefer to fry from the heat). But you’d do well to take Ahmed’s advice: Steer clear of the sunset circus of visitors, and get up early — really early, for a sunrise camel trek.

We did, and thus had the hulking mass of sands pretty much to ourselves: giant golden hills stretching 18 miles wide and up to 500 feet high. The immensity was one thing, the colors were something else: the light and patterns shift with every passing minute from pre-dawn violets to post-sunrise amber and rose.

From our photos afterwards, you’d swear the vista was green-screened.

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