Sahara trek - Part 1

At the top of the highest sand dune - Eric.
At the top of the highest sand dune - Eric.
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Friday - Day 1

As I got off the plane in Marrakech a wave of warmth hit me. It was mid-afternoon and only about 21 degrees but it felt like a heat wave compared to the rain and cold I had left at Gatwick.

The view from the tent.

The view from the tent.

The bus journey from the airport was an experience in itself. Any space on the road is fair game and horns replace brakes. I was later told by our guide ‘the rules are the same but they play the game a different way’.

After arriving at our Riad, a mass of rooms and a swimming pool hidden behind double doors, we got ready to explore. We walked towards the square not knowing what to expect. All of a sudden we stepped out into a mass of bright lights and colour.

The square was incredible. Much bigger than I expected with thousands of people milling around in the hustle and bustle. Traders selling everything from oranges to fezs and toy snakes- that looked incredibly real when they are pushed towards you! As I found to the amusement of my fellow trekkers.

After a lovely meal, which cost only £8, we head towards the crowds, which were gathering around the street entertainers. The story tellers were very popular, although not understanding Arabic did make it slightly less exciting. People were flicking coloured lights into the air, which added to the colour of the square and there were acrobats and henna artists.

Marrakech at night

Marrakech at night

There were also more distressing goings on with snake charmers holding sedated snakes and people with monkeys on chains.

Saturday - Day 2

We rose early for breakfast and prepared for the first leg of the mammoth journey across the High Atlas mountains towards the Sahara.

As we travelled out of the city and rose higher up the mountains the views changed dramatically. Leaving behind orange and olive trees the land became quite arid but was broken up with incredible splashes of bright green with crops and palm trees.

The higher we went along the windy mountain road the more impressive the views became. You could see for miles across varying landscapes.

It was almost like travelling back in time passing villages and houses that were miles from anywhere and seeing women washing their clothes in the stream before leaving them to dry on the rocks around them.

As we travelled, at some speed, along the twisty road I became very aware of the deadly drop that was at the side of us. This awareness turned to fear when I realised how different the rules of the road are in Morocco - I looked up at one stage to see the minibus in front of us overtake on a blind bend leaving the vehicle just centimetres from the edge.

After a few hours we stopped at a famous kasbah where the film Gladiator was set. We walked up the hill where the old village used to be and learned about how the villagers used to share one building with animals on the ground floor and families living above.

As we reached the top of the mound we looked down on the film set to see a whirlwind blowing around in the background. It was breath-taking.

Shortly after this stop the first of our minibuses was stopped by police. We waited for them a bit further on but after a few nerve-racking moments they were allowed to continue. This was not the only time they were stopped.

A few hours later we arrived in Ouarzazate, which is nicknamed the Hollywood of Morocco. We drove by the sets where films such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven were made.

It felt a lot colder as we got into the hotel and after a quick meal we all got some rest in anticipation of our first steps into the desert the next day.

Sunday - Day 3

The excitement and nerves really kicked in today. As we travelled closer to the desert the land became flatter and more arid.

Deciding that the locals know best we stopped to buy headscarves, which we were shown how to put on. After a few attempts we were all experts and it wasn’t until this stage that I noticed most of the locals were in baseball caps.

We stopped for lunch and did a group photo in the sand, which was immediately sent back to the Journal.

Soon after this we met up with the camel herders for the first time and surrounded by children begging for everything from money to our water we took our first steps on the sand.

I had imagined that we would be walking through soft sand dunes but this was not the case. The ground was hard with quite a lot of vegetation.

It also did not seem very remote. After only an hours walking there was the occasional house and we were not yet out of reach of the pick-up trucks as we arrived at our first camping spot in some small dunes.

This was the first time we saw the cooking tent where our food was to be prepared for the next six days. It was incredible. Two chefs and some of the camel herders were squashed in this tiny tent with basic equipment.

Our first desert meal was amazing. If you had said to me that I would be eating little more than vegetables for a week I would not have been happy but the intense flavour the chefs managed to get into those vegetables was incredible. It was not until the end of the trip that we found out their spice secrets.

Monday - Day 4

Waking up in the Sahara is an incredible feeling. When I first opened my eyes it was still quite dark and the temperature had dropped from the mid-30s to what felt like freezing. Wrapped up in my duvet jacket I emerged from the tent and placed my foot on the cold sand. I was tired and anxious about the day ahead but as the sun began to rise over the dunes the whole camp lit up and I felt so lucky to be there.

At 7am we were called over to breakfast, which like all of our meals was set up for us on the floor. There was porridge and bread and a variety of jams and drinks.

As we ate we watched the camel herders load the camels with all our stuff from bags to water and everything else we would need in the next five days - including several trays of eggs, which were balanced carefully in the centre of one of the camel’s backs. They became a hot topic of conversation over the next few days as we wondered how long eggs could survive being carried around in temperatures, which were hitting 40 degrees!

In our walking boots and ready to go we set out on the first proper day of trekking. We were told we could stop after lunch but five hours seemed a long time to walk in the heat. Especially when walking over dunes, which made your feet sink further back than your original step.

At some stages we walked on hard ground, then all of a sudden sand dunes would rise ahead of us. At the beginning of the trek there were palm trees and some shrubs but gradually they became less frequent, replaced by sand and more sand.

When we arrived at our second camp at around lunchtime, everybody was thrilled to have survived the first day. It wasn’t as hard as I thought but I was one of the lucky ones. Some people suffered as sand got in their hot walking boots and caused blisters.

That afternoon we relaxed and visited the tomb of a holy man and got a lesson on Moroccan burials.

Tuesday - Day 5

This was the most challenging day we had faced so far. ‘Eric’- the biggest sand dune in Morocco at 300m - was pointed out as a spec in the distance. And we were told we would be at the top of it to watch the sunset.

We took down our tents, ate breakfast and prepared to get going.

The camels, which have one leg tied at night to stop them escaping, groaned as they were loaded with all our heavy bags. Although in some ways they were the lucky ones as they walked around most of the sand dunes rather than being taken over the top.

By this stage some of the group were already in incredible pain just standing still as blisters covered their feet. But no one moaned as we set out for the sand dune, which looked so big it blended with the mountains in the distance.

After a few hours of walking in about 38 degree heat we left behind the flatter ground and hit what seemed like constant sand dunes.

They looked beautiful and I felt like we were finally in the Sahara that you would see on the postcards but these dunes were hard work.

Every step you took your foot would slip back and they became like the hardest natural cross-trainer in the world.

Sometimes my foot even disappeared into the sand up to my knee, which left some very interesting ‘tan’ marks.

As we got closer to ‘Eric’ he rose above us and became a daunting prospect. But what I had not thought about was the fact that a massive dune does not stand alone- it is surrounded by slightly smaller massive dunes that have to be conquered first before you can move on.

About 10 hours after starting the day’s trek we were stood at the bottom of ‘Eric’. Some of the group were unsure about whether they could make it but everyone went ahead trying to get to the top before sunset.

What I had not accounted for was vertigo. Never having been scared of heights before I was walking along the top of a ridge looking around at the incredible scene when I decided to look down. Suddenly the ridge felt like it was crumbling under my feet and one wrong move may see me tumbling to the bottom. In reality if you fall you just sink a bit but this thought would not go as I edged my way along the ridge.

The final push to the top of ‘Eric’ is incredibly steep. It felt like the only way to get up was on all-fours - which I did only to turn and see a German crew filming me from the top! Not how I imagined my film debut.

After recovering my breath I looked around and was amazed with the view. For as far as you could see there were sand dunes rising out of the ground. I will never forget this sight as the sun set in the distance.

After a few minutes we descended ‘Eric’, which is a lot easier with the steep short-cuts we found.

We returned to camp but for eight of us this was short lived. Against the advice of the guides and on our own insurance we climbed ‘Eric’ again to sleep. Apparently this was unheard of because of dangers of avalanches and bandits. But these things were not the only danger as we found out the next day. Clambering up there again - this time with more kit - was tough. And the darkness meant you couldn’t see where the sand dropped around you. But following in single file we made it to our camping area and settled down to sleep.