Morocco Merzouga & Erfoud 2001.02.04 - 02.09

Saharan Dunes

The sand dunes of the Sahara Desert near Merzouga are a highlight of Morocco. Getting there is straightforward if you ignore the camel tour salesmen in every town along the way. The most misleading tour company was near the center of Ouarzazate. The "guide" at this 4x4 rental office tried to convince us that "there's no desert in Merzouga. To see the desert, you must travel by 4x4 70km west of Mhamid." (Mhamid is a town 200km south of Ouarzazte, the opposite direction as Merzouga). We didn't bother to show him the Lonely Planet guide photo with caption, "Morocco's only genuine Saharan dune, Erg Chebbi, near Merzouga". It would have been a waste of breath.

We planned to take public buses and mini-vans from Todra Gorge to Merzouga, allocating 2 days in anticipation of delayed schedules and missed connections. Yet, on our second night in Todra, a good friend of the Hôtel Les Roches manager arrived from Merzouga for a dinner party sponsored by a French woman opening the first supermarket in Tinerhir. We talked to this man from Merzouga and were invited to ride to Merzouga with him and his friends the next morning.

The man from Merzouga was Lahcen (though he goes by Hassan, a name more easily recognized and remembered by Arabs). Hassan manages his Berber family's auberge and tours Morocco and Europe to perform tom-toms with his band. For the drive from Todra to Merzouga, we all chipped in for petrol, and Hassan asked for nothing more. We were shocked to learn that petrol prices in Morocco are as high as in Europe or Japan. For 150 DH, Hassan could only pump 16 liters.

Arriving to the auberge, we were asked to view the rooms. If we weren't satisfied, Hassan said he would drive us to another. We chose to stay at his Auberge Soleil Bleu. It was the best 4 days we had in Morocco.

Our first evening was disappointing. Hassan's younger brother Ali asked if we were interested in a camel ride during our stay. We agreed to listen to the options and prices offered by his family. Ali acted as the translator between his Berber speaking father and us. The prices sounded awfully high. Upon returning to the auberge from the family's house, we talked to Hassan about how surprised we were about the camel tour prices. Apparently, Ali decided to double his father's price during the "translation" to pocket a healthy personal profit. There and then we told Hassan that we wouldn't hire any camels - not for a day, not for a half day, not for a 2-hour sunrise viewing. "We're sorry but Ali's dishonesty lost camel business for your father today." The next morning, Ali was sent to the auberge to apologize to us, and we saw little of him for the remainder of our stay.

The actual fees for a camel tour by Auberge Soleil Bleu are quite reasonable:

 Price per person  Camel Tour Description
 500 DH
10:00 departure, 2 hour ride into the dunes, lunch, dinner, camp near an oasis, wake up for sunrise, breakfast, 2 hour ride back, return at 10:00.
 300 DH
16:00 departure, 2 hour ride into the dunes, dinner, camp near an oasis, wake up for sunrise, breakfast, 2 hour ride back, return at 10:00.
 200 DH
06:00 departure, ride up the dunes, watch the sunrise, return at 08:00.

The remainder of our stay was pure delight. During the day we talked to Hassan about life in Morocco and his travels in Europe. At night, we played tom-toms together. Masami learned how to cook Moroccan dishes under the tutelage of Abdl, the auberge chef. Abdl also taught us a Moroccan card game that he consistently beat us at. The sand dunes were no more than 300 meters from the auberge, and we ventured up a 100 meter high dune each day. The family camels were kept about 50 meters from the auberge. 3 of them were trusting enough to eat carrot and orange peals from our hand. We would have been content to stay an entire month.

On our final morning, Hassan drove us to Erfoud, 50km north of Merzouga, where the bus for Fès departs.

Erfoud has very few services. The main road through the center of Erfoud looks like little more than a quiet side street found in a larger town. There are banks but no cash machines. The post office is the most active place.

Erfoud, surprisingly, has one Internet Café. The floppy drives and FTP from DOS work. The place is InfoNet on avenue Mohammed V across the street from Hôtel Merzouga.

The sunrise over Erg Chebbi, the only genuine Saharan dunes in Morocco. From Auberge Soleil Bleu, this spot in the middle of the desert is only a 30 minute walk away.

Our first afternoon in Merzouga we were happy to tromp around the sand close to town.

Unaccompanied camels are a common sight. During the day, the camels leave home to find food and they always return by late afternoon.

A young girl bakes her family's daily bread in the village kiln in the middle of Mergouga. In the winter months, the room is hot. In the summer months it must be unbearable.

Masami learns to cook Moroccan dishes with Abdl at Auberge Soleil Bleu.

Dinner with Abdl and Mimi the cat. Tonight, Masami and Abdl cooked tajine, a delicious Moroccan stew.

Wes plays tom-toms with Hassan, Abdl, and one of Hassan's relatives. Hassan is incredibly good. He sells cassette tapes of his music and performs in Europe.

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