Following a few days engulfed in the mad frenzy of the Fes Medina, our heads were spinning. With the dizzying maze-like corridors and never-ending flow of bodies in all directions; and the constant beckoning of shopkeepers to visit this shop or that, to “buy this rug” or “authentic gold lamp.”
Each dawn we’d be shaken from sleep by a buzzing shriek. Directly outside our bedroom window was the loudspeaker atop the minaret of the local Mosque. The morning call to prayer, an otherwise calming, peaceful sound that echoed through the streets, became our daily wake-up call.
And the smells, so many overwhelming smells. Perfumed smoke from burning incense, the yeasty steam from bread ovens, meat grilling over charcoal, and the sweet funk of over-ripe fruit beginning to turn. The thick, late-morning air of the fish market and the acrid ammonia stench of the tanneries.
Fes is a spectacular place, filled with excitement and beauty. But we’d been travelling constantly for three weeks at this point; and in Fes, we were riding on fumes.
We needed a break.
Into the Desert by Night
If there’s one thing in travel that I have a complicated relationship with, it’s bus rides. On one hand, they’re a bit of a break on their own. You have no choice but to stop and relax. There’s no WiFi, and trying to balance a laptop is a gamble, so working is out of the question. Just sit back, listen to music or read a book, and enjoy the ride.
Then again, in many places, you’re often stuck for many long hours, unable to stop for a bite to eat, stretch your legs, or use the toilet. And while the seats might be comfortable enough for a short trip, they’re rarely set up for sleeping. So on particularly long journeys, like a 9-hour overnight bus from Fes to Merzouga, sleeping is doubtful.
We arrived on the edge of the Sahara just before 6 am. Though most visitors to the desert stay in Merzouga, two kilometres south, we decided to visit the smaller village of Hassilabied. The bus drove off in a cloud of dust, leaving us standing, in the pre-dawn darkness, on the side of the road.
Even the street lights were sleeping.
By the light of our phones, we managed to find our accommodation among the rest of the mud-and-straw brick buildings. The owner greeted us pleasantly, but surprised. He was supposed to pick us up at the bus stop, but in a strange twist, our bus arrived 40 minutes early.
Exhausted, we climbed into bed without a second thought.
A Wonderful Morning Greeting
Two short hours later we woke, hungry but refreshed. While our gracious host prepared breakfast, we finally saw our room in the daylight. It was huge, with a massive bed, and colourful hues of red and orange. The shower had real pressure and proper hot water. Most of all, everything was quiet; aside from faint kitchen sounds in the background.
Leaving the room, we sat in the cozy courtyard that was still shaded by the tall, brick walls of the riad. Alternating between sips of sweet mint tea and strong Moroccan coffee, we embraced the calm.
Breakfast arrived soon, featuring a selection of Moroccan bread, homemade butter, sweet jams, salty cheese, and locally-grown olives and dates. It was perfect.
Now, we still hadn’t actually seen where we were or what it all looked like. It was dark when we arrived, and our only daylight views were the stone walls of the courtyard. It was time to venture out.
The heavy metal door creaked as we pushed it open and we gazed onto our surroundings for the first time.
Giant mountains of sand stood like an orange wall from the edge of town. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before, as if a painting had come to life in front of us.
Village Life in the Moroccan Sahara
Dust swirled at our feet as we walked along the sandy roads of Hassilabied. Goats and dogs watched us curiously from a distance, while camels peeked down at us over their pen walls.
Children here don’t sit inside playing video games or watching Netflix; they run around, barefoot in the streets. They skip rope, ride bikes, and kick around half-inflated balls — always smiling, and quick with a bonjour, hola, or sometimes even hello.
The town somewhat resembles a desert ghost town. Given the traditional mud-brick construction, it’s hard to tell what is old or new. Whether abandoned and left to the sands or in a half-built state of current development. Along the main street and town square, several small shops and restaurants can be found.
Nobody seemed in a hurry. It was the complete opposite of where we’d come. It was perfect.
Farther east, where the town meets the desert, a lush oasis full of bright green palms stretches for several hundred metres. It radiates life, and I imagine it’s the only reason a settlement was ever built in this otherwise unforgiving environment.
Although there are a ton of great activities to do in and around Merzouga and Hassilabied, we did very little. Most days were spent wandering the dusty streets, marvelling at the remarkable way of life here at the edge of the Sahara.
We would wake at dawn and hike into the dunes; watching as the sun chased away shadows over the waves of sand. At dusk, we’d stare out into the endless orange wilderness as darkness crept towards us. During the hot midday sun, the shade of the courtyard is where we stayed.
One windy afternoon, however, we did decide to take in some of the local action. Aside from camel tours, desert camping, quad rides and jeep tours, one of the most popular activities in these parts is sandboarding.
Getting Active in the Sand
As Canadians, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that neither of us are much for snowboarding. We’ve done it a little in the past, but never pursued it. The same goes for skiing. I think we just aren’t winter people. Regardless, sand boarding seemed like a fantastic idea, the soft slopes of the massive dunes begged to be ridden.
Our host organized a rental from a friend, it cost 100 dirhams (a little under $10 US) for the day, which we found quite reasonable, and we began our hike. The tallest dune in the area was our goal, it’s one we’ve eyed since first arriving; the one that first grabbed our attention. But until we actually began our ascent, the scope of its magnitude wasn’t clear.
It wasn’t just the size of the dune that made the climb so difficult. The sand is very loose, and you slide back with every step. It was literally two steps forward, one step back. And though the climb took far longer than we had anticipated, and much more effort, all was worth it at the peak.
The sea of sand went on and on, over the edge of the horizon and on again from there. This is where the Sahara begins; all 300 million square miles of it. From here it crosses the entirety of North Africa, passing the great Pyramids of Giza before crashing into the Red Sea.
We sat for a while, imagining what life must have been like over the centuries for those nomads who called this place home. I was reminded of Paolo Cohelo’s epic “The Alchemist,” and the caravaners transporting goods across this desolate place.
After some reflection, it was time to make our descent. I went first, and pushed off.
I jumped a little and began to move. Not knowing what kind of speeds to expect, I tried to carve — and fell.
Getting up, I pushed again and realized why carving wasn’t an option: sand isn’t snow. On a steep enough slope, if you point straight down, you pick up a little speed. And while I didn’t expect the same results, I hadn’t expected it to be this slow.
Kylee went next with similar results, though she managed without falling. We continued our comical act of hop-shuffling the rest of the way down. Laughing hysterically at ourselves and the concept in general. I can understand how this might be a little more exciting for those who haven’t tried on snow, but it was far from the boarding we’re used to!
All in all, it was a great experience, and we would probably do it again. Though next time we might hire a vehicle to bring us back to the top.
Eating in the Desert
We ate well in the desert; some of the best meals of our entire Moroccan adventure. And certainly the best in the country thus far. Yet rather than exploring different options, we found ourselves returning to the same restaurant several times. Breakfast and supper would be at the riad. The owner also being a trained chef, everything he prepared was phenomenal.
Every other meal was at a tiny restaurant, run by a Berber couple, called “Snack Mustapha.” We first stopped in for a quick snack, but were so impressed, it was our go-to for every midday meal during our stay. From the strong coffee and hearty chicken sandwiches to bright and fresh salads and mind-blowing kofta tagine; we were hooked.
Appreciation from the Sand
Though only for a few short days, the desert was so very needed. And in a way, we couldn’t have foreseen. Sure, slowing down and taking a break is always a good idea, but there was something mystical about the sand. The vastness of it all — the emptiness.
Even the ocean, in all its immensity, is still teeming with life beneath the surface. Standing on the edge of the Sahara was like staring over an abyss. A marvellous, humbling nothingness that reminded me how small I really am.