INTO THE DESERT, PART 1 – FROM ERRACHIDIA TO MERZOUGA

Along the Ziz Valley

After our wild ride through the cedar forest, we get back on the road in a more and more arid and rocky surrounding. We’re entering the realm of the desert and I shed my first tears (yes there will be others!) in front of this landscape that gives all its meaning to the word astonishing. The soil layers displayed gives us an insight of the forces at stake here, and the topography draws this place’s history. Enjoying a coffee break by the Ziz River, that we’ll be driving along for a hundred kilometres, I gather myself together and take this picture of this shepherd and his donkey warming themselves in the morning sun…

We’re now following the canyon sheltering the river that feeds the El Hassan Addakhil dam reservoir, appearing in front of us like a turquoise mirage in the middle of nothing. We decide to turn around and take a path that goes down the canyon, close by the river. After a few sinuous kilometres, just before the dam, the path suddenly ends and we park the car to go check on foot.

Just a few meters away, by the water, stands an animal that we don’t recognise straight away. For a long time, we stay still, observing with wide eyes… What is it? A dog? Or maybe a jackal? We get our answer when it jumps into the water when spotting us. The otter turns a somersault and splashes water around before slowly swimming away, while I enrage not to have had my camera with me! Enquiring on the matter, we learn that people here call them dam dogs, and that it is a very rare thing to spot one. Threatened by the value of their fur and even their meat, they also need a very good water quality and their living space decreases as ours expends.

Delighted by this rare and unexpected encounter, we decide to camp on the dry river banks, and take out our spotting scope in case the otter would like to make an other appearance. We set up the camp and light a fire to cook… No otter on sight, but we enjoy the so far quiet night to practise with night photography.

We had barely put the equipment away when the wind rose. In less time required to read this line, we’re packing the tent for the strong gusts filled with dust threaten to rip everything apart. We don’t know it yet, but we’ll acquire lots of training in emergency packing in the weeks to come… Looking back, it seems like a welcome gift from the desert 😉

So it is the first time we have to sleep in our hiking tent since New Zealand. And to think we almost didn’t take it because of the space it takes… But we are now glad we did, for our roof tent is obviously no so wind friendly!

Next morning, we decide to move and find another spot, because the water is accessible only through the muddy banks. We find the perfect spot, upstream, but on the other side of the river… It doesn’t look too deep, but we go on foot first, just to make sure we know where to put the wheels. But the passage is quite easy (compare to what awaits us further south!) and we’ll spend two days fully enjoying this special place!

But we still haven’t seen anything, and getting back on the road is a real treat. The landscape is changing at a crazy pace, and we spend our days being amazed with the views… We had quite a similar feeling in NZ, each time we were driving. Maybe being at the desert gates is adding to the general excitement, because we’re all feeling like fully charged batteries when jumping in the car.

After some food shopping, we pass the lake and drive to find the Ziz valley again. While our eyes only see a vast rocky plain, the valley suddenly appears at the bottom of a large canyon. Like a river  furrowing between the cliffs, the lush green oasis lines the bottom of the valley. A vision all the more impressive that we’re standing right at the edge of the cliff, and the threatening sky and strong winds are adding a dramatic touch to this moment. We decide not to tempt fate and find a camp here, hoping the cliffs will provide some shelter…

We spend the next day wandering in the oasis, et discover a whole world full of life and colours. Water is everywhere, coming from the river to feed the hundreds of small canals irrigating the whole valley. Birds are singing loudly to welcome spring and are feasting from the thousands insects flying all around. Alfalfa alternate with wheat fields sprinkled with red poppies, and the fig, palm, and olive trees provide a shadow maintaining constant levels of humidity throughout the entire oasis. Some turtles jump from the rock where they were sunbathing to hide in the water when seeing us, and it is hard not to step on the many many frogs for they are so well camouflaged!

Merzouga and its sand dunes

After enjoying the beauties of the oasis, we’re getting in sight of Merzouga and her famous sand dunes. Hard to describe the feeling you have when getting at the foot of these sand giants… Probably a mix between amazement and apprehension facing the power of the place! We park the car at the bottom of one of the highest dunes and wait for the sun to go down to climb up there and enjoy the view. Ebi decides to go on an expedition to try to sleep inside one the many camps at the heart of the dunes, so we wish him luck and watch him go.

Sitting in the sand, filled with serenity, we’re admiring the sunset’s changing colours when the sound of an engine roaring alerts us. Two motorbikes are actually trying to climb on our dune, but the slope is so steep that we wonder if they’re not about to flip over. They somehow manage to get at the top and drive down on the other side. As we’re making our way back down too, we’re now facing five 4WD trying to make the climb… The first one will indeed get there, but the four remaining will have to finish on foot!

 

It is now way past time we find a spot for the night, and we almost get stuck in the sand just a few meters away from the track… So it’s not a legend after all! You really have to deflate you tires if you’re to drive in the sand! We store that precious information in a corner of our brain and settle for a tree right by a mini dune. We did believe that in case we were to face a windy night, we would be sort of sheltered… Well this isn’t exactly what happened.

We’re enjoying a nice moment watching this incredible landscape, when we spot the full moon, red a huuuuuuge, rising above the dunes… That instant is so beautiful it could be a postcard when suddenly the moon simply disappears. I don’t understand right away what’s going on, and I’m still wondering if my brain’s sending me the right information when a strong gust filled with sand storms on us, then another, and another. We’re in the middle of a crazy sand storm, and now we can’t see anything ten meters away.

We decide to set our « storm » tent up again before it’s too dark (it will be even worse with flash lights) and have to attach it to car so it won’t blow away while we eat a very simple a rapid dinner in the car… We’ll manage to sleep somehow, hoping the tent will still stand in the morning. When we wake up, everything is calm and nice again but we realise that this tent is not exactly sand proof… Our feet are indeed buried under a dune!

We’re having a breakfast, waiting for Ebi when he comes back all smiling and victorious. Taking a look at the map, we think it could be nice to join Zagora through the track running close to the Algerian border… We’re about to drive what is, still today, one the most beautiful tracks we’ve driven since we left!

 

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