An SUV leads us towards a yet-invisible hotel at the edge of Western Sahara.

Out of Africa

Our Trip to Morocco, Gibraltar and Southern Spain

Jackson & Agnes He, 2011

To the Sahara

Grand Canyon? You be the judge.

On the way to Western Sahara, we stopped by Todra Gorge, another UNESCO world heritage site. While locally known as the Little Grand Canyon, it really is no comparison to THE Grand Canyon. The road winds along the bottom of a midget canyon, wherein some clear water flows—if we were somewhere else, we’d probably mistake it for some runoff from a broken water pipe. But then, this is the desert of Africa, where water, no matter how small, always breeds some bustle. Some officious people by a pickup truck were selling tickets (to visitors, but not locals), and a large flat area was carved into several pieces by some dubious “guardians” of parked vehicles, including a boy about 10 years old who promised to “take good care” of ours in rather fluent English. It took us less than 10 minutes to stroll around the area and take a couple of pictures. When we returned to our car, the boy guardian wasn’t content with the 10 DH we gave him. But that’s a lot of money for very little time, Jackson bargained and bantered. Then the boy backed off, and said “Thank you! Have a nice day!”

For lunch we stopped by the city of Er Rachidia. The moment we parked our car, a local man approached us. He did not proclaim to guard our car, but volunteered to take us to a restaurant. The closest one was no good, he assured us. The second one was bigger, and apparently held promise, for he went in to check. It was not open, he told us. Incredulous, we went to check it out ourselves, and were directed upstairs—the ground floor, while more open and breezy, was only the café, while the upper floor was the restaurant. But the stifling heat, radiating through the poorly insulated roof over us, made Jackson feel sick. He skipped lunch altogether.

Agnes took over driving in the afternoon. It had been years since she last drove a car with standard transmission, but she managed to activate that skill. We passed by large tracts of arid land, where sometimes we would not see another soul for an hour, other than the one or two vehicles heading the other way. Other times we were greeted by large palmaries stretched out for miles. It was comforting to see evidence of water sources.

Hotel Jasmina at the edge of Erg Chebbi.

By evening we reached the outskirts of Merzouga, the town area closest to the Erg Chebbi dunes of Western Sahara. While in Madrid, Agnes had made phone arrangements to stay one night in the dessert, in a communal tent, through a Hotel Yasmina. But now, given Jackson’s deteriorating health condition, we decided we needed to stay in a hotel room with AC instead, which Yasmina did not have, according to our tour book. So we headed to a different hotel, which, like Yasmina, is also situated outside of Merzouga, and off the road. Thus unfolded the scene we described at the beginning of this travelogue.

Yusuf, owner of Hotel Yasmina, made us feel so guilty that we felt obligated to follow his SUV into the desert, not knowing what price he’d charge us. And the drive was hard, rickety rack up and down along desert piestes. Yusuf advised us to drive off the pieste completely wherever the pieste got more bumpy, which was good for his SUV, but hard on our small passenger car.

At one point, our car was stuck in loose sand. In this part of the world the clay and rock desert on the west is to meet the sandy Sahara desert to the east, and the prevailing wind to the east leaves most of the clay desert bare. But occasionally there’d be pockets of loose sand on the piste, probably blown over from the sandy desert, which was what trapped our car. After attempting to rock the car back and forth without success, Jackson, who took over driving, asked the rest of the family to help by pushing the car, and lightening the car at the same time. It worked immediately, and we were on the way again.

A camel caravan going into the desert, one that we meant to take.

Finally, at about 7pm, we arrived at Yasmina, on the edge of the vast Sahara that extends beyond the farthest that our eyes can see, after more than half an hour’s struggle. The last camel caravan was just leaving for the desert encampment, while the sun was just about to set to the west. Yusuf did not want us to miss the sight, and urged us to climb up the sand dunes before sunset. The scene was more beautiful than can be captured by either cameras or captions… Against the backdrop of a cloudless sky, the sun was burnished by the rising hot air into what must look like in a madman’s dream; at the same time we ourselves felt like baked turkeys in a Thanksgiving oven.

Hotel Yasmina is surprisingly luxurious, with a swimming pool (a pool in the desert! Away from any visible source of water!), in-room AC that works, and a luminous, palatial dining hall. For Jackson’s sake, we had dinner delivered to our room, which turned out to be a lavish feast that included a large quantity of turkey kebab among many other dishes we were not able to name. Jackson still had no appetite, but the rest of the family had their fill.

In middle the night, while lying in bed, Jackson deduced that his condition had to be caused by a depletion of salt. The Morocco cuisine was uniformly bland, and the large amount of water we were taking was slowly bleaching away the salt in his body, partly through the nonstop sweating he was experiencing. And he hadn’t taken any of the other things that might have provided additional salt, such as the crackers we brought, or the olives available at every meal. So he took some pickled olives from the dinner tray still lying in the hotel room, and waited for his body to recover. It was partly to fulfill his desire to be in Africa that the family was here in the desert, and he felt responsible to take them safely out.

Fleeing the Desert

Agnes woke everyone up early the next morning, noticing that many people were leaving, or had left, the hotel. In this part of the world, it is most reasonable for travelers to start early, and avoid the intense midday heat. Fearful of another day in the scorching desert, we decided to depart as soon as practicable. The kids barely opened their eyes when we asked them to get up and pack immediately. (In the haste, Yiran left her sneakers in the hotel room—today, she proudly tells everyone that she not only left her footprints but also her shoes in the Sahara Desert!) We informed Yusuf the hotel owner of our plan, and asked for some water and bread in lieu of our breakfast.

Desert piste marked with cairns, and a lone tree in miles around.

A man was summoned from the yard to get us the water we requested. Jackson noticed that that man had slept in the open, possibly through the night, covered with a single piece of cloth, which when he got up he wrapped up on his head as a turban.

The desert piste is well marked with cairns, but not conducive for fast driving. And yet our hearts flamed with desire to break the grip of the desert. After about 45 minutes, we finally got onto the main road, and Agnes took over driving.

We took the road up north, through the area called Acrid Plateau. There was a large lake, and another that had almost completely dried up into a grassland, some oases in the low-lying areas, but mostly different types of desert landscape, with very few local residents or travelers. If our car broke down, we’d be cooked in a few hours.

Slightly after noon, we arrived at Kasbah Asmaa in Midelt, a rather small town. After inquiring within the Kasbah, we drove into town to see if there were any alternatives to stay for the night, but we were not successful. It was the next day when we drove out of the town from the other end that we realized that the town was buttressed with two large Kasbahs, each on one side of the town along the main highway (N13).

Kasbah Asmaa is still within the desert, but its landscape and deco fool your senses. Within its walls, an exquisite garden is well stocked with trees and bushes, and a small swimming pool glimmers in partial sun. In the evening, when the temperature cools down a bit, and with the outside view blocked by the walls of the compound, you are likely to fall for the delusion that the desert heat is but a dream.

Sudanese singer at Kasbah Asmaa.

The Kasbah is not entirely weather-controlled. But with its thick brick walls, and the high ceiling going up the whole three stories, its atrium remains cool and comfortable, where we had both lunch and dinner (included in the room price) that day. A folk singer sang next to us, with long impenetrable ballades and a rectangular-shaped exotic instrument. At first Jackson thought that there was only one melody for all the songs, but Luran realized that there were actually two, alternating with each song. Agnes broached a conversation with the singer in French and found out that he was from Sudan. No other guests paid attention to (or tips for) his singing.

The next morning we again left early, after paying a tip to the guardian of our car. We were heading towards Fez, where we had made a phone reservation of a hotel room. On the way, we passed by a small, serene lake, its shores completely covered with green, leafy trees which in turn were dotted with what must be thousands of white birds—a sight unlike any other that we had seen in Morocco! We made an unplanned stop. The air felt cool, fresh and soothing. Is it true that paradise awaits after the purgatory of the desert? To Jackson, this was the first moment in many days that his body and mind got in harmony with nature. We eventually found out this was the town of Ifrane. We aborted the plan to reach Fez that day and ultimately stayed in Ifrane for three consecutive nights, our longest sojourn in one place anywhere in Morocco.