M'Hamid is a small frontier town in southern Morocco. It lies 40 km from the Algerian border and is literally at the end of the road. It is also a frontier town in another sense, for beyond stretches the great Sahara, which covers about a third of Africa.
I had booked two nights in M'Hamid but my reservation was lost somehow and Hassan, our hotelier, suggested we spend one night in a tent in the desert. This was a serendipity.
At 10 am the next day, a local "blue man", Mohamed, picked us up in a Toyota Prado 4WD. I had walked to the deserted mudbrick buildings at the western edge of town, beyond which there is only desert, lapping at a few abandoned mudbrick buildings. This is where our driver began the 56 km drive to Erg Chigaga.
There are no roads here, just tracks formed by repeated 4WD crossings. These diverge and branch in a bewildering way, but our young guide knew the way well. He was also a capable driver. At first there were low hillocks of compressed sand out of which grew stunted trees. The landscape kept changing, sometimes quite flat, sometimes undulating. The vegetation was also varied. At times nothing grew, then there would be small trees or brownish grasses.
We saw two buildings along the way, being an abandoned school for nomads. The nomads have mainly left the desert due to diminishing rainfall.
One of the trees struck me as very odd. Called "torha" in Berber (Calotropis procera), it has pretty flowers and large avocado-like fruit, that grow in pairs. Mohamed warned me not to touch it, as it exudes a sap that is very bad for the eyes. Asked whether the fruit was edible, he said camels don't eat it, but goats can, though only just.
Most of the drive was over hard earth, sometimes rock, other times hard-packed sand, as well as sheets of white salt. Much of the time the ground was strewn with rounded black stones, which hark back to when the Sahara was a sea, though in places there were no stones to be seen. Occasionally, he engaged first gear and 4WD to get over small moguls of soft sand. At other times he drove at 70 kph.
It was 37 degrees at 11 am but quite comfortable inside the vehicle due to air-flow.
At 11.30 we arrived at the sacred oasis called D'Oum Laalag. This consists of some 40 date palms inside an earth-wall enclosure, plus a few acacias. There is a rivulet seeping out from under a rock, and surprisingly, I noticed small brown spotted frogs here. I also photographed a small grey bird and a bright orange dragonfly. Water is life-giving, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the desert.
I spotted many more frogs in a well, whose water did not look inviting. Apart from some rocks, palms and acacias, the only other feature was a derelict rally car, similar to the live ones we saw in town. There was also another well, with five metres depth of clean water. I believe just one man lives here. It is a peaceful place.
We proceeded on towards Erg Chigaga, which we reached at 12.30. Arrival was an anti-climax, as the dunes did not look that impressive at first sight, and it was too hot to go walking among them. We sat in the empty dining hall, rapidly dehydrating as we waited to be brought water. It felt like 40 C at least.
There are almost no stones here, just sand. However, the torha trees struggle to grow, seemingly drowning in the sand. There are even some tufts of green grass among the sand.
At first I thought that the small settlement here was a group of tents, as we had been told we would sleep in a tent. However, both the dining hall and the sleeping accommodation were actually of mudbrick, but covered with material to give the appearance of tents. The area between the huts was carpeted, giving it an oriental flavour. Our spare hut featured two beds and a light globe.
Lunch was surprisingly good - a refreshing vegetable salad plus a tomato omelette. Then we retired to #96, where it was hot and the flies were exceedingly attentive. We dozed and tried in vain to keep cool. There seemed to be no other guests.
By 5.45 it had cooled down considerably, so I headed for the hills. Climbing in the sand was tiring, similar to ascending in soft snow. As in the mountains, one has to find the right line of ascent, so as not to slide too much.
The dunes are gracefully sculpted by the wind, with sharp edges from which ripple patterns descend. I reached the top of what at first seemed to be the highest dune. Then I realised I had more climbing to do. Luckily, the dune summits are linked by saddles, so that one doesn't have to go all the way down and then up again, as typically happens in the mountains.
I was careful not to disturb the delicately wrought dune edges, though I could not help leaving unsightly gashes in my wake. Hopefully, the wind would soon erase these, so that the next tourist would have a view as pristine as mine.
With some effort, I reached the top of the highest dune (called "Labidla"), which is rated to be 300 m high. This gave panoramic views in all directions. Looking towards our side there were at least five other encampments. On the other side there was nothing but a sea of dunes, which extend for 30 km.
I sat on the summit for a while and this brief time at the top made it all worthwhile. A big bonus was that there was no-one else in sight. However, even here, the flies were bothersome.
Descending was much easier.
Not long before sundown, a group of about fourteen Russians arrived on camels. Their hosts provided entertainment, playing and dancing to indigenous music around a campfire. However, it sounded less than genuine to me because they used electric guitars. Some of the Russians also danced. One of the ladies was very slim and feminine. Dancing with verve and considerable grace, she looked utterly alluring.
As for the cosmos, the stars were bright, but there was a half moon, spoiling the view. Later at night, the moon had left and the stars were brighter. However, I still could not make out the Milky Way. We navigated the hundred metres to the toilet block by starlight, which I found romantic. Carla was frightened and for her this was the most memorable part of the desert experience./p>
My regret is that I didn't sleep outside under the stars with a blanket.