It was pissing it down with rain and I was keen to move on from Meknes but exactly where to I still needed to figure out. The specifics would depend on bus times but the plan formulating in my mind was to head in the general direction of the desert. I headed to the bus station to see what the deal was with onward travel. The question was whether to crack out the journey to the desert largely in one go or break it up somewhere. I decided to go to a place called Midelt which essentially was half way.
It felt strange to be embarking on a trip to the desert going through the Atlas mountains staring out the window at snow covered peaks. The desert felt a long way away at this point. I wasn’t sure if the snow would normally be as low at this time of year but then again we must have been pretty high as it was getting cold on the bus.
After a 5 hour journey I arrived at Midelt bus station and was a bit like what the f***. It was largely deserted as the only buses going from there seemed to be at night; it was raining and there wasn’t even an obvious taxi rank outside. I started walking but the rain got harder, torrential, and so I had to bed down in a cafe where I consumed a mint tea and a panini whilst gathering my bearings. The rain eased off slightly but it was still heavy by most standards with torrents of water gushing down the street.
I headed off on foot in the direction of Hotel Atlas, the first place listed in my Lonely Planet guide. When I arrived the woman who worked there opened the door just before I was about to knock, welcomed me in and showed me up to my room. She said that I could pay once I’d settled in. I then went down and paid her the 60 dirham (this place was proper basic) and had a couple of complementary teas – great service I thought. Communication was initially difficult until I discovered she spoke some Spanish after which we proceeded to have a bit of conversation. She explained how difficult it was for a Moroccan to get a visa to work in Europe, i.e. you would need to be sponsored and have a work contract in place. It put it into perspective how fortunate I am coming from the UK to be able to travel to the places that I do.
I had a stroll around the town later in the evening. The centre of Midelt is a small place and the bars were packed full of people, or more accurately I should say men, watching the PSG v Real Madrid Champions League game. A massive fixture and it was clear that fixtures involving the big Spanish teams had a big pulling power. It was strange to see bars with nobody drinking alcohol. The drink of choice seemed to be a thimble of coffee accompanied by a bit of water to wash it down. Now I did kind of want a beer but I was not especially fussed about making a point of going on the lookout for alcohol. In fact, it was quite nice to be having a less alcohol oriented holiday for a change! So I ended up drinking green tea, Coca-Cola and water in a bar. No bad thing and I am certainly partial to a glass or two of ice cold Coca-Cola.
The continuation of the journey to the desert the next day would be long involving 3 grand taxis. A grand taxi in case you were wondering is a shared taxi. You wait for it to fill up with around 6 people and then off it goes. Prices are pretty similar to the bus. I wasn’t exactly early setting off as it was not until 10.45 by time I got to the taxi rank. And then when I got there I had to wait another 30 minutes for the taxi to fill up. At least the view was good!
But soon we were on the move, and with my radio co-host Andy Green’s excellent February System Showcase mix beating out through the headphones, I took in what was to be a spectacular ride. The journey started with views of the snow covered peak of Jebel Ayachi (3,737m) rising to the west above Midelt but this soon gave way to much more arid landscapes as the road started winding out towards the desert.
Nothing beats staring out the window at these awe-inspiring landscapes. The vastness and relative remoteness reminded me in some ways of various places I had experienced in the past, such as the Australian outback or the Ruta Nacional 40 in Argentine Patagonia. Maybe I was just reminiscing over fond memories from previous trips but there were some parallels.
Soon the driver was winding up another pass before heading down through the specatcular Ziz Gorge to Er Rachidia, where we arrived two hours after leaving Midelt. Er Rachidia was originally established as a military town and for tourists is more a gateway to what lies in the desert beyond than somewhere to stay and spend any time.
I was dropped off in a square at the grand taxi rank. It was quickly apparent that this would be a 2 rather than 3 taxi situation. I then got another taxi down to the next town, Rissani. This taxi driver seemed to have an aversion to anything being on the road that wasn’t a car and would honk his horn feverishly at any cyclist or pedestrian that was anywhere near his space on the road. He didn’t hang about and soon I was in Rissani where I was dropped off at a largely deserted taxi rank in the centre of town. It was hot by now and must have been siesta time for most.
I had hardly eaten anything all day and was not feeling great but I thought it best to crack on. I was told that the grand taxis to Merzouga were going from another rank close by. Another taxi driver kindly drove me a couple of blocks to it. I then took another taxi in a rather old bashed-up looking car, of which I just had to take a picture (see below).
The next leg down to Merzouga was shorter at around half an hour and by now it felt properly like the desert. Once again I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay which was perhaps a bit silly as I did expect there to be more tourists around here, plus I wasn’t going to be able to walk too far between places given the heat. It all worked out fine, though, as I went to this great little B&B place called Chez Julia.
It had a very chilled atmosphere and the owner emphasised how I should treat the place as if it was my home. They would also be able to sort me out with a camel tour of the nearby dunes and the owner said his brother would come to speak to me about this at 9am the following morning.
I went for a wander as the sun went done and ate like a king – soup, grilled chicken and chips, and a massive Moroccan salad. I really needed it. Now it was time to rest up for the adventures ahead.