After recharging our batteries in the mountains and a quick stopover in Marrakech, we embarked on a desert tour through Merzouga to Fes. Booking this tour was anything but simple. We went into several tour agency offices and enquired about tours they offered, only to find that they all offered a similar package. We asked for plenty of details including hotel names and time spent at different locations. In the end we chose to go with a company called l’espirit d’adventure, mainly because they had an office, address, website and existed on tripadvisor with ok reviews. We paid 1000 dirham per person for a 3 day two night excursion which would allow us to visit the places we had on our wish list. Neither of us were particularly keen on a group tour but considering the price and time, we decided to give it a go.
We got up bright and early ready to be collected from our riad at 7am. We waited outside knowing that sometimes Africa runs on a more relaxed timetable than Europe. We were starting to get pretty worried by 7:30am when finally a driver collected us. He seemed to know he was running late as he marched up the derb with us trailing behind carrying our luggage. We were happy to finally be on our way, when the driver pulled into a garage where 5 minibuses were parked. We were told to change buses but the organisation was awful. From what we understood, there was a manager and assistant manager sorting out groups of tourists from different tour companies and going on different tours. We were ushered onto a bus with a different company logo and began to worry about whether we were on the right bus. It wasn’t until 8:30 that the bus finally rolled out of Marrakech and luckily we were on the right bus.
We were hoping that would be the most disorganised part of the tour, but around an hour later our driver pulled over and said ‘10 minutes photo and toilets’. Maybe quite naïvely, we had expected a tour guide on our tour. Instead we had a driver whose English and French were both below par, leaving us clueless as to where we were and what we were photographing. The group was a nice mix of people from Brazil, Switzerland, Korea, Singapore, Canada, Australia and Morocco and we bonded over being in the same unguided bus. As time and tour progressed we passed some wonderful scenery and crossed the atlas mountains before arriving at our first proper stop.
The first stop was Aït ben haddou, a spectacular village built traditionally out of mud, straw and water. It is a famous UNESCO heritage site and has been featured in many films and tv series including Game of Thrones and Gladiator. It is currently under renovation to restore it after many of the buildings collapsed and hopefully once restored, more people will live there again. Aït ben haddou was once a major stopping point for the caravans that crossed Africa from Timbuctu to Marrakech. We went around the village to see the traditional Kasbahs; the name given to a house with four towers. Kasbahs were designed so that one man could live with his four wives, and each wife would have their own tower thus ensuring peace between different berber tribes. We found it very interesting to walk through the streets but unfortunately our guide rushed us through and did not allow us to climb to the top of the hill where the oldest part of the village still exists. The older part was built of stone and the only remaining building is a food store which was used to protect the food, women and children if the village was attacked. We were really disappointed not to make it to the top but our guide assured us that later in the day we would have more time to visit the festival of the rose in the Draa valley, so we started to look forward to that instead. For lunch our guide ushered us into an overpriced hotel which we quickly left in favour of a snack bar and a pizza.
Back on the road again we were looking forward to the next stop at the festival of the rose. The Draa valley is famous for growing roses which are used to make rose water for cooking and perfume. As we drove through one of the towns we could see the festival tents and hoards of people coming and going. We asked our driver how long we would stop for, only to be told ‘not stopping’. We were so disappointed that we had been convinced to speed through Aït ben haddou and then spend the rest of the afternoon in the minibus. Our driver maybe pitied us a little and stopped for 5 minutes at the horse arena. We were just in time to watch a competition where lines of men on horseback charged towards the judges before simultaneously firing their guns into the sky at the last minute.
Before we knew it we were back on the bus driving towards Dades Gorge where we would spend the night. We had looked up the hotel in advance but due to the change of bus company, we were a little apprehensive. Unsurprisingly, by this point, we arrived at a hotel of a different name and in reception the hotel owner attempted to pair up single travellers into same sex groups in order to use fewer rooms. This did not go down well at all and had we been in the same boat, we would have been very angry. Our hotel room was acceptable although not the 3 star standard we were promised. The best part of it was the double length pillow which was great for a pillow fight. Dinner was fairly average but gave us a nice opportunity to get to know our fellow travellers. Breakfast was much the same and we discovered that the room standards varied greatly; some people had only one pillow, no shower or no hot water.
Day two of the trip took us from Dades gorge, through Todra gorge and then on to Merzouga. It was another very long day in a minibus and this time with less impressive scenery. Todra gorge was an interesting stop to see a palmerie and village where berber carpets are made. We then walked up the gorge and saw rock climbers attempting to climb the craggy sides. Our tour guide for the valley was much better, but unfortunately our driver was still impatient. We had a short stop for lunch and then drove through hundreds of kilometers of desert littered with a shocking amount of rubbish. It was really sad to see how little they cared for the environment and even worse when our bus driver finished his bottle of water and just chucked it out of the window.
Our final night was to be spent in a desert camp in the sand dunes close to Merzouga. The tour office had promised us a chance to shower before riding camels through the dunes to reach our camp and private tent. Instead we were taken to a large house without showers and given very little information on what to take with us for the night. The camel ride however, was a highlight. We shared a romantic camel who we named Jamal the Camel. Ted even got a ride too!
At the camp we were told we would be sharing a room in the tent as a group, so 16 of us in one room. Not quite the private room we wetepromised. We were thoroughly exasperated and frustrated by all the lies at this point, but luckily we could climb a sand dune and relax a little as the sun set. Afterwards we had an uninspiring dinner and sat on a dune watching the stars and listening to some some berber music played by a small band around a pitiful fire. Not looking forward to sleeping in a room of 16, we asked if we could sleep under the stars and spent the night snuggled up under a full moon on a carpet.
We were woken at 5:30am to ride back through the dunes as the sun rose and have breakfast back at the house. From here we were put into the slowest taxi bound for Fes. Our taxi went in convoy with one other and we waited again and again for the other taxi to catch before we eventually made it to Fes around 9 hours later. Both taxis went to different hotels so we could not understand why we had to wait for them.
We would not recommend this tour to anyone unless you just want to get to Merzouga and Fes as cheaply as possible without seeing much on the way. We were so disappointed by the lack of organisation and the multitude of lies we were told that we have decided to visit the office on our last day in Marrakesh and complain. We will let you know how it goes…