Off Road in Murzouga Morocco
You know when you have had one of the best days of your life when you run out of superlatives to describe it. It started at 4 o’clock, which may sound a little less than fun to those of you that like a lie in, but I can promise you that a walk out across the sand dunes of Merzouga in southern Morocco to watch the sun come up is an incredible experience. Once the sun broke a low haze the sand dunes were revealed in all their majesty. The low sharp sun created deep shadows that defined the sharp curved edges of the dunes set against a 499 feet high dune behind. The best way to photograph the dunes was to walk along the ridges facing the high dune. In this way you don’t mess up the dunes with your foot prints before you get to photograph them. As the dunes ridge curves and twists you constantly get new views. Dunes loose their shape as the sun rises and the shadows disappear, so you get an hour at the most to get the best photos. It’s quite tiring dropping down from the dune ridges when they finish then going back and walking along the next ridge.
By 7.30 the light had gone so I returned to camp to prepare my Land Rover for a day trip into the desert with a guide called Hassan. I had mixed feelings about using a guide as in the past they just led me to tourist traps, but I had a long chat with Hassan before I said OK and he seemed to understand that this was a photo trip not a holiday. The previous day I had made a reconnaissance of the area and quickly realised that without military maps the desert area where the road ran out was impenetrable and would more likely lead to getting very lost than to a joyful outcome. I had tried to dive on the sand dunes ad I had seen other 4×4’s do and also realised I was hopelessly out of my depths In this terrain, So I cleared the front passenger seat and waited for Hassan.
Out trip started well. Has an was on time and asked if I spoke French as his English was limited. This made me a little nervous as I assumed from our discussion in English that he had understood my requirements. I need not have worried as he soon had me speeding across a flat stony plain in the desert to a lake It is a strange sight to see a lake in a barren desert. It is a seasonal lake which fills with the melt waters from the Atlas mountains many miles to the north finally ending. Once filled Flamingoes and ducks appear to feed in its shallow waters. By July the lake disappears and so do the birds who won’t return until the lake fills again.
From the lake we travelled deeper into the desert. The desert in this part of southern Morocco varies from high sand dunes to vast flat plains littered with volcanic fall out that has created a black desert. The plains are punctuated by ancient hills and crumbling volcanic cones that range from jet black to orange yellow to almost white sand that is a mixed with salt. The underlying rock has tilted to about 30 degrees as it has been pushed to about 800 Mts. ( 2400 ft) above sea level. This accounts for the varied and ever changing landscape as each band of rock you drive over represents a different geological period. Just to mix things up the whole area has been punctured by volcanoes that not only showered everything with a dense black volcanic rock, but also deposited shafts of minerals like lead amongst the calciferous rock.
The presence of sand proves that the area was once under the sea. Muddy shales were deposited in shallow waters possibly deltas and estuaries and in these bands or rocks are found trilobites and ammonites. Slowly the rocks were lifted above the sea and Tortoises became the dominant animal, so there is a band of rock that stretches for many kilometers where the ground is littered with tortoise fossils some of which are still whole. Other bands of rock contain other species of fossils but some of the best finds come from the lead mines.
The lead mines of this desert are very low tech affairs. The seams of lead are narrow and slope into the soil almost vertically. Using pick axes the miners dig the dark lead ore out of the ground and over the years they have dug vertical shafts over 100 meters deep. The lead ore is a dark rock with dull silvery crystals which is the lead. The mine I visited was a long way off road and is worked by 8 men who climb down precarious ladders deep into the ground to extract the ore which is winched to the surface by hand. Even though the lead has a good value the seams are difficult to follow and the work practices are very dangerous.
The desert in this part of Morocco has underground water which can be only 2 meters below the ground allowing trees to sprout from an apparently arid terrain. The desert gives way to scrub land in places and small gorges tucked away deep in the desert become Oasis. These oasis are full of palms that produce dates in October and some are big enough to support Nomad families.
The desert Nomads of Morocco have stopped traveling but still live breed camels for a living. Their main diet is meat & milk from the goats. Staple foods are bought with money from the annual sale of camels. A camel can fetch over €2,000 but raising them can be expensive as fodder has to be bought to supplement the meagre offerings of the desert. It is incredible that these Nomads are Living in these remote Oasis without any television, radio, telephones, schools, doctors or in fact no outside influences apart from the odd 4×4 that roars through their Oasis. Apart from an annual trip to market to sell their camels they live at one with their surroundings.
The next part of the journey follows the route of the Paris Dakar rally which has been suspended here for a few years until the tensions with Algeria and the problems in Mauritania are resolved. I have watched sections of the rally on TV and have always marveled at the robust way their vehicles plough through the desert, and now I have been able to follow in their tyre tracks. Driving on sand is a revelation to me. I assumed it would be like driving on snow where low gear and low revs are the best policy. In fact it’s the opposite. The sand acts like a brake encasing the tyres and slowing the vehicle down. To counter this you need speed and as the wheels bog down you need power to keep them spinning so they can float on top of the sand. Steering is exactly like driving on snow or ice and if you are following deep tracks you have to let the vehicle steer itself which can be a little un-nerving at speed. Over the hard ground it is possible to get up a good speed with a constant look out for rocks or gullies. The occasional deluge of rain has created small ridges in the track as the water runs across it. These harden into a tooth rattling corrugated surface that would reduce a normal cars to a pile of bits very quickly.
I would love to be able to head off on my own into this wilderness but with a lack of accurate maps, as these tracks do not officially exist, and the ease with which you become disorientated, I think I would need a lot of training to do my first solo expedition. I can now see why Margaret Thatchers son Mark got lost on the Paris Dakar rally and had to be rescued.
The desert is a surprising place with an incredible range of landscapes before it gives out totally to the sand of the Sahara.