A Quick fix of the Sahara
by : Max Wolridge
What was the name of the town we stayed in last night, I asked our guide Mustapha en route for the Atlas Mountains. ‘Where was that, eh?’ I tried again. ‘You know, that place last night.’ ‘Where was that? Oh no, I had the tour guide from hell. I always thought guides were meant to be helpful, not deliberately obtuse. Had he forgotten already? Or maybe he was only like this first thing in the morning. I sulked into the pages of my Rough Guide and resolved to find out for myself. Soon enough I located a relevant map and the town in question. I closed the book and smiled sheepishly. The town was called Ouarzazate, on the edge of the Atlas mountains – and it was pronounced Where Was That. I would not forget that in a hurry. I had been hoping for a desert experience more reminiscent of T. E. Lawrence rather than an exchange worthy of Samuel Beckett. Fortunately, any subsequent embarrassment was engulfed by the vastness of my surroundings. Sweeping vistas of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains soon soared on the horizon.
It was the first morning of my Saharan Escape, a four-day adventure trek into the wilderness in which you cross 500 miles of desert, sleep underneath the stars and act out your Lawrence of Arabia fantasies. Crammed into the back of a Land Rover Defender, I had joined a new breed of tourist -those time-starved, adventure-hungry travellers who can’t afford to be away from home for too long. You have probably met us on your travels. We’re Thatcher’s Children: impatient, overstressed and so totally obsessed with our mobile phones that we mistake birdsong for ring-tones. We’re demanding, too – what we want now is something more exotic but which will allow us to get back to the office after a few days. Enter the short-break adventure holiday, the perfect antidote for my cash-rich, timepoor generation who want a taste of adventure but are too busy to be away for more than a week. We’re the sort of busy folk who buy our vegetables pre-sliced and have them delivered to our homes for an extra fiver.
Just think, your very own desert adventure condensed into four days. Did I really want a European city break in Paris or Barcelona when I could have a long weekend in the Sahara for about the same price? We flew out of Heathrow after work on Thursday and returned the following Monday evening. In between we had two nights in hotels and two under canvas. Ouarzazate was the last-chance saloon before the Sahara got serious.
We were soon into the wilderness, bouncing along potholed, unsurfaced roads in Land Rovers fully equipped with everything but satellite TV. The first stretch of desert we saw was not your typical sandy affair with dunes but miles of seemingly endless rocky lunar landscape. This was the barren Draa Valley and such a bumpy ride that downing water without spilling most of it became quite a challenge. We followed in the camel tracks of an old caravan route on which gold, silver, salt and slaves were once traded. We stopped for midmorning coffee in a village called Tamnougalt, which has a four-gated kasbah dating from the early 16th Century. Here, in the courtyard, we sat on cushions and reviewed the morning’s digital photographs while a tray of mint tea arrived, followed by dried fruit and nuts on a huge silver platter. It was like muesli without the milk.