A dog barking outside and my own cough keep me awake for much of the night. We leave the hotel early and are soon driving through alpine scenery. The weather is becoming colder as frost on the grass at the roadside is replaced by snow. About mid-morning, we arrive in a smart and very European ski resort village, built as a holiday retreat by the French. We stop for refreshments at a café filled with arty black and white photographic prints, and then continue on through tall cedar forests where we hope to catch sight of monkeys.
The monkeys remain elusive, and soon the scenery is changing again as we cross over into the Middle Atlas. The fertile ground gives way to scrub and then desert, the sky clears for the first time since Casablanca, and it becomes gradually warmer. In the distance are snow-capped mountain peaks. From time to time we pass small towns, and here and there cultivated plots break up the stony desert. A dog lies at the roadside, quite in the middle of nowhere, watching our bus as we pass. Further away a shepherd tends a flock of goats.
Once again, we begin to snake up into the hills and a little after midday we reach the Col de Talghamt. Just beyond the top, we stop for a picnic-lunch featuring goats’ cheese, tuna, pomegranates, and melon. Although it has become warmer and the sky is now perfectly clear, there is a chilly wind blowing and we are glad of the shelter next to a building.
We continue through less remarkable scenery until the colonial ex-garrison town of Er-Rachidia where we stop again for refreshments. A complete change of climate in a matter of hours; it is warm enough now to remove my fleece jacket — a far contrast to the snow of the ski resort and my frozen sandalled feet! The town, which was occupied by the French from 1916 until the mid-1950s, is now a prosperous go-ahead centre for the region with no less than twelve universities. The region receives almost no rainfall but is irrigated thanks to a nearby dam built in 1972.
From Er-Rachidia we drive along the Ziz valley, a ribbon of green in the arid desert, until we reach Erfoud. Here we transfer into three Landrover Defenders, which will take us to our auberge on the edge of the Erg Chebbi (erg — shifting region of sand) near Merzouga. The drive across the stony desert piste is exciting and surprisingly smooth thanks to the skill of our driver. Our long day’s journeying reaches its end as we approach the auberge just in time to achieve our objective of seeing the sun set. We hurry a short distance out into the dunes to find a good vantage point from which to watch. It is exhilarating running up the slopes and over the top, but I misjudge the gradient on the way down. Jo and Clare just see my sandals disappear over a ridge as I bury my nose in the sand.
As we watch the sun disappear, the dunes, already golden orange, quickly become black shapes around us. Silhouetted against the blue-white glow on the horizon, two tall palms mark the way back to the auberge.
The auberge is constructed from pink mud and straw walls, with the flat roof held up by rather springy wooden beams. A staircase leads up onto the roof at one end and from here we have a perfect view of the stars as they appear one by one. Gradually more and more of the constellations become recognisable. Scraping the barrel of my memory, I make a moderately convincing case for a rather indistinct blob being the Andromeda galaxy. As the darkness increases, the stars become like jewels sprayed liberally upon the dome of the sky, perfect in their clarity.
After dinner, we join some of the Berber guides and hostel staff outside and listen to their drumming and singing. They get us to join in with the drumming, and then we start exchanging bad jokes. How do you get a camel into a freezer in three moves? (Open the freezer, put the camel in, close the freezer.) An elephant in four? (Open the freezer, take out the camel, put in the elephant, close the freezer.) To my great chagrin, my offering ‘How do you get two whales (to Wales) in a mini?’ fails to cross the language barrier...