Landslides, Sandstorms, Snow: Marrakech to the Sahara

‘The rain has caused a landslide.. we’ll have to try and drive over the rocks.. ‘
‘Can’t we take another road?’
‘This is the only road’

No one wants a conversation like this, least of all when you’re in a jeep somewhere between the Sahara Desert and the Atlas Mountains. We were on route north back to Marrakech when these complications occurred, but our journey south into the desert was straightforward enough.

Gentle sunshine lit up the surprisingly verdant hillsides on our way south from Marrakech before the gradual ascent into the barren mountains. ‘Sometime the road is closed because of snow’ explained our guide Omar, gesturing at a raised barrier as I used my rusty knowledge of French to process his explanation.

The mountains, in sunnier times
After a scenic stop for what proved to be one of numerous cups of mint tea, we continued along the Tizi n'Tichka Pass and began our gradual descent down onto the desert plains. After stopping at Omar’s aunties house for more tea, we continued south past an oasis of palm trees and into the Sahara. Occasionally a cluster of mud-huts emerges at the roadside, serving as a reminder that the mountains behind marked the boundary of semi-developed Morocco. This was a different land; where traders travel 52 days on horseback from Timbuktu to do clandestine business under the merciless African sun.

Spot the tourists
The open desert plains began to merge into small dunes, and as the sun began to set, we swapped 4×4 for camel to make our way to our camp for the night. Rather than the relaxing experience I was expecting, every downward turn had me bracing myself for impending castration, with a metal bar terrifyingly close to somewhere very important. We reached our camp with everybody (and everything) still intact, and after a traditional Morrocan meal of Tagine-cooked lamb and rice, we enjoyed some spectacular star gazing with not a neon light for a hundred miles.

It was only the following day that the weather began to cause problems. Overnight, a ferocious wind had appeared and a full-blown sandstorm was sweeping across the camp – the worst for 13 years according to Omar. We shielded out eyes and made a run for the vague shape of the 4x4; the sand hitting my legs was like being flicked by hundreds of rubber bands. Once safely inside, we passed through several small villages where people lived in basic conditions; single tier houses made from clay. Some families were fortunate enough to have a son working in Marrakech sending money home.

A small village in the Northern Sahara
We started drifting off to sleep when we awoke to the aforementioned landslide. A previous incident had left the desert to mountain pass partially blocked. With water levels rising to almost road-level on the bridge just in front, waiting for the rocks to be cleared wasn’t an option. We began to put the 4x4 to the test by painstakingly driving over the mess of small boulders. Every clunk and scrape of rock against undercarriage sounded like a fatal blow to our trusty jeep. Slowly but surely however we clattered over the debris and over the burgeoning river before the bridge disappeared from view under the murky water.

The river about to take over the road

Panic over, sleep once again took hold of us. An hour or so passed before we were woken by an excitable Omar; it seemed the weather had one last surprise in store. Opening my eyes slowly, I almost recoiled in shock at the blanket of blinding white snow all around. An overnight blizzard had transformed the mountains into a scene more at home in the Alps than North Africa. Our thoughts turned to the snow barrier we had seen the previous morning, but this time we were in luck. The barrier remained open – no more off-roading necessary.

Unexpected snow in the mountains
After taking some pictures and, you guessed it, drinking some more mint tea, we began our descent towards Marrakech, being very British and talking about the weather. ­