Several days ago our hardy group left the comparatively civilized realm of Marrakech and took a southeasterly bearing across the Atlas Mountains toward Mhamid, a tiny village on the edge of the Sahara that is hosting a nomadic music festival. I will be the first to admit that the places we’ve stayed at on our journey have not been the most exciting—never has the term backwater so perfectly fit the description—but the scenery en route has been amazing.
The first leg of the journey was from Marrakech to Ouarzazate. The road traversing the mountainous gap in between is not for the faint of heart, which is another way of saying that it offers breathtaking views in just about every direction.
Our taxi wound its way from peak to peak, skirting certain death more than once. Between the aggression-fueled tour buses and freight haulers barreling through the pass and the many times the road extended to the lip of a narrow cliff without a guardrail, it was a pretty nail-biting ride.
For us, the greater thrill was seeing the jagged peaks of the Atlas Mountains cutting through the clouds. After sunset we sank into a curious sort of darkness that wasn’t really dark. Blue moonlight cut through the clouds and the limpid yellow headlamps of our battle-hardened 1980s Mercedes taxi gave our rocky surroundings a supernatural glow.
We couchsurfed in Ouarzazate with a quietly awkward but hospitable film student named Tariq—six of us squeezed into a room reeking of flavored tobacco and hashish, sharing two mattresses between us. The silver lining of our housing situation (apart from the fact it was free) was this courtyard used for hanging laundry. Never have I seen such a beautiful juxtaposition of garments and chiaroscuro!
Ouarzazate, which bills itself as the Hollywood of Morocco—movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and Babel were filmed here—does have one redeeming feature, which is its ancient Kasbah. We spent a solid hour wandering its labyrinthine halls, absurdly tiny rooms, and climbing its countless staircases.
Our voyage into the desert continued from Ouarzazate to Zagora, and the insane bus driver zoomed across the narrow patch of asphalt snaking through the mountains as fast as possible. As we blasted our way around hairpin turns, carsickness inevitably set in.
Halfway to Zagora we stopped in the unpronounceable town of Agdz for a breath of fresh air. Knowing that Victoria and Alina were on the verge of spewing all over the back of the bus, I went into the market and bought a lemon to negate the nausea.
The second half of the bus ride to Zagora proved to be less agonizing than the first, and no one was covered in puke, so it was an unqualified success.
From the comfort of our air conditioned seats we watched the late afternoon sun paint the canyon walls orange, and the surreal sight of verdant palm fronds surging upwards from the ochre sand gave us something to marvel at before we arrived in the otherwise uninspiring town of Zagora.