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2.6 Sand desert at last

Updated: Feb 11, 2023

After weeks in the High Atlas, there is finally a large supply of fresh produce again in Tinghir

As barren and monotonous as individual places can be here behind the High Atlas Mountains, this region is as varied as a whole. Barely ten kilometers after our New Year's stand in the stone desert, we reach Tinghir, a long-stretched small town on the Dades River. Here, too, the water flows only sparsely, and yet the little water gives the region a wonderful green coating of vegetation. Due to the lack of water we refrain from visiting the gorge. Without the flowing water it has lost its attraction for us. Instead we head towards Feszna, where we can admire land art at its best. We owe it to an overlander acquaintance of Fes who told us about this insider tip. Under the name Senses Atlas, Hansjörg Voth, a German native, has created three monumental works of art here in about fifteen years of hard work together with the locals. If you would like to know more details about it, you can find them here.

Today we seem to be the only customers at Senses Atlas. We start at the "Golden Spiral" and let Mohammed explain some key data to us. He is very proud to have been personally involved in its creation from the early 80's until 2003. A life's work that still bears fruit today. The visit of the three places, which lie a few kilometers apart from each other, costs actually 150 Dirham, approximately 15 euro per person. Of course, these are rather European prices and thus more geared to foreign tourists. Certainly justified for what is offered here, but correspondingly rare - we estimate - will see the then builders and current guardians of the monuments paying customers out here. The second monument is the "City of Orion". There the German actually managed to convert the intensity of the stars in the constellation Orion into the size of the stone towers. Of course, the distances between the towers also correspond proportionally with those of the stars. The Orion city created in this way can now be climbed here on earth and, of course, gives food for thought. Of course, next night we will look even more intensively into the already clear starry sky. The last part of the trilogy is the "Stairway to Heaven". A perfect ascent and entry into the sky to bring us humans a little closer to the stars and the cosmos again. How well the builder succeeds in doing this with his art work probably varies depending on the viewer. We find it unique and very inspiring.

Overnighting in the largest ever plain nearby Jorf

Also the next day takes us again to an extraordinary place. After a quiet night in probably the largest plain we have ever slept in, we drive today from Jorf via Rissani to Gara Medouar. Shortly before we reach our destination we come across our very first real oasis. A few palm trees in the sand and in the middle of it even a draw well. This is pure idyll and seems to us almost ready for Hollywood. In fact, we are very close to a location of several big movies. Not this little oasis, but the extinct volcano Gara Medouar served here as a backdrop for such well-known cinema spectacles as "The Mummy" or the last James Bond "Spectre". To be honest, we expected a little more hype here, but apart from two Berbian souvenir sellers, there is "only" a fantastic view of the surroundings up here. But it is so breathtaking that we would love to spend the night there. Up here, however, it is unfortunately anything but flat.

Where others look up, we drive: With the Unimog beyond borders!

But we don't miss the chance to drive with the Unimog all the way up to the top, where at most motorcyclists can still get there, but certainly no more camper vans. When we turn around, my heavy truck slips for the first time in reverse gear, which even affects my fat lug tires a bit. Smallest rubber abrasions are later recognizable at the rear tire profile. Further nothing bad, but I have to keep an eye on it, should the small cracks extend to the tread.

above: View from the extinct volcano and James Bond filming location Gara Medouar.

below: Our very first little oasis including a draw with Gara Medouar in the background.

We continue in the direction of Erg Chebbi. We long for the dunes and want to arrive there this evening. Our destination for the day is an auberge with a washing machine. Yes, the requirements can be so different. In the past we chose the hotels according to their location, the restaurants or at best the room facilities. Today we just want a camp / auberge with washing machine. The luxury suite we have ourselves, thank God.

Ready for the desert, Tuareg turban included

In a small village we stop again briefly, because we spot a small fabric store. I have been looking for a typical Tuareg turban in royal blue since Fes and here I finally find it. The friendly shopkeepers show us how to tie the four meter long fabric around my head so that it can withstand the strongest desert storm. Just like the technical instructions for the Unimog, we also record this turban-tying tutorial on video with our cell phone. That way, if in doubt, we'll give our memory a little help to better process all the new things we've learned.

Back at our car we are approached by a local. Ahmed is speaking some German and wants to know if we are on the way to Merzouga and if we already have a place to stay there. Whoever drives through here can only be on the way to Erg Chebbi and Merzouga is, so to speak, the Mecca of Erg visitors. Ahmed seems to have an Auberge himself, pretty close to where we want to go anyway. We let ourselves be seduced by this likeable Berber and the descriptions of his Auberge and follow him the remaining 30 kilometers to his front door. Apart from two smaller vans, we are the only motorhome in the Auberge Kanz Erremal. Thanks to our sand capabilities, we are allowed to park in the first row, practically at the foot of the first dune, right in the middle between Ahmed's Auberge and that of his neighbor.

How great is that: Campsite at Ahmed's place on the edge of Erg Chebbi

When we move into the soft sand, I feel a little queasy, since I'm still driving with full road pressure on my tires. But our FRAME masters this first real soft sand contact brilliantly.

Where the dunes are, the dromedaries can not be far away...

Washing day at the Auberge Kanz Erremal just next to the dunes

The following day is dominated by the preparation for the desert. We do laundry once again in the probably most outdated hotel washing machine in Morocco. But in the evening we also like to be spoiled once again in the restaurant with a classic chicken tagine. Ahmed also takes the time to discuss the later planned southern route to Erg Chigaga and the Iriki salt lake with us over tea and pastries. He warns us about the difficult passages after the oasis Ramlia. The riverbeds are full of the so-called Fech-Fech, a fine dusty sand, through which heavy trucks like ours can hardly pass. He recommends a route much further north, where my GPS doesn't even show a dirt road. Now we are really in a dilemma. One good piece of advice I actually want to take to heart is the one about listening to the local people when it comes to the feasibility of a route or the local weather. On the other hand, I can't possibly go looking for a route that isn't mapped in any way on my cards. We check the internet, as well as overlanders who have recently driven the southern route via Ramlia. The fact that our contacts have made it gives us hope. In fact, those who did not make it can hardly report to us and may be stuck somewhere in the Fech-Fech crying for help. For us it is quickly clear, after a few days of total relaxation in the Erg Chebbi, we too will "dare" the southern route to Chigaga and face the challenges of Fech-Fech, washboard pistes and tracks covered by shifting sand dunes.

At first, however, we want to dive deep into the Erg Chebbi sandbox. We refuel again water at Ahmed, diesel at the gas station and above all food and drinks in nearby Merzouga. Then we drive on a sandy track on the south side around the Erg until very close to the Algerian border. On this east side there are the fewest desert camps and, according to our research, the loneliest places in the dunes. But one problem still exists and it is quite a big one! We are still traveling alone and since our desert experiences with our Landcruiser almost 20 years ago in the deserts of Dubai we know: You don't go alone into the dunes! Besides, we are still as good as inexperienced on sand with the Unimog. Our confidence in its capabilities grows with every little sand passage, but are we really prepared for the big dunes of the Erg Chebbi? We now have to weigh our great longing to stand in the middle of the dunes with the risks of doing this as a greenhorn and on our own. Once around the southern tip of the Erg, we have been driving northward for a few kilometers now, and indeed the camps are becoming fewer and fewer. The ones that still exist are mostly empty or even closed. Who believes that the Corona effects are already over, may be shocked here by a new reality. And then it comes, the place where we find that it is super lonely and the surrounding area corresponds to what we imagine: Picture book dunes and desert up for grabs. Of course not right here at the bypass track, but about one kilometer further in. One kilometer! That is also about a thousand possibilities to get stuck. In learned manner I run the light slope up to the dunes first of all on foot. There are old tracks and also again and again places hardened by the wind and some desert grass growth, which gives a prospect of success. Unfortunately, the area is anything but untouched, but we could not expect that from the most popular sandpit in Morocco. The conclusion: We dare it, what can happen, we are hardly one kilometer away from the track, where from time to time someone will drive through. At least that's what we think.

Our guide to the dunes: a green camel promises...... ....sand and sunshine

The pressure is reduced to just under two bars - a little more at the front, a little less at the back - and then it goes up to the marked target with plenty of thrust. At the end, pull a loop so that the front is right back in the downhill direction. Everything goes according to plan and a few minutes later we are standing at the actual destination of this Moroccan adventure, at the Erg Chebbi next to 200 meter high dunes with a gigantic view in all directions.

Our campsite for the next few days, as long as the supplies last....

The feeling when you arrive at such a place is indescribable, especially when you know that the supplies will last for at least ten days. Of course, the weather is also just right. At night the temperatures still fall close to the freezing point, but during the day we have a very pleasant 20°C and more. In the sun sometimes even 28°C. We enjoy the peace and the silence and spend our time walking to the dunes, reading, texting etc.. Also the fatbikes are used again and they pass the test in the soft sand. This is what we actually bought them for. We wanted bikes that can be used in the desert and on the beach without restrictions. Fatbiking in the dunes, by the way, feels about like deep snow skiing. You have to get the right tactics and you learn to "read" the sandy terrain super well. Wind direction and slope of the terrain are just as important as the vegetation. Old tracks are by no means an advantage, as they are often filled with soft sand and can thus become a trap. These findings from fatbiking are of course also useful for "unimogging", apart from the very different weight and center of gravity ;-)

above: Fun with fatbike surfing in the dunes (watch on Youtube here)

below: The photographer at work (l. & m.) and in total relaxation on the roof terrace (r.)

On the sixth day in the desert, we then get a visit from another Zurich overlander couple, with whom we have been connected via Instagram for quite some time. We have already informed each other about our routes and locations since Spain and finally coordinated this meeting in the desert. As if the drive to our location was not difficult enough, our new friends manage it even in the dark. The last hundred meters first on foot, across the small dunes and finally with their MAN in the headlights of our trucks. Operation Zurich meeting in the Moroccan desert a success!

And then suddenly there were two of us, Zurich overlanders! Welcome to Monika & Christian with MAN Turtle.

Soon we decide to continue our adventures together on the southern route to Erg Chigaga. This probably gives us both a certain security in case of an emergency, but also requires some coordination in the daily routine. So from today we no longer drive alone through the landscapes of Morocco, we now continue our ventures under the motto: Shared joy is double joy!

Sand desert at last: Portraits of two desert dwellers ;-)

Next Blog: 2.7 Busting the Myth of the Southern Route


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