Star-struck on a Saharan road trip
An isolated hotel in the Moroccan desert is the ideal place to witness the cosmos, says Fiona Dunlop
Friday 01 November 2013
For many tourists, travelling through the Sahara often entails a four-wheel-drive vehicle, or perhaps a camel. In my case, it's a modest Category-B rental car. Within minutes of my arrival at Agadir airport, I've been whisked through the paperwork, then I'm off on the road to star-gaze in the pollution-free desert, 500km to the south east. En route, unusual guesthouses will ensure comfort and exoticism, but I'm wary of driving solo and of that existential vertigo described in Paul Bowles's Sahara classic The Sheltering Sky.
Dodging donkey-carts, sheep, goats and convoys of cyclists, I roll across the flat, fertile Sous Valley, sprinkled with bushy argan trees and orange groves, to reach a turn-off to Taroudant. When its crenelated ramparts come into view, their scale is so overwhelming that it looks like a film-set peopled by extras in flowing djellabas, accompanied by moth-eaten donkeys. These seven kilometres of rammed earth walls studded with soaring, arched gateways are relics of the town's offensive role back in the 16th century, when Agadir was under Portuguese rule and Taroudant was its nemesis.
Although Taroudant is often dubbed a mini-Marrakech, I discover this engagingly sleepy town is no such thing, despite 500 foreigners choosing to live here. There is little hassle and a welcome absence of the Marrakchi frenzy. However, specific sights are scarce beyond the labyrinthine souk of Moroccan handcrafts and wily salesmen.
After skirting the ramparts, I head into a different walled dimension at Dar Al Hossoun, a magnificent garden lodge hidden in olive groves. This densely planted horticultural paradise, sliced by one watery axis, a 30-metre ode to the iconic pool of the Alhambra, is a glorious tangle of wild grasses, palms, fruit-trees, euphorbia, roses, cacti and papyrus, even descending into a sunken garden of banana palms. Inside and out, French desert chic mixes so seductively with Moroccan artefacts that, on sinking into a sun-lounger stroked by a white hibiscus, I wonder if I really want to drive into the Sahara.
As the sun sinks, frogs, cicadas and a flock of peacocks compete in a deafening chorus of croaks and howls. “It's the mating season,” explains Thierry, co-owner with Ollivier Verra. “There are some nights when we can't even hear ourselves speak!”
The call of the cosmos is equally compelling, so the next day I cruise up through the greener landscapes of the Jebel Sirwa mountains. Berber women in dazzling full skirts and headscarves lug huge bales of grass on their heads; lone shepherds materialise out of nowhere to sprint after errant sheep. It is bucolic time-travel, until I hit the market town of Tazenakht. Here battered old vans are lined up, their roof-racks packed with sheep, saplings, plastic tubing and – why not? – a mattress and a TV.
Then follows a tortuously pot-holed stretch through brutal, barren mountains where nothing grows and no one lives, before eventually reaching the one-horse town of Agdz. After a bite to eat and a refill for the car, I am ready to turn right for the final 100km to the Sahara. By now, despite seeing double with fatigue, I'm carried along by the magic of the Valley of the Draa, the intensifying afternoon light and the outline of Jebel Beni, a monumental escarpment fringed by a vast palm-grove.
As mud-brick constructions take shape against the creases of the escarpment, superb ksars (fortified villages) and kasbahs (fortresses) multiply beside the road. Sprawling and interlocking, these mazes of crumbling ochre walls are always spiked by an immaculate pink minaret, emblem of belief and collective pride.
Zagora passes in a flash of civic new-build, roundabouts and a tantalising sign showing Timbuktu to be 52 days south by camel. Then I am on the last stretch, teetering along a one-lane Tarmac road flanked by stony desert. Slaloming out of the path of lorries and Land Rovers, I at last spot the sign I have driven all this way for: Sahara Sky Desert Hotel.
Built in splendid isolation in ksar-style with high walls, a majestic arched gateway, and corner turrets, it doesn't disappoint. My exhausted Dacia hurtles into the courtyard in a cloud of sand.
Before I left London, an email from Helmut, the German manager, had warned me of possible sandstorms as well as mentioning the speed of the Lyrid meteor shower, about 50km per second (what other hotel puts that in an email?). However, he didn't prepare me for the intoxicating sight of vast, empty desert, speckled by a few nomad tents and dromedaries (Arabian camels), with the dune of Tinfou a gentle mound against that familiar silhouette of Jebel Beni. “Sometimes I feel like Robinson Crusoe on an island – in the sand!” comments Helmut, somewhat ruefully.
Although sand creeps under doors and stacks up against the outer walls, the hotel interior is surreally hi-tech, with abundant flatscreen TVs and speedy Wi-Fi. And when I see the roof-terrace telescopes, I understand why people come all this way. These are professional beasts, some designed for night-sky photography via laptops, others with filters for watching sun activity.
Sahara Sky is clearly an astronomer's paradise, its lobby walls plastered with enlargements of galaxies, nebulae and a “map” of the Milky Way. There is even a library, with piles of specialist publications. Yet it functions well for lesser mortals as well, and the bar – allegedly the last before Timbuktu – lures thirsty Moroccans who, after sunset, slope in for a quick fix of Casablanca beer.
Sarry-eyed: The night sky over the desert Our tagine dinner digested, the hotel guests (two Englishwomen, myself and an extended French family) gather on the roof for an astronomic session. Like a Dalek on heat, the Meade telescope whirs, following its GPS, swivelling up, down and around to focus on whatever target Helmut has keyed in. It feels thrillingly like a science-fiction film, although when Helmut trots out mind-boggling celestial statistics, I am reminded of Hindu mythology: triple, even quadruple digits don't exist, here we are in the realm of millions, billions and trillions.
Saturn, which we watch in its multi-ringed glory, is 1,300,000 kilometres away, while our neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light years away. Helmut then throws in that one light year equals just under 10 trillion kilometres. Take that!
“Now we'll go into deep sky,” he continues, searching for other galaxies. But we are unlucky, there is too much moonlight. In fact the Moon is magnificently full, a time when no self-respecting astronomer would choose to star-gaze, but it means that we can also observe the lunar orb and its curiously two-dimensional craters. An added bonus that night is a partial lunar eclipse that slices off a chip before the Moon eventually resumes its full ghostly glow.
As I look out across the desert, I imagine the nomadic Tuaregs revelling in the wash of blueish light as an alternative to the guiding path of the Milky Way. Later, in bed in my cosy room, vivid with Berber colour, patterns and rugs, I get an even stronger sense of the elemental wilderness outside on planet Earth. That predicted sandstorm howls, soars and sweeps around the hotel, rattling windows and shutters and piling up more sand against the walls. It's not quite Super Nova, when a star implodes, but there is certainly a sense of man's fragility and of the immense power of the desert.
However enthralling the desert may be, civilisation beckons too. Barely 3,000 people now live in the nearest town, Tamegroute. Most of their income comes from beautiful green-glazed pottery sold at roadside shops. Hot, dusty and monochrome, the thousand-year-old centre of rammed earth streets, roofed with palm-trunks, is typical of Saharan architecture from Libya to Timbuktu. However, despite this humble appearance, it turns out that Tamegroute is a holy town where pilgrims descend on the tomb of a 17th-century Sufi saint called Sidi Mohammed Ben Naceur. In the arcaded courtyard outside, sick women gather, hoping for miracles and dirhams. However, as a non-Muslim I cannot enter the sanctuary itself.
Clay model: A village in the valley of Draa Luckily, Tamegroute's outstanding historic sight, a Koranic library (yet again echoing Timbuktu), is more accessible. Only 4,000 manuscripts of an original 50,000 remain, the others having been lost or dispersed. Yet the examples displayed in dusty showcases prove to be as eye-opening as the galaxies, from the bold calligraphy of Samarkand to an ancient map of Alexandria, some Berber poetry, an illuminated Koran on gazelle-hide from 11th-century Cordoba and a 15th-century Egyptian book depicting zodiac signs, planets and the solar system – a reminder of how advanced early Arab astronomers were.
From Tamegroute, Helmut takes me in his four-wheel-drive south to the Algerian border, a mere chain across the road, before we head out into the hushed, rippling dunes of the Sahara. Their poetry is only disturbed by spiralling sand-twisters, like dancing desert spirits; even the wind seems silent.
On the way we stop at oasis villages where advancing desertification is dramatically visible, bringing dry water-channels, collapsing houses and an exodus of inhabitants. Turbanned men in djellabas still trot by on donkeys or chat intensely, while women in billowing black robes, gossip and giggle, as they pick through a weekly souk. Apart from the odd vehicle, it is timeless, yet so much younger, trillions of years younger, than those mesmerising night skies.
A few days later, on my way back to the 21st century, I stay one last night at a Berber kasbah in Taliouine, 1,000m up in a spectacular cleft of the Anti-Atlas. When I rise at an ungodly 5.30am to head for the airport, the courtyard is radiant with the waning moonlight, leaving a carpet of stars perfectly framed by the walls; I can just recognise Jupiter and its four moons, which we observed so perfectly with the telescope. Then, like Ali Baba, I sneak out through the heavy kasbah doors into the cool, silent night. With the chatter and music of Radio Désert to keep me awake in the car, the Moon stays with me until dawn breaks over the mountains, and I emerge unscathed from my entrancing Saharan nights.
Fiona Dunlop travelled with Lawrence of Morocco (020-7183 6401; lawrenceofmorocco.com). A seven-night trip – with three nights' half-board at the Sahara Sky observatory hotel, two nights' B&B at Dar Al Hossoun in Taroudant and two nights' half-board at Kasbah Taliouine – costs from £890pp, with flights and car hire included.
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