24-Jan-2011 --We flew to Marrakech from Manchester UK, arriving early in the evening of Saturday, 22 January. Heading directly to the bus station at Bab Doukkala we weaved through a phalanx of touts to get to the CTM counter where we reserved tickets on the 00:30 bus to Zagora, the last major town before our destination of M’Hamid, and the start of the desert.
Arriving at the Djemaa el Fna in search of sustenance, we found its madness and wonder unfolding beneath a huge, lambent moon. We dived deep into the chaos and clamour of the food stalls and revelled in greasy-fingered pleasure as the stallholders punted calamar and conger eel to jaded Moroccans and their eager children.
Then a brisk walk out to the CTM station and forging through the night on the bus to Zagora. We woke early to a clear blue morning and the honeyed lilt of a never-ending devotional song spilling from the bus stereo. Winding its way between the spectacular ramparts of the Draa Valley the bus passed through date palms and mud-walled qasbas stirring under a shroud of smoke from breakfast fires.
At the bus stop in Zagora we faced down some distinctly languorous hassle from the local touts and breakfasted at a street corner café, warming ourselves like lizards in the morning sun. Then onto M’Hamid in the crowded confines of a battered white Mercedes minibus.
The little town is literally the end of the road before the desert takes control and we arrived to, possibly, even more desultory touting than that of Zagora before ensconcing ourselves outside a café overlooking the small square to plan our route of entry into the vastness.
I left Izaak nursing a mint tea to do a recce of the town and as I was returning decided to drop in to the small premises of a guiding agency called Nomadic Life to see if I could buy a map. I should probably mention at this point that our map had 30N 6W as its bottom left hand corner and the inset of M’Hamid on the back did not extend as far as the Confluence. Consequently we were relying on a memorized shot on Google Earth to enable us to navigate using the main features of the landscape coupled with the single point 30N 6W preloaded into the GPS.
In Nomadic Life I had the good fortune to meet its owner, the excellent and honourable Khalifa Mharzi. Although he had no maps to sell he showed me a number in books and on the computer, checked the weather forecast for me and gave me useful verbal directions to get us well on our way. At no point did Khalifa try to dissuade me from our venture but he did express his concerns and asked me lots of questions about our preparations (How many GPS points do you have? One?!!!!!). He insisted I write down our names and phone number (I said we had a satellite phone but this was not strictly true – sorry Khalifa!) and gave me his card so that if we got into trouble we could call him and he would pick us up in a 4x4.
Thus prepared I collected Izaak from the café and we crossed the road to purchase 12 litres of water each from an alimentation générale before heading out of town on the track leading to Erg Chegaga. A mile or so along the track we struck off due northwest to cross the band of dunes that lies to the north of M’Hamid. From the taller dunes we could see the range of mountains that we needed to reach and, serendipitously, the most prominent peak was exactly due NW. Looking at it through the telescope we could see a break just to the east of it that was likely to be the mouth of the valley that would give us ingress to the massif.
At the northern border of the dunes we buried four litres of water to lighten our packs and tagged the spot with the GPS. We then struck out onto a gravel plain that was actually the southern extent of a huge alluvial fan issuing from the mouth of the valley that was our target. Forging into this for a few miles we eventually camped under an acacia in the sandy hollows of one of the dry drainage channels that radiated out across the fan, and whose convergence at the valley mouth afforded us a useful navigational aid. When we stopped doing camp tasks, the silence was immense.
The second day we continued on our line-of-sight bearing towards the peak and keeping the water tower at M’Hamid to our backs. We eventually crossed the 4x4 track that bisects the alluvial fan so prominently if you look on Google Earth, and as we approached the massif the mouth of the valley became more obvious, with drainage channels and lines of acacias marching towards it. As we came into the jaws of the valley, it was obvious that at times a raging torrent flowed out of these eroded and mesa-topped hills. The channel was broad and braided and bounded in places by tall bluffs but now was completely dry.
The valley swung around due west and just beyond the bend we encountered a family of nomads in a hair tent. They stood in the entrance to the tent and waved but no invitations to tea were forthcoming! Heading further along the valley we kept to the channel with the going sometimes easier as we moved along meandering trails made by the pastoralists, becoming much harder when these petered out until we could find another. At this stage we decided to do a GOTO on the GPS and it indicated that the Confluence was 6.5 miles away, continuing for now due west.
After another couple of miles we encountered a second nomad camp, this time in stone-built huts. As we passed by no people were evident, just their goats, the younger of these capering along the river bluff. I turned to look back at the camp when we were about a half mile beyond and there was a dark clad figure standing outside one of the huts. I raised an arm in salute and the figure returned the gesture.
The final couple of miles before the Confluence were hellish – we were exhausted after twelve miles with heavy packs, the last few across ankle-snapping terrain. We approached yet another set of pastoralist huts and pens but these proved to be deserted and we dropped our packs in one of the huts. Invigorated by the sudden loss of our burdens we followed the GPS unit’s urgings up the southern valley side and over the lip onto a stony plateau. I thought a pair of cairns might mark some previous visit to the Confluence but the GPS indicated we had another 600 feet to go. We arrived with the gathering twilight lending a fitting eeriness and loneliness to the spot and, after dispensing with the photographs and handshakes, we turned again to drop back into the valley and set up camp.
The next day we found a beautifully clear trail on the southern bank of the channel and made fantastic time, eventually being disgorged onto the alluvial fan once more via a side valley shortly before the main valley mouth. Energized by our progress we decided to continue to the water cache and finished the day having done seventeen miles. We camped just into the dunes and awoke to poor visibility that steadily worsened as we headed towards M’Hamid until we finally rode into town on the wings of a dust storm. Wonderful!