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My Best Road Trip: Five days travelling through the Saharan dunes in a Dacia

This week’s best road trip sees David M Byrne tackle the Sahara’s dunes and dust in a Dacia.

Source: David m byrne

  • Each week, TheJournal.ie/DoneDeal motoring mag will feature a reader’s best road trip. If you’d love to see your top trip featured, email us on melanie@thejournal.ie

MY BEST ROAD trip was exploring the Saharan Desert sands of southeastern Morocco.

Who: David M Byrne, Wicklow www.davidmbyrne.com
Route: The N13 to the dunes of southeastern Morocco
Distance: 398km
Time: 5 days
When: May 2014
Vehicle: Dacia Logan

david_m_byrne_morocco_1 Dacia Logan by the side of the N13 from Er Rachidia to Merzouga, southeastern Morocco. Source: David M Byrne

I was sitting opposite Mohammad in a Location de Voiture (car rental) office in Er Rachidia, southeastern Morocco. Finding such a place was a chore but, as it turned out, that was the easy part. Mohammad didn’t have a word of English and it was obvious from the outset that my rudimentary French was always going to fall well short when tasked with ironing out the intricacies of a Moroccan car rental agreement. At one stage I resorted to mimicking a driving motion (rocking my hands at the 10-2 position) while motioning a crash and using the word ‘accident’, a word Mohammad understood all too well (it’s the same in French). He was looking at me worryingly when I asked:

“Accident. OK? No problem, right?”

Mohammed glared at me and leant forward, putting his elbows on this desk before quietly replying:

“Accident. Big problem.”

Of course Mohammad was right, an accident would be a big problem. What I was trying to discern was whether insurance was included in the hire rate (yes I know, it was a piss-poor effort). We eventually ironed out that and other details. Insurance was included in the price which, at 1,200 dirhams (€110) for three days, was more than I expected to pay but was still happy to do so. Shortly thereafter I was starting out on the 120km journey south from Er Rachidia to the Erg Chebbi sands of the Moroccan Sahara with an assurance to Mohammad that I’d have the car back in one piece in three days’ time.

My desert wheels was a radio, air-con and power steering-less Dacia Logan with wind-up windows. Dacia is easily the most common car brand plying Moroccan roads. This beast had 3,061 kilometres on the clock, lots of dust on the dash and a few dents on the bodywork. I could have taken the bus to and from the desert dunes but where’s the fun in that? Even a no-frills Dacia is a better option.

david_m_byrne_morocco_2 Sunrise over the red sands of northern Erg Chebbi, southeastern Morocco Source: David M Byrne

Erg Chebbi (‘erg’ meaning sand dune), not too far from the (closed since 1994) border with Algeria, are Morocco’s most impressive dunes and one of the country’s biggest draws. They are small – only some 30 kilometres north to south and seven kilometres wide at their widest point – and although not as imposing or as expansive as dunes found elsewhere in North Africa, they still give an impressive taste of the Sahara’s grandeur. Hotels/resorts line the edge of the dunes offering both easy access to and super views of the sand.

What it looked like

It rained on day one, a rarity I was told. The desert was damp and the sands compacted to a rusty red colour, reminding me of the sands of Wadi Rum in Jordan. It was muggy and damp, the visibility poor among the dunes accessible from Hotel Yasmina, a 15-kilometre detour off N13 on an unpaved desert road, no problem to a Dacia Logan. It was a bit of a desert disappointment. However, along came day two. I rose early, up for sunrise. The moon was lingering, slowly giving way to the rising sun. The red desert sands were fetching. The landscape colour changes depending on the time of day and environmental conditions but the scene, when visible, is never less than strikingly beautiful.

The recent rains added to the level of a small lake situated beside my hotel. The reflections were great. Needless to say, camel trips across the dunes are de rigueur, but not particularly cheap.

david_m_byrne_morocco_3 Reflections in the desert. Well I never. Northern Erg Chebbi, southeastern Morocco Source: David M Byrne

Mid-morning on day two saw me heading further south on N13 to the dunes outside the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Merzouga. It didn’t take long – after all, the dunes only stretch 30 kilometres north to south. Although geographically close, the sands down south were very different to what I experienced up north, the southern sands more like the golden sand one might associate with true desert. Shortly after finding a base I was out among all that golden goodness, striking out for the highest dune on the horizon where I sat watching the sunset.

david_m_byrne_morocco_5 Shifting shadows of southern Erg Chebbi nearing sunset. Merzouga, southeastern Morocco Source: David M Byrne

The sand gets everywhere – in your nostrils, in your ears and you can even feel it grinding between your teeth. This storm was blustery, pretty intense. The Dacia was rocking. I shouldn’t have been out in it. My camera definitely shouldn’t have been. But never miss an opportunity. It’s not every day you get to experience a sandstorm.

I extended my stay among the desert dunes by a day, but only after getting the hotel to call Mohammad in Er Rachidia to square that with him; he would have been expecting his Dacia back. I left the dunes early on day five, but not before saying goodbye to my camel.

You need to get real close to a camel to get a shot like this with a wide-angle lens. This guy just stared at me inquisitively as I was doing my thing, the camera only inches from his snout. He sat there seemingly without a care in the world even though being an animal in Morocco does not come recommended.

david_m_byrne_morocco_7 A camel in the grounds of Hotel Haven la Chance, Merzouga, southeastern Morocco Source: David M Byrne

Mohammad got his Dacia back in one piece, albeit a day late. And compared to when I received it, he also got it back with more dust on the dash, more petrol in the tank and 398 more kilometres on the clock.

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David M Byrne

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