Walking with Nomads – Part Two
Our 1st Year
Almost one year to the day, I decided that the time was ripe for Walking with Nomads to spread its magic outside of M’hamid.
Thanks to our wonderful team of guides, almost 100 clients had experienced the mysteries of Sahara trekking in the most exotic of settings and learned about the nomadic way of life that is almost extinct in this remote part of Morocco.
We had a vision, that tourists were looking for something that didn’t yet exist, and we were right. In 12 months we had found enough crazy trekkers to put their trust in us that we were able to think about expansion.
Then unfortunately, Mohamed, the other half of Walking with Nomads, decided that he no longer wanted to be part of the journey. Mohamed and his family had been obviously instrumental in building the business with their on-the-ground knowledge, informative blogs and hard work. It is an extremely hard job which he had lived and breathed for a year, before deciding that tourism was not the right field for him and Walking with Nomads was not what he really wanted. It was with very mixed feelings that I had to let go and accept his decision, continuing on without his collaboration.
As One Door Closes
When something throws a spanner in the works and life takes an unexpected twist, you can decide whether to contract or expand. I passionately believe that being forced to change direction is always a blessing and if you just turn and walk towards your dreams, new pathways will open up in front of you.
So, I chose to take this opportunity to follow up another dream I had been nurturing for a while. I wanted to open up the business to provide a variety of ECO Tourism experiences including Walking with Mountain Nomads. Morocco is well known for its desert nomads and Sahara trekking but perhaps not everyone knows that there is also a rich community of mountain nomads.
One of our drivers had been born into a nomadic family in the Dades area of Morocco and as a qualified mountain guide, he had thrilled me with stories of the possibilities in this area. And so I had been researching the idea of Walking with Mountain Nomads for a while but hadn’t found the right people to work with in this area.
The timing was perfect when I received a call from a young couple living in Todra Gorge who wanted to talk to me about the possibility of working with me to offer a nomadic trekking experience in the spectacular Todra / Dades area and we agreed to meet when I was next driving through.
Merzouga – but not as you know it
The main difficulty in running desert treks in M’hamid, (and there’s many) is that it is not on an easy circuit from Marrakech and public transport options are extremely limited especially after the domestic airlines pulled their flight route. The logistics of the trip put off all but the most determined and usually meant that they had no opportunity to see anywhere else while in Morocco.
This tempted me to start thinking about including other desert areas in Morocco and I soon discovered that there is so much that is untouched by tourism and in an area more logistically convenient to reach. (This means that if time is short and you want to see more of Morocco, you can still enjoy the Sahara trekking experience.) So, I started the beta test phase in the Taouz area. This area is so rich in scenery, diversity and history, yet astonishingly, it’s been completely overlooked and overshadowed by the “camel trek and overnight camp experience” in Merzouga, which all visitors know so well.
Mad Dogs and English Women
So, despite not being a trekker myself and definitely not putting myself in the “fit as a fiddle” category of middle aged women, I planned 4 days desert trekking followed by 3 days mountain trekking, followed by a lobotomy.
I managed to convince one of the team to take a week out to join me on this double beta test and we flew from Fes to Errachidia with Air Arabia to be met by Hassan in a boiling hot 4×4 covered in the ubiquitous desert dust.
Landing at Errachidia Airport feels very exciting as you are literally landing in the desert and our hearts were swelling with excitement at our adventure ahead. The drive to the camp we were staying at was around 2 hours and took us through the panoramic views of Ziz Valley and the city of Erfoud which is known for its fossils and marble and here we had lunch at a roadside café. While the men all sat outside on the pavement smoking and drinking tea in the sun, we sat in the AC snuffling up omelette, pizza, chips, salad and fresh bread with olives.
Once in the dunes, we were met by my long-time friend and colleague, Ahmed, who was to be our host and guide as we figured out which parts of the desert I wanted to visit by vehicle and which parts I wanted to trek.
We all jumped into the pick-up and set off to Begaa which we reached by a downhill rocky approach so steep that Omar had to get out and lift several boulders to put in front of the tyres to prevent the pickup sliding out of control – down down down. Ahmed inched down as we felt as though we were about to tip right over. I have no idea why I stayed inside the vehicle at this point, except that I was scared that if I got out, the weight shift might spell disaster for the driver. So in the best spirit of taking one for the team, we sat tight and then heaved a collective sigh of relief as we reached the bottom and parked up under a tree to open the cold beers the boys had thoughtfully packed as we watched the sunset with gratitude.
I looked West, then East. North then South. I listened and stared and I couldn’t see another soul in any direction. This part of the desert has a rugged beauty, lower dunes squat next to mountains with a couple of Acacia trees which spread their roots as wide as their branches trying to anchor themselves in the rocky carpet they call home.
Noting landmarks, watching the milometer and photographing the terrain, we mapped out potential trekking routes before it fell dark and Omar jumped out and disappeared. Then we immediately lost our way and our phone signal. But good natured and resourceful Ahmed soon got back on track and drove us all the way back to the eco luxury camp where dinner was waiting for us.
Around the fire that night, we discussed the options with a hand drawn map and finally decided that tomorrow’s beta test would be for a 2 day trek directly from the camp to end in Erg Znaigui. It’s only by beta testing treks myself that I can really understand a route and was able to inform Ahmed that not having one single tree between the start point and the night 1 camp spot made having a pee and a rest in the shade very challenging. A re-route was quickly figured out which would approach the same trek from a different angle where more trees could be found.
The Voice in My Head
As we trekked on that 1st day (by the 2nd day I could barely use my brain at all due to heat and exhaustion) I had the opportunity to be with my thoughts, to really listen to the voice inside me and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the new ideas for Walking with Nomads were going to take the company in the right direction and provide something unique in Morocco – a business 100% dedicated to eco-tourism in all its activities and experiences, each one to be scoped out and tested personally by me.
We completed our Two Day Sahara Trekking Beta Test checking all the camping gear, guides, food, camels, terrain, etc etc and then swapped into a 4×4 for the following days in order to scope out some longer treks.
We drove to Safsaf Oasis where we sat around a fire by the side of the water and ate hot, spicy kebabs and fresh salads chatting about Covid-19 and what was to come. We all had a different theory but the feeling that the virus was nature’s way of re-setting the balance, was a tempting one to support.
Eventually it was time to leave the desert and our Sahara trekking heaven and head towards the mountains in order to meet with the guides and trial the Gorge to Gorge Walking with Nomads experience I wanted to create. We were literally only one step ahead of the virus at all times and our plans here were changed as one of the guides was stuck in Italy which had just locked down and closed borders. So over the next couple of days we did absolutely everything we could possibly do without actually setting off on a 3 day mountain hike and then we drove straight to Marrakech Airport so that I could get out of Morocco. I got on a flight to the Canaries where I was subsequently trapped and Morocco then shut its borders right behind me.
None of us knew then what was to come or that the entire world would grind to a halt. Even before Covid it was clear to me that there was a fast-growing movement of tourists who want to travel without guilt, with a clear conscience.
They want to slow down, re-connect, and know that what they are doing is benefiting local people. They want to learn, to grow and to treat the environment with respect while doing so. They want their desire to travel as an eco-conscious tourist to help drive change for the better and to be part of a movement where supply and demand move together in harmony with the environment. I know this because I am one of them. And it shouldn’t be a lot to ask. It should be available and affordable and I intend to make it so, at least in Morocco ?