2020 is the year when two sisters had the opportunity to take part in an adventure that would reunite both of them after 10 years of living in different countries. Being half-sisters, one of them grew up in England while the other was in Morocco. Therefore, they had different education, culture, hobbies, etc. It was important for them and their dad to find a nice way to reconnect. And there it was: the perfect opportunity to go horse riding in Morocco.
My sister being the most experienced rider gave me the riding bug during our short visits in the past two years. Our dad, always with the craziest ideas, had decided to organise a new ride in the Erg Chgagga region of Morocco. As he was looking forward to riding with both his daughters, he decided to take us on this adventure. We both love being outdoors and this ride offered us six days of riding and sleeping in tents every night, right next to our four legged friends the Barb-Arabian horses; we’d also be sharing this voyage with. Seizing the opportunity we arrive in Marrakech to begin this journey together.
A different world
Erg Chgagga is in the south of Morocco. A stretch of golden sand dunes stretching across the horizon for about 40 km which, is encircled by the mountain ridges of Jbel Bani in the north, in the east M’Hamid, south the Erg Smar and to the west the dried lake of Iriqui, now a national park. This Erg stays largely untouched by modern day because of its accessibility; you get this overwhelming feeling of vastness, complete freedom but also the immensity of what nature has and can create. Some dunes reaching a breathtaking 200m above the landscape below.
Discovering this landscape, the air at this time of year is cool and can fall below 0°. The air is so clear that at night the sky opens up with millions of stars, more than you could ever imagine. Looking up we tried to find constellations; the brightest was Orion. We couldn’t have timed it better, as we fell exactly during the Full Moon, which was magical. The moon, illuminated by the sun, changed color each night, rising above the dunes steadily creating enough light that you can see perfectly in the darkness. The Sahara covers almost 30% of the African continent reaching temperatures of 57° during the summer making it the hottest place on earth with landscapes that are just as unique as the stars above our heads.
Meeting our guide – Abdou “The Trickster”
Arriving at our first camp of the week at Ouled Driss, we meet up with Abdou later nicknamed the “trickster” for playing practical jokes–our personal favorite was the time he put our local guide, Khout “Kirikou” in one of the water basins. Abdou was the one who taught everything about riding to Inès, since she was just a little child. Thanks to him, in just two years , and with only few visits, he managed to teach me (Amanda) what I needed to know to participate on horse riding trips. Our local guide, “Khout,” was in charge of navigating us to the next well, which we found quickly every time… almost.
Abdou manages and looks after all the horses of Horse Riding by Sport Travel both here in Marrakech and Skoura. He begins to explain in more depth the concept of this new riding trek that we are going to be embarking. They are becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of having a large truck that usually follows them on other rides that supplies them with food, water and everything else essential during the week.
This weeks’ ride therefore, will not be accompanied by a truck but eight camels and their herders, not only reducing our carbon footprint but meaning that we can venture into more unknown areas of the desert landscape. This charmed Inès and I, feeling like we’d stepped back in time during the era of historic stories like those of the jewish merchant Mardoché and adventurer Charles de Foucauld with their caravans of camels travelling through the desert to trade their spices in towns like the forbidden city of Timbuktu all the way to the Sudan.
Moonlight and Najm
We had the pleasure to be accompanied on this ride by Moonlight, an 8 years old Barb-Arabian and Quarter Horse; and Najm, a Barb Arab. They choose their horses very carefully. Indeed, Barb-Arab horses are the best suited in Morocco for long horseback trail rides. They are well trained by Abdou and the other guides before being sent on trips.
Most of them are named regarding their personality and character with a Berber or Arabic word; except for Moonlight, named by Inès when he was just a foal.
A funny story was the attractiveness that Jerboas had to the Moonlight. If you wanted to see the moonlight, you just need to go say goodnight to him, once the sun is down and you will find a bright beam hidden into the straw at his feet.
The Land of Mint Tea
We had heard that Morocco was known for local hospitality but we only got a real sense of this when we started traveling even, more so in the desert where life is much harder. Ingrained in their culture to offer help even if it’s not needed; or just to drink mint tea and exchange stories. Up until this day if you meet people travelling in the desert it is customary for Moroccans to stop to first say Salam (Hello) and then La Bes (You ok?) And if all is well carry on with their day.
In particular, mint tea is an essential item of their culture. Each time you cross a nomad camp or a bivouac, it is a cultural obligation to them to offer mint tea, to show a sign of hospitality. A thing we were wondering was “How come they drink HOT tea in the desert when it’s crazy hot there?” We finally got the answer that drinking something colder than our body temperature demands a physical effort to warm up once ingested, which in the end warms us up more. This is why they drink tea at the same temperature as their body.
Sharing is Caring
A little anecdote that was told to us; if a family comes to a well to replenish their water but essentially have everything else food etc… if it happened that others arrive at the same well they are obliged to share what they have regardless of how many they are. Therefore, it is not recommended to bivouac next to a well but to go a little further to leave space for animals and people to go freely to the well, without having to offer food.
This detail would also add a difficulty to our adventure. Indeed, after finally finding the well each time, the game was not over, we also had to find the herders and their camels with the bivouac.
One evening Khout “Kirikou” somehow “ordered” a chicken for us to eat that evening which got delivered a few hours later at our bivouac, yet surrounded by dunes. We were astonished where this little chicken may have come from…!
Head in the Sand
There was something quite magical about waking up surrounded by dunes each morning and our horses sleeping not far from our pillows, made from our jumpers. The colors in the sky as we drank our first mint tea of the day ranged from vivid orange of the sun looming over the horizon creating spectacular shadows and a technicolour painting above our heads. Whilst we wandered about the landscapes we would discover that day, would it be large open spaces to gallop, venturing into small dunettes or a total surprise as this ride kept unveiling.
The day that stands out the most for us both was when the light was overcast by clouds creating this ethereal atmosphere, we almost didn’t want to talk it was so peaceful. The landscape that engulfed us; was one that you think you’ll only ever see in Western movies with cowboys except this time there are camels and goats roaming the wilderness.
Getting Caught in a Sand Storm
We woke up to the sound of wind blowing outside our tent, both laughing we wondered if today we’d experience our first sand storm. Our breakfast was a little grittier and the mint tea with an added crunch that it hadn’t had the night before. All part of the adventure!
Before heading off, we all went to take our “chèche” and asked the camel drivers to put it well on our heads. This is the best thing to protect us from the wind full of sand. We spent the day trying to get a glance at the landscape through our apparel. The horses were also eager to see the wind fall. Luckily, most of the day we spent having the wind pushing us from behind and not eating sand all day…
A Gallop in a Field of Lettuce
Emerging out from above on a rocky terrain we spot the landscape below; a field of lettuce growing only a few meters from the dunes. The contrast of colors is breathtaking, our eyes not quite adjusting to what they were seeing at first. Abdou our guide announces that we would be galloping through it, perfect for the horses which, didn’t stop them from munching a little snack before and after! All three of our horses Moonlight, Taj and Najm all took off at steady trot waiting for the lead horse; Taj to announce the gallop and off we went.
This is for the both of us a memory that we will treasure, pure bliss and adrenaline combined of having had the chance to experience it not only together but in this landscape constantly changing and full of surprises around every corner.
Khout was able to capture the moment, seated on the roof of a four-wheel drive that he’d just stopped on his quest to find cigarettes of which he’d just finished his stock.
Nose to Nose with Camels
These camels aren’t those you see carrying tourists but rather for the local population to transport items around the desert; extremely important for the nomads that still live in this region.
The relationship between dromadaire and horses…. At the beginning of the week, neither side was too sure of each other. A little nervous of who the other four legged friends were. Ears peaked, observing and inspecting or doing trots around each of their respective tree. Like curious children wanting to know everything!
To begin with we had to have eyes in the back of heads to observe the movements of the camels as they roam relatively free at night with just their legs attached, as too not run off too far to find again in the morning. The camels also loving hay and the orge that they carried on their back for the horses would sneakily try to share a plate of food with our companions; we had to quickly run after them to point the nose of the cheeky dromadaire in another direction.
One horse that was completely unfazed the entire week was Inès’s, Moonlight. Though not much seemed to faze him, the smallest of the group but the bravest. One morning we found him sharing his breakfast and possibly having a small discussion together like two old friends nattering about the good old times.
Finding the Wells
Each day, three times a day, for six days we had to find drinking water for our horses. Our path was structured around the wells hidden in the landscape. It almost became a game of who spies the well first. This kept us occupied, especially when our tummies started rumbling after four hours of riding in the morning to reach our stop for lunch. At times it seemed like the horses could smell water, getting excited each time we approached water.
We would stop each time getting off, to stretch our legs, letting the horses drink their fill before heading off again, usually our lunches not far away. In these moments we remarked how awe inspiring this experience was. Each of us relying on one another for survival, we could not cover these large distances without our horses and they would not know the way without our guide. The perfect duo.
Our Dad “The Pacha”
Taking our dad along with us made it that even more special. He’d prepared for this ride for months to be physically able, so that his butt skin could take the strain of a week in the saddle. We shared our mutual love of riding in his country of heart where he has travelled for the past 30 years. He told us stories about his travels through the Sahara from a different era where the country was still rarely travelled by foreigners. Remarking on how much it had changed since.
A story which, he decided to tell us about was one about the time he came nose to foot quite literally with a Horned desert viper in 1984 travelling along the Algerian and Mali border in his Peugeot 504. Specifically chosen because both Inès and I had asked about the type of snakes that lay beneath the sand, or rocks or hidden possibly in our tents! The environment being similar to the one we were riding through he had also been looking for a well near Tim-Messao.
Tired and needing a break from the heat he had stopped under an Acacia tree, bare foot, sat on rock resembling the Thinking Man of Rodin, eyes closed and after a moment of peace reopens them to find the snake in question nestling itself between his feet looking up and waiting to see what would happen next. At lightning speed he found himself leaping onto the hood of the 4×4 that was a safe distance from this friendly unless threatened, deadly snake. Finishing his story by reassuring us that it was currently winter and that we would not be sharing our sleeping bags that night…!
The Last Night
A voyage that astonished us in so many ways. The relationships that we formed with our horses discovering their own unique personalities that we completely fell in love with. The friendships formed with our guides teaching us about their culture and its’ constantly changing landscape that we were immersed in for six days covering a distance of 160 km.
Though what really encompassed this whole trip was being there together, sharing and experiencing this voyage of discovery as sisters and with our dad; who’s passion for travel was passed down to the both of us.
Don’t forget to check out our “Horse Riding in Every Country” catalog, which lists horse riding tours in Morocco as well as in over 180 other countries. It’s well worth a look; you might just find you next dream holiday destination with horses there. Click the link to find horse riding everywhere!