An enormous pile of sand was not our intended destination when we flew to Morocco over the winter.
Instead, we were supposed to spend a week luxuriating at one of Marrakesh's top riads, where a friend was to celebrate a 50th birthday.
But as sometimes happens with lavish affairs, things got complicated. Rather than fuel the drama, we decided, somewhat romantically, to go somewhere to see the sun rise over the desert.
A glance through the guidebooks sold us on Erg Chebbi, an area of 400-foot-high sand dunes on the edge of the Sahara. The 563-kilometre journey there would take us through a southern region of the country known as the Valley of 1,000 Casbahs.
These earthen castles and fortified villages of mud and clay were built by the sheiks and powerful families who ruled various regions of Morocco through the centuries. Though many casbahs have disintegrated, the remote oasis valleys and undeveloped deserts south of Marrakesh abound with the soaring walls and towers of those that remain.
First, however, we had to cross the snow-covered peaks of the High Atlas mountains. The riad staff loaded our luggage onto a little donkey named Cous Cous and escorted us out of the medina by foot.
At an exterior intersection, my husband haggled with a line of taxis until he settled on a price of around $150. Soon we were driving across a broad, flat plain toward a line of snowy peaks.
Thought to have been formed by the same geological shifts that created the Alps and the Pyrenees, the High Atlas include North Africa's tallest peak, Toubkal; its most dramatic waterfall, Ouzoud Falls; and the Tizi n'Test pass, where the road narrows to a single lane in places as it traverses switchbacks and blind curves nearly 7,000 feet above sea level.
In the winter, the Tizi n'Test can be blocked by snow and avalanches. There are rock falls and rains year-round.
Because we were going East rather than South, we headed toward the Tizi n'Tichka, a pass described as "marginally safer." As the road grew steeper, I saw there were no guardrails.
The temperature fell at the snow line and continued to drop as we climbed. Our driver, who looked to be in his 40s and was wearing only a light jacket, pulled his collar higher.
"Could you turn up the heat?" my husband asked. The driver fiddled with the knobs and shook his head. We burrowed deeper into our coats.
The road twisted and turned. We passed mountain streams that plunged from narrow crevasses and tiny villages tucked in deep ravines. We drove through cloud mists and shadowed passages where the only light was what fell on the white peaks overhead.
As the daylight diminished, I saw that the road had no lights. Conversation in the car dwindled in the coming darkness and ceased altogether as we focused on the winding road.
Thankfully we began our descent before nightfall, but it was dusk when we passed Ait Benhaddou, Morocco's most famous and widely photographed casbah. Located on a river in the foothills of the High Atlas, Ait Benhaddou served as a backdrop in "Lawrence of Arabia" and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. We didn't get a good view in the dark, but it was just the first of many casbahs to come.
Our taxi left us in the first town we reached, Ouarzazate, a former stop for African traders that has become Morocco's movie capital. Since the making of "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1962, filmmakers from around the world have used Ouarzazate as a base while shooting scenes in the surrounding desert.
The region's list of movie appearances includes "The Last Temptation of Christ," "The Mummy," "The Man Who Would Be King," "Gladiator" and "Babel."
Perched on a high, wind-blown plateau with broad, dusty streets overlooking the desert, Ouarzazate has the vibe of a frontier outpost. Our hotel, the Berber Palace, had spartan rooms, an enormous pool and an airy lobby filled with fake mummies, chariots and other props left behind by movie crews.
The next day, having had our fill of kitschy movie memorabilia, we skipped a tour of Atlas Studios, reputedly the world's largest movie studio in terms of physical size, in favour of the Kasbah Taourirt.
It is one of many casbahs that belonged to the powerful Glaoui clan, including Thami el Glaoui, the last Pasha of Marrakesh, who conspired with the French to overthrow Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco before dying in 1956, the year Morocco gained independence.
A middle-aged man stood in front of the casbah. He told us that he used to cater meals for movie crews but could show us around inside for 20 dirham, less than $3. We took his offer.
Whatever his cooking skills may have been, he was a chatty guide. He told us that the casbah had been built in the 1800s. Maybe. He seemed more knowledgeable about its Glaoui owners, whom he praised as tall, beautiful, dark-skinned, brilliant men. "They can recite every verse of the Koran," he said. "Every word, they remember!"
We followed him through the empty rooms, up narrow stairs and through passages that led to more empty rooms, as he pointed out sections that had been restored, with elaborate Arabic motifs. Perhaps because it has been extensively renovated, the casbah felt a little Disney-esque, and as authentic as the movie props in our hotel.
In the morning, we rented a Fiat with dusty seats. Morocco has few highways, and it was easy to follow the N10, as it was the only road we saw. For the next two days we travelled through the Dades Valley across miles of sand and rock. The sun beat down, and the wind blew cold and steady. My fingers felt dry, my nasal passages felt dry, my throat felt dry.
We spent that night at the Xaluca Dades, a hotel in the tiny village of Boumalne Dades, where we stood on a balcony at sundown and listened to a muezzin's call to prayer echo in the mountains. In the morning we drove to Todra Gorge, carved by the Todra and Dades rivers, with 500-foot cliffs on either side.
At the entrance, women washed laundry in the river beneath the canyon's red walls as little black goats scampered nearby. We took pictures and debated venturing farther. Would the car make it? Too lazy to hike and too uncertain about the abilities of the Fiat, we returned to the road.
We passed more casbahs. We passed solitary ones in the distance surrounded by only sand and rocks. We passed them in tiny villages where dust-covered shepherds jostled with dust-covered trucks. We passed them in oases where they hid among groves of leafy palms.
When you see enough casbahs, you begin to wonder, "What's it like to live in a casbah?" You'll start to notice signs offering accommodations at casbahs, and before you know it, you're holding the key to a room made of packed dirt.
And so it was that we found ourselves at the Ksar el Khorbat, a renovated guesthouse among the ruins of a walled fortress built in the 1800s. To the best of my understanding, a ksar is a fortified castle or village, and a casbah is a fortress, sometimes within a ksar, but depending on where you are, a casbah may also be the same thing as a ksar. Easy, right?
Either way, our room was all you'd expect of a room with earthen walls. It was large, square and simply furnished. It was quiet, dark and very cold. Rugs covered the floor, and a sheet of fabric hung across the window. There was a large, freshly tiled bathroom and a door to a balcony that faced an interior wall within the ksar.
We lay down on the double bed for a nap, using every blanket in the room. Still cold, we pulled on our coats. Then we pulled on our hats and gloves. My husband got up and asked the staff for a heater, which warmed us up. But having arisen, we decided to explore an adjacent museum.
Created by the same partners who established the guesthouse, the museum occupied three levels of the ksar and wound through a series of earthen rooms connected by passages and narrow stairs.
We were the only ones there, and we crept forward into the catacomb of tiny rooms like amateur archaeologists entering the silence of old objects - wedding clothes, farming implements, maps of caravan routes, medicinal herbs and pottery and other artefacts of lives long gone.
We made our final push to the dunes the next day across miles of dust and loose black rocks, which form a type of desert known in Arabic as a hamada. We passed camels accompanied by herdsmen. We approached mirages shimmering like shallow pools on the dark road that vanished when we neared.
The road ended at a cluster of adobe buildings ringed by hotels and guesthouses. Beyond the village of Merzouga there was only sand. We checked into the Kasbah Hotel Tombouctou, a 72-room resort, and after one night in a warm bed, we mounted camels, prepared to spend a night in the desert.
My camel wasn't ornery, but any notions of developing a bond vanished as I approached it. The animals are covered in dust and flies, and apparently their infamously difficult temperament caused the US Department of War to abandon using them for military purposes after a brief experiment in the 1850s. Maybe that's why our guide walked. Minutes into the trip, he kicked off his sandals and pulled out his cellphone.
He led us away from Merzouga's cluster of buildings into waves of reddish-yellow sand that rose into sensual mounds and languorous drifts. Soon it seemed that all of Earth was only sand. We plodded forward, our shadows casting strange, dark silhouettes on the undulating landscape.
Two hours later, we rounded the base of an immense dune and came to a spot where the land ahead of us fell away. I saw that we were on a high plateau above a long, wide valley. Tents built from rugs lashed to wooden poles overlooked the valley. A man in a sweater and a gray turban led us into one campsite.
He grabbed the corner of a hanging rug and lifted it, revealing our accommodations - a dark space containing a cot piled with blankets. There was enough light for me to make out a camel turd beside the cot.
Other than the cot and the turd, there was nothing to see, so we dropped our bags and went back outside. Then we did what people do when they have nothing to do and there's a mound of sand nearby. We climbed it. Or tried to.
When you climb a 400-foot mound of sand, you quickly become breathless. You slip, you slide, you sink. You think that your hands might help, so you get down on all fours and crawl. Then you notice how cool the sand is, how powder fine and soft it is against your skin.
You forget about reaching the top, and you become a child in a giant sandbox, revelling in the feel of the world as it exists in that moment, amazed at its abundance as it pours through your hands and remains there still, all around you.
That evening we dined with a Spaniard and three Japanese women on couscous, stewed chicken and vegetables followed by bowls of fresh fruit and hot tea. Afterward, our Berber hosts built a bonfire, brought out drums and sang under the night sky until we drifted to our tents.
Sometime in the night, my husband got up and I followed. We climbed up the dune in the darkness, then sank back into the softness of the sand.
Shooting stars arced across the glittering black sky.
We were both freezing, but we stayed until the sun rose once more to light the dunes, the tents, the camels and the great, broad valley below.
Huang is a former Reuters journalist.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
Le Berbere Palace, Quartier Mansour Eddahbi, Ouarzazate. Spartan rooms. Large pool, restaurant and lobby filled with movie props.
Ksar el Khorbat, Off the N10 between Ouarzazate and Tinejdad. Guesthouse in a ksar still occupied by locals. Museum, gardens, pool, restaurant. Hotel offers pickup from Tinejdad.
Kasbah Hotel Tombouctou, Merzouga. Seventy-two rooms, pool and dune views.
WHAT TO DO
Ait Benhaddou, About 17 kilometres from Ouarzazate. A UNESCO World Heritage Site that has appeared in numerous movies.
Kasbah Taourirt, Avenue Mohammed V, Ouarzazate. One of the casbahs of the Glaoui who ruled southern Morocco. Daily 8 am to 6 pm. Guides out front will ask for more; they're worth the money if you get a good one.
Erg Chebbi, Enormous sand dunes on the edge of the Sahara, accessible by camel and 4x4 vehicles. Most hotels in Merzouga offer tours and overnight stays in Berber tents. Camel treks are about $23 per person and 4x4 tours about $160 per vehicle, while overnight tent stays run about $50 with dinner. But remember that almost every price in Morocco can be haggled over.
- The Washington Post