From Marrakech to the door of the Sahara, through the trails connecting out-of-this-world villages and mountain passes, my destination was the Festival Internationale des Nomades in M’Hamid El Ghizlane—the last outpost of civilization at the Algerian border.

You don’t need an excuse for a motorcycle trip through Morocco. It’s full of ancient symbols where the Sahara’s sand ends, just before the land dives into the Atlantic. Here, at the end of the known world, Hercules split a mountain into two columns on which is engraved “Non Plus Ultra.” Odysseus ignored this warning, thirsty for knowledge, paying with death and eternal damnation for his disregard.

For anyone who grew up dreaming of such great raids, the fascination of this boundary still lives, not only because it smells like Africa, but also because Morocco is a land of passage and arrival with the characteristics of the many civilizations who’ve crossed it over the millennia. Conquerors and colonists, merchants, and caravans, all left pieces of their cultures along its sand and stony tracks.


Hotel Toulousain in Marrakech

Hotel Toulousain features an outdoor swimming pool, garden, a shared lounge and terrace in Marrakech. Among the facilities of this property are a restaurant, room service and a 24-hour front desk, along with free WiFi throughout the property. The accommodation provides a concierge service, and currency exchange for guests. Guests at the hotel can enjoy a continental breakfast.


Morocco is a land of passage and arrival with the characteristics of the many civilizations who’ve crossed it over the millennia.

A chosen destination is often an excuse to live through the road and its experiences, but takes on real meaning when you give it a symbolic value. The guys from Off Road Passion glimpsed in the Festival International des Nomades the perfect excuse to cross Morocco headed to M’Hamid El Ghizlane, a small village lost in Erg Chegaga’s sand. Here, at the door of the Sahara close to the Algerian border, the festival represents the pride and union for nomadic people of northern Sahara, embracing the cultures of Black Africa.

As a photographer and travel journalist, I was invited to take part in this caravan of 15 motorcyclists crossing the country. After landing in Marrakech and dealing with the motorcycle rentals paperwork, the caravan of Expérience Nomade was ready to leave the urban chaos. My 660cc Yamaha XT single-cylinder was a zillion miles old but managed to march along in pace with the others, while a Land Cruiser followed as a support vehicle.

The 15 motorcyclists caravan of Expérience Nomade was ready to leave the urban chaos.

On the Shoulders of a Titan

It takes a while to get out of Marrakech via the RN9 road traffic. After Tamaguert it starts climbing, wrapping around the mountain in an endless succession of hairpin turns. Although we were forced by bad weather to avoid the off-road track, our two-wheeled time machines brought us through villages populated by men in djellaba (the typical Berber hooded cape) transporting everything on donkeys, and women in workshops extracting argan oil. Along the roadside, barbecues were being fired up for lunchtime while vendors in panoramic spots tried to sell us amethyst and trilobite fossils. The road leading to Tizi n’Tichka was an odd mix of straights and wide hairpin bends on which we enjoyed somewhat of a merry-go-round ride. Once we crossed the pass, it became immediately apparent why this range takes its name from a titan. The red rock topped by snow peaks truly brought to mind the muscles of Atlas, strained in the effort to sustain that cobalt blue sky which, in turn, inflamed the colors of earth below it.

Hôtel Riad Tadarte Familier in Merzouga

Riad Tadarte features a rooftop terrace with panoramic desert views and a Morroccan restaurant. This air-conditioned B&B is situated in Merzouga village in the south-east of Morocco, 32 km from Rissani city. The soundproofed rooms at Riad Tadarte open on to a patio area in the central courtyard. Laptop safes are also provided.


Along the roadside you will meet many selling stones and fossils as they’re easily extracted from the mountains.

Allah’s Maquette

Riding along the Oued Dades, then the M’Goun River, we re-entered the Atlas Range, scattered with small, planted parcels breaking the rocks’ bright ochre. Asphalt was vanishing from the twisty road and finally disappeared. Meanwhile, a dense light rain enwrapped the landscape, surrounding it like a precious jewel, while gravel became a traitorous companion, making our wheels slip on bigger stones and sink into the mud. Someone fell, but we helped each other then divided into two groups, getting back together later in a gorge excavated by a river that had been a track of the old Paris-Dakar. Throughout the entire day we’d met only three others who were riding small bikes—the real heroes of the day—some women washing clothes at the river, a few curious children playing in the road, and a man on a donkey, proud as a prince on his purebred, gentle but shy and strongly opposed to being photographed.

Asphalt was vanishing from the twisty road and finally disappeared as we re-entered the Atlas Range.

Many of the inner mountain range don’t speak French or Arabic, only Tamazight, the native Berber language. Although most consider Morocco an Arab country, it’s the Berbers who are the main ethnic group. They were conquered and so named by the Arabs in the seventh century, who forced Islamization upon them. The Berbers never cared for the name, as it means “barbarian” in Arabic, and was originally used in a scornful way. They prefer to call themselves Imazighen (“Free Men”) and have obstinately continued speaking their native language in opposition to their invaders.

Many preferred to engage in agriculture, and shepherds kept their nomadic status continuing the practice of transhumance, which is moving flocks to high elevation in summer and back to the plains in winter. We met no one while rising high among the rocky tracks of RN704 to reach the Tizi n’Ouano at an elevation of 2,800 meters. Allah must have had fun with constructing these mountains, sculpting every contour like layers of a maquette clay. It’s an out-of-time experience to have lunch in an auberge, nothing more than a shelter lost in this wasteland, an experience only to be appreciated once you return to civilization.

Straw, Mud and Stones

After crossing the Todra Gorges, we pointed toward Merzouga, in the Erg Chebbi, for a first glimpse of desert. Then the boundless Hamada, a rocky desert surrounded by arid plateaus looking like the lunar surface. Next up was the Gare de Medouar, a horseshoe-shaped, rocky hill, whose open side is enclosed by thick walls, often used by caravans as a shelter during sandstorms, and which for a short time was a stop along the track of the slave trade operated by the Portuguese. The harshness of the landscape leaves no doubt about how efficient that slave jails would have been.

We finally reached the Oued Draa, at the center of the country’s biggest oasis: 80 kilometers of palms and casbah, and fortified citadels made by mud and straw bricks. Losing yourself in the narrow streets allows for interesting discoveries: small houses where old women bake fresh bread, handmade carpet workshops, and cobbler shops. During a stop in N’Kob the sky filled with yellow sand, warning us not to ride into the oncoming palmeraie (sandstorm).

Hotel Le Tinsouli in Zagora

This guest house sits in the Draa Valley, next to the peaceful Zagora palm grove. Set in a Moorish palace, it offers views of the desert landscape and large outdoor pool. Guest rooms at the Ksar Tinsouline are individually decorated, air-conditioned and equipped with satellite TV. They each have an en suite bathroom and private balconies. The Tinsouline’s restaurant serves international cuisine and authentic Moroccan dishes. There is also a snack bar which opens on the palm tree garden and outdoor pool.


A woman baking traditional bread in a fire oven on the narrow street of a Kasbah.

Under a sun made pale by the sand we reached Zagora and the famous sign “Timbuktu: 50 days.” It was time for a pit stop at Garage Iriki, unavoidable for every overlander regardless of how many wheels they ride. As usual you engage in a pantomime in which you accept tea, pretend to walk away, and don’t give up until you reach the bargain. In this part of the world, that’s how business is done, one of the most curious ongoing experiences a traveler can experience.

The famous Garage Iriki in Zagora is a must stop for any overlander going to (and coming back from) the desert. They specialize in off-road vehicles and own modern tools and equipment.

Everything told us we were on the caravan route and close to our destination. The road is a straight line through the rocky plain, and after the dune of Tamaguert we started the final pass. The asphalt was still perfect, but we rode slowly in an orderly row—the wind was up again, bringing clouds of sand as fine as flour, getting into everything. We chewed on sand, breathing its smell while it lay like greasepaint on our sweaty skin. The sky turned ochre, and the view was increasingly reduced while wind gusts shook the bikes like twigs, grinding the riders like a sandblaster. Then, finally, villagers greeted us as if we were participants of an actual rally, making us taste the glory of a clouded finish line. The caravan of Expérience Nomade finally reached M’Hamid.

Freedom into Wasteland

M’Hamid El Ghizlane is a pit of a town in the sand of Sahara. Its crumbling buildings tell of a glorious past, when it was a station on the caravan trail. Last century’s conflicts zeroed the legendary route to Timbuktu, forcing many desert Berbers to settle as tour operators; some own restaurants or hotels, others bring tourists in Jeep or camel excursions to the desert. During these festival days, the village is crowded with European tourists, young Berber artists and Arabs coming from the big cities, all wrapped in tagelmusts like Tuareg wannabes. We were all here to listen to the sounds and voices of the last generation of those who were the undisputed rulers of this land with no geography.

Fragmented by straight borders artificially created by European domination, the Tuareg people bring on their lonely struggle against the nation states with their politics and weapons. Although they sat on the biggest deposit of oil and uranium in the world, they only knew famine and warfare in the last century. It’s not for us to determine rights and wrongs—if there were any.

So what gives the Festival such an immense value? This is where the electric and hypnotic sounds of Desert Blues, created by the Tuareg of diaspora, meet the percussions and dance from Black Africa. Guitars will always play a bigger role towards peace than rifles. That’s why it’s important to be here.


RIAD SOKERA HOTEL RESTAURANT & SPA provides accommodation located less than 1 km from the centre of Marrakech and offers an infinity pool and free bikes. Private parking is available on site at this sustainable property. The accommodation features airport transfers, while a car rental service is also available. The units in the riad have private entrance and are fitted with slippers and a smartphone. With a private bathroom equipped with bathrobes, units at the riad also offer free WiFi, while certain rooms include a terrace. At the riad, every unit has bed linen and towels.


Guitars and drums will always play a bigger role towards peace than rifles.

Ali the Tuareg

While we play with bikes in the dunes of Erg Chegaga, I stray from the group to snoop around a tent. The man invites me to enter, and we start chatting over hot mint tea. He works bringing tourists on camel rides, selling fossils and jewels. His wife and sons live 30 kilometers away. He doesn’t know how old he is. Forty, maybe 50 years… there is no birth register in the desert. But he’s got Facebook, so I’ll be able to send him a photo I’ll take, but not before he puts on his traditional teal dress. The Tuaregs say that God created deserts for Man to find his soul.

Ali is a Tuareg who lives in a tent in the desert near M’Hamid El Ghizlane.