I had a desire to experience the desert of southern Morocco, in a way that’s low-impact on the environment and local communities. So, I found a locally owned horseback tour, which truly exceeded my expectations. The horses literally have a small footprint of course, and a long history alongside the Berber people in this place. We did have a support vehicle to carry our gear and food as well as feed for the horses, a necessary concession.

The staff included guide Hassan, cook Mohammed, and helper Ishmael. The guests, all five of us women, met Hassan in the town of Ourarzazete, south of Marrakech, and spent the first night in a hotel; the next day we drove about three hours by taxi to the town of Zagora, where the horses are based for the winter months (in the summer they relocate to the coast). From there, we headed out for six nights, mostly camping.

The vast emptiness of the landscape – wind, sand, rocks, sky – scrubbed my soul clean, while the spirit of community in our little group filled my heart. The people we met fleetingly along the way also inspired me with their resilience, living on the edge in a harsh environment, on the front lines of climate change. 

The Land, People and Climate

Dromedaries in the Draa valley

The landscape is a study in erosion and a precarious relationship with water, dry gulleys speak of rain that flows here rarely and viciously. On our first day we walked alongside the Draa River fringed with pockets of wetland vegetation, but we soon headed into the hills and plains where we rarely saw water except in wells and deep ditches. Hassan explained that a dam near Ourarzazete is opened periodically to provide water for irrigation throughout the Draa valley.

A village and oasis with date palms

The oases are a striking contrast to the desert, groves of palm trees with other crops among them. Systems of ditches, dykes, dams, pipes and pumps, direct the precious water, and drum it up from the earth. Many fields were full of greens and date palms. On the outskirts, many were abandoned, filled with cracked mud and sand, demarking the limits of human ingenuity in the face of constant drought. 

We stopped for lunch amid dunes outside the town of Oued Driss, criss-crossed with fences made of woven palm fronds. Hassan explained these are an effort to capture the sand and prevent the dunes from encroaching on the village.

Palm frond fences catching sand

The influence of people on the land, and vice versa, weighs on my mind here, as it often does. Did centuries of grazing and cutting trees for warmth and shelter contribute to desertification? The Sahara is growing, and there’s some evidence pointing to human, and not just natural, causes for its creation in the first place. At the same time, Morocco’s oases, like the ones we rode through, are also products of human management

The Berber people used khettaras, a traditional system of underground, gravity fed canals, to irrigate the soil, creating and enlarging the oases, which are also biodiversity hotspots. As climate change is making the marginal farming even more difficult, with longer droughts and less rainfall, many people are moving away, leaving the untended oases to be overtaken by the advancing desert. According to the government, two thirds of Morocco’s oases have disappeared in the past century. 

Oasis agriculture

This situation has also probably been exacerbated by colonialism, including the replacement of traditional small scale farming with water-intensive industrial agriculture for the export market. Yet the people aren’t just passively standing by. Efforts are underway to revive the khetarras, to cultivate higher value and less water intensive crops like medicinal herbs, and to strengthen local agricultural cooperatives. 

We pass many men and women working their fields by hand, or with their mules and donkeys, or on the move with their animals, astride, on foot or in donkey or mule carts (we only saw a few other horses). Men driving mopeds, or sitting at the side of the road, women walking along the roads in small groups or with their children. Some ignore us, but most greet us with a raised hand, “bonjour” and a smile. The kids are more interested, staring and pointing, peeking out, giggling, from their houses alongside the road. In the towns they ask us for “un stylo”. In one camp, a troupe of about a dozen kids set up shop near our table, laying out handicrafts on blankets in the hopes of a sale. 

What must they think of us, white western women astride fancy horses, wearing T-shirts and tight pants, riding helmets and men’s brimmed hats? Do we evoke the image of colonists, that I feel? I find myself wishing for a local’s outfit of loose fitting robes and head scarf, but these wouldn’t hide our difference, and relative affluence. Instead of feeling shame, I try to focus on the sentiment of greeting fellow people across our cultural differences.   

Outside the valleys and formal settlements, the hills, mountains, plains and dunes, have sparse vegetation – acacia and tamarisk trees and occasional tufts of grass and succulent shrubs, heavily grazed. Here there’s less obvious effort to cultivate the land. It’s a place of transience, herders with their goats and donkeys, free-ranging dromedaries, nomads camped or with dromedaries loaded, on the move in search of sustenance. The red rocks and sandy plains seem to go on forever. Here, apart from the passing domestic animals, there’s little sign of animal life. Small flocks of songbirds sometimes visit us. Tiny lizards scurry in the sand between rocks. One evening we see a herd of gazelles – a rare sight, Hassan says he has never seen them before in his 20 years in the business. One day, we flush an owl from the grass. 

Nomads on the move with their dromedaries

The mud buildings are beautiful, seeming to have grown from the desert, hues of muted pink and orange, from simple huts to three storeys. With walls two feet thick or more, they are crucial for surviving the intense heat in summer. And the building materials couldn’t be more local, often using the mud from the very footprint of the building. We walked through an old kasbah in the town of Ouled Driss, with apartments opening directly to the narrow alleys. There, we visited a small museum that’s likely in a converted apartment, with a central courtyard open to the air, providing light and ventilation. 

Inside the kasbah

Solar panels on or next to homes and pump stations are a common sight, and I spotted a large array in the desert outside Zagora (my horse was not indulging my photography habit at that moment). I couldn’t find info online about that project, but did discover that the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant is located near Ourzazete. At 580 MW it can power a city of 1.3 million, and stores energy for use at night. They are also planting trees in a green belt around the city there, in an effort to hold back the desert, irrigated with treated wastewater, and engaging with the community for their support and input. 

Climate change is going to bring a lot more challenges to places like this. Being here makes it more real, and I worry for these new friends and people whom I’ve greeted, no longer strangers on the other side of the world. But there’s also hope in these efforts to adapt. And of course the potential for solar power in the desert is immense. The seeming juxtaposition of ancient knowledge, like mud buildings and khetarras, with modern technology like solar energy and wastewater treatment, actually makes perfect sense and I hope could provide a model for other parts of the world.

The Ride 

From Zagora, we headed out into the desert for six nights, on a circuit, initially heading southwest, in a counter-clockwise direction. We spent five nights in tents and one night in a simple hostel. Meals were delicious, traditional Moroccan fare, all ingredients sourced from the local markets: bean and vegetable soups, a variety of tagine-cooked dishes – couscous, roasted chicken, stew with beef or lamb, vegetables and olives – and fresh baked bread.   

Each day we ride for five to seven hours, with a 1.5 hour or so lunch break (and sometimes a siesta) in the middle. We carry our clothes and drinking water for the day, as well as lunch, in saddle bags. The weather is predictably sunny (Zagora receives just 61mm of rainfall per year – a typical amount for two winter days in Vancouver!). Temperatures were in the mid- 20s during the day, and cooled off quickly when the sun set, to single digits. 

Traveling by horseback is new for me. It feels like the perfect way to experience this landscape. The slow, steady pace puts the vastness in perspective, and allows some interaction with people and a direct experience, in a way that driving would not, while covering a lot more ground than we could by foot (and which would be impossible for me). Feeling the sun and wind, and hearing nothing but the sounds of the horses, and sometimes calls to prayer from distant mosques, or the put-put of pumps irrigating the fields. There are times when I need to be focused on the riding – like in the villages or when other horses and mules are around, when my horse gets a bit more excited, and when trotting or galloping of course – but they are well trained and know the route, so for much of the day it’s a meditative state that sets in. 

At night, the silence and space seems to expand as the stars emerge. Our tiny camp with its four tents, a table and gas lamp, usually in the midst of a grove of palm or acacia trees, zooming out, is a pinprick of light in miles of dark desert. Often, we can’t see any distant lights from other towns or houses. Overhead, “la voie lactée” (milky way) arches in the clear, moonless sky, brilliant with uncountable stars. 

The days riding are quiet – sometimes conversation flows, but usually we are each alone with our thoughts. In camp, and on lunch breaks, there’s plenty of banter, and joking, and exchange of experiences, in a mix of English and French. Our group forms a lovely easy-going connection and light-hearted energy right away. Despite our different origins and ages (Hassan and crew from Morocco, Maude and Elouise from different parts of France, Annette from Denmark, Monica from Switzerland, and me from western Canada; age range early 20s to late 50s), we seem to share a lot of common values and perspectives. I’m also grateful that Hassan shares some of his own experiences of the Berber culture and details his life, and teaches us a few Berber words that we use with great gusto and humour. 

The horses are Arabian Berber (sometimes called “Barb”), known for their agility, speed and stamina, and all those owned by this company (and most others) are stallions (uncastrated males). That means we have to keep some separation between our horses while riding, and also in camp. As if to prove the point, one night one got loose and started fighting with another (the crew subdued them and no damage was done).

Most of the time we go at a walking pace, but we gallop occasionally, an exhilarating experience – you can really tell that’s what the horses are bred for, and love to run.. Where there are trails or roads we go single file, but in wider spaces we fan out more, which makes it more interesting for both me and my horse (obvious from his perked-up body language). The horses walk at slightly different paces, so there was time and space to trot or canter a little to catch up. 

As for my riding “skills”, I eventually felt them coming back somewhat after (let’s be honest here) about 30 years since I rode regularly. Luckily that was at a pretty advanced level so I felt comfortable on the horse at all gaits (sore butt notwithstanding). I don’t necessarily recommend this approach to others – the company advises their guests to be “riding fit” – and I was very sore up until the last day. But I don’t regret it for a second. 

On our last day, we rode just a couple of hours to Zagora, then a harrowing taxi ride back to Ouarzazete – who knew it was possible to drive a taxi with no hands, while holding the cell phone and gesticulating, on winding mountain roads? From there, I said au revoir to the group and started my trip back to Canada, my heart full with love for new friends and the people and landscapes of the desert. 

As should be apparent, I highly recommend this company! Here’s their website to book directly (more of the money goes to the locals) instead of through a tour agency. Ask for Momo.