The Great Oasis Valleys: Places to Explore

Advertisement

M'Hamid

Properly known as M'Hamid el-Ghizlane, or Plain of the Gazelles, M'Hamid neatly marks the end of Morocco's Great Oasis Valleys and the end of the asphalt road. The modern village of M'Hamid is not particularly attractive as a destination in itself—a one-street town with overeager desert tour companies hustling for business. However, it is a vital arrival and departure point for forays into the Sahara, which awaits at the end of the main street. It is from M'Hamid that the doorway opens for visiting Morocco's other great desert destination—Erg Chegaga—the highest dunes in Morocco, towering at 300 meters.

The outlying small villages of Ouled Driss and Bounou in the palm groves just before M'Hamid, have interesting kasbahs that can be visited, and a short hop across the dried river bed of the Draâ, next to the mosque in M'Hamid, takes you toward the site of the original village, some 2 km (1 mi) away, where there is a 17th-century Jewish-built kasbah that is still inhabited by the local Haratin population.

The sand drifting like snow across the road (despite the placement of palm-frond sand breaks and fences), the immensity of the horizon, and the patient gait of camels combine to produce a palpable change in the sense of time and space at this final Draâ oasis.

The town has a famous Monday souk notable for the occasional appearance of nomadic and trans-Saharan traders of the Saharan Reguibat tribe. Much chronicled by writer Paul Bowles, these ebony-skinned fellows habitually wear the indigo sheish, a linen cloth wrapped around the head and face for protection from the cold and from sandstorms. The dye from the fabric runs, tinging the men's faces blue and leading to their nickname, the Blue Men. Don't expect too much in the way of merchandise; the souk has lost much of its exotic appeal in recent years.

M'Hamid was once an outpost for the camel corps of the French Foreign Legion. Looking at it now, it's difficult to imagine what's there was worth defending, but the training would have been harsh enough to make a soldier out of any man. Today a large military barracks reminds visitors that the Algerian border is not far away.

The ocean of dunes 7 km (4½ mi) beyond M'Hamid will satisfy any craving for some real Saharan scenery.

Advertisement