Sub zero Sahara

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BLOODY snow," sighed Maachou Mohamed, our guide, as we peered through the haze of the smoky mess tent, past the slow-cooking kebabs of goat intestines that were being prepared by the Berber muleteers, towards a scene reminiscent of a polar survival video.

Anyone who has ever ventured outside their front door knows the folly of expecting the expected. However, the situation as it was - a ten-strong trekking group holed up in Arctic purgatory in one of the hottest and driest places on the planet - pushed the boundaries of what constituted a mind-blowingly different kind of holiday towards something rather more reminiscent of a sick reality TV show fusing elements of Big Brother and The Krypton Factor under one drenched canvas roof.

We were on the penultimate day of an epic ten-night expedition through the heart of the Jebel Sahro region of southern Morocco. This starkly beautiful area of tortured mountain ranges, alien-looking rock formations and dried-up river valleys lies south of the Atlas Mountains on the northern tip of the Sahara. By rights it should be the ideal place for winter trekking - daytime temperatures are normally over 20C, even though nights tend to be decidedly more chilly - but by some cruel twist of fate the weather gods had conspired to ensure that I got a taste of the Scottish winter despite my best efforts to flee closer to the equator.

Snow comes rarely to these parts, and usually in November and December, not January, but after a constant fall of saucer-sized white flakes, instead of exploring the Bou Gaffer ridge - where the nomadic Ait Atta Berbers of the region made their last stand against the French in 1934 - we were confined to the increasingly uncomfortable surrounds of the mess tent.

Thankfully, after a day and a half of hastily conceived ad-hoc camp games and futile attempts to warm increasingly frosty feet, the weather eased and we managed to get moving again towards the small settlement of Iknoun, where transport awaited to ferry us back to Marrakech and civilisation.

The scenario outlined above may not be everyone's idea of a relaxing break but, dodgy parlour games and brushes with hypothermia aside, the amazing landscape and the crystalline Sahara nights, allied to the feeling of achievement at the conclusion of every fascinating day, makes the Jebel Sahro an ideal destination for those who like their holidays in the raw.

Moroccan cities are notorious for their vibrancy and chaos but out here in the desert it really is like taking a stroll in the wake of the Apocalypse. The region is most populated during the winter months when the Ait Atta escape the cold of the High Atlas and move south to Jebel Sahro's (relative) warmth. This hardly represents a dramatic influx, however, and sporadic sightings of the nomads' black goat-hair tents and the occasional incongruity of entrepreneurial local children manning the summit of a mountain pass to sell mint tea and fossils is about as close to civilisation as you'll come.

And it's as far from the routines of the West as you could possibly wish for. With the landscape throwing up ever more surreal phenomena around you as you walk, there is plenty of scope to lose yourself in the surroundings.

Morocco is a favourite destination for Hollywood film-makers - nearby Ourzazate has two major studios, where sections of Gladiator and Alexander were shot - and, if it wasn't for its remote harshness, you could visualise any number of epics being set in the rocky badlands of Jebel Sahro.

The place I'd go on location - assuming I am ever miraculously handed the resources to direct a movie - would be among the Ridge of Fingers adjacent to the plain of Tadaout'n'Tablah; a miraculous sloping amphitheatre enclosed by sandstone pinnacles and outcrops where you can well imagine a cinematic cat-and-mouse gunfight to the death being played out under the blazing sun.

It is less easy to lose yourself in fantasy at night, and the lack of any kind of infrastructure in the area means that it is very much a case of making your own entertainment within the confines of camp. However, a large chunk of the evening is taken up by the dinnertime ritual. We had been warned that the food on the trek might be a bit bland and repetitive but, gloriously, this turned out not to be the case as our slightly deranged (in the nicest possible sense) cook proved by turning out a steady stream of tasty soups, tagines and pasta meals from his trusty one-hob stove.

Afterwards, for those who don't choose to turn in early with a good book or, in my case, those who forget to pack a head torch, there is very little to do except gather around the fire, overdose on sugary mint tea and luxuriate under the eerie brightness of the Saharan moon, all the while contemplating where the winding road and your own imagination will take you the following day.

While the volcanic landscapes of the Jebel Sahro represent Moroccan Berber heritage at its rawest, it is back among the labyrinthine souqs and squares of the Marrakech Medina that the chaotic chords of the country's culture join to produce an unforgettable crescendo. And, after ten days of splendid isolation, the contrasting city sights and sounds provide a welcome coda to the main trip.

The centrepiece of this most inspiring of near-Eastern jigsaws is Djemma el-Fna, the city's famous medieval square. It comes alive at dusk when the sun goes down in the west beyond the towering minaret of the tenth-century Koutoubia mosque. Charlatans and storytellers haunt the wide-open expanses furthest from the souks.

Meanwhile, the particularly Islamic portal to consumer excess is guarded by an interchangeable gaggle of ad hoc eateries, all serving the freshest of indigenous delicacies at laughably low rates. After the relative routine of camp, Marrakech is a great place to reacquaint yourself with anarchic unpredictability and to stock up on gifts and trinkets. It's also an ideal setting to sit down, have a drink, and compile your travelling tales for the folks back home.

Speaking of which - did I tell you the one about the time I was stuck in a tent in bone-chilling snow for two days in the Sahara?

Fact file Morocco

How to get there

Exodus Holidays offers 14-night winter trekking expeditions to the Jebel Sahro from 575, departing 14 October 2006 to 21 April 2007. A supplementary local payment on arrival of 1,500 dirham (around 95) covers food, drink and porterage fees. The price includes return flights with Royal Air Maroc from London Heathrow, and three nights' B&B accommodation in a four-star hotel in Marrakech, based on two people sharing.

Bmibaby flies direct from Edinburgh to London Heathrow from 70 return (excluding taxes). For reservations contact Exodus Holidays, tel: 0870 2405550, or visit www.exodus.co.uk

and there's more

A meal at one of the food stalls at Djemma el-Fna in Marrakech will set you back 60 dirham (around 4). For more information on Morocco visit www.morocco.com