After the mountains you drop down into a barren and stony plane which extends pretty much to the Mauritanian border interrupted only briefly by the Anti-Atlas a few hundred kilometres to the south. Zagora lies in the middle of this plane, quite close to the border with Mauritania.
At Zagora we traded the minibus for a train of evil smelling and cantankerous camels and headed out into the desert. Desert, in this case, being a comparative term. To Western European eyes the stony landscape with the occasional dune probably resembles a desert but compared to what we were to later encounter on our trip it was relatively hospitable.
That night we camped with our Berber guides, dined with them and slept under the stars. Actually we slept very little, under the stars or otherwise. The Berbers are enthusiastic musicians and strict Muslims. These two factors combine for a particularly raucous night when some of your party smuggle along some vodka to share round the evening camp fire. The supposedly tee-totalling Berbers take to drink like ducks to water and are staggering around banging their drums to a beat only they can hear and generally being exasperatingly congenial. Eventually the last of them staggered off to sleep and we did too, tired from an evenings interactive entertainment and sore from a long ride clutching desperately at the rotund back of a camel with our knees.
However the prolonged agony of a ride back to civilisation atop our 'ships of the desert' awaited and we awoke to a perfunctory breakfast and another long ride back.
The whole experience was rather magical but I won't devote too much attention to it here since it was surpassed by the similar experience we had in the Sahara the following night.
Upon reaching Zagora we clambered aboard the bus with expressions sullen enough to dampen the enthusiasm of our cheerful driver Mohammed.
The drive that day went West along the border towards a little town called Merzouga. Merzouga is a small town with its only attraction being its proximity to Morocco's only Saharan 'erg' or dune. The landscape around Merzouga is as blasted and featureless as the surface of the moon and consists largely of a rolling plane of black volcanic rock. As we picked our way across this plane the driver directed the van behind one of the larger hills and we cruised up the side of it.
As we crested the hill we got our first glimpse of the Sahara. The orange sand of the largest dunes stand about twenty storeys high and tower over the few buildings nearby. The sand simply spills onto the black plane as though some absent minded giant had tipped over his bucket.
From the foot of these dunes we once more set off on camel back this time into the true desert. For an hour we saw nothing but dunes as our guide led us on a circuitous path which followed no apparent route nor markers. Eventually however we crested one more dune and were confronted with a cluster of black Berber tents at the edge of a green oasis. Now the oasis lacked standing water but obviously trapped enough moisture to support the cluster of plants within.
Our guide sent us off to exhaust ourselves climbing the giant dunes nearby and set up to cook us dinner. We clambered up the slippery flank of the nearest dune but only managed a couple of hundred feet before we surrendered in the growing darkness on one of the lesser peaks.
Returning to the camp we clustered around the stove and our guide dished up plates of steaming stew to share. The Berber eat around the fire, a plate of stew is placed in the centre of the circle for the diners to dip thick wads of bread into (with the right hand only!) and everyone shares the food. Desert follows as a plate of melon divide up, again to share. The stew was excellent and the sitting under the pale moon in the midst of the rolling desert contributed not a little to the experience.
After dinner entertainment consisted of a group choral session with one of the African Berbers leading us in local songs set to the beat of his drums. The solo's were a little strangled and pathetic but as long as there were more than three of us it didn't sound too bad.
Later we again slept under the stars which were sadly dimmed by the over-bright full moon which beat down like a frigid sun. Sleep was fitful at best due to this and the active presence of five small kittens around the camp. As we all waned they came alive and seemed to find our inattentiveness intolerable. You could track their approach by the muffled curses which progressed along the line of sleeping figures as they prodded, poked, licked and purred the unfortunate recipient in to wakefulness. I remember at one point waking up to the sound of a noisy expletive and seeing a kitten sail through the air above my head about six feet off the ground. The little critter must have quite enjoyed the experience because not thirty seconds later there was the same muffled expletive and the same kitten flicked passed me again, this time heading up hill.
Unfortunately another long camel trek awaited us and some of the party were reluctant to rise until our guide rolled them out of bed. After an hour on the camels we were able to board a more civilised form of transport and head north out of Merzouga.