Stranded in a Moroccan Desert: The Worst Experience Ever

How I got stranded in the desert during a Moroccan desert tour

It started when I signed up in person.  The tour operator explained that I would get “the full package”.  Seeing as this tour operator came highly recommended by my host, I believed him.  That was my first mistake.  Then I asked him about water (because the brochure specified “no drinks included”).  The operator laughed like I was crazy: “of course, we’ll have water.  It’s included”.  Again, I made the mistake of believing him.

Locals walk through the streets of Marrakech
The Busy Streets of Marrakech

Stop number 1 should have been the final red flag, but I was already on board.  The store we stopped at looked legitimate on the outside, but those paying attention to the signage on the road would know otherwise.  Chips at 30 durams?  That’s 20 times the amount I’d pay in the city.  And at a closer look those will notice the signage labelled “tourist stop”.  These stops are not points of interest; rather, they are points of interest for the TOUR OPERATOR, who, more than likely, was getting paid off to take tourists there to pay their outrageous prices.  This continued for 4 more stops… meanwhile, we were passing perfectly good, interesting villages with people, REAL locals.  By this time, I just wanted to get through with the tour and the advertising.

Pedestrians in hoods loiter in decorative, Moroccan shop front
Moroccan Shop Front

When we got to “the village”, I started to enjoy myself… until another red flag cropped up.  Tour guide says: “if you want to do the tour of the castle, it will cost an extra 25 duram”.  Wait, what?  Extra?  I did not see a castle, first of all, and what about “the full package”?

Tourists Crowd an Overpriced Shopfront

Very well, I ask the guide, who is now obviously moving through the material exponentially faster and angry about having to explain himself in English and French, interrupting the group: “So this next part is extra, if we want to do it?  The castle?”.  The guide responds, asking me to repeat myself.  I rephrase the question, this time, clearly emphasizing the “extra” part.  He shakes his head, saying “I don’t know what you mean”.  At this point, I assume there must be no extra fee. 

I move on, this time realizing even I, an able-bodied 26-year-old, am having a hard time keeping up with him.  To put this into perspective, I’ve done 22km day hikes, 11km uphill.  Even with experienced hikers, with YEARS of experience, we did not go so fast.  The direction is all uphill, and many of the steps are malformed, making the ascent overall unsafe.  I have to feel bad for the older man behind me who is struggling the most to keep up.  So I slow down to make sure he’s ok.  As we make our way down, I notice we’re lagging behind and hastily try to catch up.  I wait for him to catch up as I put away my camera.  All of this, and in a matter of 30 seconds, the damage is done: the group is gone.

We continue, following another group, who exits to the right.  The poor man explains to me that he has knee difficulties.  We continue to the exit, only to realize we took the wrong exit.  Ok, so the tour guide must be waiting for us at the “castle” entrance.  We loop around: no tour guide, no group.  Ok, so the tour guide must be waiting for us at the bus.  We make our way to the bus: no tour guide, no tour group.  All of this happened in a matter of 10 minutes.  We ask the security guard if he saw our group leave, and he offers to ask the soldier from the hotel across the street to assess the tour group’s whereabouts.  Meanwhile, he offers us the hospitality of the nearby restaurant.  Did they just leave us, stranded in the desert?  Unreal.

Without knowing what to do at this point, or better yet, how to process the situation, I sit down at the restaurant table.  The man across from me, Sa, is probably in his late 60s, with curved lips, grey hair, and glasses.  He looks like Stephen Hawking, in a weird kind of way.  I apologize to him on behalf of the tour for treating him so poorly.  If I hadn’t stayed back to make sure he was ok, who would have?  Certainly not the tour operator.

Me and Sa sit in the restaurant, not knowing what to do at this point.  I take out my portable Bluetooth speaker and play some music from my phone.  We use the bathroom, I tip the remaining 7 duram I have left (knowing that I have “the full package”).

The security guard returns to tell us the tour group has indeed left without us.  The group has left to eat, but he will return to pick us up in 20 minutes.  What?

The man opens a bag slowly and delicately reveals two articles wrapped in tin foil.  “Please,” he murmurs, sliding the tinfoil object toward me.  “It’s sandwich… I have plenty”.

I look back up to Sa, who is now unraveling his own sandwich.  Realizing I haven’t eaten anything all day, and that all my snacks were left on the bus, I take the food, confirming once again he’s ok with that.  I devour the sandwich.  Seeing how hungry I am, Sa insists I take another.  Unwillingly, I oblige.

What seems like hours pass.  We watch passing cars in hopes the right one will be our tour bus.  We don’t even know the name of the tour operator!

Finally, the bus pulls over on the other side of the road and honks aggressively 3 times.  I guess they are in a rush.  I hurry over with my bag and ask the tour guide what happened.  He ignores the question and demands I pay him “25 Durham for the tour”.  What?  But I explicitly confirmed that part wasn’t “extra”.  I explain to the guide that I have no money, and that I was even told by my tour operator that I have the “full package”.  He does not care.  An argument ensues.  After enough Arabic chanting to make the bus rock, the driver pulls out some money and hands it over to the guide.  The operator throws me the dirtiest look and says: “look at what you’ve done.  Now he has to pay for you”.  What?  Really?  He gestures frantically towards the bus.

As I get on the bus and mutter to myself in dismay at what just happened, I am greeted by the Austrians beside me who had also understood my question about extra fees during the orientation.  They explain that the guide had also mistreated them.  One of the German women comments that the guide refused to let her friend finish her smoke and let her go to the bathroom.  The Austrians explain that they had been taken to a restaurant 5 minutes away, but the prices were so high no one could eat anything.  Easily within walking distance.  Meanwhile, the restaurant at where I had been sitting moments ago offers full meals for just under $6 (40 Durham).  Really?

Then came the worst part: I’m told that the guide was overheard discussing with the driver whether to even pick us up at all.  He had debated it at first, but then decided to go through with it, seeing as I hadn’t paid for the “castle tour”.  Otherwise, he may have opted to leave us there.  Really?

For the first time in my life, I am glad to have leverage against a tour guide.  At this point, I know I have made mortal enemies with the driver.  I debate paying off the driver somehow with items of value, but then I realize that this is no longer an issue of money; rather, this is an issue of pride.  I had been violated as a guest on this tour, seen as an object who pays well, not a person.  The tour guide’s time is worth something, but not when he treats his customers like objects.  The tour guide should have seen my humanity, having assessed my situation.  Putting on a display to make me feel bad and to make me look bad in front of others is just plain cruel.

The final blow comes as we approach the camel camp.  The driver stops and asks if everyone if they have water.  “You want to buy some quickly at the convenience store?”  What?  Surprised, I jump at the question in French and explain to the driver that I had been told water is included and that I don’t have money.  The driver cocks his head to the side briskly and says: “not you.  I don’t care about you.  The others.”  I begin repeating what I had just said, not fully processing his intent to humiliate me.  He cuts me off, ordering: “shut up.  I don’t care about you”.  The bus goes silent with me.  What?  I decide at this point it’s time to get out — hopefully to never see the driver again.

As I exit the bus, relieved to be done with this driver, I follow the group towards a group of camels sitting on the sand, idly licking their lips.  I look over towards the looming mountain range and realize the sun is setting.  The group had been held back a couple hours due to the debacle with losing the tour guide.

The caravan nomad points to me right away, having whispered something to the driver: “You.  Get on.”  As I mount the camel, she immediately gets up, raising me a metre and a half above ground.  I grab hold of the rail and watch the sun setting in action while the others mount their own camels.  We finally start moving, towards the desert sunset, in all its innocence, me realizing that we would be riding at least half the 45 minutes in bare moonlight.

Moroccan Desert Camel Riding

But as I ride on the camel, now fixated on the lights of nearby farmhouses, I notice something in my bag.  “Riiight…” I mumble to myself, as I pull out my emergency reserve of bills.

(I made it back safely, after enduring a winter snowstorm while the driver, angry at the Germans for singing loudly, kept the window intentionally open.  If you enjoyed this story, please share to your friends.  I try to write travel stories when something great or terrible happens to me while travelling.)