When we think of the Sahara Desert our mind inevitably conjures up the image of undulating dunes of golden sand and it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that great swathes of desert landscape consist of high, barren, rocky plateaus. This is the hamada, a seemingly desolate wasteland that carries the eye into infinity. (The dunes are ergs, large areas of shifting sand moved by the wind.)

As we drive over the long stretches of scattered rock and spiky shrub that is the hamada, it’s almost impossible to imagine the force of the floods of heavy winter rains. They may be rare, but this is the area of torrential storms of biblical (or koranic) proportions. Almost nothing moves outside the windscreen, other than the occasional sand squall and a shepherd watching over his slowly chomping flock. When referring to these withering lands, the French historian Fernand Braudel, said that, “Crossing such a zone (especially without mechanized transport) is worthwhile only when exceptional circumstances cause the expected gain to outweigh the cost and danger”.

We travel over scattered patches of sand, and, as in an airplane that hits pockets of turbulence, I feel a frisson as the 4×4 slithers over the low rises. To my unaccustomed eye there is no indication of any route, other than simply spotting a small building in the distance and heading for it, but Tata, my guide, assures me that years of driving in the hamad accustom you to the tiniest changes of terrain – until the rains come, when all routes are re-made.

Ruined hotel in Sahara Desert

sahara desert archIt’s this region of Morocco that is responsible for the rare meteorological phenomena known ominously as ‘blood rains’, where sand from the Sahara  is carried across Europe and dropped as red downpours. The Roman philosopher Livy wrote in 181 B.C. ‘In the precinct of Vulcan and Concord there was a shower of blood. . . . Being disturbed by these prodigies and deaths, the Fathers decreed, both that the consuls should sacrifice full-grown victims to whatever gods it seemed proper.’

The last ‘good’ rain was in 1988, but the sand had ‘forgotten’ where the river lay and enormous areas of the Sahara were flooded, carrying away small villages and thousands of tented homes of nomads. Even as late as 2006, Riad Maria, a large desert hotel, was completely destroyed in a flash flood, leaving nothing but skeletal remains and an arch to nowhere.

We stop in the village of Khamlia, famous for its Gnoua musicians, descendants of a group of workers handed over as a token of an accord to end a 300-year blood war between Algeria and Morocco. I’m the sole member of the audience as Pigeons de Sable put on a show for me.

Gnoua musicians were playing hypnotic trance music long before the electronic version invaded discos. The rhythmic clapping, drumbeat, and metallic clacking of the karkaba, the small hand-held cymbals, were used in ceremonies to ‘evoke ancestral saints who can drive out evil, cure psychological ills, or remedy scorpion stings’. As a culture they are said to heal diseases by the use of colour, cultural imagery, perfumes and fright, although I think I can live without the last prescription.

I’ve always found Gnoua music a bit discordant, but as the musician-dancers in their white robes and turbans, with a deep red cord decorated with large, glittering sequins crossed over their chest, began their performance I started to enter into the rhythm of the music. Dipping and swaying, jumping and circling, this traditional performance in a small dark room in a tiny desert village is a world away from the false few moments of clanging and tassel swaying you get for ten dirhams in Marrakesh’s Jmaa el Fna.

Tea and salaams over, I’m surprised when one of the musicians says in beautifully modulated English, “Excuse me sir, but you’ve left your pen on the sofa.” I probably shouldn’t be surprised really, but it wasn’t something I expected to hear in the wilds of the Sahara.

We’re on our way to lunch at Tata’s family home in the Ziz Valley when we make an unscheduled stop at Mifis, a ghost town of crumbling mud and straw homes where once a prosperous mining community lived during the time of the French Protectorate. When the French pulled out of Morocco in the 1950s taking the military who had inhabited the village with them, the coal mine continued but the village was virtually abandoned

I’m fascinated by the eerie sense of desolation and decay as I walk the streets, and I’m completely taken aback when the call to prayer broadcast from a loudspeaker breaks the almost total silence.

I cross through the ruin of what was probably someone’s living room half a century ago. Among the hundreds of dilapidated buildings totally devoid of life stands a one-storey mosque, its small minaret standing higher than anything that’s left of the village that surrounds it. Two men cross the square in front of me to enter the mosque, nodding in my direction. I feel as if I’m part of a surreal movie where at any moment the director is going to jump out of a ruin and scream at me for walking into shot. But no-one does.

It’s only later, as I leave what’s left of Mifis that I see a few houses that are obviously inhabited. I have no idea why anyone should live in this desolate hole and there is no-one here to ask, but my heart goes out to whoever has to spend their life in the spectral shadow of a community that ceased to exist six decades ago.