Tangerine Sahara sand was everywhere—in my hair, my pockets, invading my boots. Like an escapee from a New Yorker cartoon, I crawled to the crest of a slippery Moroccan dune. And there he was. My camel. He’d trotted ahead three dunes ago, and now his head was down as he sipped at a burble of water in a patch of green no bigger than a queen-sized bed. I knew that if I could just get down there, it would be a contest between drinking deep and chasing the tiny patch of cool shade cast by the lone palm tree. Oasis!
Or maybe I exaggerate. I mean…I was in the Sahara where some sand in one’s pants cuffs is inevitable. I rode a camel, too, though he carried me obediently to my luxury encampment at sunset. And I absolutely felt the relief when a rich green oasis erupted in the sandy vastness of Morocco. It’s just that, like so many pre-conceived notions. I’ve taken on vacations, my mental picture of an oasis evaporated in a second. And the reality that replaced it was harder to imagine and even better.
The “dot in the desert” image of an oasis isn’t exactly wrong. Water is rare. Where it finds the surface through a fault in an aquifer or a well, life—plants, people, migrating birds—cluster and thrive. It’s just that the typical oasis is many acres in size. Morocco’s largest is more than 30 miles long. More than a camping spot for a random sheikh, an oasis is a hotbed of agriculture.
I walked in the oasis along the banks of the Dades River on a mild spring day. At eye level, the green was total. Almond trees were in blossom. Date palms towered over an under-canopy of olive, apricot and fig trees. Barley, millet and wheat carpeted the oasis floor. The fields were more the size of garden patches, walled off by foot-high earthen dikes that corral the irrigation water. Like the farmers, we used the dikes as paths to zig our way through the oasis without harming the crops. Whole families worked the plots, which are so small that equipment like tractors isn’t practical. Acting as interpreter, our local guide powered a conversation with the men who, like farmers everywhere, were more than ready to talk weather, yields and point out the superiority of their fields.
Further along, a small stream cut across our path. I skipped the stepping-stones and took off my boots for a calf-deep wade across. We laid out a picnic on the other side and air-dried our feet during a little nap. Stretched out with my backpack as a pillow, I focused on the surrounding hills for the first time. When you are immersed in oasis green, you can almost forget how abruptly it all ends. But not much more than a stone’s throw away, the steep hillside turned rusty red and dry as a bone. I hadn’t noticed until then the village above. Built of mud and local stone, the buildings were accidentally camouflaged. Oasis land is too precious to be used for housing sites. The farmers’ commute was a short but abrupt one from the moist oasis to the cool darkness inside the thick-walled village. The two places couldn’t be more different, or more closely and naturally linked.
More than one Morocco mirage evaporated on that trip. The souks were a grander jangle of people and crazy color than I expected. The medina at Fez plunged me deeper into the Middle Ages than seemed possible to my 21st century brain. The camels I was ready for, but the wild Barbary apes in a mountaintop cedar forest came from left field. Still, for me that oasis walk stood out because it reminded me why I travel. Away from my engineered, wired-up world at home, I stepped into a place and a culture that is utterly driven by geology, climate and necessity. The mirage dissolved. In its place, I have a richer, clearer and just as exotic picture of an environment that everybody thinks they know, but that very few people really do.