It was night-time, and darker than anything I’d ever experienced. The bus was hurtling through the blackness of the Moroccan Sahara region. Not a car or a house or a town in sight. No streetlamps, not one little twinkling star in the cloudy sky. The headlamps of the bus lighted on objects that lurched out of the darkness and vanished just as quickly, tree branches and signs and empty, ghost-like buildings. Suddenly, a towering T-Rex skeleton. Was it a dream?
How did I wind up here on a bus in the middle of nowhere, with vomit on the back of my trousers and a painfully full bladder that screams at every bump in the road, swooping past bizarre, ghostly figures in the blackness of desert night? I’m supposed to be on holiday.
Every traveller seems to have a bus story. Long, torturous journeys across confusing, foreign landscapes surrounded by people who speak no English. No air-con, no service stations, uncomfortable seats, dangerous roads. Travellers try to outdo each other; top trumps with bus rides. It seems as though you can’t be a real traveller without at least one horrific bus journey under your belt. A rite of passage.
The twelve hour bus ride from Marrakech to Merzouga started out promisingly. We rolled out of the city and left the dizzy, dusty roads behind us, where six lanes of traffic squeezed into dual lane roads and the sight of whole families on mopeds was commonplace. I caught a glimpse of a man holding two sheep and steering a moped with his knees; then Marrakech was gone.
The roads were long and straight and empty. The neat, vibrant lawns of luxury hotels and golf courses in La Palmeraie slowly dissolved into wide, green valleys and forested slopes. We climbed, winding around s-bend corners with the land falling dead away on our left. The sky outside grew grey and cloudy, the hillsides steeper, the forests darker. Green lapsed into brown rock; in the valleys were narrow, gushing rivers hugged by skinny trees. Not the arid, sun-starched Morocco I had been expecting.
We stopped after two hours. I was relieved: regular loo breaks. I bought a bottle of water and relaxed. This high in the Atlas Mountains, the air was damp and cold. I stood in the drizzle and looked up at snowy peaks laced with cloud.
Six hours later we finally stopped again. A run-down service station in the middle of nowhere. Hours of flat, pinkish-grey rubble on either side; a hot, dead expanse of nothing. My bladder was full to bursting; when I finally made it to the dank, dirty loo outside the lonely shop it hurt. My stomach lurched when I got into the cubicle. I was used to the Moroccan toilets by now - squatting carefully over a hole in the ground – but this was something else. Spattered on all sides with human waste. I placed a foot gingerly on either side – as far apart as possible – and held my breath.
Back on the bus, the air reeked. Hot, smelly food from the dirty café at the station or from greasy paper packages locals had brought with them, mingled with the smell of vomit from just behind me. The tinny whine of the radio was drowned out by a cacophony of snorting and hacking and globs of spit hitting the floor.
The landscape did nothing to distract me. Endlessly pink and beige. Towns and villages the same dusty rose colour as the enormous stretches of emptiness in between them, punctuated by nothing but occasional, lonely shepherds amongst straggly goats.
After the pink and gold sunset over the moody, bruised-purple mountains behind us, darkness fell suddenly and absolutely. I was cold and stiff and desperate for the toilet again. The whole bus smelt wretched, but it was quiet. A sudden movement behind me made me jump; a scuffle, then retching. A spatter of wet up the back of my legs, followed by the overpowering smell.
By the time I stumbled off the bus in Merzouga, I was a wreck. But, I had survived my first horrendous bus journey and I was initiated into the world of “real” travellers. I’d say have a pretty high score as bad trips go: twelve hours crossing mountains and desert with only two toilet stops and vomit on my legs. Top that!