Ever the contrarian, Andy Torbet seeks out snorkelling opportunities while on a motorhome rally in the Moroccan desert.
The Sahara Desert, the Great Sand Sea of North Africa. Vast, impressive, beautiful and probably not the first landscape that spring to mind when one’s mind turns to snorkelling. And, to be fair, it wasn’t a place with a dearth of diving opportunities.
I was in Morocco as part of the Sahara Snorkeller of the desert sands Challenge 2 project, attempting to drive a motorhome plus two caravans from Bristol to the Sahara Desert. And the reason it was numbered ‘2’ was because we’d attempted the same trip in March 2020, during the early days of Covid… and we all know how that went. We actually got as far as southern Spain when Morocco closed its borders and the ferry across the Mediterranean was cancelled indefinitely. However, 2023 was a success.
After the drive through France, Portugal and Spain, the ferry, then a trip down through Morocco we finally made it to the Sahara. The north coast of Morocco is part of the Med and, although I’ve never dived there, I’d assume it has a fairly similar undersea environment to Southern Spain. However, in the desert water is a rare commodity.
Although refreshing after many hours driving in scorching heat, it still took my breath away as I sank chest-deep into the lake. Any hopes of good visibility at the rocky shore soon faded as I moved into what turned out to be an extremely muddy bottom.
On the way to the desert proper, we’d camped in one of the last major towns, Ouarzazate (pronounced Wa-Za-Zat), also known as ‘the door to the desert’. While there, I’d heard about a body of water called Lake Ouarzazate… and my interest was piqued.
However, over the time we spent driving further south, the days spent camping in the desert and then the journey back up to Ouarzazate, my optimism had diminished. Every small lake we drove by, every river we crossed was bone dry. There was nothing [‘and no man needs nothing’], not so much as a patch of damp mud where a pond may once have existed. Still, the trip down the Dades Gorge towards Ouarzazate gave me some hope. A small river still ran down the side of the steep ravine towards that notional lake.
After hours negotiating the snaking roads, we finally made the turn-off for the lake. Better suited to 4x4 vehicles it was a slow, steady drive down to the lake shore in the motorhome, despite the off-road tyres we’d installed, with multiple stops to check the ‘road’ and assess the best route. I’d expected nothing but muddy water but as we drew up, I could see there was at least visibility in the shallows.
Water levels in this normally arid environment clearly fluctuate, judging by the many old ‘tide’ marks on the shoreline and the small trees growing a few metres off shore. A local stood, ankle deep, fishing for whatever edible life lived in the lake. The water, as I waded in, was surprisingly cool. Although refreshing after many hours driving in scorching heat, it still took my breath away as I sank chest-deep into the lake. Any hopes of good visibility at the rocky shore soon faded as I moved into what turned out to be an extremely muddy bottom.
The fine silt swallowed my feet as I staggered into deeper water. Even without my steps disturbing the sediment, the visibility remained opaque. At the surface I could see the expanding ripples left in the wake of some fleeing fish, so that fisherman wasn’t entirely wasting his time. Not entirely.
I never did get a proper look at those fish, so we’ll have to launch another expedition if we want to put that one to bed. So, was my desert snorkel a waste of time? Certainly not. Aside from the bragging rights of a snorkel in the desert, it was a most excellent cooling dip, a wild swim in the unlikeliest of locations. I use the term ‘wild swimming’ because I believe there’s a significant crossover between snorkelling and wild swimming. Now, I’m off to hitch a ride on one of those so-called ‘Ships of the Desert’.
Article 'Snorkeller of the desert sands' by Andy Torbet first published in SCUBA magazine, Issue 137 July/August 2023. Images in this online version have been substituted from the original images in SCUBA magazine due to usage rights.