Oasis in the Dade valley, Morocco

Surprise snowfall a memorable journey in the Moroccan desert

MARRAKECH, Morocco — “So, I have a funny story for you,” I said, peering out our hotel room window, trying to rub some feeling back into my hands.

“What?” came the muffled retort from a cocoon of blankets – arranged in a warmth-maximizing configuration we’d dubbed a “bed burrito.”

“Well,” I told my friend, “we’re in Morocco and it’s snowing.”

We knew there was a reason it was cheap to travel there in February. We were well aware it would be chilly. Big deal if we needed a tuque and mitts at night. At least we wouldn’t need to pack Sorels and parkas.

We probably should have packed Sorels and parkas.

Snow is to be expected in the Imlil area of the High Atlas Mountains, where we had just spent three wonderful days trekking under bluebird skies.

Not so much in the Dades Valley, where we started the day, or in the Sahara Desert, where we were heading.

At first it was a light dusting. Then it started sticking. Then it was a full-on blizzard.

Soon, the Mars-red landscape transformed into what might as well have been the Saskatchewan prairie in winter. Date palms and pale pink almond blossoms were encrusted in white.

Depending on which local you asked, it was either the first time in 15 years or the first time in history that it had snowed like this in these parts.

We never did get a straight answer, but suffice it to say that snow is a rarity. Classes were cancelled and snowball fights broke out in schoolyards.

The whole scene was rather magical. What a pair of Canucks see as a banal nuisance was a treat for these kids.

The plan for the day involved seeing the Todra and Dades Gorges – which we did, albeit briefly. The low clouds made for some dramatic photos of the gorges’ imposing walls. But the bone-penetrating cold and damp made it miserable otherwise. All we wanted was a steaming pot of sugary Moroccan mint tea.

Later that afternoon, we were to ride camels to a camp in the desert near Merzouga. But en route, our guide Hassan got word that activity was off because of the nasty weather.

We drove to Merzouga anyway. Instead of the desert camp, we stayed in a virtually empty hotel, where we were served a bubbling tajine of fall-off-the-bone chicken, lemon and olives – just the thing to warm us up.

The next morning, it was still grey, raw and cold, but we made the best of it. We visited the camels in their pens and then played around in damp sand dunes at the edge of the highway for a while. We figured: Who knows when we’ll be able to set foot in the Sahara Desert again, so why not? Hassan taught us how to tie scarves around our faces in the local style so that we wouldn’t inhale sand.

The drive to Marrakech was rough, to say the least. We had to travel several hours out of our way to avoid roads that had been washed out by the melted snow.

By dark, we’d reached Tizi n’Tichka, a mountain pass with harrowing hairpin curves though the High Atlas that climbs as high as 2,260 metres.

At the top, it was snowing again and our affable driver, Omar, was driving a little faster than we’d have liked on roads where tailgating is the norm and winter tires aren’t.

As we descended, the snow turned to thick soupy fog. We couldn’t see ahead more than a metre or two. There was a near miss with a stray dog, which Omar found hilarious.

Then Omar, bless his heart, started talking on his cellphone while driving.

My friend, sitting up front, reached back and squeezed my hand.

Around 9 p.m., we made it to Marrakech. Omar dropped us off and we wandered through streets barely wide enough for the two of us walking side-by-side with our packs on. The doors all looked the same. We had no idea where our hotel was.

Finally, the hotel’s proprietor waved us down and led us to a door we must have passed two or three times.

Beyond the nondescript exterior was – at least in our exhausted minds – heaven.

There was a serene courtyard with a fountain in the middle. Our hosts had cookies and wine waiting for us before a roaring fire.

The showers were hot – not lukewarm passed off as “hot” as we’d experienced in the mountains and in the desert – but honest-to-goodness hot.

“Morocco’s all right,” I said to my friend. I don’t think either of us had ever slept so soundly.

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