More eager to get out of M'Hamid than it is possible to express in words, we got up with the sun, kicked the hotel staff awake (who were asleep on mattresses in the driveway), and hit the road back into the Drâa Valley. Driving before the sun has had a chance to melt the desert is a wonderful way to appreciate the hammada without losing your marbles, and we were hoping to make it back up the Drâa and onto Route 6956, heading east towards the real Sahara, at a place called Merzouga. But this was all days away, for stretching out in front of us was some 450km of winding roads through one of the most inhospitable parts of the world you're likely to find: the Moroccan hammada.
Hammada means 'stony desert', and it's accurate: there's a lot of desert, and there are lots of stones. Indeed, after the hard-to-refuse we'd been swerving round for the last couple of days, the hammada went one better and threw the keenest salesmen of all at us: the fossil men. It's an ingenious way to persuade people to stop and look at perfectly normal rocks piled at the side of the road, for who knows which innocent-looking rock will contain a fossil that redefines the science of palaeontology?
I know which one: none of them. There may have been some very important finds made in Morocco in the last few decades, but you're not telling me that the nutters leaping in front of cars on Route 6956 know anything about dinosaurs. As with all the other routes into the land of the Berbers, it's just another way to make a living in a place so inhospitable it makes the mind boggle.
It's quite a sight seeing people out in the hammada, to all appearances wandering through the desert with no packs, no bottles of water, and no worries. To a visitor from the cool temperate climate of north Europe, the dry heat of the hammada in June is something else. Driving through the black stony desert without air conditioning is like sitting in an industrial hair dryer with the heat turned to 11. After an hour or so you can feel the individual cells in your body start to rub together like millions of individual sand particles, as the water evaporates from your body without even having the decency to hang around as sweat for a while.
It's like Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when he's being dragged through the desert by the ugly one, who refuses to give him any water. Clint's face dries and cracks, and his lips turn into clots of desiccated skin that look like they're about to fall off his face, but it's not until you've lived through a few days in the scorching dryness of the hammada that you realise exactly how dry the desert is. It's so dry it makes you wonder how anything lives out here, let alone fanatical fossil salesmen.
The road, though, was in excellent condition, and even had carriageways in both directions for most of the trip, only slipping into single-track bitumen for two sections (if you ignore the section leaving M'Hamid, which we desperately tried to do). It was such a good road that we managed to cross the entire section south of the Jebel Sarhro mountain range before lunchtime, the handful of one-horse towns en route presenting no challenge that an experienced fossil-dodger couldn't handle.
If we stopped in the middle of absolutely nowhere, children would spring up out of the desert and would start running towards the car, waving their hands and no doubt dreaming of what they'd buy with all the proceeds from the Big Fossil Sale of 2002, but they didn't catch us, much to their surprise. Indeed, when Peta stopped to relieve herself behind a bush in the most desolate expanse of desert you can imagine, I wasn't that surprised to see a man on a bicycle suddenly appear as if from nowhere, right behind Peta; I dare say he was more shocked, which felt rather good after all the madmen leaping out in front of the car all day.
It was a delightful surprise, then, to arrive in Rissani, some 380km from M'Hamid, to find the wonderful Hôtel Kasbah Asmaa, complete with a fully filled swimming pool, air conditioning, and ice-cold beer. Without a second thought we decided to take it easy for a couple of days, if only to wash the memory of M'Hamid out of our hair.
I'd still spend the next few nights dreaming of minerals, dates, fossils and hot, hot stony desert, though. It's not something you forget in a hurry...