As the sun began to set and the camel kept winding down through the desert sand, I couldn’t help but smile the whole way, filled with joy and in complete admiration of this wondrous place. The vastness of the sand dunes surrounding us was mesmerizing. The frenzy overflowed. We were in the middle of one of the places I had most dreamed about visiting: the Sahara Desert.
The Dunes of the Sahara
A natural marvel of vast plains and sun-baked dunes, the Sahara Desert occupies Morocco’s south and east. It’s the world’s biggest tropical desert, covering about a third of the African continent. It’s also one of the harshest areas on Earth, occupying 5.6 million square miles.
The Arabic word sahra, which means “desert,” is the origin of its name. The Atlantic Ocean borders the Sahara on the west, the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea border it on the north, the Red Sea on the east, and the Sahel on the south. Visiting the Sahara Desert is a great experience to complement a journey through Morocco. So we made sure to schedule this adventure during our trip.
Most Moroccan Sahara tours visit one of the two most open areas, Merzouga and Zagora. The Erg Chebbi dunes near Merzouga, with their orange-toned sand and enormous dunes, are the gateway to the Sahara. The other option, the Erg Chigaga dunes near Zagora, is a more rocky desert with less sand and a more yellowish hue. After some research, we decided on the first one.
The journey from Marrakesh to Merzouga is more than 350 miles long.
How to get to the Sahara Desert from Marrakesh
Merzouga is the primary departure point for camel tours into the Sahara Desert. Some excellent desert tours are available directly from several of Morocco’s major cities, such as Fez and Marrakesh. The journey from Marrakesh to Merzouga is more than 350 miles long and takes you across a treacherous winding part of the High Atlas mountains, through deep ravines, and finally into the Sahara Desert.
You can start the journey as we did, early in the morning from Marrakesh via the Tizi n’Tichka Atlas pass and the high Atlas Mountains to Ait Ben Haddou. There were several stops along the way for leisure, such as the small village Ouarzazate or the Todgha Gorges canyons. We spent the night at Tinghir, and from there we departed the following day for Merzouga.
Classic Sahara Desert activities include camel trekking across historic trading routes, camping underneath the stars in the desert, and waking up early to watch the dawn over an ocean of golden dunes.
The experience in the Sahara Desert
When we arrived at Merzouga’s facilities, the camels were waiting for us, ready to embark on the journey. Riding a camel is not very comfortable, and the height is more than I expected. But I’ll have to correct myself. These were dromedaries. Unlike camels with two humps, dromedaries have only one. And they’re better for riding because their hump is stronger. Their relatives are apparently more famous, and so it’s more common to call it a ‘camel ride.’
I was lucky to ride the oldest camel leading the caravan. Its name was Asawual. Once we were all settled on our camels, a white-robed Berber boy led the march into the desert. We rode for about an hour, and I was glad we had earlier learned how to arrange our turban the Moroccan way.
Clothing is crucial for this desert adventure. I’d recommend wearing soft long-sleeved clothes to cover yourself from the desert heat and comfortable trousers for camel riding. I’d also recommend bringing a scarf to tie around your head like a turban to protect your face from the wind and sand. Even during summer, the desert can be cold at night, so bring some warm clothing too.
As the sun began to hide behind the dunes, my body started to go numb. It was stiff from the swaying of the camel ride, and I was relieved it didn’t last any longer. By the time we got to the camp, I practically couldn’t feel the lower part of my body! But the discomfort was compensated by having my eyes full of sunset and dunes.
The Berber guides showed us our small, modest, incredibly snug tent. To our surprise, it had an electrical installation that, although very basic, allowed us to turn on the light. Most desert campsites will have essential equipment. Oh, the luxuries one can sometimes indulge in while in the wild! But the real luxury was being there in the middle of the desert, surrounded by only sand and sky.
Once settled in, we went for a walk, climbed the dunes, rolled down, felt the wind and an infinite sense of freedom. The soft sand running between my fingers decorated with henna was a delightful feeling. The toasted dunes, the curvy landscape and the way the sand rippled in perfect lines drawn by the wind were all so dreamy.
Temperature varies drastically between day and night
Best time to go is March to May or September to November
We then had dinner in the neighboring camp. A meal of classic chicken tagine with vegetables had been organized, the traditional complement to a desert voyage. Late at night, we listened to Berber music performed by the locals who played the drums by a campfire. We enjoyed contemplating the stars and hints of the Milky Way. I had never seen so many in my life, the sky full of sparkling sand. It was a fantastic night.
Before dawn, we set out on our way back. And as the light emerged and the sunrise welcomed a new day, we said goodbye to the golden dunes. The Sahara Desert is truly magical, and this experience was undoubtedly one of the most special that we experienced while in Morocco.
A version of this article appears in print, in Issue 0 of Álula Magazine with the headline: “The Dunes of the Sahara.”