I can honestly say that our night in the Sahara desert and our hour and a half-long camel trek there through the salmon-colored dunes was the highlight of all my travels. I did a lot of research before we left, and we hired Morocco Excursions for this portion of the trip. They were professional, on time and overall great!
Our journey to the Sahara from Marrakech took us through the High Atlas Mountains. (See our post on Fez and the Atlas Mountains for more on this part of our journey).
After a long day of driving, we arrived in Merzouga, a small village at the edge of the Sahara desert about 50 km from the Algerian border. We had lunch in this sleepy town, anxious to arrive at our destination.
Our destination was Erg Chebbi. An erg is a sand dune, shaped by the desert winds. These aren’t just any dunes; they extend for many miles. The erg got bigger and bigger as we approached.
The arrow is about where our camp was, near the Algerian border.
We finally arrived at the - I’m not sure what to call it - rustic lodge that serves as a hostel where we left our suitcases during our night in the desert. We took only what we needed for the night and left everything else in the room which we were reassured would be safe and untouched (they were). They had an array of good snacks for us before our late afternoon trek into the desert.
When it was time to leave for the camp, they took us to the camels who were filling up on vegetation before their trek. The person who appeared to be in charge looked at Paul and determined that he wouldn’t fit easily on a camel and should come with him on his four-wheeler. That's our granddaughter below, ready for her ride.
The rest of us were assigned a camel. In order to get on, the Berber guide gives the camel a command, it drops to its knees and you climb on. There were blankets on the camel’s backs, but no stirrups so our legs were left to dangle. Once we were all on, the camels were roped together and we began our journey across the dunes, led by our Berber guide.
This is us part way through the journey.
By late afternoon, the sun was low in the sky behind us. The day before, they had had to cancel the trip because of the winds, but our day was absolutely still. And absolutely quiet. We all named our camels; mine was Humphrey. Michael entertained us with stories of his camel winning the Miss Merzouga beauty pageant, but we were told later that they’re all males as mixing the sexes would cause quite a bit of ‘disruption’ on the trip.
We knew we were heading east, but the dunes are, well, dunes, so it was impossible to see anything that wasn’t right in front of us. Going up the gradual slope is fine, but coming down is a little unnerving. You have to hold on to the saddle post because otherwise you feel like you’ll slip down the camel’s neck. How the Berber guide knows where he’s going is beyond me, but they’ve lived there all their lives, so it’s probably instinctive.
The color of the sand is something I’ve never seen and couldn’t have imagined. It’s a rich salmon/orange; no filter needed for these pictures! The trip to the camp was about an hour and a half. About a third of the way, the guide dropped the rope, the camels stopped and he walked a few feet in front of us, took his sandals off and knelt in the sand to pray. We watched silently, so as not to disturb or disrespect the moment. The combination of the color of the sand, the blue sky, the sun behind us and the absolute quiet is something I’ll never forget.
We saw other caravans like ours in the distance, going to their camps. It felt like we were in a movie.
At one point I looked to my left and saw a perfect shadow of us, elongated due to the angle of the sun. I snapped a picture which later became our Christmas card. Magical.
Just when I thought my “down under” muscles couldn’t take another minute of what’s affectionately called the “camel massage”, we saw a small group of buildings in the distance. This was our camp for the night. The camels started snorting, knowing they’d soon be free of us. Getting off is quite a different experience from getting on. The guide again gives the camel a command and it drops to its knees. The only difference this time is that we were ON the camel, so the guide puts his arms out to brace us to keep us from falling forward, then helps us off. It’s not dainty, but it works.
By this time Paul had been at the camp for a while after his four-wheel adventure which he affectionately dubbed Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
The sand changed color as the sun faded.
They laid out rugs as paths in the compound. That's our son-in-law David at the entrance to our tent.
It was still light when we arrived, so we climbed a dune to take it all in - and pinch ourselves. Michael and David decided to climb a large dune across from us. Distances are deceiving; it looked close, but the farther up they climbed, the smaller they got. If you've ever tried to negotiate sand, you know it's harder than it looks.
A man and his dune!
Other groups started to arrive, so we were about 20 in all. They fed us tagine and tea, then entertained us throughout the evening. The weather was perfect and with no other lights for miles, the sky was solid white with stars.
Yes, that's the moon!
They woke us early the next morning so we could enjoy the sunrise.
We heard the camels making whatever sound camels make - grunting? It was clear that they knew it was time to go home. The ride back seemed shorter than the previous day's which was good because my "down under" muscles were still sore! This is how the camels spent the night.
They have long necks.
This is our ragtag group as we headed back from the camp.
We said goodbye to our rides and started out for Fez, still pinching ourselves that we had really slept in the Sahara Desert! This is David saying goodbye to his camel, and mine is below - good looking fellows, don't you think?
We've been so fortunate to have had amazing experiences around the world, but our night in the Sahara remains the most special for me.
➜ Top Tips
If you go to Morocco, you must spend a night in the desert!
Take a good camera and be prepared to be blown away by the beauty.
Erg Chebbi is about 560 km. (350 miles) from Marrakech and 460 km. (just under 300 miles) from Fez, so make sure the car you hire is large enough to comfortably accommodate your party and all your luggage; it's a long drive through the mountains and the desert.
The "camel massage" affected all of us. Pack some Ibuprofen or other pain killer!
Don't be surprised that you won't be offered wine or beer for your dinner in the desert.