Moroccan Sahara: What a Sahara Tour is Really Like
While discussing Morocco’s most unique experiences with Ali, a charming staff member at my riad in Marrakech, he mentions camping under infinite stars in the dunes of the Moroccan Sahara. My eyes widen with wonder, and I pack my bags almost as soon as the words spill from his lips. He directs me to a reputable tour agency, where a knowledgeable representative reveals the details of the three day nomadic experience, and in the morning, Ali sees me off to the world’s largest hot desert.
In the company of 14 fellow travelers from across the globe, we board our minivan for the long and arduous drive. Our enthusiastic chauffeur, Mohamed, offloads to us his knowledge on the culture and history of the Berber, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. The vehicle meanders through the winding mountainous roads of the Atlas range, swapping the towering minarets and bustling souks of Marrakech for our first stop of Aït Benhaddou, a caramel coloured oasis and a fortified Berber village four hours southeast of Marrakech. The cluster of red mud brick homes appear golden in the glare of the afternoon sun, and as we disembark the minivan, we are greeted by a local guide who proudly tells us about the star appearances of Aït Benhaddou in the renowned Hollywood films of Indiana Jones, Gladiator, and Lawrence of Arabia. Our group of 15 adventurers weave through the collection of adobe dwellings in the village, most of which are small cafes and souvenir shops now, and engage with vendors who show us the techniques of traditional watercolour painting with the natural ingredients of saffron, tea and indigo. We learn that the pictures are only revealed above an open flame, a method in which the Berber practiced by writing secret messages to each other. We re-board the minivan at the conclusion of our tour of Aït Benhaddou, and travel half an hour away to Ouarzazate for a quick lunch stop. Cruising past two major film studios, Mohamed tells us that Ouarzazate is known as both the Gateway to the Moroccan Sahara, and as the Hollywood of Africa.
Day one of our journey to the Moroccan Sahara concludes with a night in a luxurious hotel in the Dades Gorges, and as I sink into bed for a restful night’s sleep, discover that the large glass windows in my room give way to a view of the surrounding dramatic landscape- a series of rugged rust red gorges carved by the Dades Gorges River originating in the High Atlas.
I awake the next morning to what I consider the main event of this three day excursion, as today we reach the village of Merzouga nestled on the edge of the Sahara, another four hour drive from the Dades Gorges. With one more stop in a Berber village, we learn about the production of the colourfully woven rugs that adorn the majority of the region’s souvenir stalls. When sweeping views of the majestic sand dunes of Erg Chebbi dominate the horizon in the late afternoon, we know we’ve finally arrived in Merzouga. We are greeted by an oven-like heat as we exit our minivan and ushered onto camels for our 1.5 hour trek to the campsite. I marvel at the windswept dunes of the Moroccan Sahara that stretch into forever, and when my camel stops, I find myself at the campsite where our sturdy white tents are already set up for us, furnished with plush mattresses and soft pillows. My new friends and I spend the evening reveling in the sublime natural landscape and racing down the hills of the dunes on a snowboard. When night falls, we settle into our dining tent for a hearty dinner of chicken tagine. Far away from civilisation and WiFi, we spend the hours before bedtime drumming to the rhythmic beats of traditional Berber music, and laughing to a game of charades on the woven rugs arranged outside our tents. We fall into silence in unison, and allow sleep to overtake us beneath a million twinkling stars.
By Vivian Chung
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