One day we were feeding wild monkeys in the snow, the next we were riding camels through the hot dry desert
Our journey through Morocco so far has been full of contrasts, going from busy built up towns with European supermarkets and McDonald’s to isolated mountain villages inhabited only by nomads and donkeys and then on to the Sahara Desert. It’s almost like being in a different country each day, apart from the reminders we’re in Morocco like the call to prayer sounding out from the mosques and the roadside tagine stands.
Visiting the desert was one of those things we felt that no trip to Morocco would be complete without. Our only idea of what the desert might be like was from what we’d seen in films so getting out there and experiencing it for real would be an amazing memorable adventure.
As mentioned in our previous post we’ve been following a popular tourist trail through Morocco; coming from Tangier, on to Chefchaouen, then further down to Meknes, Azrou (where we fed wild monkeys!!) and Midelt. Once in Midelt we realised that we’d almost reached the desert so thought it made sense to continue south to Merzouga, one of the closest villages to the Saharan Erg Chebbi dunes.
We expected to find lots of tourists in Merzouga but to our surprise it was a bit of a ghost town when we got there, apparently this is the quietest time of year for tourism. There were lots of signs for campsites and desert tour companies lining the roads on the drive in so we knew we were in the right place.
All of the campsites were down off-road sandy tracks so we slowly drove around avoiding the sandier bits as best we could to limit our chances of getting stuck! From what we could tell these weren’t ‘normal’ campsites.
As there isn’t really anything else to do as a tourist in Merzouga but visit the desert, the campsites/ guesthouses double up as tour companies which encourage you to take your trip in to the desert with them if you wish to stay there.
After driving around for a while trying to pick a site we were spotted by some guys in a 4WD who directed us back to their campsite/guesthouse, Auberge La Tradition. We soon realised that we had to decide there and then which of their desert excursions we would take.
We’d really wanted to take our time to decide as most trips are expensive, but made the faux pas of mentioning that we’d emailed another tour company and were waiting to hear back from them. The campsite owner was not impressed with this news at all and seemed to feel very suspicious of email communications! We decided that the difference in cost wasn’t worth worrying about so we just went for it and booked a camel trek and overnight stay in the desert for the next day. With a bit of haggling this cost us 1100 MAD (about 100 euros).
Even though we were slightly put under pressure by Auberge La Tradition, it was a very nice campsite with good facilities and the tour was excellent, it was really our own fault for not doing our research and committing to a company before getting to Merzouga…
Our camel (or as we learned to call them more accurately, dromedary) trek started at 10am from the campsite and we were also joined by a French couple who had been staying in the guest house. The tour went across the desert to a now almost uninhabited Berber village where we would have lunch and then on to our desert camp where we’d spend the night.
We each had our own camel that was saddled up with plenty of blankets and cushions but despite this the padding left a little to be desired. We trekked for around five hours in total which we’re told is a long time to spend riding, it took a few days to recover afterwards!
It was an out of this world feeling being sat up high riding the camel through the desert, surrounded by nothing but rolling golden dunes. This is definitely the furthest we’ve felt from home the whole time we’ve been travelling. It was thrilling to feel so far away from comfort and civilization, out in the seemingly endless baron desert, even though deep down we knew that the campsite was only a few kilometres away.
Some of the dunes were incredibly tall and towered up over us like mountains made of sand. Looking out over them and seeing the patterns of uniform ripples created by the wind was mystifying. The camels slowly sauntered along the edges which looked as though they could just fall away at any moment, but the sand didn’t budge and the dunes maintained their shapes as if held up by magic.
It was amazing watching our guide, Hassan, negotiate the dunes and lead our camels along the best route through them. Even though there are no landmarks to help guide the way and sand storms can change the landscape across this vast area, he knew exactly where he was going.
Auberge La Tradition provided lunch at the camp they have set up in a deserted Berber village which Hassan referred to as the original Merzouga. This was a fascinating place as the ruins of empty Berber houses are scattered around the camp which we were free to walk around. The buildings are made of dried mud and sticks which felt solid and had sculpted out windows and alcoves. There was still one nomad family living here, right out in the desert.
Lunch was salad, rice and bread with fruit for desert, simple but satisfying. We helped Hassan cut up the veg for the salad in the tiny kitchen hut whilst listening to Gnawa (traditional Moroccan music) on the radio.
This base camp was used by several other tour companies and we saw lots of other international tourists coming and going. At one point a large group of Russian travelers came in and told us about their epic 250km journey through the desert on foot!
After lunch we went out to the spot where the camels had been left to find that they were gone! At first we didn’t understand what was happening as most of the conversation was in French but it turned out they’d wandered off in to the desert and so we had to split up and track them down. Fortunately they seemed to like to travel in twos and we found one pair straight away, then after a few minutes one of the other tourists called out that he could see the others in the distance. Hassan didn’t seem fazed by any of this and told us it wasn’t the first time it had happened.
With the camels saddled up and following Hassan’s lead again we rode on to our camp for the night. After so many hours of nothing but sand we were startled when three small cats jumped out at us as we arrived. They horizontally clawed their way along the carpet clad Berber tents in a Spiderman-like fashion. Even though people generally don’t keep pets in Morocco lots of people take care of and feed leftovers to stray animals. We’ve been surprised to find that a lot of the homeless cats and dogs we’ve seen in Morocco are in better shape than those we saw across Spain and Portugal.
We made it to the camp just in time for sunset which Hassan told us to watch from the top of the big dune nearby while he made dinner, arming us with a snowboard to use on the way back down. At this point the French couple left on foot to go back to the guesthouse which was only a kilometer or so away, as they had a plane to catch the next morning.
We had dinner in one of the Berber tents, Hassan cooked us a delicious tagine with chicken and vegetables to be washed down with an endless supply of mint tea. He played us some drums and got out the shisha pipe for the full Berber experience!
We felt like he was taking us through the usual routine that they’d normally do with groups but as it was just the three of us it was a bit awkward so we asked if we could just go outside and watch the stars instead.
The sky was amazing, never before had we seen it so completely full and bursting with stars. We sat for hours watching the sky and spotting shooting stars until eventually Hassan fell asleep. We’d really wanted to sleep outside but when we asked Hassan earlier in the evening he warned us it would be too cold, also this isn’t normally what groups do as the company provides tents and beds for sleeping in the desert. We figured since Hassan had already gone to sleep it would be fine for us to do the same. We’d come prepared with sleeping bags and extra clothes so we settled in and bedded down on blankets in the sand.
Being out in the desert at night and settling down to go to sleep made us feel like we’d never really experienced silence before. We’ve camped out in a lot of quiet places but there’s always some kind of background noise; wildlife, falling branches, dogs barking in the distance, here there was really nothing which took a while to get used to.
Even though we were outside on the ground we slept beautifully and felt so relaxed drifting off while looking at the sky it was almost like being in a trance. We woke up just before the sun had started to rise, fewer stars were visible and a fine slither of crescent moon had come in to view.
We quickly got out from under our mountain of blankets and clambered up the dunes to get a good view. We sat and watched the sun rise feeling like we couldn’t have hoped for a better Moroccan experience than this.
Minutes later Hassan was up and the camels were ready to take us back to the campsite where a hot shower and hearty breakfast with coffee and yet more mint tea was waiting for us.