Morocco entices tourists with Sahara treks
Lurching along on the back of a camel through blowing sand dunes toward a distant nomad camp, I wiped sweat from my brow. Our camels carried all the food and water we might need in hand-woven baskets. I looked to our guide, a Berber tribesman garbed in sky blue robes who spoke not a word of English, to lead us in and out of the desert safely. It sounds like a scene from a “Lawrence of Arabia”, but it is actually just another day in Saharan tourism in Morocco.
There are several places tourists can visit the edge of the Sahara desert while in Morocco and get the experience of riding camels through the sand dunes and staying in a Berber camp. Although most Moroccans have never seen a camel except at the zoo, there are still Berber people living in the desert who maintain the old ways of their nomadic ancestors and are happy to share their history and culture with travelers.
For our Saharan adventure, we visited Merzouga, which is several hours by bus or car from Marrakech or Ouarzazate. This is a case where the journey to arrive is as enthralling as the destination. The main road to Merzouga winds through the Draa Valley, a fascinating place that will make the traveler feel as though they’ve traveled back in time. The highway runs through rocky mountains and forbidding, barren desert only to suddenly encounter the Draa river bubbling along. The river gushes through several lush oases lined with mud homes and casbahs shaded by towering date palms. Men drive donkeys laden with overflowing baskets along the shoulder of the highway. Women in jewel-toned jellabas guide excited children down mud-packed streets past wagons full of fresh fruit and vegetables. The impression is only interrupted by the occasional businessman on a cell phone or satellite dish on the side of a mud house. At each of these towns, we found the delicious food and hospitality for which Morocco is famous. Amenities are harder to come by than in the cities but the opportunity to get off the beaten path makes it worth it.
The final stretch to Merzouga is long, dusty and barren and it’s a relief to see the small town appear over the horizon. At Merzouga there are a few lodging options, but the one we were seeking – a night in the Sahara – could only be reached on the back of a camel. We booked with a guide who met us at the bus stop. They drove us back to their hotel and gave us a place to store extra luggage and prepare for our trip into the desert. We were treated to a delicious five-course dinner on the roof a traditional mud house. Our hosts came up when we had finished eating and chatted with us, answering questions and telling stories about their lives as Berber tribesmen. Their family had lived in the desert until recently and still spent part of the year living away from the town. The children still learned to care for camels, survive in the dunes and navigate by the stars.
After dinner we mounted up, and a Berber guide wrapped in blue robes led us out through dusty roads that gradually became sandy dunes. We lurched along for about an hour to arrive at a small circle of tents in the desert. We were greeted with hot mint tea and while our guides tended to the camels, we sat in the sand looking up at the dark sky. Never have I seen so many stars and felt so utterly small beneath the vast cosmos.
We lodged in traditional Berber cloth tents on very untraditional, western-style beds. Not all desert lodgings we stayed in were so comfortable, but this one was delightful. In the morning we woke to the sounds of camels bellowing, the smells of bread frying and mint tea brewing, and the feel of the wind blowing through the tent. Upon stepping outside, we learned why the Berbers all wear scarves that can be wound around their heads and faces. The wind scoured us with a thousand grains of sand and we could barely open our eyes it was so grating. Our guides loaned us scarves to wrap around our faces to protect ourselves from the sand.
After a breakfast of hardboiled eggs, fried bread, cheese, honey and tea, we climbed back onto our camels for the long trek back to the town. Our train of camels headed out of camp through pinkish tan dunes that stretched all the way to the horizon – an intimidating sight. The trip brought us very close to the border, and our guides pointed out where Morocco ended and Algeria began. The guide commented that the dunes were always moving, always changing, so the face of the desert was always new. I asked how our guide could navigate through desert that changed, and which all looked the same to me. He answered in Arabic and my companion translated. At night, the guide said, he could follow the stars. During the day he recognized landmarks such as the distant mountains. However if he ever got lost, he paused, reaching into his robes and pulling out a cell phone, he had GPS.
The GPS made me feel more secure as we lumbered through featureless desert back toward the town. Just as we saw the town appear on the horizon, a light sprinkle of rain began and cooled us on the last leg of our journey. Just when we thought the trip couldn’t get more amazing, we were bathed by rain in the Sahara.
An overnight trip to the Sahara may not be the most comfortable night of sleep in your life depending on the quality of accommodations, but it will definitely be interesting and a night to remember. You can book in advance or try your luck at finding a guide once you arrive in Merzouga or one of the other tourist towns near the dunes. You can also book an all-inclusive trip leaving from one of the larger cities, such as Ouarzazate or Marrakech. There are also longer treks into the desert which last a few days or a week. Whatever you choose, you will forever remember your trip into the Sahara.