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A night in the Sahara

“Is it your first time here?”

“In this moment, yes.” the berber replied.

One of the highlights of the awesome trip to Morocco was the night spent in the desert. But before I start the story, you might want to get into the atmosphere by listening to some songs  🙂

Tinariwen – "Emajer" (Full Album Stream)

This is the song I like best from their album and also the one I have on repeat now as I write this piece. You could also check out the whole album on youtube.

… back to Morocco now …

Our journey started in lively Marrakesh from where we drove for about two days to Merzouga, at the edge of the dunes. There are only around 600 kms between them, but we made some stops along the way 🙂 The highlights where the fortified city of Ait Ben Haddou and the Todra Gorge, but more on those in other posts…

On the road, we crossed the Atlas mountains…

road through the Atlas mountains

… passed by countless villages with houses made of dirt and cool mosques …

moroccan village

… and many oases with forests or cultivated fields. I didn’t expect to see so much green in Morocco to be honest!

moroccan oasis

It was in the afternoon of our second day on the road when I started noticing that something changed. There was more and more sand on both sides of the road. The landscape also became more barren. As we drove on, some tiny dunes started to show up by the road. There were also some contraptions used to prevent the sand from getting on the roads, similar to what we use in winter to keep snow off 🙂

… and then …

we saw IT!

Merzouga

The dunes you see in the picture are part of the Erg Chebbi, one of the two Saharan ergs found in Morocco. The dunes span a small area close to the border with Algeria (around 50kms from north to south and 5-10 kms from east to west). Their heights are up to 150 meters. But from what I understand, there aren’t many dunes like this … much of the desert is made up of just barren lands. And there are oases and villages and roads between them, as our Berber guides (who came from such villages) told us.

Located near the edge of the dunes, Merzouga is the local tourist center and this is the starting point for camel trips into the desert. We took an overnight trip, but they also offer shorter or longer trips.

I must admit this was not my first time in the desert, the first was in Egypt in 2003 when we took a short jeep ride to a desert camp. On the way there we drove over some small dunes and even made a stop by a bigger one which we climbed on and rolled down, but I don’t remember seeing as much sand as in Morocco! I mostly saw small dunes and a lot of flat barren land in between. We also didn’t get to spend much time in the desert, it was only a short trip.

But this was something else! As we got at the edge of the dunes, at the tourist center … on one side all I could see was the sand! We were really keen on heading out into the desert so we quickly prepared our backpacks and headed to its edge.

By the dunes, the camels (dromedaries to be more exact…) were patiently waiting for us …

the camels were waiting for us

The sun was slowly moving towards the horizon so it was time to head out! But first, we each got assigned a camel and climbed on. Those animals do have a really wobbly way of getting up! There weren’t two camels alike, some were annoyed and were trying to bite the others, some were affectionate, some were less graceful than the others… After we all got on our camels, split into groups of four or five camels tied together and pulled by a young Berber, we set off into the Sahara!

My camel was one of the graceful ones, but I still got wobbled a lot! Mostly when going up or down the dunes. The camel in the back was one of the affectionate ones and kept brushing my leg with its head… Maybe it was mistaking my leg with my camel … I was wearing brown trousers after all … That’s what I hoped anyway! I’m not sure what it was thinking, but I’m glad it didn’t bite my leg off 😛 Most of them did seem like pretty peaceful animals, but for some reason I kept expecting it to attack me 😐

And so we rode and rode over the dunes and into the sunset… The village was shortly out of sight and all we could see around us were the dunes and the sky … There were some spots where some kind of grass was growing out of the sand, but other than those there wasn’t anything else there. No animals, no plants, nothing moving … Except for a light breeze and for us of course!

And so we rode and wobbled and rode …

camel ride at sunset

… and wobbled and rode and swayed …

The ride took around two hours. With the camera in one hand (trying to keep it leveled and steady for clear pics) and my other hand tightly holding the handle on the saddle (hoping not to topple over) I admired the dunes and the sun that was slowly setting. I was also impressed by the camels feet 😛 They didn’t seem to sink at all into the sand as they stepped. Not like our feet did …

desert ride at sunset

After dark, around the time I finally managed to get to get my balance properly on the camel, we got to the Berber camp 🙂 We left our camels to rest for the night a bit farther from the camp and went inside. The camp was nothing more than a few big tents set in a circle 🙂 We were assigned our tents for the night and the evening activities began! First we got served the omnipresent tajine. Then they brought their drums and they sang some traditional music. Similar to the one you are listening to now if you still have it playing 😛

We sang and danced, tried playing their drums, they tried playing Romanian folk songs … and they sang them pretty well! We also listened to the stories the young Berbers had to say of their lives and the desert.

desert camp

Around midnight, one of our hosts asked us if we wanted to go up on a dune. And of course we said yes!

I noticed that they were not wearing any shoes on the sand so I decided to give it a try and climb on the dune barefooted. It sure was easier than with shoes on! I quickly climbed through the dark and was the second to reach the top after one of the Berbers 🙂 So I was one of the first to see the awesome view! From up there we could see the lights of the nearby towns! I thought we had walked much more with the camels and were farther into the dunes, but we were not that far after all …

The sky was also one of the most filled with stars I’ve ever seen. The milky way was also clearly visible. Everything was so quiet and still … that is, before the rest of the group arrived… It seemed that we were in a different world. At home, in a big city, I don’t realise that I miss this… There are never these many stars visible and it’s never this quiet. But I don’t really notice this until I experience the opposite 🙂 It’s one of the reasons I like going to the mountains … It was kind of similar up there on that dune, well … if you don’t count all the sand and the camels and all that 😛

This was also a good place to start on my Berber skills! Itran (=star) was one of the first words I learned. And the only one I still remember 🙁 I also learned that sahara is not the name of the desert, it’s actually the Berber word for desert!!

One of the Berbers asked us if it was our first time in the Sahara and, after we all replied, one of the guys from our group jokingly asked him the same question. That’s when he gave the reply I will never forget “in this moment, yes“. This is where we started into a discussion about the meaning of life … Places and moments like this make you think 🙂

Calvin seems to have a point… source: http://i.imgur.com/rA6N8.jpg

But before we could reach a conclusion, it started getting a bit chilly so we decided to head back. As I was walking down the dune, one of the Berbers whooshed past me and yelled “run“. “Well, why not?” I though. It’s not often that you get the chance to run barefooted down a Saharan dune, under a million stars 🙂 So I whooshed with him past the rest of the group and I startled (more likely astounded) my sister. But although I’m the eldest and she should always follow my lead, she didn’t 🙁 She’ll never know what she missed 😛

We had a long day and we were all tired when we got back to camp, so we quickly disappeared into our tents. We couldn’t see the stars from there, but I fell asleep thinking of the great moments of the day 🙂

We had a great rest, but not for too long as we were woken before sunrise to get back on our camels. The trip did advertise seeing both the sunset and sunrise from the desert after all! The ride back took a little less, I guess we zigzagged a lot on the dunes the previous evening … or I was too sleepy in the morning to notice how much time passed … Or the time flies at a different speed in the desert, who knows … But it was sure worth waking up that early, we got to see some amazing sky colors before the actual sunrise!

sunrise in the desert

When we were close to the end of the dunes, the Berbers stopped the camels, we got off and took our seats on a small dune. It was as if we were all taking our seats to watch a show! And we really did get a show! We got there exactly in time to see the sun slowly slip over the horizon. A perfect way to say farewell to the desert! 🙂

sunrise in the desert

After that, we got back on the camels for a really short ride to the tourist office and back to civilisation. We had some breakfast and tea and started our long journey back to Marrakesh …

Where have you slept under the most stars? 🙂

Useful info:

  • for the night in the desert it’s best to have with you some warm clothes as it gets a bit chilly at night. In the tents it’s warm and there are blankets but you’ll probably spend a lot of time outside. It’s best to also bring some water and basic toiletries (paper towels, wet wipes and the like).
  • we took the tour with the guys from Great Travel – Morocco, it was well organised and the guides were nice. Their office is close to the Djemaa el Fna. This was the actual trip we took. Don’t forget to haggle for the price, as for everything else in Morocco 😉

Here’s the map of the whole road trip 🙂

Info sources:

trip date: October 2014

6 Comments

  1. Lacey · March 4, 2017 Reply

    Wow! What an amazing experience! I’d love to do this! Great photos and tips!

  2. Ellis · March 4, 2017 Reply

    I slept under the stars in Morocco as well, but for me it was jusyt on the rooftop of my accomodation. I did sleep under the stars in the dessert in India tough. Since I was a child I love stars and even had a small telescope.

    • Irina · March 5, 2017 Reply

      Stars are fascinating, aren’t they? 🙂 What desert trip did you take in India? I’ve never been 🙁

  3. Jacomijn - Safe and Healthy Travel · May 8, 2017 Reply

    I love Morocco. Haven’t been at all these places as I only visited Marrakesh.. The culture was great and the food, the tajines too!!

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