Part 3 of 6
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Who has never dreamed of sleeping in the Sahara cosily nestled between sand dunes while looking at the stars? The desert has always inspired me and when I was young, I often imagined myself riding camels between the sand dunes of some faraway country. I dreamt of sleeping under the stars in the desert while drinking tea next to a campfire.
Merzouga in the southern region of Morocco was the perfect place for me to live all of these fantasies. It’s a small town in the Sahara desert in Morocco, not too far from the Algerian border. It’s known as the door to Erg Chebbi, a huge stretch of sand dunes south of town. Erg Chebbi, one of Morocco’s many ergs, or seas of sand dunes, is often used for films because of its stunning expanse of iconic fire-orange sand dunes. In fact, the dunes in Erg Chebbi are the biggest in Morocco. They rise as high as 400 feet tall and make for an imposing and beautiful sight.
Moroccan legend maintains that the Erg Chebbi dunes were sent as a punishment from God for failing to provide a tired traveller hospitality from the Sahara. They say it’s now a reminder that one always has to provide hospitality. You can see why. There’s little visible life besides scrub grasses.
As I have mentioned in my previous two articles, I was part of a small group of like-minded (some would call us insane) travellers from Malta who desperately wanted to go back to our travel-crazy ways despite the fact that we were still in the iron grip of a pandemic. This we did thanks to Take a Break Travel who organised a near-perfect eight-day adventure and dream of a lifetime in Morocco.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of approaching a desert to someone who has never seen one before. You can describe what you see; a drying of landscape, a browning of land and a slow disappearing of trees and shrubs and signs of life. Before, all of a sudden, the dunes appear! A sea of golden waves that appears to have no beginning and no end. You can show pictures and write words but portraying that feeling is harder. Perhaps it’s one of those things, like seeing the ocean for the first time, that you need to experience for yourself.
The town of Merzouga is not much more than a few shabby hotels on the edge of the dunes. But of course, the main attraction lies beyond. Camelback is the main mode of transport to enter the dunes, and a row of 6 were majestically lined up for our group. Our camel master was a nomad man whose face had aged from the harsh sun, yet whose eyes were wild and warm and whose comfort in the desert undeniable.
As the camels dipped their hooves into the soft sand, the landscape of the Sahara opened up to us. Dunes rolled into one another, merging and changing shape as the wind blew over each sand mountain. The setting sun created long camel shaped shadows and in each direction, the sand appears a different shade of golden yellow. Nothing compares to the sheer scale of the Sahara as the dunes rise and fall so dramatically, and the sea of sand seemed to go on for miles.
Camel rides, or more accurately, dromedary rides, are very popular in this area. The difference between camels and dromedaries is that camels have two humps while dromedaries have only one. They are so strangely shaped with their long and skinny legs carrying their round and large body. But somehow they manage to navigate walking on the sands, something that was quite challenging to do.
Riding a dromedary is interesting, and you have to be very careful when they are rising up or going down. They are extremely jerky and buck forward and backward as they get their legs under them while rising. You could easily get thrown off if you are not paying attention and holding on tight. It takes a few moments to get the rhythm, much like riding a horse though it does feel very different. After you get used to it, the ride is quite relaxing. And riding the camel is surprisingly comfortable, or at least it was in my case as it had layers and layers of blankets on top of its hump to make a cushioned saddle.
The camel ride stretched on for an hour or more. It may not sound like a long time, but when you’re crawling past the dunes, bumping up and down, it feels like it. I can’t imagine the weeks or months-long journeys people used to take to cross the Sahara. After our camel ride, we were taken in a 4×4 to our tents as it was too hazy for a decent sunset. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing pretty hard and there was quite an amount of sand in the air. It was dusk when we arrived at our white tent camp but nevertheless, it was easy to see how beautiful it was. We were greeted by the quintessential Moroccan mint tea and Berbers playing on their traditional musical instruments.
When I entered my tent, my mouth fell open in surprise as the tent was huge with a double bed, a sitting area and a sink. Behind two awnings was my own shower (with hot water) and a toilet. There was even electricity available, and unbelievably, even Wi-Fi in the middle of the desert! The ultimate glamping experience! However, I must add that the Wi-Fi signal was not particularly strong and there was a power cut every so often too! But I was here for the experience and that was what really mattered.
Dinner was a Moroccan salad of chopped veggies and a big homestyle chicken, lemon, and squash tagine, or stew cooked in a cone-shaped earthenware pot. Afterwards, the Berbers were out playing their traditional music once again and we were soon dancing like lunatics around the campfire as if in a trance. We did try to look out for the promised stars and Milky Way as this was supposed to be one of the highlights of a night out in the desert far away from civilisation but they were nowhere to be seen as it was cloudy and the airborne sand didn’t help either. Exhausted but nonetheless satisfied, we then retreated to our tents for the night. Despite the fact that one of my window flaps was making a racket flapping in the strong wind outside, I quickly fell asleep, dreaming of camels and tajine!
The next morning, we woke up early in the hope of witnessing a glorious sunrise to make up for the non-existent sunset of the previous evening, but once again we were left disappointed as the air was still too hazy for anything but a pale milky sunrise. Our overnight stay in the desert being practically over, we then signed non-liability forms and ‘sped off’ on our quad bikes for yet another unique desert experience.
A good piece of advice while out in the desert is to wear a traditional head scarf not only because it protects you from the harmful rays of the sun but perhaps, more importantly, to protect your mouth and eyes from blowing dust and sand. In our case, this was imperative as the wind was blowing pretty strongly and there was plenty of fine airborne sand. Wearing a good pair of tight-fitting sunglasses is also a good idea.
Seeing the sunset and the sunrise on a camel in the Sahara desert is something unforgettable. Spending the night in a Berber camp makes the whole experience complete. It’s the story of a lifetime whether you are 8 or 80 and was definitely one of the highlights of my trip to Morocco.