Into the Sahara, Morocco

March, 2011

Slender-legged camels trailing slowly, with purpose, across desert-swept golden dunes, whilst moving deep into Morocco’s Sahara Desert…

Forget the madness of Marrakech, away from snake-charmers and spice sellers.

Instead, escape with me on a former caravan route across the stunning Atlas Mountains and into the desert.

Far-off in the distance, a nothingness with particles of sand swirling in the breeze, eyes blinking from the sun’s glare, as a mirage unfolds itself into a Bedouin camp.

Dream-like romantic desert scenes from Lawrence of Arabia emerge. The purity of travelling in this expansive and desolate part of the globe, where the only insignificance is you is mesmerising.

Starting the tour from Marrakech

tour, Marrakech, Sahara, Morocco, AfricaVibrant Marrakech is an excellent hub to organise your trips from to anywhere in Morocco, but especially, across the Atlas Mountains. Lots of competition from many tour companies operating from this city, offering a one-day tour or if times permits, up to five nights away – the desert is your oyster.

Tips: Check the number of people on your tour and shop around for your tour as prices vary greatly. I much prefer a small group in a mini bus.

Opting for a two-night/three-day package from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains and with a Bedouin camp sleepover in the Sahara Desert thrown in, the exciting day is finally here…

But, before we venture off as desert travellers along our romantic centuries-old camel trek seeking the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, our modern-day transport awaits.

Day 1: Aït Benhaddou

This morning’s meeting point at seven with our “Agent” is at the frequented Café de France, where another couple also arrived. Piling into a car, we continued for only a couple of blocks before stopping. Piling back out and into a waiting minibus, fourteen more passengers arrived over the forty-five-minute wait, until we left, only to stop again about twenty minutes later, for fuel.

Our eclectic mix of nomads include: Moroccan driver and agent, two Moroccan girls, an American brother and sister, two Swiss travellers, one Argentinian, three Italians, and two Australians (us). I am always the ‘fossil’ on any tour.

A tricky drive through the busy and crammed streets in Marrakech finally sees our minibus turn onto the long smooth N9 Highway.

Stunning scenery materialises across the spectacular desolate High Atlas Mountains. The only way I can explain the scenery through these mountains is dreamlike and breathtaking, in its emptiness.

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco, Africa
From a moving minibus

A hairy ride awaits along the infamous Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass, our gateway to the Sahara.

Sahara, Morocco, Tizi n'Tichka
Along the spectacular Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass

In 1936, the French military constructed this road, which runs along the ancient caravan trail. Our skilled driver now wound the minibus around the tightest of bends, as we climbed to three-thousand metres.

Stopping off at small quaint mountain villages with pricey cafes and restaurants along the way, is a welcomed break.

With a brief drive through Ouarzazate, Morocco’s film-making location, the minibus turns right onto the N10 highway for the Dades Valley and the Vallée des Roses.

This valley is renown for its picturesque flowers but out of season, there are no flowers to be seen, anywhere.

Vallee des roses, Morocco, Africa
The only rose to be seen
Aït Benhaddou, Morocco, Africa
Arid vista
Aït Benhaddou, Morocco, Africa
Aït Benhaddou

The weather turned quickly and we reached the first night’s accommodation at Aït Benhaddou (also Aït Haini), in the pouring rain at around 18:30 hrs.

A pretty stream bubbles away noisily behind the hotel, competing with the sound of the heavy downpour.

The hotel is a reproduction of an old castle and just as cold but impressive from the outside. Our room is sparse and marginally warmer than the freezing outside ambience.

Aït Benhaddou, Morocco, Africa
Stepping back through time…

The open fireplace in the dining room is inviting but our group is pointed to the table further from the fire – many groups are staying here tonight.

I think our group is on the budget tour as I spy a definite difference in service and food, compared to the groups across the room.

Although, a wonderfully delicious hearty meal of chicken and vegetable Tagine with Couscous is consumed within minutes by us hungry beasts, we are made to pay for the warming mint tea – seriously? And we only discover the extra charge after the tea is served and devoured. The tour’s price is supposed to include everything – no extras.

Aït Benhaddou, Morocco, Africa
Local Marketeer
Todgha Gorge, Morocco, Africa
Imposing gorge

Day 2 – Erg Chebbi, somewhere deep in the Sahara

Following breakfast the next morning, the tour continued to Agoudal, some 3,200 metres into the High Atlas Mountains, in the grey, cold, and rainy morning.

Back-tracking to Todgha Gorge, we stopped at Todgha, a small town with very friendly locals and super cheap coffee. Quite a refreshing town and not a tourist trap as previous stops on this tour.

Perhaps our requests are finally answered. One of the annoying parts of the tour is that you only stop at tourist places and out-of-the-way cafes and restaurants; not in towns where food is of a better quality and cheaper.

The tour takes in a Fossil Museum, which is really a shop stop, but a welcomed break nonetheless.

With weather clearing on the further one and a half-hour-drive to Merzouga, we finally arrived and stopped for more mint tea.

Scarfing up, our desert guide finally leads us to our smelly furry new-found friends, for the anxiously-anticipated ride through the desert.

Our destination – Erg Chebbi, which is deep into the Western Sahara Desert to seek our Bedouin camp, for the second night’s accommodation. Sand dunes in certain places are as high as 150 metres. Collectively, this area of stark desert spans some fifty kilometres (north to south) and from five to ten kilometres (east to west), and lines the Algerian border.

Erg Chebbi, Morocco, Saharan, Africa
Bedouin guide

The windy conditions from the increasing sandstorm make for a dramatic ride, with coarse Saharan sand biting and stinging any sliver of exposed skin. This seems not to bother our guide, who incidentally, is on foot and never drinks water for the duration of the trek.

An immensely beautiful and desolate place, which makes you feel insignificant amongst mystical dunes that have witnessed thousands of camel trains through infinite time.

Erg Chebbi, Morocco, Saharan, Africa
Sands of time

Quite surreal riding slowly and lazily across the dunes with enough time to appreciate and absorb the vast boundless surrounds.

Incredible is how the guide knows this invisible path, day or night.

I search hard for traces of defining markers in the sand. Special sand dunes that may be differentiated by another. But there are no signs, no path, no trail, nothingness, to an outsider’s untrained eye.

Rain in the Sahara?

No sooner did we arrive at the camp nestled in the hollows in the middle of Saharan dunes that it actually started pouring with rain. Our guide tended to the camels whilst we rushed into our communal tent.

Looking around, I noticed a lack of any beds.

The welcoming Bedouin with the serene face made warming mint tea for everyone. Calmly, he poured his fragrantly strong but delicate liquid with a timeless skill and precision, passed down through the ages – a ritual of time.

Erg Chebbi, Morocco, Saharan, Africa
Welcoming minted tea

After a delicious Moroccan meal, our hosts played and sang traditional music in an infectious trancelike mood, creating an otherworldly atmosphere against the sounds of rain.

Erg Chebbi, Morocco, Saharan, Africa
Mystical Bedouin music

With continuing heavy rain throughout the night, we are reminded that it only ever rains here two to three times per year, and then this is only for a five-minute splash.

The Bedouins took our visit as bringing luck to their camp.

The rain did stop briefly with enough time to race outside to get some fresh air but also to find a patch of sand to heed nature’s call.

The pitch black starless night against shadowed dunes, created a vastness of eternal infinity.

With only a short-lived break, the rain started once more as we raced into the tent’s shelter.

Who would have thought it would rain in the desert, and rain hard?

Of course, our cloth tent lined inside with flimsy plastic and not used to any heavy rain, became porous as muslin cloth, leaking profusely.

Moving our partly sodden bedding from the damp ground across to the dining tent’s marginally dryer ground, fifteen others decided to also sleep in this cosy spot.

Since the Bedouins smoke…a lot, most stayed up enjoying the rain, chain smoking, and chatting into the early hours of the morning.

Sleep escaped us, as thick plumes of choking smoke twirled high into the dull glow of the gas lantern, to hover over us and drift into the tent’s ceiling. The dense haze made for suffocating conditions and streaming eyes.

Day 3 – Marrakech

With raspy gravelly throats from the previous night’s smoke and with only sporadic sleep, everyone arose to a beautifully fresh, clean, and dazzling endless morning.

Erg Chebbi, Morocco, Saharan, Africa
Saharan Silhouette

A stunning sunrise against a clear and crisp blue sky, contrasted by rich burnt orange-hued swirling sand dunes, awaited us in a dreamlike barren wilderness.

Climbing back on our damp camels for the return journey in our sodden jeans on rustic saddles, proved most uncomfortable. Made of two crude pieces of rough timber with a welded metal T-section to hang onto, the saddle is not conducive to comfort. A lot of pain whilst riding, resulted in terrible chafing in unmentionable places.

Erg Chebbi, Morocco, Saharan, Africa

Press on we did however, as unless you walk through heavy drenched sand, there is no other way to return to civilisation.

Along the curving trail, perpetual shapes and shadows dance in the dunes, taunting and forever burning into the library of memories, a magical Saharan sojourn.

Finally, back in Merzouga breakfast awaited our return.

Piling into the minibus once more, we headed back for the long journey to Marrakech. Over six-hundred kilometres during a slow journey, back over the Atlas Mountains.

Having snowed in the mountains since crossing just a couple of days ago, the now white-laden stark scenery is both breathtaking and bitterly cold. Such contrasting vistas from the previous drive that we could be travelling through a different country altogether.

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco, Saharan, Africa
Rain and sleet though the window

Dropped off with much chafing and famished after the long drive, gingerly we walked back through the Medina. To seek our little Chez Fatima Bérbére restaurant and indulge in a splendid three-course scrumptious meal, is the mission.

Only a brief rest in Marrakech, before continuing to Morocco’s imperial city, Fes.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts on Morocco.

Erg Chebbi, Morocco, Saharan, Africa
Saharan secret

63 responses to “Into the Sahara, Morocco”

  1. vagandopormundopolis Avatar

    What good memories I had reading your post, just a week ago I was there,but without rain and about 45 degrees, but enjoy every day in Morocco. The whole country is very worthwhile. I loved your photos and the story¡¡😊

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I’m happy that my post brought back memories for you and it sounds as though you had a wonderful time in Morocco.
      For how long were you in Morocco?

      1. vagandopormundopolis Avatar

        One week, from ouarzazate, only in the south, because in other trips I’ve been in other places. Morocco is great, I expent a great time

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Excellent, sounds wonderful!
        It’s great to have the time to really experience a country for more than a week or two, but then, work gets in the way. 😉

  2. Lisa Dorenfest Avatar

    Magnificent splendor. I have wanted to travel to these parts my entire life #someday. Aït Benhaddou especially calls to me as do the people showcased brilliantly in your images. My country for a camel!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Lisa for your kind feedback and hope you get to Morocco soon. Absolutely loved your Sossusvlei a Sacred Space post!

      I really enjoyed travelling for a month in Morocco as it’s particularly diverse and stunning! Apart from the badgering, locals are wonderful and welcoming.

      The other place I was on a camel trek was back in 1985 when I solo-backpacked around the world for 12 months and spent a month in India…a long time ago and showing my age. The desert in Rajasthan for a couple of days was an amazing experience – I love sleeping under the stars.

      1. Lisa Dorenfest Avatar

        Thank you for the very kind shoutout here Nilla.

        I wish I’d had your courage back in 1985. I longed to travel but honored my parents wishes that I ‘Get A Job ‘NOW’. In the end, it worked out ok. I got out here eventually :-). By the time I finally set sail, my parents were my biggest supporters. A camel ride awaits in my future.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        No problem at all Lisa and really hope to meet you one day.
        Guess I’ve always been headstrong and haven’t let anything get in my way…must be the Calabrese DNA seeping through! 😉

  3. theitinerary1 Avatar

    Wow, you have been to so many places. 😀 Hope to go to these places like you

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I haven’t even written about half of the countries I’ve travelled to yet…slowly getting there, so stick around and you may discover more amazing places. 🙂

  4. Anindya Avatar

    Your site is amazing and as I have always said your photos are amazing too…..hoping to see more of your travel posts and get introduced to your pictures….

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Many thanks for your kind words Anindya.
      Tried to comment on your site also, although I can only read comments and not add my own.

      1. Anindya Avatar

        Thanks Nilla…..I guess the posts you were trying to comment on are old posts before I migrated to my self hosted site…..I will look into it……

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ah ok, thank you.

      3. Anindya Avatar

        I have solved the comment problem on this and many other older posts of mine….now you can go ahead and comment, Nilla….thanks again 🙂

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Excellent! I’ll check your site again. 🙂

  5. Ray Avatar

    Awesome site and post. Love the writing and especially the pictures.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thanks for your kind feedback Ray. 🙂

  6. Kelsey @ There's Something About KM Avatar

    Love your writing! Thank you for sharing your words and photos. 🙂

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for your kind feedback Kelsey! 🙂

  7. englishwithkirsty Avatar

    That sounds like such an amazing experience, particularly the camels as I would love to do that some day! I can’t see pictures due to my visual impairment, but your descriptions really brought the trip alive!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Kirsty, it was an amazing experience.
      The only other camel trek I’ve done was in Rajasthan, India back in 1985, when I solo-backpacked around the world for 12 months. I must get around to sharing those experiences…I have so much to write!

  8. a mindful traveler Avatar

    Such great images of the surroundings of the Sahara. Another corner of the globe I wish to visit. Thanks for taking me there.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you and glad I could take you on a trip!
      Morocco is a stunning destination and you should see it sooner rather than later. 😉

      1. a mindful traveler Avatar

        Absolutely 🙂

  9. Once Upon A Backpack Avatar

    Great pics! Loved the Sahara and would love to go back!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you! It’s both stunning and peaceful.
      When did you go to Morocco?

      1. Once Upon A Backpack Avatar

        went last September… was still pretty hot during the day

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        In March, some places were cool in the evenings and warmish during the day, although in Fes, it was very cold.

  10. A Dude Abikes Avatar

    Great photos and site! Do you have any future trips coming up? Thanks for following my site.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you and no problem. I’m on an extended journey, having left Australia in March 2014. 😉

  11. sheenatakestoronto Avatar

    Beautiful pictures of local life

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Sheena. Love to take candid photos to preserve snippets in time. Who knows, maybe 100 years in the future, someone may look back at my photos. 🙂

  12. cengizselcuk00 Avatar

    Perfect Journey! (=

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yes it was indeed and loved the trip.
      The rain and sore bottom was meant to bring some light humour into the post, even though it did happen – hope that worked. 🙂

  13. equinoxio21 Avatar

    I understand the desert transforms you… A very old friend of mine did a desert trip in the SAhara a long time ago. Came back different. (Still a friend)

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      It’s an amazing feeling and one that’s hard to explain.

      Traveling through the Sahara and its expansive sand dunes is not too dissimilar to sailing in the ocean’s expansive space. I guess you get the same feeling of insignificance, respect, and wonder thrown in together, which is a privilege to experience. I can fully understand the nomadic existence, unshackled of possessions and time.

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Yeeees. Never been to the desert, but I can relate to open sea, and mountain climbing. 🙂
        (Cleanses the mind)

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Exactly – all three cleanse the mind. 🙂

  14. Patty Avatar

    Fantastic photographs again. I am always amazed about how you are able to ‘catch’ the most beautiful colors.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Patty!
      I use my cameras on the ‘Manual’ setting and expose for every scene. I never use the ‘Auto’ setting. As you know, I’m also adverse to post-production so don’t muck around with my photos. 🙂 x

      1. Patty Avatar

        I know, that’s why I believe you really have a fantastic ‘eye’ 🙂 XxX

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Awww…too kind, thank you. 🙂 x

  15. the eternal traveller Avatar

    What an adventure! Despite the unpleasant conditions, you have amazing memories and beautiful photos. Your description of driving through the desert reminds me of our trip to Oman. We had a driver and went into the Wahiba Sands. I remember thinking the same thing – it all looks identical and how does he know where he is going. We didn’t get lost either. 🙂

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Wow, Oman! One country I haven’t been to yet. Yes, it’s amazing how these locals don’t lose their way, especially with sand swirling around everywhere and covering everything up. 🙂

      1. the eternal traveller Avatar

        I suppose there are identifying markers we just don’t see, but I was impressed. Oman is a fantastic country to visit. I began my blog with a series of posts about our trip there.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        There must be but only to them, not us.
        I’ll have to check those out, what year did you go to Oman?

      3. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Would love to read about your travel to Oman.
        I’ve just searched on your site but nothing comes up. Also went through a couple of the early years but still nothing. Do you have a link? Cheers Nilla

      4. the eternal traveller Avatar

        If you go to this post it is the first Oman story. There are several more posts after that. They begin in May 2012.

      5. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Great thank you!

  16. Aixa Avatar

    Great photos, great writing! This is the adventure I want (but without the rain).

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Aixa. The rain was special in the desert but would have liked it a little dryer to explore more that evening. 😉

  17. Suzanne et Pierre Avatar

    Nice post and pics.

    We are just back from our own 3-week trip to Morocco. We didn’t make it to Erg Chebbi but went to the Erg Chigaga instead…we stayed mostly south of Marrakesh and traveled on our own in a hired car. It was quite easily done. (Suzanne)

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Suzanne.
      Apart from this 3-day tour, we also travelled by public transport ourselves for the month. Morocco is a very easy country in which to travel independently.

      1. Suzanne et Pierre Avatar

        You are totally right. We didn’t use public transportation as we were mostly travelling through the south which isn’t as well equipped. This is why we hired a car…the roads were quite good and there weren’t much traffic so it was easy driving for the most part.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Good to know for when I return in the future, thank you. 😉

  18. Suzanne [globalhousesitterX2] Avatar

    Oh, I love seeing the locals going about doing ordinary everyday stuff. Great post Nilla!!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thanks Suz and I’ve cut this one down a little. The next Morocco post should be even shorter 😉 x

      1. Suzanne [globalhousesitterX2] Avatar

        Good to hear easier to absorb for goldfish 🙂 x

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Indeed but I’ve just done a little edit and changed a couple of things – can’t help myself. x

      3. Suzanne [globalhousesitterX2] Avatar

        Hey Nilla, at the end of the day it is the person who wrote the post that has to be the happiest with the end result. As it’s your treasure trove of memories that you are sharing 🙂 x

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Exactly right and an excellent way to handle blogging 🙂 x

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