Venturing into Morocco's Sahara Desert

10972318069?profile=RESIZE_930xphotos | David Paul Appell

When good friends asked my husband and me to join them to spend New Year’s Eve in Morocco’s Sahara Desert, it was hard to say no. We’d visited this country many years ago and had been utterly entranced by its culture, architecture, food, and people – yet we’d not yet gotten to the vast dunes of its northeast. And quite a trip it turned out to be..


Flying into Marrakesh, we spent a couple of days exploring its exotic, labyrinthine medina; its expansive Jamaa El-Fna square; and like iconic landmarks like Koutoubia Mosque and the Saadian Tombs. Then our party of six climbed into a van operated by a tour operator called Marrakech Citylife (highly recommended) and off we went, heading toward the town of Merzouga, 349 miles (562 kilometers) east.  



Now, this is an exhausting drive of more than nine hours if you were to do it in one fell swoop, but we made several fascinating stops along the way. Our first, some five hours east, was the town of Aït Ben Haddou in the Ounila Valley, famed for its 11th-century ksar (fortified village), which centuries ago was a thriving stop on the caravan routes which crossed the Sahara. Constructed of rammed earth, adobe, clay bricks, and wood, its buildings cling to the side of a hill and offer. Just a small handful of families live there now (most instead inhabit a more modern village just across the dried up bed of the Ounila River), but it’s a favorite stop for tour groups and independent travelers alike, drawn by its evocative window back into the medieval past. An that vibe has also drawn the film and television industry, which has used it as a backdrop for some 18 productions over the past 60 years, from Sodom and Gemorrah to Game of Thrones. In fact, there’s a full-fledged movie studio in the pleasant nearby city of Ouarzazate (pop. 71,000) called Atlas Studios, founded in 1983 to service this industry, and we had a brief stop there to look at some of the sets (though we didn’t go into the movie museum or take the studio tour).



A couple of hours later we ascended into the Atlas Mountains, climbing a series of hairpin switchbacks in the dramatic Dadés Gorge - whose sheer rock walls soar 650 to 1600 feet high - and spent the night at the small, simple Hotel New Mars Dadés. We saw more – and walked along a stretch – of this spectacular gorge (above) as we headed out the next morning toward Merzouga. It was another long drive – some 8½ hours – but broken up by lunch; pit stops; a stop at a roadside shop where my husband and I bought heavy wool djellabahs (traditional, full-length Berber tunics) to wear in the Sahara; and most interestingly of all, the old khettara irrigation/well system near the town of Melaab. Marked by a field of mounds, these are underground channels tunneled out by the Berbers of centuries ago to tap the waters of the Atlas Mountains. Truly fascinating! We finally pulled into Merzouga at the end of the afternoon and overnighted at one of the town’s better hotels, the Ksar Bicha.




The next morning was the big day. After breakfast, we were taken on a just-over-three-hour 4x4 tour of some of the nearby desert flats, including a stop on a low ridge to hunt for fossils (the Sahara was under water millions of years ago) and a visit to a nomad camp where Hossein, his wife Mona, and adorable toddler son Omar greeted us with tea and a snack of flatbread stuffed with onions, carrots, and green peppers. Getting by traditionally by trading goats, sheep, chickens, and camels, today income from visiting tourists plays a large role in supplementing their income. This was followed by a performance by a local music/dance troupe of Gnawa, a black ethnic group originally brought to Morocco from a region called the Sahel as slaves by an early-18th-century sultan. It was a powerful performance of singing backed by drums, a three-stringed hajhuj lute, and most notably qraqab, metal hand cymbals.




Then after a fine lunch at Restaurant Chez Ibrahim, we spent an hour or so riding quads out into the dunes, where we also got to do a little sand boarding – on our butts atop a repurposed snowboard. Super fun!


After all that – ta-da! – it came time for the main event. We pulled up to a staging area where scores of hulking dromedaries (one hump, as opposed to camels, which have two) waiting to ferry tourists out to the desert camps. Our party climbed aboard (and yes, with José and I clad in our wool djeballahs), the droms rose ponderously to their feet and off we swayed for about an hour and twenty minutes, led by a pair of Berber lads. And yes, I admit at one point I played on my phone the famous main theme from Lawrence of Arabia – the area was close enough to town to yield a couple of bars of signal. Our Western sensitivities had us feeling a bit sorry for the dromedaries – especially seeing them afterward with one foot hobbled to keep them from wandering off – but these sturdy creatures were designed for this climate, and seemed well cared for (in fact, it’s totally in the locals’ interest to do so, being so critical to their livelihoods).



Finally the Merzouga Luxury Desert Camps came into view in a hollow beneath us – some 35 or so cream-colored canvas tents flanking a dining hall seating 75 to 80 visitors. The tents themselves are hardly “luxury,” despite the name – they have electricity (even bedside USB ports!), and you can upgrade to one with a private toilet and shower – but with no furniture except a decently comfortable bed dressed with a pair of heavy camelhair blankets – because that night the temperature got down to a frosty 38⁰ Fahrenheit (just over 3⁰ Centigrade).



A hearty dinner – with wine and beer, even – was followed by an evening of entertainment on the rise above the camp, where a large steel tent frame sans canvas was set up to showcase Gnawa and other traditional music. In this particular case, as it was New Year’s Eve, this was combined with a Berber-Arab-Euro-Latino dance party that had everybody up and moving – and believe me, watching turban-clad Berber guys getting jiggy to “Despacito” and Bad Bunny was something to behold. After the stroke of midnight and fireworks, we skipped the cake to fall unconscious in our tents.


The next morning, we passed on a return camel ride to head back to town in a 4x4 – a trip of just 15 minutes – and reboarded our van for the 211-mi. (339km) drive to Fez. Without stopping it takes around seven hours, but with lunch plus a couple of interesting stops (feeding peanuts to Barbary macaques in a national park and a spin around Ifan, a “hill station” and ski resort built by the French in the 1920s with some resemblance to a Swiss mountain town), it took closer to ten.

All in all, exhausting in some ways, but also totally exhilarating – truly a desert sojourn to remember forever!

With Marrakech Citylife tours, the base cost for this three-day trip was 190USD per person, including lodging and most meals.


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