Morocco’s gateway to the Sahara Desert
The legend goes something like this: A well-off family denied support to an underprivileged woman and her son, which left God deeply upset. So he buried them under the dunefields of Erg Chebbi. This majestic rose-gold wealth of sand is now better known as one of Morocco’s two dream desert destinations. Its accessibility and nearby infrastructure compared to the wilder alternative down South is catering to ever-increasing numbers of visitors, with peak seasons being almost unbearably busy. Some 80 or so camps are now scattered throughout this perfectly sculpted sea of sand. Don’t worry though! Your sandy dream of sleeping under the stars in the almighty, perfectly still, and oh-so serene Sahara is still very much possible. With a little bit of planning, a reasonable budget and a read of what’s below, you will soon be blending in with the extraordinarily scenic Sahara. Let’s get into it!
To best experience Morocco’s gateway to the Sahara, stay for two nights. Choose your camp wisely. The smaller, the better. If your French needs some polishing, an English guide will avoid being lost in translation. Contrasting to the beliefs of many, the great sand’s eco-system is extremely vulnerable, so an eco-friendly campground is a must. I personally chose to go with Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The ex-nomad and British born husband-and-wife team’s combined knowledge of the desert and hospitality make for a world-class experience. Whether you book your desert adventure from Marrakesh or directly at the adjacent village of Merzouga, be sure to ask how far out the camp is (as a point of reference, Ali & Sara’s is 8km from the main road) and how many people it accommodates.
If you’re traveling on a tight budget, I recommend to make your own way to Merzouga by bus (see below) and stay in one of the many great campsites on the edge of Erg Chebbi. Taking a tour from Marrakesh or Fes can easily feel rushed and uneconomical.
Sunset Camel Ride Dromedary-riding is not everyone’s cup the tea, but well worth a try! Watch the mountains of sand change colour as the sun slowly disappears. Truly breathtaking!
Visit a Nomad Family The lives of Morocco’s Berbers, the country’s proud indigenous people, are fascinating, colourful, and greatly intriguing. Let your guide take you to a Nomad family across the dunes to truly understand their hardship, sense of hospitality, and unique way of life.
Go Sandboarding Hotfoot it along the dunes and work up a sweat as you sandboard your way down the 160m high Saharan alps. There is only one problem. You’ll have to walk up. 2 steps forward, 1 steps back will be your motto.
Khamlia Village Let the indigenous Gnawa music transport you to another world. A world in which Saharan Caravans heading for Timbuktu nearly reached their end destination, exchanging ivory for salt. A world in which money made no sense, yet slavery did. A world with so many complexities it’s hard to grasp, yet its music will give you a good introduction.
Bliss out at the yearly Sahara Yoga Retreat Join 25 fellow wanderers for a week of music, meditation, dance, and yoga under the desert sky (€395 all-incl.). Sadly, the next one won’t be until March 2017.
Most camps and hotels are fully inclusive and happy to cater to your dietary requirements. Just inform them a few days in advance.
Merzouga’s main strip is also home to a handful of grocery stalls bursting with fresh produce and snacks.
Make friends with the local dromedaries, saddle up and you’re good to go.
Renting a car and making your own way from Marrakesh or Fes to Merzouga is your best option, allowing you to take a break at the jaw-dropping Dades Valley, for instance. An overnight bus (operated by Supratours) is also convenient. Book online and expect to pay 170DH for a 10h ride to/from Fes or around 250DH for a 12h ride to/from Marrakesh.
Destinations of interest in the surrounding regions include Demnat, the Draa Valley, the Dades Valley, the High Atlas Meknes (on the way to Fes), Figuig (kasbah-littered oasis), and Ourzazate/Skoura (delightful palmeries). Visual diaries to most of said places will be linked here over the next couple of days.
When to Go
Erg Chebbi’s ethereal beauty comes to full effect when visitor numbers are at their lowest and temperatures are mild enough to climb up the grand dunes. November to April is ideal. Many hotels and campsites close over summer. Understandably so, considering temperatures can rise to 55°C (131°F) in July and August.
What to Pack
Bring moisturisers and chapsticks en masse to keep your skin from drying out (I use this and love it), long loose clothing, sunscreen, and some warm layers to keep you cosy at night. A set of cards and some sort of musical talent to join in at the nightly jam sessions by the bonfire would be an added bonus helping you make Berber friends in no time. Your camp will likely provide you with a pashmina scarf, which will not only keep the sand off your face, but it will also give you a better chance at respecting local customs.
If you have more time on your hands and are craving a bona-fide authentic desert adventure, head for the remote Erg Chigaga instead. Organise a tour or rent a 4×4 drive and head all the way south to M’hamid. Its yellow-gold dunes are more removed from the beaten track and possibly even more spectacular than Erg Chebbi (or so I was told). As a bonus, you will be passing through the pink-hued Draa Valley.
Get inspired and view my complete Saharan visual diary here.