Endless miles of red sand dunes etched with patterns from the wind as far as the eye can see. Silent and remote with dark skies where the milky way shines bright each night. That, at least, was my romanticized view of what we would find in the Sahara desert.
I was wrong.
The Sahara is a vast unforgiving expanse covering the northern portion of Africa through eleven different countries. It is the driest hot desert in the world. Polar deserts and the Atacama in Chile are drier, but they are classified as cold deserts.
This northern part of Africa is an extreme environment whose simoom wind (Arabic for poison wind) can cause sudden heat stroke. The superheated dry wind is laden with dust that moves like a cyclone. The sand and wind can conduct heat to the skin faster than the body can dissipate it. If one survives the simoom it is possible to die of hypothermia that evening. When the sun sets temperatures can plummet.
The Sahara desert covers Northern Africa through the countries of Morocco, Mali, Mauritania, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Chad, Niger Republic, and parts of Sudan, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso.
The Sahara desert is 9,200,000 km2 according to Wikipedia and only 8,600,000 km2 according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The actual size can compress and expand with the seasons and the passage of time.
The United States, according to the CIA World Factbook is 9,826,675 km2 ¹
Endless Miles of Red Sand Dunes?
Only 25% of the surface of the Sahara Desert is sand dunes or sand sheets. The Sahara is also home to large basins, gravel fields, plateaus with rocks strewn across them, and rough rocky mountains.²
The largest Erg (large area of sand dunes) of the Sahara is the As-Sahra al-Libiyah or the white desert. It is located in Lybia and Egypt and is difficult to access.
The Erg Chebbi in the south of Morocco near the Algerian border is easier to access. It is an eight-hour bus ride from Fes (aka Fez) Morocco to the Merzouga Oasis that sits directly beside the Erg Chebbi. This is where we hoped to find some of the magic of this famed desert.
Our apartment in Merzouga sat only 300 or 400 meters from the edge of the first dune. Early one morning we rose long before sunrise and walked into the dunes. Our goal was to climb the Grand Dune from which to watch the sunrise. It was a long slog as we struggled up the dry sand sliding back with each step. It was almost like trying to walk upriver in a strong current.
From the top of the dune we could see the edge of Erg Chebbi on both our right and left, but looking forward Erg Chebbi seemed endless. For a short while, there was silence as the sun rose. The face of the dunes glowed while casting shadows behind them. It was a beautiful sight.
An Unamusement Park
Not long after sunrise, however, the engines started. Quads and dirt bikes began their daily play in the sand. Two dirt bikes looked like mere dots from where we sat, and just as I began to wonder whether or not they were capable of climbing this steep dune, they revved their engines and approached the incline. They disappeared behind the ledge of a lower slope but the whine of their engines grew louder.
Within a few seconds, they appeared over the ledge, so much larger now, and proceeded to ride up to the top, a mere twenty feet from us. It was impressive, fun to watch, and if I’m being honest, a little annoying, that what took us the better part of an hour slogging took them under thirty seconds to cover, those little jerks.
The area is somewhat of an amusement park, but the riders were having a blast and the sunrise was still a beautiful experience.
What Goes Up May Come Rolling Down
The day before we watched as one adolescent girl tried to go up the steep edge of this dune near the bottom. She looked like she was swimming with arms flailing as she tried to reach the ridge where most were making the climb. For a good while it seemed like she was climbing in place, barely making any progress, yet tireless nonetheless. To have such infinite energy. She finally reached the ridge and began the long slog to the top. We turned away watching the sunset on the dusty horizon.
Then we heard a scream. Turning towards the big dune we saw the girl had fallen off the ridge near the top and was tumbling down the steep side. Over and over she rolled. Soon her laughter reached us and we watched her quick descent in amusement.
I’m not entirely convinced that it was an accidental fall. I would hazard to say that she chose to slide down, an urge that I myself fought hard against during my own climb. But it would have taken all the will I had to give up so much hard-earned vertical progress.
I was careful during our sunrise ascent to stay on the narrow ridge.
Every evening we took a walk out into the dunes, each time going in a different direction. It can get noisy with all the quads and bikes and many of the dunes are covered in tire tracks. We did find a few moments of solitude and vast areas where the dunes were still unspoiled. The setting sun made the red sand glow and shimmer. It reminded me of the shimmering sand in the Moon Valley of the Atacama desert. Barren, yet stunning.
We found the quietest spots by heading north of the largest dune into the desert. In the mornings we went for long treks and planned just short ones for the evening. But each evening we were drawn further into the dunes wanting to crest just the next one, then the next. Each “short” evening walk ended in a few more miles than planned and a walk back in the dark. Every step was worth it.
Contrast on our beautiful planet
The Sahara desert, the driest hot desert in the world, rests just above the Congo basin, one of the densest and largest rainforests in the world. It is separated by the Sahel.
On the other side of our planet, the Andes mountain range separates the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth outside the poles, from the Amazon basin, one of the wettest places on earth.
The local contrast is fascinating as are the similarities across the globe.
Camping in the Sahara
Riding a camel far out into the desert and camping in the dunes is the quintessential tourist thing to do. Quintessential sort of tourists we are not, yet camping in the desert fascinated me and I really wanted to experience this too.
Finding the Best Tour
Before choosing a tour we did a lot of research and read about the experiences others have had on these tours. One of the accounts I read by Allison Green on her blog Eternal Arrival convinced me to find a tour company online with an online reputation to uphold.
Many visitors take a tour from Fes or Marakesh. Since Fes is almost 500 kilometers north and Marakesh is over 550 kilometers northwest, the trips from these cities are multi-day trips. We chose to take a local bus to Merzouga instead. It was a fraction of the cost of the multi-day tour plus we could go on our own time. Whereas the tour operators would drop off visitors in Merzouga and whisk them away the very next morning, we spent a week in Merzouga so that we had time to soak up the dunes, and also spend a few days in the small towns and gorges on the way to Marrakesh. The extra days gave us time to wander.
Overnight Camping from Merzouga
It seems that all the tour companies have the same description of their desert tours.
The standard tent is shared with others and has a shared bath. Or at almost twice the price one can choose the luxury tent. The luxury tent is a private tent with your own bathroom and hot shower in the tent. The luxury option also has fewer tents within the camp for a more intimate experience. One place even offered a private tour where it would only be us and the guide with no one else around. It did sound appealing but was also four times the price with no guarantee that it would be that much different.
All of them include the camel ride out, and some of them include the option to ride the jeep back the next morning for those who are too saddle-sore. They all include dinner upon arrival and breakfast in the morning. Although for some of them, breakfast is not provided until arrival back in Merzouga.
We booked a standard tent with Viajaremos Marruecos-Day Tours. They had a ton of very positive reviews on Trip Advisor and no reports of food illness or being asked for money not originally agreed to. I contacted them online and emailed back and forth with Hamed. He was very helpful and informative. They even picked us up directly at our apartment for the tour.
My Trusty Camel, Gentle and Flatulant
Many reviews and accounts warned us of how saddle-sore they became after only 15 minutes into the camel trek. I was a bit concerned but had to try it anyway.
Mounting and dismounting a camel can be scary for first-time riders because the camel leans pretty far forward and you have to be ready for the movement. My only other experience with riding a camel was in India where the camels were taller and so the forward motion had a longer throw.
Thankfully my camel was really gentle and I found the camel ride quite enjoyable. We had moments of quiet as the thick leather pads of the camel’s feet shifted through the sand. The only sounds were the occasional belching, grunting, and farting of the camels.
Is Camel Riding “Authentic”?
Camels may have been introduced in Northern Africa as early as the 9th Century BC, but possibly not common till the 5th Century BC.³
The Songhai Empire (aka Songhay), the greatest Empire of Africa, used camels extensively for the great caravan treks across the Sahara to trade goods. Paul Cooper, the author of “The Fall of Civilizations” podcast, has done extensive research on this empire and notes that the caravans of camels took two months to cross on their trade route. By the time they returned home, the camels had traveled 4 months and needed 8 months to recover.
The camel is uniquely designed for the desert. They can survive long periods of time with no water. When they do find the water they can guzzle down gallons within minutes. They store fat in their humps like the Tasmanian devil stores fat in its tail. The fat can be used to nourish them during times of little food.
While I understand that the experience of the trading caravans and their camel treks was vastly different than our little 1.5-hour ride into the desert, it was fun nonetheless. During moments of silence, I liked to imagine what it would be like to continue for days and weeks. That’s what travel provides, just little glimpses into other lives.
Is Camel Riding Ethical?
Some have asked if it is ethical to ride camels. Camels were domesticated eons ago. If they did not earn their keep here and help provide a life source for the locals they would be left to die. Not out of cruelty, but because the locals would not have the sources of income to provide for them.
The short ride into the desert and back is just daily exercise for the camels and all of them looked quite rested and healthy. Do you take your dog for a walk? Do you ever (gasp) put a vest on him and have him carry his own water?
You decide. Is it better to drive a truck spewing fumes and noise, ride a camel, or just stay home on your couch not providing an economic stimulus for good service to those willing to work?
Starlight in the Sahara
The camping area in the Merzouga dunes is not exactly a dark skies region, at least not in our opinion. We could still see lights glowing from Merzouga and from another town north of Merzouga. If one is used to city lights then this would seem very dark. Having experienced camping in Arches National Park, USA, the Elqui Valley in Chile, and the Warrumbungle National Park, darks skies region of Australia, this paled in comparison.
Still, it was mostly dark and the cool evening breeze felt great as we sat atop a sand dune staring at the stars in the sky. The galactic bulge of the milky way was mostly below the horizon as we sat around the campfire listening to the Berber guides sing and play songs on the drums.
Merzouga is on latitude line 31N, the same line that runs just above the state of Florida and through Texas. The best time to see the Milky Way from February to October is between midnight and 5 AM. If seeing the best the Milky Way has to offer is on your agenda I suggest looking at a current year Milky Way calendar for this latitude.
The best place to see the Milky Way in the Sahara is in Tunisia.
The day before we were to head out on camels Hamad emailed me to say he had moved us from the standard tent over to the luxury camp at no extra charge. We were elated. There were only two other couples at our camp. We had what felt like a five-star dinner followed by a campfire and a really cool tent with a comfortable bed. We slept well in the quiet of the dunes.
Even the wifi was decent. Did I forget to say that the camp had wifi?
The dunes were directly behind our apartment. In front of our apartment was a rocky plain of desert-varnished rocks and the dry lake bed of Lake Dayet Srij. The most fascinating part of our walk to the lakebed was the stones. They all appear to be black when just looking out across the plane. Up close the rocks tell a different story. Some of them have tell-tale signs of volcanic activity with tiny holes left from the bubbles of superheated rock, since cooled and hardened to stone. Others had a reddish hue that when broken apart produced a red powder that can be used as a dye.
All the rocks are coated with a desert varnish that hides the gems inside. Bits of clay minerals and other elements like manganese and iron coat the rocks by the blowing of the wind. The sun bakes these elements into a varnish. Often there is an organic component to this finish but scientists have found that some varnish can be inorganic.
The most exciting rocks for me were the ones with geometric shapes. It is rare but fossilized stromatolites have been found here in the Sahara.
Dry wadis, riverbeds that have water only when there’s heavy rain, give evidence of water flow that cuts through the desert floor occasionally even in this dry place. In 2006 the town of Merzouga was devastated by flash floods. In dry places such as this, the ground is not used to soaking up the rain. Instead, the water flows to the lowest point and quickly gains speed.
Rain can also be a fun treat when it doesn’t bring a flood. Our Berber guide said that one of his favorite things to do as a child was to slide down the dunes when it rains. He said they could go super fast.
Was it worth it?
The morning we left Merzouga, the Oasis in the desert, we stood in the shade of the bus station with a nice cool morning breeze. I came here with a romanticized view of what we would experience. It didn’t turn out as I expected but I fell in love with what it is. We learned a lot and are leaving with a special place in our hearts for this beautiful desert.
¹“United States”. The World Factbook. CIA. September 30, 2009. Retrieved January 5, 2010.
³Camel Caravan in World History https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1344/the-camel-caravans-of-the-ancient-sahara/