Imagine riding a camel across the sands of the Sahara and spending a night in a Berber camp, sleeping outside under the stars if you wish. Berber guides will take care of everything and serve you a delicious meal in the dunes. They may even provide music for an impromptu hafla, party, with drums and singing. One of the easiest and most popular areas to do this in Morocco is around the desert town of Merzouga.
The Sahara is the largest desert on Earth, and it stretches all the way across north Africa from Morocco to Egypt, covering many countries. When many people think of deserts, they think only of sand dunes, but deserts are more than just dunes. Some areas are made up of dust, gravel stones, rocks,and mountains, with dry river beds in valleys, wadis. The one thing deserts don’t have is much rainfall or surface water. However,there are wells to access water under the surface. When the land does get water, it is often quite fertile, growing palms and other plants in the consistent sunshine.
A hotel on the edge of the Sahara, where you can cool off by the pool or relax with a cool drink
Stay in a Desert Hotel Right on the Edge of the Dunes
Close to Merzouga, there are a number of wonderful hotels built with Berber style and features right on the edge of the desert. Most are made with local materials of sodwalls and ceramic flooring for an earthy regional feel, decorated with locally woven mats and wall hangings, such as would have graced traditional hair tents. These hotels have fabulous views over the desert, and you can literally step out of the hotel and walk up the stunning sand dunes.
All You Need is a Sense of Adventure
When you book to spend a night in a desert camp, your camel will come to collect you directly from your hotel doorstep.The overnight safari usually starts in the early evening to get you to camp before sundown.
Before you leave, buy a long Berber style scarf and get one of the hotel staff or guides to tie it for you in a traditional way. The longer the scarf, the more exotic looking the result. The scarves act as sun shades, air conditioning units to keep your head cool, as well as offering protection from sand that blows up with the wind. You might even like to buy a long overshirt called a gandoura and loose fitting pants. On that note, wear loose fitting or stretch pants to make it easier to mount your camel.
Heading off into the desert on a camel caravan to spend a night under the stars
The guides know all about camels and sand and about keeping you safe, so just follow any instructions they give you. However, don’t expect long explanations or in-depth conversations, as desert people are usually very quiet people, especially with strangers.
Camels are wonderful animals, usually kind and friendly despite reports to the contrary, and they love to have their necks scratched or gently touched. They even sit down so you can climb into their saddle, which is fortuitous, because they are really tall when standing! You will be assigned a camel by your Berber guide, and he will help you load up your overnight bag and help you climb on board. There is a T-bar at the front for you to hold onto if you don’t feel confident when in the saddle.
Camels can feel strange when they stand up. First their back legs, then their front legs go up, so you have to lean back and then forward as they zig zag up. The trick to camel riding is to let your hips follow the long steps of the camel, yet keep your upper body as still as possible.
Enjoy a delicious meal in the desert camp, expertly prepared by your Berber guides
They are all tied together in a caravan line,so you are free to take photos.The long shadows in the evening make for great photos, so snap away as you ride or just enjoy the view.The Berber guide will usually offer to stop and take group photos for you as well. The ride can take anywhere from 1-2 hours, depending on the distance of the camp, as there are many different ones.
Sleep Under the Stars
Sleeping arrangements vary with each camp, but nowadays there are usually “rooms” set up with tents of woven fabrics and rigid frames. Some have normal beds, while others have mattresses on the floor. A personal sleeping bag liner can be useful as well.They supply a lot of soft blankets so you never get cold, although you may be surprised at how very low the temperature drops overnight.
My favorite thing is to take a mattress out of camp a little way and sleep on a mattress directly on the sand. I prefer when there is no moon in the evening, as then I get to lie under the stars. If there are no clouds, the stars are so bright it feels like you can literally reach up and touch them.
The Berber guides will prepare a wonderful meal for you at the camp, often a couscous with meat or vegetables or a tagine of vegetables and slowly cooked meat, such as chicken or lamb. Tagines are a North African method of cooking in large heavy ceramic dishes with mountain-peak shaped lids cooked over charcoal fires. The food is tender, tasty, and delicious, and never more so than when eaten in the open air of the desert.
It’s also fun to wake before sunrise and climb a high dune. It can be quite hard work in the shifting sand, but the effort is worth it when you get to the top and watch the sun come up. If you are energetic enough, the dunes can be fun to leap off and do somersaults, sliding in the sand.
Breakfast is usually back at the hotel, so your camels wait patiently for you overnight, chewing their cud, and ready to carry you back. Camels are precious animals to the Berber, and it is true that camels were traded for marriages. If you would like to try camel milk, there are a couple of places offering it if you explore around Merzouga. It is reputed to be very good for your health.
Enjoy the Pigeon du Sable Gnawa music troupe as the entertain with their traditional dance and music
If camel riding is not your style, you can also go for quad bike rides around the dunes, but these tend to stay on the edge of the desert and while fun, don’t allow you to feel the true power of the quiet desert. The desert is popular for 4WD drivers and motorcyclists to pit themselves against the steep sand dunes in races. Exciting for sure, but not a traditional desert experience. Last time I was there, I also saw a broken down 4WD vehicle from a driver who was obviously overwhelmed by the desert. It had rolled over, resulting in broken windows and damaged panels, although luckily no one was injured.
Pigeons du Sable,Gnawa Music Troupe
Other fun things you can do around Merzouga include visiting the Gnawa music group in Khamlia village. The group represents a sad time in history from when their ancestors were stolen further south in Africa and sold as slaves. Slavery is, of course, long gone in Morocco; however, the Gnawa people remember their ancestors by playing a special style of music that has African, religious, and spiritual roots.Throughout the day,various group members perform music and dance for visitors. You can learn a few dance steps and try a few rhythms on their drums and large metal hand cymbals.
A beautiful fossil revealed in the rock to be used a table top
The Desert was a Seabed
The desert area is also famous for fossils,and there are a number of museums and workshops in the nearby town of Erfoud where you can see prehistoric fossils and also large collections of local minerals from the area. It is hard to believe such a dry desert was actually a sea floor millions of years ago. Skilled workmen spend hours removing some of the prehistoric creatures from their rocky coffins for display and for sale. Ammonites, orthoceras, crinoids, and trilobites are especially common, but there are other larger specimens to be found as well. Some of the larger rocks are made into tabletops, hand basins, and free-standing interior design features.
Memories of the Desert
Even if you only spend a couple of nights in Merzouga, the desert will leave an indelible impression on your brain. The vast expanse of dunes, the dry clear air, brilliant light, long shadows, and the shifting sands remain exotic and mysterious even after numerous visits, in my case anyway. The desert may draw you back, but you have to leave to return, so pack your bags and head west to other beautiful Berber landscapes, the High Atlas and Marrakech, or north through the Mid Atlas to Ifrane and Fez. Morocco has many more treasures to show you.