Growing up in Maine where pine trees are abundant and the sweet smell of the ocean wafts through the windows at night, the concept of a desert is completely foreign. Although Maine does have a tiny little desert in Freeport, the closest desert is found thousands of miles away. What I know of deserts comes from Disney movies and National Geographic Magazines, and we are aware how accurate Disney is…
One of the main reasons I was drawn to Morocco, besides the chaos, the culture, and the architecture, was the Sahara Desert. There is just something foreign and romantic about the desert. From the miles of sand to the nomadic tribes to the herds of camels, the Sahara Desert is one of those places that you have to visit at least once in your lifetime.
During my Adventure Morocco Tour with Travel Talk Tours, we spent three days and two nights in the Sahara Desert, and it was pretty epic. I’m already counting down the days when I can visit the Sahara again. Perhaps in Egypt this time as the Sahara Desert covers over 3.6 million square miles from the coast of Morocco to the shores of Egypt and Sudan.
Life in the Sahara is not easy, but it is home to an estimated 2-4 million people. Many people have permanent homes near water sources, but there are still thousands of people who live the nomadic life and travel the ancient trade routes or move seasonally. Most have Berber or Arabic roots.
As soon as we crossed the snowy Atlas Mountains, the landscape quickly changed and the famed desert landscape slowly started to appear in front of our eyes. For hours we stared at nothing but long stretches of dirt. I was surprised to learn that the Sahara is not one giant sand dune. Thanks, Disney!
The Sahara Desert has varied landscapes. While the Sahara certainly has sand dunes, it is primarily characterized as a rocky hamada, a type of desert that is comprised mainly of barren, hard, rocky plateaus. Large, up to 590 feet tall, moving sand dunes are spotted throughout the rocky hamada across the Sahara. Most of the desert has very limited vegetation, but it’s not uncommon to see sparse desert grasses and shrubs near the Southern and Northern reaches.
We spent our first night at a desert camp near Zagora, a small desert village located in the Draa River Valley in southeastern Morocco. Due to the high winds, we weren’t able to eat our picnic lunch in the middle of the oasis, so we ate at one of the local hotels before purchasing our turbans for the desert. Moroccans certainly know how to put on a feast!
Our camp was about an hour outside of town, which required 4x4s to reach as the roads were dirt and extremely rough and bumpy. As soon as we hit the sand, our driver decided it was time to drive like a maniac. We drove up the sides of the high dunes and over the top of others. A few times we even caught air, which caused my poor little motion sickness-prone stomach to turn.
After 15 minutes of dune bashing, we reached the tallest dune in the area. Our driver stopped and set us free to frolic about the soft, brown sand. We quickly kicked off our shoes and ran up the nearest dune. We barely reached half way before we stopped panting heavily. I forgot how hard it is to run in loose sand.
From high above we could see for miles. It was nothing but sand dunes and rocky hamada. If we squinted enough, we could make out the outline of camels and our camp in the far off distance. Despite our giggles and squeals of delight, the desert around us was quiet and peaceful. The chaos of Marrakech was left behind without a second glance.
Our camp was colorful and larger than I expected. About 12 tents were arranged in a circle with the dining tent at the head. We were met with a friendly smile and a cup of Moroccan mint tea and cookies. After setting our bags in our tents, we explored the dunes around our campsite in search for firewood and desert wildlife. We saw nothing but dune beetles and camel poo.
As soon as the sun set behind the last dune, we gathered in the dining tent for yet another traditional Moroccan feast. Plates of rice, chicken, and vegetables piled high were set before our hungry eyes. Once our tummies were aching in pain from eating too much, it was time for the fire. Our wonderful hosts played traditional Berber music into the wee morning hours as my travel companions, and I saw huddled together for warmth and wine.
Our second camp was located in M’Hamid, the last town before the Sahara turns into shepherds and camel trains. Our camp was very similar to the first, but we were told that it had a hot water shower, something our first camp did not. Unfortunately, the showers were not hot.
The tents were roomy with several twin beds topped with loads of blankets. During the winter months, the temperatures can drop below freezing at night. The extra blankets came in handy both nights in the desert. A single light bulb hung from the ceilings giving off a tiny glow of light when you needed it. Due to its remote location, power and light were only available during the evening hours. If you are looking for the Four Seasons, you will not find it in the Sahara Desert.
After a quiet night, we woke up early for our camel rides. As soon as the sun rose high in the sky, the temperatures began to climb. I couldn’t imagine being in the desert in the middle of the summer when the temperatures reach well over 100 degrees!
For two hours we rode camels through the surrounding sand dunes. The initial excitement wore off after the first 10 minutes when our bums became sore from the slow amble of our giant desert steeds. Riding a camel in the Sahara Desert is one of those must-do items, but I think once is enough for me.
I loved the solitude and simple life of the Moroccan Sahara Desert. It was nice to unplug for a few days and enjoy the nature and the alien landscape around me. The people are friendly, and the hospitality is unbelievably incredible. The camp workers were kind and always smiling. They were just as interested in learning about as we are them. If you’re heading to Morocco anytime soon (well, maybe not the summer!), make sure you spend a few days in the desert.