The most iconic desert in the world is the Sahara. I drove for days, rode a camel for hours, and slept under the stars just to see it.
- Stretching from Egypt to Morocco, the Sahara Desert is the largest hot desert in the world, comparable in size to the continental US.
- While there are many ways to visit the Sahara, possibly the most iconic way is to visit Erg Chebbi, one of Morocco's many ergs, or seas of sand dunes. Erg Chebbi is often used for films because of its stunning expanse of iconic fire-orange sand dunes.
- To reach Erg Chebbi, one has to drive for two days from Marrakech through mountains and desert, before switching to a camel for the final stretch.
- I recently visited and, while the sunset and sunrise were unforgettable, the dunes were far from the immaculate waves you see in photos, thanks to the hundreds of ATVs and 4X4s that ride through.
Growing up, my first ambition was to be an archaeologist. No one told me at the time that the job had little to do with what happens in "Indiana Jones," but you try telling that to a precocious seven-year-old.To kid-me, being an archaeologist meant emerging from the whorls of a sandstorm with a scarf wrapped around my face as I rode a camel through the golden-orange dunes of the Sahara Desert, the largest hot desert in the world.Advertisement
Lacking the patience to dust pottery shards in the sweltering heat, I've long since outgrown my archaeological dreams. But that image of the Sahara - gentle waves of pristine sand, like a golden snowfall - has stuck with me.
I'm sure the word Sahara conjures a similar image for you too, thanks to hundreds of movies, books, and photos. But the reality is that there all different parts of Sahara, from the rocky black desert in western Egypt to an immense salt lake in Tunisia.But the one place that is definitely the Sahara of your dreams lies at Erg Chebbi, one of Morocco's many ergs, or seas of sand dunes. Lying on the edge of the Sahara, Erg Chebbi is often used for films because of its stunning expanse of iconic fire-orange sand dunes.
About a two-day drive from Marrakech, Erg Chebbi feels like the start of many an adventure. On a recent trip to Morocco, I decided to take a road trip to see it.Here's what it was like:
My schlep to the Sahara started at dawn from Marrakech. We piled into an SUV and spent the day driving through the Atlas Mountains, the mud-red ksar of Aït Benhaddou, and past Ouarzazate, often called "the door of the desert.
I spent the night near the Dadès Gorge, a rugged gorge carved by the Dadès River. My riad, or traditional Moroccan house, was situated in this red sandstone valley in a Berber village. The frigid mountain air was a shock to the senses.Advertisement
The following day required many more hours of driving to reach Merzouga, a small town at the edge of the erg. There's not much to see there besides small, windblown hotels and the mud-earth homes of Berbers who once lived as nomads in the erg and the mountains.
I had booked a tour through Mouhou Tours, a family-run Moroccan tour company operated by Aziz Mouhou, a member of the Ait Khebbach tribe. Mouhou grew up just a few miles from the erg.Advertisement
Our tour required us to travel by camel to the Mouhou camp deep into the Chebbi dunes. I mounted a friendly camel that I named Humpty.
As we started to ride to the camp, I got a taste of what our camel handler called "the camel massage."Advertisement
The late afternoon sun was casting dark silhouettes of our camel caravan against the richly colored sand. One thing no one ever mentions about riding a camel: camel farts are the worst. I'm talking rancid, rotten egg farts. Sorry, just speaking the truth.
But riding the camel is surprisingly comfortable, or at least it was in my case. Mohou packs layers and layers of blankets on top of the camels' humps to make a cushioned saddle.Advertisement
The views of Erg Chebbi start slowly as we approached the edge of the sand sea. There were tons of tracks from 4x4s heading into the dunes to provide supplies to the various camps where tourists stay.
At first, I thought that white material in the shade of the dune was frost. The desert gets notoriously cold at night, particularly because I visited in January. On closer inspection, I saw that it was white rocks.Advertisement
You can spot the hoof and paw marks of the camels and wild animals like jerboa, desert hedgehogs and fennec. Not that you'll actually be able to spot the critters.
As the camels trod onward, I couldn't stop taking photos. In each direction was a new view of the gentle rolling hills of sand.Advertisement
Moroccan legend maintains that the Erg Chebbi dunes were sent as a punishment from God for failing to provide a tired traveller hospitality from the Sahara. They say it's now a reminder that one always has to provide hospitality. You can see why. There's little visible life besides scrub grasses.
Unfortunately, when I visited, the dunes were far from immaculate. The dunes were covered with the tracks 4x4 trucks and ATVs zipping around on desert excursions. I could hear them as I rode. It messes with the solitude one expects to feel in the desert, but I couldn't help but think, "Man, that looks fun," as one drove by.Advertisement
My drive, Eder, had warned me on the way to the dunes not to expect them to be smooth and perfect. It had been many months since a sandstorm, the usual way the dunes get "cleaned," he said.
Our camel handler was deft with a camera though. Note he's wearing a djellaba, a traditional Berber robe with a pointed hood at the top that protects the face from the sun and sand. It looked very comfortable.Advertisement
Camels are notoriously testy creatures. They may look cute and cuddly, but as our handler reminded us, "It's camel mating season." Our pack of camels was getting chippy with each other to the point where the handler had to tie up my camel's mouth. Bad Humpty.
The dunes in Erg Chebbi are the biggest in Morocco. They rise as high as 400 feet tall and make for an imposing and beautiful sight.Advertisement
The camel ride stretches on for an hour or more. It may not sound like a long time, but when you're crawling past the dunes, bumping up and down, it feels like it. I can't imagine the weeks or months-long journeys people used to take to cross the Sahara.
Traders famously had to pass through Erg Chebbi to bring goods from subsaharan Africa to Morocco and, later, to Europe. Salt, gold, and slaves all passed along the route, which typically ended in Timbuktu, Mali.Advertisement
Amazingly, Erg Chebbi was hardly the hardest part of the trip. The desert surrounding Erg Chebbi is some of the flattest and barest land in the world. There is little respite from the elements.
While the downside of visiting in January was the many months since the last sandstorm — and thus all the tracks — the upside was the weather. During the day, the air was cool and breezy. Sandstorms start in the warmer months and, by summertime, the weather is brutally hot.Advertisement
There were still a few smooth, mostly untouched dunes in Erg Chebbi. The dunes are frequently filmed in movies to represent the Sahara, including 1999 action film "The Mummy" and 2005 adventure movie "Sahara," among others.
As we approached camp, the sun was dipping behind the highest dunes, making the already burnt-orange sand even more golden.Advertisement
We dismounted our camels ...
... and the handler put them in the camel "parking lot," i.e. a little dip in the dunes where they'd be shielded from the wind for the night. Before you get any designs about eating camel on your trip, one Berber I spoke to said eating camel is a very rare occurrence reserved for desperate times or when a camel breaks a leg. "It's very sad, like eating a member of the family," he said.Advertisement
The sunset was a sight to behold.
The sky was lit up in deep purples, oranges, and yellows, which were cast onto the dunes.Advertisement
If you look to the horizon line, you can see the Moroccan border with Algeria, marked by the mountain range lit up in the distance in purple.
Our camp was a circle of sturdy tents layered with thickly woven and embroidered cloths and rugs lashed to wooden poles and fixed with a sheet metal door. Inside were beds stacked high with thick blankets. I had been expecting to be laid up in a sleeping bag.Advertisement
I wandered up and down the dunes for a bit before the dunes became cast in a deep shadow from the setting sun. It's exhausting exercise as you slip, slide, and sink into the dunes no matter whether you are climbing up or down.
Dinner was a Moroccan salad of chopped veggies and a big homestyle chicken, lemon, and squash tagine, or stew cooked in a cone-shaped earthenware pot.Advertisement
After dinner, the Mouhou family started up a big bonfire in the center of the camp for everyone sit around. Aziz told the group, myself, an American couple, and a Danish-Afghani couple that the fire is how he and other Berbers "travel." "Most of us will never leave Morocco, but every night around the fire we travel with other travelers — to America, to China, to Denmark," he said. He encouraged us to ask questions and share our stories with them.
The Berbers brought out many drums of different sizes made from wood or ceramics and goat skin and garagb (metal castanets). They sang many songs which they said were specific to the Ait Khebbach tribe. Afterwards, they handed us the drums and said to sing an English song. After much deliberation, we settled on The Beatles "Hey Jude."Advertisement
When the fire burned out, we began to look up at the stars. It was a clear night with a new moon so the sky was filled with glittering starlight. I spotted a few shooting stars and one of the Berbers pointed out Jupiter. My astrophotography clearly still needs some work.
I slept barricaded under three or four blankets. I was warm, but the air around me was frigid. I woke before sunrise easily. The camels were already awake.Advertisement
The light at sunrise was even more spectacular than the sunset the night before. Everything was evenly lit with rosy reds and orange.
There was a deep stillness in this moment.Advertisement
After the sun crested over the horizon, it blanketed the dunes in this gorgeous orange light. But I'll be honest, as soon as I got this photo, I ran back inside my tent for breakfast. It's a bitter cold that gets to your bones.
After breakfast, it was time to head back across the dunes to our driver. I was wishing I had another day to laze around or ride ATVs across the dunes, tracks be damned.Advertisement
If I had to find my own way back, I would have been desperately lost. Every dune looks more or less the same. I imagine it is even more like that after a sandstorm.
If I didn't mind walking directly through the dunes, I could just walk directly west. Though the erg is 17 miles long, it is only a few miles wide.Advertisement
The guide seemed to know the exact path to take back despite the lack of any distinguishable markings. I suppose if I had to ferry tourists back and forth everyday, I'd know too.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of visiting the desert wasn't the desert itself, but the Berbers I met who once lived in the Erg. As one told me, "The nomad life is a harsh, difficult, but happy life." They told me that as children their families were nomads, but they had settled before they were teenagers.Advertisement
By the time we reached Merzouga again, I was ready to be off the camel. Riding on a hump gets old after a while. But the slow walk through the vast desert waves was worth every bump from the "camel massage."
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