An overnight trek into the Sahara Desert - an experience of a lifetime
It was quiet, almost eerily quiet. I felt very much at peace as I gazed at the shadows, of my daughter, Erin, and I, as we rode a top the dromedaries across the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert in front of a setting sun. I can’t remember the last time I felt alone in my thoughts – no horns blaring, no people trying to talk above the next person, no dogs barking. Our guide, Mohammed, brought the one-hump camels to a stop so we could sit, gaze at the setting sun and take some once-in-a-lifetime photos.
It was early July and a fairly hot time of year to visit Morocco – let alone be heading to the town of Merzouga for a camel ride into the Sahara Desert. Although, I do think we were fortunate weather-wise. It was nowhere near as hot as it could have been for this time of year. Those were the comments echoed by Youssef our tour guide (and owner of Rough Tours). My daughter and I were pretty excited as we rode in the back of the Rough Tours SUV on the second of a four-day tour from Marrakech to Fes. It was a little after five in the afternoon when we pulled into the parking area of our guesthouse. Located right on the dunes of the Sahara, it was definitely a one star location; however, it didn’t matter. We weren’t sleeping there. We would rest with a small glass of hot Moroccan tea (with mint) and wait for a group of three ladies from Canada to join us before climbing aboard our dromedaries (a one-hump camel) and heading to the camp about an hour and a half into the desert where we would eat dinner and bed down for the night. In the morning, we would return and have breakfast and use the shower facilities, at the guesthouse, to bring ourselves back to life. The guesthouse owners provided the dromedaries, guides and desert camp.
It was still pretty hot when we arrived at the guesthouse. There’s no air conditioning in the rooms. We were provided a guestroom (and key which we could keep with us), where we would leave our personal belongings except for those things that we needed/wanted for the overnight trip. I changed into long pants, suggested for the camel ride, and left my short sleeve shirt on - this time of year, nothing long-sleeve was needed.
Shortly before heading out, one of the guides wrapped a desert scarf around my head leaving it loose around my neck so I could pull it over my nose and mouth should the wind pick up. It was a beautiful evening as we climbed aboard the dromedaries. It was about half past six. The air was still. There was no wind. It was an incredible evening for a trek into the desert.
As the dromedaries were seated on the ground, it was pretty easy to board as I swung one leg over the back end and positioned myself a top the saddle, which was secured to its midsection. Having never ridden a camel previously, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was easier than I thought. I just kept thinking balance, balance, balance – especially as it stood up in a multi-step fashion. I learned that leaning back, as it leaned forward, and holding on was really important to my health and that of the dromedary.
There were two camel guides for the five of us. Mohammed was our guide. He seemed to know the right English words at the right times – such as lean back and hold on as we crested the top of a dune and proceeded down the other side. He was our guide, our photographer, our chef and just a very enjoyable person for a stroll into the desert. He walked ahead holding onto a rope that was linked, first to Erin’s dromedary and then to mine. The three Canadian women had a similar set-up with their guide.
Mohammed seemed to know this area like the back of his hand. He guided us across the sand with the least amount of up and down motion. Occasionally, he led us along the top of a sand dune and then just over the other side saying loudly “lean back and hold on”. The one thing that I noticed was how quiet it was in the desert. There were none of the normal annoyances of everyday life. It provided such a peaceful feeling. There were things to watch; however, nothing to listen to. It was surreal.
About halfway through the ride, Mohammed brought us to a stop, where from a top our dromedaries, we watched as the sun set just above the Sahara Desert – an almost mesmerizing view. I was trying to take it all in and absorb everything knowing it would last but a few moments. I thought briefly of the scene between Gene Hackman and Denzell Washington as they gazed at the sunset, in Crimson Tide, in silence. We snapped some photos before Mohammed took our camera and displayed his photography skills shooting from different angles. You could tell he’s done this a few times before.
The sun was down and we moved on. Shortly, we stopped. I thought we had arrived at our camp. Mohammed instructed my daughter’s dromedary to sit down so he could reach into the food bag for some dates. Being Ramadan, he hadn’t eaten or drank anything all day. Now that the sun had set, he could get some nourishment before we moved on. As my daughter was off her dromedary by this time, I was thinking what’s mine going to do – so I decided to hang on in case Murphy’s Law popped up. Sure enough, without warning, mine decided to sit down also. Luckily, I was prepared for it.
It was fairly dark by the time we arrived at our very basic camp. There were a couple of large sleeping tents, a kitchen tent and a toilet tent – in a small valley with sand dunes rising all around us. Since it was Ramadan, the guides ate while cooking the five of us an incredible meal – a rice dish with tomatoes, coriander (cilantro) and herbs, a chicken tagine with potatoes and vegetables and some tasty fruit. There was more than enough for the five of us. The camp cats were very interested as we worked our way through the meal. The giant beetles that crawled across the sand, left us alone for the most part.
As the five of us were chatting after dinner getting to know a little about each other’s backgrounds, the guides, along with a few other locals who had recently arrived, sat down with their different types of drums, and decided to play, chant and sing some African songs as we clapped and danced around in the sand. Next, it was our turn to bang away on the drums. What a fun evening – all in the coolness of the desert air under a myriad of stars.
Just before heading to our tents (which had mattresses, sheets and blankets to sleep on) for the night, the wind started to whip up. It would continue to blow throughout the night. Laying in my bed, I could hear the sides and roof of the tent being battered about. Still, it wasn’t hard to drop off to sleep.
Seemingly minutes later, it was 5 am and the guides were waking us. We had about 15 minutes before the sun would rise. As we exited the tent, we were hit by a blast of sand that was skimming across the dunes. Mohammed put the desert scarf on each of us – this time leaving just a small slit for our eyes. The scarf works well during a sandstorm. It helped protect our face and yet was very easy to breathe and move around in.
Sunrise was a different experience than the calm and wind-free sunset we enjoyed the evening before. We climbed to the top of the nearby dune to get a good view. The five of us were sitting and chatting while we struggled to get a picture with the sand beating against us as we gazed eastward. It was incredible to see the sun rise out of a plethora of sand dunes.
This would be a different ride than the one coming into camp. With the wind blowing sand across the desert surface, it was easy to understand how the landscape here is constantly changing. Again, Mohammed walked and led the way guiding Erin’s and then my dromedary. It was amazing to see the alternating sunlight and shadows across each of the desert’s dunes. One of the little things I enjoyed the most was watching our shadows off to the side as Mohammed led us across the sand.
In a little over an hour, we were back at the guesthouse. The guides said the return takes less time because it’s downhill and the camels have a little more of a step sensing they’re heading home. After a continental breakfast and a hot shower, we were feeling refreshed and ready to get on the road for day three of our four-day adventure.
Thanks to Youssef and Mohammed of Rough Tours for an incredible experience. Erin and I really enjoyed our time with them. If you’re interested in this type of experience when traveling to Morocco, you can contact Youssef Boughrara at Rough Tours where you will find a sampling of their tours or they can even customize one to your liking.