I awoke to the sound of deep, heavy grunting, akin to what in my mind could only possibly have been a dragon. I pulled aside the curtain to the tent, made my first steps onto the soft sand, and gazed around me. No dragon, just a camel.
The heat radiated from the ground, making the sand dunes that appeared in the distance look like a fuzzy mirage. It was before sunrise, but the sun had already cast its glow across the sand as if it had been flying high for hours already. Where am I, again? Then it hit me. Oh, that’s right, I’m in Morocco. I’m in the Sahara Desert.
The entire experience felt like one of those surreal dreams in which you’re not sure if you were dreaming or if it was real life. After driving for 9 hours from Fes through part of the Atlas Mountains, finally we were descending upon the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert. They stood before me as colossal and grandiose as I had imagined. I almost pinched myself to check that was actually awake.
It all started in Fes with my alarm scaring me awake at 5:45 in the morning. I’d packed my backpack the night before and was ready for the long car ride ahead on the Sahara Desert tour that my hostel in Fes was offering. My dear friend and travel partner throughout Morocco, Emily, and I piled into the van with four other hostel companions and set off just as the sun was shining its fiery red face over Fes, the city which I devoured street food as if my life depended on it.
After stopping for a delicious breakfast of various breads with butter, honey and cheese, we made a few notable pit stops as a start to our Sahara Desert tour. Due to the language barrier with our driver, sometimes I had no idea where we even were but he sure knew where the most beautiful spots to stop were.
The one place where I knew for sure we stopped on the way to the Sahara was Vallee de Ziz (Ziz Valley) an oasis along the Ziz River. Seeing an oasis was a first for me. There were only arid hills behind me, but in front of me was a valley full of lush green grass and date trees along banks of the valley as far as the eye could see.
Small buildings peppered the banks of the valley and left me imagining what kind of life it must be to live in an oasis. I think I would have spent all my time lying in the grass among the date trees if I lived there. I almost wanted to stay there and do just that, but the Sahara was calling my name from afar.
We followed the valley until it ended. Soon enough, we were switching vehicles into a Jeep in Rissani and driving to the hotel in which we’d drop off our bags in Merzouga, a small village bordering the Erg Chebbi, the sand dunes of the Sahara.
I was overly excited to ride the camel through the Erg Chebbi’s sea of sand dunes to our camp. I’d never ridden a camel before, refused to ride elephants in Thailand, and my only experience riding a horse was on fairgrounds when I was a child (even still, I’m not sure if my memories are of me watching someone else do it or if I actually rode a horse). So basically I had no idea what I was in for.
The novelty of the camel ride wore off, really quickly. It was actually a grueling ride to the camp and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The one thing that camel rides have in common with airplane rides (which I’m actually afraid of) was that the ascent and descent were the scariest. Once on the camel, it leaned forward to stand up, and for me to dismount, it had to lean forward again. I thought I was going to flip over the front of it! My uncoordinated self seemed to be having a harder time staying on the camel than everyone else in my caravan. Some of my tour friends were having a ball.
Me? I struggled with keeping my body from flailing all over the place while on the camel ride. I tried to think of it as a spinning class and kept my core tight, but still, I was hurting. I could only imagine how the poor camels were feeling as they trudged through the sand, and I couldn’t help but feel pangs of guilt as a held on tighter to the saddle to maintain my balance.
I was ready to get to the campsite ASAP, but we stopped first to climb the dunes to watch the sunset. Climbing the sane dunes was no easy feat, either. My lack of coordination was tested once again because the soft sand was hard to scale. I was huffing and puffing by the time I made it to the top (or as far as I was willing to trudge) and stopped to take in the view.
I watched as the sun hid behind the closest sand dunes and eventually disappeared, leaving the sky striped blue, yellow, and finally orange as the sky met the sand dunes in the foreground of my vision.
The campsite consisted of a few tour groups converged into one. We ate tajine and listened to our Berber (indigenous people of Morocco) guides as they played the drums and sang traditional songs around a fireplace. While the days are hot in the desert, the nights get bitter cold. I laid back on the ground and gazed at the stars above me. There were more stars in the sky than I’d ever seen. It rivaled the clear night sky that was above me as I hiked in the night to watch the sunrise in Bali. Though I regret not taking any photos at night – it was too dark anyway – I will forever remember that night under the stars.
We slept in a tent and covered ourselves with thick blankets for warmth. I loved it and slept better than I expected I would; I was exhausted after the long drive and rough camel ride. Little did I know at the time, sleeping in the campsite was much more desirable than sleeping at the roach-friendly hotel we stayed at the edge of Erg Chebbi the following night. Oh, how I would have much rather stayed at the camp another night if I had the choice!
It wasn’t in fact a dragon that awoke me in the morning, but the sound of a camel snoring behind my tent. It was about time for sunrise, but I was surprised to see that the sky was already bright blue when I emerged from my tent even though the sun hadn’t actually risen. We walked into the dunes and found a nice spot to sit and wait for the sun to greet us in the morning with a Salaam (Arabic greeting).
When it did, it was spectacular. Slowly, the sand dune in front of me illuminated in gold as if a light switch flipped on, and I watched as the rest of the dunes before me lit up the same way. I almost pinched myself once again.
We roamed around the sand dunes for a while as we waited for the camels to return from dropping off another group to their next location. The supposed two-hour wait turned into multiple hours and we were left at the campsite hungry and already fatigued by the sun. When the camels finally returned and we made our way back to the hotel, all of us in the group were frustrated and starving.
Our group spent the afternoon at the hotel sitting by the pool next to the desert. A pool in the desert? It was surreal, to say the least. When the sun wasn’t burning its brightest anymore, we made our way back into the dunes with sandboard and skis in tow, hoping to slide down the dunes. Big mistake. Once we made it to a sizeable dune for sandboarding, we realized that the skis and board were broken! It’s not easy to walk in soft sand, let alone while holding heavy objects! I felt defeated. We resigned to watching the sunset – which wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Desert sunsets are starting to rival beach sunsets as my favorite views!
Then the sun set, and we got lost in the dark. The hotel lights were visible, but we struggled to find our way around the small lakes that bordered the hotel. More comical than scary, we forgot which way we had come from and ended up walking on a small islet of sand with water on either side of us. With no way of getting to the side, we walked the perimeter of the lake, which took longer than we thought. The delicious kefta tajine we ate that night felt well-earned after our slight letdown of an evening not being able to sandboard or ski.
The nearly 12-hour ride to Marrakech from Merzouga exposed us to even more of Morocco’s transcendental landscapes from desert to mountains. We passed through more deserts, oases, and Oarzazate, Morocco’s film capital before hitting the High Atlas Mountains. My favorite stop was in Todgha Gorge where we walked along the river between the gorges.
Holding the van’s ceiling handle as we hugged the winding mountain roads of the High Atlas Mountains was one of the more nerve-wracking experiences of the drive. I couldn’t force myself to sleep; I just watched as other daredevil locals tried to pass vehicles without knowing of oncoming traffic was approaching around the bend. There were a few close calls, but we made it out of the mountains unscathed.
Traveling to the Sahara Desert was a life goal of mine. I’ve always wanted to experience all of Earth’s landscapes. Prior to my Morocco trip, I had swam in the ocean and hiked in the mountains. This time, I felt the sand between my toes in the desert. I was sad to leave the desert and continue on to Marrakesh although I had experienced what I hoped for in on the Sahara Desert tour.
I wanted to throw myself in an environment completely unknown to me and see how I would fare. It had been awhile since I was completely out of my element and I was ready for the challenge. Sleeping in tents and not-so-desirable conditions in the hotel, riding camels, hiking up sand dunes; it was all part of one of the most fulfilling travel experiences I’ve had traveling through Morocco.
Travel note: I recommend shopping around for a good Sahara Desert tour. I happily paid for the tour I went on and enjoyed it, but I wish I had searched for a more organized tour. Do your research! And now that I know from experience, I can help. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions!