As part of our tour of Morocco, we chose to spend some time in the Sahara Desert, the largest hot desert in the world which spans most of northern Africa. We started our journey in Fes and drove for an entire day to reach Erfoud, a town within one of the Sahara’s precious few oases and the date (the fruit!) capital of Morocco. As we left the mountains of Fes behind, the landscape transformed. Pine forests gave way to barren plateaus. Colorful mountains turned into tan monochromatic desert in every direction.
Like most people, I had pictured the Sahara as consisting mostly of sand dunes (thanks Hollywood!). However, only about 20% of the Sahara is covered by dunes. The rest consists of rocky, seemingly lifeless flatland occasionally interspersed with rugged plateaus. The scenery reminded me of southern Utah and the rugged desert of Canyonlands National Park.
At one point, roughly 450 million years ago, this entire region was under water as evidenced by an enormous amount of sea life fossils left behind. In truth, this nautical environment was difficult to imagine. How could an entire ocean dry up and leave such barren rock and sand behind?
After a long day on the road, we gladly checked into our hotel, and were pleasantly surprised to find a mini golf course on the roof overlooking sand dunes in the distance. Naturally, we had to play. How many people get a chance to play mini golf while watching the sunset in the middle of the Sahara?
The next day, we jumped into a Toyota Land Cruiser and headed out to the Merzouga Sand Dunes. There are no roads in the dunes in the Sahara, but there are “flat” areas that are more navigable. Our driver clearly loved his job and was determined to show us a good time. He kept driving “off-road” over the dunes giving us a rollercoaster four-wheeling experience. The most thrilling part was when the car drove over the top of the dune and the sand gave way pulling the car down with it!
An hour later we arrived at the tent camp. The camp consisted of maybe two dozen tents laid out in a square pattern all connected by plush Moroccan carpets so that (God forbid!) we didn’t have to walk on the sand to reach our tent. The interior of our tent was even more surprising. It was equipped with a king size bed, a couch and coffee table, a sink where a tea kettle provided water, a Western-style toilet that flushed, and a shower with hot, running water. How running water was provided in the middle of nowhere, I have no idea. Clearly, this was designed to be more of a “glamping” experience than a “rough-it-in-the-desert” one.
Our Sahara adventure continued with a camel ride further into the dunes. For those who have never ridden a camel before, allow me to explain how it works. First, the camel kneels allowing you to swing your leg over its hump. Then, the camel stretches its front legs to stand throwing you backwards in the makeshift saddle and prompting you to hang on for dear life. Finally, the camel extends its hind legs jerking you forward. So, as long as you’ve got something to hold onto, no sweat.
Riding the camel as it ambled along the sand was easy enough. Its slow rolling gait allowed us to enjoy our lofted views of the dunes and take pictures of the desert around us. Granted, going up and down the dunes was a little bumpier than striding majestically on top of their ridges.
About thirty minutes into our trek, we stopped and climbed a small dune from which we could view the setting sun. Aaron and I took the obligatory photos to record our presence in the Sahara and then took the opportunity to explore the dunes a bit more on our own.
As we left our fellow camel riders behind, the desert took on a silence that only a place untouched by humans can embody. We listened in awe as the wind drifted over the sand dunes, pulling grains of sand from their peaks with every gust. We watched the sand change colors from a reddish hue to liquid gold. We were also made privy to the life that so expertly hides itself in the desert. Tracks of all different kinds of bugs, lizards, and small mammals lay scattered across the sand.
Aaron was even inspired to sprint up the largest dune in the area for a better vantage point. Can you spot him?
After sunset, our faithful camels brought us safely back to camp where we enjoyed dinner with a performance of traditional Berber music. With our bellies full and our minds processing the new experiences of the day, we set off into the sand dunes once more to admire the night sky.
I can honestly say that I have never seen a night sky as beautiful as the one over the Sahara. The limited number of humans and very little light pollution in the area made it so that we could see every star in the sky. Millions upon millions of stars twinkled down at us! The milky way took center stage streaking across the blackness in all its glory.
How sad it is to think that this stunning night sky hovers over the whole world, but we can only see it when we leave all other humans behind. As we embraced this moment, we discussed how grateful we are that such places like the Sahara still exist to showcase nature at its fullest, undiluted potential.
That night we stayed up far too late drinking in the intoxicating sky, but it wasn’t enough. We awoke long before the sun rose to once again experience the stillness of the Sahara and its unbelievable night sky. As we watched the sun rise over the Algerian border, we knew that our time in the Sahara was indeed a life-changing experience.
Our Takeaway: Despite everything humans do to the planet, nature has a way of preserving its true essence. You just have to know where to look.
-Annie, Your Friend at Orange Backpack Travel