Something like happiness in a Sahara Desert Camp

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Africa » Morocco » Souss-Massa-Draâ » Erg Chigaga
April 15th 2019
Published: October 20th 2019
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The camel never sees his own hump but that of his brother’s is always in his eyes ~ Moroccan Proverb

Today we were travelling south from Zagora to a Sahara Desert Camp (via Tamegroute).

We checked-out of our spacious hotel (Le Tinsouline) at 9am, had a cheesy photo stop at the replica Timbuktu, 52 Days sign, checked out the indigo head scarves worn by Berber men as protection against wind-borne sand and embarked on a walking tour of Zagora’s palm groves. By the time we’d finished it was mid-morning, so we jumped into the minibus and drove a short distance southeast to the dusty village of Tamegroute.

The peaceful Nasiriyya Zawiya complex was our first port of call. We wandered the quiet internal courtyard with its distinctive green tiles and large wooden doors before entering the Quranic library, which houses a collection of ancient manuscripts in glass cabinets. Our guide was explaining the significance of a couple of mathematical, scientific, literary and Islamic texts, but I was distracted by a grumpy old Moroccan bloke being wheeled from cabinet to cabinet in a wheelchair by a younger man (possibly his son, grandson or student). Everyone seemed to be very accommodating of the old guy, so I assumed he was Quranic scholar. Regardless of his social or religious standing, he needed to stop yelling at people.

We emerged from the library and made our way to the village’s distinctive underground ksar that houses a local cooperative of potters. We watched all manner of ceramic goods being made, most of which had a distinctive green glaze (known as Tamegroute green). We decided to buy a small green ceramic bowl, hoping it would survive not only the journey through the Sahara and the rest of our Moroccan travels, but also the flight home to Australia. It seemed sturdy enough, and the young guy at the cooperative wrapped it well, so we were optimistic it would still be in one piece when we returned home.

We left Tamegroute around midday and headed to Oulad Edriss, a remote desert outpost about an hour’s drive south. We were lunching in a kasbah, and we were hungry. With the help of some well-placed cushions, we settled on the floor around a low table and marvelled at the rustic earthen walls surrounding us. The meal started with a traditional Moroccan tea ceremony which was intriguing to watch, especially the way in which sugar segments were broken from a large conical sugarloaf into a silver bowl.

Having rehydrated with the fabulous mint tea, the most magnificent plates of turkey couscous were placed to the table, along with plates of Moroccan salad and khobz (traditional round bread). The turkey couscous was simply sensational! With meals like this, there’s a chance I may become a couscous convert (after belittling this maligned foodstuff for the best part of my life). Plates of fresh oranges were placed on the table to complete the meal, and what an amazing meal it was! It was astonishing to think that a remote desert outpost on the edge of the Sahara could produce such incredible food.

After a quick tour of the kasbah’s ground floor rooms, we walked a short distance to a dusty parking area where four 4WD vehicles were waiting. We were about to journey into the heart of the desert. Our destination was Erg Chigaga – the largest sand sea in Morocco – and getting there involved a two-hour drive in a 4WD and a one-hour trek on the back of a dromedary. It was mid-afternoon, and we were excited! We piled into the back of a 4WD and headed west to the frontier town of M’Hamid, where we finally left the comfort of bitumen and began hurtling across sandy desert plains. At times I had to use my neck scarf to protect my face, because the desert sand was infiltrating the 4WD.

The Saharan landscape was like nothing I’ve ever experienced – stark and sandy with no fixed roads. After a while the sand gave way to rocks, making the journey particularly bumpy. Dry rocky plateaus stretched to high sand dunes on the horizon, dromedaries roamed freely and thorn bushes offered the most basic of shelter from the sun.

I lost all sense of direction, which is difficult to contend with when you’re in the middle of nowhere. However, our driver knew exactly where he was going. Every so often he would change direction and drive over a verge, and suddenly we’d find ourselves in a different landscape with different horizons. One of my strongest memories of this high-speed desert journey was the music. Our driver was a big fan of Tinariwen, a group of Berber musicians who describe themselves as poet-guitarists and soul rebels from the Southern Sahara. He had the music blaring through the 4WD’s audio system, and we absolutely loved it. To be honest, the music was as much a part of the journey as the desert sand around us. I’ll always associate the sound of Tinariwen’s blues-heavy electric guitars, African rhythms and hypnotic vocals with the desolate plains of the Sahara.

We stopped at a well just after 4pm, and it really did feel like we’d arrived in the middle of nowhere. I noticed a few small camel souvenirs half-buried in the sand near the well, and I wondered how they came to be there, and who owned them. It wasn’t long before a women appeared with two children, and I realised the souvenirs were hers. Where on earth did she come from, and how did she manage to survive in such a harsh climate – with two young children? I found a few more trinkets half-buried in the sand, and while I was taken (at first) by their romantic location, I didn’t end up buying any.

We continued speeding westward for about half an hour until a herd of domesticated dromedaries appeared before us. This was the second leg of our journey to Erg Chigaga – a one-hour trek on the back of a dromedary. I pulled my neck scarf over my mouth and nose to prevent sand infiltrating my lungs, clambered aboard a sitting dromedary and lumbered off towards the distant wind-swept sand dunes on the horizon.

This was an incredibly relaxing experience. For a start, the desert was quiet and tranquil. Particularly so. There was almost no background noise. All I could hear was the soft pad of the dromedary’s feet against the ochre sand, along with an occasional snort from the poor animal that I think was directed at me. I was, after all, sitting on its back. The gentle rocking of the dromedary as it ambled through the desert was very calming, and it afforded a completely different perspective of the surrounding landscape than what we’d experienced from the back seat of a speeding 4WD.

We arrived at an encampment of Berber tents around 6pm, and we were greeted with mint tea and biscuits – which were very welcome! The camp is nestled at the foot of the breathtaking Erg Chigaga sand dunes, and it was a sight to behold. There was a communal tent for dining, a number of smaller tents for sleeping and a shared toilet tent. Basic but brilliant. I was in heaven! We dropped our day packs in one of the tents, clambered to a high point on the shifting dunes and settled to watch the sunset. This took me back to my childhood days on the West Coast of Tasmania, and I couldn’t help myself. I tried running down one of the dunes like a seven year old, and ended up flat on my back. I really was in absolute heaven. 😊

The Erg Chigaga is the largest sand sea in Morocco. It is an undulating landscape of sharp crests and shallow valleys that stretch as far as the eye can see. I was captivated by its transience. This vast sea of sand is at the mercy of winds that sweep across the Sahara. It’s in a constant state of flux, and I could see and feel the sand being whittled away in the short time we were there. Some of the sand dunes reach heights of between 200 and 300 metres, and the view from our high point was sublime. It exceeded all my expectations.

I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to capture the sharp sand crests without tell-tale footprints in the foreground of my photographs. However, it ended up being much easier than I thought. I simply walked along a crest until I found an ideal location, positioned my camera close to the surface and pressed the shutter button. My footprints were behind me, so the resulting photos were unsullied.

It was an incredible experience standing atop one of the Erg Chigaga sand dunes and staring out at the shimmering Algerian border, a mere 15km away. This was the closest I’d get to the native land of Albert Camus, a writer who heavily influenced my thinking when I studied European literature all those years ago. Camus was born in Algeria, studied at the University of Algiers and worked for a leftist Algerian newspaper. While he eventually moved to Paris and is nearly always referred to as a French writer, Camus’ early life in northern Africa permeates his work.

We sat on the crest of a sand dune and watched the sun drop close to the horizon, but there was too much haze to see it disappear entirely. With dusk slowly falling it was time to return to the campsite, and the cool desert sand engulfed our feet as we slid and skidded down the steep face of the dune. We sat outside in the fading light and enjoyed a small drop of mandarin vodka (which we’d picked up in Ouarzazate the previous day) before heading into the communal tent for dinner.

This was to be a fantastic meal. It was prepared by our Berber hosts, some of whom had transported us from Oulad Edriss to this remarkable desert camp, and their hospitality was second to none. We watched hungrily as large ceramic bowls of harira (Moroccan soup) were brought to the table, which we enjoyed with khobz, harissa (chilli and garlic paste) and olives. Our hosts then cleared the table to make way for a tasty beef tagine with vegetables, and we finished the meal with fruit.

Feeling suitably nourished, we settled outside around an open fire and enjoyed a few more drops of vodka as we listened to our hosts play traditional drums and sing local Berber songs. This was a truly beautiful setting. We were sitting under the stars in the Sahara with ghostly sand dunes disappearing into the night sky behind us. It wasn’t long before we were dancing around the fire…

Our campsite was isolated. More than 70km of stony desert lay between us and the nearest village (and nearest road), and I loved the sense of freedom this afforded. I didn’t want to leave. Our Berber hosts were so willing and happy to share their culture, and they made us feel so incredibly welcome. In fact, I’d been feeling welcome ever since we flew into Casablanca two weeks earlier. Morocco is a cold country with a hot sun and a warm heart! In the years to come when I sit and ponder our many travels and adventures, this Saharan experience will always, always be a stand out. And to top it all off, I’d managed to capture sharp sand crests stretching into the distance without any footprints in the foreground…

The night was long and half the vodka was gone, so we reluctantly retired to our tent. While the bed and pillows may have been hard, the tent itself was warm (having captured and stored the heat from the sun). Given the basic lodgings, we slept as well as could be expected.

We woke early and walked to the top of a nearby sand dune to watch the sun rise over the Algerian–Moroccan border. Unfortunately, there was too much haze and cloud, so we couldn’t enjoy the sun breaking over the camp. We made our way down the face of the dune and headed to the communal tent for breakfast, where we enjoyed mint tea, yoghurt, baguettes, boiled eggs and fresh oranges.

And then it was time to leave. As much as I’d enjoyed this Berber campsite nestled at the foot of the Erg Chigaga sand dunes, I was looking forward to our 4WD journey out of the Sahara. We headed off on a memorable three hour westward drive, with flat sand disappearing to the horizon on one side of the car, and flat sand disappearing to an imposing plateau on the other. This scenery was incredible.

We passed nomadic herders with their unfettered goats, and we were amazed people could survive in such a harsh environment. We watched a herd of dromedaries slowly march into the shimmering distance. We stood in the middle of a dry lake (Iriki) and struggled to discern where the sky met the parched lake bed – the sand simply disappeared into nothingness on every horizon…

After about two hours speeding through the desert sands, the tell-tale signs of civilisation started to appear. First there was a road (something we hadn’t experienced since leaving M’Hamid the previous day). Then there was the military checkpoint, where our driver stopped and chatted with a couple of border guards he clearly knew well. They laughed and waved us through, convinced we were tourists and not unwelcome Algerians running the border.

Finally there was the sleepy market town of Foum Zguid. As we drove into this tiny desert outpost, we realised we had emerged from the stony desert. Our minibus was parked at a local cafe (Restaurant Chegaga), so we bid farewell to our Berber hosts, refreshed with a few cold drinks and continued our westward journey through the sandy Moroccan terrain towards Taroudannt.

Today we were travelling from Zagora to the Sahara Desert, via Tamegroute and M’Hamid, by minibus, 4WD vehicle and camel.

After our visit to the date palmerie in Zagora, we drove 15km through rugged terrain to the village of Tamegroute. The more we advanced towards the Sahara, unsurprisingly, the towns started feeling more and more desolate and isolated. And obviously dustier. Much dustier.

Tamegroute is famous for having been a religious centre from about the 11th century. However, it wasn’t until the 17th century that the Islamic Nassiriyya order was founded by Sidi Mohammed Ben Nassir who was a theologian, scholar and a physician interested in mental health. This Nassiriyya brotherhood went on to become one of the largest and most influential Sufi orders of its time.

We met a quietly spoken local guide (so quietly spoken that I missed his name) who first took us to the Zawiya Nassiriyya – a complex that includes a shrine, medersa (Quranic school) and library. We entered a gate and faced a vast courtyard with a small star shaped fountain in the centre. We were surrounded by a shady green tiled portico, through which there was a large decorative door to the main shrine. Above the shrine rose a squat red and white minaret.

We walked to the main door of the shrine, but as non-Muslims we weren’t allowed inside. Nevertheless, we could listen to and appreciate the stories of how significant this place was for followers of the Nassiriyya order. The shrine is still visited as a pilgrimage, mainly to seek a cure for various health issues such as anxiety. While the guide didn’t say how many got ‘cured’, the space certainly had a very peaceful and calm vibe to it.

Happily, we were granted entry to the ancient library inside the medersa. Given the theology and medical credentials of the founder of the order, the library was always an important space, and it continued to grow when his son collected rare and valuable texts on his long travels throughout Africa and the Middle East.

I was initially a bit taken aback that such a revered and important library was set in such a humble looking building, with zero sense of grandeur (that I have come to expect from other such noteworthy libraries around the world). However, once I stepped into the weirdly lit room with mismatching furniture and a bank of ordinary looking bookshelves lining the walls, I felt a sense of refreshing energy wash over me. This is how books and their knowledge should be treated – with openness and unpretentiousness. We were introduced to one of the librarians who guided us though the bookshelves.

The library apparently once held 40,000 books, but now only has a tenth of that. It seems the bulk of the books have been sent to libraries in big cities for restoration, for which I’m very glad. However, we still saw the oldest Quran in Kufic script with beautiful calligraphy, a 13th century map of Alexandria, a translation of Pythagoras on algebra, early books on medicine and astronomy, and ancient copies of the Quran and Sharia family law. I was very glad that we’d been able to visit this significant Islamic library, and I enjoyed it all the more for meeting one the librarians.

We left the Zawiya Nassiriyya and walked through an open field towards a pile of freshly made mud bricks drying in the sun. We were shown into a tiny hut that turned out to be a small communal bakery. A woman was making flat bread on the open flames in the oven, and as interesting as the process was, it was just too hot to stay in the hut for long.

The bakery was along the outside walls of the old town. We then entered and walked through the dark labyrinth of the old underground ksar (fortified village). It was a rambling collection of small family kasbahs inside the ksar, but it was very intimate, and at times I felt uncomfortable that we were actually walking through private property!

We eventually reached a Pottery – Maison de Poterie. Tamegroute’s glazed ceramics are quite famous, and we were about to be shown the whole process. Starting with the local mud that is stomped with bare feet, to the ancient subterraneous potters wheels (where the potters literally stand in a hole to operate the wheel at ground level), to the kilns being fired in the open courtyard. Everything was as it had been done for centuries, and there wasn’t a single automated process in sight. It was a bit hard to witness the seemingly physically tough conditions under which the workers operated, especially the quiet young teenage boy at the potter’s wheel. I know it’s his family’s trade and a well-respected one at that, but I still couldn’t help but wonder what he would rather have been doing that morning. I distracted myself by patting the old donkey that was tied up in the yard.

We were then shown to the multi-room shop which was crammed from floor to ceiling with all manner of glazed ceramics. There were many styles and colours, but I was only interested in pieces with the signature green glaze of Tamegroute. These potteries pride themselves on the traditional techniques that are unique to this region, and the irregularity of the green glaze is apparently reflective of the handmade and wood fired process. A piece can have many shades of green, and this is their key distinguishing feature from the uniform glazes produced in factories. We bought a small green bowl and had it packed with as much bubble wrap and newspaper as possible… we were very aware that bowls and other pottery items bought by others had already met sad fates.

The day was getting away from us, and we still had to make our way to Oulad Edriss to have lunch and meet our 4WD transport for the first leg of our trip into the Sahara. On the way we stopped to buy water and were a bit surprised by a swarm of army personnel walking past the minibus. They had no interest in us, but it was still weird to see such a high number of uniformed men walking the streets. Khalid (our group leader) informed us that there was a large military base in the town, and expanded on this by saying we were very close to the Algerian border. With conflicts over the Western Sahara land, Algerian–Moroccan relations hadn’t been cordial for over 50 years; and the land border had been closed since the 1990s.

Oulad Edriss was a tiny village, and our lunch venue was quite unique in that we were eating in an old mudbrick kasbah. We sat on the floor at long low tables in the kasbah’s central courtyard, surrounded by the four towers that give a kasbah is characteristic definition. We were welcomed with a traditional mint tea ceremony. Our host sat at a small tray table (a tray on legs) that held glasses and silver teapots. A little boiling water was poured into the teapot with gunpowder (green tea) tealeaf, the tealeaf was rinsed twice and the water discarded. Then the sprigs of fresh mint were added, along with a lot of sugar, before the teapot was filled with boiling water and allowed to steep.

Most cafes and homes in Morocco use sugar cubes, but our host had a large conical shaped block of sugar, which he dramatically chipped apart using an antique looking ‘sugar hammer’. The first two glasses of tea were poured back into the pot to help dissolve the sugar. And then the pouring of tea for the guests was done – it’s said that the higher the height from which the tea is poured, the more welcome the guests are. Plus the aeration helps to cool the tea to a drinkable temperature. 😊

We started lunch with a fresh Moroccan salad (tomatoes, green capsicum, and cucumber), which was followed by a turkey and vegetable couscous. This was by far the most delicious couscous dish we’d had! And as at the home cooked meal we had in Tangier, the accompanying buttery sauce (which we poured over the couscous) was what made the dish. After that rich meal, sweet and sticky oranges were the perfect dessert.

We don’t usually eat much turkey meat at home, but this was absolutely delicious. Everyone agreed that the meal was superb, apart from poor Mike who was starting to feel unwell and decided to skip lunch. We had all initially assumed the turkey was a very full flavoured chicken. When the host revealed that it was turkey, most of the table erupted in laughter… because a few nights prior, two people in the group got shitty that a dinner menu at a hotel only had turkey meat, and had led a mini-revolt and left with half the group to a Chinese restaurant. But they had been praising this turkey dish and serving themselves seconds and thirds. Their immediate response was ‘that’s definitely not turkey’, and then went ominously quiet after that. Those of you following my group updates would be able to guess who the two drama queens were. 😄

This kasbah was once a family home, but no one had lived here for a long time. The younger brother of the owner had been given permission to run the kasbah as a tourist venture, and it was now called a ‘museum to Berber culture’. The house was full of ancient artefacts, as well as an odd collection of traditional household implements which haphazardly lined the walls of most of the rooms. Oulad Edriss is a dusty old village on the very border of the Sahara, so it wasn’t very surprising that absolutely everything in the rooms was covered in a thick layer of what seemed like centuries of dust. We were given a short tour of the dark rooms in the kasbah, with a few cultural explanations. To call it a museum was pushing the definition of ‘museum’ somewhat, but it was certainly an interesting private collection of heritage Berber items.

When Khalid had mentioned the possibility of lunch at this kasbah the day before, a few of us hadn’t been convinced that a big lunch before a long journey into the desert was a good idea. But I was very glad to have been outvoted in this instance. Regardless of any consequences we might suffer on the onward journey, this lunch experience is going to be remembered as a priceless experience.

We were bidding our minibus and driver Lahssan goodbye and getting into four 4WD vehicles here, but our trip was slightly delayed. One of the 4WDs had reversed into a pole and broken its back window. It was replaced with plastic sheeting and sticky tape while we waited! We used the nearby public toilets again, just in case. One of my travel rules is that I always use a toilet when I see one… because there’s no telling when you’ll come across one again, especially on a travel day such as this. 😉

We were finally ready to leave, and our 4WD had Dot in the front seat, Ineke, Andrew and myself in the back seat, and Khalid in the jump seat behind us. We first drove into the frontier town of M’Hamid, and they don’t get any more frontier than M’Hamid – where the road literally ends! We were on the very verge of the desert, and the town felt as harsh, precarious and wild as I’d always imagined the ‘last town before nowhere’ would feel.

My sore throat was becoming a cough and I had asked for a pharmacy earlier in the day, so our driver stopped to check with locals in M’Hamid… but the only pharmacy in town wasn’t open that day. Oh well, I’ll just have to cope until the next day. We hadn’t even left town, and the dust was already starting to feel thick in the air, and in my throat.

Khalid had explained to us that of all the different types of Sahara landscapes (dunes, plateaus, plains, lakes, salt flats, oases etc), we’d be predominately experiencing the golden sand dunes called ergs, stony pavements of loose sand and gravel called reg, and the black rocky plateau called hamada. We left the sealed road, and almost immediately hit the fields of reg stretching out before us.

Our driver led the way into the desert in a convoy of the four 4WDs, and it was immediately apparent that he was a fast and furious driver who was very much in control of his vehicle. He was a Berber Tuareg (also called the ‘Blue Men’ for their indigo dyed clothing) and clearly knew the desert like the back of his hand. There was a rough road cutting through the gravel and scrub, but our driver drove off-road a lot… he seemed to read the land and navigate accordingly.

We drove for about two hours through spectacular landscapes, first through reg, and then some small sand dunes and through reg again. Our driver was brilliant, and even though we were flying through sand dunes and over rocks, with our heads hitting the roof and bodies being flung around – I never felt unsafe.

There was more traffic than normal out in the desert, as a car rally was being held (most of the rally drivers had been at our hotel in Zagora the night before). This part of the Sahara is part of the Dakar Rally and obviously these guys were trying to win a race. At one point we had to stop suddenly as we flew through a small dune and one of the rally cars came flying at us the other way. We stopped so suddenly that we nearly got rear-ended by one of the other cars in our convoy.

Our driver clearly wasn’t very impressed with the Rally drivers. I had read somewhere that the Dakar Rally has been criticised for not bringing much benefit to the African countries it crosses. They destroy roads and ecosystems, without investing much into the local economies they travel through. As with many of these arguments though, I keep coming back to the fact that the responsibility lies with the governments of these countries.

Another brilliant aspect of our drive was that our driver had excellent taste in music. He was playing Tinariwen’s music at high volume. Tinariwen is a group of Tuareg musicians who play Berber music with a modern sound. They still use very traditional melodies and rhythms, but with a western guitar-heavy vibe. As well as their inherent traditional inspiration, they mention Dire Straits, Santana, Led Zeppelin etc. as their influences. It was a beautiful multifaceted blend of Moroccan tones, West African percussion, and Western blues and rock; and it was absolutely, without a doubt, the PERFECT soundtrack to our drive through the desert.

I had been looking forward to this Sahara trip for so long, and here we were hurtling towards it in a way I hadn’t envisaged. Our one night stand with the desert was starting on a high octane note, with excellent music blaring, and I absolutely loved it! 😄

Our first stop was to photograph some camels siting around in the middle of nowhere. I had assumed they were wild, but on closer inspection, a couple of them had saddle blankets and were tethered together. Some were sitting on the track and didn’t bother moving for us, seemingly knowing that we’d drive off-road to avoid them. And as we stopped and approached them, out of nowhere their shepherd appeared! I just don’t understand how he kept the flock together in this wild openness. My favourite memory of this camel encounter was seeing three camels of varying colours – light brown, dark brown and light fawn – standing in a row… perfectly mirroring Ineke, myself and Andrew sitting in a row. Yes, I’m very visual and I’m also easily amused. 😄

A quick note that while we generally refer to these creatures as camels – they are technically dromedaries (the one humped version). While the dromedaries native to this area of Africa are blackish brown and hairier than their more common fawn coloured Arabian cousins, they aren’t as hairy or dark as the two humped Bactrian camels.

The wind was starting to whip up around us and we realised we were standing in a small sandstorm. We tried to hurry back to our car, but we were already engulfed by the sand, so we embraced the situation and took more photos! My poor camera is really going to have its weather sealing tested on this trip! Meanwhile the camels have adapted to these conditions with two eyelashes to keep sand out of their eyes and an ability to close their nostrils during sandstorms. And of course, they also have that incredible capacity to go for 15 days without water and two months without food!

The last time I was caught in a sandstorm (albeit a much bigger one than this) was when we lived near the southernmost edge of the Sahara Desert. My parents were expat teachers in northern Nigeria in the 1980s, and their first posting was to a small town called Geidam, very close to the Chad and Niger borders. As a child I never questioned the environment I found myself in, and dust storms were just a part of life at certain times of the year. When the ominous brown wall of sand clouds started darkening the sky, we’d be told to hurry back home from school or some corner of our compound we had been playing in. We’d bunker down for an hour or so until the brutal waves of sand stopped battering the house, and then we’d play in the rainstorm that invariably hit afterwards. It was a carefree childhood, and I was a bit shocked to realise that my affectionate memories of that time had dulled the reality of what sand in every orifice on my face actually felt like! It wasn’t very pleasant! 😞

We continued driving and eventually had another break at a well in the middle of nowhere. Yes, a well, in the middle of the desert. Khalid drew up a bucket of water for anyone who wanted to wash dust off from the journey so far… but I honestly didn’t see the point. The dust was omnipresent, and it sticks to wet skin far better than dry skin! As we stood around, I suddenly realised that a woman was walking through the dust towards us… unobserved by us, some women and children had been sitting in the shade of a tree in the distance. I then realised that there was a collection of tiny fibre and fabric animals for sale. I hadn’t noticed them at first, because they were nearly fully submerged in sand around the well. Now that’s probably the toughest environs for a tourist stall I’ve ever encountered.

While many in the group bought the very cute little animals, some of us got our turbans tied in preparation for the upcoming camel ride. We eventually got to where our group of camels were squatting in the sand, patiently waiting for us. There were sixteen of us, and the cameleers matched us to suitable camels, who were then attached together in trains of five or six for the hour ride to our desert camp.

My juvenile camel was friendly and calm, but not a fan of being touched. He made an odd snorty noise when I tried to pat him, gently telling me it wasn’t what he wanted. He seemed to have a good relationship with our leading cameleer and kept nuzzling his head into the guy’s shoulder. It looked very cute… until I realised he had a gunky left eye and was trying to use the guy’s shirt as a hanky. 😊

It was so peaceful and serene walking through the quiet of the Sahara. For all the knobby kneed awkwardness of the camel heaving about when it stands up, and us clutching on for dear life so we don’t slide off the saddle… I find them to be incredibly graceful when they walk. The side to side lurch takes a bit of getting used to, but once in the rhythm of it, it is almost meditative. The only sounds I could hear were the footsteps of our cameleer, the dull jangle of my camel’s harness and an occasional murmur from someone or other in our group. And I was suddenly acutely aware of the silence… the heavy silence of the desert weighing down on us as we walked into the afternoon sun.

As my camel’s lanky frame silently etched a path for the other camels in our train, it was very easy to get lost in thought in this environment. My only distraction was trying to keep my scarf covering my whole face when the wind whipped up. As comfortable as it was when we were walking on flat reg, a bit of concentration was required where we started walking over the dunes. Going up the dunes was fun, but when we got to a dune crest I had to brace myself for that first camel hoof going downhill over the crest of the dune 😊

I was sad when our camel ride ended – I could have easily had another hour or two of that experience. But I was also excited to reach our camp and check it out. The semipermanent camp was set between three dunes, very close to the highest dune of Erg Chigaga. Erg Chigaga is one of a series of wind-shifting sand seas, and its dunes snake for about 40km, making it the biggest erg in the Moroccan Sahara.

On the edge of these dunes, several draped canvas tents were set up in a circle. We were shown to the large dining tent and welcomed with mint tea and biscuits. The camp seemed to be run by two young guys, with help from our four drivers. Behind the dining tent sat smaller sleeping tents and a bathroom tent. Our tent, which we shared with Mike, had wooden double and single beds, a small bedside table, a couple of stools and rugs on the floor. The sleeping tents were more comfortable and spacious than I’d expected, and even with three of us inside, it certainly didn’t feel cramped.

In terms of facilities, our bathroom tent may sound basic – a shared bathroom tent a short walk from the sleeping tents with no running water or electricity and a manual ‘flush’ – but it certainly didn’t feel basic given where we were. While there were ‘showers’ (a pipe coming out of a wall with a trickle of water from an overhead drum), we hadn’t been told to bring towels. I was a bit ratty at first because we had both packed travel towels that were sitting in our big packs in the minibus! But then Khalid mentioned that water was pretty precious so if we could manage without a wash, it would be appreciated. We were pretty dusty from the drive and sandy from the dune walk, but as disgusting as I felt, I could grin and bear it for a night. What our desert camp lacked in creature comforts, it certainly made up for in ambiance.

We left camp to climb a large dune to watch the sunset. We meandered along the ridge of two smaller dunes before we climbed the larger dune, and getting to the top was much harder than it looked! It felt like I was sliding backwards more than I was progressing upwards. So in all honesty, ‘gracelessly scrabbled up a dune’ would be a more accurate description that ‘climbed a dune’.

This was Andrew’s first experience of desert and dunes, and his excitement was totally contagious. I love sharing first time travel excitement! At one point while we were clambering up, he gave into a burst of exhilaration and ran down a dune… tumbling in spectacular fashion at the bottom! Andrew was also on the hunt for a dune crest and slope with wind ripple and no footprints. He was absolutely spoiled for choice with many such dunes surrounding us, but it meant walking down dunes and then climbing back up again… while Andrew seemed to have boundless energy to do so, my thigh muscles had told me in very certain terms that they would not be participating in anymore dune climbs that day. 😊

From the top of the large dune we’d chosen for viewing the sunset, the vastness of the sands around us was almost overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so tiny and overpowered by nature before. The tallest dune in Erg Chigaga towered to the side of us, and in every other direction as far as the eye could see, we were surrounded by peaks of sand dunes. Apart from our desert camp directly below us, I spotted three more camps spread out around Erg Chigaga, but we didn’t know they were there when at ground level, as all the camps have been built into dune ridges to provide protection from desert winds. Khalid informed us that we were exactly 14km from the Algerian border at that point… a weird thought, given how extremely isolated we felt.

The awaited sunset was obscured by low clouds and windy sand whipping up around us, and the vibrant sky colours I’d been anticipating were washed out. Unexpectedly though, the real magic ended up being the way the sand dunes changed colour as the sun set, from golden yellow to orange to dull red. So despite the subdued sunset, we were sitting on a dune out in the immense Sahara Desert, watching the sand change colour! How could it not be spectacular?

We returned to camp as dusk set in and sat outside our tents, popping open our various bottles of pre-bought alcohol. We had opted for mandarin vodka, which I thought would still be decent without a mixer or ice… and it was. We started chatting with Mike, but soon migrated to the bigger circle around the yet-unlit fire with everyone else while we waited for dinner.

By the time we were called into the dining tent, I was pretty famished. All the crockery on our long table was of that Tamegroute green glaze. Also on the table were loaves of khobz (traditional round leavened bread), harissa (chilli and garlic paste) and olives. We were first served a creamy harira (a minestrone-like hearty soup of tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and noodles) out of large bowls. Our hosts then cleared the table to make way for a tasty beef tagine with vegetables. It was amazing that they could cook such delicious and hearty food in the middle of a desert! As has become usual in this part of Morocco, dessert was perfectly juicy oranges.

After dinner the fire was lit and our drivers and the two guys running the camp played drums and sang Berber songs. They also played some double and single symbol type things I’d never seen before. Inevitably the dancing started, with Khalid opening the dancing! After much insistence, we were dragged up to dance as a group in a circle around the fire, and then were obliged to do an individual loop as well (after all our hosts did so). All very tribal and utterly hilarious. Andrew channelled the jabby-thrusty actions of Peter Garett (lead singer of Midnight Oil) while Mark managed to channel interpretive dancers through the ages. The two of them could definitely feature in a Kate Bush video clip! 😄

We had been looking forward to a starry African night sky, but again as with the sunset, the clouds hid much of its magic from us. Mike had gone to bed early, and we eventually snuck into our tent at about 11pm when our hosts called it a night and we’d drunk most of our alcohol. I had forgotten how much I love mandarin vodka, and we’ll have to remember to buy some for next summer.

We had packed many warm clothes in case the night was as bitterly cold as we had been warned it could be… but it turned out to be a rather warm night and we hardly needed the sheets, much less the blankets we’d been given. Our nice clean bed was sandy within minutes of us getting into it! I was too tired to care too much, but the hard pillow and even harder mattress weren’t as easy to ignore as the sand.

I think I slept for a couple of hours, until the donkeys started randomly braying in the night! That certainly wasn’t a sound I had expected to hear in the Sahara. After a slightly restless night, we woke at 6:30am. I know it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but to put it in perspective… it may have been a rock hard bed with sand crunching between the sheets… but it was a bed! A bed in the Sahara! And for that I was grateful.

We got dressed and I dragged myself up the closest dune to watch the sunrise. The early morning air was very fresh and the sand was cold underfoot. Even though the sunrise was dulled by clouds, it was extraordinary to sit in that grey-pink morning light and watch a new day begin over the sea of dunes. And as with the sunset, the silence that accompanied the event was startlingly commanding.

It was interesting to see there had been a few night-time footprints around our tents. One looked very much like a small mammal paw print, and one looked like a snake had slithered around, but the others were too small to decipher and were most likely lizards or small scorpions. Given the hyper-arid conditions, all mammals here were going to be very small and I guessed the paw prints were probably from a sand fox.

Breakfast was simple but very filling. It consisted of a variety of bread, butter, laughing cow cheese, a few jams, boiled eggs, yoghurt, some pastries and mint tea. Mike was still feeling under the weather, so he slept while we spent our last few hours at the camp.

As we packed to depart the camp, it was increasingly clear that not one part of our bodies, our clothing, our bags or our cameras had been spared from the dust and sand! Luckily, despite being covered in dust, my camera was still working! However, one of the dials on Andrew’s camera was making a disturbing grinding noise. I’d forgotten how insidious that fine desert sand was! Yes it ended up EVERYWHERE! 😞

We bid goodbye to our camp hosts and got back into our 4WD vehicles. As we belted ourselves in, the music was cranked up again, and we settled in for the three hour drive back to civilisation. We were heading away from the dunes and were soon on the flat stony reg again, with the hamada plateau constantly in the distance. The novelty of bouncing around in the 4WD hadn’t waned yet, and I enjoyed it as much as I loved watching the ever changing landscape around us.

It was really really surreal when, after driving through kilometres of desert with nothing in sight, we randomly saw a sign for a cafe! It wasn’t a mirage – there really was a cafe in the middle of the desert. It was a substantial building that had been built on the shores of the now dry Lake Iriki. Unfortunately, it hadn’t yet opened for the tourist season.

We stopped in the middle of the dried salt flat lake bed to stretch our legs and take photos of this stunningly bleak landscape. Our driver suggested that the lake had dried as a result of a dam project in Ouarzazate. However, I could find no literature to support this. The lake apparently becomes a bird attracting wetland in the rainy season.

We also stopped to watch a substantial flock of camels being herded across the desert. I say herded, but I only saw one shepherd in the far distance and he wasn’t doing anything that would constitute herding. It seemed like the camels knew where they were going and were intent on getting there. They moved in small groups, and the group in the middle of the flock had three or four baby camels – one was pure white and stood out quite starkly from its brown family and the brown landscape. We also drove past large herds of goats. The nomads move every spring and autumn and they were now moving to their summer camps.

An hour later, our Sahara adventure was over. We pulled into the small town of Foum Zguid and were dropped off at a cafe where we could use the toilet, rehydrate on cold drinks and be re-joined with our minibus and jovial driver Lahssan. It was good to see Lahssan again, who grabbed my arm and told me in mock horror that he’d broken the small ceramic bowl I’d bought in Tamegroute and given to him for safe keeping. When in fact, he had put it in a padded safety box under his seat. I suspected that he’d missed fussing over us! 😉

Even though I fell madly and deeply in love with our Sahara journey from the first moment we started it, it took me awhile to really process the entire experience. From the meal in the tiny village of Oulad Edriss, to our very capable Tuareg driver with excellent taste in music, to the camel ride I adored, to our desert camp and meals cooked with skill by our camp hosts, to that sea of sand dunes that enveloped us visually, figuratively and quite literally… I have re-lived the details of those two days many times, and have done so with much love.

Next we travel west to Taroudannt, in Morocco’s fertile Sous Valley.


20th October 2019

OMG omg omg! Wow!
I've been waiting for this blog, and it didn't disappoint! I was saying wow! for every photo. Sand everywhere :-)
20th October 2019

Re: OMG omg omg! Wow!
Thanks Jessie! Yep, sand definitely everywhere :)
20th October 2019

Returning home...well nearly
You say, "My parents were expat teachers in northern Nigeria in the 1980s, and their first posting was to a small town called Geidam, very close to the Chad and Niger borders." That is Boko Haram territory is it not? If so, its lucky you are out of there.
20th October 2019

Re: Returning home...well nearly
Close, but not quite... having never been to North Africa, I wasn't sure how similar it would feel to West Aftrica - not much at all. Yes that area has been Boko Haram territory for a while now (thankfully/hopefully slowly declining in power), but that was all well after we left in 1989.
20th October 2019
driving through reg desert

Driving through reg desert
Definitely a great addition to our 'Follow that Road' thread in the Photography Forum
20th October 2019
driving through reg desert

Re: Driving through reg desert
For the most part, the 'road' was more of a vague suggestion than a proper road :)
20th October 2019

This portion of the journey seems so magical—desert landscapes, Berber hospitality, plodding camels, perfect music. Wow! Plus that turkey couscous!
20th October 2019

Re: Magical
It really was magical Terry! We were as excited as kids in a lolly/candy shop :D
23rd October 2019

Sahara Magic
Wow! Great blog, really captures the amazing experience you had. Not much beats a night at a camp in the desert does it? We really enjoyed our desert camp (in a different location, in Erg Chebbi). I loved the camel rides to and from our camp, and the dunes were just amazing. I totally exhausted myself trying to climb (well, crawl on my hands and knees at several points) a nearby high dune to watch the sunset. So I could defintely relate to your description Ren. But SO incredible to be there. We climbed a smaller dune to watch the sunrise and it was just magical. :) Oh, funny about the turkey and the two who were sure it wasn't - ha! I hope your pottery bowl made it home in one piece. Lahssan kept our pottery safe while we were with him too (and it all made it home safely).
23rd October 2019

Re: Sahara Magic
Thanks Lori! It was really was magical! I was so disappointed at my lack of dune climbing skills...they make it look so easy in the films ;) The small pottery bowl made it back in one piece and has been put to good use as a dipping sauce bowl :)
23rd October 2019

This is Africa
I read and read again, to make sure I got everything. It is a real adventure you have experienced.
23rd October 2019

Re: This is Africa
Thank you Usman. I'm very glad you enjoyed reading it :)
24th October 2019
desert camp

Tea Ceremonies
I love the entertainment value of them pouring the tea this way. Plus the teas are tasty.
24th October 2019
desert camp

Re: Tea Ceremonies
I loved the mint tea rituals. And it's harder than it looks to pour the tea from a height - my attempt ended with more tea on the tray than in the glass :)
26th October 2019
camel ride

You managed to see and do much
I am impressed over how much you did see and do on your vacation in Morocco. We also took a camel ride when we were there and we loved it. It was freezing cold at night. We were there in December. We still enjoyed it though. /Ake
28th October 2019
camel ride

Re: You managed to see and do much
Thanks Ake. My research uncovers far more places/things than we actually end up seeing/doing in a country... plus we also get a sense of FOMO when we travel, because we very rarely re-visit a country (not because we don't wish to, but new countries tend to win when we are planning our trips).
11th November 2019
camel ride

I feel excited just reading your Morocco blogs and especially this one! I am remembering our own camel ride and night spent in the Sahara just 3 weeks or so ago! But all of the photos you were able to get are so far superior to mine and I'm jealous, LOL!! We had perfect weather for our time here, but we heard that the following day there had been quite a sandstorm and seeing the sunset/moon rise was impossible for that group. It was a once in a lifetime experience! Thanks for bringing it all back so vividly for us to see and read about!!
11th November 2019
camel ride

Re: Fabulous!
Thanks heaps for your lovely comment Sylvia! So glad you had perfect weather. Our sunset and sunrise were also obscured but sandy winds. Absolutely such a once in a lifetime experience! Looking forward to reading about your experiences :)

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