Erg Chebbi, a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience!

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Jun 15th, 2014, 06:24 AM
  #1
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Erg Chebbi, a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience!

I've been fascinated by Morocco for a long time and I finally had the opportunity to visit for two weeks with my husband in April. What made it even better was that two of our grown children, our son-in-law and 13 year-old granddaughter were with us!

Since this was no doubt the only trip to Morocco my husband and I would make, we didn't want to miss the desert. I scoured Fodors as well as Trip Advisor and other sites and books for ideas on itineraries. Due to our children's need to return home by a certain date, we were constrained to three days and two nights for our desert trip. We needed to start in Marrakech and end in Fes. I found that a lot of excursion companies don't offer that short a trip because it's a lot of driving. I can now confirm that , but it was our only choice if we were going to go into the desert. As it turned out, it was magnificent and we're so glad we did it. We ended up with Morocco Excursions, http://www.morocco-excursion.com/.

I've described the first day and night, and second day leading to the dunes in my trip report entitled Magnificent Morocco, so I won't repeat it here. Instead, I'll pick up as we arrived in Merzouga, the small village closest to Erg Chebbi. Merzouga, or what we saw of it, is rabbit warren of dirt lanes connecting small buildings. Even our driver got lost and had to stop to ask directions to our final destination. But we did find it, a pleasant, basic auberge of sorts. There were rooms with beds, but we could see that it's main purpose was to hold suitcases for people like us who were going to spend the night in the desert. We were told to take only what we'd absolutely need for one night and leave the rest in the room.

We arrived mid afternoon and were told that the trek out to the erg wouldn't begin until about 5:00 or so due to the heat. We were in Morocco the last two weeks of April. I don't know if the weather is always as beautiful then or if we just got lucky, but we didn't see a drop of rain the entire time we were there and the sky and temps for our desert excursion were perfect.

Anyway, we strolled around the grounds and visited the camels who would be our transportation for the next 14 hours. Soon it was time to leave. The camels are lying down when you get on them and pop up quickly upon a command from the "driver". Holding on was something we learned to do right away! When my husband who's tall and big boned got on, Hassan, the owner of the company, didn't like the way it looked and suggested that he ride with him on his 4-wheeler. I guess it was quite an experience!

The rest of us set off with our Berber guide. The camels are roped together which you'll see from my pictures. It was an hour and 20 minute ride each way. I wish I could describe the dunes, but words don't do them justice. It's a sea of orange sand as far as you can see in any direction. How they know exactly where to go is amazing, although I'm sure these men have spent their entire lives there and somehow just know.

It's not flat. We would climb a bit, then descend. The climbing wasn't bad, but the descent was a little scary as the camel lowers its head to go down. The only thing between you and sliding down the camel's neck is a metal post similar to a saddle horn! I realized that I was holding on so tight that I had to uncramp my hands. Also, there are no stirrups, so your legs and hanging which means they're no help in hanging on. But the beauty of where we were far surpassed any discomfort we felt.

For almost an hour and a half, we were awed by the quiet, the beauty and the grandeur of our surroundings. Every once in a while we'd see another group in the distance and I thought I was on a movie set. The most touching moment came when our leader dropped the rope of our lead camel, walked a few feet away, took off his sandals and bowed in prayer. I'll never forget watching him.

Just when you think you can't take another minute more of what's generously called "camel massage", you arrive at your destination. Dismounting is another experience. The guide gives some sort of command and the camel drops on its front legs. As you're lunging toward earth the guide braces you just at the right moment and the camel lowers its back legs so you're level again. Whew!

We walked down a dune to our camp where my husband was waiting, the four wheeler trip having taken about 15 minutes, evidently a 'Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" experience .

The camp was a small grouping of very basic permanent buildings. It had a decent outhouse with running water as well as a large room where we ate dinner. In addition to us, there were about 15 more people that night. We enjoyed talking to our fellow camel trekkers who had come from all over the world.

After we arrived, we climbed a dune to watch the sunset. The sand is pretty hard, but it's also soft in places, so climbing was a bit of a workout as your feet sank in from time to time. Across from us was a very large dune which my son and son-in-law decided to conquer. They eventually became dots in the distance and I was concerned that they'd have enough daylight to find their way back, but they made it.

The sunset was breathtaking. The sky was clear, but there were just enough clouds to make it interesting. We climbed back down to camp where the Berbers were making dinner. We sat at a long table and were served delicious couscous with a choice of chicken or vegetarian tagine.

After dinner they entertained us with traditional music. I drifted out of camp to look at the stars. The combination of the music in the otherwise silent desert surrounded by the dunes, and the millions of stars above made it a surreal experience.

We slept on mattresses which were placed on rugs on the ground. Since there were six of us, we had our own sleeping quarters. The door to each building was a rug which when lowered, made for one dark bedroom! The silence was deafening, although we all eventually slept, to be wakened just before dawn.

We climbed another dune to look east into the sunrise. I realized that we were actually watching the sun rise over Algeria which was only about 25 miles to our east. Like the sunset the night before, the sunrise was breathtaking.

By about 7:30 we mounted the camels to start the journey back to Merzouga. Once back, we could take a shower and we were fed a wonderful breakfast in the courtyard. We gathered up our suitcases and settled our bill for the three days with Hassan and Morocco Excursions.

I will never forget the orange color of the sand and the dunes which, as we were in them, enveloped us. I hadn't anticipated how quiet it would be. No birds, no traffic, no sounds of any sort. I'll never say, "in the middle of nowhere" again without thinking of the new meaning our experience gave it.

Having only done this only once, I can't compare it to anything else. I'd be interested to hear what the experience of other Fodorites has been. It obviously wasn't luxurious, but we weren't looking for that. It was fine for us and I can't think of anything I would have changed about it.

We enjoyed every minute of our two weeks in Morocco. From the medinas and the souks to the mountain passes and the desert, it was a wonderful assault on the senses. People have asked what we liked best about it. That's hard to say since we had so many different experiences, but what always seems to rise to the top is our experience in the desert. Definitely an experience of a lifetime!

Enjoy the pictures - yes, it really looks like that! (best played as a slideshow).

https://plus.google.com/photos/10174...55909696205121
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Jun 15th, 2014, 06:37 AM
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Hmmm, I thought I tagged this in Morocco, but I guess I didn't and I don't think I can edit it now...
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Jun 15th, 2014, 12:02 PM
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Hi Ellen

I'm enjoying reading about your journey, so thanks for taking the time to write it. We spent a mad eight days in Morrocco about 10 years ago as part of a long trip in Europe. I'd love to go back, as we didn't have time for the desert experience, although we have ridden camels elsewhere so understand the roller coaster mount/dismount.

I can't open any of your photo links ??? Any idea what I'm doing wrong ?

Please continue the story
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Jun 16th, 2014, 05:37 AM
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Ellen, nice trip report, interesting read. Brought back so many memories of our family trip to Morocco 4 years ago. We can relate with you on the very long drive going to Merzouga. We booked our trip through Authentic Morocco who arranged everything from the accommodations in riads, transportation and tours. The sunset camel ride around the Erg Chebbi dunes was quite memorable. But we did not stay in the desert, instead we were booked at the Tomboucttou hotel which was right at the edge of the desert. Nice comfortable place. The following day, we were able to catch the sunrise which was also quite a sight. We were able to have nice photos at the sand dunes thanks the expert Berber guide who must have had a lot of practice with the many tourists visiting the place. We actually had 2 guides, one leading the camels and the other one was the photographer! The ride back to Marrakech via the winding roads of the Atlas mountains was another exciting, albeit somewhat hair-raising, experience. All in all, I would say Morocco is a place that should be in everyone's bucket list.
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Jun 16th, 2014, 07:56 AM
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bandiroot, your experience in the desert sounds like it was memorable, too. Your comment about Morocco being on everyone's bucket list reminded that, a few days into our trip, my husband asked if it's possible to put something on your bucket list retroactively. He said if he had known what a wonderful country Morocco is, it would have been on his bucket list!
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Jun 17th, 2014, 03:33 AM
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sartoric, have you been able to open the album yet? I wish I could give you some ideas. The photos show how orange the sand was.
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Jun 18th, 2014, 05:47 PM
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No, I get to the google site, then an error message saying something like, " not on this server, and that's all we know", very helpful !

Anyway, thanks for your report, and good to hear you enjoyed your time in Maroc.
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Jul 17th, 2014, 10:02 AM
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Thanks for sharing it, Morocco is amazing country and the Erg chebbi sahara desert was the highlights of our Morocco trip.
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Aug 8th, 2014, 08:00 AM
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We are traveling soon to Morocco, and we are so excited to visit Erg Chebbi desert....ellen7505 thank you for sharing your experience;
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Aug 16th, 2014, 09:32 AM
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Dear Ellen

From your previous experience, Could you please let me know if the camel ride for long time is confortable or not ?

Thanks again
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Aug 21st, 2014, 04:09 PM
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Vegan22,

I wouldn't say the camel ride was comfortable - they call it the "camel massage" for a reason. By the end of both the trip out to the camp and back, we were VERY ready to get off! But despite the discomfort, I wouldn't change the experience for anything. For me it was the highlight of a trip full of extraordinary experiences.
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