Plan Your Sahara Adventure

070207_erg_chebbiF.JPGLife’s truly picture-perfect moments come few and far between, but you can capture several of them at one time in the magnificent Sahara. A sea of sand dunes set against shimmering gray, yellow, orange, and red light, the Sahara is the most beautiful and awe-inspiring piece of geography you’ll find in Morocco.

Where to Go

The two main desert areas in Morocco are very different. Merzouga and its impressive Erg Chebbi dunes are popular and more amenable to a quick “in-out” overnight. If you’re coming from Fez and want to include a trip to the Sahara in your itinerary, Merzouga is the most convenient entry point. Those coming from Marrakesh will want to head towards Zagora and Mhamid. The small dunes near Zagora aren’t worth writing home about; there might be some lovely places to stay nearby, but it just isn’t the desert proper. Mhamid is slightly less developed for tourism and therefore the entry point for the more adventurous. You have eye-popping dunes that stretch for miles, including the Erg Chagaga.

What to Expect

You might think there’s not a lot to do in the desert. Of course, you’re right. But when there are no shops, no stereos, and no kitchens, just getting by becomes an activity in and of itself. You can cook bread in hot ashes packed into the sand; count stars until the sky caves in; or listen to hypnotic Berber drumming deep into the night. Everyone has a favorite part of the day, be it waking to see the muted colors of the sand at first light, the fury of the midday sun, or cresting a dune on foot at dusk.

Most camel treks into Erg Chebbi, in Merzouga, rarely last more than three hours at a time, and palms, tents, and dinner are generally waiting for you at your oasis destination. Most operators and auberges have permanent tented camps hidden among the oases and dunes, so there’s no hassle once you arrive. They even have tents for two, for extra romance. If you want to keep the stars within eyeshot all night, you can also just sleep on a rug over the sands. Budget two to three days of your overall itinerary for your desert experience.

What to Do

While camel trekking (along with imbibing that particularly delectable camel scent and temper) is pretty much an obligatory part of the experience, you can mix things up a little. Quad bikes and buggies are becoming increasingly popular, and it’s possible to arrange four- or five-day motorized dune safaris with companies based in Zagora. Also, you can ski, snowboard, and body board on the dunes (you can rent equipment from many of the auberges that face the sands in Merzouga). Or you can take it easy and kick back and watch the changing shades of the dunes all day long.

Tour Operators

There’s no desert in Marrakesh, Zagora, or Ouarzazate, but these are some of the best towns in which to set out on multi-day desert tours, especially to the dunes around Mhamid. For Erg Chebbi near Merzouga, your best bets are either to arrange something through your Merzouga hotel, or before you leave home. Contact some of these tour operators to set up your trip:

Iriqui Excursions: www.iriqui.com
Cherg Expeditions: www.cherg.com
Sahara Services: www.saharaservices.info
Sahara Trek: www.saharatrek.com
Blue Men of Morocco: www.bluemenofmorocco.com

Insider Tip

Preparing for the heat: If you must go in summer, when temperatures can reach 55°C (131°F), don’t go out in the day (even the camels won’t); rather, take sunset camel rides into the dunes, spend the night, and head back at dawn. The best (and busiest) time is between March and the beginning of May. Cover up. People who’ve been living in the desert for years know that one light cotton or silk layer is better than a tank top and shorts.

Make a Reservation by Phone: Pick a place to stay before you get to the town, and call them up and confirm your reservation by phone. You’ll avoid hassle with persuasive local touts if you know where you’re going and can say so confidently. Better yet, get your hosts to pick you up or meet you at an appointed place.

Camels are Your Friends: To avoid discomfort when riding a camel, don’t make the mistake of treating it like a horse. Relax and try and adjust to the rolling movement rather than tensing against it.

Katrina Manson and James Knight

Also see:

Fez: A Survival Guide
24 Hours in Marrakesh