[Read part one of our Morocco adventures in Taghazout, Essaouria, & Marrakech]
Besides a few coastal towns and Marrakech, while in Morocco we wanted to check out the Atlas Mountain region and see the Sahara Desert. We usually take public transit between cities and read up on how to see/do things ourselves, but I’d read the buses to get there can be brutal and it’s tricky to get from town to town. So, a tour it was and it ended up being a fabulous experience.
Our private guide Mohammed picked us up from Marrakech and showed us around for four days. We started off driving through the Atlas Mountains on windy roads and through huge canyons. We passed by numerous small villages each anchored with a tall tower in the middle where their mosque was. Saw lots of free range camels on the side of the highway. Touring through these small villages was fascinating to get an up-close glimpse at daily life. People going to the market to get their daily bread and spices. Lots of livestock markets with donkeys and such in huge fields being available for sale. We were usually the only tourists around so we turned a lot of heads, especially as I was only woman around not covered from head to toe and wearing a hijab. We also stopped at a local fabric shop to get scarves for our camel trek. Scarves are worn by most men in the desert to help avoid blowing sand and to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. The man who owned the shop even taught us the traditional way to tie them around your head.
One of the days we went to Mohammed’s village and he invited us into his home for “berber pizza.” Think calzone but in a round shape like a pizza and with camel meat inside. It was delicious! We had tea to drink and dates for dessert. Side note: did you know that dates come from palm trees? Or was it just me? Mind blown when I realized all the palm trees there didn’t have coconuts. His wife made the pizza then there’s a local establishment with an oven in town that cooks it for you, so we went to pick it up. We really enjoyed getting to know Mohammad. He’s around our age and lives with his wife, his parents and sister. He supports everyone (not uncommon in his culture) and also sends money to his sister who goes to university in a nearby city. We exchanged stories and asked him about life in Morocco. He told us about his recent wedding and how the entire town was invited, whether they knew them or not, and the party lasted multiple days with feast upon feast hosted by his family. We also stopped at nearby Telouet Fort which is where many Hollywood film scenes were shot including The Mummy and Gladiator. There’s also a production studio close where lots of movies are filmed that use the Moroccan landscape and desert as a backdrop.
The absolute highlight of the four days was our overnight camel trek in the Sahara Desert. We left Mohammed and joined up with a group in Merzouga, a village on the edge of the Sahara Desert near the Algeria border. Fun fact: Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world and third largest overall (behind Antarctica and the Artic) covering most of Northern Africa. We arrived to our group of camels tied up waiting for us. We had left our big backpacks and took just our small one for the one night. Trav’s new scarf tying skills were an instant hit and he started helping everyone in our group tie theirs. As we awkwardly loaded onto the camels and got going, we quickly learned that riding camels is not as easy or comfortable as it looks. It is pretty jerky. Luckily the ridiculously beautiful scenery made up for it. We rode for about an hour then the sun started to set so we hopped off the camels to watch it while sitting in the dunes. It really does look like the movies. Rolling sand dunes as far as the eye can see and not a person or thing in sight. The sun went down behind the dunes so we continued on a bit longer to reach our “camp” for the night.
We weren’t sure how rustic accommodations would be (it is the middle of the desert after all) so we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived. The camp had 10 or so big tents set up in a circle around an area in the middle with a bathroom. It even had a real toilet you just had to use the nearby bucket of water to let gravity do the work flushing normally does. Tents were pretty sturdy with metal doors and tall enough for Trav to walk around in. Woven mats were on the ground everywhere so you didn’t have to walk in the sand. They used solar panels so there was a light bulb in each tent and small ones placed throughout the camp to see where you’re going in the dark. That night we ate dinner altogether in a big tent. We sat with a lovely Belgian family and had lots of good conversation and laughs. Knowing an early wakeup was coming, we went to bed early and actually had a perfect night sleep. The desert cooled down at night so we slept great with the fresh air nestled under big blankets.
The morning plan was to get back on the camels and watch the sunrise, but we weren’t sure what time that was. I woke up around 6am to people walking around, so we got up and started packing. We asked others in the group but they weren’t sure about the plan either and the guide wasn’t around. Trav went to use the bathroom before we headed out. A minute later I tried to open the door and realized he had locked me in. (The door swings open unless it’s latched closed and has locks on both inside and outside). Through the crack in the door I saw everyone start to leave with their bags but figured Trav would be right back (there was my first mistake). Cut to who knows how much longer and he’s STILL in there. I’m starting to sweat wondering if we’ll miss the sunrise or worse just left there as the group gets on the camels and heads back without us. Just as I start to contemplate if someone would even hear my yells to be let out, Trav finally returns. We got our stuff and rushed to find everyone loading up on their camels ready to go.
It was light out when we started the trek back but the sun wasn’t up over the dunes yet. Right before it did, we got off the camels to enjoy the sunrise in the dunes again. Not to be cheesy, but it really was magical. We’ve been fortunate to see sunrises in some epic places this year, but that one might take the cake. Then it was an hour or so ride back to the village. What surprised me most about the desert landscape is literally at one point it just…stops. The dunes get less dramatic and less frequent and then the sand just stops. It makes logical sense but you never think about that aspect when you picture it.
In the end, we’re so happy we shuffled travel plans to do Morocco during this time of year (October). We were in southern Spain in August and it would have made much more sense geographically to go to Morocco right after, but we would have melted during that time of year!
Going to Morocco? Highly recommend the tour company we used – Sahara 4×4 Tours – you can find them on TripAdvisor.