In the Sahara

Getting There

Today would be a long drive from the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas to the sand dunes of the Sahara. We left Azrou early, climbing steadily up through the cedars, past a region of apple and fruit orchards and up to a high treeless plateau. Here between 1900-2100m, nomadic shepherds and goatherders graze their flocks on the summer grass, before taking them down to avoid the winter snow. We saw many of their camps tucked in to the rolling hills of the plateau.

The barren high plains ......

The eastern end of the High Atlas

..... where nomad shepherds camp over summer to graze their flocks

Dryland forest

After descending the Middle Atlas and crossing another high valley, the landscape became drier as the mountains wedged closer, until we started to climb up their rocky, barren and dramatically folded slopes to cross the eastern spine of the High Atlas. Winding our way over high passes and through twisting gorges in the range, we began to follow the Ziz River (Morocco's largest), as it forced its way through the mountains southwards toward the desert.

After passing a large dam on the river, we stopped for lunch in the modern desert town of Errachidia. The temperature was hovering around 36°C as we left to continue our journey along the Ziz, as it flowed through a wide and shallow gorge - a ribbon of palm trees and lush vegetation in the dry brown landscape, fringed with small villages and their tan-coloured mud-brick houses - this was the Oasis Talafilet - spectacular!

The Ziz River winds out of the Atlas Mountains ......

The mountains became more barren .....

..... to create a a green winding oasis on the desert plains

..... until finally we reached the desert plain

The landscape continued to become drier and flatter, until, in the distance, we could see the towering terracotta-coloured 150m high sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. We had reached the region known as Merzouga and our auberge at the base of the Sahara dunes. It had been an interesting trip through diverse landscapes.

Relaxing in the pool at our Merzouga auberge

Our legs needed a good stretch after the long day in the minibus, but with the temperature in the high 30s, it was time for a swim in the auberge pool first, before heading out for an evening stroll in the dunes to catch the changing colours of the sand as the sun set over the Sahara Desert.

Sunset over the red dunes of Erg Chebbi

Footnote: It is actually difficult to take a stroll in the Saharan dunes without being joined by one of the blue-robed Berber gentlemen, helpful and friendly in English, French or German, but persistent, and carrying his bag of fossils or stone carvings which will inevitably appear for you to purchase. Our stroll ended up costing us 100 dirhams for a small stone bowl that will probably end up in a drawer at home.

A day in the Sahara

Desert sunrise

We were up before 6am, to give us time to walk out into the dune system and find a good position to watch the sunrise. It was a lovely time of day - walking barefoot in the sand in the half-light of pre-dawn, silent apart from the hush of a warm Saharan wind, and the occasional moon shadow of oneself when the near-full moon peaked through the clouds. Yes, clouds - they were the only downer to our morning ramble.


Desert moonscape

Dawn colours of the dunes

We found a good position atop the sharp-edged crest of a dune, smooth and steep on the leeward side, wind-rippled and firm on the windward side, and set down to absorb the stillness of the desert. Even before the sun rose, the dunes took on their red and pink hue and, while a watery white sun rising into the clouds did not offer the spectacular glow and contrast of colour and shade, it was good for the soul to be out there.

As the sun rose higher the dunes of Erg Chebbi took on an orange glow

Desert auberges on the rim of the dune system

Desert tapestry

After wandering back for breakfast and a swim in the pool, we packed our bags to move into our tented accommodation next door to the hotel. This was the disappointing part of the day. The tour itinerary had indicated that we would be travelling by camel to a nomad encampment 1½ hours away for an overnight stay deep in the desert, returning by camel the next morning - for us, it would have been a trip highlight. However, apparently the Moroccan government has banned desert camping for environmental reasons and the nomads moved their tents next to the hotel - what a great way to destroy the ambience of camping in the Sahara. It was yet another change to our pre-trip itinerary and it changed this part from a magical journey into the desert to a night in a tent and a camel ride - the psychology of travel can be interesting.


What would the Sahara be without ships of the desert floating across the dunes

The hotel swimming pool proved a good distraction in the 39°C heat, but by 6pm we were ready for our camel ride into the dunes - an interesting experience, as we headed out in small tethered groups of 3-5, rocking and swaying our way up and down the dunes and along their crests to reach a point where we dismounted for attempt two to see a desert sunset.

The camels arrive ......

.... to head off into the dunes ....

..... and we all mount up .....

... and enjoy the solitude of Erg Chebbi

With the heavy cloud cover this was never going to be, but again it was great just to be out in the wind-rippled and moulded dunes. Speaking of which, the already strong wind picked up and sheets of fine sand began to fan across the dunes' surface - in the distance the far dunes began to fade from view - a sand storm was heading our way and it was time to leave.

Pale coloured dunes in the light of an approaching sandstorm

Quickly pulling up our face covers and mounting our noble beasts again, our little caravan headed back towards the hotel, as the sand blew in, accompanied by some drops of rain. Now there was a novel experience not too many visitors would have had - rain in the Sahara. Perhaps it was a good thing not to be camping out in the desert.

Desert sunset

Creatures of the desert

After a pleasantly cool night in the tent, we were off early the following morning for the next part of our Moroccan adventure, but not before one last solo dawn foray into the dunes to sit and meditate on the colours and silence of the Sahara - not even a breath of wind remained of the last night's storm, just the scurrying footprints of small mammals, birds and insects marking their ephemeral passage in the sands of the Sahara - it was a special time.