In the very far south east of Morocco lies Erg Chebbi, a vast set of sand dunes measuring 10 km in length, lining the Morocco-Algeria border. The dunes rise up to 150m out of the otherwise flat and stony Moroccan landscape and represent one of the two ergs that make up Morocco’s portion of the desert. The other being Erg Chigaga near M’hamid even deeper to the south.
The dunes were a long two day drive from our starting point in Marrakech, over the high Atlas Mountains, through numerous small towns and across vast swathes of nothing. As we approached our destination the vegetation started to disappear and huge orange mounds began to appear, rising from the horizon. The excitement was building inside me – I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never even been to a desert before and the long journey had built the anticipation even more so that when I first saw the dunes I couldn’t wait to begin our new trip.
We stopped at a little auberge where the gravel roads ended and the sand began in order drink mint tea and wait for our nomad guides to arrive with our camels. This gave me a chance to wander up the small sand piles surrounding the building.Climbing up the small 10m dunes I could see out across the vast sea of sand ahead on which we would be venturing out into. Even from this spot of relative civilization you could get a sense of the emptiness of the road ahead.
I walked down to see our berber guides dressed in long blue, traditional robes and headscarves loading up the camels and beckoning us to come over and hop on. The camels were scruffy but adorable. Id ridden a camel before in the Canary Islands on a naff little tourist trail across some rocky outcrops for half an hour. This was a different proposition as the ride out into the dunes would be a 3-4 hour trek. Luckily these camels were much more used to having people around due to the care and attention of their berber handlers. As the guides helped us rearrange our head scarves they assigned us each a camel, Becky getting the friendliest looking one and me the camel that looked most likely to spit in my face and throw me off. Apprehensively I straddled my dromedary only to be thrown first forwards, and then back as he clumsily got to his feet. I think that out of all of them, my camel was the least obliging as he threw me from side to side spitting and spluttering but it was something we’d both have to get used to as we began the long walk ahead.
We slowly plodded away from civilisation led by our expert camel wranglers. The clouds had cleared to give a bright blue backdrop to the vast expanse of yellow sand. I finally felt comfortable swaying side to side on the flat sand when suddenly I sloped backwards and had to hang on for dear life as we ascended the dunes, reaching the peak in time to see the setting sun wash the desert in a golden orange. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have even seen and worth the trip to Morocco alone.
For two hours we rode deeper and deeper in to the Sahara – the time passed so quickly. I really felt at peace plodding along on my trust steed, only occasionally being shaken from my trance by the camel galloping up a dune or losing its footing on the way down a slope. You got a tiny sense of what it must be like for the nomadic tribes wandering for days through the sand. I never got tired of seeing our ever stretching shadows projected across the dunes.
As the sun set we approached our accommodation for the night; a Bedouin camp set in the flat between the dunes consisting of large tents circling a camp fire and seating area. We had an hour of light left so our guide pointed in the direction of the highest dune which must have been over 100m tall; a perfect place to perch and watch the sun set. The climb to the top was worth it as the desert darkened to a deep orange colour, our shadows stretched out across the sand and the moon and stars began to appear as pinpricks in the blackening sky.
Another group of travellers were already at the top with sand boards that they had hired from the auberge, zipping down the dune as if it were powdery white alpine snow. We spent the evening riding the sandy waves, getting a rush from hurtling down the 100m long slopes until it was becoming too dark for us to carry on. In the sky above thousands of stars were starting to appear; being so far from the light pollution of any city it was like nothing I had ever seen before, The Milky Way cutting a colourful and sparkling streak across the heavens.
We descended to our camp where we found a candlelit dinner laid out for us on a low table surrounded by cushions for us to perch on. Our guide sat with us while we ate and as my French is pretty bad (his was too) and my Berber is non-existent it was fairly hard to communicate but we got by. Our beds consisted of a thin mattress piled high with blankets and cushions – after a hectic two days of travelling it looked so inviting. I climbed in and instantly fell asleep.
Waking up in the Sahara is a bit of a shock. It was a warm evening when we fell asleep but I woke up to a chilling cold, looking up I could see clouds of my breath emanating from the covers. I layered up and and, shivering, made my way out of the tent to see our guide preparing the camels for our return journey. We had to set off in the dark in order to enjoy the sunrise over the dunes on camel back.
In a way the sunrise was even more spectacular than the sunset the night before. The grey shadows on the waves of sand slowly receded, showing their true colour. The desert somehow seemed even more calm and peaceful at this early hour than it did the previous evening. You’re overcome with a feeling of serenity as you’re swaying from side to side on top of a camel. It was a serenity that wasn’t to last as we arrived back to the auberge ready to embark on the long trip back to Marrakech.
How To book the same tour
We booked the 3 Day/ 2 Night Desert Safari tour though Marrakech Keys Travel. I recommend booking in advance, especially if you want to travel with Aziz, the owner of the company who is a lovely guy and very knowledgeable about Morocco. However, if you are travelling without much of an itinerary then you can find many places in Marrakech that will organise a tour for you; most hostels/riads will be able to book you on to a trip. The prices vary depending on how many people are taking part in the tour and how many nights/days you want to spend on the road with the cheapest being under $100 for a two day trip.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.