since 2009

Morocco desert experience

azalai camp vip tent

 

Sahara desert camp- it this the way to experience Morocco’s desert ?

 

Although some of the routes were improved recently, you still need about 10 hours drive from Marrakech and 7- 8 hours drive from Fes to reach the first Sahara dunes. 

( Disclaimer: all the below photos were taken by Sun Trails stuff on location over the years and represent our up- to- date partner desert camps)

What is it that draws us to the immensity of the dunes ? The oceans of sand. Where does it spark from, this longing to gaze at wave after wave of sand disappearing on the horizon?…  All else irrelevant. There, on top of the highest dune. 

 “For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars.” T. E. Lawrence

Here, by the dunes of Erg Chigaga, despite of all the apparent scarcity, water runs just below the surface, a secret well kept under layers of sand. The desert also makes grown- ups children again. 

camel ride into the dunes
Camels waiting in the dunes of Erg Chigaga

In the collective imaginary, there is hardly anything more exotic, than those tougher- than- life Bedouin men crossing the desert, carrying precious loads of gold, ivory, slaves, textiles, spices or salt on the back of their sturdy camels. It used to take the caravans 7 to 8 weeks to cross from one side (Morocco) to the other ( Mali) and some were losing half their personnel on the way. 

{ Read: A 5 day private desert Morocco tour from Marrakech: Draa Valley, the dunes of Erg Chigaga, Biblical villages, secret kasbahs and more}.

Whilst some camel trading still takes place in some parts of Niger where the Azalai sees thousands of camels travel across the vast territory, camels in Morocco are not used for caravan trading anymore. 

Dinner by candle light in the dunes at Azalai Camp
Dinner by candle light in the dunes at Azalai Camp

For some of those traveling to Morocco, spending a night in the Sahara is ticking off a box on a travel notebook. For others, it is a lifelong dream. Naturally then, you don’t want to ruin that experience and thus should carefully choose the right Morocco travel planner. 

“The Sahara, like all abstract, vast spaces, is a dream. One vast mirage, the grandeur, the enormity of which fires the imagination in one’s memory after the physical impact is over. The desert is something you shrink from while in its presence, but which you remember nostalgically after it is all over.” Hoyningen Huene

WHERE IS THE DESERT IN MOROCCO: ERG CHEBBI/ ERG CHIGAGA

 

Any forum on Trip Advisor, Fodor or the likes will tell you that there are two places in Morocco where you can actually spend a night in the desert: the dunes of Erg Chebbi and the dunes of Erg Chigaga. The route from Marrakech over the High Atlas mountains is one of the most dramatic in Moroco and reaches Ouarzazate on the other side. 

[ Read: Our desert private tours ]

From here, there are two options: Erg Chebbi dunes– east through Skoura, Dades Gorge, Tinerir, Rissani and finally Merzouga; and Erg Chigaga dunes- south, following the Draa Valley through Agdz, Zagora, Tamegroute and finally Mhamid. From my own experience and feedback over the years, indeed, the dunes of Erg Chigaga get a fair amount less of visitors. The distance and driving time to both these dune locations is more or less similar, about 5- 6 hours drive from Ouarzazate. 

erg chigaga luxury camp inside tent
Azalai Camp luxury tent interior

HOW TO GET TO MOROCCO’S SAHARA DESERT ?

The dunes of Erg Chebbi owe their popularity partly to their being easily accessible : a bus will take you to literally the foot of the dunes from Marrakech in a 10 hour drive. Or, you could hire a rent a car. But in both cases, you’d miss a lot on the way there. The best way to reach Sahara desert is booking one of the Morocco private tours. If still not sure, Erg Chebbi dunes are the obvious choice when you wish to also take in Fes and Rabat or Meknes. 

If you are ready to give Fes a miss, then the dunes of Erg Chigaga are the ones to go forEspecially since they are two hours drive away from the closest bit of tarmac and you would be a fool not to loop your way back to Marrakech on a different route, thus experiencing all different formations of the desert:  sand dunes, stone plateaus, gravel plains, dry valleys and salt flats. 

And did we mention the Draa Valley, a caravan highway for centuries, where the river is flanked by one of the largest palm groves in the world along with Biblical villages and century old kasbahs ? Then, is it impossible to experience the desert in a Sahara luxury camp at Erg Chebbi ? Not at all. Your travel planner can suggest a more distant camp, deeper inside the dunes. 

Erg Chebbi desert luxury camp Merzouga
Erg Chebbi desert luxury camp

IS MOROCCO’S DESERT SAFE ?

Although the border with Algeria is not far, hitherto there has been no registered case of kidnapping or activity of a terrorist organization in these areas. Security at the border is very tough. In the very hot season ( July – August), there may be very rare cases of scorpions or snakes, but they hardly ever enter areas where they feel human presence. If you want to be 100 % sure, make sure you spend the night inside your tent and that your mattress is not laid straight on the ground. 

erg chigaga VIP tent Azalai
Azalai camp Erg Chigaga VIP tent with butler

BASIC DESERT TENT VERSUS LUXURY DESERT TENT

Nowadays, there are more and more luxurious desert camps to complement the regular ones. Most regular camps offer spartan but clean double beds with mattress and frame and plenty of blankets to keep you warm in the night, if chilly. Toilets are private while showers are shared and running water is scarce. 

Sahara luxury camps offer wider tents with en suite showers and toilets, extensive furniture and fittings, and king size beds. The dinner menu is also more comprehensive. In the past 2- 3 years, the desert luxury camps also offer a higher level of standard, the VIP desert tents. These tents tend to be placed further away from the main camp, more accommodating and complete with a private butler. A normal basic camp accommodates 10- 12 double tents with a larger tent for restaurant. The typical luxury camp accommodates 4- 5 en- suite tents with a restaurant tent.

{ Read: House of Dreams, impromptu romance half way between Marrakech and the Sahara }

Although the typical nomad tents are wool tents secured with wood hooks and ropes, set up in a cone- like pattern, the camp tents nowadays tend to be box- shaped units set up on a solid (usually metal ) frame. Less traditional, they are much more resistant this way to strong winds and provide a better insulation from sand grains or any eventual insects ( mostly flies).

 However, if your only reason for booking a Sahara luxury camp tent is having private showers and toilet, you should know that you can still have a shower both in the afternoon arriving at and the morning departing from the desert lodge.

Normally you have that choice, when arriving in the afternoon, before leaving the asphalt. After a 30 – 45 minute camel ride ( optional), you arrive at the desert camp as the sun sets, where you will have your dinner and spend the night. Naturally, the camp is fully staffed. Next morning, you should try and not miss the sunrise. Then, you will be taken back to the same lodge where you had arrived the previous afternoon and have a proper breakfast, before proceeding with your Morocco itinerary.

erg chebbi basic camp
Erg Chebbi dunes basic camp                                                

SPEND ONE NIGHT OR TWO IN THE SAHARA ?

In winter ( mid November to mid March) days are short and the sun sets around 5- 6 PM. If you’re on a tour of Morocco, it is likely you will arrive at the camp just before sunset and will leave not long after breakfast. 

Which doesn’t leave you with much time to enjoy the dunes. Ideally, forecast two nights in the desert in winter then ( or at least one night in a lodge by the dunes and the second one in a desert camp inside the dunes).

If you are worried about not having much to do, you may be wrong: tea with the nomads, rock engravings, prying out fossils, lunch in the oasis,  dinosaur sites, quad biking, sand boarding, Berber mtfouna are but some of the choices. The downside is that if a sand storm is blowing in ( very rare but not impossible ), you will have no choice but to spend the morning or afternoon inside your tent. 

ALCOHOL IN THE DESERT

Given the alcohol regulations in Morocco, very few camps ( even among luxury ones) sell alcohol on site. Therefore the best way to go about it is to get yourself your supplies in Marrakch or Ouarzazate ( cca. half way between Marrakech and the dunes and the largest town in the south). Otherwise, you may end up paying 3 or 4 times the price if you want to acquire it in a hotel by the dunes. All you need to do is ask for your driver to stop you at a special store. He will then stock it for you in the 4×4’s freezer box, if need be.

erg chigaga basic camp inside
erg chigaga basic camp tent interior

CLOTHING AND TEMPERATURES IN THE SAHARA

Cotton/ linen clothes and sneakers/ sandals are best for traveling around Morocco including the desert. A fleece or rain jacket is always a good addition for late nights/ early mornings. Outside the summer season, nights in the desert tend to be fresh/ chilly and in December/ January temperatures can get down to 35°F/ 2°C

Even with the basic tent accommodation, you will get as many blankets as necessary to keep you warm. That being said, it’s not a bad idea to bring over your sleeping bag, if space is available in your luggage. Day time, when the sun is out, temperatures can vary from 70°F/20°C in the winter months to the 113°F/ 45°C and more in July and August.

In general we will not recommend taking a Morocco tour to the desert in summer but for some, it is the only time of the year they can come. Have you booked to spend the night in the desert in the summer and you find it too hot to be there ? Worry not. 

Sun Trails will accommodate you at no extra charge, back at the lodge by the dunes, where you will have the comfort of an air conditioned room and a fresh pool giving onto the dunes. Early next morning, you can still enjoy your camel ride over the Sahara dunes while the sun is rising. Some of the desert luxury camps now offer air conditioned tents. 

Sun Trails offers both basic and luxury camp options in the desert for those booking Morocco private tours. For more details, please send your enquiry here.

Luxury camp Erg Chebbi inside of tent
Luxury camp Erg Chebbi inside of tent

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