From the main street in Merzouga, it takes only about 15 minutes to walk to the edge of the Saharan sand dunes.
The view is breathtaking, every time.
You can simply walk into the desert as far as you want, but almost everyone in the town will offer you a guided camel tour (at a good price “for you, my friend,” of course).
Rachel and I are both vegetarian types, concerned about animal welfare, so we had been debating for days about the ethics of taking a camel tour. We also had concerns that this type of trek would be a kind of fake, overly hyped tourist thing, so we considered just walking in by ourselves.
In the end, though, we decided to go for the tour offered by our hostel. After experiencing a desert sandstorm, it seemed safer to go with a guide who knew the desert and what they were doing. We also hoped to learn some cultural things from a guide that we would miss by ourselves. And it was quite affordable – about $35 a person for an overnight trip.
As for the camels (the Moroccan type is a dromedary – a single-humped camel), they seemed well-cared for and not over-burdened by gear fastened to their bodies or excessive baggage. They are remarkable animals and so at ease in the desert and adapted for life there. Some fun facts about camels: they store extra fat in their hump so they can use it when food and water aren’t available; they have an extra clear eyelid and two sets of long eyelashes to keep sand out of their eyes; they can close their nostrils to keep sand out during sandstorms; and they re-hydrate faster than any other mammal when water is available. So interesting!
The part of the Sahara that I visited in Morocco is only the very northwestern tip of a huge expanse of desert. It starts here and continues all the way south through Mali and east through Egypt, on the other side of Africa. It’s a pretty incredible distance.
In fact, the Sahara is larger than the entire continental United States.
The vastness is powerful. I definitely felt awed by it.
Rachel in the desert
One of the best parts of the trek was getting to know Hassan, our guide. He is about my age – slightly younger – and has never left the desert. He only attended a couple years of school but speaks at least five languages. (A lot of Moroccan men have learned additional languages in what they call “the school of life.” This school seems to have also taught them the phrase “see you later, alligator,” which always makes me laugh. In contrast, 70% of women in Morocco are illiterate and speak only Arabic. Pretty unequal.)
Our guide, Hassan (right), with another guide and our camels behind them (Rachel McCoy photography)
Hassan belongs to the Berber ethnic group (also known as Amazigh – Berber is actually a variation on “barbarian,” a name unkindly given to these folks by the Romans but is widely used in Morocco now). Amazigh are the main ethnic group in this part of Morocco, and were actually the original inhabitants of the region. They were pushed into the desert when Arabic people moved in from the middle east. Though one finds Berbers throughout all of Morocco, many are still living a nomadic life in the desert throughout the region. In this part of Morocco, being a desert guide for tourists is a job that many Berber men embrace. Berber women are famous for weaving intricate and colorful rugs, which are sold throughout Morocco and are true works of art.
Hassan was an expert in where to take the best pictures
Hassan has a great sense of humor and kept us laughing throughout the trek. He told a lot of riddles, like “how do you put a camel in a fridge in three steps?” (answer: Open fridge, put camel in, close fridge) Rachel asked him if he used the internet, and he said “Internet? Why do I need the internet when I have the desert?” However, I can attest that he does indeed use the internet – we have kept in touch through Instagram since we parted ways a few weeks ago.
The scarves/turbans look silly but were actually super necessary to keep blowing sand out of your face as much as possible
We spent the night in a Berber camp about two hours into the desert, near a huge dune which we climbed to see the sunset. The camp was in an oasis, a patch in the desert where plants grow and water is available. I had seen camps similar to this in Benin, where there are also nomadic people, but I had never slept in one. In the oasis, the tents were large and spacious, more like houses made of canvas, and the only disconcerting thing about the stay was the part when Hassan said, “the toilet is anywhere outside of the camp.” Oh, I see.
Rachel and I on top of the large dune at sunset
We spent the night sitting around a campfire with Hassan and a few other Berber men who work in tourism. The camp was large, but mostly empty. They explained that because we visited during the school year, all of the women and children had relocated to the town so the children could go to school. On break, they said, everyone would move back to the camp.
Berber tent (with Flat Stanley in front – that was our addition)
This intersection between tradition and modernity struck me as fascinating. I imagined the pull for children between learning the ways of the desert like their parents and learning things to keep up in the modern world. It must be a confusing thing to navigate. The people who live in this camp are so close to the town that they seem to have a foot in each life. Hassan says that there are other people who live much deeper in the desert and whose children will never leave the desert. They are born there, they live there, and they die there, he says. According to Hassan, these people are also the ones who truly know all the secrets of the desert – like how to navigate by the stars, which he says he cannot do.
(Rachel McCoy Photography)
Around the campfire, our hosts treated us to some traditional Berber music with drums and a flute. It was obviously something they knew tourists would like, but I also got the feeling that they would probably be doing the same thing if we weren’t there. There is no power in the camp and music seems to be an important part of the Amazigh culture.
Rachel and I shared a tent and set an alarm for 4:30am so we could see the stars after the moon had set.
I am usually not a fan of 4:30am, but the view of the stars from this remote place was absolutely phenomenal.
The next morning, we almost got up in time to see the sun rise (close enough, still a beautiful sight) and then headed back to the town.
One of the young men on the tour with us took this opportunity to video chat with about eight of his friends and family members back home in Australia, thanks to the 4G cell reception available even in the Sahara desert. It was a very incongruous thing for me, but his contacts did seem to enjoy the call.
I spent the time forcibly eavesdropping (no other sound out there – it was impossible not to) and reflecting on the way that modernity is creeping into all corners of the world – even those that used to be the most remote. If you can video chat from the Sahara Desert, is there anywhere that is still off the grid? And what impact does the omnipresence of technology have on the people who have been living here for so long?
Rachel and I took Hassan out to dinner that night in town to say thank you for a great experience. He took this opportunity to tell us about the scary creatures you can encounter in the desert – like snakes and scorpions – and how to treat injuries from each with traditional medicine. It was fascinating but I am glad I was blissfully ignorant of these creatures while I was there. We had a great conversation of cultural exchange – him telling us about growing up nomadic and living in the desert, and us telling him about life in our countries and living a life that is nomadic in its own way right now.
For the record, Hassan says that we did not see the real desert.
According to him, the real beauty of the Sahara is at least two or three days’ journey by camel. He says life is quite different that far into the desert and he invited us to come back and see the real thing. I must say, I am intrigued. I don’t see how the desert can get any more beautiful than what I witnessed, but I hope to be able to find out one day.
Inshallah, as they say here: God willing.
I would love to return to the desert.