We disembarked the night bus in Merzouga around 5:30am, in the total darkness of an unfamiliar town, which was so still that it seemed uninhabited. The bus had emptied out as the 10-hour journey from Fez went on and people got off at small villages along the way, so there were only three of us, all foreign women, left on by the time it reached Merzouga, the final stop. We tumbled out of the bus onto the dusty street, clumsily hoisted our bags, and suddenly the bus was gone. Was there actually a tumbleweed blowing gently towards us or is that my memory playing tricks? “Whoa, where are we?,” I thought groggily.
Camels on the move during a sandstorm
Merzouga is situated just at the edge of the Sahara Desert, on the way to nothing else, other than Algeria, but the land border between Algeria and Morocco is closed. There’s no way to convince yourself that you can stop here on the way to somewhere else. If you come to Merzouga, it is on purpose, and it is to experience the desert. The town is a 10-12 hour bus ride away from each of the two nearest major cities, Fez and Marrakesh, though both trips are significantly faster if you have your own car instead of taking a bus. I almost skipped this part of Morocco because of the distance, but wow, I am so glad I decided to make the journey.
Put simply, the Sahara Desert is one of the most incredible places I have ever experienced.
I fell in love with this peaceful, sand-colored town and the desert that blends into and out of it like I have not fallen for a place in a very long time.
(Photo courtesy of Rachel McCoy, my travel partner and amazing photographer)
Merzouga, with its unassuming mud and concrete buildings, is laid back and peaceful. In the mornings, the sun peeks over the dunes and the town wakes up slowly from the cold night. Lone men wearing long djellabas (a Moroccan cloak that looks like a wizard’s, complete with a pointy hood — think Gandalf in Lord of the Rings) quietly drift down the middle of the dusty main road. As the sun gains strength, traffic comprised mostly of old bicycles and rickety motorcycles with a few tourism vans thrown in kicks up the dust and sand coating the road. The men trade their djellabas for long tunics and colorful turbans to combat the blowing sand. In the evenings, the dust settles and the air fills with the smell of meat being roasted over charcoal fires on a few grills along the street as people congregate in cafés, drinking tea and exchanging news. After sunset, most people are back in their homes or out in the desert and the town is quiet.
Merzouga main street at sunset
Life in the desert is intense and inextricably tied to the mother nature.
As soon as we arrived in this desert town, I felt the moisture instantly sucked out of my skin, hair and throat by the dry air and wind. Dust coated my entire body and all my clothes the whole time we were there. Though it is winter, the sun is still intense (but the temperature is moderate, even cold at night) and I was perpetually sunburnt and windblown, despite an obsessive use of sunscreen. But maybe the intensity is part of what makes this place so arresting.
Most people who live here depend on the desert in one way or another. Some are nomads who move through the desert with their camels, relying on the desert to provide water and plants while coming to town occasionally to buy or trade goods, and some are permanent town-dwellers who make a living from the tourism provided by the desert. Regardless, no one can forget the desert, and everyone here respects it. There is no other way.
The first day we arrived in Merzouga, we were greeted by a sandstorm.
Rachel and I had walked out to the edge of the dunes when the wind started picking up and we realized we should turn around. It was unpleasant and painful, being whipped by flying grains of sand that got in the eyes, nose, mouth, everywhere. But it was also exquisitely beautiful – the power of the desert was clear and magnificent that day.
Sand blowing in a storm
And after it ended, everything was clean and new. The dunes had shifted shape slightly, all footprints and traces of human activity had been erased, and the desert looked untouched, as if it had just been reborn. There is something mystical about a place that is ever-changing, never the same. To know that what you are witnessing is only there for that moment that you see it, that later it will be different, that it can never be recreated quite in the same way…wow.
What a phenomenal place. What an incredible world we have.
Coming soon: More desert! A post about trekking with camels into the Sahara on its way in the next week.