It was the first time I was traveling to Morocco, or a country outside of Europe for that matter so it only made sense that I just had to see more of it.
On arrival to Morocco, I spent the first two nights in Marrakech, getting grasps of the local culture, the food, the transportation and off course the big markets where you could get lost for hours if you don’t have a plan or a map on the first go. Marrakech was great, but I wanted to see more of what Morocco had to offer, so here started my journey towards the Sahara desert.
The journey begins
Walking around Marrakech, you come across numerous organizers offering tours and experiences in the Sahara desert so I decided to give one of these a go. If you shop around you will get a great deal rather than booking before you arrive and it also helps meeting the organizers who can then tailor-make the tour dependent on how much time you want to spend out in the Sahara. I had four days to spend before my return to the UK so off I went on my adventure.
I had a private guide who picked me up from my hotel at 8am in a 4×4 as the journey can take over 12 hours and traveling by road is the only option so please be aware of the time you will be in a car. We left Marrakech driving along the Tizi n’Tichka pass, which is one longest road between Marrakech and the Sahara desert passing through the Atlas Mountains and some very interesting Berber villages. Although the journey is long, you just get to see so much of the country and the rawness of its natural beauty. Stock up on plenty of water and keep your camera ready so you don’t miss capturing anything along the way.
We reached our first stop of the day around 12pm, the UNESCO heritage site of Ait Benhaddou. This site was specially built as the filming set for Lawrence of Arabia and was much recently used in productions such as the “prince of Persia” and “Game of Thrones” so if you’re a fan of any of these then your are in for a real treat. Ait Benhaddou makes a grand appearance as soon you spot in the distance walking towards it which only gets much more mesmerizing when you are met by its great golden gate.
Spending a couple of hours walking towards the summit of the site is more than plenty to get a real feel of this place, by which time you will be seeking an opportunity to grab some lunch. I stopped at the L’oasis D’or and meal here costs around 200DH including a drink. The menu pretty much includes Moroccan dishes or burgers if you fancy a change; I went for the Chicken Skewers with the thinnest fries ever.
Canyons and Gorges
We continued our journey along the mountain pass making photo stops every now and then until we came arrived at the Kasbah Tifawen Hotel in the Dades Gorge. At nightfall, you would not really see much around you, but come morning you wake up to the most beautiful views of the valley. The meal was included in the stay and was a serving of traditional Moroccan food including soup, lamb tagine and Moroccan cookies for dessert, the food just gets better the deeper you travel inside the Morocco so definitely something to look forward to on your travels. The hotel is nicely decorated in traditional upholstery and provides an atmosphere of the Berber lifestyle. This is a very basic hotel, so make sure you have your toiletries with you for the morning, if not then I would advise to pick some up on the way at one of the rest stops.
After breakfast, we left the hotel to continue our journey towards the Sahara desert with an estimated arrival time of 4pm. We stopped at another wonderful place which has to be one of the greatest natural attractions I have seen, the Todra Gauge. The Todra Gauge is a huge 300meter deep rusty orange canyon passage with a clear water stream running alongside it. I was dropped off at the beginning of the passageway and made my way on foot to reach the other end admiring the palm trees, the small dotted villages and rock formations whilst enjoying the gentle breeze. If you do enjoy a good walk, or just like a bit of nature then the Todra Gauge is definitely worth a visit for its jaw-dropping views. I couldn’t stop taking photos as every step I took I would spot something to take a snap of so have plenty of storage space for your camera.
I see a camel and sand dunes
A few more hours in the car and here we were in Merzouga with a herd of camels and glittering gold sand dunes in the distance, it was paradise on earth. As soon as you see the desert, you just want to get your feet in the sand and not miss a moment of possibly being at the best place on earth, which makes all those hours spent in the car very forgiving.
Merzouga is probably one of the quaintest villages I have ever seen, with buildings made from sand, plenty of desert camps and places to eat. If you fancy some more tagline, there are a number of restaurants serving this, but I would strongly recommend having your evening meal at the hotel/camp your staying at for the authenticity of the experience. On arrival I checked into the desert camp I was staying at and instantly fell in love with the place although a little skeptical about spending the night in a tent in the middle of the desert. The camp was made of 30 Berber camel hair tents terraced together with a communal shower room at the far end. It also had a swimming pool overlooking the dunes which I did not get to use, so be sure to pack you swimwear if you want a dip in the desert.
The next thing on the list was the must do camel safari, so after dropping off my bags in my tent for the night I was welcomed by the safari host and a group of fellow tourists for the 90-minute trek. I had never been on a camel so was quite nervous, but as soon as we got going I was having the time of my life. The camel safari took us all the way into the Erg Chebbi dunes before parking up near one of the tallest dunes where the remaining climb was done on foot. Thank god I had been to the gym prior to my trip as the climb up the dunes can be rather strenuous so be ready to burn some calories getting to the top. Watching the sunset from such height and seeing it fall behind the dunes is just amazing and the speed at which it happens is just so surprising, blink and it’s gone. I found that the most comfortable way to get up the dunes was by removing your shoes and doing it barefoot. Yes, you will be covered in sand, but somehow you have so much more control and the sand just feels as if you’re being pampered at the same time.
Coming down the dunes is a piece of cake as you simply just glide down at a very controlled speed, feel free to go faster if you want to let out the daredevil in you. Once down, the camels were waiting to take us back to the camp. Just before leaving the dunes, the safari hosts unwrapped some local limestone souvenirs to sell, including mini sculptures of camels and trinket boxes costing an average of 150Dh per piece, which is only negotiated if you are buying more than one item.
Dinner tonight was part of the tour, including a lentil soup; meatballs with bread and fruits for dessert so don’t miss this one, it’s too good. Local drum players provided entertainment by the open fire until I finally called it a night after a sing-along. The tents consist of single beds, which were very comfortable letting me have a good sleep. I was pretty skeptical about what insect might be around me so I made sure to shake all the bedding before jumping in, and please do not forget to bring your insect repellent to avoid any bites. I would also suggest shaking your clothes and shoes in the morning; you never know what insect may have found shelter in them.
Time to head back to Marrakech
The next morning after breakfast we started our journey back towards Marrakech, making stops at some beautiful locations on the way, which included a local market in Rissani selling everything from fruits to clothing and the most outstanding of all, the Moulay Al Sherif.
The Moulay Al Sherif is a tomb enclosure and a mosque. As soon as you enter the green giant gates you see this huge courtyard with palm trees and a fountain in the middle. The tour guide walks you around, talking you through the history of the building and explaining what each room was designed for.
The final night was spent in Ouarzazate, which is known locally as the doorstep to the desert with a huge Kasbah, which is definitely worth taking a look at. The night was spent at the Kenzi Azghor Hotel that included a pool, spa and hammam facilities to get super cleaned after the long journey and to get all that sand off you. If you have the time than I would definitely recommend a spa treatment or a Hammam here, if not then a dip in the pool overlooking the city should do the trick.
Wow….that was an experience
My journey came to an end the morning after and it was straight back to the hustle and bustle of Marrakech where it all started. The things you see and experience are definitely worth the long journey time as you would otherwise be missing a whole opportunity to see real nature at its best. The Sahara isn’t the largest desert in Northern Africa but is possibly the most accessible so do not miss it if you are in Morocco or contemplating what to do if you have already seen too much of Marrakech. Just don’t forget your towels or your you’ll be forever looking for one in the Sahara…