Morocco – Camping Under the Stars in the Sahara Desert

As soon as I even began to think about Morocco, I knew that a Sahara Desert tour would feature on my itinerary. I wanted to ride a camel, sleep under the stars and play in the sand and experience everything in between.

Our story begins in Marrakech….

Beautiful Morocco landscape.

There was a knock on the riad’s big wooden door. Lisa and I were already downstairs and waiting, happy to escape the hustle and bustle of Marrakech for a few days. Hassan, our driver and guide led us the short distance through the alleyways to the car and then we began our journey over the High Atlas Mountains towards the Sahara.

Tizi n’Tichka Pass, Morocco

We snaked our way up the Tizi n’Tichka Pass, stopping to take photos at various viewpoints along the way. If this was just the beginning of the trip, I was excited about what else there was to come.

Tizi n’Tichka Pass, Morocco

Just before lunch, we arrived at the ancient city of Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and ksar on the former caravan route to the Sahara.

Aït Benhaddou, Morocco - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As you approach, it doesn’t even look real, it looks like a film set, and it sort of is…

Aït Benhaddou where they filmed Gladiator (and Lawrence of Arabia, Game of Thrones and loads of other films)! In the Gladiator, the city doubles for Zuccabar in Mauritania (modern day Algeria). You know the bit, where Russell Crowe fights as a Gladitor for the first time and shouts “Are you not entertained?” Pretty cool!

 

We were shown around the site by Mohammed, who told us about the history of Aït Benhaddou and took us to meet one of the artists who make these gorgeous traditional paintings using saffron, tea, indigo, water and an open flame. You’ll have to see for yourself how they do it – like magic!

Aït Benhaddou, Morocco - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The only downside, was that it was midday, there were loads of stairs to climb and it was really hot. I was ok, but I did see one girl, sat in the shade, against a wall, head between her legs, looking like she was about to pass out – so make sure you take something to cover your head (or you can buy when there) and lots of water!

Aït Benhaddou, Morocco - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Aït Benhaddou, Morocco - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Aït Benhaddou, Morocco - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Lunch was served nearby at Riad Maktoub. Once again, I opted for tagine. Oh, tagine, I miss tagine.

Riad Maktoub at Aït Benhaddou, Morocco - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After a quick paddle in the pool, we continued on, passing through Ouarzazate (you say it something like this: “waara-za-zet” – took me ages to say it right which Hassan found highly amusing), Morocco’s own Hollywood – with a couple of film studios and everything!

Valley of the Roses, Morocco.

We were heading towards the Dades Valley, where we would spend the night, briefly stopping to smell the roses (good life advice if ever there was any), in the very appropriately named Valley of the Roses. And wow, they were the sweetest smelling roses.

Valley of the Roses, Morocco.

I don’t know what I expected of Morocco, but the scenery exceeded my expectations and completely blew me away.

The Dades Valley, Morocco.

A welcoming pot of mint tea appeared within minutes of us arriving at Chez Pierre, our accommodation for the night. Just what I needed after a day of driving.

Chez Pierre, Dades Valley, Morocco.

I had assumed we’d be staying in a pretty basic b&b type place, as the description Hassan had sent me said we were staying at ‘an auberge, a small country inn’, but what we got, was something entirely different. Chez Pierre was simply gorgeous, built into the mountainside, so in keeping with the surroundings, flowers everywhere and it even had a pool hidden away at the top!

Chez Pierre, Dades Valley, Morocco.

That evening we were treated to one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my entire life. Seriously! The food was exquisite! There’s no menu to choose from, they just bring you course after course of amazingness.

 

The following morning, after a good night’s sleep, Lisa, Hassan and I continued our journey further into the Moroccan countryside. We passed ancient kasbahs, getting out of the car every so often to stretch our legs, take some pictures of the incredible views or do a little tour inside one of the buildings.

Todra Gorge, Morocco

We stopped admire the magnitude of the Todra Gorge, with its huge rock face that apparently changes colour as the day goes on. Unfortunately we weren’t there long enough for that, but it was impressive all the same.

Sahara Desert Tour Morocco.

We reached the town of Rissani, ‘Gateway to the Sahara’ and Hassan’s home town, around lunch time. As we drove through the town, his friends would wave and say hello.

Rissani, Morocco - Gateway to the Sahara.

Hassan took us to a shop for Berber pizza and more Moroccan mint tea. Hearing there was meat inside, I secretly hoped it wasn’t camel. I’ll try anything once and I’ve eaten all kinds of unusual stuff (crocodile, kudu), but generally speaking if it doesn’t moo, cluck, quack, baa or oink – I’m probably not going to be into it. They’d served camel sandwiches one day whilst I was at the surf school in Tamraght and it just wasn’t my thing. Thankfully, the pizza was beef!

Berber Pizza, Morocco.

After we’d eaten we were shown around the shop and taken upstairs to see the woven carpets Morocco is famous for. Lisa and I stood listened and politely nodding as carpet after carpet was laid out for us. Not being in the market for a carpet, I left empty handed.

Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque, Rissani, Morocco.

 

I felt bad that I didn’t buy anything from these guys who had made us this lovely lunch, but I couldn’t afford it and really didn’t want one anyway, so I bought a bracelet which is apparently silver, I’m not 100% convinced, but it’s pretty and hasn’t turned my wrist green yet.

Colourful Moroccan handicrafts.  Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque, Rissani, Morocco.

Just a few metres away was the beautiful Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque. We were shown around by a young lad, with one of those kind faces and gentle demeanor that instantly makes you warm to him.

Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque, Rissani, Morocco.

The mosque had so many interesting features, beautiful tiling, lanterns, even the door handles were pretty and it looked even more beautiful as the afternoon sun shone through the archways, casting long shadows on the floor.

Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque, Rissani, Morocco.Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque, Rissani, Morocco.  Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque, Rissani, Morocco.Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque, Rissani, Morocco.

As we left, Lisa spotted what she thought was a chicken going behind a rock. Turns out it was a baby owl who was desperate for water – it must have been 40 degrees, and the owl wouldn’t last long without it.

Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque, Rissani, Morocco.

The lad expertly picked up the owl by its wings and took it to the nearest puddle. The bird was perfectly calm and just sipped straight from his hand. The way the owl just seemed to trust him reminded me of when my friend George saved a baby impala when we were in the Masai Mara.

Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque, Rissani, Morocco.  Moulay Ali Cherif Mosque, Rissani, Morocco.

We got back in the car and continued on towards the desert, the Erg Chebbi sand dunes now in sight, stopping to take some more delicious sweet tea (mint of course) with a nomadic family.

Nomadic Berber Tent, the Sahara Desert, Morocco.Nomadic Berber Tent, the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

We passed through the town of Merzouga, stopping at a small auberge on the edge of the desert to pick up our camels.

We were introduced to our guide Mubarak. He would be looking after the two of us whilst we spent a night in the desert. We were told to pack a small bag with just our essentials for the evening, before being given some more mint tea.

Camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

About an hour and a half before sunset, Hassan helped us tie our headscarves and then we met our dromedaries, that’s an Arabian camel to you and me. My camel was called Jimi Hendrix. Lisa’s was Bob Marley. I climbed aboard, making myself comfortable, before Jimi stood up, tipping me forward as I clung on for dear life whilst he got to his feet.

Camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

We headed off into the massive expanse of orange sand, set against a deep blue backdrop. The camels expertly navigated the dunes, silently plodding one foot after the other. I felt quite at home on my camel. It was so peaceful. I loved watching our shadows in the sand and I wondered what it must have been like for the caravans travelling for days and weeks on end through this endless desert.

Camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.Morocco - Incredible Beauty in the Sahara DesertCamel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.Camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco. Camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

We arrived at our Berber camp, and Mubarak settled Bob and Jimi down for the night. Bob Marley, the bigger of the two, always looked so serious, whilst Jimi Hendrix wore a constant wry smile.

The camp was made up of around 8 tents in a circle, each of them contained a rug, a small table and a double bed.

Erg Chebbi in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

As Mubarak was preparing our dinner of tagine (vegetable one this time), Lisa and I headed up the sand dunes, our calves burning with every step, but it was worth it to watch the sunset, have some quiet time and play! It was beautiful.

Erg Chebbi in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

By this point, the sand had turned to bright orange, whilst the sky turned a deeper shade of blue. We could see a few other camps nearby, and in the quiet desert, we were even able to make out snippets of conversations drifting in on the wind.

Erg Chebbi in the Sahara Desert, Morocco. Erg Chebbi in the Sahara Desert, Morocco. Erg Chebbi in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

Once the sun set, we did the only sensible thing – we roly poly’d back down to camp. I found sand in places there shouldn’t be sand for days…

Erg Chebbi in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.Erg Chebbi in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

Mubarak brought us more mint tea and I practiced the art of tea pouring. Mubarak didn’t speak any English, but he had one of those smiley faces that made you want to smile every time you looked at him.

Berber Camp, the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

The sky was fully dark by the time dinner was ready and the stars had begun to twinkle. Dinner was delicious, in fact probably the best tagine I had in Morocco. Lisa said a few sand flies jumped in as we were eating, but I didn’t even notice, too busy scraping every last bit out of the bowl!

After dinner, Mubarak whipped out some bongos and started singing for us, then another dude rocks up, we didn’t find out his name, but I like to refer to him as Comedy Dave, and he has some bongos too, and the two of them start singing for us. To return the favour, I then had a go, treating the group to my bongo/a cappella version of Africa by Toto. Lisa filmed the whole thing, laughing, whilst Mubarak and Comedy Dave just looked a bit confused.

Once the show was over, I put my Berber headscarf back on, tying it in exactly the same way Hassan had shown me earlier. I asked the guys if I looked like a real Berber now. Comedy Dave, speaking a little bit of English, replied,

“Yes, we call you (pointing to Lisa) Aisha Berber, and we call you (pointing to me) Fatima Couscous”.

Well, this set me off into absolute hysterics. Fatima Couscous! FATIMA COUSCOUS!!!!

I know they must use that joke on every tourist that passes through, but OMG, I almost wet my pants.

Berber Camp, the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

Once Comedy Dave had disappeared off into the night (where on earth did he go?), we introduced Mubarak to the game of Dobble. Explaining a card game when none of you speak the same language is kind of difficult, but Mubarak got the hang of it pretty quick and began getting really into it, winning a few games, saying “Again! Again!” after each game.

After about 20 rounds of Dobble (the best game ever), we turned out the lights and watched the sky, keeping an eye out for the shooting stars. Sadly I didn’t see any like the one I’d seen in Tamraght, but it didn’t matter, there were thousands of stars twinkling overhead and it was beautiful.

Berber Camp, the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

Once we’d seen our fill of stars, we went to bed. The beds were a just a mattress with a big thick blanket on top. Not quite sure about the mattress and blanket, we just slept on top of them, layering up in all our our clothes. It was cold though, and I really wished I’d brought a sleeping bag.

Sunrise camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

At around 6am the following morning,  we hopped back onto Jimi and Bob, and rode out of the desert the same way we’d rode in, Mubarak leading us from the front.

Sunrise camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.Sunrise camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.Sunrise camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.Sunrise camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.Sunrise camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.Sunrise camel ride in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

Arriving back at the auberge, it was time to say goodbye to Mubarak. I really feel like we all bonded in the desert, so we gave him a present – Dobble! Not sure I’ve seen anyone look so happy. I often wonder if he’s still loving the game, playing it with other tourists or his Berber pals?

After breakfast and a quick refresh, we began our long journey back to Marrakeach, up and over the Atlas Mountains again. Both Lisa and I trying not to look down at the sheer drops as we zipped around the mountains. But it was completely worth it.

The High Atlas Mountains, Morocco.The High Atlas Mountains, Morocco.The High Atlas Mountains, Morocco.

I loved spending time with the Berber people, so kind, so hospitable – who also refer to themselves as Amazigh – ‘the free men’. Hassan created an incredible itinerary for us – the scenery was fantastic, both in the mountains and in the desert and I got to ride a camel, and it was just as wonderful as I’d imagined it to be. Plus, I got to roly poly in the Sahara Desert!  Does it get any better than that?

Essential Info:

  • We booked our private tour through Sahara Magic Tours before we arrived in country. You can however book when you are in Morocco, prices vary a lot, depending on whether you take a private or group tour.
  • I’d definitely recommend going on a 3-day tour so that you can see the big sand dunes of Erg Chebbi.
  • There is a lot of tipping involved. Other than Hassan, we had a few other guides, so remember to have some money for that.
  • Take very warm clothing – the desert gets really cold at night.
  • There is a lot of driving, on very windy roads with steep drops. It can be a little bit scary if you are afraid of heights, so don’t be afraid to ask your driver to take it slow.
  • Remember to take water with you whenever you go on one of the small excursions, it is really hot.
  • A scarf to cover your head and shoulders is also a good idea. You can buy these at quite a few places – I bought my pink and purple one at Aït Benhaddou.

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Morocco - The Incredible Beauty of the Sahara Desert

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