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Merzouga: The Gateway to the Sahara Desert

Merzouga, synonymous with the Sahara desert in Morocco. It’s the gateway. The Sahara Desert is every traveller’s dream, representing the ultimate adventure in an environment seemingly too hostile to support life. However, humans have defied the laws of nature for thousands of years and life has flourished in these hostile lands. We travelled over mountains, through valleys, to rugged coast lines & ancient port cities, now it’s time to experience the Sahara. To ride a camel, to climb sand dunes and to gaze at the stars.

We’ve just spent the last few days in Fez and Ifrane, hiking in the so-called Switzerland of Morocco. Now it’s time for the main event, the real reason we came to Morocco.

Getting to Merzouga & the Sahara Desert

Merzouga is a town on the edge of the Sahara Desert, from where many expeditions start. In order to get there, we need to take a lengthy bus journey. From Fez, Merzouga is just shy of a 500KM drive. This time we will take an overnight Supratours bus. It departs from Fez at 8:30 PM and arrives in Merzouga at 7:40AM. It’s a long slog at just over 11 hours.

The bus departs from the Supratours bus station which is next to Fez’s train station. It’s about a 40 minute walk from the Blue Gate so we decide to take a cab instead of trawling through the Medina with our huge rucksacks. We get there an hour or so early to purchase our tickets, but nowadays you can now buy tickets online at https://www.oncf-voyages.ma. The ticket costs 180 Dirhams which is approximately €17 – not bad considering it’s an overnight trip!

Overnight bus ride from hell

The bus departs on time but it’s already dark. It’s not very comfortable and quite full. Nonetheless, we get a bit of sleep for the first few hours. That is soon interrupted as we stop in random villages in the middle of nowhere, people depart and more people get on. However, the further we go the more empty the bus gets.

The worst part of the journey is when we begin to traverse the mountain passes. The bus is driving at ungodly speeds, swerving round bends and kicking rocks off the roads which bounce hundreds of meters down mountain sides. The heat on the bus is unbearable and I begin to feel sick. I try to remedy the sickness by lying in Carolines lap, attempting to sleep but it doesn’t work.

Don’t count on the toilets

The toilet on the bus is out of order. The bus is throttling along and the driver surely does not speak any English. In any case, I don’t think I can even explain myself without being sick everywhere. Hell, even getting up and walking seems like it would be enough to trigger projectile vomiting. I’ve never felt so sick in my life. I sit there, dry heaving, terrified of how I’m going to deal with puking all over the bus and Caroline until finally the road flattens out a little and slowly the dreaded feeling begins to subside.

My whole body is drenched in sweat from the ordeal. Shortly after I pass out and don’t wake until we arrive in Merzouga. At 5:30AM, two hours ahead of schedule. The whole experience reminds me of the time we were hitchhiking in a delivery van up a remote Catalan mountain. I was in the back being flung from side to side, squashed by flying parcels as the driver skidded around the mountain hairpins at breakneck speed.

We depart the bus on a wide sleepy street. It’s incredibly dark with no lights around at all. A few buildings line the streets. It’s not a big town, and it resembles nothing like what we’ve seen in Morocco so far.

Merzouga: A crossroad in the Sahara Desert

Merzouga is a small village in the south of Morocco. It’s famous for its close proximity to the Sahara Desert and Erg Chebbi, a large collection of impressive sand dunes. Some rise up to 150M in height from the desert floor!

Merzouga was established on a trading route, its existence owing to travellers seeking some place to rest on long journeys to Timbuktu and other important cities and ports. Later on it supposedly became a pilgrimage town for Berber tribes. Now, it’s mostly a tourist destination catering for desert excursions.

Merzouga itself consists of almost 70 hotels scattered along a grid of streets. Most of them low rise buildings made from sand and mud bricks. You will find many riad style hotels, one of them being the hotel where our excursion will start.

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Breaking into our Hotel

We have organised an overnight stay to a desert camp via camel through the hotel Auberge Les Roches. The bus drops us off at the Supratours ticket office which is naturally closed at 5:30AM. The hotel is a fifteen minute walk. A quiet, dark, cold and lonely walk. We are both half asleep and barely even register our surroundings.

As we arrive at the hotel where we want to leave our rucksacks until our tour begins, we realise, as we subconsciously expected, that the hotel is closed and no-one is around. The lights are off and the silence of the desert permeates into the hotel and town. I nudge the door and it creaks open. (Un)ashamedly we break into the hotel and find a corner where we wait for someone to arise. It’s cold so we take out our sleeping bags and try to get some sleep, alfresco.

The dark night slowly fades to deep reds and oranges as the hotel comes to life. A little oasis in the desert with a fountain, palm trees and traditional riad architectural styles seemingly built from local desert materials.

A staff member approaches us and offers us a room to rest for free as our camel expedition is not due to depart for another good six hours or so. We take full advantage of the situation and cosy up in the comfy bed watching David Attenborough’s Blue Planet on my laptop. It’s been a while since we felt like we had absolute privacy, and we are quite exhausted, so we relish in the moment. After all, the next twenty-four hours are poised to be exhilarating but probably uncomfortable!

The best Tajine in Merzouga & Morocco

The camel ride begins at around 3PM so before we leave we decide to go find some emergency lunch, because although we asked for vegetarian food at the camp, we’re not quite sure what we’ll get. We take a stroll along the main street in Merzouga (There’s only one) and settle on a little restaurant making tajines. We order and the chef – painstakingly and with absolute skill – meticulously peels and carves every vegetable, zucchinis, potatoes, carrots and more, places them in the tajine with precision before seasoning with an elaborate array of herbs and spices and olive oil. They are then left to cook on hot coals.

Our mouths are watering as we await the mighty feast. It feels like an age before they’re ready. Our chef checks every five or so minutes, gauging by the softness of the potatoes. Not ready just yet. Not realising just how fresh our food was going to be we apprehensively watch the time. We’ve got about twenty minutes until we are supposed to be waiting for our camels. Lunch is eventually served and is as wonderful as expected. We’ve eaten a few tajines by now but to this day non compare to this.

We race back to the hotel only to realise our expedition start is delayed; annoyed but with full bellies we sit at a table waiting another hour before our guide arrives with the camels.

Camel Ride with Mohammed

We are finally introduced to our desert guide, Mohammed. Mohammed is a native Bedouin, part of the Amazigh. They are traditionally a nomadic people and Mohammed has lived in the desert for a long time. He knows his way around. He shows us to our camels and wastes no time in getting us on our transport for the afternoon.

The camels grunt and spit, a clear show of dominance. We are not the bosses. We barely make it ten minutes before our camels get distracted and start chewing on some dry desert bushes. Mohammed takes charge and leads the camels back onto the trail. Asking why he prefers to walk he just laughs and points towards his legs, shaking his head. At this time we don’t fully understand, but the realisation comes the next morning when we can barely stand, let alone sit, from the pain.

The sand dunes rise instantly out the back of the hotel, transporting us to another world. We are ploughing through the soft warm orange sands of the Sahara Desert, the largest desert in the world. A childlike happiness washes over me. It’s an incredible feeling, one that I never thought I’d experience.

As our camels weave effortlessly through the contours of Erg Chebbi, a sea of windswept sand dunes spanning 28 kilometres north to south and 7 kilometres wide, Mohammed explains to us how the business of desert guides works. He as a guide receives a pittance of what we pay. Instead, the camel owners, usually the hotel bosses, take the majority portion. Mohammed informs us that he’s saving for his own camel and is trying to build his own website so he can work independently, offering services directly and cutting out the middlemen. He’s a great, well-informed guide so we later help him with his website. Check out his tours!

Sandboarding in the Sahara

After climbing and descending various huge sand dunes, the sun begins to dip closer to the horizon. The Sahara Desert is cast in golden light, the shadows and lines of dunes accentuated ever more. The sand glistens and wind sweeps through the valleys between desert peaks. In the distance the dunes rescind onto flat desert plains and at the end of Erg Chebbi we spot various camp grounds, one of which is most likely ours.

Before we head to camp though, Mohammed whips out a snowboard and takes off down the dune. It’s obvious he’s done this before. Unlike us, he glides effortlessly to the bottom where he leaps off and races back to the top. The next hour is spent in hysterics, falling off the board, rolling down the dunes, and attempting to climb back up the dune, which is like trying to ascend an escalator the wrong way round.

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Sundown from a sand dune in the Sahara

Only as the sun eventually hits the horizon does it finally get cold. It’s the middle of winter and it’s been hot all day, the sun blazing non-stop. We can’t imagine what it must be like to be here in the summer, with highs approaching 45 degrees and nights staying as hot as 30 degrees. It must be unbearable, and would certainly require much more planning in order to stay safe and hydrated. For us, it was as simple as chucking a bottle of water into our rucksacks and heading out.

As we tire from the extreme sports we climb back to the peak of the largest sand dune and watch the final red and pink hues dance across the ridges. In the distance the rocky mountains glow and the sky transforms in to a masterful gradient. With the last light fading to black we head down from the dunes to check out our digs for the night.

Overnight camping in the Sahara

Not knowing what to expect, we’re quite shocked when we’re shown to our sleeping tent and it’s a literal bedroom-style double bed in a marquee tent, in the desert. Talk about glamping. We were expecting little plastic two-man tents and sleeping bags! Instead, our bed is adorned with a mass of comfy pillows and blankets, all meticulously tucked-in in order to preserve heat. Apparently it can get quite cold in the winter. We lay in bed to kill some time before dinner is served in the dining tent.

In the dining tent we meet a few other campers. It seems each campsite hosts several groups of guests who all arrive from different routes and locations. Some of the groups are venturing even further into the desert on two and three day expeditions. In the dining room are travellers from Italy & China, on similar trips through Morocco.

Our food is served and while tasty looking, it’s not quite the vegetarian option we asked for. A huge mound of Moroccan rice is topped with roasted Chicken. We pick out some rice which is uncontaminated from the chicken and eat it with bread and a bit of salad. The food is served on big platters for us to share between camp guests so we can only assume our request got lost in translation between the hotel booking and Mohammed and the cook. We don’t really mind because we’ve eaten the biggest tajines in the world before we left but be careful if you have an allergy or intolerance.

Campfire sing song

After dinner we sit around the fire and Mohammed introduces the other tour guide, his nomadic friend. They play music, sing and tell stories from the desert. We and the other guests exchange travel experiences and even attempt to play the drums, to which Mohammed asks us to sing our national anthems. The Italians of course oblige but me and Caroline keep embarrassingly quiet. Who the hell knows their national anthem without googling it?

When we retreat to our beds we look up and notice the sky is glistening with a thousand stars. There is so very little light pollution that you can spot pretty much every constellation in the sky. It’s a truly humbling experience. Looking back as I’m writing this, I’m kicking myself that I couldn’t use my camera well enough to capture the mesmerising scenes. Too bad, we’ll have to go back…

Early wake up call & sunrise

It’s surprisingly cold during the night but the mountain of sheets protect us. Mohammed knocks with an early wake-up call. Every part of the tour is maximised for the experience. There’s no chance they’re missing the opportunity to show you the beauty of their landscapes. It’s time to get up and watch the sunrise.

What a marvel it is, pastel pink streaks rise from the peaks of the dunes, tiny green shrubs randomly and impossibly dot the arid land. We fumble about the dunes, still half asleep, admiring the shapes, colours and patterns as the pinks gradually advance to oranges and yellows until finally the sun rears above the dry plains. In an instant our woolly hats and jackets are stripped off. The sky transforms from a whimsical palette to a deep blue. In the distance we see Mohammed gesturing for us to come back to camp. Our camels await. We quickly pack our things and mount our desert automobiles.

With sore bottoms we arrive back in Merzouga, exchanging contacts with Mohammed and promise to keep in touch and do what little we can to advance his career. Back at the hotel we are treated to a shower and another delicious Moroccan breakfast that gives us the strength to plan our next voyage to Tinghir around a number of Grand Taxis. Just one more pancake first, before we go…

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get there

Merzouga does not have an airport. That should be expected, it is the desert after all. Most likely you will be coming from a larger city, like Fez or Marrakesh, which both have airports. Check Skyscanner for flights.

In order to get to Merzouga from Marrakesh or Fez you will need to take a bus. CTM & Supratours are the main operators. It’s a very long journey from both cities.

Getting to Merzouga from Marrakesh appears to be a little more complicated in 2022. You will need to take a train or bus to Meknes and then another bus from there. Check rome2rio for your options. We would suggest breaking up the journey and maybe stopping at Tinghir for Todra Gorge and/or Ouarzazate for Aït Benhaddou.

You could also drive or hitchhike. We would have liked to hitchhike but did not have enough time for the waits and uncertainty!

To get out of Merzouga you can use CTM & Supratours again, check the sites for schedules. We left Merzouga for Tinghir and used a number of Grand Taxis to get us there from Merzouga to Erfoud to Tinjdad and finally Tinghir.

The best season to visit

We would advise any season other than summer. The temperatures are just too hot. It can easily exceed 40 degrees in the day time and 30 degrees in the night. It was perfect for us in the winter, sunshine all day long and cool in the evenings. Though be aware, it can rain in the winter, and also snow, but very rarely.

Things to do

  • Lake Dayet Srij – Just 4 kilometres outside of Merzouga is a lake where in the spring it’s possible to spot flamingos. The lake dries up in the summer but is replenished in autumn. Many migratory birds can be spotted there.
  • Camel riding – It’s not absolutely necessary to ride a camel to visit the desert but it sure as well takes the expedition to the next level. I don’t know about you but I love camels, they are such bizarre creatures.
  • Desert Camping – The number one reason to come to Merzouga. Sit around a fire, gaze at the stars, watch a sunrise. It’s the real deal.
  • Sandboarding – You can rent snowboards in Merzouga and glide down the dunes. It’s great fun but getting back to the top soon becomes tiresome!
  • Sand bathing – Apparently being buried in hot sand is good for you?
  • Quad biking & 4×4 trips – This is not something we really recommend and quite frankly it would be better if the desert wasn’t polluted with ugly tracks left all over the dunes. Not to mention the noise.

How to book a desert trip

How you book a desert trip will depend on your itinerary. If you are staying more than one night in Merzouga, it would be best to find a hotel you like the look of, for example on www.booking.com and then you can book your tours directly with them when you are there.

We booked our tour via Auberge Les Roches, we didn’t officially stay in a room although they did let us get some rest in a room as we arrived very early.

Most of the tours are handled via hotels and they will often contact the guides and provide the camels themselves. Usually a shower and breakfast is included on return to Merzouga.

If you are only staying for one night and want to book a tour in the desert, you can either directly contact some hotels you like the look of, and they will happily help you organise one. Or you can book a tour directly using a service like Viator or Get Your Guide.

Pro Tip

  • Take a longer expedition into the desert, we would advise a two night tour. It allows you to get further in to Erg Chebbi with the promise of more pristine landscapes minus the 4×4 tracks and thousands of footprints.

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