Our night in the Sahara was the highlight of our whole trip to Morocco. You can find the first half of the adventure in part one of this post (click here) which details the drive and stops from Fez to Merzouga, right on the edge of the Sahara. Today I have everything about our camel trek into the desert and our evening spent in a berber tent!
Plenty of details and a million pictures after the jump
Our driver took us to the “hotel” compound where we were welcomed with Mint Tea (that we had to decline because we don’t drink tea but we were offered it EVERYWHERE in Morocco). After filling out a bit of paperwork we were shown to our room where we would leave most of our belongings for the night. We had about half an hour to unwind and pack up the one backpack we brought with us before there was a knock at our door and it was time to meet the camels.
We were introduced to our guide, a young man of 21 wearing traditional Tuareg dress. We mounted our camels, he untied them, and he led us barefoot into the Sahara.
It took almost two hours, winding around the dunes of sand to find the best path for the camels, to reach our circle of tents. On the way, in the first few minutes, we passed another group with a family of four (the couple had brought their 1 and 3 year olds!) but other than that, it was just Benjamin and me and our guide.
First of all, Camels are bigger than I had anticipated. I thought it would be a lot like riding a horse but camels are a bit taller and their backs are much higher up relative to their heads than a horse’s.
Camels were also more comfortable than I was expecting, until we started walking down dunes and I had to hold on for dear life :).
But, as much as I’d been warned about it being overrated, riding our camels into the Sahara at dusk was magical. It was a two hour long “pinch me, is this real?” moment.
As far as the eye could see it was sand, just sand. Our guide led us silently, picking a careful route, and stopping once to ask if we’d like him to take a picture.
The Berber Camp
The camp was nothing more than a circle of tents, facing inward in a small clearing of sand. A couple hundred feet away we could see another encampment, another guide company no doubt. There was a small bathroom with running water and each small room had a bed and a single light bulb. Thick rugs covered the ground and were sewn together as the walls.
Once we arrived our guide showed us to our portion of the tent (pictured below) and then instructed us to take a walk before dinner.
We wandered the dunes, too scared to let the camp out of our sight, for an hour or two.
Ben tried sand boarding, which may have gone better if the board had been waxed recently. But the sand stuck and it was difficult to get moving very quickly (makes for good pictures though).
After the sun started to set and we wandered back to camp we spent another hour or so sitting in camp talking to our guide, learning about his life and his family. He was one of six, with four brothers and one sister. He had been leading tourists into the desert since he was 14 and never having attended school, picked up English from his work.
I was constantly impressed by the language ability of everyone we met in Morocco. In addition to being able to speak Arabic and some sort of native dialect, they could often also speak some degree of English, Spanish, and French.
A bit later, another man drove up in a four wheeler and he and our guide disappeared into another part of the tent, preparing dinner. I had anticipated eating a casual meal around the campfire so you can imagine my surprise when they invited us in to the dining tent, set for two and lit by candles.
We started with a soup and bread, and thinking that was dinner, I was almost full when they brought out the next course. And then the next.
My favorite was the tajine, a dish typical of the Middle East and North Africa. After a traditional Moroccan four course feast, we were full and exhausted.
Sleep + Accomodations
We declined the invitation to light a fire and sit around and talk in favor of going to sleep a bit early (probably around 9pm at this point). We used our phones to guide us to the bathroom and afterwards brushed our teeth nearby with water from our water bottle.
The beds were firm with fitted bottom sheets and thick blankets folded at the bottom of the bed for use. I’m not sure the last time they were washed but, in retrospect, there was no sand on or in the bed which means they must have been clean.
Sunrise + Breakfast
We anticipated watching the sunrise over the sand dunes but with a partially hazy and cloudy morning, the sunrise was anticlimactic. We walked around the dunes a bit and then, with the help of our guide, mounted our camels and rode back to camp.
Upon our arrival our guide presented a few trinkets (fossils the area is famous for, polished stones, some jewelry) that his family makes and asked if we were interested in purchasing it. I felt it was quite overpriced but Ben was interested and we counted our purchase as our tip.
They had a large breakfast spread of eggs, local breads, packaged foods, cheese, and jam. We ate quickly, eager to get back to our room and shower.
You can see a picture of the bathroom (not the room though) above. It had everything we needed but was a good reminder that we were at the edge of the Sahara outside of a small desert town. I was glad it was a place to wash up in for an hour or two and not somewhere we were spending the night.
We had about an hour and a half to shower and get dressed before heading outside to meet our guide who told us we’d have a short tour in Rissani before driving back to Fez.
Rissani Tour + Rug Dealer
Our guide on this tour was one of our favorite people from our entire trip. At two months younger than me (26), he teaches history at the high school and offers tours of the town during the two hour mid morning break in classes. He went to university in Fez but came back to his home town to each. He took us through the old part of the town, the market and souks, and ended the tour at the rug dealer (a whole post on bargaining for rugs in Morocco coming soon!).
The most fascinating was his explanation of the different ways the four tribes marry their women, the ways the women indicate their current status (single, of age, married, widowed, divorced), and how he himself will eventually find a wife. It was a neat insight into a culture so different from our own from someone who we felt we had so much in common with.
After our experience purchasing rugs (totally optional but if you’re looking to get a berber rug, they’re much cheaper there than in a big city), our same driver was back to pick us up. We stopped briefly at the same restaurant we ate in on our way to the desert and per my request, we stopped to feed the monkeys again when we got to the forests. Other than those two stops and one for gas, we drove the seven hours straight back to Fez where we were dropped off at our riad for the evening.
Tips + Things to Consider
- Snacks! I wish we would have packed something to snack on during the long drive, especially the trip home.
- Cash for tips + souvenirs: Have some on hand for buying trinkets from your guide or offering him a small tip. Aside from him and our driver, there was no one we spent much time with so there was no real opportunity to tip anyone else. You also do have the option of shopping in the souks and purchasing rugs. The rugs can be paid for with a credit card but if you want anything from the local shops, you will need to have local currency.
- Make Conversation: A night in the desert is magical enough to warrant the adventure but some of my other favorite parts were getting glimpses into the live of the people we met. Their English (and my lack of Arabic) was such that they couldn’t always understand my questions but we could get the gist of things most of the time.
- What to wear: You’ll want long pants for the camel ride, just like if you were going horseback riding, regardless of the weather. I wore jeans and a loose fitting, thin, long sleeved top to protect from the sun while still keeping me cool. I also packed a light jacket in the backpack which I needed for the evening and following morning. We didn’t bother with pajamas or a change of clothes and just put on something fresh after we returned to the hotel the following morning.
- What to bring: They provided a large bottle of water for each of us which we packed in addition to our toothbrushes, toothpaste, and deodorant. It’s also worth noting that we had relatively calm weather with little wind, but as a precaution we took out contacts before the camel ride and wore glasses instead.
And a million more pictures:
^Walking out of our room after arriving at the hotel compound to meet our camels
^the hotel compound
^Each camel was fitted with blankets and a harness to hold on to. We climbed onto the camels while they were lying down and then the guide directed them to stand up. Be sure to HOLD ON TIGHT as they stand up!
^you can see the other caravan we saw heading to another desert camp in front of me here
^This was taken just before we got to the start of the sand dunes, at the very beginning of the trek
^ We made it to camp, and despite my fears, my camel never stumbled down a sand dune
^Right as my camel laid down
^inside the circle of tents
^breakfast back at the hotel compound
^the view from the hallway of the building that housed the guest rooms (there were maybe 12 in total, six on each side of the hall but we were the only ones there that day
^Our new friend, dressed in traditional Tuareg dress who teaches history at the local high school and is two months younger than me. He was also very surprised to learn we’d been married for almost six years and had two children 😛