My first trip back into the desert with my best friend instead of 'my man' - which was rather momentous but very special - after all the visits gradually from tourist to almost 'local' i was going out on an overnight camel trip for the first time!
I had done the sunrise by camel as a tourist and i have had excellent camps overnight in the desert but this was excellent - it was dark when we set off on our camels so we were totally under the stars then the moon came up half way through the trip!!
i was being led and escorted with family/ex-family member so its different to setting off as a tourist into unknown, and usually in daylight, but we also were going out just after Merzouga and the area had been seriously flooded .
Auberge Berbere where i had been for coffee one year before was almost demolished but they still have their camels and staff etc so we were glad to provide some income for them and also have an excellent visit out to an oasis 1-1 1/4 hour by camel away and then excellent daylight views coming back the next morning.
And we had the most glorious full moon of all nights to turn up for an overnight trip. With an excellent star studded night sky to sleep under and gaze up to from our mattresses. We had good company with good tagine and tea after arriving as was breakfast before setting back the next morning.
No doubt all much quieter than usual as most of the auberges in the locality were busy with their clean up operations and decreased customers
Do a pre-read - such as here in my pages!, guidebooks such as Footprints, the Lonely Planet - make some phone calls to arrange with an auberge around the dunes such as Hotel Nomad Palace (just past Merzouga town), Riad Aicha, Kasbah Mohayut, Dunes Dor, Auberge la Baraka all at or near Hassi Labied (half way along the length of dunes) Yasmina (far end of the dunes furthest away from Merzouga town), Nomad Sahara
Bivouac Tours, Chez Julia (auberge that is right in Merzouga town)
I recommend to avoid Auberge Erg Chebbi and Auberge du Sud (near Hassi Labied) and the Lahmada (near the Yasmina auberge)
When you are out around Merzouga - ie when you get the chance to order a meal I would stongly suggest you choose and try the traditional dish from around here that Ive grown to love - Khalia. Its minced, or finely chopped meat, with tomatoes and spices and eggs on top - cooked in a traditional tagine or heavy earthenware dish.
Theres a bit of a tendency to fiind them a bit too salty but maybe if you are worried about that ask for not too much salt to be put - maybe ask for half the amount!
As with most moroccan dishes this is traditionally eaten using bread that you break off your given pieces and use to scoop up the meal from the earthenware dish in the section located closest to you ie not taking bits from other locations within the dish but the area in front of you! (same with tagines, cous cous, any meal that is served and eaten communally from the one dish)
eg we've invited tourists to lunch and watch them pick food with their fork or fingers from all over the dish which means we get their fork or fingers in the food we are eating! it also means that the vegetables or meat that is allocated within the dish to ensure that it is spread fairly around for everyone gets encroached on!
but with the hospitality comes a gracious acceptance of such behaviour - just dont do it again!
And generally, whether eating at an auberge restaurant or youve been blessed with eating in a Moroccan's home you generally will be offered cutlery and a plate!
In March, and sometimes October, depending on rainfall there is a lake that forms behind the Yasmina auberge that brings flamingos and other birds - and birdwatchers- from miles away.
In the 4 years ive travelled to Merzouga ive not seen the lake there - as the years have been pretty dry - only the lake down near Merzouga town - and last year after the major floods i could see from a distance from the height of the dunes looking down the Yasmina surrounded by water still.
This year they had big rainfalls in April or May just before i got there and i got to see my first sighting of the usual lake at the Yasmina - sadly i saw no flamingoes though!! Not at the lake long enough to check! but the additional lake that had formed the other side of the Yasmina did have birdlife in the shape not of flamingoes either but small stilted birds.
So many times ive been to Merzouga and missed any lake that often forms near the Yasmina auberge where we used to camp often - this is what i regard to be a beautiful part of the dunes - the dunes rise to beautiful shapes here and are quite high - especially stunning around sunset times when the dunes turn beautiful shades of orange.
This time with so much rain last June and then again in April and May this year, if not prior months as well, there was not only a lake that usually forms near the Yasmina auberge but a lake on the other side of it making the Yasmina look almost like a castle on an island surrounded by water - and with stunning dunes!
How picturesque to as well as see this also go around this sight by camel!!
Weve driven out here each time in an ordinary car - theres always the risk of getting stuck in the sand - which happened a few times but not often - and not difficult to get unstuck - someone invariably turns up to help or phone the auberge youre staying at - just part of the adventure!confident experienced drivers certainly are fine. or even better if youre lucky to be in the luxury of a 4x4!
Stayed out independently in the desert frequently for a few years but finally did the overnight camel trip for a friend. Its great.
You might not necessarily get to experience meeting bedouins to have an omelette with or be given food from the border guards at the Morocco-Algeria frontier...but you could do this with a 4x4 excursion which is well worth it.
but you will have the chance to strap up and ride a camel out into the desert and be reliant on your guide and camel driver - have the night to converse and interact with these guys who have grown up around here. They will probably drum and sing for you too.
(but watch it you ladies - some of them might see if you are available for more than just a conversation, and remember many tourists visit here!).
A night with all inclusive will cost 250-300 dirham per person - good value. (why i dont recommend the Lahmada auberge! - charged me 250 just for the 2 hour sunrise by camel trip a few years ago!)
the lovely dunes of the moroccan sahara! We certainly romanticize being out in the desert and watching sun sets and risings over these moiunds of sand - but they are actually very beautiful.
Combined with the beauty of a camel and the photogenicity of everything out there including the people that manage to eke out an existence and livelihood its a special visit.
It's virtually compulsory that any tourist in Merzouga must, I repeat must, take a camel ride at some point. I love camels - stubborn, ugly and uncomfortable creatures that they are - but I got a bit fed up with some of the men insisting that I should take a camel up every single dune instead of walking for 5 minutes.
Anyway, you can hire camels (with a guide and handler) from any of the auberges, for periods of anything from a quick 15 minutes to a few days. If you've got the time take a tent, hire a camel and head off in the general direction of Algeria for a couple of days - camels go very slow so you don't need to worry about getting lost!
Whether you are being blessed with a birthday in the desert, an overnight camp out or driving out to see the amazing diversity of Moroccos landscapes and cultures,
whether you have to stagger your way up to the top of a dune or half asleep drag yourself out of your auberge or onto a camel in the dark -
do get up and get up onto a dune to see a sunrise over the sahara!
The desert is stunningly beautiful in daytime, but I love it just as much at night. You can't see anything (hardly even your hand in front of your face) but the eery quiet - snoring camels aside - and pure air is beautiful in itself. Then there's the millions of stars illuminating the sky - nothing beats lying back on the soft sand and staring up at the stars.
You can camp out in the desert easily enough - if you haven't got your own tent you can hire one, and you can also hire a guide to accompany you - they'll cook and often bring some drums and Berber instruments. Bring a sleeping bag though because it's absolutely freezing.
A must-see activity that I didn't manage to see. When I visited in late January the desert was, as you'd expect, bone dry and full of sand. Yet apparently just a few weeks later in early March a large lake forms most years at the northern end of the dunes. Pink flamingos and all kinds of rare birds are attracted to it and this end of the desert suddenly becomes a hive of animal activity. Looking at the photos the guys at the hotel had it would be an interesting sight if you're there in March.
We were both very tired after arriving in the hotel as we’d had a long journey from Meski, but, tempting as it was to go to sleep, we decided to go our on the dunes for sunset over the desert. It was well worth it. We walked for about 40 minutes from the hotel to some large dunes about 40 or 50 metres in height. The views here were fantastic. We could see a group camel-trekking in the distance but otherwise there was nothing on the horizon. The colours were so vivid and changed very quickly as the sun disappeared from view.
One of the guys running the hotel had told us sunrise was at 6.40 am so we set our alarms for 6am. However, I woke suddenly at 5.40 am and as it was already a little light outside I decided to wake Ruth. We left the hotel at 6am. Light was just appearing over the horizon but it wasn’t quite sunrise yet so we had timed it perfectly.
We made our way quickly to the highest dunes behind the hotel and waited for the sunrise. We could see a group on one of the higher hills in the distance, and I think they may have got the sunrise before us, but never mind, it was beautiful when it finally happened at 6.15 and we felt very privileged. It had been chilly when we started the hike but the sun soon warmed us up. What I remember most is the changing colours of the sand as the sun appeared over the dunes.
Visit Rissani, a small town just a few miles from Erg Chebbi and Merzouga. We had tea outside and just 'people watched' for a while, the town's population is very varied. It was very interesting to see the differences in dress - from Berber to full Muslim dress.
The market was fascinating, one of the best I have been to. Since it was not touristy we were not hassled and it was a pleasure to make purchases.
We stayed a night in the desert with Les Nomades Bivouac, a small company in Hassi Labied.
They'll meet you at an internet cafe in the center, and at the end of the afternoon, the dromedary's will be packed. We did the tour with a standard tent of 30euro per person. Our 2 youngest children could parcipitate for half price.
M'Barak picked us up at the KemKem internetcafe and took us to his own house. There we met his family and a minttea was served. We rested for a while (it was too hot to go out) and after some hours we made a walk through the palmeraie, and saw a local wedding. Then there was a sandstorm, so we had to go into the house again. At the end of the afternoon we left on the dromedary's. We went 1,5 hour by dromedary into the desert and then reached the small camp (4 tents) of Les Nomades Bivouac. There we had tea with nuts and cookies. The kids played in the dunes, and a delicous dinner was served. M'Barak and Mohammed played the drums. Then we decided to sleep outside, under a million stars sky. It was unforgettable. We had an early wake-up to climb the dunes to see the sunset. Unforgettable! Then there was a breakfast and after that we went back by dromedary to Hassi Labied again. I can recommend this company to anyone, as this are people of the desert who know what there doing and talking about. Very kind people, heartwarming!
The dunes are about 40 kms. away from Erfoud. It's a great experience to go there, and don't forget to ride a dromedary that will take you up to the dunes to enjoy the sunset, the sunrise, or both of them. See my travelogues.
There is an excellent hotel there. See the Accommodation & Hotels section.