A Night in the Sahara Desert of Morocco
“Immediately when you arrive in Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness...For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is quite the same as when he came...” - Paul Bowles*
*American expat author who lived in Morocco for over 50 years
Looking back on my recent trip to Morocco, there’s one experience that stands out from all the rest: a night in the Sahara desert. We stayed up late shivering in the cold trying to capture the stars, milky way, and never-ending sky. We rode camels into the dunes to watch the sunset. We woke up early and made our way back into the dunes in the dark to catch the sunrise over Algeria and paint the sand a glowing orange. We sandboarded, rode quad bikes, had tea with the cutest puppy, enjoyed delicious meals, joined in traditional Berber music, and cozied up around the fire.
All I can say is that our one night in the Sahara was truly an unforgettably epic adventure and perhaps my favorite memory from 2016. There truly is something inexplicably magical about the desert. I've been trying to write this intro for a while, but couldn't seem to find the right words. I'm hoping the phrase "A pictures is worth a thousand words." pulls through for me and you'll be able to relive my experience through my photographs. But really, you'll just have to go and see it for yourself.
After seeing dreamy pictures from Insta-famous Gypsea Lust, I knew I had to stay at the beautiful Kam Kam Dunes camp site. I'm not sure that I would quite call it camping, maybe glamping? Either way, it was a luxurious experience not to be missed.
We made our way to the desert bright and early from Fes to make it in time for sunset. As we drove through the desert, we stopped at an overlook point just before we got to Erg Chebbi. An erg is specifically an area of the desert covered with wind-swept sand. Erg Chebbi is one of two large sand dunes in Morocco. I'm seen here at the overlook with the dunes in the background. I suggest hiring a private transfer to Merzouga, so you can go off-roading as you approach the dunes. It's bumpy and a wild ride.
Once in Merzouga, a small town on the edge of the dunes, you'll meet up with Yusef who will drive you to the camp. He's such a character and loves to travel. And here's where you'll really have some fun driving the big SUV over the sand.
Finally, you'll come to what seems like an oasis in the desert with beautiful Berber rugs and welcoming flowers. With only 7 tents, I knew it was going to be an intimate experience.
The inside of the tents are quite spacious while remaining cozy with a super comfortable bed. All tents have working toilets, showers, and hot water. They have double and triple room options. I honestly couldn't believe how clean everything was considering all the sand, but it didn't seem to be an issue inside the tent. Safe to say it was a luxurious camping experience.
Once settled into our tent, we enjoyed tea in the back overlooking the dunes with the strong winter sun beating down.
I even met a new friend, Claro. Yusef's puppy. But don't worry, if you're not a dog person, he can stay in another area. Unfortunately, the sun sets pretty early in the winter, so we didn't have a ton of time to lounge before making our way into the dunes for sunset. But can you imagine what it must be like in the warmer months? Incredible!
Then, we got picked up by our two camel whisperers to take us into the dunes for the sunset. Moroccan camels are actually dromedaries, part of the camel family, because they only have a single hump. Make sure to hold on tight when getting on and off! Also, it can get cool at night even in the summer, so dress appropriately for sunset.
The patterns that you see in the sand below are made by the wind.
Once we got to our spot, I couldn't stop playing with the sand. It would be carried away and swirled by the wind before it hit the ground.
It was surprisingly difficult to walk on top of the dunes. You're not very steady on top and the sand keeps falling down from under you.
The dunes continously changed colors as the sun dipped down.
Just look at that glow!
It was much harder to climb up than it looks. I had a great time rolling around in the soft sand. Don't afraid to get sandy...it comes off eventually. Though I must say, almost a month later I still have sand in my sneakers and coat pockets.
Here, I'm facing the other way as the sun already set over Algeria to the east.
When we returned to the camp, our camel whisperers sat us down and graciously tried to sell us some Berber trinkets. We thanked them and tipped them each a few dirhams.
We then cleaned up and made our way into the communal living room tent to hang by the heaters before dinner. I could have seen us lounging by the large fire pit outside instead, but it was just too cold that night. Dinner was fabulous! Grilled chicken skewers, dates, vegetable tagine, fresh fruit...so much delicious food! After dinner, we all gathered for some traditional Berber music. Dan joined in!
Stargazing was one of the best parts about sleeping in the desert. With essentially zero light pollution, it felt like the sky went on forever and we could see the milky way so clearly. We were also quite lucky because we were there on the first night of a new moon, where no light eminates from the moon to block the visibility of the stars. Dan and I had so much fun with long exposure, a method to photograph in the dark. I think we did a decent job for our first try!
We went to sleep that night with extra socks and sweaters. It was beyond freezing even with space heaters, but we think it added to the romance of the experience. With our alarm set for 6am, we went to bed in anticipation of the beautiful sunrise the next morning.
We woke up in a cold daze and ventured back into the dunes, but this time on foot, to watch the sunrise.
We brought one of the sand boards out with us that morning. I had a lot of fun with it.
Again, I was amazed by the shades of orange and pink. The dunes changed color all morning.
While I had envisioned taking romantic pictures in the dunes with a colorful flowy dress, it was just too cold. I ended up wearing a double layer of sweatpants, so I could make it through sunrise...the better choice I think as the dunes really stole the show anyway.
We made our way back to camp around 9am and had breakfast before leaving for a quad adventure. Of course, breakfast was delicious...a tasty omelette, yogurt, fruit, fresh juice, and assorted Moroccan pastries.
We actually hadn't prearranged quadding because I was on the fence. I am SO glad we were able to fit it in before leaving the area. I think it's the best way to really see more of the dunes because you can only travel so far on foot. Plus, it's quite a thrill to move so fast. We spent an hour with a guide exploring.
TBP Insider Tips
> If you’re going in the winter months, make sure to pack accordingly. It can get really cold at night, think below freezing temperatures. Bring a hat, gloves, sweaters, warm socks, jacket, and someone with whom to snuggle up.
> Be wary of visiting the dunes in July and August because the winds can be brutal and almost unbearable to explore, not to mention the extremely hot temperatures.
> There are a ton of camps in the Erg Chebbi dunes. Make sure to choose a smaller one for a more intimate experience. I can’t recommend Kam Kam Dunes enough. It's definitely the way to go! The staff are amazing, accommodations top-notch, and the best way to experience the magic of the desert.
> I will be posting a full Morocco itinerary with more logistics details, but the best way to get to the desert is from Fes or Marrakech by private transfer. Kam Kam Dunes offers multi-day tours and can also arrange transfers. You can read about their full offerings here. I will be writing more about them in later posts, but we used Dunes Line and I can’t say enough amazing things about them. Needless to say, the drive to the desert from both Fes and Marrakech is quite long. It can be done in one day from Fes (we did), but I would suggest adding an overnight stop to give you more time to play at the camp. If you drive from Fes in one day, you should leave by 7am (it’s about 8 hours of driving). For Marrakech, you must stop overnight in Dades or Ourzazate. It’s just too long to drive in a day. We stayed in Ourzazate on our way to Marrakech from the desert.
> We spent a night at the camp, but wish we had two. That being said, it was absolutely freezing, so 1 night in the colder months is sufficient.
> You can prearrange the camel trek and quad bikes with Kam Kam Dunes. I suggest taking the camels in the evening to watch the sunset and then going on your own into the dunes for sunrise. Even if you're only staying for one night, you can do the quad bikes in the morning after breakfast because it's in a different area from the camp.
> Never travel without an alarm clock. Like most people these days, we rely on our phones to wake us up, but iPhones can die in the cold. I literally slept on my phone to make sure it stayed warm enough because we didn’t want to miss the 6am wake-up for the sunrise. Do yourself a favor and bring an alarm clock.
> If you really don’t want to sleep in a tent, you can stay in one of the Kasbah hotels in Merzouga. Perhaps spend a night in the camp and one in a hotel. But with running water, toilets, and showers, I really don’t think you have an excuse if just for one night.