During my short time on earth I have had the privilege of visiting many countries and continents. Countries as culturally diverse as Sri Lanka and the United States; but visiting the Sahara Desert was one of the most breath-taking experiences of my life. It was the spontaneous, last minute decision (and booking) that made my trip to Morocco so memorable.
What I didn’t realise, was that the drive was going to take up to ten hours, due to the slight language barrier when I booked the trip with my riad owner, and as hard as I tried to attempt my rusty, A-level French, all I understood was that I was off to the desert at the crack of dawn the following morning. Despite not knowing entirely what I was signing up for at the time, I later discovered that I’d made the right choice; booking a desert tour with a riad (Moroccan guest house) is usually the cheapest and most effective method, and one that I’d highly recommend.
The next morning, I waited for the coach while the sun was beginning to rise, in the already busy square of Marrakech, Jemaa el-Fnaa. My group arrived in intervals and eventually, we all piled into the coach and drove away from the town into the more remote, intrinsic Morocco as I’d never seen it before.
Our coach meandered through the never-ending Atlas mountain range, stopping occasionally to look at the breath-taking views and already being taken aback by the sudden, apparent peacefulness as we drove closer into isolation. Despite the never-ending journey, we stopped off at many points of interest along the way, visiting native Berber villages in the desert-scape and being shown their homes and rural way of life.
After what seemed like forever in a stuffy coach of impatient and exhausted passengers, we were abandoned at the mouth of the desert at about 6 o’clock, to be greeted by camels, and the Sahara’s very own Berbers (indigenous people of Morocco).
The heat was the first thing I noticed, stepping off the air conditioned coach and being hit by the overwhelming, yet relieving humidity- the sand was the second. Miles and miles of it forming prefect ripples, and dissipating fast underneath my sandals. I was overwhelmed with excitement, a sudden sense of freedom overcoming me as I was no longer confined to the claustrophobia of the coach. The journey didn’t stop there however.
I previously mentioned that we were greeted by the Berber people of the desert, this is not entirely true. They muttered a brief hello, rapidly saddled the camels and told us to each sit on one. Without knowing where we were going, how much further we had to trek or how to even ride a camel, I started to think we were never going to get there… Half an hour later on a rather bumpy camel, the sun was beginning to set, and it was apparent the Berber’s were trying to get us to camp before sunset. Excitement overcame me and the rest of the group, when the little white tents eventually came into view, in the middle of the large, endless sand dunes. We made it.
The place I stayed in the desert was Zagora, which is the one night desert tour- I’d recommend this if your trip to Morocco is short. If you have more time however, I’d suggest journeying further into the desert to Erg Chebbi for the two night tour. This way, the trek is more worthwhile and you get to venture deeper in, where the sand dunes are bigger and apparently more impressive.
As soon as we arrived, we were all seated on an array of Moroccan rugs and provided with a refreshing green tea and honey, served from traditional Moroccan teapots and glass cups. We took turns introducing ourselves to the Berbers and asking questions about their culture and way of life. The Berbers then cooked us a tagine dinner, gave us fresh melons which were grown in the desert, and invited us to “watch their television”, in which they pointed up at the stars and lay on the sand dunes. As it grew darker, the stars were nothing like I’d ever seen, glowing brilliantly and providing us with the only source of light.
The Berbers skilfully played the drums and sang for us around the fire place, and I suddenly realised how exhausted I was, as the minutes quickly passed. Eventually, I went to the tent to rest for the night, until I was to be awakened for the sunrise.
We were all assigned a tent to share with six people, with a rustic mattress and thick blanket- the desert was bitterly cold at night. Despite the slight discomfort of the itchy blanket and solid mattress, I was asleep instantaneously. I was also woken up at the crack of dawn by the sunlight seeping through gaps in the tent. The sky was already bright blue, even though the sun hadn’t fully risen yet, and the Berber’s were awake and beginning to saddle the camels, do they ever sleep? I sat on the sand dunes and watched the sun rise, casting its bright rays and illuminating miles of orange sand in front of me.
In no time, we were thanking the Berbers for their hospitality and climbing back on the camels for another bumpy ride to the coach, and sadly, before I knew it, I was back at the riad for my final day in Morocco. I was so happy with my decision to see the desert, it was such an incredible opportunity and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who is visiting Morocco. I was able to experience an environment completely unknown to me and like nothing I could have ever imagined, I feel like I’ve learnt more about the culture through a hands-on perspective, and if I had the opportunity to do it again, I definitely would!
Words by Tara Proudfoot