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Morocco desert experience

erg chigaga dunes and tent

What is it that draws us to the immensity of the dunes ? The oceans of sand. Where does it spark from, this longing to gaze at wave after wave of sand disappearing on the horizon?...  All else irrelevant. There, on top of the highest dune. Minutes ago, you were cresting the dunes on the back of a camel. Presently, you are sitting down and conjuring all the majesty of saffron dunes, changing color as the sun gradually sinks. Nothing compares to waking up at night with the Milky Way above you and falling back asleep. And perhaps, the desert, because of its solitude, is what makes the locals more welcoming. 

Here, by the dunes of Erg Chigaga, despite of all the apparent scarcity, water runs just below the surface, a secret well kept under layers of sand. The desert also makes grown- ups children again. The most reserved of persons can’t resist the urge to climb up the highest dune and jump in the sand, the face lit with a wide childish grin. 

camel ride into the dunes                                              Camels ready for the ride in the dunes

In the collective imaginary, there is hardly anything more exotic, than those tougher- than- life Bedouin men crossing the desert, carrying precious loads of gold, ivory, slaves, textiles, spices or salt on the back of their sturdy camels. Or the bandits constantly threatening to attack the caravan, unless the due tax was paid at different custom points. It used to take the caravans 7 to 8 weeks to cross from one side to the other and some were losing half their personnel on the way. What has become of these men nowadays, when,  not so long ago, camels were replaced by trucks ? Whilst some camel trading still takes place in some parts of Niger where the Azalai sees thousands of camels travel across the vast teritorry, camels in Morocco are not used for caravan trading anymore. In the modern age, the nomads are mostly employed by the on site numerous desert camps that have cropped up on the fringes of the Sahara. Some also went to university, learnt English and became drivers and guides for the numerous foreign visitors taking a private tour of Morocco. We are lucky enough to have some of them work for Sun Trails. And every time they return to the desert, they feel at home, still very much nomads at heart.

erg chigaga dinner                                                   Dinner by candle light in the dunes at Azalai Camp

For some of those travelling to Morocco, spending a night in the Sahara is ticking off a box on a travel notebook. For others, it is a lifelong dream. Naturally then, you don’t want to ruin that experience and so you should carefully choose the right Morocco travel planner. Your agent should make sure you won't have to put up with a party at the camp next to you, the racket of a noisy generator or quad bikers blazing past your tent when you least expect it.

ERG CHEBBI DUNES VERSUS ERG CHIGAGA DUNES

Any forum on Trip Advisor or Fodor will tell you that there are two places in Morocco where you can actually spend a night in the desert: the dunes of Erg Chebbi and the dunes of Erg Chigaga. The route from Marrakech over the High Atlas mountains is one of the most dramatic in Moroco and reaches Ouarzazate on the other side. From here, there are two options: Erg Chebbi dunes– east through Skoura, Dades Gorge, Tinerir, Rissani and finally Merzouga; and Erg Chigaga dunes- west, following the Draa Valley through Agdz, Zagora, Tamegroute and finally Mhamid. From my own experience and feedback over the years, indeed, the dunes of Erg Chigaga get a fair amount less of visitors. The distance and driving time to both these dune locations is more or less similar, about 5- 6 hours drive. 

erg chigaga luxury camp inside tent                                                       Azalai Camp luxury tent interior

The dunes of Erg Chebbi owe their popularity partly to their being easily accessible : a bus will take you to literally the foot of the dunes from Marrakech in a 10 hour drive. When you opt for the classical imperial cities tour, the Erg Chebbi dunes are easier to include in the itinerary, given their location. If you are ready to give Fes a miss, then the dunes of Erg Chigaga are the ones to go for. Especially since they are two hours drive away from the closest bit of tarmac and you would be a fool not to loop your way back to Marrakech on a different route, thus experiencing all different formations of the desert:  sand dunes, stone plateaus, gravel plains, dry valleys and salt flats. To not mention the legendary Draa Valley, a caravan highway for centuries, where the river is flanked by one of the largest palm groves in the world along with Biblical villages and century old kasbahs. Then, is it impossible to experience the desert in a camp at Erg Chebbi ? Not at all. Your travel planner can suggest a more distant camp, deep in the dunes. 

erg chebbi luxury camp                                                    Erg Chebbi luxury camp by dawn

SAFETY

Although the border with Algeria is not far, until this day there has been no registered case of kidnapping or activity of a terrorist organization in these areas. Security at the border is very tough. In the very hot season ( July – August), there may be very rare cases of scorpions or snakes, but they never enter areas where they feel human presence. If you want to be 100 % sure, make sure you spend the night inside your tent and that your mattress is not laid straight on the ground. 

erg chigaga VIP tent                                                       VIP tent with private butler

BASIC DESERT TENT VERSUS LUXURY DESERT TENT

Nowadays, there are more and more luxurious desert camps to complement the regular ones. Most regular camps offer spartan but clean double beds with mattress and frame and plenty of blankets to keep you warm in the night, if chilly. Toilets and showers are shared and running water is scarce. Luxury camps offer wider tents with en suite showers and toilets, extensive furniture and fittings, and king size beds. The dinner menu is also more comprehensive. In the past 2- 3 years, the luxury camps also offer a higher level of standard, the VIP desert tents. These tents tend to be further away from the main camp, more accommodating and complete with a private butler. A normal basic camp accommodates 10- 12 double tents with a larger tent for restaurant. The typical luxury camp accommodates 4- 5 en- suite tents with a restaurant tent.

Although the typical nomad tents are wool tents secured with wood hooks and ropes, set up in a cone- like pattern, the camp tents nowadays tend to be box- shaped units set up on a solid (usually metal ) frame. Less traditional, they are much more resistant this way to strong winds and provide a better insulation from sand grains or any eventual insects ( mostly flies). However, if your only reason for booking a luxury camp tent is having private showers and toilet, you should know that you can still have a shower both in the afternoon arriving at and the morning departing from the desert lodge. Normally you have that choice, when arriving in the afternoon, before leaving the asphalt. After a 30 – 45 minute camel ride ( optional), you arrive at the desert camp as the sun sets, where you will have your dinner and spend the night. Naturally, the camp is fully staffed. Next morning, you should try and not miss the sunrise. Then, you will be taken back to the same lodge where you had arrived the previous afternoon and have a proper breakfast, before proceeding with your Morocco itinerary.

erg chebbi basic camp                                                Basic camp in the dunes of Erg Chebbi

ONE NIGHT OR TWO NIGHTS ?

In winter ( mid November to mid March) days are short and the sun sets around 5- 6 PM. If you're on a tour of Morocco, it is likely you will arrive at the camp just before sunset and will leave after breakfast. Which doesn't leave you with much time to enjoy the dunes. Ideally, forecast two nights in the desert in winter then. If you are worried about not having much to do, you may be wrong: tea with the nomads, rock engravings, prying out fossils, lunch in the oasis, the Black People village, dinosaur sites, quad biking, sand boarding are plenty of choice. The downside is that if a sand storm is blowing in ( very rare but possible), you will have no choice but to spend the morning or afternoon inside your tent. 

ALCOHOL

Given the alcohol regulations in Morocco, very few camps ( even among luxury ones) sell alcohol on site. Therefore the best way to go about it is to get yourself your supplies in Marrakch or Ouarzazate ( cca. half way between Marrakech and the dunes and the largest town in the south). Otherwise, you may end up paying 3 or 4 times the price if you want to acquire it in a hotel by the dunes. All you need to do is ask for your driver to stop you at a special store. He will then stock it for you in the 4x4’s freezer box, if need be.

erg chigaga basic camp inside                                                            Basic tent interior

CLOTHING AND TEMPERATURES

Cotton/ linen clothes and sneakers/ sandals are best for travelling around Morocco including the desert. A fleece or rain jacket is always a good addition for late nights/ early mornings. Outside the summer season, nights in the desert tend to be fresh/ chilly and in December/ January temperatures can get down to 35°F/ 2°C. Even with the basic tent accommodation, you will get as many blankets as necessary to keep you warm. That being said, it’s not a bad idea to bring over your sleeping bag, if space is available in your luggage. Day time, when the sun is out, temperatures can vary from 70°F/20°C in the winter months to the 113°F/ 45°C and more in July and August. In general we will not recommend taking a Morocco tour to the desert in summer but for some, it is the only time of the year they can come. Have you booked to spend the night in the desert in the summer and you find it too hot to be there ? Worry not. Sun Trails will accommodate you at no extra charge, back at the lodge by the dunes, where you will have the comfort of an air conditioned room and a fresh pool giving onto the dunes. Early next morning, you can still enjoy your camel ride over the Sahara dunes while the sun is rising.

Sun Trails offers both basic and luxury camp options in the desert for those booking bespoke tours of Morocco. For more details, please send your enquiry here .

erg chebbi luxury tent inside                                                    Luxury tent Erg Chebbi interior

 © Sun Trails. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

 

 

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Marrakech to Fez via Sahara (4 days)

medina of fes morocco

A private tour from Marrakech to Fez (or Fez to Marrakech) via Sahara desert over 3 or 4 days.

Visiting Morocco and short on time ? Then spend one night in the Sahara desert and uncover the two most essential imperial cities in Morocco. This is also ideal for those of you who fly into Marrakech and fly out of Fez ( or vice versa). The journey can be done over 2 nights and 3 days but we recommend taking at least 3 nights and 4 days so you can enjoy all there is to do and see along the way.

DAY 1: Marrakech - Tizi n Test - Telouet - Ait Benhaddou ( 4 hour drive).

souk in marrakech Leaving Marrakech behind, beautiful scenery and small villages built in tiers succeed among oak trees, walnut groves and oleander bushes. Our bespoke Morocco tour follows the tight curves before culminating at the spectacular Tizi N Tichka pass, at 2260 meters high. Once over the pass a totally different landscape is unveiled: the lunar landscape of the Anti Atlas and the vast plateau beyond it.

Just after the pass, we leave the main road and find ourselves on the ancient route caravans used to bring the much sought- after goods at the court of the Sultan. What used to be Pasha Glaoui's main residence at Telouet telouet kasbah interior unveils, standing as a testimony to the grandeur and wealth of this tenacious man, that rose to importance at the turn of the century and overshadowed the sultan himself for the best part of the first half of it until Morocco's independence in 1956. Although he used to spend most of his time in Marrakech, where he was said to have had tea with W. Churchill and started the first bus company in Morocco, this palace was his main residence at the beginning of last century. A visit is recommended if only to marvel at the extravagance of this modern-day dynasty and the contrast between the derelict exterior and the opulent interior .

Leaving Telouet behind, our trip crosses spaghetti western settings before the route joins the canyon. The river is shinning on the bottom of it and for the next hour or so, villages succeed each other in the green patches bordering the river each dominated by their derelict Kasbah. The tour follows the green serpent of palm trees and on the other side of the valley, carved into the wall , caverns are still being used for keeping the stock or grains over the winter by the semi nomadic populations of the area. Just before Ait Benhaddou, several local Kasbahs have been turned into boutique hotels and that is where we will spend the first night. The UNESCO world site of Ait Benhaddou kasbah ait benhaddou can be visited in the evening or early next day. In the meantime, depending on the time available and your mood, you are free to enjoy the pool ( heated in the winter), the terrace with its incredible views or have a walk in the gardens by the river among almond and olive trees. For those more intrepid, a visit to the Berber granary and the troglodyte caves by camel or foot and/or cooking bread with the locals in the nearby village stove can be arranged. 

The first thing that strikes you when approaching Ait Bennhadou is the granary standing on the top of the mountain. It is by far the best preserved and most impressive Kasbah standing as one of the few UNESCO world sites of Morocco. You might find it familiar if you watched ‘Gladiator’, ‘Alexander’ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, having served as background for all these pictures. Crossing the ait benhaddou kasbah hide and seek bridge over the river, you will immerse yourself in the alleys bordered by a few craft shops. Imagine a biblical village built on the side of a mountain, all its adobe houses communicating with each other, creating an intricate adobe honey comb, where the sunlight hardly filters through. You can reach the peak through various of its narrow stone paved alleys, a hide- and- seek paradise. From the granary on the top, you have the view on the whole village underneath and behind, the river with its palm groves and gardens making its way through barren mountains.

DAY 2: Ait Benhaddou - Ouarzazate - Skoura - Dades ( 3 hour drive).

Half an hour drive from Ait Benhaddou, our tailor made Morocco tour reaches Ouarzazate, built in the 1920’s by the French troops as a garrison to control the area. Kasbah Taourirt, one of the residences of the famous Glaoui dynasty and previously one of the largest Kasbahs of the south can be visited. For those of you who are interested, a visit to the impressive Atlas Film Studios can be arranged, where lately, episodes of Game of Thrones series have been shot.

Leaving Ouarzazate our 4x4 Morocco tour reaches the palm grove of Skoura, a huge fertile patch of green stretching ahead into the horizon. Here,  the locals perpetuate the same way of life as the generations before them have done for centuries. A palmgrove south of morocco walk in the palm grove with a local guide is highly recommended where you can see how the locals organise the ingenious distribution of water through kettaras and seguias and the local craftsmen shape their colourful potteries. A 17th century Kasbah can also be visited where the locals will be delighted to show you how olives are grinded to produce the precious oil. Fire, water, earth and dye are what make most of things here.  On Friday afternoon, when the prayer is over, the caid comes out from the mosque and spreads a carpet on the grass. The villagers then succeed themselves and present their queries. Most of them are resolved on site. Time is suspended here indeed. 

On the road again, we can have a break on the shores of Mansour Eddhabi lake. Flamingoes and spoonbills stalk about the water on stilleto legs. Next, our trip reaches Kelaa des Mgouna, famous for its rose- derived products industry. The most looked after product is eau de rose and two factories in the area distil and export the product. The roses are picked by women before the sunrise and the work is hard, as it takes 10 tonnes of petals to produce 2 to 3 litres of rose oil. Further on we reach

gorges of Dades Boulmane de Dades, famous for its bird- rich Vallee des Oiseaux (Bird Valley) and the starting point to exploring the spectacular Dades valley, a lush carpet set against the massive rocks. We will stop for dinner and accommodation over night in a charming Kasbah in the area.

DAY 3: Dades Gorge - Tinerir - Todra Gorges - Rissani - Merzouga - Erg Chebbi ( 4 hour drive).

After breakfast our first stop is Tinerhir (Tinghir), with its extensive palm grove, the Ksours built into the rocky hills above it and its mysterious decaying Jewish ksour. No more than a mountain village, set at 1300 meters berber adobe village and palmgrove altitude, it has been for generations a stop for nomadic Berber tribes travelling from the mountains north of it towards the desert during the winter months. A rather inconspicuos hidden gem is the 19th century adobe mosque nestled within the old crumbling ksour, a heaven for photography enthusiasts.

The most spectacular ( and touristy) gorges of Morocco, Todra Gorges , lie only 15 km from Tinerhir, presenting an arresting spectacle with its crystal clear river emerging from it, its huge walls changing colour to magical effect as the day unfolds. Its 300 meters ( 1000 feet ) high walls are home to more than 150 bolted routes and at any time of day you can catch a glimpse of someone rock climbing his way up the gigantic walls.

Before reaching Merzouga, our boutique Morocco tour passes Erfoud and Rissani. In Erfoud we can stop for a visit at on the road to the Sahara Musee des Oasis. Rissani used to serve as last stop on the great caravan routes south and gold and slave auctions were taking place here as late as 1800’s. It is also from here that the Alaoui dynasty, ruling Morocco nowadays launched its bid for power centuries ago. If you have time, a visit to well preserved medieval ksour ( fortified village) is recommended as well as visiting the local souk.

The last village before the dunes is Merzouga, and behind it lie some of the highest dunes of the Sahara in Morocco, Erg Chebbi. Once in Merzouga, you will freshen up/ shower before taking the  camel ride  to the desert camp. With all sahara desert dunes at erg chebbi the expectations building up along the road still nothing quite prepares you to the spectacle stretching in front of your eyes from the top of the dunes. For as far as you can see, there is nothing but sand, an ocean of it as set to conquer everything that stands in its way. All worldly matters loose sense and the feeling of peace is overwhelming... 

DAY 4: Merzouga - Errachidia - Midelt - Ifrane - Fez ( 7 hour drive).

Try to wake up early enough to see the sunrise, there is nothing quite like it...  After breakfast, our Marrakech to Fez tour reaches Errachidia, not much more than a former French Foreign Legion outpost which most likely had to do something with an area notorious for raids upon caravans by the Nomad Berber tribes. At Midelt, the greater peaks of Atlas Mountains appear through the haze, culminating at 3700 meters high with Djebel Ayachi. The drama of the site is the most compelling reason to stop over, for berber woman working in the field the town itself offers little more than an apple festival in October and some superb Middle Atlas carpets from the local tribes.

Once our trip reaches Azrou ('rock' in local Berber language), the landscape is completely different - lush with the surrounding lakes and cedar forrests which also shelter several troupes of Barbary apes that can easily be spotted around the area of the legendary 800 years old Gouraud cedar. This is equally interesting for bird lovers as the forrests also shelter sanddpipers, redshanks, avocets, warblers and other exotic bird species.

Further on Ifrane, a colonial alpine resort built by the French in 1929. tanneries in Fez With its alpine chalets, trimmed gardens, leafy park surrounding a mountain fed lake , you could almost be in … Switzerland. Past Ifrane, we start our descent on Fez and in broadlight you may catch a glimpse of the world's oldest still standing medieval old town in the distance. Our 4 day tour of Morocco concludes with reaching Fez in late afternoon/ early evening. 

 

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Desert and Roses ( 4 - 5 days)

erg chigaga desert tent

This classic Morocco desert tour from Marrakech visits the dunes of Erg Chebbi and is best done over 4 or 5 days. 

The extravagant ruined palace at Telouet -- postcard like UNESCO world site Ait Benhaddou –  Dades Gorge and Rose Valley – the 300 meters high Todra Gorges -- ruined Kasbahs and lush palm groves – camel trek into the dunes of Erg Chebbi – sleep in the Sahara – prehistoric rock carvings at Tazzarine -- century old traditions and crafts - bread baking in a village stove - Berber granaries and nomad grottoes - all part of this 4x4 Morocco tour. 

Click here to see detailed map

This itinerary can also be arranged on a tour from Marrakech to Fez over 3 nights and 4 days with spending one night in the Sahara desert.

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Land Of The Setting Sun ( 10- 12 days)

erg chebbi dunes

This private 10-day Morocco tour covers the imperial cities, Sahara desert and Atlantic coast.

'Al Maghrib al-Aqsa’ - the land of the setting sun, Morocco was once known as a legendary land perched on the corner of Africa, where the known world would end. This journey through Morocco visits its 4 imperial cities: Marrakech, Fez, Meknes and Rabat along with stunning landscapes and wild nature, the Atlantic and the Sahara's ocean of sand Witness  the splendor of Roman epoch at Volubilis. Visit the world’s largest intact medieval city in Fez to then cross the lush country side to reach the Sahara and spend a night under the most beautiful starred sky. The trip then takes us past valleys, gorges, lakes, palm groves and rivers and explores mysterious ksours and kasbahs. Crossing the Atlas mountains, we reach the exotic and sensual Marrakech. After a day in the maze of its souks and palaces, what better choice then to shed off the dust in Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast ? The tour can start/ end in Marrakech/ Casablanca/ Rabat and be done in reverse. A day or two can be added/ subtracted to fit your travel schedule, if needed. If you have a night to spare, we recommend adding the visit of Chefchaouen to the itinerary.

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Boutique tours of Morocco

What better place than Morocco for a private tailor made tour ? It can be a day trip from Marrakech into the Atlas Mountains. Or a 14 day private luxury Morocco tour. And everything in between. With such a different culture and language, a boutique 4x4 Morocco tour with an English speaking local driver- guide guarantees the best holidays in Morocco. Choose one of the many 4x4 tours from Marrakech or another imperial city and you will discover the off the beaten track Morocco. Much more than excursions from Marrakech or Morocco desert tours, our 4x4 custom tours travel all across Morocco, covering Berber villages, majestic Kasbahs, enchanting palm groves or Touareg desert camps. From Ait Benhaddou to Chefchaouen, from Erg Chebbi to Taroudant and from camel rides in the Sahara to hardcore trekking Morocco can only offer. Browse among our 4x4 boutique tours of Morocco and book your favorite today !