When perusing Overseas Adventure Travel’s Morocco tour brochure, I was intrigued by the chance to spend 2 nights at a desert camp in the Sahara, as well as experience my first camel ride amidst beautiful sand dunes. As you can imagine, the tour decision was an easy yes!
Fast forward to November 2018, when I spent two glorious weeks with a group of friends on OAT’s excellent “Moroccan Sahara Odyssey” tour. In particular, the two days spent in the country’s Sahara Desert region was clearly a highlight for everyone!
There were so many fun, unique, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences – including desert tent camping under the stars & riding a camel on Erg Chebbi’s magnificent orange-colored dunes.
In this blog post, I will share two special experiences – our time at the desert camp & the incredibly fun camel ride. In a separate Part Two post (link here), I’ll share the other interesting things we did during our time in the desert – including hunting for fossils, touring a date palm farm, visiting a local nomad family, and watching the sunset from atop a tall sand dune.
So, let’s begin…
Getting to OAT’s Private Desert Tented Camp
After a long drive from Fez, we spent the night in Erfoud. It’s a small trading village & desert gateway town located just 60 km (36 miles) from the Erg Chebbi dunes. The next morning, our group hopped into four Toyota 4×4 vehicles with super cool local drivers to head to our camp.
En route, we made a stop in the desert town of Rissani, where our wonderful OAT Tour leader Aziz walked us around the lively Sunday market, complete with a “donkey parking lot.” (below right)
Eventually leaving paved roads behind, we headed off-road onto both rocky & sandy desert terrain. My driver Abdul was loads of fun & a master of driving on the sand dunes. He loved racing his fellow drivers in our caravan of Atlas Rider 4x4s as my bumpy iPhone video will show you.
The ride was a thrill! So, was watching the massive Erg Chebbi sand dune get larger and larger as we made our approach (below right). Thirty minutes later we reached our camp, situated on the edge of one of the dunes.
About Erg Chebbi
Ergs are large seas of dunes formed by wind-blown sand. Erg Chebbi is Morocco’s highest and most spectacular sand dune. In places, its dunes rise up to 150 meters (492 feet) from the surrounding hamada (rocky desert). Plus, it’s ever changing, as the expanses of sand shift daily in the wind.
Chebbi’s dunes run in a line almost perfectly north/south, lying just to the east of Merzouga – the local tourist center. They cover an area 28-30 kilometers (18 miles) long and around 5-10km wide. It marks the western fringe of the Sahara Desert, dividing Morocco from Algeria.
Erg Chebbi’s dunes can vary greatly in their color, depending on the time of day and the intensity of the Saharan sun. They can range from white or grey to a golden or brilliant orange. They’re particularly spectacular at sunrise and sunset when shadows lengthen, and the sand takes on a reddish hue.
Our Desert Tented Camp – What a Delight!
Around 1:30pm, we arrived at our desert camp, which would be home for the next two nights. This OAT private camp, which had been recently upgraded, has 12 sleeping tents for guests. We were warmly greeted by Hamid, the camp staff person who carried our bags and showed us to our rooms.
The first view inside my luxury tent blew me away! Each tent had a canopy poster bed, comfy blankets, decorated fabric walls, two windows and a real door. Plus, there was a vanity sink, toilet, and shower with hot water – and there was even electric lighting (from a solar-powered generator). So much for rustic camping – this was definitely glamping!
Soon, we all met up for a tasty Moroccan lunch at the camp’s large & very nice dining tent (above left). Afterwards, we had some free time to take a nap or relax in the open air, thatched lounge area. That afternoon, we visited a local nomadic family after which we watched a beautiful sunset from the top of a nearby sand dune (photo below, on left).
That evening, just before dinner, we enjoyed a great cooking demonstration by our camp’s talented woman chef. She, along with our guide Aziz who was translating, showed us how to prepare a chicken tagine. In fact, this classic Moroccan dish (in a ceramic pot) was our delicious dinner entrée. The cooking tent was located just behind – and it was fun to see what tasty meals she & Hamid could create for us in their desert kitchen.
After dinner, we all headed outside to enjoy some desert star gazing. With the sidewalk lights turned off, we had amazing views of the beautiful, crystal-clear night sky. It was completely filled with stars and an incredibly bright Milky Way. Plus, I was thrilled to see four shooting stars & the planet Mars. It was magical!
The next morning, we all got up to watch the sun rise over the desert. I headed out of my tent at 7:15am with the dawn light – with some of the group getting up much earlier. The sun first appeared over the mountains to the east (towards Algeria) at 7:38am.
The sunrise offered some lovely photography with beautiful morning light glowing over the camp & the nearby sand dunes. Then it was time to head to breakfast with simple breads, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, coffee and tea.
In case you might wonder from some photos, there was a second tented camp nearby which also belonged to Overseas Adventure Travels (OAT). That’s because OAT runs daily Morocco tour departures during the season – and with a 2-night stay, each group has their own camp to themselves.
Time For Our Long-Awaited Camel Ride
This was the moment we had all been waiting for – riding a camel in the dunes of the Moroccan Sahara! After breakfast, we jumped into our trusty 4x4s – it was 8:30am – and drove 15 minutes to the Hotel Yasmina (Jasmine). This newly upgraded desert hotel is perfectly positioned right on the edge of a beautiful stretch of the Erg Chebbi dunes.
We headed across the hotel’s large patio to the back of the property. There, our 14 camels & their male handlers (cameleers) were anxiously awaiting us. Okay, maybe the camels weren’t so anxious, but we humans certainly were – filled with excitement & anticipation! The camels were “lounging” in the sand, with their saddles (covered with thick blankets) already attached.
One by one, the cameleers help us mount our camels. Now came the really “fun” part – with the camel standing up. First with the hind legs and then the front legs. Because camel legs have double joints, you are initially thrown forward and then backwards. But no worries – that’s what holding tightly onto the saddle’s metal bar is for!
Once everyone was safely mounted, it was time to get this camel show on the road – make that the sand dunes! Each group of 3-4 camels were tied together & led by a barefoot Moroccan cameleer walking in front. Each man wore a traditional desert head scarf and long robe over his clothes. It felt so exotic!
Camel Ride on the Dunes
Our group of 14 rode relatively close together in our camel caravan. This afforded us lots of fun camera angles & photos of each other as we walked for 50 glorious minutes around the beautiful dunes. At times, the groups would spread out a little as we would go up and down the different dunes.
It was fascinating looking at the shadows cast on the dunes by ourselves and the camel train. There was always some new great angle or view to photograph. And, yes, it was certainly challenging trying to keep your camera or phone still enough to snap photos while on a moving, swaying camel, all the while holding onto the saddle with the other hand. Luckily, no one fell off their camel!
Did you know that Moroccan camels have only one hump? I certainly didn’t. They are called Dromedary (or Arabian) camels and are found in Africa & the Arabian Peninsula. In contrast, the two-humped Bactrian camels come from Central & East Asia. Do you feel smarter now?
An added bonus: With the camels walking so close together, you could easily pet the head of the adorable camel right behind you. The camels were also different colors. Mine was a dark brown and Leslie’s camel, just behind me, was whitish, along with a sweet most pet-able face.
As you can see, we had perfect weather that morning – with a start time of 9am. It was cool, pleasant, and without wind. Later in the day, the wind really kicked up creating a mild sandstorm. It would definitely not be as much fun riding a camel with sand pelting your face! However, this photo of Lynn – channeling a local (above left) – shows how you would need to dress for the occasion of a sandstorm.
We also learned that a film crew for the new John Wick 3: Parabellum movie starring Keanu Reeves & Halle Berry was on location that day. The hotel was hosting around half of the 400-person film crew, with the other half stationed in Erfoud. Sadly, there were no Keanu sightings (darn!), but on our ride we did see a security guard positioned on top of one of the dunes and we could see a small set in the near distance. (bottom right)
At the end of our ride, we all gathered on the hotel patio for a drink & to share our experiences. For many of us, it was our first camel ride. Some members of the group initially thought the ride might be “hokey,” but it turned out to be great fun – and everyone agreed it was downright cool!
And we also agreed that the amount of time spent on the camels (50 minutes) was just perfect. So, yes, my first ever camel ride was absolutely worth the wait! And, the spectacular Erg Chebbi sand dunes in the Moroccan Sahara was the perfect place to do it.
Final Desert Day #2 & 3
After the camel ride, we had a day packed with other activities & excursions which I’ll cover in blog post Part Two. They include hunting for fossils, enjoying a local performance of Gnawa musicians in the village of Khamlia, a henna demonstration, and a fascinating visit to a date palm farm.
That evening, we enjoyed another cooking demonstration before dinner – this time it was Moroccan pizza (Medfouna – meaning “the buried”) on the menu. While still in the dining tent, we were surprised with a great drumming performance by our own Hamid and 3 other local men who work with OAT. The entertainment was capped off by audience participation, including some dancing.
The next morning around 8:30am, we sadly bid adieu to Hamid & our delightful desert camp as we hopped back into our “desert chariots” for the last time. It was a 45-minute drive to Erfoud to meet back up with our tour bus & driver Mohammed, to continue the rest of our Moroccan tour. In Erfoud, it was another sad goodbye – this time to Abdul, our wonderful 4×4 desert driver who had become a friend!
I hope you’ll have the opportunity to visit Morocco one day. It’s a great country and, as you have seen, its Sahara desert region is a “must experience” whether going on a fully-guided tour (like mine) or your own self-guided travels.
Apparently, many companies offer camel trips (aka camel treks) into the dunes, taking tourists on overnight trips to permanent campsites several kilometers into the erg. This is done in the company of an experienced desert guide.
There are a range of desert camp options, such as a more rustic camp in the heart of the dunes or a luxury camp closer to the dune line (like OAT’s) where it is possible to provide flushing toilets and hot showers. Of course, if camping or glamping is not for you, there are a wide range of hotels along the dune line.
I don’t have personal experience with any of these companies (or hotels) except for OAT (whom I highly recommend), so you’ll want to do your own research. But hopefully, you now have a better idea of what to look for in your desired desert experience.
Here’s the link to my Sahara Desert Blog Post Part 2:
Plus, if you want to know more about my full Morocco tour, check out my blog post with Highlights of the Trip.
COMMENTS: Have you been to Morocco? Did you visit the Saharan desert region of Erg Chebbi? Were you able to ride a camel and/or spend the night in a desert camp? What was your experience?