Inspired by my elder brother’s encyclopedia, the Sahara desert was always a dream destination I hope to visit when I was a kid. Known as the largest hot desert in the world, it may look hostile to visitors but the Sahara Desert was also made famous by famous writers, such as Tahir Shah, the Anglo-Afghan author who wrote the book “In Arabian Nights”, or Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author who wrote the novel “The Alchemist”. Be it the melancholy stories of ancient migrants who crossed the Sahara hoping to seek a better life by getting to Europe, or the ancient merchants who travelled to the Trans-Saharan Trade Route and ended up changing their perspective in life. The journey to the Sahara Desert is always an inspirational and magical place, where people can seek for inner peace, heal our soul or find inspiration in life.
The Sahara covers over 9 million sq km and is a part of 11 countries. While many of the Northern & Western African countries are struggling with internal stability, the easiest access to the Sahara would be via Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt. The rest of the countries would either require a complicated path (e.g. visa) or dangerous to visit. The local nomads are the Berber people (not from Justin Bieber’s fan club, okay just kidding), occupied much of the Sahara in the past and presently as well. The Garamantes Berbers built a prosperous empire in the heart of the Sahara. The Tuareg nomads then continue to inhabit and move across the Sahara, even to the present day.
Marrakesh – The gateway of my Journey to the Sahara Desert
Marrakesh, the fourth largest city in Morocco, is one of the gateway to get to the Sahara Desert. A lot of people mistakenly thinks that Marrakesh is the capital of Morocco, the capital is actually Rabat! However, many people probably would have heard about Marrakesh more than any other cities in Morocco, because this beautiful city was made known by the country’s most intriguing sites and museums, such as the Bahia Palace, or the renowned Medina (market) in the world – Jeema El Fna, known as the “world-famous square”, “a metaphorical urban icon, a bridge between the past and the present, and the place where Moroccan tradition encounters modernity.
There are too many things to do in this beautiful red-walled city, built by Ali ibn Yusuf, where most of the buildings were constructed in red sandstone. I will cover things to do in Marrakesh on a separate article, do stay tuned! 🙂
Traverse the High Atlas Mountains
Setting off from Marrakesh, we headed South East towards the Sahara which would lead us through the Atlas Mountains region! You would realised how the terrain changes dramatically.
The Atlas Mountains are a mountain range in northwestern Africa. It stretches around 2,500 km through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The mountain range separated the coastlines of the Mediterranean and Atlantic from the Sahara Desert. The Moroccan’s Atlas Mountains contains 3 different ranges according to their altitude, the High Atlas, Middle Atlas and the Anti-Atlas (low). This was once a mandatory path for the Trans-Saharan Trade route through the Tizi N Tichka pass (half stop) in the High Atlas Mountains (altitude of 2260m).
En-route the journey to the Sahara Desert, it was an adrenaline rush driving through the treacherous long-winding mountainous road, witness the spectacular Berber villages and their daily lives.
The High-Atlas Mountains are inhabited by the Berbers, who depends on agriculture in the Hight Atlas Mountains valleys. As it was located near the Sahara Desert, where precipitations are generally low, the Berbers created a smart technique to turn the semi-arid lands into fertile valleys, named locally as Agdal (garden in Berber). This technique has intrigued many Western agriculturalists, in which they were impressed by the high efficiency of this agricultural system.
Explore the fortified city of Aït Benhaddou
After passing through the treacherous and long winding roads of Atlas Mountains region, you would come to a popular UNESCO World Heritage Site! If you have watched the movies such as the Son of God (2014), Prince of Persia (2010), Babel (2006), Gladiator (2000), The Mummy (1999) etc… You would realise the familiar looking Aït Benhaddou, a traditional fortified city built using mud bricks, which located on the edge of the High Atlas Mountains, along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh.
The Aït Benhaddou consists of a group of buildings built entirely of the local organic material and covered by a rich red mud plaster. These buildings were mostly houses surrounded by high walls. The defensive function of the walls was reinforced by the construction of corner towers.
The building in the Aït Benhaddou is a unique showcase of the various pre-Saharan earthen construction techniques. Hence, a precious UNESCO World Heritage site today.
The Aït Benhaddou and other fortified towns in the area might owe their existence to the presence during the Trans-Saharan Trade Route period. This was once an important life route that connects the North African coast, Europe, and the Middle East, to sub-Saharan Africa states. Trade goods, including gold, salt, diamonds and many African slaves passed through these routes beginning in the ancient times in the 8th century A.D. and the late 16th century A.D.
Due to the high traffic period in this trade route, the locals take advantage of this situation and earn profits by providing shelter, food and drink to the merchants and travellers. However, this also attracted bandits and raiding nomads. Hence, the defensive walls were necessary to ensure the safety to the inhabitants of the city and their wealthy customers. The fortified cities began to lose their importance with the decline of travellers and merchants in the Trans-Saharan trade by the 16th century. This resulted in the slow decay of many other fortified cities in the area including Aït Benhaddou.
Discover the renowned Hollywood film set location of “Ouallywood”, in Ouarzazate
After a lunch visit at the Aït Benhaddou, we continue the journey to the Sahara Desert. The weather got dryer as we inched away from the Atlas mountains region. Interestingly, right in the middle between the Sahara and Marrakesh, lies a small garrison town, Ouarzazate. The desolate Ouarzazate is the largest town in Saharan region Morocco. You would never expect in the middle of nowhere, there is actually a movie town. It is the home to many movie studios and sets, including filming many Hollywood movies.
The movie business gradually took off after the French protectorate left in the 1950s, and the ‘Ouallywood’ movie studios were built to provide exotic backdrops for many movies that required an ancient Roman, Egyptian or even the Tibetans ancient backdrop.
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Pitstop experience of the Berber hospitality in the Dades Valley
After some movie treats, it’s time to continue the journey through the palm groves of Skoura and the Valley of Roses, and finally to Dades Valley, where I spent the first night in a traditional hotel that is built into a mountain.
Hotel Babylon Dades is a beautiful and peaceful hotel that was built into a mountain at the Dades Gorge. After a long day drive, it was extremely refreshing to receive warm hospitality from the staff. They operated like a family (Berber tribe) kind of business, where everyone seems to have fun while serving the guest! Of course, it gave me (solo traveller) a warm homely feel! The room is clean and big, and the balcony is nice and peaceful which overlooked the Dades river.
The dinner was lovely and fresh, I was grateful that they could prepare a nice vegetarian meal for me. The breakfast was enormous and awesome too. 🙂
The staff was enthusiastic and an impromptu drumming session broke out on the terrace after my dinner which some of the guests joined into the hypnotic beats of the sound reverberating out into the mountains opposite the hotel. It was truly a magical experience. I was totally immersed into the Berber tribe culture and was having heaps of fun with the locals. When they start singing songs and cheering “Africa… Africa…”, I started to realise, “wow, I am really in Africa now, even though it seems like Middle-East Arabian culture at times”.
Take a stroll along the Todgha Gorge with the locals
The next morning, it was time to bid goodbye to the staff from the gorgeous and cosy Hotel Babylon Dades and continue my journey to the Sahara Desert! So the first stop was the Todgha Gorge, a gorge near Tinerhir which is about 600 meters long, the canyon walls are close to each other into a mere 10 meters from each other, while the sheer and smooth rock walls rise up to 160 meters on both side. It was said that the gigantic rock walls magically change colour as the day progresses, due to the reflected light from the sun.
At the bottom of the gorge flows an icy cold river water, which was really refreshing from the hot weather in the desert weather of Morocco.
This was indeed, one of the most dramatic landscapes I have ever seen in Morocco. It was also amazing to note that the Berbers are still residing in these mountains. The gorge was breathtaking and easy hike by foot with many places to stop and to photograph. Highly recommend not to skip this site when you are heading your journey to the Sahara desert. 🙂
The door of the Sahara Desert, Merzouga
After another day of long drive passing the green palm forest, oasis and the charming Berber towns of Erfoud and Risani, I finally reached the last village, Merzouga, the gateway to an overnight experience you’ll never forget, a night in the Sahara Desert! To have a lifetime “In the Arabian Night!” experience. 🙂
Merzouga is a small village in southeastern Morocco just 50km away from the Algerian border. This beautiful village has a close proximity to the Sahara Desert and contains the largest natural underground body of water in Morocco.
Upon arrival in Merzouga near evening time, the first thing to do was to freshen up and get ready for the Sahara Desert adventure. So, I checked myself into the spectacular Hotel Nomad Palace Mergouza! It is a big beautiful full resort with a pool, outdoor seating areas, terrace, restaurant (with delicious food) smacked in the middle next to the Sahara Desert. You can even see the massive Sahara sand dunes right next to the resort, from the balcony.
*Note: The camel safari, the dinner and overnight stay in the nomadic tent in the middle of Sahara Desert was organised by Hotel Nomad Palace Merzouga. Because I was taking the camel safari with them, they were kind to let me leave my luggage in the room the night when I was up in the desert. The next morning, when I returned, I was able to take hot showers in the hotel room and have breakfast before heading out. A necessity, especially after spending an entire night in the extremely hot (day) and cold (night) desert!
Amazed by the massive Sahara Dunes at Erg Chebbi
After almost 2 days of travelling, FINALLY it’s time for the great Sahara Desert!!! Just like the documentaries by National Geographic or Discovery Channel, the massive Sahara dune covered, sand in the wind, plant-less desert is breathtakingly beautiful and worth the journey to this remote corner of Morocco.
The dunes of the Erg Chebbi stretches 28km from North to South and are 7km across at their widest point. Rising up to 150m in certain places, these giant sand dunes lining the Algerian border definitely fulfils most people’s expectations of what a true desert should be.
The 1.5 hour camel ride journey was a fun one. Beware of touching your bare feet to the sand, it was EXTREMELY hot!
The key to a good camel adventure is to find a happy, well-fed and well-hydrated camel. You certainly do not want to take on a gloomy and emotional camel for your Sahara Desert adventure. Remember, you would be stuck with the camel for at least 1.5 hours journey to the top of the dunes for the sunset and to the camp site. Choose wisely! haha
Upon reaching near the top of the dunes, you would need to climb up to the top for sunset. Climbing the dunes could be a challenging but fun experience. Some consider it as an art…haha. The dunes are considered a permanent structure made of very fine, soft, and often blowing sand. It would seem as though you are taking two steps forward while taking one back without realizing it. Even when you make it to the top, you are walking with your feet slipping down. You might even find yourself slipping backwards, but hey, it’s all part and parcel of the fun. A good form of exercise definitely. 🙂
Once on top of the desert dunes, you’ll be treated to the most amazing sunset in your life. It was truly magical and unforgettable experience. Seeing the orangy sun sets down and disappear behind the massive sand, forming the beautiful orangy-red sand dunes was AMAZING! It gave me a good self-reflective moment for myself, watching the beautiful sunset in the desert, reminded how fortunate I truly am.
Immersed in the Arabian Night
After sunset, I was taken by my camel to the campsite where I received great hospitality by the local nomads, playing authentic Berber music and a feast fresh from the Moroccan Tajine and CousCous.
After dinner, the locals invited us (all the guests in the campsite) to the centre of the camp which had a cool campfire and filled the empty night with singing and dancing. My Berber guides were sharing with me their coveted collection of Berber jokes and taught me a few Berber phrases for later use on my Morocco adventures.
Near midnight, out of a sudden, the Berber guide asked a few of us whether we would like to play some sand boarding, I was like why not? But NOW??? He gathered a few of us and we climbed up to the top of the dunes again in the middle of the night, strap on the sand skis and come sliding down into the darkness. I did sand boarding in U.A.E. before but this time was much more thrilling as I was sliding into a darkness with only moon light guiding my way. I climbed back up and did it all over again. At the end of the adventure, sand got into everything, it filled your shoes, enters into your clothes and teeth. But these were all part of the excitement for being in the Sahara Desert. A lifetime experience that would leave you with a beautiful lifetime memory. Totally worth it! 🙂
*Note: Keep your shoes or slippers somewhere safe when doing sand boarding at night, if you misplaced it, it’s hard to find it in the massive sand dunes.
Camping in the dunes gave me a chance to see the night sky in the dark of the desert. Experiencing the stellar show, you could probably see shooting stars, abundant of planets and passing satellites. Stars seemingly hang in 3-dimensional bowls without the light pollution from the city to drown them out.
Spending the nights in nomadic tents gave me an up-close and personal experience with silence. Just a tip for everyone, you may feel hot in the day, feel cooling after dusk, but once it’s nightfall, it’s gonna be really miserably cold! Sometimes it might hit below zero during winter time, and few degree celsius during summer. Please, don’t make the same mistake as me, with only tee shirt and shorts to spend the night in the Sahara! haha
Heading Back to Marrakesh
We woke up early at 5am to enjoy the sunrise over the dunes of Erg Chebbi in Merzouga, which was one of my personal best moment of Merzouga desert. It was horribly cold as I was under dressed.. haha
Watching the sun lazily rose up from the East of the desert, sort of made me missed home a little. Well, I am home now writing this article, but even till now, I couldn’t forget the feeling I got back then in the Sahara. It was indeed a very rewarding self-reflective moment for myself. There was no one else, but only myself! And YES! In a desert of course. 🙂
When the show was finally over, it was time to ride the camels back to the Hotel Nomad Palace Merzouga. We traversed through the massive dunes of Sahara again and after another 1,5 hours, I had a typical Moroccan breakfast in the hotel followed by nice morning shower. We drove back to Marrakesh through Alnif, Tazarine, Draa valley, Agdz and Ouarzazate, and finally arrived back in Marrakech in the evening. It was a brutal long drive back. Kudos to my diligent and dedicated guide and driver Mr Youssef from Ligne d’Aventure who wonderfully organised this amazing journey from Marrakesh to the Sahara Desert! Most importantly safely! 🙂
Back to Civilisation
Well, when I was in the Sahara Desert, a particular story “The small farm and the cow” by an unknown author, but was mentioned by Paulo Coelho in his blog, the author of the novel “The Alchemist”, the story keeps running through my head. The story goes about a philosopher and his disciple who visited a family with a small farm who was plagued with miserable conditions and extreme poverty. Their only livelihood is their one and the only cow that supplied milk for the family, barely providing enough milk for them to live day by day. The philosopher ordered his disciple to secretly kill the cow before they left the family, despite the disciple’s protest, the disciple obeyed the philosopher and killed the cow.
This incident remained engraved in the disciple’s memory and years later he decided to look for the family again and seek for forgiveness. Imagine his surprise when he returned and found the place transformed into a beautiful farm with flowering trees, a car in the garage and children playing in the garden. The father of the family explained to the disciple that in order to support his family after his cow died, he was forced to step out of his comfort zone and started planting herbs and vegetables. He then realised how much potential the farm had, expanded it and made it bigger and more profitable. The farmer told the disciple that it was a bit of luck that their cow died!.
This story struck me hard with an ending quote I came across before:
“Sometimes in life, it is good to bid goodbye to good things, so you can say hello to better things!”.
It hit me and made me realised, sometimes travelling was not just about having fun. At times in life, it was important to have your own retreat. Just like travelling the journey to the Sahara Desert. It was never a straight forward journey. It required a massive amount of effort, e.g. travelling through the Atlas Mountains, Dades Valley and across the hot desert and oasis to get to the Sahara. We are blessed with modern facilities and transportation system, but have we spared a thought for others who were less fortunate? It’s never about the destination, but the journey itself.
I recently read an article about West African migrants. Do you know that every year there are tens of thousands of West African migrants who risked their lives, journeying through the dangerous Sahara Desert in search of a better life in Europe. They attempt the perilous journey across the Sahara to the north coast of Africa e.g. Libya, risking death, severe dehydration, bandits, kidnappers, or being sold to the militia for money. Once they run out of money, they will be left in the deserted Sahara Desert to die. Most of the time, these migrants carried their entire family’s fortune, usually the youngest or most promising child in the family, in hope to seek for a better life and help the family financially once they made it to Europe.
If the Sahara Desert is in your bucket list, perhaps it’s time to temporary bid goodbye to your comfort, so that you can say hello to greater adventure in the desert! 🙂
Transformation is a process, and as life happens there are tons of ups and downs. It’s a journey of discovery – there are moments on mountaintops and moments in deep valleys of despair. – Rick Warren
Wanna enjoy the same Sahara Desert journey as me?
I frequently received emails and messages asking me for contacts of the trips I have done, therefore I have decided to provide some information here for your easy reference. 🙂
I booked my 3 days 2 nights Sahara Desert Tour from Marrakesh with Ligne d’Aventure Morroco Tours. As mentioned earlier, I am grateful I had this amazing journey all thanks to Ligne d”Aventure for their dedicated service and professionalism. I am particularly grateful to my guide and driver Mr Youssef, who told me a lot of his own interesting life stories like the culturally conflicting Berber-Arabic Moroccan life during our long journey together.
And he introduced many of his friends along the way, like the owner of Hotel Nomad Palace Merzouga, Mr Ali, who shared me many of his controversial point of view of Morocco from a businessman perspective and as a Moroccan citizen.
If you wish or yearn for a local Berber experience in the Sahara Desert, just like what I did, do contact them directly. 🙂
Check out some of my personal tips in planning for your next trip? Have fun and travel safe! 🙂