After nearly 2 full days of driving we finally reached what is undoubtedly the highlight of the trip and what we had all been waiting for, camel riding into the sand dunes of the Sahara and a night in a berber tent. Passing through the town of Merzouga we reached a hotel by the side of the road where our camels were waiting for us. One by one we were assigned camels according to weight of the rider and size of the camel. My camel, who I named Big Bob, was, as his name suggests, big.
As we loped along in single file, our camels joined by ropes in groups of six, the sun was setting and the clouds in the sky turned brilliant shades of orange, red and pink. In awe of the beauty I forgot for a moment how utterly uncomfortable riding a camel is. With no stirrups for foot support your feet just hang, and when the camels go downhill you’re pushed forward into a very uncomfortable position. Sand dunes have lots of ups and downs!
Once the sun had set the darkness came pretty quickly, but it was still an hour before we reached camp. By then I was really done with riding. Some of the camels were too. Holding on tight as Big Bob sat down, I slid off and followed the group up over a large sand dune and into camp on the other side. The large berber tent that was to be our home for the night consisted of a large common area with tables for dinner, and several bedrooms leading off the main area where we would all share rooms. We couldn’t tell what the tent looked like from the outside as it was pitch black when we arrived.
After a traditional Moroccan tagine for dinner we all headed out to sit on cushions around a campfire and had a bit of fun with drumming. Little by little people headed off into the dunes, away from the lights of the camp, for stargazing. It had started a bit cloudy, hence the amazing sunset, but too cloudy to see the stars. Slowly the clouds had dissipated though and the stars shone through. I don’t think I had seen so many stars in my entire life. The sky was full of them. I headed up a nearby dune with my camera and tripod to try and get some good shots.
In the dark atop the dune I couldn’t see anything but the stars above me, and the lights of our camp behind me. They were magnificent. Then looking towards another camp I noticed two figures making their way to the direction of our camp. They reached the bottom of the base of the dune I was on and climbed to the top, where one went and sat to the side while the other came and spoke to me. It was too dark to really make out his features but he was dressed in traditional berber dress similar to our guides. “What are you doing?” he asked. I thought it was pretty obvious…..I was standing next to a tripod. I replied that I was taking photos of the stars. “Are you Japanese” he asked, “Japanese like to take photos”. Hahaha! “No, I’m not Japanese”. He explained that he was a guide from a nearby camp and asked if I wanted to learn about the stars. But I could only learn if we went to where it was darker a few dunes over, because it was too light from the camp where we were. Er, no thanks, I will not be wandering alone into the dunes in the dark with a strange man!
The next morning we were up at 5am to begin the camel ride back out of the dunes during sunrise. We were asked to find our camels from the day before, but it was pitch black. There was no way I could find Big Bob. I managed to find a camel of similar size and we were soon off again on the most uncomfortable mode of transport ever. It was a shorter ride back (thankfully, because the camel is front of mine had severe stomach issues and the stench when it farted was unlike anything I’ve ever smelt in my entire life) and the dunes were again beautiful as the sky lightened and the sun rose.
How to get there
I joined a 3 day/2 night tour in Marrakech which was organised through my hostel. The camel ride into the Sahara is the final activity on the second day and the end of the trip before the long drive all the way back to Marrakech. The first and second days are spent driving through the High Atlas mountains and are filled with stops along the way at interesting places such as:
Ait Benhaddou, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a 17th century ksar used along the old Moroccan caravan routes from Marrakech to the Sahara. It has most recently been used in many films such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Jewel of the Nile (sequel to Romancing the Stone), The Living Daylights, Indiana Jones, Gladiator, Cleopatra, Kingdom of Heaven, Prince of Persia and most recently as the Essos city of Yunkai in Game of Thrones.
Ouarzazate – Morocco’s movie central, where you’ll find studios set up to accommodate any Hollywood blockbuster requiring desert scenery.
Dades Gorge – lies between the Atlas Mountains and the Anti Atlas, and is where we spent the first night
Todgha Gorge – located in the High Atlas mountains and at points only 10 metres wide. It’s wall are popular among rock climbers
Local Berber villages, where we were taken on walks through fields of agriculture and into shops selling traditional Berber carpets.
A note on the camel riding
As with any activities involving animals, there are times where you can never quite know how well the animals are being treated. There has been a lot written recently about elephant riding and how detrimental it is to the elephants regardless of whether the organisation is referred to as a sanctuary. The same can be said of the camel riding. I had doubts about the health of some of the camels, and a few of us were particularly distressed when one camel refused to get up, so the guides proceeded to kick it. The camel was struggling against the bit in its mouth and was foaming blood at one point. The camel was obviously unwell but the guides were unconcerned and continued to insist that the rider get back on (he refused and was given one of the guides healthier camels to ride).