I’ve never been one to seek out the packaged excursion. Call me old fashioned, but I truly enjoy the process of scouring guidebooks, tracking down timetables, and navigating unknown places with a degree of independence. What I may suffer from getting hopelessly lost or missing the occasional train is (usually) nothing when compared to the connections I come to feel with the rhythms of foreign life.
But like so many rules, there are exceptions. A few years ago, my sister and I could have trekked to Machu Picchu on our own, but it was the expertise of SAS Travel Peru that helped us hike and camp with comfort and ease. And this year, as my friends and I visited the Sahara Desert in southeastern Morocco, it would be our private excursion with Sahara Tours 4×4 that got us through the Middle and High Atlas, the Dadès and Todra Gorges, and the desolate dunes of Merzouga in one piece. Between our departure from Marrakech and our arrival in Fes, we spent three days visiting historic kasbahs, enjoying an astonishing array of landscapes, and riding camels through the dunes to sleep under the stars.
So make a reservation, pack up the Land Cruiser, and check this one off the ol’ bucket list—we’re off to the Sahara for the next three days.
Atlas, My Love Has Come Along
The High Atlas cut an east-to-west line across Morocco, forming an imposing 600-mile barrier between the Mediterranean climate in the north and the arid desert in the south. Known to the Berber inhabitants as “Idraren Draren” or “the mountains of mountains,” the High Atlas are the tallest peaks in North Africa—as well as the launching point for this desert adventure.
Spend the morning crossing through snow-capped summits and camouflaged Berber villages to reach Ouarzazate Province on the other side. Once a strategic gateway to the desert, Ouarzazate is now the Hollywood of Morocco—a prime movie-making location for Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, and other legendary films. Interested in exploring the region’s rich history? Take a guided tour of the Taourirt Kasbah, a mud-and-clay palace built in the 19th century to control the crossroads of desert caravans.
Oh Dadès Dear, You Know You’re Still Number One
Continue east along this Route of One Thousand Kasbahs to the Dadès Gorge, a striking red stone canyon carved over time by the Dadès River. The contrast between the red rock walls and the verdant river valley is a sight to behold—and one that you’ll enjoy from your room at Chez Pierre. This charming hotel clings to the walls of the gorge itself, offering tranquil garden terraces, beautifully decorated rooms, and a dinner menu full of fresh and flavorful ingredients.
This Must Be The Place
Your day begins in the Todra Gorge, a deep ravine and riverbed with walls of orange limestone that loom nearly one thousand feet above. And it ends, following a long drive through rocky landscapes and dust-blown villages, in one of the more spectacular campsites you’ll ever experience.
As the largest desert in the world and one that covers most of North Africa, the Sahara is a sprawling area of more than 3.3 million square miles—one-quarter of which comprises vast sand sheets and dunes. These dunes reach heights of up to 815 feet in Erg Chebbi, the golden sand expanse that sits beyond the village of Merzouga roughly 30 miles from the Algerian border. It’s here where you’ll pack a bag for the night, meet your dromedary (one-humped) camel, and take a sunset ride across the desert to a secluded nomad-style camp.
Many of the local guesthouses maintain permanent bivouacs in the dunes, but you’ll feel wondrously secluded upon your arrival at the tents. Sip a glass of mint tea as the sun goes down, enjoy a dinner of tagines expertly crafted by the guides, and fall asleep to Berber drums under a sky full of stars.
The Heart Is An Organ Of Fire
Wake up in a scene straight out of The English Patient (but without the sandstorms and tragedy), as you watch the sun rise over the dunes and pack up the awaiting camels. You’ll be back in Merzouga for breakfast and a shower—then it’s time to hit the open road to Fes.
The final day of this adventure is also the most varied, as the 200-mile drive connects the open dunes of Merzouga to the centuries-old medina of Fes. After passing through the Ziz Gorges and entering the Middle Atlas, you’ll notice that the dry rocky plains make way for cedar forests and fields of wildflowers, while some of the villages assume an almost European character. The mountain town of Ifrane, for one, has tree-lined streets and alpine chalets that have given it the nickname of “Morocco’s Switzerland.”
By the time you arrive in Fes, the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities, you’ll be ready to bid farewell to this desert excursion. What follows is a story for our next long weekend…
A Few Notes
This post outlines the three-day Marrakech-Merzouga-Fes trip offered by Sahara Tours 4×4, but keep in mind that there are multiple itineraries and points of departure to choose from. Do you only have two days to work with? Not a problem. Looking to plan a nine-day adventure? They’ve got you covered.
When should you go? The temperatures are ideal (but the desert is a bit busier) between March and May, while the winter offers a more solitary experience (and chillier nights).
The beauty of this trip is the ease of it all—one inclusive price covered our accommodations, our private transportation for more than 650 miles, most of our meals, and our delightful guide, Mubarak. We were responsible for our lunches, our snacks and drinks during the day, and cash tips for Mubarak and the desert guides.
TITLE: The Sahara Desert at sunrise | FRIDAY: A Berber village in the foothills of the High Atlas; crossing the High Atlas; the Dadès Gorge | SATURDAY: A town on the road between the Dadès and Todra Gorges; the Todra Gorge; the camel trek into Erg Chebbi; camels in the dunes of Erg Chebbi; the camp in the dunes | SUNDAY: The Sahara at sunrise; yours truly on the dunes of Erg Chebbi.