Visiting the Sahara Desert is one of the ultimate bucket list items. Claiming the title of the world’s largest hot weather desert and 3rd largest desert in the world (Antarctica and the Arctic being the first 2), it’s definitely worth a visit. Covering most of northern Africa, it measures 9,200,000 square km’s, about the size of China or the United States.
On my recent trip to Morocco with Intrepid Travel, I not only visited the Sahara but spent the night camping under the stars. The towering sand dunes were just as impressive as I had imagined. Watching both sunrise and sunset perched onto of a dune was definitely worth the climb. And spending the night camping under the stars was the icing on the cake.
It took us a few days to drive from Marrakech to the desert town of Zagora, as we stopped by the Atlas Mountains and explored the famous Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou en route.
On the morning of our planned arrival in the Sahara we drove further east to the very edge of the desert to the small town of M’Hamid. Here we enjoyed lunch at a mini oasis and waited out the heat of the day by swimming in a beautiful refreshing pool.
Around 4 pm we drove a short distance further into the village to a small courtyard filled with camels, all tacked up and ready to go. Our first Sahara experience would be a camel ride into the desert. After all, no trip to the Sahara would be complete without a ride on the “ships of the desert”!
Riding through town and then across a section of palm filled desert, we felt like real Arabian adventurers on a camel safari. I was glad we’d waited until late afternoon as the hot sun was beating down on me making my mouth parched with the desert dryness.
Returning to our starting point about an hour later we thanked our camels for the ride and watched as they were untacked and set loose right in town. I had noticed that most camels in Morocco are free range, wandering where they please.
Now it was time to begin the 2 hour traverse in 4×4’s to our Sahara desert camp. After stopping for bottles of ice water as we left town, we found ourselves bumping our way over the rocky Hamada desert heading further and further away from civilization.
Following a rough track that runs parallel to the Algerian boarder I noted that the landscape resembled something out of a Star Wars movie. Devoid of vegetation expect for small spiny trees and brush, camels were the only other sign of life we encountered. The areas only human inhabitants are nomadic people and their camels.
About half way out we made a stop at a desert well that was occupied by a berber and his camels. We stretched our legs and took more camel pictures (can never have too many of those!) before climbing back into the 4×4’s for the last push to camp.
The Sahara Desert Camp
In the late afternoon we finally reached the edge of the quintessential Sahara and the massive Erg Chigaga dunes. Small desert camps came into view with sand dunes stretching out into the distance.
Soon enough we pulled up to our home for the night, a small encampment with one large dinning tent and 6 smaller tents for sleeping.
The tents were very different from the ones I use to camp with at home. They were tall enough to comfortably stand up in and made completely out of canvas. They each had a carpeted floor complete with a welcome mat. The best part was seeing actual beds and mattresses occupying each tent. We weren’t going to be roughing it here!
The tents were arranged in an oval shape with a bonfire pit located in the center. At the far end of the oval was the bathroom tent, complete with real toilets (no flushing though, all gravity) and even a large wash basin with 2 sinks. A metal container with a spout on the end provided us with “running water” to wash our hands.
While settling in and admiring the large dunes surrounding us, our guide prepared mint tea and cookies for a late afternoon snack. Lunch seemed like a far off memory so we dug in and discussed our plan to climb a near-by dune to watch the sunset.
There was a dune right behind one wall of tents that would provide adequate views. But just beyond it was a much larger dune that promised even better seats for the sunset show.
Setting off we climbed up and up, usually sliding back a step in the deep sand for each two we took forwards. Panting and out of breath we finally made it to the top and walked the ridge line to the western tip. There before us was the vast expanse of the Sahara desert in all its glory.
We made it to the top of the dune just in time to snap a few pictures and get settled as the sun began to sink below the horizon.
Lighting up the sky with bright yellow and orange it gradually transitioned to a rainbow of pastel colors. I had to keep reminding myself where I was as I took in every second of the experience. Watching the sunset from a sand dune in the Sahara desert had been the top item on my Moroccan buck-list and I was finally experiencing it.
As it began to get dark we headed back towards camp, this time sliding our way down the dunes. We returned to camp much faster than we had left. Finding my water bottle I took huge gulps as my mouth was parched from spending just an hour on the dunes. I was surprised at how thirsty I was but then reminded myself that this was one of the driest places on earth. The surrounding environment had sucked all the moisture out of me and my body was screaming for it to be replenish.
Sleeping Under The Stars
Relaxing outside the dinning tent as the stars began to emerge our guide informed us that we didn’t have to sleep in the tents that night. To get the full experience we were welcome to drag our mattresses out of our tent and place them in the middle of camp so that we could literally sleep under the stars. My tent mate and I decided that this was a must-do. 2 more from our 7 person group decided to join us.
After enjoying a delicious meal of chicken and vegetable tagine, followed by fresh fruit for desert, we began preparing for our night under the stars. First we placed matts down on the ground and then brought our mattresses out of the tents and placed them on the matts. We lined ourselves up in a row by the unlit bonfire and jumped into bed. Staring up at the stary night sky from my bed I tried to make out familiar constellations above. Soon the moon began to rise, drowning out the stars in the night sky.
I felt too excited to fall asleep but I must have been tired from the long day. I fell asleep in no time and woke in the early pre-dawn hours. We had all set alarms for 5 am with plans to climb the smaller sand dune right behind camp to watch the sunrise.
Quietly rising from my bed, I gently woke my camp mates and put on a sweater in the chilly early morning air. Grabbing my camera, I made the short climb up the dune and took a seat as the sun began to peak over the horizon. Watching the sunrise over the Sahara was just as magical as it had been to watch it set the night before.
Once the sun had risen I shed my warm layer as the hot sun heated up the desert. We enjoyed an early breakfast in the dinning tent after which we packed our overnight bags. Setting out at 6:30 am it took us 3 hours to drive back to civilization. We crossed more rocky desert-scapes and a large, extremely flat, dried up lake bed.
Camping in the Sahara was an incredible experience. Being an avid camper and all around outdoors person this was one of the most unique and special experiences I could have asked for. Kicking off my desert experience by riding camels over sand dunes only made my time there more magical. If you ever find yourself in Morocco I highly recommend spending a night in the Sahara!