A Desert Tale – The Sands of Sahara

Endless sand dunes, the whir of the desert winds, silhouettes of camels effortlessly making their way through the sandy shores against stunning backdrops, a setting sun in a spotless sky giving way to a beautiful moon rise and camping under a starry sky while a distant nomadic song sets the tone of the night – Who doesn’t dream about these. We did too – and they became a reality with an overnight camping in the largest dry desert of this planet – The Sahara.

If you have not already read about how we ended up shortlisting Morocco despite all the safety concerns Morocco poses to women travelers, you can read all about it here – Is Morocco Safe for Female Travellers

However, an overnight camping in the Sahara was the USP that appealed to us the most to switch gears from a promising girls trip to Spain/Portugal into an adventure across the vast country of Morocco undeterred by all questions and remarks that went like “Will you girls be safe out there?”, “What if you are kidnapped”, “What if someone molests you”, “What if you get killed” and at the mention of desert camping “Don’t fall off the camel and break your back!”

Thankfully, none of these happened and here I am to tell the story. Sahara was undoubtedly the most favorite of our places we visited during the 14 days in Morocco and here is everything you need to know to make this adventure happen.

How to Reach Sahara in Morocco

There are very few geographical areas that can match the expanse of the Sahara. Stretching across a parts of Morocco and Algeria for roughly of the same size as that of United States, the closest large cities from where you can reach the desert would be Fez or Marrakesh. Driving to the Sahara from these deserts can take roughly about a days time. We had stopped at Midelt enroute Fes to the Sahara to break the journey. Marrakesh to Sahara is about 600kms and can take anywhere up to 8-12 hours of journey. Fez is at a distance of about 470 kms(290 miles) from the Merzouga dunes of Sahara.

Day Trip Vs Overnight Camping in the Sahara Desert

Due to the long distances involved in getting to these sand dunes, we would advise 1 or 2 days of camping in the desert. While we would recommend that, we also recognize that the living in the sand and desert is not for everyone. It would be possible to camp at a hotel or province that is has closer access to the camel treks that begin to the Sahara.

The Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga are the most popular sand dunes in the Sahara Desert that attracts tourists. The Erg Chebbi sand dunes are more accessible with hotels from where the camel rides begin about 30 minutes away. The Erg Chigaga dunes offers unlimited opportunities for adventure travel for those who wander off the beaten path. The Erg Chigaga dunes are about 60 kms away from the accessible roads and requires a 2 hour drive by 4X4 vehicles or almost a half days worth of camel ride to get to the camps. Depending on choice and preference, of how far interior you would like to be from civilization and how long a camel ride you might survive, you can choose your ideal camping spot.

Where to Stay in the Sahara – Merzouga

There are several hotels that range from budget friendly to luxury line that provide these tours into their desert camps. Most of them have a hotel which is well outside the main dunes area. Visitors will be requested to leave their main luggage secured with the hotel and carry a day pack to carry on the camel ride into the desert camps where overnight accommodation will be provided.

For luxury travelers we would recommend the Desert Heart Luxury Camp in the Erg Chebbi dunes of Sahara. There are also several other pocket friendly camps in and around the dunes. The prices are generally inclusive of camel rides, dinner and breakfast.

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Most of the budget friendly camps will have multiple tents in one area with one or two shared bathrooms. The tents are unlike the normal camping tents. These are very sturdy ones built to withstand the extreme desert winds. Most of them come with doors that can be latched from the inside. Cots, mattress, pillows and blankets are generally provided.

Do not be surprised if you find yourself sleeping on a cot covered with sand grains or you wake up with a lot more sand on the blanket than you went to sleep with! The desert can sometimes be silent enough to hear a pin drop or the storms could beat up the tent through the night making you wonder if there would be a tent at all by morning.

Due to the increase in tourism and the alarming rise in garbage being left behind in the desert by the campers and hotels that provide camping facilities, most of the camps have been moved to the outskirts of the dunes. You would be camping in the dunes but not deep into the dunes as they once used to be. Most camps are now typically within a hour hour camel ride away.

What is the Experience Like to Camp in the Sahara Overnight

If you are looking for a trouble free, easy fun camping in the desert, you are in for a surprise. The deserts are unforgiving to anyone. The harsh terrain and the desert storms are definitely going to shock you if you go there expecting just pleasantness.

But why is a desert stay highly recommended while you are in Morocco?

To put things in perspective, you need to remember that you are camping in the largest hot desert of this planet. The size and expanse of the dunes are stunning and can take even a world traveler by a mix of awe and shock. The dunes that forever keep shifting its shape with the storms are dotted by lines of camels as they carry the visitors to the dunes for watching the sunset. The nomads dressed in their blue can be heard shouting instructions to their camels to maintain their straight file while they excitedly chatter with the tourists. A sunset in the Sahara throws a million photographic opportunities, weather permitting. We figured soon that the desert storms can be a major impediment to your perfect sun gazing. The storms carried and deposited sand in every exposed portion of our skin, clothing and backpacks while we were cushioned by a generous amount of sand that kept drifting into our trekking boots with every step. But what fun is Sahara without a lot of sand all over you ?

Come night fall, we mounted our camels and proceeded to the desert camps that were pitched in the dunes in a perfect circle. A dinner of the famous Moroccan Tagine was followed by music and nomadic songs sung by the camel herders around a fire that was lit up to warm a cold desert night. No matter how warm the day is, the temperatures dip towards the night across the sand dunes. Fortunately enough, we had a full moon night that cast its pale warm glow lighting up the desert around us and showcasing the enigmatic beauty of the endless expanse of sand. The winds never ceased through the night and while we lay awake through most of the night wondering if the winds were going to blow the tent away, none of that was to happen. The tents were pitched strongly to the ground and they stood unswerving in the sand storms that seemed to find every tiny crevice in the tent and deposited itself on us and our blankets by morning.

We returned to our base camp hotel the next morning and spent an entire hour removing sand and dust from everything we wore and carried. But the one thing we all knew is that we would not have traded that experience of spending a night in the greatest desert mankind knows for anything.

What to Pack For an OverNight Camping in the Sahara

The desert weather conditions vary on a single day from being hot to freezing temperatures in the night. Here are the list of essentials that we think you should carry in your day pack to the desert camp.

  • A long headscarf to protect your hair, face and neck from the sun and sand storms. The nomads who take care of the camels will teach you how to tie them the “nomadic way”. Sunglasses go a long way to protect your eyes during sandstorms.
  • Comfortable pants that will cover your legs entirely and will make it easy to get on and off the camel with ease. This can also shield sensitive skin from the camel hair.
  • Lots of sunscreen : It is inevitable that you will be under direct heat until sundown. Apply generous amount of sunscreen to prevent sunburn.
  • Hiking shoes, flip flops and an extra pair of socks : While it the desert dunes appear to be insanely beautiful, walking in it is no easy deal unless you are a camel. The sands shift easily making every small step an arduous task. Hiking shoes can make it easy to move around and climb the dunes but it would also involve cleaning them afterwards for the copious amount of sand that will get lodged inside it with every step. 6 months later, I still find sand from the Sahara in my trekking boots. You may also want a fresh pair of sand free sock the next morning for the return journey. Flip flops should make it easier to walk around the camp site after night fall.
  • A windbreaker or light jacket : The temperatures in the desert drop drastically after sundown even in the peak of summer. It can even be freezing temperatures during the colder winter months. Carry sufficient warm clothes for the night. All camps provide thick blankets for the night.
  • Ear plugs: If you are a light sleeper (like me), ear plugs will come in handy for a peaceful nights sleep. The desert winds are insanely strong and the nights can sound seemingly scary with the winds beating up the tents. The tents are built to withstand these ravaging winds, but the noise is unavoidable.
  • A small torch or batter enabled lights : While the camps do provide lighting, it is advised to carry a small light source – torch or fairy lights or anything that can come in handy if the power supply ends and you are left in the dark.
  • Power backup and extra camera batteries : Most camps are basic and do not provide charging points. Carry extra batteries for the camera and a power backup for the mobile phone. Cooler temperatures in the night would mean battery power would discharge sooner than it normally would.
  • Camera and a water/dust proof camera case : An adventure to the Sahara is never complete without bringing back those memories as pictures. If you do carry a professional or smaller digital camera, be aware of the fact that sand damage is real. The silky smooth sand of the dunes can easily lodge itself into every open crevice of your device – camera or mobile phone. The damage can especially be detrimental to your expensive camera or lenses. Try to shield the camera as much as possible during sand storms and windy conditions. Never change your camera lens out in the open in the desert. If the sand enters the mirrors and inside of the unit, the camera may sustain some irreversible sand damage.

Private Vs Organized Package Desert Tours in the Sahara

The choice on whether to go with a group tour to the Sahara or plan your own adventure is entirely up to an individuals personal choice. If you are fluent in French or Arabic and is an experienced independent traveler, it should be fairly easy to arrange the trip yourself. However, please note that the roads leading up here can be pretty deserted and long drives through barren lands are required. In the event of a vehicle breakdown or other technical issues, it can be harder to get help if traveling alone.

If you haven’t already read about our experiences and learning from visiting Morocco, please read them here before planning an independent trip to Morocco or the Sahara.

Traveling with packaged group tours or organized private tours can make the overall experience a lot simpler and safer at a small added cost – especially when an overnight camping in the Sahara is involved. You will be in the hands of safer and more reliable guides who are familiar with the locals and the terrain. There is also often less chances of being spammed by the camel owners or the camp sites that may quote a price that is not so reasonable. Organized tours come with camel rides, dinner and breakfast and a certain amount of entertainment in the night – bonfire and berber music.

You can look up some of the organized desert tours here – Desert Camping Tours

Private tour, independent tour or group tour – it is a rule of thumb to never venture into the desert all by yourself at all points of time.

When is the Best Time To Visit Sahara

Sahara packs a surprising range of weather conditions to all visitors. Ranging from hot summer temperatures that can turn into a cold night all in a single day, choosing the right time of the year for an overnight camping in the Sahara can decide on how enjoyable the desert experience can be.

Winter months : November – January – The night time temperatures in the desert can drop below freezing most of the nights in winter. While all desert camps provide thick blankets, effective heating may not be available everywhere.

Spring : January to May – While the temperatures become bearable and spring sets in with pleasant day time temperatures and cooler nights, January to May is a good time to visit Sahara. However, sandstorms are more frequent during this time.

Summer : June to September – The summer months in the desert can result in temperatures soaring upto 50 degree Celsius(120F) during day time making it incredibly hot – especially in July and August months when the sun is right above. Though it coincides with the holiday window, summer is the least favorable time to visit the Sahara, especially for families travelling with children.

Visiting Sahara with Younger Children

While Sahara beckons travelers near and far with its adventurous and rugged terrain, it is not entirely impossible to take your little ones along on the adventure. There is no better teacher than the nature herself to the young minds. Here are a few things to keep in mind before planning a family adventure to the Sahara.

  • Sandstorms can be particularly difficult even on adults. This can be harder and gruesome for toddlers and young children to handle. The prickle of sand on skin while it blows in the desert storms can be painful to children due to sensitive skin. This can be dangerous for toddles and babies. Check on the weather conditions before deciding how much of a desert experience you would want to withstand if your group has very small children.
  • Children may panic at the sight of camels and riding on them may not be for all. Camel riding with babies is not advisable.
  • Sahara being an adventure travel experience, may not appeal as much to the children as it would for adults. Plan accordingly and carry some non technology entertainment for kids.
  • There are bugs in the desert. Though not in large numbers, you can spot bugs and beetles around the dunes and camping area. Keep an eye on the children to avoid them getting hurt.
  • If you or your child has medication requirements or allergies, remember to carry the required medicines because there are not many pharmacies at least for an hour or two driving distance. It is best to carry a first aid kit to tend to injuries.

Should I Be Worried About Riding A Camel in The Sahara

Camels are gentler than horses but way taller. For anyone who has not ridden a camel before, or has had a terrible experience riding a camel before or has fear of heights, the thought of riding a camel into the dunes can be nothing short of a nightmare. With a little bit of caution and following some ground rules, these rides can in fact be fun and safe.

Mounting a camel and riding on its hairy back, albeit the improvement from having camel saddles, can be a difficult one – particularly when the camel straightens up for the journey and later when it tries to lower to let you get down you will be asked to hold tight. These are the only two instances where you have a chance of falling off if you do not grip the handles on the saddle tight. The berber guides are careful to let you know ahead of ordering the camel do these and they ask you to hold on tight and try to make the process easier and safer. Take their words seriously and hold on tight. The selfies can wait!

The camels travel in a line and are tied to each other. This prevents them from being distracted or breaking the line and wandering away. It is likely you will be sniffed and licked by the camel that is right behind your own. If these are can scare you or your younger ones, avoid travelling to the desert using the camel and check for 4X4 rentals. Climbing on the camel with babies and toddlers is totally not advisable.

For those who can absolutely not fathom the camel ride, one of the options is to walk through the dunes. Nomads to it all the time, but their feet are more attuned to doing this than the tourists. Walking on the sand for long hours can be tiresome. You can talk with your guide or hotel to see what best arrangements can be made to get you to the desert camp. The Moroccan tour guides are very welcoming and do their best to make your trip memorable – as long as you ensure to tie up with the right travel groups.

Just like horse riding, camel rides require caution to keep an eye on the situation than entirely getting distracted. They can gain speed while going down the slopes. If you are using a camera or a mobile phone to capture the images, remember to put them away and hold the saddle tight whenever the nomad guide requests you to do so.

While we have tried our best to answer some of the most frequently asked questions on how to plan adventure with overnight camping in the Sahara please feel free to drop any other questions that you may have in the comments column or reach out to us directly through our contact page. You can also email us at kindleandkompass@gmail.com.

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