A trip to Morocco feels somehow incomplete without spending at least one night in a desert. Ouarzazate and its surroundings are littered with oases, some more explored than others. Here, paved roads give way to packed dirt and sand. If you’re lucky, just over the next great dune is a fresh, quiet palm grove. Moroccans and foreigners alike come to take in the great expanse of the Sahara and experience the warm hospitality that this region is known for.
As the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote: “One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.”
The more popular oases of Skoura and Zagora give travelers the experience of waking in the midst of a palm grove and feeling the calm of this part of the world while Merzouga and M’hamid lurk right at the edge of the great Sahara, perfect locations for setting off for that night in the desert.
Hop up onto the back of a camel and trek into the desert for a quiet night in a Bedouin tent, sip mint tea on the great Erg Chebbi, eat a wood-fired tajine, and wake to watch the sun rise in hues of pink and crimson.
Snug against the beginning of the vast Sahara desert, Merzouga was little more than a collection of a few Bedouin tents a few short years ago. The undeniable draw of the desert has proven irresistible for countless tourists, as evidenced by the number of new hotels and specialty riads that have recently sprung up, as well as the new paved road from Er-Rissani and new boulevard. Merzouga exists largely for tourism, though this hasn’t taken away from its seemingly magical pull.
At the literal end of the road lies M’hamid (short for M’hamid al-Ghizlan). Historically, this was a settlement for Hassani-speaking nomads. It now serves as a tourist staging point for desert excursions, with a few cafés and snack restaurants. Some travelers might spend the night here or in the nearby village of Bounou before or after heading out into the desert.
Beyond M’hamid, the great Erg Chigaga rises, the largest sand formation in this part of the desert. Amid epic sand dunes, bivouac tents have been established near deep water wells. Here you can spend nights beneath the stars, with constellations seen free from the light pollution of major cities, bringing the intricacy and immensity of the night sky alive. Erg Chigaga is 5 days round-trip by dromedary and 4 hours by car. Erg Lehoudi (The Jewish Dunes) is an easier-to-manage day-trip from M’hamid, though far more cluttered with tourists and trash and far less interesting. There is a relatively easy-to-drive road that takes you north from M’hamid (8km) to Erg Lehoudi and can be driven without a 4×4.
It’s not all sand dunes in this part of the Sahara. The desert here is surprisingly diverse and the road leading out from M’hamid echoes this diversity. The rough road follows the Draa river valley, which sometimes gives just enough water for short desert shrubs, many of which have collected sand and formed a series of small hills. The road snakes through these hills before coming to a field of rocket that comes to life after a good rain. After the rocket field, it is mostly flat sand and rocks with the occasional desert acacia and tamarisk until a series of rocky hills and then the ergs of fine desert sand. The often dried out Lake Iriki makes for wonderful photo opportunities with little more than cracked earth as far as the eye can see.
The region is best explored with a guide for those who don’t have much time and want to do more than just a night in the desert. The most dependable, honest guide in the region is Abdelkarim Tata (tel. 0662/294 386, www.tataziztrekking.com).
Tata can arrange for day trips in the region, including the nearby Ziz Valley, 4x4s into the desert, overnight trips into reputable Bedouin nomad camps and meals with a nomad locally famous for his madfouna, a local specialty of ground camel, chicken or cow and onion seasoned, spiced and folded, slow cooked beneath hot desert sands (a non-traditional, but equally delicious, vegetarian option is available). Tata has also plotted a hike with houses where hikers can stay through the Tafilet region.