Of all the excursions available from Marrakech in Morocco, I’d recommend the African desert safari above all others. You probably think of lions and giraffes when I mention an African desert safari. Those are popular…in the southern part of Africa. The Sahara is in the north. What can you do in a giant desert? For starters, have the best day of your life.
Traveling to the Merzouga Luxury Desert Camps
As part of my Trablin International Summit in Marrakech, I was selected to be part of an African Desert Safari. I didn’t have much time to research exactly what it entailed. As such, I was in for a wonderful surprise and endless fun.
I had the pleasure of traveling with a group of other bloggers, including Gloria of TheBlogAbroad.com, Megan of MeganSnedden.com, another Megan of BohemianTrails.com, Kevin and Kelly of TheAwkwardTourist.com, Instagrammers Wes, Maja, and Sandra, not to mention Trablin’s video team and the photographer Luis. Together, we formed one hell of an awesome tribe and ended up hanging together through much of the conference.
At the outset, we knew we had quite a bit of driving to get out to the desert, but I don’t think any of us really understood just how long it would take. We met in the big square of Marrakech at 7 a.m. where a van was ready to pick us up. It’s a 10-hour drive to Merzouga from Marrakech, but neither the driver nor any of us wanted to go flat out. We made several stops along the way at various cafes, gas stations and shops for toilet breaks, as well as a restaurant for lunch. The first shop they took us to had a large variety of foodstuffs and sweets at great prices. I stocked up on a full bag of goodies that I could snack on throughout the whole trip.
The lunch spot we were brought to had a fairly limited menu and wasn’t that cheap ($10 for a meal), but the location was nice. We ate on a rooftop terrace looking out into the Atlas mountains. With one of the Megans, I split a meal of a mushroom omelet and kafte tajine. I was to get very familiar with both dishes throughout my stay in Morocco, along with all the rest of the delicious food in Moroccan cuisine.
With all our stops, we tacked on another three hours onto our trip. By the time we arrived at the camp, it was long past sunset. We were shown our respective tents (each with only two or three beds), dropped off our bags, and made our way to the dinner tent for our first meal in the desert.
Glamping in the Desert
I’m kinda glad I didn’t do my research before the tour. The unknown led to the camp being all the more special. There are many camps around Merzouga. Our was the Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp, one of the first to be set up. They have two camps, ours and a smaller one for more private groups. We had 14 sleeping tents, plus a large dining tent. Most of the tents were arranged around a large fire pit…which we sadly missed out on as it was raining with strong winds each night we were at the camp.
The sleeping tents were a wonder. Made with thick canvas, they kept us warm and dry; it got down near freezing at night as we were there in November. The tents were also equipped with air conditioners for the summer. The beds were deep and soft with thick pillows. I slept like a baby…when I was actually in bed; I spent most of the night either working or hoping to get a glimpse of the Milky Way between the clouds.
Within the tent and separated by a thick curtain was a full bathroom – a modern toilet (instead of a squat toilet), sink and shower. The camp had hot water, but it rotated between the tents on a timer…which I didn’t learn until the last day. My first shower was deliciously hot; I braved freezing water in my subsequent showers. I’ve heard other desert camps provide accommodations similar to the nomadic desert life – a small tent with half a dozen people sleeping on rugs and an outhouse available.
The dining tent was quite large. There were enough seats available for everyone in the camp to eat together at the same time. Breakfast for us was served around 9 am and consisted of pastries, various jams, and omelets in tajine bowls. Coffee and fresh juices (orange and strawberry) were brought for anyone who wanted them. Lunch was several different Moroccan salads (none of which have lettuce), kafte (Moroccan meatball) tajine, and chicken skewers, served around 2 p.m. after we got back from our 4×4 ride around the desert.
Dinner was even more elaborate. On the first night, we had a vegetable soup, something like butternut (probably not that). This was followed with a couple different types of pasta, and beef and vegetable tajines. It was easy to tell how fresh the ingredients were. I used to eat at a Moroccan restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Since that time, I considered Moroccan food as one of my favorite cuisines, but I now know that that restaurant had nothing on real Moroccan dishes, especially those prepared out in the desert! Following our dinners, we had musical performances by the staff. On the second day, it was the chef himself who led everyone in a series of African songs.
Sunrise on the Sand Dunes
Sunrise was scheduled for 7:45. Even though I didn’t get to sleep until around 3, I had my alarm set for 7 a.m. Emerging from my tent, I saw a group already on one of the sand dunes. I set out to join them, not realizing how deceptively far they were, nor how hard running across the sand dunes would be. It was actually another group that had been staying at the camps, and they’d gotten up early for a camel ride out to the highest dune in the area. It took me nearly 15 minutes of running to make it up to them.
Sadly, our entire journey was plagued with overcast skies. Sunrise was no different. I set up the tripod to get a timelapse of the sunrise, focusing on the pink glow on the horizon. A few minutes later, the glow disappeared and the guide led the other ladies back to their camels. That was it! Twenty minutes compressed into a few seconds just shows the pink glow on the horizon and the clouds moving by. At least the view from the dune was beautiful. I’ve seen photos of the sunrise and it can be really stunning, but unfortunately the weather in Morocco in November is hit or miss.
A 4×4 Excursion to the Berbers and a Lake
Soon after we finished breakfast, we were all ushered to a group of 4x4s waiting to take us on a tour of the desert. Gloria, Kevin, Kelly and I lucked out with a driver who seemed to think he was in a race. He constantly tried to pass up the other 4x4s, cutting them off more than once and going dangerously fast across the sands. In a nutshell, it was an absolute blast and we couldn’t laugh hard enough.
Our first stop was a rocky lookout in the hills with the Algerian border clearly visible. A few nomads were selling trinkets, but I hadn’t brought any money with me. I actually had even more fun taking photos of the other bloggers taking photos (which I’m rather famous for doing). Luis was particularly interesting, posing with his foot for me.
Our next stop was a deserted Berber settlement and a newer camp where a family lived. I asked our driver how old the settlement was, as the buildings were completely dilapidated and half blown away. I figured they’d been there for a couple centuries, so I was rather surprised when he said about twenty years!
The Berber camp nearby quite possibly had been set up just for us. There were a few tents, one for cooking, another for general tasks, a third with a row of beds, and a bigger tent where the mother held a newborn child. A young girl, perhaps 5 years old, played about the camp. When she saw me, she ran straight over and jumped on my back, laughing as I gave her a ride for a few minutes. After I put her down, we were all invited to tea with her dad. I only wish the tour had told us we would have these excursions so I could have brought some money to tip the family.
Finally, we went to visit a huge seasonal lake. It’s shallow and only forms in the fall and winter months. It doesn’t even show up on Google Maps satellite imagery. Our 4x4s brought us to the edge of the lake for some photos. I didn’t hesitate to take my shoes and socks off so I could walk out into the water. No vegetation or mud underfoot – it really was just a temporary lake on the desert sands.
Camels for Sunset and a Magic Carpet Ride
We had a few hours between lunch and our next activity. I probably should have taken a nap, but I ended up going with several of the others to get photos in the dunes with the camels that had been brought near the camp. This is when I discovered that at some point, my Samsung S8 phone updated with Super Slo-Mo mode for the camera. I had a lot of fun with this, getting videos of throwing sand up in the air and jumping about. In a nutshell, we were like kids out there. Perhaps the best video I saw was Wes slowly walking into the frame looking at his phone with a camel in tow.
Around 5 p.m., we all gathered for our sunset ride. We were each assigned a camel and helped on. You have to mount a camel when it’s sitting, and it can be a bit unnerving for some when the camel stands up beneath you. We didn’t go far with the camels (maybe 20 minutes) before we dismounted and then climbed to the top of a tall dune. Some of the girls were struggling with the climb. Sandra was the luckiest, as I gave her the piggyback ride to the top…even though my legs hated me for it.
Sadly, the clouds continued to prevent us from getting good photos. The scenery was beautiful. but it wasn’t a sunset. Instead, we spent some time on the dune just having fun. I got a bit silly when I asked them to make a video of me as I threw myself off the top of the sand dune and tumbled down to the bottom. I had no idea how much the sand would hurt! Later on, the camp attendants created a crazy fun activity for us. Using one of the blankets that a blogger had brought, they created a magic carpet ride down the side of the sand dune! Now if that’s not your quintessential African desert safari activity, I don’t know what is.
The Milky Way Behind the Clouds
After our wonderful dinner which included the musical performance led by the camp chef, some of us went out to get photos of the Milky Way. Or at least that was our plan. The clouds were still about, and it was raining off and on too. I had no delusions that I’d be able to get any decent long-exposure photos of the starscape with my Samsung S8, but I tried anyway. Nada. Some of the other bloggers did get some nice shots when some of the stars peeked out between the clouds.
If it hadn’t been cloudy, the Milky Way would have been stunning. There’s no light pollution for hundreds of miles around, and the air is very dry which makes it even more clear. Sadly, we were told that both the day before we arrived and the day after we left had clear night skies. C’est la vie. I’ll just have to take another desert safari someday in one of the nine African deserts someday.
Visiting Yunkai City from Game of Thrones
All too soon, our safari was over and we were on our 10-hour bus ride back toward Marrakech…which ended up being 14 hours due to our stops. A couple of them were for the toilet, but around 3 p.m. we stopped at Aït Benhaddou.
Although I could have sworn the location must have been built in antiquity, Aït Benhaddou doesn’t date back more than a couple hundred years. As mentioned earlier, houses made from clay, hay, and water don’t last a long time. Even buildings in this village must be maintained for appearance’s sake, as they have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. While the location is really interesting, it’s the movies which make it even more famous. To date, 20 have been filmed here including The Mummy, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and Prince of Persia. You might also recognize it as the Yunkai City in Game of Thrones.
Booking with Merzouga Luxury Desert Camps
The Merzouga Luxury Desert Camps offer several different packages, depending on your budget and choice of activities. There are also separate tours leaving from Marrakech, but these don’t include the price of the camps. They’re just transportation out to Merzouga, and then you have to book your camp separately (which is an option).
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Photo Credit for all photos of me: Luis Martin Castell
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