After relaxing in Essaouira for a few days it was time for the last leg of our trip, a two day journey out to the Western Sahara. We returned to Marrakesh via public bus, booked into a riad and hit the streets looking for a tour to Erg Chebbi in the Western Sahara. It didn't take long as the souks were packed with small tourist agents all advertising a plethora of overnight camel trips in the desert. There are plenty of options to keep everyone interested including ATV trips, 4X4 excursions, camel rides and couscous cooking courses. We eventually chose a three day tour that would take us the 700km from Marrakech to Erg Chebbi where we would take a camel trip into the Sahara.
The drive from Marrakesh to Erg Chebbi is roughly 500km. Not long out of Marrakesh the road begins to wind through the High Atlas passing green pastures, roadside crystal stalls and breathtaking views of rocky peaks and valleys that are had much easier than hiking Djebel Toubkal was. That is unless you are sitting in the back of the bus. If you find yourself sat at the back of the bus, take some motion sickness pills as you are in for one hell of a roller coaster ride.
After passing through the High Atlas the road dives deep into the Dades Gorge. The rock formations change from marshmallow like to crags and crumbling chalk. At the bottom of the narrow Dades Gorge and the Valley fo the Roses an idyllic little stream runs behind the main tourist hotels and att this time of year it is lined with gorgeous flowers and makes breaking from the group for a little walk well worth your time.
Day 2 is a long day. After a typical breakfast of bread, jam and eggs we hit the road. A little bit of backtracking to get on the road we found ourselves stopping by the famous old Ksa (fortified city) of Ait Benhaddou. An ancient city with a maze like layout it is still inhabited by 8 families, some of whom work within the city as artisans and tour guides. Ait Benhaddou has been the set for many famous movies such as Sodom and Gemorah, The Jewel of the Nile, and the locals favorite, The Gladiator.
After a full days drive we arrived in Merzouga, a small town that lies on the edge of Erg Chebbi and the Western Sahara and ended up at a small building built seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Skis at the front door await the adventurous who may want to try their luck schussing down the dunes. It is here where we sat for two hours waiting to get on our camels and head into the desert. Why for two hours? I have no idea. Just know that if you head this way and arrive early, you will sit around for two hours doing nothing but staring at the distant dunes but getting nowehere near them.
One of our hosts finally arriving, straight out of the desert.
Our new friend and transport, the camel. If you haven't ridden a camel before, prepare for a rough ride. Camels are much wider than horses and their saddles have no stirrups. This translates into doing a mild from of the splits while being given birthday bumps. When we initially booked this trip we thought an hour and a half camel ride was going to be too short. After an hour and a half camel ride we realised it was just enough. The camels were friendly enough that I didn't have to re-enact any scene from Conan, either.
At night everyone gathered around on carpets in the middle of camp. Couscous was served along with mint tea and we were treated to local music played on the drums. It made for a wonderful evening talking to fellow travellers about their different experiences while sitting under the stars on Saharan sand. I only wish we had had more time to explore the area and experience the desert but...
we were still 700km from Marrakesh. So, we awoke early and climbed on our camels to enjoy the sunrise on our way back to Merzouga.