The Reality of a Camel Trek into the Sahara

Camel trekking into the Sahara

You know those pictures like the one above where you see your friends or perhaps an unliked acquaintance on Facebook camel trekking in a distant country? It always looks super badass and exotic. Well, here’s the thing, it’s not all that hardcore. It’s similar to ranch tours in Montana. In Montana, there’s always a majority of  tourists, never anyone from the region other than the guide. I’m sure the tourists post tons of pictures and it looks like the real West experience. But they didn’t saddle the horse and they didn’t check to see if the cows were pregnant. Similarly, you are not likely to see anyone from Northern Africa on a camel tour, it’s mostly Europeans, Americans and Asians.

So, in truth, I did not saddle the camel and if the guide had left me, I would have had to navigate back towards town using the location of the rising and setting sun, but I would not have died. This is because we weren’t all that far out. We were on a narrow strip of the Sahara that extends into the massive landmass that is the greater Sahara.

That being said, it’s something worth doing to see the Sahara; experience the sand dunes and get out of the hotel room and under the stars.

The Sahara was one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Morocco. If you are going to travel all the way to Morocco, don’t miss out on this experience. It takes more time and effort to get there, but that’s true of all somewhat remote and beautiful places. Download a few audio books for the ride and make it happen.

Naturally, I’m not alone in my enthusiasm to camp in the Sahara. This is something that most travelers going to Morocco will consider. About half won’t do it because of the extra travel. However, half is still enough to support a market. Because of that, there are a lot of tour companies offering similar trips. It’s marketed as staying in a Berber Camp. Whenever I’m looking to book a group excursion like this, it’s always cheaper to book on arrival in the destination country. The only exceptions are if your schedule is tighter than your leggings and you can’t flex a day or two. In that case, you will be shelling out more money for the security of having set dates.

We booked our trip through our riad in Marrakesh.  The benefit of this is also that the riad wants to get your good rating and will have more motivation to make sure they partner with a good company.  However, if you are staying somewhere that is crappy, that’s a good indication your tour will be similar.  I specifically booked our first riad in Morocco because it had good ratings of other travelers saying they had been extremely helpful in booking excursions for the rest of the trip. I would recommend staying at Riad Sidi Omar like we did because they not only helped us book our trip to the Sahara, but helped with the entire trip. We got text messages from them checking in until the day we left.

One morning we sat down with Omar himself and his brother to book this trip. I told him we wanted to do two nights in the desert because I wanted to see the big dunes. I had read about this on other people’s trip reports. Other travelers had said you need two days if you want to get out into the high dunes. Omar patiently explained why I was wrong.

“Listen, I do this once.  You don’t want to do this.”

“Why not?”

“Because, the desert is cold and you will be staying in a tent with people you don’t know. I lived this once.  I will not live it again. You look at the bed next to you, you don’t know who that person is! You don’t want to do this.”

Now, I have stayed in enough 18 bed dorms in hostels from London to New Delhi to know I don’t care if I know the person in the bunk next to me, but he was adamant.

“But Omar, I want to see the big dunes.”

“There will be plenty of sand for you to see. You in the Sahara! Sand is everywhere. Don’t do this for two nights. I don’t want that for you.”

“Plus, two days on a camel will hurt you here!” Said his brother, gesturing to his nether regions.

That was a good point I hadn’t considered. I didn’t want to end up walking like John Wayne at the end of two days. Plus, it was already getting cold at night in Marrakesh and although the desert is warm during the day, as soon as the sun went down it would be frigid. If there’s anything that will get me to change my plans, it’s the thought of shivering in a tent all night. I didn’t need to prove how hardcore I was.  If I did, two nights versus one night in the Sahara probably wasn’t going to cut it anyway. We booked a one night stay.

You can get to the Sahara from Feś or Marrakesh but you’re going to devote some days to travel. So, we made our way from Marrakesh out into the Saharan boondocks. We arrived to the nearest town, Merzouga, in the evening and loaded up on our camels.  The rest of our group was made up of 3 guys from Denmark and their Chinese friend. Having fun people in your group makes a huge difference in how much you will enjoy an excursion like this.  Sometimes I end up bending over backwards to make conversation and getting everyone to mix.  That was not the case with these guys.  One named his camel Speed Racer so I knew immediately we would be okay.

my humps… my humps, my humps, my humps, check it out!

Of the times I have ridden camels, the song “My Humps” by Fergie inevitably gets stuck in my head. Today was no different as we rode. The boys claimed not to know the song but during the two hours we rode I heard some of the lyrics coming up from the lines of camels. Liars! These camels were different from other ones I had ridden before.  They had only one hump, which makes them much less comfortable since it always feels as though you are going to slide off the hump either down the front or the back. I would indeed be walking like John Wayne. We trudged along at a leisurely pace as the sunset. Speed Racer did not live up to his name.

The sunset over the dunes lit up the horizon like a Lisa Frank pencil box. Soon it was the just the camels’ silhouettes that could be seen against the sky. As we got to our camp, I realized we had been right to listen to Omar.  This place was nice. The tent looked like a medieval tent for a sultan. There were rugs placed on the sand all around the fire pit, running water with a sink in the center of the tents and a normal bathroom.  There weren’t showers but I hadn’t had crazy expectations like that. This was much more than I had anticipated already. Best of all, the beds had extra blankets.

Our camp

We ate dinner in the dining tent (yes, there was a such thing). Then sat around the campfire as our guides played traditional Berber music on the drums.  When they finished, they let each of us try the drums and suggested pop songs we should play.  Apparently, there was new hit by French Montana and Daddy Yankee (see below) that all the Moroccans were talking about. Our friends from Denmark had seen the video on YouTube about 3 times by suggestion of their driver who also watched it while driving. Not having had the luxury of being in on this, I can’t tell you closely the Berber version resembled the original, but I’d say it was a good effort.

Inside our tent

As our group split up, some of us went outside the camp to see the stars, others went to play card games. We had a bit of good luck and bad luck with weather on our trip. It was cloudy so the night wasn’t as cold as it had been the rest of the week. That also meant that there wasn’t much for star-gazing on top of the dunes, however, it was still worth a look. Just a bit of advice, don’t go out onto the dunes alone unless you want to get propositioned by young Berber men for a good time… I’m just saying, I heard stories. If you want to get propositioned, then by all means, get out on those dunes.

The night was freezing and I wore everything I had brought. I woke up two or three times because I was cold but at this point in the trip, I was waking up in hostels and hotels as well so I considered it an average night’s sleep.  I was awake in the morning before it got light out, too excited for the sunrise to go back to sleep. As the first beam of light crept into through the door, we got up to see it. I had been worried that I wouldn’t get to see big enough dunes, but one night will bring you far enough into the Sahara to see literal mountains of sand. We climbed one of these mountains to watch the sun peek up over the horizon.  The dunes below looked like waves on the ocean. It always has surprised me, the staggering beauty of the desert. It’s desolate and still but striking.

Sunrise over the Sahara

After the sunrise, we packed up and headed back to Merzouga where we would be able to have lukewarm shower and hot mint tea. As we rode the camels back towards town, I was happy we had only done one night. It was lovely and the desert was beautiful but it was also cold. Also, there’s not much to see in the desert besides sand. Who knew? Omar did. I rode in the back of the line on the way back, listening to music on my headphones and feeling happy. The camels gurgled. The boys from Denmark talked. The sand was quiet.

I thought about those photos on the camels and the tourists all saddled up day after day for photo ops, wanting the authentic Berber experience. The truth of that, I think, is similar to the truth of the ranch camps for tourists back home. Yes, the authentic experience is what people think they want, but the authentic experience is uncomfortable. That will not generate good ratings on TripAdvisor. So, in this case, you get the Berber Light experience. Enough to get a taste for what it would be like in the Sahara, without getting all hardcore about it.

Still, I’d do it again.

Sunrise over the Sahara

Watch this but keep in mind, traveling Morocco is nothing like the video!