Camel Trekking: Morocco's Sahara Desert (Erg Chebbi/Merzouga)

We knew when we booked our air travel to Morocco, that seeing the Sahara Desert was at the top of our list. The dunes of Erg Chebbi are some of the largest and most picturesque... but, how to get there from Marrakech? Scrapping our plans to rent a car, we bought two last-minute bus tickets from Marrakech to Merzouga and settled in for the 12.5 hour ride (yes, you heard me right... 12.5 hours. yikes!). The bus itself was pretty nice... it was the mountains that made the trip rough (just ask my stomach). But, we were able to make it to Merzouga without getting lost, we reduced our carbon footprint by not driving personal transportation, and... we saved the cost of the (pricey) car rental and gas. Not bad!

If you want to see the desert on a camel trek, there are countless ways to do so.  A quick google search will turn up lots of websites eager to help, and a simple stroll through Jemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech will have your head spinning with offers from personal tour guides.

Luckily for us... we had Moha. I found him through Google and we exchanged several emails before we left for the UK conference. All I knew was that he seemed like a good guy, and that he ran a hotelof sorts somewhere in the town we would be leaving from (Merzouga) to start our camel trek into the Sahara.

We had originally planned to rent a car and drive to Merzouga over two days, arriving in the afternoon, just in time to jump on the camels and head into the dunes... but now that we had traded our rental car for bus tickets... we would be arriving a day early... and had no place to stay.

Thus, from my ever helpful iPod touch, I emailed Moha the morning before we got on the bus and told him we'd be arriving early, and asked if we could crash at his hotel. Without a wifi connection (and no cell phones) we had no way of knowing his response, but when we pulled into the bus station at 9pm that night... I saw his smiling face waiting for us through the window, and knew that we were in good hands.

To say that we lucked out when we found Moha would be putting it midly. In fact, Moha, and our stay at his hotel (Le Petite Prince), is largely responsible for making our trip the fantastic experience that it was.

After we got settled, Moha had dinner waiting for us!

This map of Morocco shows the distance we traveled from Marrakech (on the left) to Merzouga (on the right).

After we filled our tummies, we headed out back to get a glimpse of the dunes in the moonlight, and decided to snap a couple quick pics.

The next morning, we got a better look at where we were staying... adorable!

Cats are welcomed visitors in Morocco, and being cat lovers... we felt right at home. This little guy hung around the hotel and happily (or not so happily) posed for this photo.

The patio at our hotel...

The rooms...

The tile work was impeccable and everything was impressively clean. The whole place was extremely comfortable... we felt right at home.

After a quick run, we got cleaned up and Moha took us to have a look around town. He showed us the community gardens and the self-regulated  irrigation system they use where every plot is assigned an hour time slot. The canal runs through the middle, and when it's your turn for the water, you just remove the dirt dam and let it flow into your field. When your time is up, put the dam back and the water runs down the canal to the next person's field.

Back at the hotel, the crew had shown up and was working on putting in a new, extended patio. With the sun up, we could see just how close we were to the dunes we'd be hiking over in just a short while.

With turbans in hand (er... on head), we were ready to go! Camel trekking, here we come!

Our camel trek group consisted of Emir and I, Moha and our pro camel wrangler, Ali.

We hiked as the sun set, eventually reaching our camp site where we enjoyed dinner (courtesy of Moha!) before building a bonfire and turning in for the night.

The next morning we awoke to the gorgeous view of the sand dunes...

and... breakfast!

We found a snowboard in the dinner tent and couldn't resist putting it to good use. :) Coming down the dunes was 100x easier and more fun than going up... that's for sure!

After playing around for a bit, it was time to move on. Moha had plans to take us to see the lesser known "Black Desert" of the Sahara.

We didn't know much about what the plans were for the rest of the day, other than that we were supposed to be having lunch with a nomad family who apparently lived somewhere in the Sahara's "black desert." As we got closer, we started seeing things like this, which I later realized belonged to the children we were about to meet.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, we arrived at this family's homestead. I wasn't sure what was happening or why we were there... all I knew was that these people didn't have very much... and we had baskets full of food. So... I asked Moha if we could give it to them. We were planning to hike to an Oasis to have dinner and spend the night before returning to the hotel the next day... but we decided to cut our camping trip a day short, giving this family the food we had planned to cook for dinner that night.

The family consisted of a single woman and four beautiful children who all looked to be under the age of 5 or 6.

They make their home in the desert, living in these various tent structures. From what I could tell, this big one was a sleeping tent, and the other (smaller) structures served as a kitchen, among other things. I marveled at the family's resourcefulness and ingenuity...

I'm assuming these are some of the kids' toys... including little camels made out of cloth and wire...

After packaging up the food and leaving it in the tent for them, I found the kids off playing in the desert...

After we headed out, we stumbled across more of their toys...

We hiked about 1.5 hours back to the dunes before stopping at an oasis for a break.

One of the people we met on the road had said, "You will find people everywhere in the Sahara. Like, even if you break down in the middle of the desert, someone will appear, out of nowhere, to help." When we landed at the Oasis, I felt like I had a sense of what he meant. Here, in what truly felt like the middle of nowhere, was this refuge--- complete with tents, a proper toilet, and even a Coca-Cola, if you so choose. In fact, you could even rent skis and snowboards here if adventure called!

While at the Oasis, we ran into the British couple that was camping at our same hotel. They kept us laughing with stories of their camels and the tales they've collected over four months of traveling across Europe (and Africa) in their RV.

With the sun getting lower in the sky, and at least an hour or two to go before arriving back at the hotel, we started the last leg of our trek back to the hotel.

As I've said before, our desert guide, Moha is largely the reason we enjoyed our trip to the desert so much. He picked us up at the bus stop, made sure we had great food, a warm place to sleep, and even arranged our departing bus tickets before personally walking us to the bus station and waiting around to see us off. He taught us how to play the African drums, introduced us to what he calls "Berber whiskey" (green tea with a dash of absinthe), and showed us the land he lovingly refers to as "Mama Africa" with a  passion that makes us eager to return again.

Thank you Moha!

In the middle of our 12.5 hour bus ride back to Marrakech, we stopped for a break and I caught this sight that so perfectly captures the beauty of the area. Bright blue skies, the snow capped peaks of the High Atlas mountains, the warm browns of the other Atlas mountains, punctuated by the colorful architecture of the city below.

Will be be back? As they so routinely say in Arabic, inshallah. Inshallah. :)

PS: If you want to see the rest of the photos from this part of the trip, you can find them here.