It’s hard for me to understand a journey if you can’t provide me with moments that shake me up. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve also enjoyed my vacation at a resort, spending half my time on a lounger in front of the pool face up and the other half face down.
But I don’t consider it strictly a trip, because for me it happens not only on the physical plane, but also on the mental plane. If anything, I would define the above as a parenthesis.
On the contrary, traveling to Morocco I have had experiences in which I have felt as if they were touching some spring in my brain. One of the ones I remember with more affection and intensity was when I met Merzouga, and it will be the reason for this entry to provide as much information as possible to those of you who dare to live this experience. Let’s begin then!
Although we usually call it Merzouga, in reality this changing landscape is called Erg Chebbi, where Chebbi is the proper name and erg defines the type of desert (i.e. those composed of masses of sand). Other deserts, much more common, are hamadas: hard, stony and with hardly any sand.
Undoubtedly this is the most famous desert in Morocco, and if in the hypothetical case that the photos that accompany do not help you to understand the reasons, their numbers will: it has a length of about 30 km and an average width of about 8 kilometers, and some dunes can reach nothing more and nothing less than 150 meters high. Another outstanding Erg from Morocco, although not as popular, is that of Erg Chegaga.
Directions on how to get from Marrakech to Merzouga and how to get from Fez to Merzouga
There are several ways to get to Merzouga, the most common being from Marrakech or Fez. From Fez it is an eight-hour drive and from Marrakech it goes up to ten hours.
If you decide to go by public transport or organised excursion in the first case, the journey takes just one day, while in the second, it takes two days. This is not, in my opinion, a disadvantage, as important and enjoyable is the destination as the road: cities of adobe, kasbahs, palm groves, gorges, … a spectacle to enjoy from the window.
From Marrakech the first night is usually done in Dades (stopping before in Aït Ben Haddou) and the following night in a camp of tents already in Erg Chebbi. The next day, early in the morning, you return to Marrakech in a single day. This is done because it is usual to “spend the night” in the seat (if it is with help, better), since the night before the least is done is to sleep and the route is virtually the same as the outward, unless you visit Ouarzazate.
Dades Gorges on the way from Marrakech to Merzouga
However, there are those who opt for a more personal and leisurely journey, either on their own 4×4 or on a private tour, visiting Ait Ben Haddou on the way back and staying in one of his kasbahs, spending an entire morning in the dunes rather than leaving first thing in the morning.
The journey from Fez has the peculiarity of being more diverse and make clear the heterogeneity of the Moroccan geography, because at the beginning we will cross the middle atlas, with the green of the trees as the main protagonist and even making the snow appear, not being until we approach Merzouga when the rough landscapes begin to emerge. The main places to stop along this route are Rissani, Ifrane and Midelt.
What to do in Merzouga
The best thing you can do at Erg Chebbi is simply enjoy the scenery and become aware of how tiny we are. But for all of you who travel without having to plan ahead for hours can cause a crisis, I list a series of activities to make it as complete as possible:
Crossing the dunes by motorcycle is one of the best things to do in Morocco, Sahara desert (Merzouga)
There are multiple ways to walk the dunes. In my case two are the most enjoyable: either in 4×4, encouraging the driver to launch (adrenaline and bump are guaranteed) or in quads, placing all participants in line and following a leader who leads. It is impossible for those you fear to fall, I assure you.
Nor is it necessary to use any vehicle to feel the excitement of the desert. Even if you don’t have a board designed for it, with total probability in some of the hostels housed in Merzouga they can provide you one, either for a fee or for free (because you have contracted some other service with them, for example).
Almost certainly the way you access the tent camp. It usually gives a little respect to the beginning, as it impresses the size of the camels and climbing them requires a minimum of skill, but after the first 10 minutes the tension will have disappeared and you can enjoy the rest of the ride.
I advise you to wear baggy, comfortable and specific trousers, because I suppose you won’t want to smell the rest of the camel trip (quiet, a plastic bag to keep them during the trip and a washing machine as soon as you get home will be enough).
A very recommendable thing to do in Merzouga (Sahara) is to look for animal footprints.
The desert has its peculiar and varied fauna, from insects to foxes. If the spirit of exploration does not run through your veins, you can at least try to deduce what the footprints and burrows you find belong to.
Enjoying the sunset is something essential to do in the Sahara desert (Morocco).
In Erg Chebbi not only does the landscape change in shape, but also in colour: at dawn the sand turns reddish, and as the sun rises, more yellowish. It is therefore not something to admire only when the sun is about to set or rise, but almost every minute.
Enjoying the night (and the company around the bonfire)
If light is a spectacle in Erg Chebbi, the lack of it is too. When the sun goes down everything will be reduced to the absolute black, the coldness of the sand and a starry sky. And if you accompany it with a bonfire with your travelling companions and improvised Moroccan musicians, better than better.
Getting to know another culture is the best thing to do in the desert of Erg Chebbi (Sahara).
I will never tire of repeating that Morocco’s true heritage is its citizens. But within Morocco’s vast human wealth, it is possibly the people of the desert who have a vital approach and a way of understanding the passage of the most particular days. I do not know if living surrounded by these landscapes conditions, but I assure you that knowing how to listen to them can become the best possible life lesson.
What to see in and around Merzouga
Erg Chebbi is not only important as a destination, but as a strategic place from which to know what is hidden in its surroundings. It will be necessary to “park” although, if you admit the advice, the tents serve as a unique experience but are not comfortable, so it is advisable to sleep from the second day in some accommodation in Merzouga, so you can explore the terrain with your dream fully reconciled.
Nomadic families is one of the most interesting things to see in Merzouga (Sahara desert).
It is fascinating to see how some people decide to live in the desert with a small cattle for sustenance and a house made up of one or two tents and a small adobe room for cooking and preserving food; although, as they themselves say, their home is much bigger than ours, because the sky is their roof. You should not be afraid to approach them: they will most likely gladly accept your presence and invite you for tea.
The black race is indissolubly linked to the Moroccan people, especially as we descend to the south. This is because their ancestors were brought as slaves from Central and West Africa.
After their emancipation and after a time of nomadism they settled. This is how Khamlia was founded, a town that I strongly advise you to visit and in which Gnawa music is present in every corner and with influences, as you will have deduced, both from traditional Arabic music and from African percussion.
Lake Dayet Srij and Lake Yasmina to see in Erg Chebbi (Moroccan desert, Merzouga)
Lake Dayet Srji is located to the southwest and can only be seen in rainy seasons (when it ceases to be a swamp), but is especially recommended in June and September, as it receives many migratory birds, including pink flamingos.
Another of similar characteristics is the lake Yasmina, located to the north and that although it is something smaller, to the being located to the feet of the dunes offers at the same time two manifestations of the nature in seemingly contradictory.
City of Orion, Celestial Staircase and Golden Spiral
Particularly suitable for those passionate about architecture and interventions in natural areas (commonly known as Land Art). Located on the plateau of Marha, they are three constructions (or sculptures, depending on how you look at it) that, at the same time, impact the terrain but seem to belong to it.
Erfoud (Morocco) and its fossils is one of the best you can see around the dunes of Erg Chebbi.
Erfoud has as one of its main attractions the extraction and polishing of fossils from nearby quarries (if you are given to adventure you can go hunting for those who are scattered between the outskirts of the city and Erg Chebbi).
The visit to the craft workshop begins with a first explanation and sample of the polishing process until the stones become the most varied objects (figures, plates, washbasins, …) and a second part in which you are taken to the shop and hope that the previous explanation serves to make box.
These mines were exploited by the French to extract mainly lead and zinc. Although practically abandoned, it is not difficult to imagine the harsh conditions to which the workers were subjected by the high temperatures and the more than 40 meters deep wells.
Its name derives from the fact that kohl, a cosmetic used by most Moroccan women as an eye mask, is blackish and has lead sulphide as its main component, although the nature of this place has little to do with this product.
Rissani is a village to see in Marrakech, Sahara desert (Merzouga) very interesting for its market.
If you are in Erg Chebbi on Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday it is mandatory that you go to Rissani, which is when the most authentic and lively market in the area takes place. Although if you have such peculiar tastes as mine, you will probably photograph the donkey car park more, as this is the means of transport for many of the traders who come to the event.
Taouz. Necropolis and cave engravings
On the outskirts of Taouz are a series of prehistoric constructions, formed by the vertical accumulation of slabs and with a door and a small window as the only elements connecting with the exterior. Nearby there are also testimonies of another era in the form of cave engravings, with hunting as the main motive.
Differences between the desert of Zagora (Morocco) and that of Merzouga
I would not like to end this post without talking about a Plan B which is often called upon in the absence of time to go to Merzouga from Marrakech. I’m talking about Zagora, a town much closer to Marrakech (6 hours distance, almost half) and that allows to experience a similar experience because it offers a desert area for the delight of the traveler with few days of vacation.
However, it is important to note that it does not have the same bucolic landscape, as it is much more arid and rocky and with lower dunes. Therefore, I strictly recommend it if you do not have more days and, once decided, accept that although the spectacle is not comparable, two of the main features of the trip will remain, ie: the beauty of the journey and the magical starry night with other travelers.
Enjoying the sunrise in the desert of Merzouga (Morocco)
Although they probably agree on a third particularity: you get an experience that marks you for life. So it happened to me, because the first time I saw the sunrise in the desert of Merzouga a thought invaded my mind: “Did it really take more than 20 years to live it?