Disclaimer: Thank you Berber Camp Merzouga for hosting us as your guests. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are entirely our own.
Do you think you could survive the Saharan desert on your own? The environment here is much harsher than other parts of the world: The African sun beats down mercilessly, with temperatures ranging from 0 ºC (32 ºF) to 47 °C (117 °F). Navigating sand dunes can be disorienting and energy-intensive, as some can reach heights up to 150 meters (492 feet) tall. The Sahara is the largest hot desert on the planet, spanning 9.2 million km², with oases few and far between.
There is however, a group of indigenous people from North Africa, who have tamed this land for centuries, living amongst the sand and hot sun, known as the Berbers. The Berber people have not only endured the Sahara, they’ve thrived there for over 10,000 years, survived multiple invasions, while managing to protect their language and culture - pretty impressive huh? We knew very little about these people initially but thanks to Berber Camp Merzouga, and their Morocco Private Tour itinerary, we had the privilege of exploring the Saharan Desert for three days, where we got to experience native Berber camps and villages, plumb the depths of their rich culture, and gain an understanding of who these people are and where they’ve come from.
DAY 1 - Experience the Beauty of the Saharan Desert
Our driver Youssef picked us up at 8:30 am to start our long day of countryside exploration. We immediately took a shine to Youssef who had a fantastic sense of humor and a seemingly endless plethora of knowledge about the surrounding landscapes. Our first stop was Ifrane, termed the “Switzerland of Morocco” for its cool climate and alpine-style housing. Here was our first introduction to local culture - Youssef recommended we try a Nous-Nous, a Moroccan coffee made with half coffee and half frothed milk. Imagine a latte but creamier, sweeter, and infinitely more unique.
With our coffees in hand, we headed South to meet some furry locals - the wild Gibraltar monkeys of Azrou forest. We pulled over to feed these mischievous macaques and committed our first serious faux-pas; we tried feeding them local olives. It turns out, these smart simians are part of the only growing monkey population in all of Europe and have outsmarted their competitors by being picky and maximizing their cuteness to lure visitors with food passing through. These intelligent creatures know this is a common pit stop for Morocco desert tours passing through! We were one of the many, happily offering them dates that they gladly accepted as sweeter fare.
As we continued making our way south through the Atlas mountains, we drove along the Ziz River and accompanying valley; a 125 km (78 mile) expanse filled with lush palm trees that provide locals with delicious dates and tropical fruits. Most travelers and Morocco private tours rush through this area but we highly recommend stopping for a moment to appreciate the rustic, lush side of this country that many do not get to see.
After several hours of driving, we approached the Saharan desert. Arriving an hour or so before sunset, it was time for us to ride what Youssef affectionately called “sand taxis” - aka camels - to a standard Berber camp nestled in the heart of the Sahara. We boarded our quirky animal friends and began our trek deep into the dunes as the African sun set over us. After some time, our guide stopped us at one of the higher sanded peaks, to dismount our camels and take in the spectacle before us. The sun was slowly creeping towards the horizon, casting its golden rays upon the burnt orange dunes below. We sat there silently, enjoying the vibrant changes taking place in the sky above - blown away by the desolate landscape and the rainbow of colors traversing its sharp features.
Before night completed its descent and darkness overwhelmed all, our guide navigated us deeper into the desert. It seemed we were headed nowhere, but then our camp suddenly appeared, nestled amidst the sculpted dunes with perfectly sanded edges. Upon arrival we were greeted with hot Berber whisky (aka mint tea) and a variety of Moroccan snacks. As we settled in near the fire, we befriended our host (and owner) Hassan and fellow guests before jetting off for an hour to explore the campsite and nearby dunes. Our Berber camp was made in a traditional fashion: through the liberal usage of Moroccan prints and ingenuity. Long, soft rugs were utilized to create a ubiquitous camp floor, building a sturdy layer above the sand. Each tent was constructed with camel fur rugs to insulate the heat, and protect guests from harsh winds and the outside elements. The inside contained a queen bed, lavish hand sewn ottomans, and most impressive of all, electricity. Our Berber camp was a masterpiece in engineering and demonstrated the best of Saharan living.
After settling into our tent, we had a veritable feast in a large, communal tent: delighting our palates on various Moroccan salads, chicken tajine with fresh sautéed vegetables and a fruit basket for dessert … we were stuffed and fully content, ready for a night spent under the stars! As we stepped out of our collective dinner daze, we found the camp staff had lit a bonfire and were playing bongo drums as they sang traditional Berber songs under the starry night skies. We spent the rest of our evening singing, dancing, and enjoying the legendary Berber hospitality and culture we had heard so much about.
DAY 2 - Immerse Yourself in Berber Culture
After a delightful night spent in the Sahara, we set our alarms for a 7 am wake up to watch the sunrise. We scrambled to the nearest, highest peak, sitting quietly in the dark, sleepily wrapped in blankets, patiently awaiting the sun to appear. Slowly, we could see the golden morning light creeping its way over the horizon, gently awakening the sleeping dunes before us. The supple curves of the desert danced with the newly present morning light, creating an ever-changing tableau of colors, shadows, and shapes … a sight that would never be forgotten.
Once the sun had risen, we tested our hand at sand boarding before going back to camp to pack up our things and head out once more by camel. We slowly made our way back through the peaceful dunes of the Saharan desert to the main village for breakfast at a cute and charming Riad the locals called Camel House. There we happily ate Berber omelets, Moroccan bread, fruit and yogurt, while enjoying our newly discovered Nous Nous coffees that we had recently come to love and crave. Once breakfast concluded, we met our guide Youssef once more to embark on a day in the desert, where we would be given the chance to explore several nomadic settlements and meet the true locals of the land.
Our first stop was at Khamlia Village, to enjoy a relaxing cup of mint tea while listening to the spiritual music of Gnawa. The village is known locally as “the all black village” due to its residents descending from Sudanese, Malian, and Nigerian migrants who were re-settled there during the worldwide slave trade. The villagers are known for their musical talents and host performances every day for travelers near and far. The band plays authentic instruments - large iron castanets called qraqabs and a three-string lute known as the hajhuj (sorry, no turntables here!) while wearing all white garb and singing chants about prayer, healing, and religious spirits.
Our second stop was at M'ifis Mine, famous for its quartz and fossils. The mine has long been closed but the caves remain as do the vendors offering minerals and gems from the surrounding area. The real highlight to this stop however, are the trilobite fossils on display - these are arthropods (invertebrate animals with external skeletons) who went extinct 250 million years ago. We’ve all studied fossils in school but holding one in your hand really lets you get a grasp (pun fully intended) on how old the Earth truly is and stands as a testament to the prehistoric life that came before us.
Our third stop was a visit to an active Berber nomadic family camp in the middle of the desert. The Berber people were all originally nomadic and while many now live in cities, 40% of the Berber population continues its wandering lifestyle. The societal expectations are long-standing and rarely challenged, with everyone fulfilling their familial roles as follows: The men leave for the day to find forage for the animals, tend to their herd, or go to the markets to trade goods. Meanwhile, the women manage the camp, raise and educate the children, and make food for the extended family. The children have their own roles too, with the boys helping tend to the herd when their fathers are away (sometimes for multiple days at at time!), and the girls regularly making trips over 1 kilometer long to fetch fresh drinking water for the family each day. We discussed the Berber culture at length with Youssef (our Berber guide who actually grew up in the Saharan desert) while enjoying mint tea and roasted nuts under a berber tent that provided us shade from the scorching sun.
Our fourth stop was a visit to Hassan’s family home, set in a more modernized Berber village. Berber Camp Merzouga is a family run business, where each member plays an important role and we were fortunate to spend our time with various family members along the way. We met Hassan’s mother who insisted on feeding us a delicious home cooked meal where we enjoyed fresh bread, a berber omelet with peppers and spices accompanied by mint tea - their hospitality knew no bounds as we ate, drank, and played merrily. It was fascinating to compare the traditional Berber lifestyle with a modernized families approach; both shared similarities in food and hospitality but differed drastically in housing and familial roles.
For our fifth stop, Hassan’s brother Ibrahim, took us near Erg Chebbi to sand board some steep dunes and watch the sunset once more over the Sahara. Little did we know, that Ibrahim’s approach to get us near some higher dunes, was to off road deep into the desert, and floor it for the tallest dune he could find, nonchalantly parking our SUV at a preposterous angle with ease. It was so unexpected, but we loved it - talk about top notch service! We spent an hour scouring the sand for the best dunes to ride, giggling and laughing with each cascading descent. After we had our fun, we hiked our way to the highest nearby peak to settle down for our final Saharan sunset. Opening a bottle of Moroccan red wine, we poured a glass as we sat, watching the vibrant colors of yellow, soft pink, and orange melodically dance in the sky. These are the moments you stop to savor, knowing you are exactly where you need to be, life is good, and it doesn’t get much better than this.
For our last and final stop, we made our way towards our eagerly anticipated Merzouga Desert Luxury Camp, set just outside the borders of Erg Chebbi. Our berber camp housed 6 large, luxury tents for guests to enjoy with a main dining tent for breakfast and dinner. Our lavish tent was beautifully decorated with various Moroccan tapestries, rugs and prints, accompanied by a queen bed and full working bathroom (including heated water) … quite impressive if you ask us! And as an added bonus, we had the entire camp to ourselves, so dinner was served for a party of two as we laughed and drank wine, enjoying our private dinner of Moroccan salads, freshly baked bread, roasted vegetables and curry spiced chicken tajine.
After dinner concluded we headed outside once more to find a bonfire awaiting us. Forming a drum circle around the flames, we sat and listened to traditional Berber music and even tested our own hand at the drums (note to self: we are not good, but the more wine you drink the better you sound so we had a blast). Ibrahim left us on the earlier side, as he retreated to his tent, but we didn’t want our evening to end; Surrounded by the soft glow of candles, a crackling fire, and the faint silhouette of sand dunes in the distance, we sat happily looking up to the skies as we admired the milky way and galaxies above. The Sahara desert offers some of the clearest skies for stargazing: with zero light pollution, every star twinkles in the night, shimmering like a diamond in the sky, so expansive it’s impossible to look away. As you sit there seeing the brilliance of stars - millions of light years away, it's crazy to think that we too are one small sliver of existence, and for a moment in time, you are humbled by the vast complexity of our universe.
DAY 3 - Return to Reality
We awoke the following morning for a traditional Moroccan breakfast before meeting our guide Youssef once more to return back to Fes. The ride from Merzouga to Fes is 6 hours but the time flew by as we got lost in conversation, learning about Youssef's family and the Moroccan culture while exchanging stories of California life and our recent travel discoveries, stopping whenever we pleased. You can stop in Erfoud for some world famous dates or grab lunch whenever hunger strikes - you set the schedule so do as you like. We arrived in Fes by 6 pm, as we said our heartfelt goodbyes to our wonderful driver and friend, thankful for the memories shared and moments together.
Our Moroccan Desert Tour may have been brief, but the lessons learned will last a lifetime. In three short days we discovered the beauty of the Sahara, immersed ourselves in Moroccan civilization, and experienced Berber culture and the nomadic people of the desert firsthand. We now have a deeper appreciation for Morocco as a whole and we have Berber Camp Merzouga to thank for that!