Erg Chebbi (Sahara) – Destination of the Month (May ’17)

Erg Chebbi, Merzouga, Sahara Desert, Morocco[Image Credit: Lefidele]

Few things in the world can match the scale and grandiosity of Sahara.

It’s a true force of nature—harsh, unforgiving and inhospitable—but camping in the dunes is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, guaranteed to leave you with unforgettable memories.

I woke up 8am in the morning in the imperial city of Fez. Making my way from the riad to the narrow alley where my vehicle is waiting, not even the labyrinth-like medinas of Fez could contain my excitement.

It was drizzling lightly—and that would be the last sprinkles of rain I would see for some time. As we sped up through Atlas Mountain and left the fertile soil behind, the sky slowly turned azure blue.

The road to Sahara—dotted with a mixture of picturesque valleys, oases of palm trees sprouting in the middle of nowhere, mud-brick villages anchored with high-walled kasbahs—kept me intrigued despite the long journey.

As we pulled over at the remote village of Merzouga, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Layers upon layers of tall sand dunes stretching far into the horizon…

Not planning of wasting any more time, I removed my sandal and ran to the top of the nearest dune, jumping and landing on the sand—it felt really soft and the sand buried my feet ankle-deep instantly. I wiggled my legs and the sand gently rolled down like water. And there I sat watching the sun slowly set in the distance, bathing the dunes with an orange glow.

As the night fell, I climbed to the rooftop of a kasbah to witness the spectacle of the universe. A Merzougan native named Hamid was more than eager to show me how his mother had taught him how to read the stars.

“Look up to the sky and find seven stars forming the shape of a handle and a bowl—that’s the Big Dipper. Hanging just around it is a fainter miniature which we call Little Dipper, with the brightest star at the end of the handle acting as the North Star. Turn around and you’ll see the Southern Cross just behind you.”

Merzougans like Hamid have long settled into civilization, but in the far-flung outskirt of Sahara, there still lives Berber nomads who are constantly on the move, hunting for water and raising baby goats.

I had the privilege to sit down for a tea with a Berber nomad—and I was let in a secret: once in a while, one of the clans will head to a nearby town and bring back plenty of breads, serving as food supply for the rest of the month, ready to be cooked on fire. It’s still the 21st century, after all…

Barakalaufik,” I thanked the Berber nomad whom had earnestly housed me under his tent for a morning tea, before heading to the nearby village of Khamlia to soothe my ears with the sound of African gnawa music.

As remote as it is, there are surprisingly lots to do in the Sahara. Gnawa music aside, I learned how to do sandboarding and discovered on a former mining site that Berber women used various type of colored minerals to enhance their facial features (it’s practically the ancient equivalent of eye shadows and lipsticks, literally).

But it’s not until the afternoon heat has simmered down that the biggest highlight began.

Erg Chebbi, Sahara Desert, Morocco

[Image Credit: chiaoyinanita]

Five o’clock in the afternoon, I hopped to the back of a one-humped camel led by a blue-clad Berber native. As I rode far more remote than I had ever been, the dunes get ridiculously higher and higher, forming beautifully complex lines carved not by mankind, but solely by the wind. I could only imagine how the traders between the 12th and 14th century must have felt treading the very same ancient caravan route from Sijilmassa to Timbuktu.

By six o’clock, I saw the Algerian border far in the horizon, marked by charming mountainous plateaus. And right there, the largest full moon I’ve ever witnessed in my life, rose from behind the Algerian rocky massif into the sunset sky. The scene was too perfect for words to describe—it was more like a surreal painting.

As the upper atmosphere turned dark, I braved a walk around the desert with only the lone moon keeping me company and shining down on my path. I lied down on the sand watching the sky above with Anggun playing repeatedly on my earpiece before heading back to the tent to call it a night.

Sahara never failed to impress me. As I made my way back to civilization and said goodbye to the dunes the next morning, so do they… I saw them basking in pink hues and rose-colored sunrise bidding me adieu.

Destination Scorecard

1. Uniqueness: 19/20 — Not the only dunes in the world, but being the most quintessential and largest of its kind counts for something. Sahara is a truly special experience.

2. Aesthetic: 18/20 — A geological masterpiece in every sense of the word. Plenty of photography opportunities abound.

3. Integrity: 14/15 — Tourists are still minimum despite the gradual commercialization. The atmosphere of the desert and its surrounding villages remains largely intact.

4. Significance: 12/15 — Sahara shapes the life of Arab/Berber communities in the region, marking a clear division in the evolution of Maghreb region from the rest of Africa.

5. Shelf Life: 11/15 — Surprisingly plenty to do and you won’t get tired of the dunes very fast. I stayed two nights but I can see myself making a home in Sahara for a week or two.

6. Access: 10/15 — You need one full day of driving from Fez or two days from Marrakech, but it’s an incredibly scenic drive offering landscape varieties, so there’s really no excuse to skip Sahara.

Destination Score: 84/100

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