The Erg Chebbi dunes at MERZOUGA are indisputably one of the great sights of Morocco. Rising to 150m in places, these giant sand hills lining the Algerian border may not be as imposing nor as extensive as some in North Africa, but they come closer than anywhere else in the country (at least, anywhere else that’s relatively accessible) to fulfilling most people’s expectations of what a true desert should be. The result, though, is that Merzouga can sometimes feel less like the désert profond than a Saharan circus, with groups of luxuriously turbaned tourists posing for photographs with hommes bleus under the acacia trees or astride camels.
To stand any chance of experiencing the scenery in its essential state, you should aim to come here out of season (Jan & Feb are the quietest months) and choose your spot very carefully. At the height of summer, the few visitors who brave the fierce heat to reach Merzouga are mostly Moroccans, attracted by the reputed power of the sands to cure rheumatism. Sufferers are buried up to the neck for a few minutes in the afternoon – any longer (and earlier) than that can be fatal.
Rising dramatically from a plain of blackened hammada, the dunes of the Erg Chebbi stretch 28km from north to south and are 7km across at their widest point – a relatively modest sea of sand compared with the great Erg Occidental of southern Algeria but still an impressive taste of the Sahara’s grandeur. The highest dunes are those near, or just south of, Merzouga itself, peaking with the aptly named Grand Dune de Merzouga, a golden mountain recognizable – in addition to being the tallest dune around – by the distinctive tamarisk tree at its base. The dunes are spectacular at any time of day, but early morning and late afternoon are the best times to view them; to find a relatively peaceful ridge free of footprints, however, you’ll have to be prepared to walk for an hour, or else arrange a camel trip.
Camel rides around Merzouga
Camel rides around Merzouga
Having crossed Morocco to stand at the edge of the Sahara, you can hardly leave without hopping onto a camel and heading off into the dunes. Rides range from a two-hour lollop over the crescents to catch the sunset (100dh) to a fifteen-night expedition deep into the desert (4500dh); most people opt for an overnight stay at a Berber camp (300–400dh), where you’ll enjoy the clearest of night skies and a memorable sunrise the following day. A cameleer, meals, tea and blankets are included in the price, but it’s advisable to bring extra clothes and a sleeping bag, as nights can get excruciatingly cold. If you’ve never been to the desert before, think about starting with a short trip before signing up for longer journeys – the feeling of pure isolation, surrounded by a seemingly never-ending sea of sand, is an incredible experience (described as a “baptism of solitude” by Paul Bowles), but it’s not to everyone’s taste.
Trips can be arranged through your hotel or at one of the other auberges around Merzouga; Kasbah Mohayut and Nomad Palace are particularly recommended, or you could contact Best of Merzouga (t 0661 144620, w bestofmerzouga.com), who specialize in longer trips and tours from Marrakesh and Fez. Each outfit works its own jealously guarded routes and camps – the smaller, more expensive setups (usually no more than six people) are more atmospheric but less comfortable than the permanent camps – but it can be a matter of luck whether you hit a crowded section of the dunes or not. Generally, the further from the main group of auberges you go, the more chance you have of avoiding other camel trains and (even more importantly) 4WD drivers and quad bikers, though their noisy antics have been more limited in recent years. Note, too, that the longer multi-day trips stop operating after February, after which time it just gets too hot.
At first glance, the desert seems harsh and inhospitable, a scorched habitat devoid of life bar the occasional scarab beetle leaving tiny tracks across the sand. But there are acacias, tamarisk and calotropis here, and lichens and algae that survive on the dew that clings to the undersides of rocks and stones.
Such modest pickings provide sustenance for the many birds that pass through on their spring and autumn migrations, as well as native desert-dwelling species. Spotted sandgrouse, white-crowned wheatears, Egyptian nightjars, eagle owls and Houbara bustards are just a few of the magnificent species that can be seen, while, incredibly, greater flamingos can sometimes be found at Dayet Sriji and other lakes near Merzouga – but bear in mind that these can disappear to nothing in dry years.
The desert and hammada also house reptiles such as Berber skink, Montpellier snake and fringe-toed lizard, whose feet are perfectly adapted for their desert environment, as well as nocturnal mammals; you’re less likely to see them, but jerboa, desert hedgehogs and fennec (desert fox) make their presence felt by leaving footprints in the morning sand.