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.

The dunes

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.

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