A new dawn at Erg Chebbi


Many visitors head to Morocco dreaming of riding a camel across the “Moroccan Sahara”, some for just an hour or two, others for several days, and to this end set off on a hurried round trip from Marrakech. However, it’s important not to rush these things and to ensure sufficient time to pause and savour some rather special jewels along the way. Here, Morocco expert Alan Palmer describes his own recent five-day round trip from Marrakech to the dunes of Erg Chebbi, undertaken with his daughter.

It was around two o’clock in the morning. Somewhere deep within the ever-shifting sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, lying flat on my back, exposed to the heavens but for a rough woven blanket draped across me, I awoke contentedly, opened my eyes and gazed across the blackest of star-filled Moroccan skies.

Here, just a few leagues from the Algerian border, the purity of the silence reigned uncontested. Only the outstretched branches of a palm tree, towering directly above me, silhouetted by a rapidly rising, golden moon, intruded upon a sense of the infinity. My thoughts slowly turned to my daughter, Lucy, sleeping deeply inside a goat-haired tent just behind me.

“Why have you never taken me?” she had rather bluntly asked, just a year ago. Having myself visited Morocco countless times, I had no simple answer. So, stung into action by her exposure of my paternal inadequacies, I had booked our flights and introduced her to the vibrancy of imperial Marrakech: to the opulence of riad-living; to the joys of souk-bartering; to the freshness of courtyard fountains splashing; to the joyful colours of the dazzling Majorelle Gardens; to the aesthetic excellence of the incomparable Koutoubia mosque.

Yes, of course, she had loved it all, but was she satisfied? Of course not! “I knew I’d love it”, she announced afterwards, “but I didn’t expect to love it as much as that!”

The experience had stirred her desire to discover more of this endlessly challenging, endlessly pleasing, endlessly unpredictable country: Maghreb al Aksa, as known by Arabs, the farthest land of the setting sun.

So, this year, along with her boyfriend, James, we hired a car and, with an excited cheer, drove away from Hotel Ali — base camp for so many classic Moroccan expeditions over the last century — out through the 12th century gateway of Bab er Robb, beyond the pink city’s monumental Almoravid walls, and to the south.

We zig-zagged relentlessly upwards, higher and higher into the epic, rugged High Atlas Mountains to cross the eagle-encircled Tizi n’Tichka pass, finally descending towards the vast expanse of the Souss Plains, Morocco’s Saharan fringe. In this way, we gradually left behind Morocco’s classic Arab face and came to discover its more deeply African character.

From the Souss, we swooped upon the oasis market town of Nekob, famous for its fifty earthen kasbahs, headed through the vertiginous Todra Gorges, hunted out prehistoric rock engravings at Aït Ouazik (dating back to a time when Morocco was awash with lush, green savannah), and diverted to Telouet to visit the infamous kasbah of Thami El Gloui (pictured below), who, in the first part of the last century, thanks to a gift of a single 77mm Krupp cannon, had become more powerful than the Sultan of Morocco himself.

Finally, we spent a night in a traditional candle-lit Berber house within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Aït Ben Haddou, the ksar (fortified village) now famous as the stage set for films as disparate as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Mummy (1999), as well as for the more recent Game of Thrones television series (2010).

We even found time to visit long-standing friends, too, who, true to their Berber customs, indulged us with more than generous hospitality: silver trays of dates and freshly gathered walnuts; piping hot mint tea and home-made coconut biscuits; colourful organic salads of tomatoes, green peppers, eggs and olives; a selection of chicken, lamb and vegetable tagines, all served with the lightest of royal couscous, while we laid back and rested our tired frames on deep, soft cushions.

Yet the highlight for my daughter was always meant to be Erg Chebbi. “I want to ride a camel and see the sun rise over the desert,” she had declared unambiguously. She was not to be disappointed.

So, after our night’s sleep under the stars, we rose before dawn, while a refreshing nip still hung in the air, and mounted our camels for a second time. They snorted and hissed into the darkness as they rose from their sleep, levering themselves, first forward onto their knees and then backwards again, and finally up to their full dignified height, hind legs at last fully extended, while we swayed back and forth as if at sea aboard a rolling ship. Then off we set, back across the still-dark dunes.

Timing is the essence and happily our guide had everything timed to a fine art. Just thirty minutes from breakfast, as older stars faded, the deepest of orange orbs, slowly and majestically lifted over the horizon.

Its blinding rays darted piercingly and low across the dunes, magically revealing soft, elegant arcs of tall sand ridges all around us while throwing them into stark and crisp relief. Abdul speedily gathered our camera phones, set himself low in the sand and, with a simple tap of a button, captured our silhouetted frames for all time, a simple image, a fleeting moment of beauty, which has already become embedded within our family folklore.

As our vehicle ground back northwards over the High Atlas Mountains towards Marrakech, each lost in happy reflections of our adventure, it was my daughter who broke the pensive silence: “Maybe the next time that we come back to Morocco…”

I smiled. Maybe I wasn’t such a bad father, after all.


Alan Palmer is author of Moroccan Atlas the Trekking Guide (Trailblazer Publications). His passion for the Atlas Mountains led him to set up his own company Trek in Morocco, recently re-launched as Yak Travel, which offers bespoke experiences throughout Morocco for individuals and small groups, including the trip to Erg Chebbi, the “Moroccan Sahara”, described in this article.