The majestic Moroccan desert has a certain old-school mystique. Visions of blue-turbaned nomads on camels journeying across the massive dunes were in my mind as I planned this excursion. The desert is both intimidating and enchanting in a weird way and I just had to experience it. The dunes of Erg Chebbi, near the town of Merzouga are the real desert. Positioned at the easternmost edge of Morocco bordering Algeria…this seems like the end of the earth. This crazy road trip to the Moroccan desert took place as part of a larger nine-day Moroccan adventure that started in Casablanca. The first few days we explored Fes and the fabled blue city of Chefchaouen.
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If I didn’t question the ethics of riding camels, I wouldn’t be me. I admit that I rode camels in Egypt and India many years ago before I knew the things I know now about the cruelty inherent in the animal tourism industry. At those times, I personally witnessed no cruelty towards the animals, however, I know that this is not everything.
I think that riding camels is like riding horses. It can be ok sometimes as opposed to riding elephants which is never ok. It greatly depends on who is taking care of them and how they are treated. The organization I did my tour (Camel Trekking with Omar) with had healthy looking camels and I did not see them beaten or mistreated. I saw where they were kept when not carrying humans and it seemed nice enough. You also can choose to do a 4X4 desert trip as an alternative to camels.
I would NOT ride camels again in Egypt, India or Jordan based on what I know now. Morocco seems to be ok with certain operators. You have to research and ask the right questions first. I welcome more information on this topic so comment below!
A few basic things the animals should have in all cases according to animal welfare experts:
As always, if you see abuse, speak out. Don’t ride any animal that looks sick or malnourished.
Read More: How Tourists Can Help Camels in Morocco
We woke up very early to make sure we would arrive in Merzouga by 3 pm for our camel trek. Karim, our wonderful host at Riad Laaroussa, made sure we had coffee, water, and breakfast for the road.
We had a long drive ahead (465 km about 6.5 hours) but enjoyed the gorgeous scenery. Don’t speed in Morocco! We actually were stopped by police and got a ticket, despite being as charming as possible. Funny story. It was about $15USD and had to be paid on the spot. I’m not positive that it was a real ticket. Anyhoo…
Here are some pics from the journey. We started in the north and went through snowy mountain areas and at times could see the Atlas mountains in the distance as we drove southeast.
Eventually, we reached the east of the country where the scenery becomes dry and desert-y. Was very cool…mountain gorges, kasbahs, oases, even wild camels.
We came to the place we would be leaving our luggage, Riad Saturday Night. Cute huh? We met with Omar who runs a camel trekking operation. He took us to a local place to have lunch, which was a local style of tagine and was amazing. Afterward, we met our guide for the camel trek, a young Berber named Ibrahim. Since it was offseason, we were the only ones on the trek.
We were introduced to our adorable camels Bob and Joe and we were off.
Ibrahim led us on a beautiful relaxing journey through the endless red sand dunes that stretch all the way into Algeria. We rode for about 2 hours with a stop on the way for pictures and bonding with the camels (we’re both animal lovers) and then arrived at our camp. Ibrahim set up evening tea and prepared a scrumptious Berber soup and Berber style tagine. It was very cold but we were prepared with layers and the tents had very thick blankets on the little beds.
Read More: How to Pack for a Desert Trek
We romped around for a bit and watched the sunset before dinner.
We slept fairly decently despite the rugged surroundings and the sounds of vicious desert winds smacking around the tents. After watching the sunrise, coffee, and light breakfast, we were back on the camels for the journey back to Riad Saturday Night.
Here we showered, changed and hit the road, once again a long journey ahead. Merzouga to Marrakech is 562 km and according to Google, takes slightly less than 8 hours. We found that Google greatly underestimates times for driving in Morocco. The roads are not always good, most of it is twisty and mountainous with sheepherders, bicycles, donkey carts, and other things on the sides of narrow roads. It’s not easy nor fast! This entire segment of Fez-Merzouga-Marrakech is better done over 3 days, not 2 as we did.
Luckily there is much to see along the way including the magnificent Todra Gorge, in the Dades Valley, carved by the Todra and Dades rivers. The gorge measures only 33 feet across in places but the cliffs are over 500 feet tall on both sides! The river is now dried up.
The Dades Valley desert area is known as the valley of 1000 kasbahs. Would be fun to explore.
Finally, we arrived in Ouarzazate in the Draa Valley. Ouarzazate is the capital of the booming Moroccan film industry with many famous movies filmed in this area including The Mummy, The Last Temptation of Christ, Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven and recently, episodes from Game of Thrones! Nearby is the fortified village of Ait Benhaddou which is a UNESCO world heritage site.
After lunch and a quick drive around the town (all the traffic circles had movie themed centerpieces like a camera or directors board…very cute). We were very concerned about being stuck the high atlas mountains after dark so we didn’t spend nearly enough time here. Once again….don’t do what we did!!
The drive from Ouarzazate to Marrakech is only 200 km which under normal conditions should be 3 hours, but as I said earlier, most driving in Morocco is anything but normal. This drive took 5 hours and we reached Marrakech around 8:30 pm. We spent the last hour of driving in the high Atlas mountains after dark.
This drive was a bit stressful and hair-raising, so by the time we got to Marrakech we were frazzled and exhausted. So, of course, we once again got majorly lost. These cities are challenging to navigate! We were once again victims of our stupid GPS and ended up in a congested market area where cars shouldn’t go. The locals stopped us from going to far to the point of no return and helped us do a ten point turn to go back where we came from. We talked to 2 random teenage boys who tried to give us directions. Their French wasn’t great so we called the hotel to let the staff speak to the boys in Arabic. The lady at the hotel advised me to let the boys come in the car with us and guide us to the hotel and then to give them money for cab afterward. As an American, this was something I would NEVER do at home but somehow here it seemed ok…and we were desperado!
The teenage boys took us to Riad Idra, our hotel. We gave them a very generous tip and of course they demanded more but we were not to be trifled with at this point. A man from the hotel met us to take our luggage in a cart, directed us to parking and walked us through the medina to the riad. Whew!
We collapsed immediately and had a terrific sleep. The next day we woke up to a beautiful day in Marrakech!
Read More: Tips for Visiting Marrakech
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