Riding camels with the Berbers in the Sahara

24th Dec 2016
Photo of Riding camels with the Berbers in the Sahara by Supriya Nagaraja
Photo of Merzouga, Morocco by Supriya Nagaraja

Among all my travels, my most favorite experience is Desert Camping in the Sahara Desert in Morocco. I was fascinated by the the largest desert on the planet and the culture and its people of North Africa. I was expecting to have a fun time traveling across the country but I was astounded by the number of surprises this country offers.

I chose to backpack so I flew to Marrakesh from Barcelona. To read more about what to see and do in Marrakesh, check out this Marrakesh destination guide from Talk Travel App.

After settling into the sights and sounds of the Arab world, which Marrakesh provides in excess, I traveled to Merzouga, the destination of this blog. Merzouga is a small desert town dedicated to hosting tourists to rest a night before we begin the Sahara desert camping.

Along this route from Marrakesh to Merzouga, I passed through Aït Benhaddou and Tinghir, each city has its own unique landscape to marvel at. Reaching Merzouga is a 7-hour pre-booked bus journey from Tinghir.

At the end of the comfortable bus journey with Supra Travels, I reached Merzouga at around 10.30 pm. I could feel the cold air biting into my bones. The accommodation where I had booked for the night to stay, had arranged a taxi for me. They picked me up from the centre of the town to the hotel. The streets looked mostly deserted and I just settled in my room when I was served dinner. After I was served the best egg dish that I have ever eaten in my entire life, the Berber omelette, with locally made bread dipped in olive oil, I hit the bed.

The next morning, I woke up to the first rays of the sun. This experience felt like unwrapping a much-awaited gift. I found myself in a locale which had an orange hue. I stepped out to explore the dunes which were in every direction that I could see. I was definitely amazed at the vast expanse of the desert, with each dune looking bigger than the other.

While the sand in Rajasthan looks yellow, the sand in Sahara is bright orange. The almost clear blue sky, with few white fluffy clouds floating around too reflected the orange tinge of the Sahara.

I had a nice breakfast on the terrace under the warm African sun after a cold winter December night. Later, I headed out to explore the town, it is mostly full of hotels and souvenir shops for travelers like me.

Photo of Riding camels with the Berbers in the Sahara by Supriya Nagaraja
Photo of Sahara Desert by Supriya Nagaraja

I thought of booking the desert safari after reaching Merzouga as I had read many blogs which said, online booking is very expensive. A travel tip to remember always, is to try to negotiate the price of the desert safari instead of agreeing to the quoted price. You can also compare prices with other dealers in the town to know the average price.

Different packages have different price slabs, I chose the basic one which included the camel ride and overnight camping in the middle of the desert. I went with the package that my hotel owner was selling as he was giving the best price.

It was afternoon by now, I had a quick snack for lunch and geared myself up for the desert safari. A group of travelers from various countries had already gathered at the pick up point. As I saw them I knew this trip would be great fun as I would get to know new people and hear their story.

There were two siblings, a father and son duo from the USA. There were a bunch of students from South Korea and Japan, studying in Europe on a holiday break in Morocco. A girl from Portugal and her Canadian boyfriend.

After the shy introduction to each other, we mounted our camels and started the journey towards the evening. The camels were strapped with all the necessary food supply for the night and we were accompanied by the guides who were none other than men from the Berber tribe, very typical of North Africa.

Once the camel starts treading in the fine soft sand and as you move further deep into the desert, the sand dunes seem to grow bigger. As the sun sets, the sky turns reddish yellow. I was so engrossed by the sheer beauty of the landscape, I noticed that the town from where we had started had disappeared into the horizon.

The camel ride felt great, your body moving in rhythm to the camel’s movement. Very different and fun to do, you might feel like your back is going to snap any moment though if you are not used to this kind of a ride. Oh and not to forget, if you are busy clicking pictures and for a moment let go of the wooden handle in front of from your grip, chances are you will fall and end up at the camel’s feet, smack on your face.

The reason we leave at 4pm is to avoid the merciless afternoon heat of the desert to which we are not accustomed to and also to reach just in time to catch the sunset from the tallest dune.

Since it was a December evening, the air was cold but the sun was shining bright. Though the air is biting cold your skin feels the burn from the sun. Every now and then there is a gush of wind, with all the fine sand particles in your face and hair and you wonder if there is a sand storm brewing somewhere.

This journey gives you a fantastic view of the dunes, though they look small at a distance, only when one group splits from yours and takes a different route for fun, you can scale the actual height of the dune like in the pic below.

Photo of Riding camels with the Berbers in the Sahara by Supriya Nagaraja

After the fun camel ride, we finally reach the camp site. I climbed the tallest dune and treated my eyes to a beautiful sunset, a bright red sparkling dot diving into the horizon. I did some sand boarding for the first time and it is definitely thrilling.

Photo of Riding camels with the Berbers in the Sahara by Supriya Nagaraja

After the sun has set and the night begins, everybody gathers in a makeshift tent with very colorful interiors to relish some tea. It gives you a feeling as though you are in a café in downtown Marrakesh. The mint tea that is served is a quintessential drink for the Moroccans, I couldn't stop sipping on this tea. This was our time to socialize with the crowd and break the ice over tea. Also, the winds were so strong that I could feel the tent shudder sometimes and I felt grateful that we were safe and secure under the tent.

After a while, the food started coming in. Bread with vegetable side dish and then rice with chicken and potatoes baked in the tajine. It was a sumptuous meal as we all ate to our heart’s content. Later, the hosts called us all outside to gather around the campfire.

This is where we get to know the hosts better. These guides were the same guys who made that brilliant tea and cooked tasty dinner in the middle of the desert! These are people from the Berber tribe who are very typical of North Africa, who have their own language and custom. They literally live on the go, leading a very sustainable life with their herd of cattle.

The Berbers had a far deeper understanding of life, their lives being dictated by nature, a rhythm which they set based on the environment. We all sat around the fire when the Berbers sang songs with great zest and the noise of the drums filling the cold and crisp air of the Sahara. They told us that those were the songs they sing within their community to bond with each other every night.

Photo of Riding camels with the Berbers in the Sahara by Supriya Nagaraja

After the singing, we discussed about the kind of lifestyles we all live, for a moment asking ourselves if living a life like a Berber, ‘on the go’ without any expectations from the future was a way to live or the current one we all lead, making investments and elaborate plans with great expectations from life. And not to forget our constant attachment to modern technology whereas they lived a life so different from ours, with nothing but the moon, the stars, the desert, their cattle and their people for company.

Now, it was almost 11 pm in the night, we were all tired after the day's adventure and we all said good night to each other. This is when I ventured out from the group and scaled a nearby sand dune and laid out my sleeping bag, staring in to the perfectly clear night sky. With the cold breeze and the beautiful sky to behold, I was lost in the beauty of the Milky Way.

This made me feel closer to nature than ever before. I connected the glittering dots in crazy patterns and made many sweet wishes each time I saw a shooting star. The only noise you hear is the wind blowing and a camel making noise, otherwise it feels like you are all by yourself. A great moment to enjoy your solitude and appreciate what you have in life. I later went inside my tent and slept for the night as the wind grew harsher and the night turned colder.

I woke up the next day for ringing bells, their call to wake us up. We all caught the sunrise, the eastern side where the border of Algeria is just around 20 kms away from where you are standing. You can see big mountains and dry plain land on that side of the border too.

Photo of Riding camels with the Berbers in the Sahara by Supriya Nagaraja

It was suggested that we start packing and move as the sun gets harsher as it rises through the day. That was the end of our desert camping trip. We took amazing shots of the silhouettes of camel on the dune against the sun.

There was an awkward silence in the air in the return journey as none of us wanted to leave just yet but as life has it, we need to move on. When we reached the town of Merzouga on camelback, I bid adieu to the new friends I had made, wishing them good luck for the rest of their journey and life. I freshened myself up at the hotel and packed my bags to head to the next destination – Fez, the cultural capital of Morocco.