My Moroccan Diary: A Saharan Sojourn

I’ve been able to travel to (and subsequently be motion sick in) every corner of Morocco. A crisscrossing spiderweb of rail lines connects most of the North African country's major cities and a small army of buses, taxis, and tourist vans fill in any gaps. Travel is often cheap, easy, and extremely accessible: a student's dream! 


As is the case for most study abroad programs, touring and exploring are highly encouraged. Due to safety concerns, we were not permitted to leave Morocco (without staff present) for the duration of the semester, but any and all travel within the borders of the country was free game. Our program brought us to both the north and south of the country, took us across the border into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, and dropped us off in a rural village for a week-long homestay. My weekends were filled with gorgeous and inspiring new places - from Tangier in the north, to Agadir in the south, and Casablanca and Marrakech in the middle of Morocco, I've been comparing medinas and devouring tagines all over the country. 


But for all that I've been able to see and experience, there's one particular trip that stands out among the rest. In early April, I packed up my backpack and headed off to the Sahara Desert for a weekend trip with nine of my friends. 


There are two places within Morocco's border that the mighty Sahara spills into. The portion covering the southwest of the country is known as the Western Sahara. It is a highly disputed territory with both Morocco and the indigenous Saharawi people claiming ownership. Despite a UN-brokered truce in 1991, it remains a tense and closely-monitored situation. And it is such a touchy subject that Moroccan journalists often claim that there are three topics that must not be messed with: the King, Islam, and the Western Sahara. Consequently, tourists are often dissuaded from visiting and our professors strictly forbid us from making the long trip down. 


On the other hand, the southeastern border of Morocco, pressed up against Algeria, is a famous and extremely popular tourist destination for those who wish to see the Sahara. An entire hospitality industry has popped up along the routes that travel vans frequent and several villages along the outskirts of the desert have been transformed into swanky desert sojourns. One of these vacation towns is Merzouga, and it was right where we were headed. 


One of our guides leads a trail of camels over the dunes; photo courtesy of Stephen Higgins


Seeing the Sahara Desert has been something I've always dreamed of, but in a perpetually distant manner. It was a want that I imagined would be incredible to bring to fruition, but also a completely unrealistic venture. Even when I arrived in Morocco, it seemed to still be just out of reach. The cost was exorbitant, the sheer distance from where I lived was enormous, and the apprehension I felt at the unknown was far too great. I spent months resigned to the fact that I was not going to make the trip. 


But one day, while sitting down to lunch with my roommates, I had to stop and ask myself if my hurdles were going to be worth the regret. After all, when again would I have the chance to spend the night camping in the Sahara with my friends? What was I saving my time and money for, that would outweigh the opportunity to see a desert sun? What is study abroad for, if not to do and see and live through some of the most magical and radical experiences in the world? 


Which is how I found myself packing up my sunscreen and sunglasses, ready to spend a weekend traipsing through sand dunes with absolutely no regrets. 


My friends and I had booked a guide who would drive us from Marrakech to the desert, and then return us back to Fes by the end of our three day adventure. Out of the seventeen students in my program, ten of us would be making this trip together. We all met in Marrakech the night before our departure and despite the rainy atmosphere that was waiting for us in Morocco's Red City, we were almost buzzing with the excitement of what was to come. 


After only a few hours of sleep in a quaint but crowded hostel, an all-day van ride awaited us, with intermittent pauses for lunch stops, ice cream breaks, and a walk through the stunning Todra Gorge. We saw the city of Ouarzazate, which is known as “Africa’s Little Hollywood,” and a small village just outside, where several scenes for “Game of Thrones” were filmed. We toured a traditional Berber village residing in a lush valley and witnessed the process behind making Morocco’s gorgeous Amazigh carpets. And we also sped through the snowy Atlas mountain range, where we were able to exit the van and spend a few moments (frozen) on top of some of North Africa's tallest mountains. 


Sitting in the sand at sunset; photo courtesy of Maggie Dols


Of course, we were not the only ten passengers in our van. Along with our driver, there were six other tourists from Romania and Italy. They were all middle-aged vacationers and while they were endlessly kind to us, it wasn't hard to see that they weren't expecting their Sahara trip to take place alongside ten college students from America. Especially students who would shriek and jostle for the best seats every time we all had to load back into the van after a pit stop. 


After a full day of travel, followed by a night in a hotel, we loaded up early the next morning and began to drive once again. Our winding trail, through mountain passes and dusty roads, proved to make me just as car sick as every other trip I've had the pleasure of going on in Morocco. Consequently, I was given the honor of the front aisle seat - a coveted commodity in our cramped little van. But for all the hours we spent in that car, shoved on top of one another, the time flew by with all of my friends by my side. 


Finally, a day and half after we pulled away from Marrakech, we reached the desert. As we drove around the outskirts, headed for our drop-off point, the van was filled with a stunned awe. The late afternoon sun was slowly beginning its decent, casting the sand in a rich orange haze as the dunes towered over the surrounding area with a distinct majesty. 


When we tumbled out of the van, we had enough time to apply a little bit of sunscreen and then hop on a camel, along with two other travel groups. I foolishly assumed that this camel ride would be easy and natural, as I had enjoyed the time of my life riding a camel along the ocean in Essaouira. It only took a few seconds to discover that I was very wrong and could look forward to bruised thighs as soon as I said goodbye to my furry transportation.


When you ride a camel along the beach, it’s nothing but smooth sailing. One that leaves the rider filled with peace. However, in the desert, you have to go up and down dunes, which are shifting underneath the camel’s hooves. It's a much jerkier ride that left me white-knuckling the handlebars until I couldn't feel my fingers any more. Every time the camel travels up a dune, I had to squeeze the saddle with my thighs, so I wouldn't fly off the back end. Then, the real challenge began on the downhill trek, as I had to not only squeeze the saddle with my thighs to keep from flying off the front end, but also had to contend with the camel unexpectedly pitching from side to side and buckling its knees. I not only walked away with a lovely mural of bruises on my legs, but a nice hole in the knee of my pants from rubbing too violently on the side of the saddle. 


Smiling on top of a camel, trying not to fly off; photo courtesy of Maggie Dols


But despite the difficult nature of the camel ride, it was still incredibly enjoyable. All around us, the departing sunlight glinted and shifted off of the sand in golden rays. Dunes stretched four stories above us, with the wind rippling the sand beneath us into tiny waves. A comforting silence stretched across the desert, which reached far beyond the horizon of my vision: an endless ocean of peaks and valleys. It was, in spite of my camel’s best efforts to slingshot me into the abyss, a stunning journey.


One hour into our ride, our Moroccan Berber guides stopped our camels and we all descended in order to watch the upcoming sunset. My friends and I raced up the nearest dune and utilized the Saharan golden hour to be together and take plenty of pictures. But as the sun began to cast long pink shadows over miles of rolling sand, we all began to drift away from each other. I found myself alone, on an adjacent mountain of sand, watching the sky explode with color and hearing the wind softly whip up a golden cloud around me. 


It wouldn't be right to say that I felt breathless. Instead, I felt so much, all at once. So full of joy and peace; in awe of how small I was. 


There are moments in life where you can sit, by yourself, and be truly overwhelmed with how happy you are. It's when you can think back on how every moment in your life has brought you to the very second that you are living. Sitting alone on a dune, listening to the wind caress the sand, and bathed in the pink glow of a hazy desert sunset, I couldn’t help but think back on how, a year ago, I never pictured myself being there. And how I wanted that moment to live on forever. 


Soon after the sun had sunk below the horizon, we got back on our camels and traveled the rest of the way to our campsite. Our first camel ride of the evening had been filled with laughter, music, and conversation. But on this ride, as the moon began to creep out and a navy twilight slowly overtook the remaining pastels on the horizon, we were all silent. It felt right, to be completely present in that moment. 


Eventually, we reached our campsite where tents were arranged in a square around a large campfire. After claiming our beds, we all sat down for a communal meal of harira soup, tagine, and oranges. Following our supper, our guides brought out traditional drums and began to perform songs native to the region. After a little encouragement from our guides, the ten of us began to dance around the fire, singing and laughing and reveling in the experience. I couldn't help but glance at all of the other tourists around us - mostly honeymooners, lone backpackers, and the occasional mother/daughter duo - and giggle at what a sight us Americans must have been. That was, of course, before the music stopped and we began to loudly show off our best impressions of Shakira and Jay-Z. 


A camel caravan makes its way through the Saharan sunset; photo courtesy of Stephen Higgins


A few hours later, after the fire had died down and the rest of the camp had gone to bed, the ten of us silently slipped through the gates of our campsite and stole away; a few dunes out of sight. Armed with blankets and a guitar, we all laid down on the still-warm-sand and gazed up at the never-ending expanse of stars. Curled up together, we alternated between soft singing, quiet conversations, and stretches of silence. The mural of stars twinkling above us seemed so close and so brilliantly bright. 


In that moment, cuddled up with nine dear, dear people I had only met a few months prior, that I began to cry at how happy I was. Quiet moments, inside of such large and breathtaking and life-changing experiences, are what I think we all chase. I am forever thankful to have had that and to have lived through it with the people that I was with. 


Like a spell being broken, we all had to eventually trudge back to camp and try and get a few hours of sleep before our 5am wakeup call to go witness the sunrise. After pouring sand out of my shoes, scratching it out of my hair, and shaking it out of my coat, it seemed that I had barely laid my head down before it was time to get back up again. 


We all mounted our camels once more and plodded over a few hills in order to get the best view of the sun poking over the horizon. In contrast to our sunset watching party, this venture was considerably colder and sleepier, but no less breathtaking as the sun triumphantly emerged in a glowing pink orb. Afterward, it was one more camel ride back to our van before we began the day-long journey back home. 


Even in my motion sick induced haze on the trip back, I reflected on how deeply this venture had touched me. It was certainly the most touristy thing I did in Morocco, which can be uncomfortable to grapple with at times. When you go abroad, there is a sense that you are living an 'authentic' experience - one that goes far beyond what a typical vacation would bring. This weekend trip may have made me feel like a normal tourist, but it was incomparable, unforgettable, and irreplaceable. 


If I had to recommend things to do while visiting Morocco, making a Saharan sojourn would be at the top of my list. And, to help convey all of what I saw in a way that my words cannot, I put together a short video. Leaving Morocco is going to be hard. It's going to be a hurt that will linger for a very long time. That’s because of moments like this, that I loved so endlessly. I’ll never stop being grateful for that.