My Moroccan Diary: A Saharan Sojourn

I’ve been able to travel (and subsequently be motion sick) in every corner of Morocco. With rail lines criss-crossing the nation, and an army of buses and taxis filling in the gaps, travel is often cheap, easy, and extremely accessible.


Our school brought us to both the northern and southern parts of the country, took us to Ceuta, one of the Spanish enclaves, and brought us to a rural village for a mini-homestay. And while we weren’t allowed to leave the country during our time with the program, we were free to travel wherever we wanted within Morocco. Weekends were filled with traveling and exploring. From Tangier in the north, to Agadir in the south, to Casablanca and Marrakech in the middle, I’ve been comparing medinas and devouring tagines all over the country.


But the trip that left the most lasting impact on me proved to be one of the final ones that I embarked on. In early April, I packed up my backpack for a weekend trek to the Sahara Desert with nine of my friends.


In Morocco, there are two main areas of the Saharas to be found. The Western Sahara is the forbidden one, as it remains a disputed territory at the south of the country. It’s partly claimed by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, and partly by Morocco. In Morocco, there is often a saying amongst journalists that there are three topics one must never touch: the King, Islam, and the Western Sahara.


The other part of the Sahara, and of course, the one I traveled to with my friends, is on the southeastern border of the country, next to Algeria. It’s a popular tourist destination, with one of the most prominent desert-vacation towns being Merzouga.


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


Seeing the Sahara was something that I always dreamed of, but never actually considered in any realistic capacity. Even when I arrived in Morocco, it still seemed to be just out of reach. My destination was at the other end of a full-day trip, lots of money, and a weekend that I could be spending working and reporting back in Rabat. But, after some nudging from my roommates and a few nights spent googling pictures from similar tours, I decided that this was a chance unlike any other.


After all, when again will I be able to say I spent the night camping in the Sahara with nine of my dearest friends? What is study abroad for, if not to do and see and live?


In order to get to the desert, our journey had to begin with a four-hour trip to Marrakech from Rabat, which would be the starting point of our three day adventure. After a missed train mishap, we didn’t get to Marrakech until 11pm; cold, rained on, and starving. Then, after few hours of sleep in a hostel surrounded by snoring men, we were up bright and early and ready to go!


An all-day van ride awaited us, with intermittent pauses 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 of it, where several scenes for “Game of Thrones” were filmed. We toured a traditional Berber village residing in a lush valley and witnesses the processes behind making Morocco’s gorgeous Amazigh carpets. We also sped through the snowy Atlas mountain range, where all of us took pictures through our chattering teeth and shivering hands, confused as to how we were frozen on a trip to the Sahara Desert.


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


After spending a night in a hotel, we loaded up again early in the morning and drove for several more hours through mountains and dusty roads. Long stretches of silence were broken up by our shrieks of both laughter and fury, as we each fought for the best seats in, what I’m absolutely convinced was, the most cramped van Morocco had to offer.


Of course, we weren’t the only passengers in our car. We were also joined by a couple from Romania, a couple from Italy, a young man from Italy, and a young woman from Russia. I can only imagine, when they rolled up for their trips to the desert, how overjoyed they were to see they would be experiencing everything with ten unsupervised college students from America.


Finally, after a day and a half of travel, we reached the desert, and as we drove around the outskirts, headed for our drop-off point, the van was filled with a stunned awe. It was so much more than I could have hoped for. The sand dunes tower over the surrounding area with a majesty that is anything but understated. It was nearly 5pm when we arrived, so the sun was slowly beginning its decent, casting the sand in a rich orange haze.


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 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 about 45 seconds to discover that I was 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.


Every time the camel travels up a dune, one must squeeze the saddle with one’s thighs, so as not to fly off the back end. But the real challenge is in the downhill trek, as one must not only squeeze the saddle with one’s thighs so as not to fly off the front end, but one must also contend with the camel unexpectedly pitching from side to side and buckling its knees. It’s a much more “jerky” ride, with a white-knuckled grip on the saddle serving as a popular accessory to many tourists’ experiences. 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. 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 helped us get off our camels, in order to watch the upcoming sunset. Initially, my friends and I utilized the Sahara’s golden hour to be together and take pictures. But as the sun began to cast pink shadows over miles of rolling sand dunes, we all split up and watched the sky explode with color. It’s a difficult image to explain with words, but luckily my friend, Stephen Higgins, made a gorgeous video that can help demonstrate what we saw a little bit better.


There are moments in life where you sit, by yourself, and be truly overwhelmed in the most incredible ways with how happy you are. These are moments where you can think back on how every moment in your life 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.


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, where supper, a campfire, and a night filled with music and dancing was waiting for us. Once again, it was not lost on us how obnoxious it must have been, to have one’s desert getaway filled with the sounds of American college students doing bad impressions of Shakira and Jay-Z.


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


Finally, after the rest of the camp had gone to bed, the ten of us slipped away into the dunes together. One of my friends had brought his guitar, and it was with the background of soft strumming and soft singing, that we laid down to gaze up at the never-ending expanse of stars. Once again, I was rendered speechless. Filled so completely with joy, that I had to let out a few tears of wonder.


Quiet moments, inside of such large and breaktaking and life-changing experiences, are what I think we all chase. I am forever thankful to be able to have had mine.


The next day involved waking up early to watch the sunrise on the dunes, another camel ride, and breakfast before beginning the day-long journey back. I am well aware that this was one of the most touristy vacations I have been on in a long time, and that was extremely uncomfortable to grapple with at times. When you go abroad, you get a sense that you are living an ‘authentic’ experience. Feeling like a regular tourist again is a jarring experience. But, I’m forever grateful that I did this. I would have driven in that cramped van and dealt with the hours of motion sickness all over again, now that I know what came out of it.


I’m leaving Morocco soon, and I know it’s going to be hard. I know a hurt is going to hit that will linger for a very long time. But that’s only because of moments like this, that I loved so endlessly. And I’ll never stop being grateful for that.