One of the most popular destinations for visitors to Morocco is a trip to the
sand dunes of Merzouga and the famous camping trips to the oasis via camel
caravan. Located in the southeast of Morocco, the dunes rise up out of the rocky
black desert floor like surreal red-gold hills against the bright blue sky.
Normally, when we leave from Fez for weekend trips, the drive takes about 8
hours to Erfoud where we stop for the first night. The scenic tour along the
route is fantastic and proves that Morocco truly is a country that offers
everything and all seasons at any time of the year. In fact, in the spring,
don’t be surprised to see snowy winter scenery followed by blazing summer
temperatures. Wild flowers in the rain one day can just as easily be peeking
through snow the next.
First, we pass through Ifrane and Azrou in the mountains where the cedar forest
lines both sides of the road. The forest in Azrou is thick with ancient trees
that have been designated a World Heritage Site now. If we are lucky, the
Barbary Apes are foraging about for food, but generally there is more chance of
finding them around sundown.
As we climb higher into the Middle Atlas area, the landscape gradually changes
from forests to rocky hillsides covered with scrub grass. Trees at the higher
elevations are coniferous only. Nomads camping with their herds of grazing sheep
dot the hillsides with their black felt tents and firepits. The sheep almost
blend into invisibility in the rocky terrain of the higher elevations. Dogs line
the sides of the road, too, patiently waiting for scraps and morsels tossed
their way from the passing vehicles. The variety of breeds from mixed English
Sheep dogs to mongrel St. Bernards is amazing.
The roads are winding and narrow in the ascending passes that the approach the
mountain summits. Cars climb slowly, often using both sides of the road to gain
a bit of speed, so extra caution is required for those driving on their own.
There is only one main route through the area meaning all vehicles – trucks,
cars, buses and bicycles, plus the odd pedestrian – are sharing the same road.
One of the most spectacular sights on the route descending is the dam and
reservoir built during the government of Hassan II. The huge reservoir of water
gleams with a brilliant turquoise hue beneath the sun of the desert landscape on
this side of the mountain range. The Barrage ------- is an engineering feat
Moroccans are proud to point out and its presence has changed the economic
fortunes of this once barren and sweltering region of the country. Even so, the
main commerce in the area of Midelt and Er-rachidia seems to be the presence of
the huge military bases. The area is also a center for mining semi-precious
vanadium (?) as well.
The pink color of the construction in the area brings to mind Marrakech. But,
this area is also distinctly marked with signs of Berber architecture and
design. The tops of walls have the unique zig-zag protrusions and the strong
geometric patterns painted on the surfaces of walls reminds one of the rug
patterns seen in the souks. Another unique feature of the area, for those of us
from the North anyway, is the number of bicycles on the roads. In the evening,
the bicycles are everywhere competing for space on the busy road as people
return home from school and work.
Another spectacular feature of the route south is the oasis of date palms. The
trees line both sides of the Oued ----(something river) in perfectly squared off
sectors for irrigation. The tops of the surrounding houses and the hillsides
descending toward the river have all been leveled into drying areas for the fall
harvest. The Date Festival in the fall (coordinated with the harvest season) has
become one of the major attractions in the area in the past several years and
even features camel races.
The architecture in the south is almost exclusively mud construction. Bricks are
made with mixtures of desert mud and straw, laid out in the sun to dry, then
stacked with more mud into walls. The interior ceilings of buildings are usually
lined with bamboo and supported with mud. The natural construction combined with
thick walls insulates the interior from the hot exterior temperatures. The hard
surfaces are sometimes painted or white-washed, but more commonly left natural.
There are many nice hotels to choose from in the city of Erfoud now and it’s a
pleasant stop for the evening for those who have been traveling all day. For
those starting very early or else from a more southerly point, it is possible to
continue straight on to Merzouga which is only another couple of hours away.
Either way, that first night in the desert is a treat. The air is fresh and the
sky is so clear the stars really do resemble diamonds spilling down to the Earth.
On a very clear night, it seems as if you could step forward and scoop up a
handful. And no matter how hot the day, the evening temperatures drop to a
tolerable level that makes sitting outside and enjoying nature a pleasure.
Before you reach what is often called the ‘black desert’, there are more date
palm plantations in the Ziz River Valley. The curving roads through the dense
palm plantations, the donkey cart taxis and women wrapped head-to-toe in the
traditional black haiks make you feel as though you have stepped into a postcard.
Along the route from Erfoud to Merzouga the road also passes through the town of
Rissani. If you are inclined, there is a scenic detour along the ruins of the
old Kasbahs, but when we visited in June ’07 the road had been washed out by
recent flash flooding. Occasionally, when it rains in the desert area, there is
severe flash flooding due to the hard-packed surface of the ground and extra
caution is required. The rain comes down fast and furious and even a short storm
can dump a half meter of water or more in minutes.
Rissani has some nice woodworking and silver jewelry shops. This area is
reputedly one of the best sources for henna, too, but the merchants tend to be
hustlers. Unless you are a strong bargainer or enjoy being hassled as you
sight-see, the stop can be somewhat unpleasant. You might like to get a photo of
the beautiful gate entering the town even though it was recently built.
Finally, on the approach to Merzouga, the landscape flattens and becomes barren,
black and rocky. The ribbon road cuts straight through nothing toward a
seemingly empty horizon. Then, the signs start to appear along the roadside
pointing the way to various auberges that have popped up along the front of the
famous sand dunes. The roads across the rocky expanse to each auberge are just
trails marked by stacked rocks and tire tracks. The dunes are visible in the
distance, tiny at first, then getting bigger and more imposing as you approach.
On a clear day the sand is red-gold and the sky is robin’s egg blue. You can’t
believe what you are seeing is real and not painted against the landscape. All
this loose and shifting sand is also what makes the famous sunsets so
spectacular. The camel caravans head out about an hour and half before the
sunset and arrive at the night’s camp after about a 2 hour ride. Plan on a sore
bottom after two hours of rocking and rolling on what looks like a footstool
tied to the camel’s back.
Camels have scratchy hair so it’s advised to wear long pants for the ride. Shoes,
not sandals, are also recommended in case you need to get down and walk a bit.
The sand is hot. Fair-skinned folks especially should use plenty of sunscreen
and everybody needs a scarf wrapped around their head for sun protection. The
camel-drivers are more than happy to assist you with wrapping your scarf
nomad-style. Sand can get into everything, so keep your camera protected in a
plastic bag when not in use. It should go without saying, but bring plenty of
At the oasis, everybody eats, enjoys some great southern music and drumming, a
bit of dancing and sleep. It’s primitive, no running water or toilets, sleeping
on the ground, and waking up in a tent, but well worth the experience. In the
morning, the camel train sets out early enough to see the sunrise and heads back
to the auberge for breakfast and showers.
Longer excursions are available for those who are eager to see more of the area.
The auberges and hotels also offer four-wheel vehicles and dirt bikes for the
more adventurous, but the damage to the desert environment is considerable and
not recommended. The Merzouga sand dunes are one of the great natural heritage
sites of Morocco and as they become more and more popular with tourists, it’s
everybody’s business to protect them from damage.. Please be a responsible
tourist, enjoy Moroccan nature at its best and leave it as you found it.