When he is about to tell a story, Mustapha, my Moroccan guide, wraps his Berber cloak tight and half closes his eyes. Exactly as he is doing now. “Long ago there was a traveller coming from across the Sahara,” he says. “He was exhausted and starving, near death. He sought refuge with the villagers here but they turned him out and left him to die. God saw this and was angry, and so he caused a great wind that swept the sand from the desert and buried the village and all the people in it. That’s how Erg Chebbi came to be.”
As he says this, Mustapha is framed by Erg Chebbi and it doesn’t take too much imagination to believe that this is the work of a supreme being. Behind him is a tsunami of sand, a vast cresting wave, reddening in the dying sunlight. It is massive yet sensuous and delicate, a Zen arrangement of sand, and all the more dramatic for its isolation since Erg Chebbi is an outlier erg (sand dune), adrift from the great sand sea of the Sahara that lies to the south.
Erg Chebbi sits within a region of southern Morocco known as Tafilalt, an oasis of date palms close to the border with Algeria. These towns – Rissani and Erfoud – were the northern terminus for caravans that once traded along the Salt Road. In this final outpost of greenery, traders would load their camels with cloth, weapons and spices and head south for the Saharan salt mines near Taghaza, in present-day Mali. From Taghaza they would continue to Timbuktu and the Kingdom of Ghana, where they traded the salt for gold and slaves.
These days the Tafilalt has become one of the hotspots of Moroccan tourism, and the reason is the once-cursed sands of Erg Chebbi. This towering dune system is now an Instagram-perfect playground for sandy adventures. From the town of Merzouga, a dusty enclave of desert hotels, you can take a ride on a dune-buggy, surf the dunes on a sandboard, join a quad bike safari or meet a Berber nomad family in their black camel-hair tent for tea, but the No. 1 reason that draws most visitors here is to indulge their Lawrence of Arabia fantasies with a camel trek across the sands.
There are dozens of operators who will put you into the saddle for a sunset or sunrise ride, which can be anything from 15 minutes to several hours. The experience is even better when you combine your camel ride with a night in one of the desert camps spread out across Erg Chebbi.
A couple of hours before sunset you’ll hop aboard your camel and set off across the dunes.
The camel saddles are well padded and about as comfortable as you can get. There are no stirrups but there’s a T-shaped handlebar to hang on to, highly recommended when your camel rises suddenly with a rocking, see-sawing motion. Chances are your guide will be dressed in the romantically flowing indigo costume and turban of the Tuareg, which gradually stains the skin, earning them the “blue men of the Sahara” moniker.
It’s a serene experience as you move across the dunes with the slow and almost noiseless plod of the camels, their shadows weirdly elongated as the sun sinks lower, heightening the curves of the dunes. After about an hour, your camel train will wind down to the desert floor and the camp for the night.
These tented camps come in all shapes and sizes. On the bottom rung are cheap-as-chips backpacker camps that share the desert with several other camps, and no guarantee of a quiet night.
At the mid-to-upper end of the scale you can expect a roomy tent with a proper bed, a hot water shower and flush toilet. Go for the top end and you’ll be in an isolated spot with desert and dunes all to yourself. After sunset there’s a sit-down meal in a big mess tent, followed by music and dancing around the fire, care of your Berber camp staff.
No alcohol, and remember that same supreme being who dumped this sea of sand on its unwelcoming villagers takes a dim view of that as well.
Michael Gebicki travelled at his own expense to and around Morocco.
Riad Azawad has comfortable rooms at about $150 for two a night. See riad-azawad.com; Azawad Desert Camp costs $260 a night for two. At the top end, Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp offers a desert camping experience for two at about $620 a night. See merzougaluxurydesertcamps.com