Morocco – An Epic Journey that unveils its Desert Landscape

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Morocco – An Epic Journey that unveils its Desert Landscape

When we think about desert landscape – what images come to mind? Most likely it will be the archetypal, undulating ocean of golden sand dunes with caravans of camels creating shadows in the early morning sun. Yet after a month touring Morocco’s desert region, we came to appreciate how many more personalities the desert has. An epic journey that has taught us to value and see the beauty in all things. In this blog, I share the desert landscapes we toured through and the hidden gems it revealed to us.

Sahara desert, Morocco

Dispelling desert myths – Did you know?

Before I pour my love affair of the desert upon this page, I thought I would share some interesting facts about deserts. Did you know that….

  1. Deserts can be found on every continent of the world and cover 1/5th of the globe?
  2. Aside of the belief that deserts are completely inhospitable landscapes, they are actually home to over 1 billion people; that represents 1/6th of the world’s population.
  3. Deserts can be cold as well as hot. Antartica’s Polar Desert is actually the largest desert in the world. The Sahara is the largest hot desert, covering a surface area equivalent to the United States.
  4. Desert landscapes take on many forms; dunes are the most familiar, although any arid or mountainous land can also be described as desert, if the rainfall quota fits the description.
  5. The temperature range in hot deserts can be extreme due to there being no cloud cover to hold the warmth of the day. This gives rise to to 50ºc in the day sinking as low as 4º by night. Because of the heat and lack of humidity, dehydration is a real risk in the desert.
  6. Despite its barren and water-deprived landscape, the Sahara, certainly in Merzouga ,has a water table between 5-25m down. The locals there have massive wells from which they draw up their water. So whilst it is still a precious commodity, there is water in the desert. And there is a mineral in it that rots the nomad’s teeth.

Desert Landscapes and its many personalities

Our time in Morocco’s desert was spiritual, enlightening and nourishing for the soul. Yet our 2023/24 winter road-trip took us way beyond just the boundaries of the Erg Chebbi dunes. Now don’t get me wrong, the ocean of dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see, are iconically beautiful. Yet what the desert taught us, as we meandered along Morocco’s south eastern fringes, was how many faces of the desert there are.

1. The archetypal dunes

This is, of course what we expect to see. Golden waves of shifting sand that change their personalities with the moving sun and the winds that blow. Groups of camel caravans, some with tourists others working for the desert nomads who still call the desert their home, cross the dunes with an awkward gait. Berbers, donned in their iconic headwear to protect them from the heat, take their lead of their troop as they navigate the path most trodden. Of course with such iconic and accessible scenery as we see in Morocco’s Merzouga, sadly the romantic notion of virgin, untouched land is far from the truth, as we see the scars etched so deeply upon the surface of these precious dunes. Buggies and 4×4 vehicles looking to master their skills as they scale these shifting giants. The only consolation is that with the next breath of wind, Mother Nature will reclaim her picture perfect landscape with a dominance of a witch’s spell.

What an incredible landscape it is and what many of us hope and expect to see when we arrive at the desert. It captures me mind, body and soul, such is the stillness she commands. Yet, this is just one of the many characters that the desert reveals to us.

Check out our video that gives you an intimate tour of the iconic dunes in Merzouga.

2. The Nomads’ Desert Landscape

In stark contrast, the desert landscape south of Zagora in M’Hamid, is a very different experience. The first surprise is that you move through vast desert plains where flat is the principle geography and then, as if hearing your exclamation of disappointment, massive mountains rise up before you in regal assertion. Mountains in a desert? This is not what we expect to see. And on the other side of the twin ridges that separate Zagora from Erg Chiggaga, you are welcomed to a new desert perspective. Palm trees line the roads like a welcoming committee, sparkles of pale yellow sands drift gracefully across the road, leaving the tarmac somewhat reduced and handmade fences hold the small dunes in place.

This desert landscape is home for the Berber nomads. Ancient Kasbahs hold tales of centuries past, crumbling walls showing the effects of time. A privileged insight into lives of the Berbers’ ancestors who crafted and toiled with their hands, working with the resources from the land. The same is true for today as we see how little has changed for these desert folk who make this inhospitable landscape their home. And yet the next surprise is the verdant crops where they are fed by well-crafted irrigation channels. The sight somehow just seems to lift your spirits after witnessing the humble, primitive Kasbah dwellings.

Whilst the Erg Chebbi dunes might be some two hours drive away by an all-terrain vehicle, this desert-scape provides an insight into something so authentic. No buggies, fewer tourists and a population that look upon us with some amusement and curiosity as we peek into their nomadic lifestyle with humility. Seeing only working camels with their loads, watching the locals as they go about their daily lives and the town markets, where people travel far and wide for their supplies. The vista is so different; yet no less a desert and, with the gift of being amongst the nomads, this offers a truly rich experience for those who make the journey here. Whether staying in a riad or camping, making home here for a while graces you with a desert education that will alter how you feel about people, lifestyles and your life back home.

Working camel Erg Chiggaga

3. The Desert Mountain Plains

When you come to Morocco, there feels like there is a choice to make about the best desert experience, especially if you are short on time. And Merzouga does feel like the superficial winner of the Sahara battle. Yet if you are blessed with time on your side, then travelling beyond Erg Chebbi and Erg Chiggaga will gift you with a whole new desert perspective. It will teach you about the other looks that the desert landscape takes on, and how to appreciate each aspect of its diversity. We must look beyond our stereotype images to truly appreciate the holistic dimension that the deserts of Morocco present to us.

As we travelled west towards the Atlantic coast, we were bowled over by the morphing of the outlook in front of us. The long road ahead seemed to reach endlessly towards the horizon, with no obvious signs of life. Yet shapely Acacia trees dot the vista, looking like something from the film ‘Out of Africa’. With mountains as the backdrop, that seem to alter texture, shape and tone, this arid land is anything but boring. With sightings of wild and beautifully untethered camels, the desert scene feels complete.

Well not quite complete, because whilst the land before your eyes may seem vast and endless, around the corner you will find palm tree filled oases in the middle of nowhere. A vessel of life that simply oozes vibrancy. Canyons springing up from the depths of the earth that are like other worlds not from this place. Salt-flats rise up before you, in low lying plains, looking more like snow. Yet, this once ocean filled basin, which has long dried up, leaves its salt crystals for you to admire – and admire we shall.

The plains are not plain by any stretch of the imagination. They command respect, they beg for approval and their long for your acceptance. They want to be loved for so much more than flat, arid, harsh lands. They desire to stand strong amongst their desert cousins and it is so easy to fall in love with their offerings. When we look beyond our narrow perceptions and stereotyped images, then we open up our minds to a travel experience so rich that it will lift your spirits and enhance your life inextricably.

Travelling through this treasure trove desert region, taught me a valuable lesson. How to appreciate all that is, not all that we desire to see. Without doubt the undulation of the desert dunes calls my soul, although the arid plains had their own spirit. Sometimes we seek pretty, picturesque and characterful. Yet in the barren there is also beauty if we allow our eyes to see it. A ever-changing scene that calls to you to see its uniqueness and a stillness that devours our stress. Every place on earth needs our admiration and respect, even if it challenges how we think and feel. Whilst it may take us to uncomfortable places, that journey to accepting all that life gives us, is as epic a journey as the one taken by our wheels.

May you visit the desert and see it for all it is.

For more information on Morocco, coming here by motorhome or the desert landscape, click here. We also have a lot of information on our YouTube Channel, which you can access here.

Published: January 25, 2024


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