Camel riding across shimmering Sahara sand, dinner under the stars and an overnight in the desert, Bedouin-style – such an exhilarating experience should rate highly on everyone’s ‘must-do’ list.
And perhaps no better company to make this dream come true than award-winning Sahara Atlas Tours.
With over 15 years of experience combining luxury with adventure, this British-Moroccan partnership offers a highly-personalised service, with a range of tours encompassing the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara and diverse places in-between, leaving from either Fez or Marrakech.
The multi-day trips feature Berber villages, fortresses, kasbahs, spectacular scenery including gorges, lush plains and mountains, as well as picturesque hillside towns where movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and even Game of Thrones were filmed.
Our excursion began in Fez where we were picked up early one morning at our riad, Le Grand Alcazar by friendly, English-speaking driver-cum guide, Sahara-born, Said Nogot in a comfortable 4-wheel jeep. Heading south towards the Middle Atlas, we passed waterfalls, cedar forests and rock formations to the pretty town of Ifrane, with its Swiss-style chalets and Royal Palace.
Shortly afterwards, we stopped off at Zaida, at a simple roadside terrace to enjoy a traditional lunch of harira soup, a mix of lentil, potato and carrot seasoned with cumin, turmeric and cinnamon, chunks of barbecued goat and Mor salad, a hearty combination that quickly became our favorite meal. Be warned: so fresh and tasty is the traditional bread, aghrom in Tamazight (the Berber language), it’s almost addictive.
Our destination was Desert Heart Luxury Camp managed by Youssef Ouikene, near the rural town of Merzouga, which provides desert-trekking experiences through the golden dunes of Erg Chebbi, with overnight stays in ensuite, sultan-style tents, including breakfasts and dinners.
Arriving at the edge of the Sahara, docile Arabian camels awaited us, then rocked us gently on our hour’s journey to camp. A memorable way to greet the desert, everyday noises slowly fading in the glittering glow of sunset. Our suite – the best word to describe our accommodation – was impressive: cast-iron, king-size bed, ample space, shower, bathroom, plush carpets, even front-of-tent seating to relax in.
An added bonus at the camp is post-dinner entertainment comprising several drummers playing Moroccan music and singing Berber songs around a cosy outdoor wood-fire setting organised by 29-year-old Ait Ayach, who manages a staff of seven at the desert encampment.
Aside from the two nights in the desert, we also enjoyed interesting side-trips that granted us insights into everyday life in the region. These included a visit to what I term a ‘mascara village,’ an abandoned site in the Black Mountains where lead was mined to produce the popular cosmetic. We also drove to an isolated nomad camp where we enjoyed mint and verbena tea in a tent made of camel skin and a rousing game of football with local children.
After a lunch at Cafe Nora of Berber pizza, a calzone bursting with onion, boiled egg and cooked meat with cumin, turmeric, paprika, black pepper and thyme, we sat down for a musical performance on a concrete and carpet floored room in the town of Khamlia, by ‘Les Pigeons du Sable,’ a traditional group, its members dressed in long white robes.
Home to the Gnaoa people, descendants of slaves brought here from Africa, these tribespeople survived as nomads and developed their own musical style on instruments such as the hajhouj, a lute usually made from tamarix wood. So popular has the music become, a festival is held every year here.
Leaving the Sahara region, our next stop was the Imperial City of Meknes and the charming Riad D’Or, an 18th century house with traditional decor and furnishings. Its roof terrace commands delightful views over the city to the foothills of the Middle Atlas. Our room was spacious with a delectable walk-in shower with tiled walls. Highlight of our overnight stay here was meandering through the sprawling city market and seeing the grandiose gateway of Bab el-Mansour located off busy el-Hedim square. With its 52-foot-high wooden doors, it is decorated with Arabic calligraphy translated as, ‘I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I’m like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front.’ Impressive decorative elements feature zellij mosaics and marble columns.
From here, it was straight to the ancient ruins of Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most extensive and well-preserved Roman site in Morocco, famous for its mosaic floors. The site also offers clear views over the Rif Mountains.
Back to Fez, to Riad Mazar, an elegant hotel with a relaxing, arabesque atmosphere, on a quiet road within easy walking distance of the medina. Here we said farewell to Said, our helpful guide, wishing him the best of luck in fulfilling his dream of one day having his own farm.