Finding the Right Desert Camp
An overnight stay in the Sahara desert had been on my wish list for a long time. Upon planning our recent trip to Morocco, I actually planned our entire route and trip around this dream. With an abundance of camps hidden among the dunes in the largest sand desert in the world, finding the right camp was not an easy task, and I will therefore write a separate post on what you should consider before booking a stay in the Sahara desert, especially if you are considering a stay with kids. In the end I decided that for us a night of glamping in the Erg Chigaga dunes near Mhamid was the easiest to achieve for us as a family, not only in regards to price and luxury but also on how easy it was to reach from Marrakesh without having to spend days driving through the country.
Meeting Hafid, Our Driver
As I described in my previous post, having left our last hotel near Ouarzazate in the early morning, we arrived with plenty of time for lunch at the agreed meeting point in Mhamid. Our driver Hafid was bang on time to pick us up with his 4×4 and after transferring our luggage into his car – we had packed all we needed into one trolley to make life easier – we were on our way into the Sahara. Hafid would not only drive us to our camp, La Kahena, he would also look after us during our stay there. I was immediately in love with his beautiful traditional dress and turban, it was in a stunning blue silk, and matched the radiant blue skies perfectly. Jerome was excited to be seated in the front of the car and was most certainly getting the best views during our drive into the desert.
Stopping Point Before the Desert
Leaving the hotel behind, we drove through the dusty streets of Mhamid, barely anyone seemed to be about, apart from a few kids here and there, playing on the streets. The town’s sole purpose appeared to be the last stopping point before the desert and the street was lined with hotels, a few restaurants and shops. Hafid told us he had grown up in the area and knew the desert like the back of his hand, which definitely reassured us that we would not get lost. He had worked for La Kahena for a few years and seemed to be rather passionate about this incredible part of the countryside, despite having seen it every single day of his life. After our night in the desert I can totally understand why…
Driving Into the Sahara
Soon we were on a dirt track, heading into the edge of the Sahara. At first the drive was fairly smooth but we would already encounter the odd dune and the 4×4 needed an expert hand to make its way through the sand, much to the joy of Jerome. The fine sand and dust would make its way into the car, coating everything with a fine patina, we soon realised why everyone always suggest to wear a headscarf in the desert. Not only does it protect your hair during a windy day, it is also useful on your drive to the camp and you can cover your nose and mouth to protect from the dusty air getting into your lungs, which may make breathing harder than normal. We would still find sand grains in our hair for several washes afterwards.
One thing that kept amazing and surprising us, however, was just how green and alive the Sahara desert truly can be. There were tufts of grass dotted throughout the landscape, every now and then we noticed shrubs and low trees, even a carpet of white flowers. Another new sight for us was were caravans of dromedaries (most people tend to mix them up with camels but they only have one hump). Hafid told us that these caravans were still guided by true nomads, living their entire life in the desert and transporting goods across the vast barren land, all the way from Algeria and the Western Sahara to Morocco. While “some” of these caravans are of course only there as an attraction for tourists and foreigners. For many visitors a ride on a “camel” is an essential part of their trip. The real dromedary trains were easily identified by the amount of luggage the animals carried on their backs. We did see some authentic nomad caravans on our drive into Erg Chigaga that day and Hafid seemed to know most of them by names. They happily returned his and our enthusiastic waves when passing by.
Perceptions About the Sahara Desert
The drive from Mhamid to La Kahena camp takes well over an hour but it seemed to pass too quickly to take in the impressive views. Anyone who has never set foot into the Sahara (including us) before might have the perception that the Sahara is one extensive expanse of sand dunes after another. This however is wrong, large parts of the desert are rather flat and stony and not sandy at all. The sand is also punctuated by scrubby copses, huge rocks and the occasional oasis. Dreamy mounds of sand do exist though and we were overwhelmed when we stopped briefly at the first large set of dunes during our drive. Jerome was overjoyed, running up and down the mounds, getting sand into his shoes, but no one cared…
Finding the Route Through the Desert
The tracks wove through the dusty landscape, in some parts the way was pretty clear, marked by tyre tracks from the various 4x4s, in other parts the route spread out and I am sure without a guide driving, even with a good map and compass finding the way would be tricky. Our driver clearly knew all the routes and at times seemed to enjoy the challenge of getting off the main stretches to test the powerful 4×4 on some of the sandy parts.
Arriving at La Kahena Camp
All too soon after some off piste driving we arrived – the entry to La Kahena camp only signposted by two dead palm trunks – impossible to find for anyone who would not know their way around the desert, for sure. We were warmly welcomed by another helper of La Kahena and invited into the main tent for a Moroccan tea accompanied by biscuits and dried fruits. Seated on the chairs inside the table it took us some time to adjust and settle in this incredible environment. While some travellers plan a lot of “activities” for their desert stay, we had opted to just enjoy the beauty of the landscape although Jerome wanted to try sand boarding.
Our Luxurious Tent
Before heading up into the dunes, we went to explore our tent at La Kahena Camp. Set in its own piece of land, surrounded by the dunes and not visible from the other tents we found a luxurious abode, with a large, proper bed, an extra bed for Jerome and even an en suite shower and toilet, with proper running water. Some people might say this is overkill and not the proper experience for a stay in the Sahara, but I wanted us to relax and enjoy the experience. Of course, I am aware that running water in a proper toilet is a precious luxurious commodity in the desert especially, but it was one I did not want to compromise on. However we respected the environment, used it carefully and did not have any showers, only washing lightly, especially our dusty feet during our stay.
Haeding Into the Sandy Dunes
Snowboard in hand, Hafid then took us up to the highest dune in the proximity of the camp, walking on the sand was not as easy as you might imagine. Once on top we were thrilled to find a panoramic view, across to the mountain range we had crossed on our drive and the seemingly endless sandy dunes, like caramel coloured meringue in contrast to the deep blue skies. We first had to take a few minutes to take in the sheer beauty of the Sahara desert.
Sand Boarding in the Desert
Jerome ignored the view and could not wait to get onto the sand board (a snowboard really!). Hafid was keen to show him how to board down the mound first. Then Jerome had his go and he did amazingly well, we had half expected him to fall of straight away. From then on his feet had grown attached to the board and we lost count how many times he went down the dunes and then up again. Climbing to the top was the hardest part and quite tiring after a while, although we soon found the longer route round the crest was easier then straight up.
We Had a Go, Too!
Once Jerome was exhausted from his multiple climbs back up Chris and I both had goes on the board as well. My first run was an example of excellence, the second go an absolute disaster as I hit a hard patch of sand and summersaulted, sadly I hurt my shoulder tumbling onto the hard sandy ground.
Capturing the Dreamy Landscape
After that little incident I took refuge behind my camera to capture the dreamy landscape and Jerome’s many attempts at sand boarding. Hafid was happy to just sit and watch us for a while, later on he busied himself on his mobile, which raised the question, how come he had reception and I did not?
Watching the Sunset
When Jerome eventually had enough of his sand boarding adventures, Hafid took the board back to the camp, while we stayed to watch the sun set over the sea of sand, a truly magical experience. Read more about it in our next post.
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