Journeying along an ancient trading route in the Moroccan Sahara

Venturing into the undulating, orange dunes on the Sahara Desert’s northwestern fringes is one of Morocco’s ultimate adventures, calling at remote trading posts, tucking into fireside feasts and bedding down beneath endless, star-speckled skies.

The Sahara Desert is like nowhere else on earth, from its sand sea the size of a small European country to its perfectly sculpted, wind-whipped dunes.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Emma Gregg
Published 23 Mar 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 4 Apr 2022, 17:16 BST

I appear to have chosen the bumpiest camel in the herd, but there’s not much I can do about it now. I hold on tight and peer around. We’re adrift in a sea of apricot-coloured dunes, a scene more magnificent than I’d ever imagined. But our host seems decidedly anxious.

Moments after we depart at a steady lollop, I discover why. Up ahead, the sky is darkening from a milky fawn to a thundery, hematite grey. “Any minute now,” says the camel handler, doggedly leading us on. Lightning suddenly rips through the clouds. When we planned this short camel trek across the Sahara’s northwestern fringes, the last thing we expected was a storm.

Deciding to ignore both the bumpiness and the unpromising weather, I instead settle into the experience. Neon-lit dune buggies from another tour come into view and, like props from a sci-fi movie, zoom away. I feel quietly smug; proceeding at a peaceful plod seems a far better way to bond with this silent wilderness. By the time we pause for mint tea by a campfire with wraparound views, I’m convinced I’ve made the right choice.

Our camp in Erg Chebbi — a dunescape of windblown sand, some distance north of the Sahara proper — is spacious and comfortable, though not as wild as some might expect. When guides from the Aït Atta tribe promise a trip to visit their nomadic family in the Sahara, what they inevitably have in mind is a journey to a place like this: a semi-permanent, off-grid camp, created purely for tourists. Climate change has made traditional desert lifestyles increasingly precarious for the Maghreb’s nomadic communities, so many have turned to hospitality and entertainment instead. 

There are several neighbouring camps, and until recently, there were even more unlicensed tourist sites here, raising concerns about their impact on the environment. In 2019, local authorities cleared some of them by force. Controversial though that was, it has safeguarded those that remain, which offer something special: a taste of the desert, within reach of a main road. There are settlements nearby, too: Khamlia, a hamlet with an upbeat Gnawa music venue; the small town of Merzouga, a meeting point for astrotourists; and the lively market town of Rissani. In other words, there’s considerably more to see here than endless dunes. Legend has it that the land-based civilisations featured in the Star Wars movies were inspired by Maghrebi towns such as Rissani, an ancient Saharan caravan staging post where desert tribes mingle. On the way there, we stop at panoramic viewpoints, manned by hawkers selling fossils, minerals and crystals. I ask one, jokingly, if he’s found any meteorites lately. “If I had, you wouldn’t find me here!” he laughs.

It’s Sunday, and Rissani’s souks are in full swing. Cone-shaped heaps of spices scent the air and sellers tend stalls piled high with potatoes, peppers and bunches of dewy coriander. At a bakery, we order medfounas, Rissani’s signature treat: flatbreads stuffed with herbs, spices and meat or vegetables. Traditionally, they’re cooked in a firepit in the sand for a distinctively smoky flavour, but in town they’re baked in huge wood-fired ovens, a sort of Amazigh calzone. While we wait, I buy dates: huge and sticky, warmed by the sun.

On our way back to camp, our driver takes a detour through the dunes, and there it is: a table set for lunch under what must be the only tamarisk tree for miles. As we tuck into our fresh medfounas, my thoughts turn to what lies ahead tonight: drinks by the fire, rhythms being beaten out on Sahrawi drums and an immense desert sky, scattered with a billion stars.

A semi-permanent desert camp on the edge of the Sahara.

A semi-permanent desert camp on the edge of the Sahara.

Photograph by Getty Images

Three more active adventures to try in Morocco

1. Rock climbing in the Todra Gorge
This narrow limestone canyon in the country’s heart is one of Morocco’s natural wonders and climbers keen to feel its rocky embrace have dozens of official, fully bolted routes to choose from, including challenging sport climbs and more technical multi-pitch routes. Outfitters such as Aventures Verticales Maroc can provide equipment, instruction and guides.

2. Surfing in Taghazout
Morocco’s surfing capital, Taghazout, is still a fishing village at heart, albeit with a string of new five-star hotels. Key to its appeal is a clutch of surf breaks with names including Killer Point, near a spot where orcas are sometimes seen, and Draculas, where waves crash onto rocks as sharp as a vampire’s teeth. Local companies Surf Maroc and Surf Berbere offer accommodation, gear and training.

3. Mountain biking in the High Atlas Mountains
With a vast network of mountain and desert paths, southern Morocco is an adventure playground for cyclists. There are itineraries for all, including routes along twisting mule tracks and boulder-strewn landscapes too remote to reach on foot. For a long-distance pedal with all the logistics sorted, join a fully supported group ride. Saddle Skedaddle offers a nine-day Atlas to Desert trip, cycling between 16 and 36 miles a day.

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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