The Moroccan desert experience – is it worth it?

Whilst Marrakech is certainly an interesting city, if you stay here more than 3-4 days, you might start to run out of new things to do, especially if you’re not a fan of the hard-sell that you’ll experience every five seconds if you step foot in the souks or pretty much anywhere in the medina (more on this in my next post). Fortunately for us tourists, there are enterprising travel agencies popping up like mushrooms everywhere to offer us a myriad of exciting excursions outside the city – from visits to waterfalls, to trips to seaside villages to quad biking. In fact, you certainly won’t be able to ignore these agencies as one or more of them is sure to accost you as you stroll.

After hearing about the various possible trips available to spice up our Moroccan experience, our Laurence of Arabia fantasies got the better of us and we signed up for a 2-day, 1-night desert tour which promised to take us to the depths of the Sahara, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. What could be better? Well, without further ado, here is my impartial review of the excursion so that you can decide for yourself whether or not to give it a go…

Price: 650 dirhams per person – it might be possible to find it more cheaply, but this price seemed reasonable to us.

Duration: 7am day 1 – 7pm day 2

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The experience: the tour operator organised to pick us up straight from our riad at around 7am. Pretty early, but not a problem for us as we are used to early starts. We grabbed a very quick breakfast and awaited our pick-up, which eventually arrived at around 7.30. A quick trip into town, after which we picked up the rest of the group (12 people total). And then the journey began. The first thing I have to mention is that the tour operator who sold us the trip quite drastically misrepresented the length of the drive down to the Sahara. He’d said something about 4 hours, with a stop along the way to visit a Berber village. What he hadn’t said was that it was four hours to reach the village, then another four to reach the desert. Meaning a solid 8 hours in a cramped bus with no aircon in the African sun. Yes this was in February so it’s possible that in summer they turn it on, but even this early in the year the sun is hot and the vehicle quickly overheated. I’m used to long journeys, but I probably wouldn’t have chosen to spend two days of my hard-earned holiday on a bus if I’d known. He’d also said something about breakfast, and assured us that the only additional cost would be one lunch on the first day. Eventually after about 2 hours we stopped at a scenic cafe in the mountains. However if you wanted breakfast or coffee you’d be buying it yourself. I’d also better say at this point that the drive takes you right through the Atlas Mountains on the the type of cliff-edge roads that you might expect to see on an episode of Top Gear, with a crazy Moroccan driver tearing around corners at 2000 feet as if he were in a rally. So if you’re not great with heights and being literally inches from death, you might want to reconsider.

Finally we reached our first stop, the Berber village Ait Ben Haddou. The big selling point of the village is that a lot of movies and series were filmed there, from Gladiator to Game of Thrones to our old friend Laurence of Arabia. It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a village though. In fact it’s what they call a ‘Ksar’ or collection of kasbahs (a kasbah being a large house with around four floors). A grand total of eight families live there in total, and for the measly sum of 30 dirhams (around £2.50) you can poke around in their homes and get an idea of how people live in a traditional village. This village and a few others around seem to exist solely on the basis of tourism and the cinema industry. What was once a stop for nomadic caravans is now a small collection of houses built from mud and straw, frozen in time so that Game of Thrones fans can be bussed in to buy scarves and take selfies. Speaking of scarves, this was yet another opportunity to drop a few extra dirhams, as we were encouraged to buy traditional scarves to tie into turbans to wear in the desert for the full ‘white person in the desert’ look. Finally we were shepherded in to the local restaurant for lunch. By now for sure everyone had spent at least 200 dirhams on food, drinks, scarves, the tour and tips for all and sundry. In Morocco you can scarcely move for someone holding out their hand requiring tips just because they assume you’re rich.

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Anyway, the tour was somewhat interesting and the lunch was not bad. Then back in the bus for – surprise – another four hours. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m fairly sure the same trip could have been organised much closer to Marrakech, but there we go. At around 6 we arrived in Zagora, where we finally got to the actual attraction – camels!

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So, what’s it like riding a camel?

I’ve heard that camels are very smelly, that they spit and that you can get ‘seasick’ riding them, however fortunately none of those things happened. I was also a little worried that it would be easy to fall off. However it’s actually pretty easy to ride a camel. They’d put some kind of ‘cushion’ on their backs to level out the hump. So you just get on and go. We were tied together to form a line and off we went into the desert. Ok, so I have to admit that it wasn’t exactly the depths of the Sahara as I’d been hoping. But hey, desert is desert. And riding a camel was a lot of fun. I was imaging myself like Nicole Kidman in ‘Queen of the Desert’, although realistically I was looking more like a smelly tourist who hadn’t washed her hair for 2 days. In any case, this almost made the whole experience worth it. Even a watered-down tourist version of riding a camel through the desert at sunset is still something you don’t do every day. I have to say though, riding a camel is NOT comfy. They bounce up and down quite a bit, and after an hour and a half I was fairly glad to arrive at the Berber camp.

Again I’d been kind of imagining myself camping among sand dunes in the middle of nowhere. I’d heard that in the desert the only thing you can hear is your own heartbeat. Which is true, except that alongside your heartbeat you’ll also hear 2-3 groups of Italian and Dutch tourists chatting away. They’ve set up a kind of permanent camp there with a circle of large and fairly substantial tents, plus a bathroom tent a little way outside with a sort of toilet and a sink which if you’re lucky might dribble a bit of water. I’ve spent enough time in Malawi not to even notice the lack of a shower or sink for a few days, but you might want to bring hand sanitizer and wipes if the whole rustic experience doesn’t float your boat. As for me, I always take these things as a great excuse to have a break from makeup and leave my hair to its own business, but there’s always some girl desperately slapping on her Max Factor foundation in the makeshift bathroom despite the fact that quite frankly we all smell like camels and look like tramps. Each to their own I suppose.

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Each tent accommodates four, so we shared with two Italian girls. Even in the desert, we had real beds with blankets, so it’s far from the most basic experience I’ve ever had. As you might imagine, though, it does get fairly cold at night, so you’ll be needing those thick blankets.

In the evening we had ‘Berber whiskey’ aka yet more tea and dinner served in the cool dining tent – a fairly plain tagine (basically the only thing you can eat in Morocco, it seems). Afterwards the Berber guided entertained us with some desert humour and ‘music’ consisting of bashing a drum and shouting. Sorry if I missed some kind of nuances there.

Finally, bed. I like to sleep outside, so I slept very well, but other people from warmer countries or who are not used to doing without heating found it quite cold. For sure you should bring a proper jumper, as the temperature does drop quite a bit at night.

We were woken up at around 6 by the guides shouting at us to get up for breakfast – basic coffee and bread, before jumping back on our camels for the trip back. After the 8+ hours to get there, it wasn’t a particularly enticing prospect to do the same all over again… This time there was another stop at a similar village, with yet more hands out for tips, sellers trying to push you into buying their wares and the restaurant trying to invent prices for items people didn’t even order. Eventually we were dropped off back in Marrakech around 6.

So, would I recommend the trip? It depends. If you have at least a week here and time to spare, I think the experience of riding a camel in the desert and seeing the sun rise and set in the Sahara is pretty unique. However, if your time is limited and you hate long bus trips, you should be aware that the ratio of time spent travelling vs actually enjoying the desert is fairly skewed towards sitting in a bus. You might find the same trip for less than 650, although that price isn’t too bad. However keep a good grip on your cash and don’t feel obliged to hand out wads left right and centre – all the guides are paid and you should not feel bad about refusing to pay even more to each of them.

Has anyone else tried this or another tour? Would you recommend it? Let me know below!!

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