The Saharan desert stretches across vast parts of North Africa, from the Red Sea, to the Atlantic, covering some (or all) of 11 countries in the African continent. Bar the occasional oasis, the desert is made up from rocky plateaux, salt flats and sand seas, or ergs. These ergs, or 'dunes' are shaped by the wind and can reach peaks as high as 180m. They rise like a sea out of the desert and are an alluring place to visit. Due to political reasons, some of these sand seas are inaccessible to tourists, others, such as the ergs in Libya or Tunisia are more accessible, although independent tours to these are difficult, if not impossible to arrange. The easiest to visit, are arguably the Erg Chebaga and Erg Chebbi dunes in South Eastern Morocco. Measuring 22km long and 5km wide, the Erg Chebbi dunes offer an astounding experience. Sleeping under the stars in a Berber tent, camel trekking and the silence only the desert can offer all contribute to making it a must-see on everyone's travel list.
The gateway town to the Erg Chebbi dunes is Merzouga in South Eastern Morocco. It is about a 10 hour drive by car from Marrakech.
Guided Tours: Many people choose to travel here in guided tours from Marrakech, where groups depart for the desert in 4 x 4's. These trips often incorporate stops along the way to the Unesco World Heritage site of Ait Benhaddou and the Dades and Todra gorges, which are worth a visit in their own right.
Hire Car: If you choose to travel independently by hire car, there are plenty of guesthouses along the way and petrol stations in most sizeable towns. Keep an eye on your fuel gauge, however, as the stretches between towns are long.
Bus: Supratours run bus services from Marrakech to Merzouga (12 1/2 hours) and also Fes to Merzouga (11 hours) and Meknes to Merzouga (9 hours).
If you have travelled to Merzouga, independently, you will need to arrange your Erg Chebbi trip locally. Your best bet would be to book through your hotel in Merzouga.
The Erg Chebbi tours all follow roughly the same format. From Merzouga, you will head to a Kasbah on the edge of the dunes, where you will meet with your guide and camels. It will probably take about an hour to get to the Kasbah, depending on where it is and whether you are in a 4 x 4 or not. You will probably arrive there late afternoon and will then decant your belongings into a smaller backpack before alighting your camel. You can expect to trek on the camel for around 1 - 2 hours to reach your desert camp. If the timing works out, you will be able to stop along the way to sit on the dunes and watch the sunset. Once you arrive at your camp, you will be served dinner under the stars. Some camps offer additional entertainment after food, such as Berber singing and drumming. Depending on your timings the next day, you may head back out on your camel before sunrise, so that you can reach a good vantage point for the sunrise on your way back to the Kasbah. Time permitting, you may also have a chance to do some hiking in the dunes or go sand sledging. Some of the larger camps also have quad bikes for rent. You will arrive back at your Kasbah in the morning, where you can have breakfast and freshen up before your onward journey.
3 Day Erg Chebbi trip from Marrakech from £301 pp
Three day guided tour to the Erg Chebbi dunes. Given the distances involved, this is pretty much the shortest time you can make it from Marrakech to Erg Chebbi and back. There is time for short stops at the Todra Gorge and Ait Benhaddou along the way.
4 Day Boutique Erg Chebbi trip from Marrakech from £505 pp
The four day trip takes the same route as the 3 day route but gives you more time to explore Ait Benhaddou and the opportunity to visit the crumbling Kasbah Telouet. It also takes advantage of the more relaxed pace to enjoy some lovely boutique guesthouses along the way.
Camps in the desert tend to be basic, even the luxury ones. At the simpler end, you can expect a rustic Berber tent set up around a simple table. You will sit on rugs on the floor for dinner and will sleep on thin mats on the ground. Facilities will be basic - either at the mercy of mother nature or a shared portaloo. The more luxury camps have additional extras such as beds, table and chairs to dine on and some even have showers. However, think hard about whether you need these extras. You might get more out of the experience if you go basic and forget about the mod cons for a night. If you don't like the idea of camping in the desert, then you can go for the camel trek in the dunes and then sleep in the Kasbah instead.
You don't need any experience of riding to camel trek. You just need to hold on tight and let the camel do the work. Your camels will be attached to eachother in a train and lead at the front by a walking guide. It can feel quite precarious initially when you are perched on top of a camel (and quite wobbly) but once you get used to the motion, you will be able to sit back and enjoy the magnificent scenery.
You will need a decent sleeping bag. If you are going in the winter months then it will need to be an all season bag. For winter trips, warm clothing is recommended. It is more comfortable to wear long trousers when riding on a camel. It is also recommended to take a good head torch and wet wipes with you.
You can visit all year round, although because of the long distances involved, many tour companies do not offer the round trip from Marrakech during Ramadan, as it is a tall order for guides to drive the long distances in the heat with no sustenance.
Temperature wise, between November and March it can be warm in the sun during the day, but at night there can be lows of -5. In the summer, midday temperatures can reach 45C . For this reason, most tours arrange the camel trekking at sunrise / sunset.