When Barbara and I set off on our four-day trek of the Sahara desert, we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. We had heat, wind storms, fascinating landscapes, heavenly oases, amazing lunches and dinners. A wonderful support team who continued to observe Ramadan throughout our trek. And we saw plants, trees, birds, and even animals. Little of which we had expected! Neither did we expect this to have been the experience it was, with a daily dose of discovery of this remarkable part of our world. A discovery which had us discussing a return journey even as we were recovering from the fatigue of the final day’s particularly gruelling trek in temperatures that must have been high in the 30s (Celsius), if not into the 40s!
It all started off when Barbara, Hassan and I trekked to the foot of Jbel Toubkal. Hassan, my friend and guide on many adventures, and I started talking about trekking in the Sahara desert. Shortly afterwards Hassan provided me with an outline for a four-day trek that would take us along deserted paths used by nomadic farmers, starting on the Faïja plateau, crossing Jbel Bani towards Erg Chegaga, and finishing in M’Hamid, near the Algerian border. I developed that into a desert trekking tour which provide an opportunity to acclimatise to the Moroccan atmosphere before venturing into the desert, taking in highlights like Aït Benhaddou, Dades and Todra gorges, and finishing off with a brief visit to Marrakech.
The Sahara desert
The Sahara desert covers more than thirty percent of the surface area of Africa. Stretching from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, and extending north to the Mediterranean, it covers most of North Africa. And, just for interest’s sake… The whole of the USA’s land area will fit inside the Sahara with some space to spare!
Sahara desert ecoregion
The Sahara desert consists of several distinct ecoregions. The largest of these being the Sahara Desert ecoregion (4,639,900 square kilometres), which covers the central part of the Sahara. Almost no rain falls, and very little vegetation occurs in this region. It consists of dunes (ergs), stone plateaus (hamadas), gravel plains (reg), dry valleys (wadis), and salt flats.
Coastal desert ecoregion
Other minor regions are the Atlantic coastal desert ecoregion, a narrow region 39,900 sq km wide along the Atlantic coast in southern Morocco and Mauritania. Lichens, succulents, and shrubs are sustained by fog in this region.
Montane xeric woodlands ecoregion
In the western Sahara (258,100 sq km), and in the Tibesti region of Chad and Libya, and on Jbel Uweinat on the border of Egypt, Libya, and Sudan (82,200 sq km), montane xeric woodlands ecoregions are found. These ecoregions have more regular rainfall and cooler temperatures, supporting wood and shrublands consisting of acacias, myrtle, tamarix, date palms, and other endemic plants.
There are also several halophytic regions covering 54,000 sq km in the Sahara desert. These seasonally flooded saline depressions are home to halophytes (salt-adapted plants).
Saharan steppe and woodlands ecoregion
Two further relatively major ecoregions exist. The North Saharan and South Saharan steppe and woodlands ecoregions, covering 1,675,300 and 1,101,700 sq kms respectively. These two regions can be seen as border regions on either side of the main Sahara Desert ecoregion. The North Saharan steppe and woodlands ecoregion is a narrow band bordering the Maghreb ecoregion on the north and the Sahara Desert ecoregion on the south. The South Saharan steppe and woodlands ecoregion runs east and west between the Sahara Desert ecoregion and the Sahelian Acacia Savanna ecoregion in the south. In the north, the shrublands and woodlands are sustained by winter rains varying between 50 mm and 100 mm. In the south, summer rains varying between 100 and 200 mm provide sustenance to grasses, herbs, and dry woodlands and shrublands along seasonal watercourses.
Barbara and I did our trek in this North Saharan steppe and woodlands ecoregion. Here’s a day-to-day account of our trek through this remarkable countryside.
The four-day Sahara trek
Faïja plateau to Ano Ndyabi (day one)
We set off from our comfortable hotel with its palm-encircled swimming pool and terrace. A calm, cool place when there isn’t a bus load of visitors about. Where the staff is friendly and serve ice-cold drinks… We’re heading to the Sahara. Where average day-time temperatures are 37 degrees Celsius. Lack of maps, and a lack of clear explanation from our Berber guide, my friend of many adventures, Hassan, makes it difficult to know what to expect, or even where exactly we’ll be trekking. But it also means that this is an adventure into the unknown. Literally. Go on, try and find the Faïja plateau on a map. We’re supposed to start here. Or Ano Ndyabi, where we’ll be camping on the first night.
The drive takes us in a south-westerly direction along a road that will eventually take you to the Western Sahara if you keep driving. To our left is Jbel Bani. We find out that this is the mountain we’re going to have to cross. It looks hot, and high, and covered in stones – i.e., no trees for shade. On either side of the road, there are crops being grown. Mainly watermelons. Hassan mentions that it’s water intensive. Suggesting it’s harming the water table, causing damage to the environment.
Shortly after we cross the Oued Faïja, the taxi driver turns off the road onto a track leading towards Jbel Bani. He stops near a lonely acacia tree, where two Berbers are waiting with three camels. Ahmed and Ahmed lives in the Dades Gorge area. During the winter months, they support treks in the Sahara desert. Hassan has worked with them before. There’s an easy and comfortable relationship between the three. Our guide Hassan, and the two camel drivers Ahmed number one and Ahmed number two.
After introductions, the camels are loaded with our personal equipment. Spare clothing, sleeping bags, and toiletries, mainly packed into my large Helly-Hansen bag that’s been up Kilimanjaro, and a few other wild places. Plus our tents. One for eating and socialising, and another for sleeping in. Also, several mats of different sizes to lay beneath us and mattresses to sit and sleep on. Food – mostly fresh, plus a few biscuits and dried fruit to snack on. Plus water. Five litre bottles. Lots of them. Enough for four days of trekking in the dry Sahara desert.
Barbara, Hassan and I set off while the two Ahmeds finish packing the camels. The landscape is covered in rocks that look as they have been burned, interspersed with the odd lonely acacia tree. The sort of road we’re following soon turns into a track, and then starts heading upwards along a long zigzagging trajectory to eventually cross Jbel Bani at a low point – the Oum Laachar pass. On top of the mountain, we follow the path of a dry wadi (river) valley, before branching off and crossing a plateau. I spot the shed skin of a fairly long looking snake. Evidence that we are not alone.
A while later we rejoin the dry wadi and follow its course until we reach our campsite where the camels have been unloaded, and our big canvas tent is standing and waiting for our arrival. Our campsite is a delightful looking oasis with several large palm trees next to the Oued Mhasser. We make ourselves comfortable in the shade of these large trees, on a mat laid out for us, with mattresses to sit or rest on during the warmest part of the day.
Lunch arrives shortly after we sit down. Pasta, salad, tea, desert. Far too much for the two of us. We eat well, and then settle down with our books for the afternoon. In the late afternoon, we take a walk up the little rise above the campsite. The views along the valley of the Oued Mhasser are superb.
Our dinner starts at about three minutes past seven in the evening. It is the time, according to Hassan, when the Imam will be calling for the Maghrib – the evening prayer. It is also the time to break the fast and enjoy iftar – the evening meal.
We share iftar with Hassan and the two Ahmeds. Ahmed number one, appears to be the more senior of the two Ahmeds. He is also our camp cook. A very capable one too. Delicious meals served day after day (while they are silently fasting) to Barbara and myself. Produced on his two gas-rings. Ahmed number two makes sure the camels find grazing in the nearby vicinity after they have been unloaded. He fetches them again at around dinner time, and commands them into a kneeling position, ready for sleeping, outside our tents, before washing up and settling down for the breakfast.
Barbara and I wash our faces and other bits at the well. Drawing water with a bucket made from an old tyre. This is going to be the last time we will be able to use fresh water to wash ourselves with. For the rest of the trip, we have to make do with water from the large water containers. Drawn from somewhat cloudy-looking wells or water sources we find along the way.
Iftar consists of soup, dates, a sweet dough-based treat, olives, nuts, bread, cheese, tea, milk, and fruit juice. Apparently, eating dates is a tradition commemorating the habits of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, who broke his fast in this manner. Immediately after they’ve eaten their breakfast, they’d serve Barbara and I our evening meal, and then engage in their evening prayers – Maghrib. On the first evening they prayed outside near our communal tent. On subsequent evenings, they simply unrolled their headscarves, and used these as prayer mats inside the tent where we were all gathered and proceeded to say their prayers. Both Barbara and I felt honoured that they were able to continue with their prayers in our company. Meanwhile, Barbara and I were busy with our main meal. After tea, we say our good nights and retreat to our tent, while they start their main meal.
Ano Ndyabi to Tamda Nimsafne (day two)
Being in new surroundings, I sleep lightly. One of the camels, or perhaps all of them, make a noise that sounds like slurping. Perhaps the equivalent of humans snoring… Once I get used to the noise, it doesn’t bother me any further. One of the team’s alarms go off at about 3.25am… it doesn’t stop for quite a while. It’s time for them to rise. Suhur (the last meal they eat before fasting starts at dawn), is taken before they say the dawn prayer (fajr).
After they’ve said their prayers, they go back to sleep for a short while longer. Until Barbara and I rise shortly before six. A quick brush of the teeth, gets me ready for breakfast. Bread, cheese, honey, jam, yoghurt, tea and coffee (instant coffee – but for once I didn’t object). Then we’re off. In the cool of the day, hoping to reach our campsite before we melt.
For the first part of the day we follow the Mhasser river. Surrounded by stark-looking gravel strewn plains, it makes for a pleasant walk. We come across a few sparkling clear fresh water pools. Reeds and tall grasses growing on its edges. And frogs by the dozens enjoying the water. A plant I’m not familiar with attracts my attention. It’s a Calotropsis procera, I find out later. Hassan calls it a ‘sodom-something’, which I later find out could be ‘sodom apple’, apparently its common name.
Shortly before we leave the river bed, and move onto the reg (gravel plain) we come across a live snake. It doesn’t seem to be too bothered with our presence. The terrain constantly changes. From rock-strewn to gravel-strewn plains. Some of it partly covered with an odd-looking thorny grass, acacias dotted around. The odd shrub. Some thorny shrubs, possibly members of the acacia family (possibly acacia etbaica), and a few other unidentified species. It’s endlessly fascinating. Discovering new environments. Along the way, we pass a small herd of wild camels.
Mid-morning, we divert to a Berber encampment. Apparently, the family are no longer nomadic. Their flock is looked after by other Berbers in the summer, when the animals are moved to the cooler mountain regions. Inside the tent, we meet an elderly Berber gentleman who doesn’t seem overly enthusiastic and ignores us for most of the time we’re in the tent. Talking to Hassan. Can’t say I blame him. I feel much the same about these contrived meetings with indigenous people.
He’s accompanied by an elderly Berber woman. Half-reclining on the mat in the tent, and what appears to be a mattress and some pillow-like objects. So looks to be at least 90+. Both look well-weathered. She’s more chatty. Not that we are able to understand any of the chatter, aimed mainly at the mature female who comes in with a charcoal brazier, tea pot, and tea leaves in a bag secured with a knot.
She uses a bellows with a long snout to get the charcoal up to heat, and soon steam starts rising from the teapot. She then pours some into the cups. Pours the lot back into the teapot. Repeats this several times before she passes Barbara and me a cup each. A third cup, half-filled, goes to her little daughter. The rest of the family abstain. It’s the month of Ramadan. After a second cup, her daughter opens a bag and starts displaying some trinkets made of wool. Barbara picks one, and we make a donation towards the tea. About the equivalent of what we would have paid in a local hotel or café.
We continue. Soon I spot the top of our tent in the distance. About an hour or so later, perhaps sooner, we arrive into the campsite. Barbara and I have a carpet and mattresses laid out below some acacia trees. It provides us with shade throughout the hot afternoon. I dip Barbara’s and my shirts in a bowl of water to help us cool down. The warm wind dries them almost as quick as we put them back on. I repeat this again later on. I’m onto book number three. This desert trip is great for catching up on reading and relaxing…
Soon after sunset, we break the fast. After our main meal, we set off for bed. We’re at a dry campsite. No well. Cleaning the toothbrushes with water from our water bottles.
Tamda Nimsafne to Erg Chegaga (day three)
We rise early, and get ready for breakfast. No well to wash at this morning, so it’s time for wet wipes. Armpits, faces, toes, other places… then we slip into our trousers and shirts. I’m wearing khaki chinos with comfortable baggy legs, and a merino t-shirt. Barbara is wearing synthetic hiking trousers and a merino t-shirt under a linen long-sleeved shirt. We’re both wearing hats. All day long. I can’t remember when last I wore a hat. Possibly when I did military service in the 70s… But they’re definitely necessary under the sweltering sun.
We set off at about 7am. Much like the previous day. A herd of wild donkeys are grazing close to our campsite as we set off. The terrain is much the same as the day before. Barren. Arid. Vegetation is perhaps even sparser than the day before.
The campsite we’re heading for is below the largest dune in the area. No trees near it, means no shade. So, we stop for lunch under some tamarisk trees, offering shade from the blazing sun. After lunch, we relax and read. Waiting for the sun to sink lower and cool down. Soon the wind starts blowing. Before long it’s blowing a gale. We’re getting sand blasted. Before long we’ve got sand sticking to our arms, caked in our hair, and in our eyes, ears, nostrils, you name it… Ahmed is lying nearby, covered in his scarf from head to toe. I wished that I had my scarf with me. Too late now. And lesson learnt!
We decide to move on so that we can pitch tents and shelter out of the sandstorm. First we head to a nearby well. It’s nearly dry. But there’s enough of the cloudy water to water the camels, who suck up the water as quick as it’s poured into the trough. What amazes me is Ahmed’s ability to lead us almost directly to the well, despite the near zero visibility through the sandstorm.
When we move off, we pass several other wells. One is equipped with a solar-powered pump, supplying one of the luxury desert ‘glamps’. Probably draining the resource at the long-term expense of nomadic farmers. Near the dunes, we are passed by a few 4x4s. Some occupants look a little sheepish, passing us with our backpacks and camel train. Others probably don’t understand the difference between walking to get to these dunes and being driven in a comfortable 4×4.
We set up camp in a hollow with a hard crust floor, below the largest dune in the area. Later in the afternoon, when the sun starts setting and the wind has largely died down, I make my way to the top of this dune. To take pictures of the setting sun.
When I get back, it’s dark, and the team has started with their breakfast. Can’t say I blame them for not waiting for me. I’ve had food and water all day. They’ve had none since their pre-dawn meal. Before we crawl into our sleeping bags, we clean as much as possible of the sand sticking to our bodies with wet wipes.
Erg Chegaga to Erg Bougarne (day four)
We wake early. It somehow felt as if the night was warmer than previous ones. Perhaps because the wind died down completely. To counter the heat, we slept with the tent flap open. And ignored the creatures that crawled or flew in during the night, homing in on our heat-radiating bodies… It’s a dry camp, and the water we have has to last for the day, so we use minimal water to wash our faces and rinse our toothbrushes this morning.
It’s just before 7am in the morning. The sun is up as we set off. Casting long shadows across the dunes. And it’s hot already. Really hot. At first, we’re following an imaginary track between and across dunes and hard sand crust. We pass a few wadis, with sporadic tall grasses indicating where there may be some moisture and the occasional tamarisk tree. Then gradually the terrain changes to a gravel plain. Devoid of any vegetation. By 9am, we’re pouring sweat, and wishing we could have some of yesterday’s wind back with us!
When we reach a tamarisk grove, we start looking for a suitable clump to provide shade for the afternoon. Barbara is taking severe strain with the heat. We settle down. And after I dip her shirt in water, she cools down a bit and feels a little better. Given that the plan was for us to be picked up at 04.00 the next morning, and transported by 4×4 vehicle to M’Hamid, and then onwards by taxi to Zagora, I decide a change of plans is necessary.
I find a tall dune, high enough so that I can get a view of the telecom towers in the distance, and get a decent mobile signal. Find a hotel in M’Hamid, and tell Hassan to get the 4×4 to us this afternoon, to take us back to M’Hamid. The smile on Barbara’s face when I tell her the new plan made walking bare feet across the hot sand to find a dune worth it…
How to trek the Sahara desert
When should you go?
Rule number one. Stay away from the hot months! The ambient temperature during the summer months can reach 50+ degrees Celsius. The sand temperature, by the way, can be upwards of 80 degrees Celsius! Day and night temperatures may vary between 13 and 20 degrees. Which will make the evenings feel colder than it actually is. The cooler months are from November to March. April, as we found out, is tending towards extreme heat. So best avoided.
What to pack?
We had more clothes than we needed. I wore a pair of khaki cotton trousers, and thin merino short-sleeved t-shirt in the day, and added a thin primaloft jacket in the evenings. Barbara wore synthetic hiking trousers, merino short-sleeved t-shirt and thin linen long-sleeved shirt. We both wore cotton hats with wide rims (neither of us are habitual hat-wearers). I walked in a pair of enclosed sandals. Barbara used her lightweight approach shoes. This meant that I got the occasional thorn, stone, sand in my sandals. Despite this, I would definitely use sandals again, the next time I visit.
Apart from changing underclothes, we wore the same clothes for the duration of the four days of hiking. If we hadn’t rinsed our shirts on day three, for the cooling effect, we may have wanted to change shirts after day three, or perhaps not. We both had a spare shirt along. I also had a spare pair of shorts. I had two djellabas along, for cold evenings, but our thin primaloft jackets were enough to keep us warm once the sun had set. My djellaba made a perfect pillow during the night, though… So, I would recommend that a thick woollen jumper or similar is taken along, in case it gets cold, and to use as a pillow.
We had sleeping bags, and inner sheets. Both of us slept with the inners only for most of the night. And no shirts, or pants. We also both found that in the early morning we would be more comfortable pulling the sleeping bags over ourselves. (In winter time, you’ll probably want to have it close all night long.)
In addition to this we packed normal toiletries, lots of sunscreen, first aid kit, headache tablets, toilet paper, plastic bag to carry toilet paper to next camp where we burnt it, wet wipes, water bottles (one litre filled and a spare bottle in case we had a longer stint with the camels and the drinking water not nearby), headlamps and a lamp for the tent.
I am currently investigating if there are any maps available of the area, having seen a number of hand-drawn maps on walls of local hotels, with a lot more information on it, than OpenStreetMap, or O.S. maps provide. To book a trip or make enquiries, contact Walk in Wild places or visit our website.