Via the Faïja Plateau, and with stops in Marrakech, Aït Benhaddou, and Todra Gorge.
Our Sahara trek takes us through the fascinating and vibrant Sahara desert with its myriad of colourful dunes. Along the way we’ll camp at oases, watch spectacular sunsets, see gazelle, wild camels and birds of all sizes. We’ll drink tea with nomad families and learn about their lifestyle and culture. We will also enjoy the wonderful quiet of the desert, while discovering hidden gems along the way.
Hassan and I talked about putting this tour together when we were in Refuge Les Mouflons in December (2020), climbing Jbel Toubkal. The Sahara is a place full of surprises. If you expect to see one dune after another, you’ll be more than surprised by the mountainous rocky terrain and lush valleys you’ll encounter on this trek! An even bigger surprise will be the birds, animals, reptiles and the remarkable plants that survive in some of the driest conditions imaginable. And yes, there will be dunes as well!
Sahara trek itinerary
Our trip starts with a visit to Marrakech’s souks (markets). Bustling. Chaotic. With dozens of marketers vying for your attention. If it’s your first visit, you’ll probably find it overwhelming. Even if you have been before, you will find the intensity becomes a bit much after a while. Parting with a few hundred Moroccan dirhams you had no intention of spending comes quite easy. And you’ll wonder for much longer why you needed the wooden puzzle or pottery jug? Or, perhaps the painting of the medina? Or the leather handbag or shoes… Which will nevertheless remind you of an experience you can’t quite describe…
In the evening we’ll take a walk to the Jemaa el-Fnaa, where artists, performers (and a few conmen) will vie for your attention. Snake-charmers, Barbary macaque monkeys (kept on chains – not something I approve of!), henna painters, and wagons selling freshly squeezed fruit juice cover the square in the daytime. Plus a few interested tourists. Then, as the sun starts setting, chefs pull up with their wagons. Eating-tents rise and tables are set up. Soon, grills start smoking with delightful offerings of food. Darkness falls, and the glow of light from the various stalls mixes with the steam and smoke rising from food being cooked, creating a mystical, timeless atmosphere. Finding seating is not always easy. If you do, you’ll be amazed by the extensive menus in otherwise simple surroundings.
Entertainment as it’s been for a thousand years…
Elsewhere, on the square, hundreds of locals and tourists mix to listen to groups of musicians with traditional instruments making music the way their parents and grandparents have done for a thousand years. Actors perform traditional skits, with locals looking on in awe. Story tellers tell of folk heroes long gone. Snake charmers do their thing. The monkey minders continue to harass you. Henna painters take your hand and offer to adorn them with intricate patterns. Fortune-tellers are ready to tell you about your future. Children try and sell you packets of tissues – trying to earn a few dirhams to buy essentials for the home.
Around you, the noise reaches a crescendo, verging on the cacophonic. Somehow, you don’t notice it. Perhaps you too have become intoxicated with the spectacle that’s been happening every night for a thousand years on this square… Our dinner, at a much quieter restaurant, consisting of multiple courses of traditional fare, is a welcome escape, and a chance to get to know each other and our fellow travellers.
After lunch the next day, we drive to Aït Benhaddou, crossing the Tizi N’Tichka pass in the High Atlas at 2260m.
Aït Benhaddou is a fortified village or ksar, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Situated along the former caravan route between Zagora and Marrakech, Aït Benhaddou is constructed entirely out of earthen clay. It is one of my favourite places in Morocco. And tonight we’ll stay in one of my favourite Moroccan riads.
Look out for road signs giving you directions in Western, Berber and Arabic script – e.g.:
“Aït Benhaddou | ⴰⵢⵜ ⴱⴻⵏⵃⴰⴷⴷⵓ | آيت بن حدّو “
We spend the next morning exploring the fascinating ksar – fortified city – of Aït Benhaddou. One of the best examples of earthern clay construction and architecture, it is a truly fascinating place. “Gladiator” and a few other movies have used Aït Benhaddou as a ‘film set’. In many houses, there are huge posters of Russel Crowe. One of the locals told me that while filming Gladiator, Crowe used to come and chat to them in the evenings. Adding also that most other film stars tended to keep to themselves.
Zagora / Faïja
After lunch, we drive along the Draa Valley to Zagora, the city on the edge of the Sahara desert. Look out for the sign reading “Tombouctou 52 days” – the time it used to take to travel to Timbuktu in Mali by camel or on foot. From here we travel into the desert to the Faïja plateau and oasis, where we’ll spend our first night under canvas. By now, we should be acclimatised to the heat and the dry atmosphere. Ready for our trek through the desert which will start the next day.
The Sahara trek
Trek to Ano Ndyabi-Oued Mhasser
In the morning, we meet our support team. Guides, a cook and a team of camel drivers and their camels. These friendly humpbacked creatures will carry all our luggage, food, cooking and camping equipment. And sometimes even some of us…
Our first day’s trekking takes us across the Faïja plateau, crossing the Bani mountains at the Oum Laachar pass. Our lunch stop is at a small oasis. Tonight we camp at the Diabi oasis. Under a thousand stars.
Trek to Tamda Nimsafne
Day two is a relatively easy walk along in the rocky valley of the Oued Mhasser, past several small lakes, with a superbly panoramic view of Jbel Bani. On the way, we’ll visit with our Sahara Nomad friends. We’ll drink tea with them and learn more from them about their nomadic lifestyle and culture. Our overnight camp is at Tamda Nimsafne.
Trek to Erg Chegaga
The third day’s trek is along a rock-strewn valley, which opens into a vast plateau. Our lunch stop is at an oasis under beautiful Tamarix trees. On some days, we may see a mirage here. The phenomenon where we think we’re looking at a body of water, which in fact is a reflection of the sky, caused by light passing through multiple layers of air.
We may also see gazelle, desert hares, hedgehogs, lizards and possibly other species that have adapted to the desert region. Soon we will start seeing the giant dunes of Chegaga. By mid-afternoon, we’ll stop among the dunes and set up camp near a well, popular with nomads and their cattle. We may be lucky to meet some of the nomads. They may even invite us into their tents for strong Saharan tea with lots of sugar. Before dinner, we’ll climb to the top of a local dune to watch the spectacular desert sunset.
Trek to Bougarn Dunes
Our fourth day of trekking is through a very quiet part of the desert. Perfect for meditation. It is also a very dry section, with no water along the way. Our camels will carry extra water containers for drinking and cooking. By midday, we’ll find shelter under the scarce local vegetation and try and escape the sun. We’ll continue after lunch for a short distance before setting up camp amongst the Bougarn dunes. Late afternoon we’ll explore the dunes, and may even have a ride on the camels across the dunes.
Trek to M’Hamid El Ghizlane
Our fifth day of trekking in the Sahara continues through the dunes. We stop at a well to fill our water containers for our lunch stop, a couple of hours further. Then, after lunch, we continue our trek to M’Hamid El Ghislaine – the plain of the gazelles. We may find bits of ostrich eggs along the way.
Return to Marrakech
Drive to Todra Gorge
Rather than rush back and spend nearly eight hours driving back, we stop over in the amazing Todra Gorge. This wadi, or canyon, is at its most spectacular near where we’ll spend our final evening. Narrowing to as little as ten metres wide, with rock walls hundred-and-sixty metres high, this truly is an astonishing place to visit. And the riad we’ll stay at is another of my favourites.
Drive to Marrakech via the High Atlas
The next morning after breakfast, we’ll take a short walk along paths above or through the gorge. After lunch, we’ll set off for Marrakech, aiming to get back by sunset, just in time for sundowners at a rooftop restaurant in the middle of the medina.