Trekking in The Sahara

Before I start to tell you about this trip, hopefully the first of many with clients, let’s get one thing straight. It’s not trekking in the Sahara desert. It’s either trekking in the desert, or trekking in the Sahara. Sahara means desert. So, saying Sahara desert is a bit like saying Avon river… okay, why? Well, Avon means river in Welsh, and the poor sod who went off to Whitehall to report a new river probably thought that the Welsh named the river Avon. And so, it became Avon river. And we don’t want to make the same mistake when we talk about the Sahara. (In fact, interestingly enough when Berbers talk about deserts in other regions, they refer to them as sahara too.)

But that’s enough of the language lesson. Let’s get on with the actual trek through the Sahara. After two late cancellations, I ended up with just one client. Roland, who also happens to be a friend and fellow Toastmaster. Roland and I met up in Marrakech, and started the adventure by spending the first night in Aït Benhaddou – one of my favourite places in Morocco.

We explored the ksar the next morning with the help of a local guide, Nouradeen, who shared fascinating insights about the place with us. Then we set off for a small riad in the Dades Gorge, our second overnight stop. A walk through the gorge, with our riad’s jack-of-all-trades Mohamed, revealed all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies, and brought us to immediately below the well-known ‘Monkey’s fingers’ rock formation.

We set off mid-morning for Zagora, where we were to meet up with our guide, Omar. Omar is the brother of my friend and regular guide, Hassan. And though I knew him, I had not worked with Omar. Hassan was working with a different group, who had booked his services before I did.

We got to Zagora shortly after two p.m. in the afternoon. Transferred equipment and personal items to the taxi that arrived shortly after we got there. The first leg of our journey took us to a meeting place just outside M’Hamid El Ghizlane, where a rickety-looking Land Rover was waiting for us. Shortly after we met up with the Land Rover, my old friend Ahmad – camel driver on my previous trip through the desert arrived. Pleased to see me, as I was to see him. I know how well Ahmad knows the desert from a previous trip, where we had to navigate in a sandstorm that was severe enough to reduce the visibility to tens of metres. So, I felt very comfortable with his presence.

The Land Rover turned out to be every bit as rickety as it looked. It groaned. And creaked. And eventually almost ran out of steam, when we were still a few uncomfortable kilometres away from our first night’s campsite below the Bougarn dunes. In the end, she did make it. Just. Chugging over ever little rise… almost coming to a halt. But, she made it! And after some tinkering (and I think cooling down), she started okay, and her and the driver departed. I added a note to my mental notes of things to improve for future trips. Use reliable transport! This simply doesn’t look or feel professional…

Our first night's campsite below the dunes at Bougarn. The clapped out, but somehow capable Land Rover is in the back of the pic
Our first night’s campsite below the dunes at Bougarn. The clapped out, but somehow capable Land Rover is in the back of the pic

Trekking in the Sahara

Our first actual trekking day in the Sahara started at about nine o’clock the next morning. Sunrise at this time of the year is at about eight o’clock. And, it doesn’t get light much before this either. So, not much sense trying to crawl out of bed before about sunrise. Then it’s a quick wet-wipe wash before dressing. Loose-fitting khaki trousers, and merino-blend t-shirt for me, plus jacket or jumper to start the day off. It’s cool early morning. Open the tent, and get my sandals on. Venture outside to the litre of water in the basin. Brush teeth and splash face with a handful of water.

Soon as we venture outside, Ahmad brings tea and coffee to the breakfast table. Bread, processed cheese, Amlou, jams, honey, and cereal (which remained unopened). Enough to get you started for the day. Then it’s on to sorting my bag for the day. Check camera and batteries. Change if necessary. Check and replenish first aid kit. (Most mornings this was just a mental check, depending on whether we had used it the day before.) My djellaba, which got stuffed into a pillow case in the evenings, and sleeping bag, goes into the big bag. As does the spare battery chargers, etc. The day pack contains a bottle of water, first aid kit, spare camera battery, wallet, passport, plus jacket and second layer in case it gets cold along the way.

And then we set off. Our target for today is the large dunes at Erg Chegaga. Most of today’s walk, once we’re away from the immediate terrain of the Bougarn dunes, is across a gravel plain (reg). People occasionally find remains of ostrich, which existed here many years ago, and fossils in this area. I keep my eyes open as I walk. Here and there I see rocks that look like it was formed by lava-flow. But mostly the rock is of shades of brown. Hard. Possibly sedimentary. The plain across which we walk is mostly devoid of vegetation. Ahead of us is a slight rise, and from a distance, we can see a track heading across it.

For part of the way we walk on a vehicle track. Occasionally making way for a passing vehicle. Taking tourists to or from the glamping palaces now setting up near the ‘Grand’ dunes of Chegaga. Not something I’m happy with. Because with the ‘glampers’ come quad bikes, and hordes of people who are looking to fill their instagram accounts with pictures of themselves among the dunes, without much understanding nor real appreciation for the desert. The desert takes second place behind the posed picture.

As we get closer to the Grand dune of Chegaga, we start encountering a few dunes. Dotted among them at sparse interval, are a few tamarisk trees. Both Ahmad and I head for a large tamarisk tree for our lunch stop. And, find a Berber woman who is busy making bread.

She’s sitting in the shade of the tree. Her donkey cart behind her, also in shade. There isn’t much space left for us. The woman is apparently collecting roots. She offers us tea from her little pot bubbling away on the bed of coals in front of her. After she pours the tea, she continues to knead the dough. Eventually, this dough, shaped like a thick pizza will go on this bed of coals, covered by a layer of coals on top, and then allowed to bake for a while. When it’s ready, the ash is wiped from both sides, and the bread is served fresh and warm.

Erg Chegaga

An hour-and-a-bit after our lunch break, and about twenty kilometres from our starting point, we finally arrive at the dunes. After a few growls at the glamping site occupying the site we wanted to use for our tent, we settle on a different site and start setting up camp. Ahmad and Mohamed set up the cooking tent, which he and Omar also use for sleeping. Mohamed sleeps close to the camels. Under the stars.

Omar and I start setting up the trekker tents. Finding flat spots. Clearing away sharp rocks. When the tents are ready, we put our luggage in them. I dump my gear, and quickly spread out my sleeping bag so that it can loft before I get to bed later. My sheet is also put out. The battery charger is placed next to my bed so that I can plug in without having to search through bags in the dark. In other words, while it’s light, I get everything as ready as possible so that I can just slip into bed when I come to my tent later this evening after dinner.

Dinner is a sumptuous affair. Ahmad made us fresh bread and soup which we devoured! This was followed by a chicken dish with potatoes and vegetables. Desert was pomegranate. Shortly after dinner we headed for our tents. I clipped my light on, then went back outside to take a picture of the lit tent. The picture doesn’t quite work out as I intended. I read for a while, then switch lights off and go to sleep almost immediately.

The dunes of Erg Chegaga. The largest and most remote of the ergs in Morrocan Sahara
The dunes of Erg Chegaga. The largest and most remote of the ergs in Morrocan Sahara

Day three of our Sahara trekking

Our trail today follows an almost straight line in a north-easterly direction. Tonight we’ll be sleeping at Tamda Nimsafne – Berber for ‘the place where the rivers converge’. The eighteen kilometre, four-and-a-half hour trekking across the Sahara will initially cross the large sand sea (erg) surrounding Chegaga. Chegaga is the largest of the Moroccan ergs. We’ll then connect with a nomad trail which will take us across a large gravel and boulder plain.

There’s a very welcome breeze keeping us cool today. Very welcome, as it definitely feels as if the ambient temperature is a few degrees warmer today. A good day for trekking in the Sahara. The changing terrain is fascinating.

Last time I walked here I spotted a lone dorcas gazelle. Very similar in looks to the springbok I grew up with in South Africa. Omar also mentions that he had on a previous trip come across an oryx. The scimitar or scimitar-horned oryx, aka Sahara oryx, has been reintroduced into the region after having previously been declared extinct in the area. I’m a little bit envious. Especially when he shows me pictures of this beautiful animal. Apart from a few birds, mainly the white-crowned wheatear we don’t see much animal life. Thought I spotted a hawk, or buzzard in the distance, but it didn’t hover about for long enough to get a decent look.

Our campsite is in throwing distance of a Berber camp. An elderly family live here year round with their daughter and her children. They have apparently become too old to make the journey back to the Atlas mountains in summer with their animals. Just before sunset one of the male family members came to herd the goats back to the family enclosure.

Shortly before we arrived at our campsite we encountered Hassan and other Ahmad with the Norwegian group they were leading through the desert. Hassan and I exchanged gifts. Some winter shirts for Hassan, and a few bits of hiking gear. Hassan brought me a beautiful djellaba hand sewn by his lovely wife.

Tamda Nimsafne to Ano Ndyabi

I think that today’s trekking in the Sahara, is the most versatile and spectacular. Besides the glorious plains we’ll be crossing, dotted in acacia and tamarisk trees, and a few shrubs, we’ll be following the course of the Mhasser river for some distance. Deeply etched grooves, and glacier milled potholes, some with water, and intricately carved rock walls make for a fascinating day in the desert. At one of the dry holes we came across a handsome looking snake. It first tried to blend into the rock it was hanging off, and then when it thought we were coming closer, disappeared into a gap between the rocks. Some of the water holes had frogs in them. I do wonder where these creatures disappear to when the holes dry up completely?

Our lunch was in the shadow of a small copse of palm trees. While Ahmad prepares our lunch, normally a fresh salad consisting of tomato, onion, cucumber, peppers, plus bread, and couscous/pasta/rice, we stretch out on the mat under the trees. We take a decent break, and then push on at about two o’clock for the final part of today’s fifteen kilometre trek. Midafternoon we arrive at our campsite at Ano Ndyabi – which means ‘well of the wolves’ in Berber. Clearing the sites for the tents take a while, especially as this area has a lot of stone lying about.

The gorgeous palm trees and fresh water well, makes this a perfect oasis. One thing that I wasn’t happy about was the amount of camel dung lying about. Since my last visit, it seems that many other parties have been trekking in the Sahara. Seems like other parties have discovered the Sahara as well.

Last day of our Sahara trek

Our route today will take us to Oum Laachar pass, where we’ll cross the impressive Jbel Bani, which stretches from Zagora to Tantan near the Atlantic coast! A distance of more than 500 km. The terrain is mostly gravel plain. With most of our path following an indentation. Probably a dry wadi. It’s fourteen kilometres of pleasant walking. Acacias, tamarisk, and a few grasses, adorn the countryside. We enjoy the colours of the rock, sky, mountain backdrop for our final few kilos before crossing the pass and descending to the Faïja plateau where we’ll be picked up by a local taxi. Bringing to an end our five days of trekking in the Sahara.

After our last lunch, we hand over tips to our support team: Ahmad – cook extraordinaire; Mohamed – camel driver; and Omar – my friend Hassan’s brother and very capable guide. Then we board the taxi and head back to Zagora where our car is parked at the hotel.

After an ice-cold drink at the hotel, we set off for Agdz, where we were spending the night, before travelling back to Marrakech.

Last few days

The initial idea was to spend the next couple of days exploring Marrakech. But due to some of the group cancelling, we decided to shorten our stay in Marrakech and take a short overnight trip to Essaouira. For a view of the Atlantic and to enjoy the splendid restaurants in Essaouira.

Our last night turned out to be a real treat when we teamed up with a few travellers at a local restaurant – local and international. Morroco had just that afternoon beat Spain 2-0 to go through the last sixteen of the world cup and the whole place was in a festive mood! The next morning we did a tour of the fishing harbour before setting off for the airport in Marrakech and home.


We visited the Yves St Laurent Museum in Marrakech where I discovered this wonderful piece of cartography recording the height of Jbel Toubkal as 4165 m. Using antiquated equipment in 1930, the cartographers, Messrs J de Lepiney, L Neltner and A Stofer, who did the map on behalf of the Club Alpin Francais were out by a mere two metre. Today the peak is known to be 4167 m high.

Map by Lepiney, Neltner, Stofer - 1930, showing Jbel Toubkal height as 4165 m
Map by Lepiney, Neltner, Stofer – 1930, showing Jbel Toubkal height as 4165 m

Join me on a trek

This trek only takes place between November and March. Outside these months, the desert is simply too hot. With temperatures rocketing up to fifty (50) degree Celsius, and sand temperatures exceeding eighty (80) degrees Celsius, it’s not a place for ordinary humans.

  • Next confirmed dates are:
    • Fri 17 to Sun 26 February 2023;
    • Fri 4 to Sun 12 November 2023;
    • Fri 2 to Sun 10 December 2023.

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