A storm at Erg Chigaga
The wind howled around camp, whipping the already frenzied sand into a thick airborne soup, stinging the skin and making all sight impossible. Thunder growled, menacingly amplified around the dunes, and bright forked flashes fingered the earth 360 degrees around us. The tents flapped like frantic jellyfish in a sea of gold. Blue clad Bedouin men staggered around securing ropes, hurriedly throwing stools and lamps inside. The camels remained sitting, chewing disinterestedly and wondering what all the fuss was about.
We’d travelled all the way to Erg Chigaga from the rain drenched, flooded English Lake District in an attempt to find some sun – supposedly a sure thing here in the Sahara.
The rain began to fall like a thousand wet arrows, their shafts penetrating everything and leaving miniature craters spattered across the sands of Erg Chigaga. Hubbie and I huddled in our tent, having been told by the Bedouin not to leave the shelter in case we lost ourselves in the storm. Of course my stomach chose that moment to remind me I really needed to visit the facilities, thanks to a dodgy tagine I’d eaten the day before. Hubbie gallantly accompanied me out into the nothingness, and with scarves wrapped tightly around our faces so we could breathe, we staggered hand in hand against the buffeting wind, in the direction of the long drop.
The flying sand rendered our head torches useless, and we relied on Hubbie’s good sense of direction, counting our paces until we thankfully felt a structure meet our out-stretched hands. The walk back was less straight forward. We strode the 24 paces we had taken before, yet our tent was nowhere to be seen, or felt. It was only by edging sideways as if we were playing blind-mans-buff that we eventually came into comforting contact with the tent fabric. Thankfully collapsing on the bed, we realised just how easy it would be to get lost forever in a sand storm, and I vowed in future I would just cross my legs until the weather had abated.
The journey to our desert camp at Erg Chigaga
We were staying overnight in a bivouac at Erg Chigaga, the dunes 60 km from M’Hamid in the far south of Morocco. The journey down the Draa Valley from Ouarzazate had been long but beautiful, following the sealed road through gorges, passes, vast oasis plains and ksars (fortified villages), such as the one below where local lore has it that Brad Pitt had lunch here whilst filming Babel.
We stopped in the village of Tamegroute, famous for being a mecca for learning, religion and pottery. Once the frontier of Algeria, it’s name literally means ‘border town’. It has been the historic centre of the Nasiriyya Sufi order, one of the most influential in the Islamic world, for centuries, and has both a Medersa (Koranic school) and a Koranic library with thousands of books. Many people also make the journey to Tamegroute to pray for a cure for their various physical and mental ailments. Me, I just like their pots!
The last section of off road driving from M’Hamid gave the feeling of travelling deeper into adventure with every kilometer we bumped over. It was here we saw our first ships of the desert. Rocky scrub land began to give way to sand, and I was thankful our brilliant driver Hicham knew how to handle a vehicle. As it was we had to attempt a few of the dunes more than once, and the feeling of the wheels sliding out of control beneath us was mildly terrifying.
Our Erg Chigaga desert camp
We finally reached the bigger dunes, and our gorgeous little secluded camp for the night. The sun was setting as we arrived, just in time for us to appreciate the show from our front row seats on top of the camels which had suddenly appeared over the top of a nearby dune. The ride was short but sweet, 45 minutes being just the right amount of time to experience the silent majesty of the Erg Chigaga desert before the legs start cramping and all you can think about it getting off the damn beast.
We loved the camp. There were no other guests, so we had the place to ourselves, a proper remote desert experience without having to share it with anyone else. Hubbie and I had a little tent on one side of camp which even had a bed in, a luxury we weren’t expecting but welcomed with open arms after our long journey.
It was after the camel ride that the storm struck, rather unexpectedly coming out of nowhere. When all the hatches had been battened down, our gracious hosts produced one of the most delicious beef tagines north of the Sahara, with ingredients we’d stopped to collect earlier in the day.
We sat chatting to them into the evening, feeling much sympathy as we learned they stay out here for months on end without seeing their families back home. It must be a lonely life with only the odd tourist or two for company. During the night we sneaked out to stare up at the most stars we’ve ever seen in our lives. Very romantic under a Saharan ceiling.
Chasing the Saharan sunrise
After a brief and cosy if not entirely comfortable kip (the bed turned out to be more like a board with sheets on), we hauled ourselves out of our nest and clambered up the dunes to catch the sunrise. And what a sunrise it was. It was hard work at such an early hour, but worth it for the view, which stretched out far over the Algerian border to the south.
We left nothing but footprints…
The adventure didn’t end there
After a simple but scenic breakfast it was time to leave, but we still had an exciting journey ahead, travelling off piste along part of the original Paris to Dakar rally route. We stopped at the dried up Lake Iriki (where apparently there used to be crocodiles), a vast flat expanse with nothing for miles except baked mud and the odd film crew! Whilst continuing on to Foum Zguid the scenery increased dramatically on the scale of spectacular, some of which would be more at home in America than Morocco.
A few bumpy hours later we rejoined the tarmac, thankful to give our spines a rest from the jolting, but sad to leave behind a landscape so unexpectedly beautiful and beckoning.
Tips for visiting Erg Chigaga
- Don’t try and travel all the way to Erg Chigaga in one day from Marrakech. It is do-able in 9 hours, but you’ll arrive exhausted and won’t enjoy the experience as much.
- Ouarzazate is the best place to stop overnight enroute to the desert. It’s almost half way to the desert. We love staying at Kasbah Ellozue and seeing Ben Haddou along the way.
- The best way to arrange a stay in a camp is via an agency before you arrive. You don’t book directly with the camps themselves. We recommend Wild Morocco if you’re visiting Erg Chigaga. They’re based down there and know their stuff!
- You can get to M’Hamid in a normal car, but a 4×4 is needed to continue to camp which is 90 minutes away through the desert. Even if you’ve made it to M’Hamid independently, you’ll need to arrange a tour from this point.
- Wild Morocco do a great self drive desert adventure, giving you all the independence you need to do it yourself but at the same time being on hand to support and navigate.
- You’ll do the camel riding bit from camp – either at sunset or sunrise.
- I’d suggest opting for a sunset camel trek, so you can climb the dunes for the sunrise.
- Let the tour company know in advance if you have any dietary requirements, especially if you are vegetarian. Chances are you’ll pick up the ingredients along the way.
- Most of the camps have some sort of toilet facility, ranging from little concrete toilet blocks to individual toilet tents.
Erg Chebbi or Erg Chigaga?
Erg Chebbi is the other area of dunes in Morocco for desert camps. It’s quite a different experience to Erg Chigaga, and we’ve written about our adventures there in this post.
Can’t decide between Ergs Chebbi and Chigaga? Take a look at my blog post here to help chose the best one for you.
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