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Geography was my favorite subject in school. It was where the pages of the textbook came alive for me. The description of the far-flung corners of the world fascinated me. Being from a middle-class family in India, I imagined that I could only experience these places through the lens of the author of the textbooks I read. Luckily, things fell into place, and I could travel around the world. Desert was my childhood obsession. I find them captivating - Gobi, Sahara, Kalahari, and the Atacama - just the names gave me goosebumps. I have been to Mojave and Atacama but how would I fulfill my childhood dream without visiting the mother of all deserts - Sahara?

How big is Sahara?

In Arabic, “Sahra” means desert. It is the largest hot desert in the world. Stretching from the red sea in the east to the Mediterranean in the north to Atlantic in the west, it spans 11 countries: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia. In fact, Africa is broadly subdivided into two parts- north Africa and sub-Saharan (everything south of Sahara) Africa.

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Our Journey:

We started early in the morning from Fez and drove for almost 10 hours south to reach Merzouga- a small town in the outskirt of Sahara. It is a cliched statement, but Sahara was literally at the doorstep of our hotel & it was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! With the nightfall, it evoked a different beauty.

From the porch of our room, we marveled at the shadows of dunes in the backdrop of the milky way.  Merzouga is home to an Erg - Erg Chebbi. From a geomorphological point of view, Sahara is composed of Ergs, Regs, and Hamadas. Ergs are sand dunes, Regs are a mixture of sand and gravel, Hamadas are rocky, barren terrains. 20% of Sahara is Ergs, 70% is Regs, and the rest are Hamadas. Erg Chebbi dunes expand from Merzouga up to the Algerian border. Our guide mentioned that its one of the only two Ergs in Morocco - the other one is Erg Chigaga, further south from Merzouga.

The next day, we had booked a 4x4 jeep excursion. The first stop was the camel station. Due to the proximity to a water source, owners of these herds of camel leave them overnight. It was early in the morning, and these camels were enjoying their hearty breakfast! They seemed pretty annoyed with us photobombing their peaceful mealtime. Our guide told us that some of these camels will take us to the desert later for the sunset tour. It seemed only wise not to rile them after all!!!

From the camel station, our jeep entered into the erg area. After half an hour or so, we reached a nomadic village of Berber nomads. At one point, hundreds of nomadic families used to inhabit in Sahara but with the scarcity of resources, more and more people have started migrating to nearby towns and are adopting city life.  Nomads have an interesting way of life. As they thrive on nature’s bounties, they stick to one place as long as they can get food for themselves and their livestock. Once they run out of food, they pack their tents and move to a different location where resources are abundant. Due to the need for such frequent shifting, their tents are simple and mobile - held by wooden poles with thick carpets as flooring. We noticed some small structures made up of clay brick, which our guide told us were the toilets. Livestock is an integral part of their life. A baby goat became a popular selfie partner among many of our group members. They also had a pet fennec fox! 

In a nomadic society, men take care of livestock. Women in the village do household chores, take care of family, and occasionally make handicrafts that they sell. Tourism is another source of income for them. They let tourists like us see their way of life; in return, they expect a small token of appreciation. Another interesting aspect was that they bury their family members inside the village. It was literally only a few yards away from the tents. From the headstone angle, one can figure out whether a male or female is buried there. We had khobz, olive, and mint tea in the village. Sitting inside the tent sipping tea, and bread, I literally felt like nomadic nil!

Next stop, a derelict Kohl mine. First, I thought it was “Coal,” but then our guide corrected us that it is Kohl - used in the eyeliner. In the heyday of the mine, it was a thriving town. But, with the closure of the kohl mine, it’s now a ghost town with abandoned adobe settlements. It offered a beautiful view of the Merzouga town and the surrounding dunes.

Time for some Gnawa music! Gnawa is an ethnic group in Morocco with their ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa - mostly from Sudan. They look very different than native Amazighs of Morocco. Also different is the way they dress - an all-white ensemble. Gnawas are known for their traditional high-tempo music. It was exhilarating, and we had a lot of fun. They don’t ask for money, but it is a nice gesture to buy CDs from the store. 

The last stop was the town of Merzouga. It is a tiny village - few houses, shops, and restaurants. Shops were selling dust-filled desert mementos like camel keychains. Restaurants offer roadside sitting, and their Kebabs looked delicious. Though it was a tiny town with not much to see, I would highly encourage spending some time there. It gives an authentic vibe of the surroundings and the ways locals lead their lives.

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After relaxing for a few hours in the hotel, we went out for the desert sunset safari in the evening. If you have never been on a camel, it would be an awesome experience! When camels stand from a sitting position, they raise the hind legs first and then the front legs. You have to adjust your posture accordingly, moving back and forth so that you are not thrown off their back. Luckily I rode a camel before and was fine. But it was fun to watch some of our fellow group members doing aerobatics on the camelback.

It was a short trek. Those camels took us to a beautiful spot where the vast expanse of the desert was visible. The presence of ATVs was really annoying, though. They made tire marks all over the dunes, and the smell of diesel in the middle of the desert is not something I was looking forward to. It was one of the most memorable sunsets of my life. Undulating waves of sand, cool breeze, dust from the desert, and the vibrant sky as the sun set into disappearance - it was the perfect ending of our Sahara adventure.

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