The Dunes and Desert Environment
Of all the sand seas in Morocco, the Erg Chebbi dunes are arguably the highest and most easily accessible due to a paved road that runs inland from Rissani to Merzouga and beyond. The dunes are spectacular, especially at sunrise and sunset, when the shadows lengthen and they take on a reddish hue. Although the sand sea looks quite small and distinct on the map, it is worth noting that this is relative to the enormity of the Sahara desert. The Sahara is the only true desert to be found along the 0degree meridian line and also happens to be world’s largest. It covers most of North Africa, more than a third of the continent, and an area roughly the same size as the United States of America. It is a desert of extraordinary beauty and variety; all the standard desert landscape types are present from great fields of shifting sand dunes to vast plains filled with rocks.
Erg Chebbi sits on the hammada (flat black desert) and along one side of the 25k dune line are hotels and the Berber villages of Hassilabed, Merzouga and Khamlia. On the far side of the dunes are Berber Desert Families (many ex-nomads) that lead a traditional lifestyle on the desert floor with no running water or mains electricity i.e. water is collected in bottles from one of the potable wells using a donkey and some families have a small solar panel for light at night.
Three Berber villages lie along one side of the Erg Chebbi sand sea: Merzouga, Hassilabed and Khamlia. Merzouga and Hassilabed are sizeable and growing villages with a palmeraie area and gardens where crops are grown e.g. dates, cereals, mint and alfalfa. Khamlia, once the smallest of the three villages, is expanding towards Merzouga.
In the region are two seasonal lakes, a favourite spot for migrating birds in Spring, when Dayet Srji flamingos may be seen.
Tourism is key to the area i.e. hotels, cafes, small shops, camel treks and quad bikes. In addition many young men make a living by selling fossils, which are locally mined and polished, to tourists in the dunes at sunrise and sunset. However there is another side to these villages and, in summer months, they fill with Moroccans who come here to bury themselves in the sand. Sand bathing is a traditional treatment for rheumatism and arthritis and, along with the sand bathers, come the street traders and the villages transform into a bustling Moroccan experience.
How to reach the Erg Chebbi Dunes
The Erg Chebbi can be reached in a rental car or with public transport due to the paved road that runs from Rissani to Taouz via Merzouga and beyond. To reach the dune line, from the paved road, is a section of unpaved road (piste) that should be driven across with care due to ruts and sand drifts.
If you prefer not to drive in Morocco we offer private Desert Tours from Marrakech, Fes or elsewhere on request. Hiring a vehicle with driver is a relaxed way to travel. Local drivers know the routes and, if you have the time, it is possible to ‘get off the beaten track’ to experience the hospitality and traditional lifestyle of the Berbers.
What there is to see along the route to the Erg Chebbi Dunes
Two of the major routes to Erg Chebbi come from Fes (across the Middle Atlas) and Marrakech (across the High Atlas via Ouarzazate). Along the way you experience the incredible diversity of the Moroccan landscape and the key sites worth seeing are Kasbah of el Glaoui in the Berber village of Telouet, Ounila Valley, World Heritage Site of Ait Benhaddou, Kelaa Mgouna (also known as Rose Valley where the roses blossom in April and there is a Rose Festival in May), Dades and Todra gorges, cedar forests where Barbary Macaques live, Azrou and Ifrane.
What to do and What to see in Erg Chebbi
- Search for a fossil
- Listen to Gnawa musicians in the village of Khamlia as they twirl to the rhythms of the desert
- Visit Merzouga or Hassilabed to watch the world pass by as you sip mint tea
- Visit the Souk in Rissani on market day to buy dates, spices and saffron
- Camel trekking in Erg Chebbi
- Walk through palm grove gardens where crops are grown
- Visit the seasonal lakes in spring if the rains arrive and perhaps see flamingos
- 4×4 desert safari to explore the Erg Chebbi environment
- Hire ATV (quad bike / dune buggy) ride the dunes with a desert guide
- Hire of sand boards, as no instruction or safety clothing is provided, is not recommended
Camel Treks in Erg Chebbi and Desert Camp Options
It is possible to safely camel trek, in the company of an experienced desert guide, through the dunes to overnight in a desert camp under the stars – a deep camp in the heart of the dunes or a luxury camp closer to the dune line where it is possible to provide flushing toilets and hot showers. If camping or glamping is not for you, there is the option of sleeping in a hotel at the dune line with swimming pool.
Camel Trekking Options include:
- Sunset Camel Trek. Enjoy an evening camel ride to watch the sunset and glamp in a luxury camp or check into a hotel at the dune line.
- Overnight Camel Trek. Enjoy the adventure of a sunset camel ride across the sand dunes to sleep under the stars in a deep desert camp. Wake early for sunrise and camel trek back.
- Extended Camel Trek. Travel at the leisurely pace of a camel and experience the simplicity of desert life. Camel treks range from 2nights to any number of days.
Overnight Erg Chebbi Camel Treks to the Deep Desert Camp – What to Expect
Meet your desert guide and camel trek in the late afternoon, before and/or during sunset, to a deep desert camp – travel light and only take essentials in a soft bag that the camel carries. Mounting a camel is unusual because camel legs have double joints so initially you are thrown forward (there is a bar to hold) and then backwards as the camel stands up.
On arrival at the nomad-tended deep desert camp, where the tents are traditionally made of thick goat/sheep/camel hair, the camels are hobbled, mint tea is served and dinner is freshly prepared and served under the stars. While waiting there is time to relax.
Wake early to climb a high dune and, in the pre-dawn stillness, wait for the sunrise. Return camel trek back across the dunes to shower and breakfast before departure.
Longer Erg Chebbi camel treks are available for 2nights or longer.
Erg Chebbi Luxury Desert Camp
Our luxury desert camp consists of five ensuite bedroom tents and one dining tent. The bedroom tents are raised off the sand for your comfort. Each tent contains a hotel quality bed, mirror, rugs and seating. The attached bathroom tents contain a hand-wash basin, shower and flushing toilet; cotton bedding and towels are provided. Although there is a dining tent, we eat outside under the stars whenever possible. Your driver will drop you off at the dune line from where you ride camels (optional) to the camp where you will find your luggage on arrival.
Sand Boards and Dune Buggies/Quad Bikes
Sand Boards are available for local hire. However no instruction is given and no safety clothing is provided. It is a dangerous sport and you are advised to consider the risks of boarding without a helmet. Falling on sand is like falling on concrete and you should ensure your Travel Insurance will cover you in the event of a broken bone.
Dune buggies are available for local hire in the company of a desert guide to ensure you do not get lost. Please consider other people who may be visiting the desert for peace and tranquillity.