There is definitely an element of trust when you sign up for an excursion over the Internet. Especially when it’s on a continent you’ve never been, in a country you know little about, and with a company you only know from anonymous online reviews. This type of travel is not for the faint of heart. Jumping into a car with a perfect stranger and letting them take you to the middle of the Sahara desert for days requires complete and unwavering trust in humanity… and a little help from the internet, in this case.
The minute we decided to go to Morocco, I knew that heading into the desert was a must. We had no intention of going to Africa when starting this journey, but as our adventure unfolded, the short trip from Spain seemed more and more plausible. We decided only a few days before – if we could book a last minute desert tour we would go.
Things started with a little research online, which turned up great reviews of the company Top Desert Tours. After a few email exchanges, we were booked and being picked up right from the airport to start our adventure. As we exited baggage claim, we found a young gentleman with our name on a sign (I always wanted to be one of those “sign people” – this was my moment!). That’s when we met our guide, and our soon to be new friend, Abdul.
Abdul radiates kindness. We took to him right away and within moments our uncertainty of expectations for our tour and our in Morocco dissipated. We knew that we would be safe with Abdul; what we didn’t know was just how much fun we would have being in his company, and how much we would learn about life under his guidance.
The following is an compressed itinerary of our time with Top Desert Tours in an attempt to brief you on our time together and encourage those who are thinking about heading into the Sahara to go ahead and do it (with Abdul of course!). You will not regret it!
Day One- hours in the car: approx. four
Airport pickup at approx. 2pm
– Abdul greeted us upon arrival and led us to our vehicle, a nice, new Toyota Landcruiser, where he proceeded to answer our questions and offer us cold beverages.
Lunch in the Atlas Mountains
– After an hour or two of driving, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant high in the Atlas Mountains. The views were amazing, the food and service were great and the washrooms were clean. What more could you ask for?!
Sightseeing at Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou
– UNESCO World Heritage site (backdrop for the movie Gladiator, amongst others)
Drop off at Riad Dar Chamaa
– We stayed the night in Ouarzazate at the Riad Dar Chamaa that Abdul had arranged for us. It was beautiful. They greeted us with tea by the poolside, took our bags to our room, and informed us when dinner would be served. A delicious meal and substantial breakfast was included with our stay. The only down side was not being able to use the pool due to sheer exhaustion.
Day Two- hours in the car: approx. six
Riad pickup at approx. 9am
– Abdul met us in the lobby of the Riad in the morning for our final leg into the Sahara
Sightseeing at the Daaa Valley
– The Draa valley is often referred to as the “Country of the Dates” and stretches for about 1,000km. This is the valley I mentioned in the previous post, where trees are impossibly green in the middle of the desert.
Lunch in M’Hamid
– We stopped at a restaurant run by Abdul’s family just on the outskirts of the desert. During our short stop in M’Hamid we stocked up on our water supply and purchase some very necessary desert gear, including turbans and some gifts from a local shop owner.
Arrive at Camp
– We decided to not do an optional hike to the…. Due to the weather (my body was still adjusting to the heat) so we arrived early to camp at about 5 pm. We were greeted with tea and took the opportunity to relax for a bit and play with the kittens that had made a home for themselves at the camp.
Sandboard and Sunset
– We had been told we could sandboard, so just before sunset we grabbed our boards (two old snowboards) and made our way up the dunes. A cool experience, to be sure.
Dinner, stargazing, campfire, singing
– The camp served dinner under the stars and we were given a big enough portion to feed a small army. After we had our fill, we lay out under the stars and the gentlemen (including Abdul) who ran the camp sang up songs in their native tongue. It was a beautiful end to our first day in the desert.
Day Three- hours on a Camel: approx. four
Wake up for Sunrise
– Abdul woke us up bright and early to ensure we would not miss our first sunrise. After we caught our first sunrise, it was back to bed for a quick 30 min snooze before breakfast.
– Fresh coffee, newly squeezed orange juice, yogurt, pastries, eggs, everything you needed to get started on the right foot was made available at breakfast.
Camel Ride (2h)
– Our camel ride was guided by one of the gentlemen who worked at the camp, and a Berber man, who was taking us to meet his family who lead a Nomadic life in the desert.
Day w/ the Nomads (approx. 6h)
– We didn’t exactly know what to expect, or how long we would be staying, but we had a great time (in spite of the fact that we couldn’t verbally communicate due to a language barrier). We were greeted with tea, served a great lunch, and played with the children until it was time to depart.
Camel ride w/ sunset (2h)
– After already having a two hour Camel ride, I was unsure if my body would be able to take another two hours, but that thought subsided as I realized, “I’m in the middle of the Sahara desert, watching the sunset, on a camel, on my birthday”. Who gets to say that?!
Cooked bread in sand
– Abdul had been telling me on our drive up that the Berber people cook bread in hot sand, and I was intrigued so they built a fire and showed me how it was done. Not only can it be done, but it’s delicious! They resources of the Berber people are truly mind-blowing.
Surprise birthday cake
– Now, I highly doubt this is included in the tour package. It just goes to show you how unbelievably thoughtful Abdul is, and how Top Desert Tours goes above and beyond for their guests. They made me a birthday cake in the middle of the desert! How? I have no idea, but it was one of the sweetest gestures/ gifts I have ever received. And it was delicious.
– Our last dinner in the desert was a beautiful chicken Tajine (a Moroccan delicacy). I was blown away with how good the food was throughout our time in the desert camp. We were expecting basic dishes, but instead were served gourmet meals under the stars.
Singing and stargazing
– Seeing as it was my birthday, the camp sang me Happy Birthday (which was beyond amazing because not everyone was fluent in English, meaning they learned it for me).
Day Four- hours in the car approx. eight
Wake up for sunrise
– Of course we woke up for sunrise! How can you not on your last day, or any day for that matter, when you’re in the desert!
– Another great breakfast to get us ready for the long drive ahead, and by long drive I mean being passengers because Abdul does all the driving (he’s a great driver by the way).
Depart (different route)
– Abdul took us back to Marrakesh via a different way so we would have the ability to see some different sights.
– We stopped at a two Cooperatives, one where women make the famous Berber carpets and the other employed women who make Argan Oil. Both stops were extremely interesting and informative. These women work hard! We also had lunch at a restaurant adjacent to the Argan Oil Co-op.
Drop off in the Medina/ Riad Adriana
– We were dropped off in the Medina close to our Riad at about 5pm. Abdul made arrangements to have us taken to our Riad so we didn’t have to worry about directions. Sadly, due to the chaos of the Medina it was a quick and chaotic goodbye.
There is so much more to say about our experience in the desert, but I thought breaking down our journey into pieces is a good way to start. This way, I can begin posting about the individual sections and that you can follow along with.
This was one of the most humbling, exciting, and eye-opening experiences of my life and I am so grateful that Top Desert Tours sent Abdul to be our guide. As it is a family run company, I am sure all of their guides are spectacular, but Abdul went above-and-beyond the call of tour guide and I will be forever thankful for the lasting imprint he placed on my heart.
Do you have any questions about our time in the desert? Feel free to ask!