What a place to park a camel
There’s a certain elegance to riding a camel through the peaks and valleys of The Sahara desert, Lawrence of
Arabia style. Cold sand laps up at your bare feet, a vibrant scarf flaps around your face and a warm glow from the rising sun paints the dramatic landscape a dusty pink.
Of course then you must dismount, gracelessly sliding off your spitting beast like a drunk on a mechanical bull, hitting the sand with a thud.
“So my friend, is this everything you said you’ve spent a lifetime dreaming about?” asks tour guide Ali, a vision in white djellaba (a loose, cotton tunic) waving at the majesty of our surrounds like a game show host. Taking in white luxury tents spread in clearings between the towering red dunes and the sounds in the distance of guests woo-hooing in 4x4s, I beam. Oh yes, Ali, how it is and more.
We’re in Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp, deep within the dunes of Erg Chebbi, Morocco, the midway point of a 10-day Luxury Escapes Morocco tour. The itinerary is ambitious, kicking off in Casablanca before moving onto the ancient city of Fez, the dunes of the Sahara and the medinas of Marrakech – hundreds of kilometres in between and countless stops in ancient towns, farmhouse restaurants and scenic lookouts.
While many choose to fly out here from Fez or Marrakech, we have driven, an eight-hour coach journey from Fez taking in all manner of dilapidated kasbahs, Berber villages and lush valleys, palm groves and heart-in-the-mouth mountain passes filled with everything from donkeys to trucks. Sleep, when it came under a star-spangled sky not long after we arrived at the camp, was peaceful, deep, with just a hint of camel snore.
With camel safely parked, back at the dune where our camp is, the scene laid out before us is spectacular. A bright red carpet snakes past a campfire complete with cushions leading all the way up to a dining tent where staff are busy with a breakfast service including mountains of fried breads, egg dishes, yoghurts, fruit and jugs of chilled strawberry juice.
The five individual guest tents each offer a full working bathroom with scorching hot running water and electricity (courtesy of the camp’s solar panels) as well as a comfy queen bed, tables, chairs, a chest full of quilts and blankets (it can get quite cold at night) and bottles of icy water (and uncomfortably hot in the day).
Singer Seal might have insisted on having a gym and TVs installed for the duration of his recent stay, but most travellers will not want for a thing.
With average temperatures of 45C in summer, there are two surprises when it comes to Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp’s activities list: the first is that “bathing in your own sweat” is not considered an actual activity (we quickly deduce it well could be); and that there are countless ways to spend time in a land where it all but stops.
Sand boarding is offered and enjoyed, dune candlelit dinners fulfil fantasies, and sunset and sunrise camel rides are taken with an almost religious fervour, but things dial up to 11 when camp owner Jawad El Ghannami strides (he never walks) across the sands to take us on a full morning 4x4 adventure.
As Lana Del Rey blares from his stereo system, he takes on the dunes – some up to 150m high – so we’re almost upside down and inside out. I madly tried not to vomit on his expensive-looking watch. “You love it? You enjoy it?” Ali shouts over the roar from the front passenger seat.
“No? We stop.” Far more successful is the visit to a traditional nomad camp where mint tea and biscuits are enjoyed in the shade of hastily built huts crawling with kids. “We don’t actually know any of these people, but I think if we ask nicely, they might let us in to say hello,” says El Ghannami unconvincingly as the tykes come running up to him for hugs.
As we leave, a tour bus pulls in and the jig is up, but by the time we’re eating our barbecue lunch in a lush oasis, our skin cracked and white from lack of moisture in the air and our hair almost dreadlocked in style, none of us cares. It’s a feast fit for kings and the scenery is spectacular.
As night falls, chargrilled meat platters, pasta dishes, tagines, salads, soups and decadent desserts are served in generous amounts, reminding you that eating out here is indeed one of the highlights. My advice? Say yes to everything at least once before staggering out to the campfire where staff wait to entertain guests with traditional Berber numbers under a canopy of stars.
Whether you choose to enjoy a post-dinner aperitif or head to your tent (and hot shower) for an early camel-filled 5am start, take a moment to silently acknowledge the beauty of the world around you. It really doesn’t get better than this.
SLEEP, UNDER A STAR-SPANGLED SKY, WAS PEACEFUL, DEEP, WITH JUST A HINT OF CAMEL SNORE
Enjoy dramatic desert landscapes on sunset and sunrise camel rides; the treats and comfort on offer provide elegant sufficiency.