In the High Atlas Mountains, Cheikh is handling the switchbacks like a Formula One racer, negotiating trucks, cars, bikes and donkeys along winding one-way roads. We give way at each unguarded hairpin bend, swerving into the gravel perilously close to the cliff edge.
In just two hours since leaving Marrakesh, we’ve climbed nearly 2000 metres. Daylight reveals the iron hues of the High Atlas and the enormous scope of the mountain range. For the next three nights I will be camping on Morocco’s biggest and wildest dune, Erg Chigaga, about 500 kilometres southeast of Marrakesh. Getting there is a rugged 10-hour journey across inhospitable terrain.
We pass clusters of Berber villages camouflaged by the mountains. At times the buildings are hard to distinguish from abandoned ruins. Hunched elderly women piggyback bulging loads, seemingly en route to nowhere, and children lead donkeys laden with cargo along dangerous passes.
Mid-morning we turn off at Telouet, a decrepit kasbah built in the late 1800s for the ruling Glaoui family. It’s positioned along the ancient trade route between the Sahara and Marrakesh, and its crumbling facade conceals protected spoils inside. In room after room, every centimetre is covered in ornate mosaics and carvings. It seems an eager designer was given carte blanche and adopted every material and technique in the artists’ handbook. It’s incredible this deserted time capsule is so well preserved and open for visitors to freely explore. I wish our visit lasted longer than a leg stretch.
We next stop at the fortified city of Aït Benhaddou, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located beside the dry Ounila River, its imposing defensive walls conceal a labyrinth of packed-earth buildings. Decaying alleys are filled with shops catering to the hordes of tourists drawn here by its Hollywood fame. You have to use your imagination, but Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy and Gladiator were all filmed here. More recently, the city also formed the backdrop for Yunkai and Pentos in TV juggernaut Game of Thrones. After I channel my best Russell Crowe impression in the gladiatorial arena, we are swiftly back on the road.
We travel through the Anti-Atlas range then on to Agdz at the start of the Draa Valley. A lush oasis of three million date palms accompanies us on the two-hour journey to Zagora. There’s an occasional roadside dune, and Cheikh explains just how far the sand has blown beyond the Sahara – it has a crippling impact, burying roads and clogging village water systems. Braided palm-leaf mats are scattered across the dunes, evidence of an international aid project to try and smother the encroaching sand.
By late afternoon we leave civilisation behind, heading off road at M’Hamid. For two hours we drive, blindly it would seem, with no signposts or markers to guide our way. As we are thrown around undulating dunes and Cheikh wrestles with the steering wheel, it becomes clear why the camp is only accessible by four-wheel drive. Few drivers know the desert well enough to locate the camp, which lies 20 kilometres from the Algerian border and remains hidden until we clear the last rise.
The Erg Chigaga Luxury Desert Camp is as remote as you’ll find. I’m greeted by Bobo, a beaming Moroccan partner of the camp who was born and raised in the desert with his nomad family. I’m in safe hands. Carpet pathways intersecting a central fire pit lead to 10 guest tents, a dining tent and lounge shelters all blending into the dunes.
My Berber tent is authentically decorated yet pimped out with western comforts. Within the circus-like striped walls, filigree lamps flank a bejewelled queen-size bed and carpet softens my step. Robes and slippers await. Most impressive is the adjoining bathroom annex. Decked out in Moroccan pewter, it features a portable toilet tucked behind a modesty screen, an elegant wash stand, dressing table and a charming bathing station. At any time I can request a hot pail of water for hand-bathing, Queen of Sheba style.
With sunset looming, Bobo suggests I ditch my shoes and join the other guests high in the dunes. It’s an exhausting climb as the scalding sand collapses beneath every step. My efforts are duly rewarded with a glass of chilled wine at the top, just as the sun slinks behind the horizon.
Hours later, back in my tent, I wake to winds violently shaking the canvas walls. I scramble to fashion a barricade to block the desert from blasting its way in, with little success. By morning the tent walls are still rippling like a wobble board and inside is blanketed with sand. My bed is gritty, my throat parched and my teeth crunch. A peek outside reveals a blur of sand – there’s no one to be seen. It is a taste of how inhospitable the desert can be. In the late afternoon the winds finally recede and everyone emerges.
Sandboarding and sundowners at the big dunes are the perfect release from a bout of cabin fever. As the name suggests, these formations are epic. We scale the largest one, displacing perfectly formed corrugated waves of sand to reach the top, which gives way to a huge skate bowl – the perfect launch site. I tuck my feet under straps and shuffle to the edge. Going straight down is terrifying, but moving in any other direction is like sliding through sludge. When the board continues to bog and toss, I plant my behind and careen down the dune toboggan-style.
Aside from the occasional nomad camp, we are totally isolated in a sea of golden dunes. The setting sun accentuates each contour. The camp staff has arranged pouffes and tables at the top of the dunes, creating a delightful open-air bar. As the sun retreats we are reduced to tiny specks silhouetted against a vast landscape.
Evenings in the camp among the many flickering lanterns are quite magical. After a communal feast of tagine, couscous and vegetables, we gather around the fire with wine in hand as the staff serenades us, their chanting melodies hypnotic against the drumming and clanging castanets. The star-riddled sky is an astronomer’s dream, with shooting stars regularly streaking overhead.
The camels have been saddled for a morning ride and mine lets out an impressive gurgling yodel before dropping to its haunches so I can climb on board. At first the pace resembles that of a rhythmic rocking horse, but as we hit the dunes it builds into a hold-on-tight bucking bronco ride. These Berber beasts are built for the sand with their splayed hoofs, but their lanky legs are clumsy on descent.
With the advantage of height, I witness the rapidly changing character of the desert. Carved ridges resemble the spine of a basking stegosaurus one moment, then morph into a valley of smooth feminine curves the next. Later they transform into a sculpted wave, appearing motionless and posed as though for our photographic pleasure. Just as the cramps in my groin become unbearable, we break for lunch.
A set table and lounge area await under a shaded canopy, the provisions having made the journey by 4WD. Lazing in this cool sanctuary with a fully stocked esky, I can’t believe my luck: the setting is close to perfect. Suddenly an approaching quad bike disturbs the peace and I glimpse Bobo behind the handlebars. He is en route to a smaller private camp and offers me the chance to hitch a ride.
Bobo understands the dunes, and it’s a thrilling, slightly terrifying, rollercoaster ride. Many times we are halfway up one of the steepest dunes when he aborts, only to return, heavy on the throttle, packing more speed. I squeeze Bobo tightly as we rocket up, then quickly lean far back as we pitch down. He chuckles each time I shriek as we come close to toppling.
On my final morning I set out in the dark and head into the dunes with a thermos of coffee. The sand is freezing and I’m shivering despite wearing a scarf and beanie. It feels really good to be cold. This simple desert life offers true escapism, and I savour these final views in the early-morning light. I love that there is no posh back-up hotel nearby, yet I cannot wait for the shower and dust-free towels that await in Marrakesh. A piece of the Sahara is leaving with me – engrained in my memories and my suitcase.
Qatar Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Marrakesh via Doha (and on the outward journey Casablanca). Return flights from Sydney start at about AU$1400.
Erg Chigaga Luxury Desert Camp offers four-night packages from AU$1400, including tented accommodation, meals, drinks and activities. The camp is open from September to May. Transfers from Marrakesh can be organised when you book.
In Marrakesh, Riad Adore is a tranquil oasis within the chaos of the medina. Hidden behind an unmarked door, this stunning riad feels more like a home than a hotel. Doubles cost from AU$200. desert
For more information on visiting Morocco, visit the official tourism website.