Backpacking in the Sahara Desert: Is It Worth It?

Preface

Hello! Thank you for reading! By golly, it’s been a while. Before we start, I’d like to just give you a word of warning. This article was written nearly a year ago, most of which in the few days after our tour. After a painful edit and a few additions, I can now see that there were clearly feelings of frustration and disappointment in my heart (spoiler alert). After travelling across Asia, the Middle East, and now Africa, I was really looking forward to getting somewhere familiar and comfortable, and was also recovering from what I originally thought was Covid-19 (but was more likely Hepatitis).

We had travelled very far to experience this tour (detouring to a new continent, in fact), but sadly it was not at all what we had hoped. As a result, I feel like I come across very negative and a bit entitled. Nevertheless, although some aspects are exaggerated here for comedic effect, my thoughts and feelings still stand: I feel like we were taken advantage of, hustled, and overcharged on numerous occasions. I understand that these people need to make a living, and that this is their way of doing it, but I have been on tours all throughout South East Asia, through Iran and Turkey, and felt like the treatment we received on this tour was by far the worst.

So without further ado, please enjoy this article I wrote nearly one year ago.


Star gazing after a Saharan Sunset is truly a once in a lifetime experience; I’d certainly only do it the once. We were so excited to slide down the immense sand dunes, to camp under the stars, to try authentic Moroccan cuisine… but after all we went through, I wonder if our Sahara Desert tour was worth the time, the money, and the hassle.

We had a rough start to our Moroccan adventure. We had booked a one-way flight (as all of our flights on our trip had been), and had originally only planned to stay for three days. Unfortunately for us, I came down with a fairly inebriating flu three hours into our first day (#coronavirus?), JUST as we had started to explore the city of Marrakesh. Luckily, our riad (or hotel) was relatively quiet, and so we were able to extend our trip by another 2 days, allowing us to recoup in a comfortable environment.

This meant, however, that we had blown nearly all of our time in Morocco coughing and sneezing in our hotel room. We’d been doing a little bit of research on the nearby Sahara Desert, and after reading numerous blogs online explaining that their Sahara Desert tour was by far their best experience in Morocco, we decided that doing one of these tours might make our ‘fever-ridden, mostly bed-bound’ trip worth the detour to Africa.

Booking the tour itself was a fairly daunting experience. One blog we had read described a few of the ‘grittier’ details of her budget tour such as being driven round in a cramped van without air conditioning in the middle of summer, or being dropped off in the desert at the end of the tour or being groped by her tour guide. For this reason, we were a bit dubious of booking any tour without a prior recommendation.

In the end, we opted to take the tour offered by our riad, mostly due to the friendliness of the housekeeper. She insisted how wonderful the tour was, and how her experience going into the desert was one of the best she’s ever had. As an added bonus, the tour was only 1000MAD each, a full $30 less than the $180 tours we had seen online. So, against all of our gut instincts, we booked this tour blind, not knowing exactly where we would stay our what we would be doing… and it was all downhill from there.

Day 1

We woke up early to have breakfast and be ready for our 7:30am bus pickup, which after being shifted from vehicle to vehicle, tour to tour, meant we finally departed at 8:30am. As neither Jemma nor I are morning birds, this already was not the best start to our trip.

Now before we started the tour, one of the only complaints we found was that there was copious amounts of of driving. This is to be expected, however: Marrakesh isn’t exactly that close to the Sahara Desert. The distance from the city to Merzouga, the desert town we were heading towards, is over 560kms, all winding roads through the Moroccan mountains. So, we strapped ourselves in, popped a few travel-calms, slapped on a podcast, and away we went.

After our first long drive and a quick pit stop for coffee 45 minutes in, we made a rendezvous to pick up a curious looking Moroccan man, who I assumed was our tour guide for the rest of the trip. The man introduced himself in multiple languages, which was necessary as I soon found out that nearly everybody on this tour spoke a different language. Out of 17 people, we had Spanish speakers, Arabic speakers, French, Cantonese, German, and finally us speaking English. Thankfully, everybody spoke enough English that most of the tour was spoken in our mother tongue (making Jemma and I look very stupid with our unilingualism), but it made me question how legit a tour was where every person spoke a different language. Surely that is something that should have been considered when organising the tour?

Our first stop brought us to Ait Benhaddou, an ancient Bedouin village that you might recognise from Gladiator and Game of Thrones. Although in theory this stop ticks every box (ancient city, local history, pop culture relevance), we couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. Despite spending an hour being guided through the city, the exciting and educational aspects were brief, and we were rushed through past the interesting sites in favour of stopping off at small stalls and urged to purchase goods and souvenirs from the vendors. Being the broke bitches we were, Jemma and I instead snuck off on our own to wander through the narrow clay streets before being herded up and sent to lunch.

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Our first lunch stop set the tone for the ones to come, and I quickly realised that all of our meals would be much of the same: mushy, bland, and overpriced. No care or effort was put in by any of the restaurants on our route, and I assume the owners rely solely on the charity of the drivers (who no doubt must get a kickback of their own.) I’m sure there are some fine restaurants along the way, but we didn’t stop at any of them.

Although we made the mistake of ordering individual meals at the first restaurant, we decided to split a meal at the second, and skip lunch altogether at our final stop, opting instead to buy snacks and sandwiches from a local grocery store down the road (go us for supporting local businesses?). Although I was excited at first to try the signature Moroccan dish of tajine, I quickly come to despise it: if I wanted mushy vegetables and watery rice, I could have made it in my bathroom with only a tea kettle.

After departing suddenly from our guide (and causing me to realise that maybe we won’t actually have a proper chaperon accompanying us on our tour), we hit the road once again, stopping only at ‘photo opportunities’ that coincidentally happened to be next to bands of street vendors peddling more gifts; little wooden sculptures, bracelets, and what were described as “fossils” (but were clearly hand painted rocks). Look, I get it: hustlers gotta hustle, right? But don’t sell me shit and call it chocolate. And don’t charge me $100 for it either.

Upon finally reaching our accommodation for the night, a small hotel quite literally in the middle of nowhere, we were surprised to find out that most of us had small, interconnected wooden bungalows to sleep in as opposed to a hotel/motel room that was advertised. Had it been summer, or had we had some form of central heating or insulated walls, this may have been OK. Believe it or not, however, the Saharan Desert can get bloody freezing during the winter, and our only saving grace was a spare blanket under the bed. Oh well.

The rest of the evening was fairly uneventful. There was little to no WiFi (not that that is a prerequisite), the range of which extended to the kitchen and dining area, so we instead chose to wander around the local area until nightfall, staying until we could hear the distinct call to prayer from the neighbouring mosque. We ate dinner, a beautifully bland tajine, showered with no hot water, snuggled up in our freezing room, and watched Midsommer until we passed out, no doubt disturbing all of the neighbours as our paper-thin walls did nothing to dull the sound. Thank God no one nearby was a snorer.


Day 2

Without a guide to tell us when we were leaving, we set our alarms at 6am and hoped we weren’t left behind. We weren’t, thankfully, but we were far from the first people in the communal dining hall the next morning. After a healthy serving of shitty tajine, we waited whilst each of the groups also staying in our ‘hotel’ were collected by their drivers, until our tour group was sitting alone. 30 minutes after everyone else had left, our driver bursts into the room like the damn Kool-Aid man and yells at us to hurry up. We barely had enough time to collect our things until we were rushed into our cramped van where we reclaimed our seats. I sense a pattern emerging with our driver being late.

At our first stop of the day, we were once again greeted by a tour guide who, to his credit, was fairly fluent in all of the languages our group spoke. He would spend long periods of time conversing with the Spainards in Spanish and a short time explaining the area to us… we certainly felt jipped on this leg of the journey. After being casually racist to a couple from Hong Kong, our guide showed around a swampy farmland, a small Bedouin town where we endured a rather uncomfortable trip/sales pitch in a local rug store, and finally between the admittedly impressive Togdha Gorge.

After a lunch break, where I’m sure you can guess what we were served, our guide departed, but not before asking us for a tip in exchange for his, quite frankly, rather poor tour. I was prepared to tip if we had a guide the entire time, but at this point I’d had such a bizarre experience that I felt insulted being asked for a gratuity. We whispered amongst ourselves debating what to do until our new Hong Kong friends lent over to us and asked,
“Which is more insulting, no tip or something really small like 50 cents?”

We opted for 50 cents.


We drove for what felt like a lifetime, continuing to stop at tedious pitstops until we finally caught a glimpse of what we had come for: a sea of looming sand dunes. Driving off road and finally reaching our destination, we were approached by a large group of men, maybe 50 or so, all in Bedouin outfits who told us to leave our bags on the bus and follow them (remember this, it comes back later on). We were all herded to a caravan of resting camels, where one by one, we were urged onto the backs of the beasts.

We had wrestled with the ethics of riding the local livestock, having been scarred by the treatment we had witnessed in Petra and decided in the moment not to ride them. We’d read online that if you chose not to ride a camel, an alternative ATV tour was usually offered, but there was not a vehicle in sight. The friendly Hong Kong couple also chose not to ride a camel, and actually paid more for a bus transfer into the desert. After declining the camel ride, we assumed we would ride with them in the bus, but they were quickly hurried off in a different direction (never to be seen again), and we were left alone in the desert whilst our group atop a caravan of camels made their way across the dunes.

IMG_0178From this point onwards, our experience wildly differed from the rest of our camel riding companions. Whilst everyone had a personal tour guide (the camel trainer), we had nobody. The guides were cracking wise, and making jokes, and playing with the people riding the camels but left us well alone. Once we’d reached the dunes and started the hike up them, the people dismounted and were led up and at the top, the guides took photos for people, and gave them rugs to sit on. I knew at this point that this generosity was not out of kindness, or a free perk inclusive of our tour costs but a service, one I’m sure you’ll be expected to reward the guides for once we made it back to camp.

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The only person who came to our side was a guide who, after insisting on taking a photo, sat us down and tried to sell us trinkets and souvenirs. But we stood our ground and refused. We did not hike all this way by ourselves to suddenly be sold something at the last minute by this hopeless wanderer.

Other than this brief encounter, we had a very peaceful time atop the sand dunes, watching the sunset of the vast horizon. It was as if the dune was our own; we had nobody around us to spoil our experience and could gaze into the desert uninterrupted.

After the sun had fell below the distant dunes, we made the long trek back to our desert camp, once again without the aid from the guides. Just before making it to the site, we notice all the camels halting in their tracks and the people being forced off their backs. The guides then unrolled carpets onto the sandy floor and laid down the various trinkets we had been offered just a short while ago. This is where the guides make their money.

I’m sure no one would have been forced to buy anything, but refusing after all that would have been an uncomfortable situation. We later found out from our newly befriended Spanish buddy Fede that the guides don’t make any money from the tour or camel service, and rely on tips and purchases from the tourists. Make of that what you will, but I’m glad we didn’t take the ‘complimentary’ camel ride for more reasons other than just an ethical one.

As we were the first ones back at the campsite after the sun had set, we scrambled around in the darkness looking for our tour bus to collect our bags. We blindly wandered in the now pitch-black desert, guided only by the stars, as we fell down dunes and stumbled amongst the sand for nearly 20 minutes. It wasn’t until we confronted multiple guides and rounded up our tour group ourselves that we were directed to a small pile of bags thrown into the dirt. We all felt around for our bags, using our phones as torches, only to discover that nearly everyone in our group was missing something: in our case, it was our second backpack, the one containing our water bottles, snacks, and toiletries bag.

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This lack of organisation was, in our opinion, the last straw in regards to our poor service, and we complained to everyone who would listen. A Bedouin guide thankfully passed along the contact details for our driver allowing us to, through the linguistic assistance of a Moroccan girl on our tour, ask where the hell he had gone! Our driver explained he had driven to a nearby restaurant for dinner, to which we told him ALL of our bags, clothes and snacks needed for the cold, Saharan nights were still on the bus. We asked when he was coming back, but suddenly our driver was back in the hotel we had stayed at the previous night (some 4 hours away). At this point, we threw caution to the wind: Jemma was asking our translator to explain (in graphic detail) how all of her *ahem* feminine products were in our bag. After an uncomfortable silence from our translator, followed by some reluctant explaining, she hangs up the phone. She tells us that she told our driver we had medication (and not tampons) onboard the bus, but the driver was too far away to return.

Thankfully in this instance, Jemma was telling a few fibs to get the man to return with our gear and she was not actually “on the rag”, as my dad would say. Also thankfully, we did not have any medicine in our bags that we desperately needed. God help a diabetic who needed their insulin, or an asthmatic who needed their inhaler, because our driver didn’t seem like he’d be returning for love nor money.

So we returned to our campsite, tired, hungry and cold, and were shown to our accommodation. Now, I had seen photos online of some glamorous Bedouin tents, a true glamping experience, but I somehow doubted we would be staying at anything that would make us look cool on Instagram (not that that at all matters.) I didn’t really know what to make of our camp site. It was… fine, I guess. More or less what I expected at this point in the trip. My initial thought was that it was something you’d might see at Fyre Festival.

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Perhaps I’m being a bit too judgemental; sure it was far from The Ritz, but at least we had beds (even if they were on the sand). Our particular room was divided into two sections by a thin curtain: us on one side, and the well-meaning but hilariously dorky Fede on the other. There was an ancient carpet on a portion of the sand, so at least some of your belongings were kept safe. Our bed was a creaky, spring frame with a hard mattress on top that squeaked and groaned at every slight movement: no hanky-panky going on during this trip, let me tell you.

Without showering facilities or a clean change of clothes, we freshened up with some hand sanitiser and baby wipes, popped on a coat that we had thankfully stored in my day bag and not my backpack still on the bus, and got ready for dinner. After which, we made our way to the mess hall, a large circus tent in the center of the campsite, and join our group at a large table.

Dinner was served: pizza, my favourite. Kidding, of course. It was tajine. Thankfully though, I had snuck 7 mandarins from lunch, and proceeded to feast on them with a side of watery rice. Aside from the food, however, I think we had a good time. Our hosts were charming enough, and quite funny, and we exchanged a lot of small talk with our fellow tour guests. The tour had not gone at all like I’d envisioned, but this was what we had been waiting for: a night in the Saharan Desert.

After dinner, we were all ushered outside to a campfire, where we sat on the sand and listened to our hosts play guitar and maracas. I asked if they knew Wonderwall. They did not. Funny really, I figured in the desert they’d know a bit about Oasis. Despite that dry joke, the spirits were high… in fact, we could even say it was Mo’Rockin’ (*bah dum tsk*)! Some of the more rambunctious Spanish crew got up and started dancing, picking up bongos and joining in on the music, singing off key. Their mood was infectious, and I even found myself thinking “money well spent”. As the night went on, I left the circle in search of a toilet to relieve myself.

Now, there were two toilets on opposite ends of the camp; one with two cubicles, male and female, with rudimentary wooden doors and a broken sink, the other with six cubicles, school camp style, with curtains for doors. God forbid you ever needed to poop (feel free to read my article on ‘Poop Anxiety’ for ways to deal with situations like this). To make matters worse, only the female toilet would flush, so the male bog was already at ‘near overflow’ status by the time we arrived. Never mind, I thought to myself, we’re in the desert, I can pee anywhere.

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So there I was, standing under the Saharan sky, staring at a million stars unmasked by the usual busy city lights, as Moroccan music is played in the distance. It was truly a sight to behold: I stood out there long after my stream had stopped, reluctant to re-join the festivities. In all of my wandering, I hadn’t ever really seen anything like it. Still though, I had to get back, and so I examined my zipper, and made the trek back to the camp, making sure to slip and fall down the dunes in the process, narrowly avoiding the piss-stained sand.

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My failed attempt at capturing the infinite stars on camera.

By now, it had gotten late, and after reconvening with Jemma, we turned in for the night. We sat on our creaky beds, whilst the rest of the group were still outside, and continued our Midsommer viewing. As the noises outside dispersed, and after we were briefly joined by our extremely overexcited roommate Fede, who bounced up and down on our rickety bed insisting we all take late night selfies, we suddenly were overcome with a pungent odor. Like myself, it turns out the other guys would find a simple solution to the blocked toilet conundrum and would take to the dunes to relieve themselves. Sadly, what you couldn’t anticipate in the pitch black darkness of the campsite was that pee on the side of a downward slope tends to… well, drip DOWN the slope. By 10pm, the entire campsite smelt like piss, and a river of urine trailed directly behind our tent. At least I had the decency to do it a few dunes away.


Day 3

We awoke the next morning bright and early… or, dark and early, as it were. Wanting to snap the sand dunes with the backlight of sunrise, and desperate to escape the ever lingering smell of piss, we made sure we were the first ones out of tents. With Fede at our side, and a few of the other Spaniards trailing along behind us, we took to the dunes to find some tranquility in the otherwise chaotic weekend. Truth be told, this was my favourite part of the tour, and it was a moment we made ourselves.

We walked until our camp was a distant speck and until the dunes ahead were free of footprints. We got some wonderful photos, and then sat on the sand sharing stories from home. With all of his warm clothes back on the bus, Fede had been donated a set of Bedouin robes that he wore with pride. It was a wonderfully sight, seeing our dorky new friend don an entirely authentic set of Moroccan attire, but also made for some interesting shots.

We checked our watches and judged that it was getting late (or early, however you want to phrase it), and so after about an hour of walking, shooting, and reminiscing, we made our way back towards our lodging. We were absolutely sure out driver will be late once again, but didn’t want to take a risk just in case for once he isn’t. SPOILER ALERT: he was.

Back at the camp we sat with our group until, once again, we were the last group left waiting. Breakfast was scarce (but thankfully not tajine), so I filled up on two leftover mandarins from the night before. Once our bus finally arrived, we were surprised to see that the bus had new additions, guests that were sitting in our seats (with all of our backpacks and snacks tucked under the chairs). Jemma and I made sure we were the first on the bus to ensure we got a seat together, and then awkwardly leant over and retrieved our belongings.

The journey back was going to be a long one: with all the sights being seen on our outgoing drive, we were now going to be making the 506km, 9 hour return journey in one day. Truth be told, it wasn’t too bad. We slept a lot, played a few rounds of Carpool Karaoke with every passenger plugging their phone into the aux, listened to a lot of podcasts, and smashed my head on the roof too many times to count. Nearly half the bus got travel sickness from the inconsistent rocking, bumping and swaying that our vehicle endured, so Jemma took on the role of Florence Nightingale and distributed TravelCalm to everyone who needed it, depleting her stock for the rest of the trip.

You see, for our faster than light travel back to Marrakech, our driver now took on the role of the bus driver from Speed: anything less than 60mph, to him, meant certain death. We nearly took out a cyclist on more than one occasion (one time swerving completely into another lane at the last second). Slowing down for speed bumps was for little bitches apparently, because we didn’t slow for any. Jemma joked that the tour advertised that we bring warm clothes and a face scarf, but should also have listed needing a sports bra to stop your boobs from hurting.

But maybe our driver wouldn’t have to defy the laws of nature if he didn’t arrive one and a half hours late to every pickup. The guy was consistently rude, arrogant, late, and to be honest, not a very good driver for someone who gets paid to drive. But at least he didn’t ask for a tip at the end of the trip… or maybe he did, but we were the first ones to leave the bus and hightail it out of there.


In Summary

I’m sure I come across overly critical in this post; I’m complaining about things that probably aren’t that big of a deal, or experiences that are standard when backpacking, but I feel like I need to be. I wish I’d read more blogs outlining the cons of a trek like this, but the problem is, travellers tend to embellish their lifestyle a little too much; every tour is the ‘best experience they’ve ever had’, every city is ‘the most beautiful they’ve ever seen’. Sometimes, though, things aren’t that great. I read one blog explaining that Yerevan in Armenian is the coolest city she’s ever been to. Ummmm, yeah, maybe if Bundaberg or Detroit is the only city you’ve ever seen before, otherwise, chill out a little bit.

Not everything is going to be as amazing or wonderful as you think it will be, and it’s better to tell people that than to give them wild expectations, like how we felt. Maybe if we had gone in with realistic expectations, we wouldn’t have minded as much when things were gritty or fell apart, but hearing how wonderful a tour is in spite of its faults left us disappointing.

People might wave away the flaws of this kind of tour by saying ‘Yeah, but it was such an authentic experience’ or ‘this is what backpacking’s all about’ or ‘it’s not glamorous, but that’s how the locals do it!’ Let me tell you, the locals are not spending 100MAD on lunch. In fact, I think that we were the most authentic people on the tour; we were the only people who chose to walk instead of ride a camel and I did not see a single local ride a camel during the entire trip.

All in all, the tour felt cheap (but wasn’t), tacky, unorganised but worst still, it felt lazy. The tour was the absolute bare minimum… it’s like ordering a salad at a restaurant and being delivered a plate of raw and unwashed vegetables. Yes, technically it is what was ordered, but absolutely no care or effort has been put it to ensure that it will be enjoyable.

It left a sour taste in our mouths and negatively impacted my opinion of Morocco, which was actually pretty high before the tour. If visiting the Sahara Desert is high on your bucket list, do EXTENSIVE research, including reading every negative review to make sure you can handle it, and don’t skimp out. If it’s something you’re on the fence about, perhaps give it a miss unless you’re willing to spend about $200.

It was kind of fun knowing that we were in the Sahara Desert, but really, we could have been anywhere. There’s nothing particularly unique about the sand dunes we visited, and once we were at the camp, we might as well have been in Alice Springs. It was wonderful to stargaze at a sky unsullied by light pollution, but there are other places you can do that, places that don’t take three days to reach.

So to answer my own question, “Backpacking in the Sahara Desert: Is It Worth It?”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but you couldn’t pay me to eat any more of that goddamn tajine.

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One thought on “Backpacking in the Sahara Desert: Is It Worth It?

  1. deniseouttridge says:

    Another funny and well told adventure. We can now sit down and discuss stewed vegetables and soggy rice versus bread and jam!!! 😉 May this also be a reminder to people not to camp at the bottom of a sand dune😛 You will both remember these crazy trips forever and in another 30 years you will be laughing your heads off when you will reminisce

    Like

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