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I may have mentioned elsewhere on the website that trekking in the desert is like no other trekking experience. On my first ever desert trek 13 years ago, I had the privilege to experience four seasons in four days in the Sahara, mid-May. Let’s say it was my first taste of a true desert storm while camel trekking, and there’ve been plenty more since.

Camel trekking in the desert

I made a 5 day desert trek earlier this year*, winter-time, starting and finishing in M’hamid El Ghezlane. This time I saw the forces of nature and man in new ways. The desert appeals to us because we think of it as a fiercely hot, uninhabitable wilderness, with scorched earth and dunes. This is only partly true.

Life can inhabit the desert, and not just human life. The desert can be very green in parts, we trekked through groves of tamarisk trees, past acacias and a palmeraie; criss-crossing animal tracks are left in the sand and we discover these particularly in the early morning; birds are drawn to the camp each night looking for food; herds of camels and mules are put out to graze and watched over by semi-nomadic farmers; and we come across the abandoned village settlement of Erg Smar, on the banks of the now dry Draa River.

The Draa has dried up since a man-made dam was constructed closer to its source approx. 30 years ago. Hence, people were then forced to leave their village – you still see the outline of fields and gardens to this day, marked out beneath the palm and tamarisk trees. It undoubtedly must have been a true oasis in the desert and there is a sense of loss here.

The Draa River bed is so vast, the lack of water stops you in your tracks. We have followed the course of the Draa since the start of the trek (and even since the road south of Ouarzazate, some 300km behind us) and now we cross it, a bed of sand. There is water at the Draa but deep underground and accessed by a well. We stop with one of our camels to replenish our supply at the well. Also, a perfect opportunity for a wild shower! (*this well has since been destroyed by rare flash flooding in the Draa in 2014).

Winter time in the desert shows the extreme in temperature and unpredictable conditions. The Moroccan sun is exceptionally hot but nights are very cold. The cold catches us unaware during the penultimate day – the wind starts howling from 2am and it doesn’t stop until 6pm. I am inside my tent with blankets and equipment as it starts to become airborne at 3am (a lesson learned in the proper direction to pitch a tent, or not in this case)!

Walking against the wind, an easterly, is tough going and thankfully we only have 4.5hrs to walk today. It is such a cold wind that I find wearing my alpine down jacket and thermal layers during the day a great help (I’m dressed for the snow, not the sand)! The cold wind allows us to really appreciate the warmth of the dining tent and our 3 course lunch over a game of cards.

The campfire is built up earlier than usual in the evening and we huddle around it to make bread in the sand beneath the hot coals (we always make extra bread for our camels too). Everyone eats well tonight as the best dish is saved until the last night by our chef – beef tagine with prunes and eggs. Who says you can’t dine well when camel trekking across several days?

My final, enduring memory of the trek is the full moon – yes, we lost out on the usual star-gazing, due to the incredible light in the sky this week! But watching the sun set from the top of the dunes, Erg Zahar, with the full moon already in the sky, was a special sight and the colours above us were breathtaking.

I always enjoy my trips through the desert, and my only regret on these trips is having to trek back out and back to civilisation…

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*Note: post first published in 2012, with some revisions added in 2024. Due to ongoing drought conditions in 2023-2024 the desert has not been carpeted in green shoots in January/February 2024.