Berber Desert Odyssey – Camels and Starlight

In search of just deserts

The word desert is an evocative one and conjures up visions of endless sand dunes, a barren landscape interrupted only by lush but rare oasis and scenes from films with men driven mad with thirst searching for water.

The desert environment is an unfamiliar one for most of us and for this reason alone attracts those looking for adventure and the ‘romance’ of alien  surroundings. The dictionary definition however is not so charismatic:

A barren or desolate area, especially a dry, often sandy region of little rainfall, extreme temperatures, and sparse vegetation, largely devoid of life.”

Camels and tents at a Berber desert bivouac in Morocco  on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Ship of the desert and luxury accommodation

Deserts of course can also be ice landscapes, but we usually think of deserts as hot during the daytime, cold at night and vast expanses of sand as far as the eye can see in all directions. This may not sound particularly inviting but the lure of the desert is often hard to resist.

Atlas Mountains roadtrip

It requires a long, but worthwhile day travelling from Marrakech to reach the Moroccan desert. The Sahara; the largest of the Worlds hot deserts, is usually envisaged when thinking of Morocco. A particularly evocative name, but much of it is actually a rocky plain which stretches almost from the Atlantic in the North East to South of Agadir.

It requires a long drive from Marrakech, several hours in fact, it is not boring or tiresome however. There are plenty of stops for photographs and refreshments along the route. A word of advice; avoid the restaurants the driver recommends, take a walk down the road, there are plenty of excellent cheaper alternatives.

There is much to see along the route with some amazing towns such as Ouarzazate, with its great ‘kasbah’ (Qassabah). This is actually the fortressed citadelle, old quarter or medina of any town or city. The challenge is attempting to find time to really dig deep and have a good explore, excursions often do not allow for this.

Kasbah at Quazzarate on the edge of the Moroccan Sahara  on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Moroccan Kasbah and tangine pots

When Zagora is finally reached, a town on the edge of the expanse of the desert, there is an opportunity to answer the call of nature and buy a Berber headscarf for protection  from the sun. The trader insists this is essential despite the fact the sun is about to drop out of the sky, maybe he means for tomorrow?

Camels and kids

Getting introduced to the camels, our new best friends and transportation into the wilderness of the desolate Moroccan desert; they seemed friendly enough and climbing aboard was fairly trouble-free. The ride out to the overnight bivouac took a little over an hour, passing through small villages with ramshackle buildings and cheeky ragamuffin children. These kids optimistically followed in the wake of our little camel train, asking each rider in turn for some money, sweets or other treats, it is the most uncomfortable part of the journey.

Arriving at our campsite which is merely a series of tents in the middle of the desert, well what more did anybody expect? Just enough time to pick one to sleep in later and then the main tent to wait for our hosts to serve up dinner.

Berber hospitality

The Berbers are the indigenous people from this part of North Africa, speaking several dialects of Berber, as well as Arabic, Darija, and either French or Spanish dependent on any former European influence. Apparently Berber women speak Arabic and as well as their own language, whilst Arabic women only speak their native language.

Traditionally considered nomadic they are originally a farmer nation, inhabiting the mountainous regions within reach of the North African coast.

Berber enjoying some mint tea in the Moroccan Sahara  on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Berber ‘whiskey’ drinking

Being mostly Muslim they do not drink alcohol, so when offered Berber whisky do not be too surprised that it’s a sweet mint tea! It was very refreshing and a pleasant start before serving the main courses, vegetable tangine and chicken couscous.

By the time this modest but very tasty and filling feast was finished, it was already dark outside. Looking forward to a clear sky, this one turned out a little disappointing, deserts are famous for star filled skies, this did not live up to the billing however. There was little light pollution but only a relatively small number of stars came out, obviously not aware they were part of this particular paid excursion!

We spent the evening around the campfire, our Berber hosts sang and played hand drums, encouraging us to get involved as much as possible. Music really is a universal language; none of us understood the words, but played with drums or improvised percussion instruments, such as my tripod, danced and generally had a great time. It seems likely our hosts enjoyed a few jokes at our expense, but was also equally obvious they enjoyed themselves too. This is just as well as they repeat the performance every night for most of the year.

The sleeping arrangements were less than salubrious, basically a couple of dirty blankets on top of a rotting pile of sand bags. For this reason I patted myself on the back for having the foresight to include my silk cocoon and anti-bedbug mattress cover, and actually enjoyed a decent night’s sleep.

A desert sunrise

The showers were located in a special ablutions tent, but it was soon clear these were just for show. There was not even a drip of water, but hey this was the desert after all, what else was seriously expected?

Camel ride in the Morrocan desert  on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

We relayed between groups of kids

After some more mint tea it was time to head back, a shorter camel ride this time, although some still opted to walk instead. Preferring this to what had been a very uncomfortable camel ride for them the previous day.

The return mini-bus trip to Marrakech was somewhat quicker as there were fewer stops.

This was quite frustrating for me, as there were so many great photograph opportunities missed. This of course cannot be helped the driver has instructions and is there for the benefit of all passengers not just one eager photographer that would have happily stopped every few miles.

Passing through the various townships with people going about their everyday tasks, tending their crops in the neighbouring fields on land reclaimed from the desert or a river flood plain. Even in the middle of nowhere often a local would suddenly appear carrying an impossibly heavy load, or children would be walking home from school. There were just too many amazing sights that were begging for attention from my lens, this is a journey requires completing independently.

However my biggest disappointment was that this was my fourth visit to a desert and as yet I have not  seen those sweeping vast expanses of sand dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see. They currently only live in my imagination and from the romanticised images of the silver screen.

Maybe next time there will be a Lawrence of Arabia moment!

Berbers enjoying some percussive music and singing in the Sahara desert of Morocco  on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

A Berber campfire sing song

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Comments 15

    1. Post
      Author
      iain

      Recommend a trip into any desert but does seem extra special on a camel, though quad bikes was great fun too! Now just need try sandboarding on huge snad dunes.

  1. david [email protected]

    Berber hosts ,

    I enjoyed reading your post and have never thought of a trip of this sort, i would like to say however
    this sorts of ventures must be very enlightening. the whole trip from head scarfs to camel riding was
    entertaining and the berber people i should imagine where thoroughly interesting. great post..

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      I am glad you liked it David and thank you for taking the time to comment. The Berbers are indeed an interesting people with a fascinating culture, it was an experience I can thoroughly recommend if you ever get the chance to make a visit. I also love Corsica incidentally as the post from there should be blatantly obvious.

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    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      Hi George I am approving this although it is not really a comment on the post but more of an advertisement for your own site. However had a look and it appears to be a worthwhile project so happy to let it pass this time. Good luck.

  3. Active Planet Travels

    Sleeping on top of rotting sand bags under the star lit sky and playing whatever instrument you can find while dancing around the campfire sounds like an unforgettable experience! Thanks for sharing your story! You don’t here of many article written based on the Berber Desert now a days! 🙂

    1. Post
      Author
  4. Tawny- Captain and Clark

    We once enjoyed a night in the desert of Dubai. Aside from the monstrous horsefly bit I got on my eyelid, the whole experience was incredible. I would love to go on a camel safari as well as spend some time in Berber hospitality.

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      Ouch that does not sound loike fun Tawny I hope you get to spend time enjoying some Berber hospitality and a camel safari too soon

  5. Ryan McCoy

    The deserts here in the US are impressive in their own right…but do not seem to hold the same romance of the Sahara. So far, the closest I have come to experiencing the atmosphere is the novel Dune. Great post and thanks for a window into this world!

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      I think you are right Ryan, the US deserts are extremely beautiful but somehow do not share the same perception of romanticism that the others do, sometimes just the names can evoke strong emotions within us.

  6. Boomergirl

    Interesting post with lots of great observations. Curious- do you see region opening up more to independent travelers? Got the impression it may not be that easy to do. Lack of infrastructure- transportation, etc?

  7. Camel Safari

    I’ve a wish to spend my holiday trip with camel safari, I appreciate your blog. And after getting through your blog my wish become stronger. The snapshot of the camel safari with luxury accommodation is looking cool. Thanks for sharing this excellent information with us.

  8. Nancy Yoga

    Berber is one of the best place to spend holidays. There we can enjoy the camel safari with luxury accommodation. Recently I went there and enjoyed a lot. And I memorized my memories. After getting through your post I decided to visit again on my next vacation. Thanks for sharing such a nice post.

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