An Appraisal of Auberge Les Roches and its Camel Excursion
I arrived in Morocco with one main plan. To visit the Sahara Desert. This is the largest desert in the world (covering around 3.5million square miles) and is arguably the most famous. The Sahara has held a fascination for me for around 10 years so now was my time to go forth and conquer.
Imagine if you will, Lawrence of Arabia galloping around the desert’s endless dunes with a cool headscarf flying in the wind or Jasmine and Aladdin soaring over what I assume is the Sahara whilst falling madly in love or Aladdin escaping the Cave of Wonders. That is what I wanted from this trip – a Disney-esque experience or some serious action and adventure. Well, there were no good looking men sweeping me off my feet but we definitely got the sense of adventure and open space and a touch of the history that goes along with riding a camel in the desert. And Camels are pretty awesome!
Our guide told us a little about the old trade routes that ran through the Sahara ending in Marrakesh (making that city what it is today). In a town not too far away by car but about a 5 day trip on a camel (Zagora) there used to be a signpost which said “Timbuktu 52 days” because that was one of the popular destinations for trade. The nomadic Berber people used to guide caravans of camels (sometimes 1200 strong) through the Sahara trading salt and other goods for gold and in later years some 9 million slaves are thought to have been transported north along the trans-Saharan caravan route. Not such a pretty picture after all.
So, onto the wheres and hows:
Having compared a few prices and routes for having a Sahara experience from Fes it seemed that the best thing to do was to hire a car and go on a road trip through the Atlas Mountains to the desert.
The average price of an organised tour was about €250 for 3 days and 2 nights leaving Fes and arriving in Marrakesh. This included a short camel ride and a night sleeping in a Berber village plus the transport from Fes to Marrakesh. We did the whole trip – 6 nights, car hire, petrol, and the Sahara trip for approx. €220 per person which even included most of the food we consumed.
We decided to enter the Sahara from Merzouga. This area is close to the border with Algeria and has spectacular views of the mountains as well as some of the largest sand dunes in the whole of the Sahara. Erg Chebbi is one of only two Moroccan ergs (large seas of sand dunes formed by the wind) and the dunes can reach 150m in height in an area spanning 50km North-South and around 10km East-West. It is pretty impressive to see.
Upon arrival in Merzouga we drove around looking for accommodation and also a suitable tour – we did this in January which is not high season but I’d be surprised if you needed to book in advance at any time of year. Watch out for touts stopping your car and trying to push their tours on you for super cheap. There is a reason it’s cheap!
We ended up choosing Les Roches, a lovely hotel and restaurant which also organised desert tours. NB I did not get any kind of deal for writing this review or any freebies (much as I would have liked some!) We haggled to agree a price (as is expected in Morocco) but my opinion here is entirely my own and is not influenced by pressure from the company.
We paid 550 Dirham (€55) per person and our package included:
Dinner the night before we left and a room to keep our belongings in at the hotel as well as use of the showers when we returned
1 day of camel riding starting at 10am – around 4/5hrs on the camels this day
1 lunch in a Berber village named Merdani
A visit to a small settlement named Oisis
A sunset stroll on the dunes
A private Berber tent (bivouac) stay for only our group
A delicious evening meal and music around a campfire
Breakfast after a camel ride back to Merzouga
A lot of tours will include roughly the same things but you need to ask about the kind of experience you will have. How good is the food? Can they cater for vegetarians or other dietary requirements? How long will you get to ride the camels? How many people will you be sharing the Bivouac with? Are there proper beds or just floor mats? Bear in mind that even in the summer the desert can be cold at night – in January it is very very cold at night so we were grateful for the many blankets on our beds and the camp fire.
Our day started by meeting our trusty steeds – 4 beautiful camels all lined up for us. The guide, Mohammed, told us they didn’t have names so we took it upon ourselves to name them. We were a group from 4 different countries so we decided to give our camels names appropriate to our nations – we had Pepe the Spanish camel, Angus the British camel (a nod to my University days in Glasgow), Shahrukh Khan the Pakistani camel and Heinrich the German camel.
Riding a camel is much like riding a really slow, really tall horse. I found it to be pretty comfortable and altogether very enjoyable. Some of the others were not such fans. I loved watching the shadows of our camels on the sand as we wandered along in a line following our leader Mohammed. Incase it is a bit windy bring a scarf you can wrap round your head to stop the sand getting in at the corner of your sunnies!
During the course of the evening you will have some kind of traditional music demonstration. This can be a bit awkward with only a small group of you. If you’ve ever been on some kind of tour and been forced to listen to music after dinner (this happened to me a LOT in South America) you’ll know what I mean. However, this was one of the least awkward experiences I’ve had of this kind! And, if you’re not British you may well love it. Come armed with some good anecdotes about your country and maybe a riddle or two – this made for some entertaining conversations! The best one was “What gets wetter as it dries?” – I’ll leave you thinking on that one for a bit…*
Overall I thought the quality of experience we had with Les Roches was excellent and the price was good. My only point of slight discontent is that, choosing Merzouga as our destination meant that we were often in sight of the mountains bordering Algeria which took away from the feeling of being out in the middle of some vast desert-y wilderness. However, if that is anyone’s fault it is ours for choosing Merzouga. But, realistically I think heading so deep into the Sahara that you can’t see anything but sand is probably incredibly pricey and probably involves a lot more time on a camel which may hurt the legs a little!
Saddle up and head to the Sahara for an experience you won’t be able to forget!
*a towel gets wetter as it dries!
Auberge Les Roches e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org