Camel riding is the activity most closely associated with Morocco, so I booked a desert tour specifically to do just that. The camel ride was just a small portion of the tour, lasting for only 1.5 hours each way from Merzouga. In between, we spent the night at a camp in the Sahara Desert.
Just as the desert tours are most likely all operated by one company, I get the feeling that there are only a few places that conduct camel rides. Our driver dropped us off at a hotel at the edge of the desert where dozens of other tourists had already gathered. Some were on 2-person private tours, and some were on huge 16-person group tours like the one I was on. It didn’t matter, we were all funneled here for the camel rides into the Sahara Desert.
After checking us in, the staff at the hotel informed us that we were leaving as a group at 6pm, when the Sahara had cooled down and in time to see the sunset en route. We could bring a little bag for water, our cameras, and whatever we needed overnight, but otherwise we should leave everything else on the vans.
At 6pm, we all gathered outside the hotel where the camels were waiting. They were already tied together in strings of 5-7, patiently sitting in a row. The staff split us up into groups somewhat arbitrarily, and each string of camels got its own driver/guide that led the camel up front.
While we waited, they showed us how to tie our scarves into head scarves, which they insisted was necessary for sun and sand protection in the desert. Given that it was a pretty calm day and the sun was already on its way down, I think they brought us more joy as a touristy gimmick than real functional benefit.
And we were off! When the camel gets up and sits down, it does so one side at a time, so you really have to hold on to avoid being thrown off backwards or head first. It’s similar to horsebackriding, lurching with each step. The rocking is especially bad when the camel goes down a sand dune and sinks deeper into the sand.
The camels are extraordinarily well trained; when the rope comes undone (as it did twice for my camels) and there is nothing pulling it forward, it simply stops and awaits further orders.
It’s also worth noting that the camels move extremely slow. Slow enough that I could easily outpace them at my normal walking speed, even moving through sand. So I understand their usefulness if you are traveling with heavy loads, but solely as a means of short-term transport, they’re not the best option.
Our guide was a nice person with a fondness for practical jokes. He helped us take pictures while we were on the camels, but he would pocket our phones with a note of thanks and not give them back until a while later. Our guide struggling with his turban:
As we rode on, the shadows got longer and longer and the dunes glowed ever more orange.
Just before sunset at 7:30, we stopped to climb one of the taller sand dunes to see the sun drop below the horizon. The sand is ultra fine, making it a little difficult to climb but very fun to slide down!
Along the way, we saw some scattered camps tucked between the dunes. Little black boxes clustered together in larger rectangles. According to the guide, these belonged to nomadic Berber families that lived and worked in the desert, including at the camp that we were headed to. We arrived at this main camp after another half an hour or so, just before it got dark.
Camping in the Sahara
The camp consisted of many tents around a central square/camp fire, with only two toilets for the 60 odd people. The tents had beds and sheets in varied conditions and could accommodate up to 6 people, but we were also free to sleep outside. Even when night fell the temperature didn’t drop too low, so you could sleep inside without sheets and outside with a thin blanket.
At night, we had a surprisingly nice meal (considering that we were out in the desert) of soup, bread, chicken tagine with vegetables, and cut up fruits. Then, the guides all gathered to play Moroccan drums for us.
Most people retired to bed by 10:30-11:00, since we had to get up bright and early at 3:30 to ride back during sunrise. It was painful to get up, but the starry sky was breathtaking without any light pollution! (And also, unfortunately, impossible to capture on camera).
Just as we stopped for sunset, we also stopped briefly to appreciate the sunrise.
By 6am, we were back at the hotel where we started, and where they had breakfast waiting for us.
This is where we said goodbye to the camels. They’re a little scruffy looking with patches of missing hair, so I’m not sure how well they’re taken care of. It struck me that people are often up in arms about elephant riding and how inhumane it is, but doesn’t the same thing apply to camel riding? The camel has traditionally been a beast of burden, but it also doesn’t feel quite right to exploit it for touristic purposes.
In any case, I did enjoy this ride, but I think it’s a one-time thing – unless I’m somehow part of an actual caravan next time!