Sahara: Shifting Sands

Sahara: Shifting Sands

11 countries across three-and-a-half million square
miles and covering the majority of northern Africa, the Sahara is
the largest hot desert in the world and home to an estimated two
million nomadic Berber and Arabic folk.

We wanted to avoid the tourist masses so rented a car in

and followed the snaking roads through Morocco’s
Atlas Mountains. From Marrakech it’s two full days of driving until
you reach Ouarzazate, often called “the door of the desert” because
it marks the beginning of this baron landscape. The otherworldly
isolation of the Sahara has made it the setting of many Hollywood
films, including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. After two more
days of scenic driving southeast we reached Merzouga, about 50km
from the Algerian border.

Instead of succumbing to the first local who tried to take us to
take us in, we shopped around for a guide and accommodation, which
can be anything from a sleeping bag under the stars to a five-star
hotel complete with a
swimming pool
in the sand dunes.

The next few days were spent in a sort of in-between limbo
stage, riding camels through the contoured maze of the dunes until
we finally reached the endless flats of the Sahara. After a few
hours we began to notice odd shapes emerging from a distance. On
closer inspection they melted from ambiguous mirages into homes,
which are built out of the earth and rocks so they blend seamlessly
into the environment. These houses belong to desert nomads who
choose to live a life of solitude, their dwellings no closer than
one kilometre to one another and in clusters of up to five.

You can’t book a stay at one of these huts and there’s no
guarantee that you’ll be taken in. But we were lucky and for a
small tip were given warm blankets and a delicious home-cooked
tagine. We settled in to our camel-hair tent as night fell and
revealed one of the best skies in the world. A crowded haze of
crowded stars descended upon us, creating the panoramic band of the
Milky Way and glittering on the 360-degree horizon as far as the
eye could see.

The following morning we were awoken by the sun rising over the
flats. After fetching water from a nearby well, we were back on the
move to our next camp. The longer we spent in the Sahara the more
we became aware of the disregard for its beauty and importance.
There’s a distinct lack of protection and law regarding the desert;
it’s not a registered national park and is overlooked due to the
scarceness of both human and animal life. This leads to locals and
travellers destroying the landscape with 4x4s, dirt bikes and fly
tipping. It’s difficult to enjoy a sunrise when you can hear the
roar of engines and see the motorway of tyre tracks through the

That’s not to discourage anyone from visiting; it’s a
breath-taking place and unlike any other landscape in the world.
But it is changing and it’s increasingly difficult to find the
desert you see in films or to have a truly “authentic” experience.
Westernisation is making the world smaller and the nomadic
lifestyle as we perceive it is diminishing. Desert nomads send you
Facebook friend requests and, if you look closely, you may even
notice that your host is wearing fresh Nike Air Max 90s…


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Erg Chebbi, Sahara Desert, Morocco