Our camp in the dunes of Erg Chebbi

Our camp in the dunes of Erg Chebbi

We set our course for the south. To get our bearings, we first take the normal road, which is paved as far as Taouz. The access road from Rissani runs alongside the dunes and gradually approaches them. A multitude of signs describing hotels, treks and quad tours decorate the roadside. The dune-side village of Merzouga is a first-rate rip-off. The road leads straight into the town, whereas the main axis should lead to Taouz, and even if you’re careful, you miss the fork in the road.

The desert outside the dunes is not black as shown in the photos. The natural soil is made up of clays, a little sand and small stones blackened by the sun. This is what gives the impression of scorched earth in the low-angle views. The entire western perimeter of the dunes is lined with large hotels.

In Merzouga, you shouldn’t be surprised when “guides” actually jump out in front of your car and stop you; some are even dressed in uniform-like clothing, and you think you’re at a military police stop. But there are no such checkpoints in Merzouga. The whole game is to lure you into a hotel or win you over for a guided tour. But that’s not our aim, we had a tent with us.

We turn back before Taouz as we know we can’t go any further. This village is essentially made up of military installations. The tracks are too bad for us, and military controls also look at the equipment. Merzouga is impossible, but between this tourist nest and Taouz lie the smallest dunes of Erg Chebbi. Of course, they’re not virgin either. In 2007, we don’t have Open Street Map or Google Maps on our laptops, so when we look at this area in 2023, we see that a tourist camp lies behind every dune. Where there are no hotels, there are plenty of “Berber camps”, or just rocks.

In the photo below, we’re looking north. To the south, the Merzouga dunes turn into black mountains, their crests dusted with sand. From a distance, they look like dunes, because they have the same shape.

Our initial idea was to go around the Erg Chebbi dunes to the east, but the tracks were too sandy for a touring car. So we move forward at the height of the dunes and take the first road on the right. This road also leads to a Berber tourist camp, but it’s a long way from the road and the track is difficult. We ride quite well, but the hard suspension makes you feel every little stone. We keep going until we come to a stop at a pile of sand.

We reach it at around 12.30pm, so it’s midday and sweltering hot, but that’s what we’re looking for. We’re finally south of Erg Chebbi, near a second field in the dunes. Shortly after settling in, the camp owner pays us a visit to convince us to join the other tourists at his camp (including folk music and all that), but we refuse.

It’s possible to drive a normal rental car over this terrain, provided you avoid the larger stones. The ground is hard clay, covered with these few stones and between them there is a little sand.

The sand is fine and it’s hot, very hot at midday. We’d set up the tent to provide shade, but the fabric is too thin and the heat seeps through. Only the shade on the other side of the car offers a tolerable drop in temperature. We spend the first few hours of the early afternoon here.

Down below, we can see our tire tracks. The piles of stones beyond are those of an old camp.

Pomegranates are an ingenious thirst-quenching fruit for the south. They stay fresh for several days, contain lots of water, are sweet and are eaten slowly, which is much better for balancing the need for water. Of course, the fingers stick at the end and the red color stains, but it disappears as it dries in the sun. There are also pomegranates with white berries.

The area of dunes we’re in is about one tenth the size of Erg Chebbi, so it’s very small. But at the foot of the dunes, you’d think you were in a sea of sand.

The trees can be found either in the stony desert or among the dunes south of Merzouga, but always on clay soil. In the background are the rounded shapes of the rocks, stripped of sand and vegetation.

Here, erosion is at its most severe.

Near the dunes, there are a multitude of hotels and so-called Berber camps to welcome tourists. This is one of the most southerly, if not the last on this route.

The light, regular ribs on the dune flanks cross at the crest to form undulating structures.

We pitched our tent in front of this long but small dune.

The setting sun of an autumn evening illuminates this undulating dune crest.

This is the imprint of a simple blowfly on a dune. They really are everywhere.

The dunes here are not very high, but undulate over the rocky terrain.

The sun sets for good and the lights become dull.

The sky doesn’t turn very red for lack of humidity, but it’s still a beautiful sight.

We enjoy a wonderful sunset on our dune, with the moon lighting up the landscape quite well and thousands of stars and the Milky Way in our sights. Looking up at the sky for so long, we are also treated to our very own shooting star. Finally, we climb into our tent. It’s a bit chilly. Then a sandy wind picks up and lasts through the night and into the morning. The wind shakes the tent, blowing tons of sand in through the vents. It was a night without much sleep.

The next morning, we see the same spectacle in the opposite direction: sunrise over the dunes south of Merzouga. It’s not until sunrise that the wind dies down. It had been blowing all night and into the morning. Alex gets up to admire the phenomenon, but André goes back to bed, taking advantage of the short lull to sleep.

The sky is pink-grey. After getting up, it quickly becomes hot.

We have breakfast in the car, as it’s far too windy. We do go out afterwards to take some photos, but we don’t venture out for long, for fear of getting the camera and lenses sanded up. A few years later, the Canon EOS 350D finally gave up the ghost, and André dismantled the camera out of curiosity. What he finds is mainly Moroccan sand.

Sand has another unfortunate consequence: we have a lightweight tent with us (1.7 kilos for 2 people). The outer layer is impregnated with silicone. This attracts the sand and it sticks very strongly. Shaking doesn’t help, and the sand only comes off with lots of water and rubbing, while washing the towels after each use. We did this at home, removing almost two kilos of sand from a piece of cloth barely four square meters in size!

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