Travelling in the Sahara Desert requires a major shift in perspective. The landscape is so vast that it's impossible to judge distance. The colour palette – a thousand shades of greige – makes it hard to discern specific forms, and the intense sunlight reflecting off the sand tricks the eye into seeing things that don't exist. Self-reliance, otherwise an asset to travellers, is a potential liability: one mistake and you could vanish forever. Hire a guide.
I made arrangements with Abdel Benalila, owner of Sahara Services, in the dusty backwater of M'Hamid at Morocco's frontier. My assignment was to explore Erg Chicaga, a series of giant golden sand dunes rising an incredible 300 metres above the desert floor. I had only three days to get there and back, and wanted to make the trip entirely by camel. I'd read that dust generated by 4WDs zooming around the Sahara contributes to the desertification of irrigable lands as far away as Spain by impeding cloud formation in the atmosphere.
Abdel expressed his gratitude for my conscience, and told me stories of families displaced by drought. We took a quick tour around the edge of town to see where once-fertile tracts of land had recently been consumed by drifting sand. Yet he assured me that if one drives slowly and stays on the hard-packed main routes, vehicles generate minimal dust. My guilt only partly assuaged, I consented to travel by 4WD.
We slept at a relatively cushy bivouac, a semi-permanent encampment of walled tents with cots in them, assembled in a circle to block sandstorms. A grand candlelit tent laid with Moroccan carpets served as the dining area. In the middle of the camp stood a giant fire pit. There's no underestimating the comforts of a bed, good dinner, and roaring fire when you're cold and exhausted in the Sahara, but I'd have been just as happy to camp in the middle of nowhere – an option my guide offered, but one which I declined, for it required much extra work by his crew of helpers, one of whom had an obviously excruciating toothache. I gave him a Vicodin. Gifts are important in Morocco, especially to those helping you survive.
The obvious shortcoming of Sahara bivouacs is that they have flush toilets and showers, installed for the convenience of Westerners. Not only is water scarce, but how can one build an effective septic system in sand? Despite its powerfully rugged appearance, the desert is a delicate and fragile ecosystem.
My advice to travellers considering staying at a bivouac: Skip the toilets and showers. Instead bring a small shovel and follow standard wilderness guidelines by digging a hole for waste. Pack out toilet paper in zip-closure plastic bags or burn it in your campfire. This way you can enjoy the luxuries of a bivouac, such as beer and wine at suppertime and a wind-proof dwelling, while leaving minimal trace behind.
I still can't wrap my head around how the local nomadic Berbers survive. Apparently, if you know where to look, water is never more than 10 kilometers away. Damned if I could've found any. Still, these people manage to sustain themselves, relying on passing caravans for trade. Cooking is easier than it may seem, and I was astounded to watch the women make bread in a tiny wood-fired clay oven. While it baked, we smashed dates out of their shells with a big rock.
The simplest moments proved the most rewarding – learning to tie a turban, singing with my guide as we moved a herd of camels, standing atop the mountainous dunes at sunset, and lazing beside a crackling fire by the light of the full moon. But next time, I'm ditching the noisy 4WD. I want to experience, for the entire length of the journey, the greatest luxury the Sahara affords: silence.
John Vlahides travelled to Morocco on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow his adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.
Make your own way there with our Morocco guidebook.