As early as the third century, Morocco became the starting point for the caravans of desert tribes such as the Sanhaga, Zagoua, Toubou, and Tuareg. These proud, sometimes warlike masters of the Sahara used their knowledge of the land and ownership of camels to become valuable middle-men between the opulent courts of Marrakech, Fes, Europe, and the mysterious realms of sub-Saharan Africa. Their heavy-laden camels conveyed cloth, salt, metals, and wood, pearls and writing paper from the Mediterranean and the Maghreb to Mali. In fabled Timbuktu, these precious commodities were haggled, sold, and traded for gold, exotic spices, slaves, ivory, and ostrich feathers.
Few images conjur up the romanticism of Morocco more than a camel caravan in the desert.
These long winding trains of camels, men, and treasures continued to cross the burning ocean of sands until the last caravan route was finally closed down in 1933. Still, the legacy of the trans-Saharan caravan lives on in the imagination of visitors to Morocco today.
While genuine caravans have been reduced to near non-existence in the modern era, the traditional dependence upon camels, poetically referred to as ‘Ships of the Desert,’ has not diminished. These hardy beasts of burden are still commonly found throughout the lands south of the Atlas Mountains. Berber families from Agadir to Merzouga rely upon camels for everyday tasks — much as families in the United States rely everyday upon automobiles. A commonplace occurrence is farmers, merchants, and families arriving with a small train of camels and donkeys to the weekly markets of Zagora, Rissani, and Erfoud.
Families from Agadir to Merzouga rely upon camels for everyday tasks — much as families in the United States rely everyday upon automobiles.
A sense of adventure and romance draws many visitors to discover the legacy of Morocco’s by-gone era of the caravan. And for some, a trip to Morocco is not complete unless they have ridden a camel and camped beneath the spectacular star-filled night skies of the Sahara. Fortunately, it is possible to arrange camel treks with local guides from Figuig to Merzouga to Zagora. These trips can be short, overnight adventures to nearby oases or extended treks following the nearly forgotten desert highways that connect the villages along the sandy perimeter of the Sahara.
The Sahara is the world’s largest hot desert and covers 5,596,430 square miles, which is almost an area as large as the United States. Morocco sits at the northern most edge of the desert, and has only one genuine Saharan sand dune within its borders, called Erg Chebbi. This landscape of shifting sands is awe inspiring, and requires preparation to be safely explored. With the knowledge of expert local guides, visitors are sure to discover not just the majesty of the Sahara, but a philosophy or perspective of life that may be entirely new to them.
Bedouin tents can be used as semi-permanent dwellings, and usually have several sections for different uses.
Regardless of how long a trek is undertaken, there are some basic rules for desert travel that should be considered. The first rule of the desert is to never forget your sense of humor. The experience of riding a camel for the first time can be exhilarating and sometimes awkward. It’s important to laugh at yourself as you adjust to the unfamiliar gait of your camel! Eventually, you’ll discover that your camel has a personality and is your companion, not just a means of transportation. Camels sometimes get a bad reputation, but if you treat them well, camels will respond well to you.
Camels sometimes get a bad reputation, but if you treat them well, camels will respond well to you.
The most important conditioning for desert travel is not physical, as it is not necessarily demanding in that manner. Most people who are in normal physical condition should be able to walk or ride a camel at a steady pace with no difficulty. Because the desert is truly an adventure far from civilization and modern conveniences, it is important for you to be prepared to give up some of your daily comforts like being able to shower. There is no electricity and definitely no air conditioning! You’ll be sleeping under the stars or in a tent and dining around a campfire. When you consider the wealth of experiences and new emotions that the desert reveals to you, these seem to be relatively trivial concessions.
Two lonely figures make their way through the desert sands.
It stands to reason that one of the most evocative images that Morocco may bring to mind is the caravans of turbaned nomads disappearing into the horizon over the golden hued dunes of the desert. It’s imagery that has been inspired by the past, for Morocco has forever been a crossroads.