A definitive road trip guide to the Sahara
The Sahara desert is the largest dry in the world and stretches across the north of Africa. This beautiful region is enormous -bigger than China and the USA. It conjures up images of isolation, oases, camel trains and arid sand dunes stretching as far as the eye can see. Many assume it’s inaccessible. Yet whilst much of the Sahara Desert is off limits to travellers these days due to the lack of world peace, it’s nowhere more accessible than in Morocco. We’ve spent many weeks travelling in the Sahara Desert over the years. With this definitive road trip guide to the Sahara Desert of Morocco we’ll give you all you need to know to make sure you don’t miss out.
A definitive road trip guide to the Sahara
Morocco’s slice of the Sahara Desert is in the south east, not so far from the Algerian border. The best known desert towns of Merzouga and Zagora offer little to the visitor in general. The main attraction here is the Sahara.
Erg Chebbi is the highest dune in Morocco and at up to 200 metres, it covers an area of about 30 km by 10 km. There’s a tarmac road to the west side of Erg Chebbi, leading to the desert town of Merzouga. The east side is less accessible without a 4×4 but still has a few small hotels. Even though there are few tourists here, there are plenty of fossil sellers and faux guides on their mopeds.
The lesser visited Erg Chigaga is between the towns of M’Hamid and Foum Zguid. Erg Chigaga is only accessible by 4×4 or an arranged tour. It’s not as high as Erg Chebbi but covers a larger area of about 40km by 15km. Because it’s more difficult to access, it’s more untouched by tourism. Even so, there are a few basic campsites offering visitors from Marrakech a genuine desert experience.
How to get there
Whether you have your own vehicle, a hire car or no vehicle at all, it’s easy to get to the desert in Morocco. The road network is great and leads you to the small desert town of Merzouga. Erg Chebbi is just behind Merzouga. Unlike visiting the desert from Zagora, the dunes are on the doorstep. If you’re travelling from Marrakech, you’re in for a fantastic journey. We’d recommend you take at least a couple of days to do the journey because there’s so much to see along the way.
Start preparing: How to get to the Sahara Desert in Morocco
When to visit the Sahara Desert
The best time to visit is from October to April when the temperatures are comfortable. Sand storms start to occur during February and March. Between May and September, the Sahara Desert temperatures will soar up to 50°c. We spent a few days near Merzouga late in May and the heat took us off our feet. We couldn’t move until the sunset and temperature fell to a more reasonable 39°c. I’t doesn’t often rain in the desert. If you’re unlucky to get caught in a rain storm, expect difficult driving conditions with flooding and soft muddy pools.
So where do you stay in the desert?
Accommodation in the Sahara Desert is more common than you may think and most are accessible without driving off road. There’s loads of campsites in Merzouga and whilst facilities are quite basic, they’re clean and most have reasonable wifi. These campsites also double as auberges where you can book a basic room. They’re ideal if you have no camping equipment.
Top tip: make sure you use one of the campsites backing straight onto the sand dunes for the best views.
Wild camping in the desert
If you’re able to drive into the sand and have camping equipment, by far our most favourite way of spending time in the Sahara Desert is to wild camp. Make sure you have plenty of supplies of food and water and camp up where the mood takes you. You’ll see some well used sand tracks in the dunes. Don’t camp too near these tracks to avoid crazy night drivers.
Our advice is to never drive at night unless it’s a life or death situation. It’s dangerous, unnecessary and if you get stuck, it’ll be much more difficult to recover yourself after dark. Camp up early and well before sunset. It’s sod’s law just as you decide to find a camp spot in the dunes, you’ll hit a patch of soft sand and spend the next hour self recovering. By camping early, if you do get stuck, you’ll have enough daylight hours to make recovery a little easier.
There are many modes of transport to get you around the Sahara dunes. If you want to drive into the dunes, a 4×4 is essential. Well unless you’re a Berber – they seem to be able to drive anything into the sand without any difficulty at all! It’s easy to travel to the edge of the dunes, where the sand is firm without a specialised vehicle.
If you have a 4×4 and you’ve never driven in the sand before, try to travel in a group with at least one person competent in desert driving. If you want to learn how to drive in the sand, you could base yourself at one of the many campsites in Merzouga and venture into the small dunes around Erg Chebbi. Let your tyre pressure down, use a low gear (probably 3rd gear in low box) and go for a play. If you do get stuck, there’s help nearby from the locals or other 4×4 drivers. Take care and enjoy.
Are there roads in the desert?
The road network to Merzouga and M’Hamid is good and so there’s no problem driving any vehicle here. The road from Merzouga to Zagora is a major black top road, so you don’t need a 4×4. The campsites in Merzouga are full of 2 wheel drive motorhomes and you’ll have the benefit of the highest dunes in Morocco being in your back garden.
Tracks and off road driving
If you want to be a little more adventurous and have a 4×4, there are plenty of desert tracks in Morocco. We particularly enjoyed the east side of Erg Chebbi, the desert track from Merzouga to Zagora and from Zagora to Foum Zguid, via Erg Chigaga. Some of these tracks take you through sand dunes; others are soft sandy tracks (fesh fesh) or rocky piste. The latter are often corrugated and depending on recent weather conditions, can be quite rough in places.
Many of these tracks can be punishing on your vehicle, especially the tyres. Not to mention your back. Because of this, it’s easy to underestimate the time it takes to do these trails. Allow yourself enough time and at least double your estimate.
It’s a good idea to have a decent navigational system with marked tracks to ensure you don’t stray too far off your chosen route. The tracks are pretty obvious but if there’s been a recent sand storm, they can can disappear from view.
We spent 3 weeks travelling from Merzouga to Foum Zguid on the off road tracks. It’s easily done in 5 – 7 days, without much difficulty. Taking your time though is far more pleasurable!
Fuel stops in the Sahara
In this area, fuel stations are few and far between but the fuel is clean. Merzouga has only one major fuel station and last time we visited, it didn’t take debit or credit cards. Fortunately there’s an ATM in town. There’s plenty of fuel stations and ATMs in Zagora too.
Current diesel prices are a little more expensive than the rest of Morocco at 8 MAD per litre. We’re currently getting 10 MAD to a Euro or 15 MAD to the GBP.
How to get drinking water in the desert
Water in the desert is a precious commodity. You’ll find potable water in the towns of Merzouga and Zagora easily enough. Sometimes it has a slight taste of chlorine or even salt. It’s harmless enough but a little off putting. You can buy bottled water in the towns if you’d prefer.
If you’re taking any of the off-road routes, there will be a few wells and bore holes along your chosen track. These are great for washing although I can’t vouch for the taste. During the night a camel might even wander up for a drink from the well.
I’d suggest you use your on-board filtration system if you want to drink this bored water. Even better, make sure you have plenty of drinking water before you set off. We’ve never had any health problems with the water in Morocco.
Desert trails can be punishing on your vehicle. There’s no shortage of assistance for any of your vehicle maintenance needs in Morocco. Even in the desert towns, you’ll find general mechanics, electrical mechanics and even specialists in overland and expedition vehicles. The Sahara region of Morocco was a key stage of the Paris Dakar rally and some of the rally’s mechanics still live and work around here.
Zagora is the last point for decent vehicle repairs before proceeding further south on a trans-Africa adventure. There are 2 garages well known amongst the overlanding community and they specialise in expedition vehicles.
Garage Iriki and Chez Ali Nasser are the 2 most popular mechanics in Zagora and both are highly recommended.
What things cost in the Sahara Desert of Morocco
Prices vary for certain things in the Sahara region compared to the rest of Morocco. Here are the key differences to help you plan your budget.
Meal for 2 – For 50 MAD you will get a decent 2 course meal with soft drinks. Most restaurants will have a menu but they won’t always tell you what’s available. Half of the fun is waiting to see what you’re served. At one restaurant, we ordered a tomato salad only for the waiter to serve us Berber soup. When we asked why, he told us it was better for our health than what we’d ordered! Legend!
Alcohol – Alcohol is difficult to find in Merzouga but more available in Zagora. You’ll have no problem buying alcohol in the hotels in Zagora but expect to pay high prices. There’s at least one local bar and they’ll sell you beer, wine or whisky. Prices are high, 85 MAD for wine and 300 MAD for some cheap whisky. The barman might offer you black market date wine, sold in used water bottles. We can’t vouch for the quality control of this moonshine but if you’re desperate, you could probably run your engine on it!
Accommodation – 1 night in a small auberge for 2 people will cost about 200 MAD, with breakfast, although we’ve never used one. Campsites will cost in the region of 60 MAD for 2 people including all facilities.
Loaf of Bread – 2- 3 MAD although in a remote village, a woman quoted 20 MAD for a baguette. We declined the offer, but I assume there have been many overlanders before who have taken them up on their outrageously priced loaf.
Also read: Our ultimate travel guide for Morocco
Don’t forget to pack….
Whilst we drive our own vehicle, we appreciate that many people will want to fly into Morocco and hire a car. We’ve never hired a car in Morocco. But we know enough to say you should really book with a reputable firm because you need assurance the car is well maintained and your insurance is valid.
We’re not loyal to one rental firm, and will simply go with the one that offers the best value – and that means using a comparison website. For us, AutoEurope is by far the best, and our first choice, every time. They even do camper van rentals!
Guide book & road maps
If you’re preparing to for one week in Morocco, it’ll be useful if you’re carrying a paper road map. It won’t take up much room in your luggage and we find them useful for planning our routes. It’s much easier to get an idea of distance and what you’ll be passing on the way than your GPS. You can buy your Morocco road maps here, today.
We also suggest bringing a guide book with you. We’ve always used a Lonely Planet one but the Bradt guides are good too. We should update ours because it’s about 10 years old now, dog eared and just a tad out of date! Take a look here and check out what guide books are on offer.
Keeping Cool – When you’re in the desert, you won’t see the locals bearing much skin. This isn’t just because of their religion. The more skin you expose to the sun, the hotter you’ll be. Cover up with loose clothing and a hat to keep you cool.
Keeping Warm – Night time temperatures during the winter months in the desert can plummet. Be sure to have a warm coat. Once your campfire has been burning for a while, keep your bottom warm with a few hot coals under your camp chair.
Footwear – Bring comfortable and sturdy footwear. In March, snakes and scorpions start to come out after winter hibernation, so your flip flops aren’t ideal. Never walk in the sand barefoot!
Air Compressor – If you plan on driving in the sand, you’ll be deflating and inflating your tyres. Make sure you have your air compressor with you to avoid disappointment.
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