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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Trek to the Sahara Desert with Kids

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

One of the most unique experiences we had on our trip in Morocco was the desert trek to the Sahara Desert. Normally we don’t do organized tours due to the kids having their own schedules, but we decided to give it a try as the trek out to the Sahara is a long drive (on unfamiliar roads) and it would be a tour where it would just be our family of four and our guide. There are lots of different companies that do this tour, but we went with Sahara Camel Trips as they could get us from Marrakech to Fes, without backtracking and losing time due to travel.

Day 1 - October 2, 2019

Drive Through the Atlas Mountains

Our driver Omar picked us up from our Riad and we started the drive from Marrakech. One thing we liked about this company as well was that they supplied a car seat for us so didn’t have to lug it along in all our travels to Paris and Morocco. We rode in a Mitsubishi Pajero 4x4 and it was a relatively smooth drive until we started the curves up the Atlas Mountains.

We were letting the kids watch some iPad because it was going to be a long day in the vehicle for them, and shortly after the mountain curves started Connor didn’t seem well. We took away his iPad, and eventually he fell asleep for a short nap, which seemed to help because when he woke up later he was in better spirits. Clara stopped with the iPad for a bit too, but then wanted to do some of her colouring pages so we let her because she had never been car sick before....but the curves were intense, and about 3 colouring pages in, she also wasn’t feeling well. We stopped at a viewpoint and she seemed to do better after getting out of the vehicle and getting some fresh air.

The views along the mountain road were quite scenic though. We saw lots of goat or sheep herds with their shepherds; and lots of small villages that blended in with the red rocks behind it. There were even the crazy hay trucks that were loaded up to the max!! I don't even know how they got some of the bales to stay put! The road also followed portions of the riverbed, which at this time of the year were completely dried up. Omar said that in the winter months the river will become full with water again with drainage of rain/snow melt from the mountains. It is pretty amazing they get snow here....and that it is only a month away, as he said it can come as early as November. In the winter he said temperatures can get as low as -3 to -5 C. And in stark contrast he said July or August in the Sahara gets as hot as 50 or 55 C - I can’t imagine!

We reached the summit of Col du Tichka, which was 2,260 meters high and it was super windy at the top! Alex almost lost his hat down the ravine and it felt like the wind was going to rip the door off of the 4x4. However, we knew we were high up, as the temperature at the summit was probably close to 17 C.

Oh No!! Sorry Omar....

At that point, Connor had woken up from his nap and seemed in better spirits and we started our descent down the Atlas Mountains. The kids actually seemed to be doing well and were playing and full of energy. Then like the flick of a switch Connor seemed uncomfortable. He was complaining about the car seat, so I decided to take him out for just a minute for him to readjust and maybe get his bearings by looking straight ahead on the road. However, as soon as I sat him in my lap, he got sick all over himself and me! We pulled over and did a full clean up and clothing change. We felt so bad for Omar and his vehicle, but he said it wasn’t the first or second time, and it won’t be the last either. We put his car seat in the middle hoping his line of sight of the road ahead might help. I think just in general he is prone to car sickness, as the same situation happened last year when we were driving curvy roads in Southern Turkey.

Ksar Ait Ben Haddou

Luckily, not too long after that we arrived at Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, which is an ancient village from at least the 11th Century. This village has actually been used for filming several movies and shows like ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Gladiator’, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ to name a few. We took the hike with a guide up to the top to get a view of the new village and the old village below.

One of the areas he took us to was a house - it just had a central courtyard with some rooms around the outside. Like the rest of the village, it was made of mud bricks - composed of bamboo, straw and mud. He said there were only 6 families (I believe I remembered the number correctly) who still live in this old village, and they use technology like solar panels to get the electricity they need. When we first arrived Connor was pretty out of it from the car sickness, but after he started walking a bit, he was back to his normal self, which was nice - I don’t think I could have carried him all the way up to the top!!

By the time we had finished at Ait Ben Haddou, we were supposed to drive another 30 minutes for lunch, but it was already 2 p.m. We opted just to stay there and have lunch even though the prices were inflated due to it being a tourist hot spot. At that point the kids just needed food. It was definitely a good decision as they were in better spirits as we got back on the road.

Ouarzazate & Rose City

We continued our drive westward and the landscape got drier and more arid. One interesting location was Ouarzazate, where it is home of the Moroccan Film company Atlas Studios. They had a whole hillside of movie sets for their own Moroccan movies, as well as for International films that come to be filmed here. We also journeyed through Rose City, which Omar said that in May or June actually smells really good because it is their annual Rose Festival.

Some of the Ins & Outs of the Moroccan People

It was also great to learn more about the Moroccan people, climate, etc. from our Moroccan guide. For school, they actually start school at age 6 and their day starts at 8:30 a.m. and then ends at 5 p.m. However, they do have a 2 hour break in the middle of the day to go home for lunch and rest. They also go to school 6 days a week - Sunday is their only day off. Their school year runs from September to June. We were also able to get a better understanding of the Berber people, which Omar said are all the people that live in the Atlas Mountains. These are basically the indigenous people to Northern Africa and they now compose about 60% of Morocco's population. The Arabs are the other main group, which have mostly come from Yemen, and Arabic is the second main language of Morocco.

Overnight Stop at Dades Valley

To be honest, it was a loooong day of driving, but I was impressed with how well the kids did considering the length of the time we were in the car. We basically started out around 8:30 a.m. just had a few short breaks on the road, a longer beak - maybe 1.5-2 hours at Ait Ben Haddou - and then arrived at our hotel in the Dades Valley for the night at 6 p.m. The Dades Valley was picturesque with the unique rock formations right outside our hotel window. In these valleys it was also interesting to see all the agricultural products grown along the riverbanks. The riverbanks (although now empty in October) can hydrate the plants throughout the year. To be honest, I would have just assumed that it is desert and arid, so no crops would grow, but they were growing corn, date trees, watermelon, zucchini and all different types of produce!

The kids were full of energy to say the least when we arrived at the hotel, but the room was big and they enjoyed building a pillow fort and watching the construction 'diggers' and trucks right below our balcony. I believe it’s more of a cultural preference here to have later meal times then what we’re used to - as lunch was closer to 2 pm and originally they asked us if we wanted dinner at 8 or 8:30 p.m., which due to the heat I don't blame them for wanting to wait until it is a bit cooler. However, we did ask if they could move dinner up slightly for us as the kids aren’t used to eating so late and we were able to settle on 7:30 p.m. The timing of meals was definitely one of the difficulties with the tour, as our kids get 'hangry' when they can't eat. I guess at least the kids were hungry when it came time for dinner.

Day 2 - October 3, 2019

Continuing on Through the Dadees Valley

We continued our journey toward the desert and it was another day with a lot of driving. We started out the morning by getting some incredible views of the Dadees Valley, which it was interesting to see all the date trees that are in the valleys below.

Todra Gorge

From there we headed to the Todra Gorge. We were able to get out and walk along the gorge bed and the water was low enough in spots that the kids were able to wade in the water, which they loved. We had to air dry our Connor’s pants afterwards because he had a little too much fun in the water! There were also shepherds who would bring their goats and donkeys down to the water bed to get water, which was interesting to watch.

Destination Reached: Sahara Sand Dunes

After a stop for lunch and some more driving, we reached the Sahara Sand Dunes of Merzouga around 5 p.m. It was really an interesting site to see. All of a sudden these sand dunes appear in the middle of the horizon of the arid land and stretch quite far! To reach the sand dunes we had to 4x4 a little way off the main highway and were greeted by our camels that would take us to our desert night camp. Connor was immediately fixated on the sand - it was like a huge sand box! In fact, he even told me that he needed a truck to drive around in the sand. As soon as we got out of the 4x4 he was rolling around in it and was on his stomach moving the sand with his hands.

Camel Ride

The sun was hot when we first started out so we wore our cheches that we had purchased earlier in the day. A cheche is a special head scarf that the Berber people wear to protect them from the sun and sand. We had Omar help us with tying it up. Clara rode with Alex and Connor rode with me. We climbed onto the saddle while the camel was sitting/lying down, and then the guide would get the camel to stand up with us on it. The trickiest part was when the camel stood up or sat down you had to make sure that you were pushing away from the bar because the movement was a bit jagged and awkward.

We started our trek across the sand dunes; it was unique and amazing to say the least! The camels trekked along and our guide let us stop for a break about 10-15 minutes into the ride, which was nice because it wasn’t the most comfortable to stay sitting on the camel for a long period of time. There the kids played in the sand more and pretended they were falling down the cliffs of sand and needing to be rescued. However, we quickly realized we didn’t bring enough water for all of us, so it was a parched ride. :-)

After mounting our camels, we continued onwards. By this point there were many more camels and tourists who had started their treks to the desert camps. We eventually joined up with another group of 4 camels to make our train of 6 camels and stopped for another break where we could watch the sunset. The heat had subsided a bit so the kids had an absolute blast on this stop - they were doing log rolls along the sand dunes and one of the Berber guides even came along and dragged them down the hill, which they then begged for him to do again! Once the sun had set we continued our journey to the camp and dismounted our camels.

Overnight Desert Basecamp

Upon arrival to the camp we were greeted with carpeted runways and candles lined up along them. These tents have become a huge tourist designation and I can see why - if I had to guess there were probably another 10-15 camps just like ours based at the bottom of the sand dunes. We were also greeted with cups of mint tea, cookies and bottles of water; shortly afterwards were shown our tent for the night. However, these aren’t your ordinary tents - they are fully equipped with beds and bedding, as well as running water in the sink and shower and fully functioning toilet.

We knew going in to the night it would be a late night for the kids, but a once in a lifetime experience. Because dinner wasn't until 8 p.m.-ish, the men at the desert camp were nice enough to give us a couple of apples for the kids as they were hungry. Later we had an amazing 3 course meal for dinner with soup, a couple different Tangines and fruit for dessert. Afterwards we gathered around the campfire for some traditional Berber music, which consisted of a variety of drums and metal spoon-like instruments. The kids seemed to enjoy the music but were hesitant to dance when they were approached to do so, which I thought they would have been much more into the dancing. However, they also got the opportunity to try to play the drums, which I think they enjoyed. But at the end of it all, we could tell they were pretty drained, so we took them to bed before all the festivities had ended. However, I think most people had called it a night soon after because they were planning to wake up early for the sunrise the next morning.

Day 3 - October 4, 2019

Desert Sunrise

Due to the late night we let the kids sleep in. I decided to wake up early and watch the sunrise. They had sold it as something spectacular, however, to be honest, it felt a little anti-climatic for me.

After sunrise we had breakfast and got ready to head back to meet Omar, as he went home to his family the night before, as this is where his family is from. These guides definitely work hard. He said he works most days during the busy season, which is September to May, and facilitates different lengths of tours. For this particular 4-day tour, if he did two back-to-back he would just be home the nights that the tour stays in Merzouga.

4x4 Tour Through the Desert

For our journey back from the desert camp we could either choose to ride the camels or take the 4x4. Although the camel ride was great, we thought a second one might be a bit much for the kids, so we took the 4x4 back with some fun riding over the sand dunes.

Omar picked us up and we started our 4x4 journey for the day - a lot of the area we explored was where they had the Paris - Dakar Rally when it was in Morocco about six years ago. Unfortunately, Alex wasn’t feeling well this day, so the bumpy ride wasn’t too enjoyable for him; even though normally it would have been. We went to a couple different lookout points and saw several nomads with their flocks of goats and lots of camels just out grazing.

Omar said almost all the camels we saw were domesticated, but only the male camels that are 4 years old and older do the tourist camel rides, but it was only about 10 years ago camels really started to be used for tourism. Prior to that, they were used to help people trek their goods and occasionally be used for camel milk and cheese. Due to the increase in the number of camels used for tourism he said that the price of camels has basically doubled. It was also cool to see camels of all different colours - including almost black and white ones!

Tea with Nomads

Most of the area that we 4x4’d is where the Berber nomads live. They are true nomads in the sense that they move from place to place as needed. As you drive by you see some tents erected with sometimes a little mud house just in the middle of nowhere. We actually got to stop at a nomadic family’s home and see how they live and they served us some Berber whiskey tea - which was just green tea. This family had a main hut that they occupied and used as their kitchen and food storage area; in fact, their ‘refrigerator’ was just a basket with a towel on top in a little room that had blankets on top of it to make it dark. They also had another little mud brick structure that was used as their oven to bake their bread. There was a larger tent they laid mats down, and this was their sleeping area. They slept in this tent year-round and during the winter time it can get quite cold, so they add more blankets or furs on top. Most of the tent cover was actually weaved camel hair.

Omar said he comes to this same site throughout the year for the tours, but there can be different families at different times. They are definitely multi-generational families, as the women and kids stay at the ‘home’ and a grandfather type figure was actually the one to serve us the tea. They have other family members who are out tending to their grazing livestock. Most of their income is earned through the selling of their goats or camels. It was also interesting to learn that they go to gather their water from a well that is about 1.5 km away. As we drove through you could see random wells and these are where the nomads come to get their water and lead their animals there for water. It was so interesting to see people that still live like this and we continued to see several nomads on our drives between the desert and the cities as well. Most of these nomadic children don’t attend school, but they have a 4x4 vehicle that comes out to these nomadic communities and transports them to town to buy food and other necessities they may need.

We stopped for a great view of the dunes:

We then went to listen to some more traditional music from a tribe who originally migrated to the Merzouga area from Mali, so it had a slightly different vibe from the music we had heard the evening before. However, the kids were definitely more interested in the mother cat and her three kittens they found on the way to the washroom.

Berber Pizza

The next stop was Berber pizza for lunch. The pizza is shaped like a pizza, but instead of the ingredients going on top, they go in the middle like a thin pie. They had everything from meat, carrots, eggs and other veggies on the inside of it.

We had an early ending to the day as we went to the desert hotel after lunch. It was nice to have some downtime, especially since Alex wasn’t feeling well, so he and Connor took a nap. I accidentally fell asleep as well and before we knew it, it was 5:15. There was a pool in the middle of the hotel, so we hurried up to put on our swimming suits because it does get cool as the sun starts to set. Unfortunately, by the time we got out there most of the pool was in the shade and the water was cold. I think partly because if it was directly in the sun the water would then feel refreshing. However, the kids did a couple of jumps and checked out the camel waterfall before we hurried back inside to take a warm shower.

We explored more of the hotel before dinner and found out it backs onto the sand dunes so around sunset we headed out and the kids started to play in the sand. It was interesting to see what games they came up with - before I knew it they had found some sticks and were hitting camel poop circles down the hill! Not really what we had planned to do after a shower. We enjoyed dinner on the terrace and called it a night.

Day 4 - October 5, 2019

Drive to Fes

This was our longest driving day by far. It was about 8 hours from Merzouga to Fes, and we started out the drive around 9 a.m. We stopped at a couple different stops, but it was mostly straight through. We drove on the roads through the Tafilalet palm grove, the biggest in the world. You could see thousands of palm trees line the river bed, and some of these were date trees. We stopped at a hotel for lunch and then went through the Cedar Woods, where all of a sudden there are cedar trees lining the roads, it was so interesting to see the landscapes change so quickly. There are monkeys who live in this forest as well; unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to see them.

Moroccan Switzerland

Our final stop before Fes was Ifrane. This was also a place that you wouldn’t expect to see in Morocco, as the streets were lined with trees that we would see back home in North America - not in the desert. The little town is quite quaint as well and it is known as the ‘Moroccan Switzerland’. About 6 km away there is also a ski area! The houses and shops were even designed like they would be in Black Forest Germany or in Switzerland. The town is also home to one of the king’s holiday homes. We were able to get out a bit and walk through the park and get some ice cream, which was nice.

We arrived in Fes probably around 5:30-6 p.m., which to be honest was a relief, as it had been a long travel day for the kids and they were done with being in the car.

The tour was great and I’m so glad that we got to experience the desert tent, Merzouga and the sand dunes, but it was a lot to ask of two young kids, with essentially 3 long days in the vehicle. It was equally great to have a local as a guide and we learned so much more about Morocco because of him than if we had done the drive on our own. However, if I had to do it again, I think we would have gotten domestic flights out to the farthest point and then either started the tour from there or rented a car to drive to Merzouga and do the desert tent and desert hotel experience and then gotten a return flight back. Also to be honest, we thought we’d have a bit more flexibility with timing, etc. on the trip by having our own guide. However, understandably they had a schedule they also had to adhere to and places they had agreements with to stop at for lunch. Omar was great at stopping for snacks, drinks or bathroom breaks whenever we needed it though, which was greatly appreciated!

A great experience and one that I’d recommend, but just be prepared for lots of driving!


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