Sunset, Stargazing & Sunrise in the Sahara

The mighty Sahara desert. It conjures up images of Bedouins leading a caravan of camels, walking many a mile amongst silky smooth dunes. Of weary travelers jumping for joy when they see an oasis in the distance. Of Tintin comics, where the characters jump into a pond in the oasis only to discover it is a mirage. Being surrounded by a sea of sand as far as your eyes can see. A place where time stands still. I’ve always been fascinated by places where you can such little has changed in hundreds of years. It has always been a childhood dream of mine to live a couple of days as a Bedouin and a trip to the Sahara would be the best chance of fulfilling that!

Sun casts a golden spell on the dunes of the Sahara

Our caravan of 5 camels and our friendly Berber guide leading the way

As an ardent geography buff, I also remember the Sahara from textbooks as the largest desert in the world, comparable to the landmass of the USA or China. Slight correction needed to that statement though, actually it’s the largest hot desert in the world, the polar deserts of the Antarctic and Arctic are actually the largest deserts by landmass. OK. Enough geography facts. Dialing back the clock to late 2014, I got the idea of visiting Morocco from one of my friends who is quite the traveler himself and maintains an excellent blog here. I didn’t know much about the rest of Morocco at that time, apart from the fact that it marked the western border of the Sahara. So one of my main motivations to go to Morocco was to visit the Sahara and get an experience of Bedouin life (It is actually the Berber tribes in Morocco though). Only after that trip did I realize that Morocco had so much more to offer, you can read about one of the many gems of Morocco I had the fortune of visiting here.

Camel footprints on the fine sand

Erg Chebbi in Morocco is where you can experience the Sahara firsthand. Ergs are broad flat areas covered with wind swept dunes. Chebbi is the largest Erg in Morocco measuring roughly 50 km in length and varies between 5-10 km in width. It is located near the town of Merzouga which is the base for all desert based activities. To get the full desert experience I would recommend catching a sunset (or two), camping in the desert for 1-2 nights and stargazing, and getting up nice and early for sunrise. Try to plan your trip as close to the new moon as possible (and pray for clear skies) if you want the full stargazing experience. I unfortunately landed up close to the half moon, but if you factor in the almost zero light pollution and wait for the moon-set you can get your fair fill of stargazing. My plan was to take a taxi/tour from Fes to Merzouga, aiming to reach Merzouga by 3-4 pm in the afternoon. I had also booked a camel tour which would start about an hour before sunset, so that I could watch the sunset sitting on the camels and then proceed to a traditional Berber campsite in the middle of the dunes. This would be followed by some stargazing and then hitting the sack nice and early, so as to wake up to watch the sun rise over the dunes. Then head back to Merzouga by lunchtime and drive back to Fes aiming to reach there by nightfall.

A sky full of stars

Getting to Merzouga however, is half the fun. That is something I had not anticipated and threw my schedule off, though at the end of the trip I didn’t have any regret whatsoever. The drive from Fes to Merzouga is extremely scenic and though it should take roughly 7-8 hours, our group took close to 10 hours with all the photography and food pit stops. En route, you pass through the scenic alpine town of Ifrane and take in the wonderful alpine scenery. We made a quick stop to look at the Barbary Apes in the cedar forests close to Azrou. Then we proceeded to climb through the lush cedar forests and drive through the snow capped middle Atlas. Snow in Morocco.. that was totally unexpected!!

Drive through the Middle Atlas

Striking alpine scenery in the High Atlas as we drive, enroute to Merzouga

Following this, you pass Midelt and have a section where you cross the tail end of the high Atlas till you hit Errachidia. From here the landscape changes dramatically to red sandstone carved gorges and canyons as you drive through the Ziz gorge until Erfoud and finally into the vast expanse of the desert lands as we near Merzouga.

The dramatic landscape of the Ziz gorges

A Kasbah in the gorge

We were so engrossed in the scenery along the way that by the time we reached Merzouga the sun had already started to set so sadly we had to witness sunset sitting in our 4×4 outside Merzouga. Slightly disappointed we reached the Riad in Merzouga where we had some mint tea, freshened up and left most of our bulky luggage behind, and proceeded to the camels.

The sunset which I had to see from the window of my car.. sadly the dunes were still an hour away

The harsh truth is that however cool it looks camel riding is a big pain in the butt (pun intended). Its not as glamorous as Lawrence of Arabia led you to believe, trust me. After the novelty factor had worn off (in all of 15 minutes), our diverse group of five (two Finns, two Italians and me) stopped admiring the endless dunes and thoroughly wished our campsite would appear after the next dune. After the longest two hours I have ever seen, we finally got to our campsite, gleefully jumped off the camels and rushed in looking for dinner. Our friendly Berber hosts welcomed us with sweet mint tea and a huge bowl of Berber style tagine. Exhausted after the camel ride we gobbled up our dinner and then spent the next couple of hours around the campfire exchanging stories and listening to traditional Berber music.

Campfires, singing, and exchanging stories.. so much fun!

Around 1 am, the moon finally set behind one of the dunes and we were treated to some of the most staggeringly pretty night skies we had ever seen. The Sahara might very well be a “hot” desert, but at night in December temperatures drop to below freezing so come prepared. Hands shivering, I bustled about trying to get as many night sky shots as I could before calling it a night and setting an alarm for sunrise the next day.

The milky keeps watch over the silent Sahara in the middle of the night

The milky way watching over our tents in the might Sahara

Having been way over enthusiastic about stargazing and night photography the previous night, I predictably over slept, but thanks to the rest of my group who had seen my enthusiasm about photography they dragged my out of bed about half an hour before sunrise. I am so glad they did or I would have missed out on the best part of my Saharan experience. I had to literally sprint up one of the largest dunes in Erg Chebbi to capture the spectacular sunrise over the endless dunes of the Sahara. I can go on and on about the infinite hues of orange, yellow and purple I witnessed in those two hours. Pictures seriously don’t do it justice, this is one of those things you just have to see to believe.



The golden rays of the rising sun illuminate the serene dunes of the Sahara.. a truly unbelievable site… hard to describe, a must have experience!

A 360 degree panorama from one of the tallest dunes

Having spent close to 2 hours running up and down various dunes, we returned, totally exhausted to our campsite and grudgingly climbed onto our camels again for the trek back to Merzouga. I made sure to pick a different camel and I think it was a tad bit more comfortable. Breakfast awaited us at Merzouga so we had that to look forward to as we meandered through the dunes. It was much prettier in the daytime and in the hours just after sunrise the dunes looked surreal. By 930 am we were back to our Riad in Merzouga and stuffed ourselves with a traditional Moroccan breakfast of fresh bread, Msmen with honey, nutella and jam, fresh cheese and fruits. Full and happy, we set off on our journey back to Fes, this time however it was non stop and we reached easily in 7 hours.

Our group heading back to camp

The modern day oasis that is Merzouga


I would highly recommend booking the desert tour and the grand taxi ride from Fes to Merzouga (or Marrakech to Merzouga) beforehand to avoid disappointment as tours do get booked up in the high season. Plus, you might be short on time, so you don’t want to waste time haggling when you would rather be watching the sunset in the Sahara! Lot of tour companies offer the whole package inclusive of to and fro travel from Fes/Marrakech and the camel ride with camping. However you can book them separately as well as I did and that usually comes out cheaper. Another option is to stop at Merzouga on the way from Marrakesh to Fes (or vice versa) and see Ouarzazate and Ait Benhaddou on the way as this will save you a day or two, instead of making the trip as a day trip from Marrakech separately. This totally depends on your itinerary in Morocco, for me it was more convenient to do a round-trip from Fes and continue onto Chefchaouen from there.

Our grand taxi driver was an extremely resourceful chap and took us for lunch to restaurants where he bought the meat directly from a meat shop in bulk (for the whole group) and then asked the kitchen to cook it for us. Meals with appetizers, entrée and desserts cost ~$8-10 per person. You can probably get cheaper meal if you’re traveling solo but lot of the places on the way from Fes to Merzouga are very remote and you need to know the local language to order, so you’re better off going with a local guide and paying a little more. We also snacked on Msmen and Moroccan pastries from roadside shops which were 1.5 MAD (15-20 cents) a piece.

Some more pictures from my trip:

A traditional Moroccan breakfast spread

Moroccan pastries.. this plate cost like 75 cents!!

Tagine pots in action

The dramatic scenery on the way back to Fes

All images in this post are copyright and cannot be downloaded, copied or used without permission of the author.

2 thoughts on “Sunset, Stargazing & Sunrise in the Sahara”

  1. Pingback: Touring the High Atlas Mountains and Ait-Benhaddou – meandering soles

  2. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is magnificent blog. A fantastic read. I will definitely be back.

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