Pull up a chair, you’re family!

By Monica Heger

Sahara Desert by

“Fam-i-ly,” cried Ali. As the apricot he threw hit his unsuspecting target, Mohammed, smack in the middle of the forehead, an all-out food fight began. Amid flying apricots and couscous, it felt nice knowing that family meals in M’Hamid Morocco are the chaotic, free-for-all that I know and love. And despite the fact that few people at lunch were actually related, in the Sahara, everyone is family.

M’Hamid is a small town in southern Morocco at the edge of the Sahara Desert. It is a launching point for Erg Chigaga, the highest sand dunes in the Sahara. No trip to Morocco should be considered complete without a visit.

Sahara Desert by

This particular desert adventure began in Marrakesh, a good eight hours away from the Sahara, at the Hotel Afriquia. A fellow traveler had heard that there was a guide named Hussein who operated out of the hotel, leading small tours out into the Sahara desert. Intrigued, we decided to check it out.

Unlike the desert tours we had seen advertisements for—big buses packed with tourists, rushing them in and out of the desert—what Hussein offered us was completely different. It was just the five of us in a leisurely, albeit crowded, drive down to M’Hamid in Hussein’s family’s car.

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The first night we stayed at a campsite in the desert, not far from M’Hamid. Leaving M’Hamid, it wasn’t clear where the road ended and where the desert began. I will never know how Hussein navigated to the campsite—no road, no landmarks of any kind, just endless sand.

When I first spotted the dunes from a distance, they looked like mountains. It wasn’t until we climbed to the top of one of the dunes, exhausted and surrounded by blowing sand, that the vastness of the desert hit me. There was nothing but a sea of sand and sky for miles.

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We spent the first night in traditional Moroccan tents—rugs as the floor and roof, with walls made of mud and clay. The next day we took a three hour camel ride back into M’Hamid where Hussein gave us a tour of the town and invited us to lunch at his sister’s house. There we met Ali, Mohammed and Besmad and were instantly welcomed to the “family.”

After lunch, we headed out further into the desert, stopping at an oasis; this was no hallucination to the water-starved wanderer, oases really do exist. Suddenly, out of the sand, a flood of palm trees emerged. This oasis was large enough for a restaurant and small guesthouse, where we stopped for tea and shade.

We reached our final destination just before sunset, where Hussein’s family had another campsite. The evening was spent cooking a meal of tajin—a cumin spiced stew, served with bread, climbing the dunes, and stargazing.

On our final day, we began our journey back to Marrakesh and civilization, but not before stopping off in M’Hamid to recoup and de-sand. We went to the Auberge, a café where Hussein knew everyone. We ran into Mohammed and Ali again and said goodbye. I opened the cooler next to the bar to buy a bottle of coke and asked Hussein who I should pay. I didn’t know who was the boss was, since it was unclear who, if anyone, was running the café. Hussein replied, “Here, everyone’s the boss, the desert’s the boss.” Three days after leaving the desert and still waking up with sand in my bed, I had to agree.

All photos by Monica Heger.

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