BEFORE AND AFTER my trip into the Moroccan desert I spent some time in Marrakech. As a photographer, everywhere I looked was a photo opportunity. History, architecture, colours, people, and culture make wonderful subjects. It’s hard to condense this experience into a short photo essay; it’s a place that must be visited. But here is my attempt.

[Note: Paul was a guest of Merzouga Desert Luxury Camps in partnership with The Sahara Experience, Riad Tawargit, and Les Jardins de Mouassine.]

1

Orange glow in the distance

The journey to Merzouga from Marrakech is about 600km, give or take a few stops. After eight hours in the car, snaking along the long black tarmac road through to the desert, energy stirred within. Ahead, my guide Khalid and I could finally see the Sand Dunes of Merzouga tower several stories high from the desert floor and glow like a bright orange beacon in the setting sun. They would mark the end of the journey from Marrakech and my home for a few days.

2

Camel ride into the sand dunes

Riding a camel is not an everyday experience. After a 600km journey in a 4x4, a ride on a camel was a very welcome opportunity. My guide Hassan led me up the sand dunes to a high vantage point to view the surroundings. It is a slow and somewhat lumpy ride, and so quiet - it’s perfect for taking in the sandy environment around you. The camels do not make much noise at all and they don’t smell bad either.

3

Dunes casting shadows

As the sun moves overhead, the different angles of the dunes produce different shadows. The sand dunes are like mountains with huge peaks dotted as far as the eye can see. Smooth lines and shadows make everywhere look soft and inviting. Scrabbling to the top is tricky. The loose sand makes each step a challenge and you do wonder if there could be such a thing as a sand avalanche. After what feels like a stair master 12000, it is worth it catching your breath with these views.

4

A closer look at the sand dunes

Crouching down shows a different side to the massive sand banks. There are lines in the sand, similar to those made on a fresh ski slope, that are made by the wind. They can be seen all over the sand dunes and make great patterns with the shadows. The sand dunes actually move a short amount every year where the sand is blown around.

5

Sunset and silhouettes

Groups of tourists and locals gather at the top of the sand dunes that surround the various camps to watch the sky change as the sun sets and to take the perfect ‘Sahara Selfie.’ The camels create a perfect silhouette stomping through the fine sand. It may go without saying, but there is no Wi-Fi in the desert and minimal service. It’ss a great chance to switch off and take in the surroundings. As the dunes provide the highest point, it’s fun to see people checking to see if they have any reception.

6

The search for service

Amazingly it is not just the guests hunting for WiFi. While people are being entertained in their camps, members of staff from surrounding camps head to the top of the dunes searching for signal to get on Facebook or to check the football score. The locals had better success at finding signal than I did.

7

Setting sun over the dunes

As the sun finally sets, huge dark shadows are cast and the dunes turn to a beautiful burnt orange colour. The floral smell of incense burning on the fire pits and Moroccan drumming fills the air from the different camps. It is a serene moment.

8

Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp

There are many different accommodation options in the desert. I stayed here at Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp. It is a small camp set in the middle of a large dune and makes a great subject for spectacular images. First world problems found the moon to be too bright and so the sky was too light to see the Milky Way. The warmth of the camp that accompanies the dark blue of the sky and burnt orange of the sand dunes makes this a surreal experience. The rooms rival a five star hotel with luxury linen, toiletries, and a very powerful shower, only under the most amazing skies.

9

Photography demonstration

Over dinner a discussion was had how it’ss very difficult to make photographs at night. An impromptu photography workshop took place with the local cat as the model. Hard to believe a cat sat still for 20 seconds while demonstrating long exposure photography.

10

A reflective moment

After dinner, a couple left the group to sit at the top of this sand dune to take in the beautiful night sky over Merzouga. Their delight could be heard around the dunes as they saw shooting stars overhead.

11

A line of camels

Camels in the desert are like red buses in London: there is never one when you want one and then ten come along at once. The camel rides are very popular for both sunset and sunrise, and rightly so. A camel ride in the Sahara desert is on many peoples bucket list.

12

Sun rise

Hassan is the young man who hosted the Camel rides from the Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp. The camels are well looked after and get a lot of rest in between the tourist runs. A camel is also top of the “I must photograph this in the desert” pictures. The morning light in the desert is amazing and made for a close up silhouette of a boy and his camel.

13

The perfect sunrise

Leaving Hassan and still smiling after a camel has taken me to the top of a sand dune, it is time to hike a little further to find a spot where there are no footprints in the sand, which is easier said than done. After finding a suitable spot, I set up, sit, and wait for the right moment. Riding a camel in sand dunes for an amazing sunrise is an unforgettable experience. When the sun broke the horizon, it was spectacular. My shutter went click while the smile on my face and the warm fuzzy feeling inside me grew bigger.

14

Long shadows

After sunrise, it is time for the camel ride back to camp. Camels are tall and slow. While on my camel I was about six or seven feet above the ground. A couple of people are climbing the sand dunes in the distance, the position as the sun rises makes my camel have an interesting shadow with very long legs.

15

Small person in a big world

While making sunrise pictures in the dunes, it was so peaceful and I felt like the only person in the world. I wasn’t alone. I was very lucky to have this person walk into the frame. It would be very easy to edit this person out but a small person in a big landscape shows how insignificant we can be in this big beautiful world.

16

Tea with a nomad chief

While exploring the outer rim of the dunes, there are lots of nomad camps dotted everywhere. The nomads wander the desert looking after animals and land and making ends meet in any way necessary. It is a very simple life that is very different to the hustle and bustle of the souks 600km away in Marrakech. My friend Khalid and I were passing this nomad and his camp and he invited us to join him for traditional mint tea. Accepting us into his camp, in a world where people are afraid of others that have a different religion or skin colour, we became just three men sitting enjoying a cup of tea whilst escaping the heat. Sitting with Chief, as he is known, was a humbling experience. He allowed us into his home, which is very different to what I know to be a ‘normal’ house, but he has everything he needs. His children were so happy and it made me reflect upon my own life and question my wants and needs. Chief has the luxury of having his family around him as well as the time to spend with them that so many others do not have.

17

Moulay Ali Cherif Mausoleam

The Moulay Ali Cherif Mausoleam is a stunning garden oasis in the desert. This is the garden to the Mosque that holds the body of Moulay Ali Cherif, considered to be the founder of the Alaouite Dynasty of Morocco, the current Royal Family. There are not many of these gardens in the desert and this is worth a quick visit if in the area. I am not a Muslim and so I was not allowed in the Mosque; fortunately I could wander around the garden and stretch my legs for a few minutes.

18

Marrakech views

Before and after your desert experience, take time to explore Marrakech. Its Arabic culture is mixed with French influences, the warm climate and vibrant colours is set amid deep blue skies. Marrakech is so colourful, with different sounds and smells. Vibrant street markets encourage bartering from even the most timid individuals. Exploring the Arabic and Berber architecture, history and religions are all important parts of the fabric. The Hotel Restaurant Café de France offers an amazing viewpoint.

19

Riad in Marrakech

There are accommodation options to suit all budgets; a Riad in the Medina would offer the best cultural and authentic experience over a hotel. Riads are traditional Moroccan homes with an interior courtyard that offer a more personalised stay. Riads are predominantly in the Old Town whereas the hotels are in the New Town area.

20

travelstoke

Some people questioned if Morocco is a safe destination. Apart from a little aggressive selling here and there it was a very friendly experience. Speaking in Arabic, French, and English it is relatively easy to navigate. In Marrakech, the souks are in rather tight little alleyways that can get a little confusing but there are signs pointing you in the right direction. I can't wait to go back.

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