Travel Journal: Sahara and Erg Chigaga

There are things we all think we know about the Sahara, the most famous of the world's deserts.

It is vast. This is undeniable—it sprawls 3.5 million square miles (about the same area as the entire United States) across ten countries in North Africa.

It is empty. Of course, this is true. Most of the Sahara is either uninhabited or sparsely populated. But it is also not true, in both a metaphorical and a literal sense. In all this enormous, dizzying openness, there are so many details, and so much to be found. 

The journey into Morocco's Sahara can take as little as one day, driving straight from Marrakech. If you're so inclined, it can also take a few days, looping through the gorges along the Dadés and swinging down to the Drâa Valley. As you travel south and east, the landscape transitions into hamada and reg: rocky plateaus and, beneath them, plains scattered with gravel that was once drowned beneath rivers and seas.

The most obvious clues to human habitation in this desolate landscape are loose sheep and goats that laboriously pick their way through the gravel in search of sustenance. These are domestic animals and they belong to someone, however far they've wandered. Some stick closer to their owners and their nighttime abodes—temporary pens constructed with rare branches and whatever material can serve as containing walls. The owners of these animals are nomads, and must deconstruct, carry and reconstruct these pens with every move. 

Along the track we were following deeper into the desert, we stopped at a nomad tent, inside of which were an elderly woman and a young man. She was the owner of the tent and he—who I'd immediately assumed was her son—was, like us, just passing through. He languidly sipped the tea the old woman had given him as she set about preparing another pot (complete with a handful of sugar) for us. In a place where travelers find little shelter, respite or accommodation, hospitality blooms and human interdependency is a matter of survival. 

The plants of the desert not only provide food for livestock, but also a pharmacy's worth of natural medicines. But as with anything in the desert, you need to know what you're doing. This Calotropis procera, one of the more striking plants you see in the landscape, is incredibly versatile—its roots, stem bark, latex, leaves and flowers are all used for medicines to treat everything from coughs to dysentery. But its latex, our guide, Ahmed explained, can also cause rashes, convulsions, vertigo, blindness and a host of other deeply unpleasant effects if improperly handled or consumed. 

The rock-strewn reg landscape gradually gives way to hillocks of dunes punctuated with scrubby plants and, incongruously, the thick, flowering stems of Cistanche phelypaea. These parasitic plants, which survive by leeching water and nutrients from roots of other plants, are from a genus that is native to the Taklamakan desert in China, one of the most notorious and harrowing passages on the ancient Silk Road. Just thinking of how these plants got to Morocco is enough to set your head spinning with images of camel caravans and traders on legendary journeys that would cover nearly half the globe on foot.

A couple hours' more tricky driving and finally, at long last, you've reached the erg—the dunes. This is Erg Chigaga, the largest dune field in all of Morocco. Beetles, some glossy, black and fat, others petite and streaked with three prongs of indigo blue, skitter over the sand and pause in the shadows cast by your shoes. Tents made of goat hair and sheep's wool seem to float on the golden sands. Everywhere you look, you're surrounded by sculptural, austere beauty. It is haunting and romantic all at once to be in such a remote place, where ancient ways of life are still the best methods for survival. 

Arriving here clears the mind of any concerns about whether a camel ride is too cliché. You're getting on that camel. And if you're lucky, it'll just be you, your companion and one gentle guide who whispers commands to his animals and holds their leads loosely in his fingertips, heading off into the lowering evening light. You could be rocked to sleep on the back of a plodding camel, but it's quite a drop from the saddle to the sand and snoozing would mean you'd miss scenery straight out of all your wildest globetrotting dreams.

When your guide parks you in the shadow of the largest dune in the area, cueing the camels to fold their legs under them like great hairy hide-a-beds, get ready for a climb—not just off the camel, but up said dune. Keep in mind that however far behind your guide you lag, however difficult it is to walk up nearly vertical stretches of sand, however close you feel to passing out from the strain, the end is worth it. Perch yourself on the crest of the dune, hike your turban up under your sunglasses to block the blowing sand from blowing up your nose and into your mouth, and watch the sun set over the Sahara. The real, actual Sahara, spread out to infinity before you, its tiny particles filling your shoes so full that they'll still be shedding sand six months later. 

Back at camp, under a moon bright enough that its glow dulled the Milky Way, we sat around a campfire and were treated to a long set of songs performed by Ahmed and the camp's other guides, all of whom were born in and had spent most of their lives in the desert. We'd been listening to the desert blues band Tinariwen nonstop over the preceding three days with Ahmed, literally from the moment he picked us up. Seeing him perform songs he knew by heart with such abandon and joy made this beautiful form of music all the more meaningful. 

Head to bed at a decent hour, because an early morning start provides yet another lesson in the many ways in which the desert can be beautiful. Dawn brings softer, more diffuse light, sepia shadows, profound silence. 

It's worth noting that winter is camel calving season, and as you explore, you're likely to see mothers and babies ambling over the dunes unattended. 

On the way out of the dunes, heading toward the frontier town of Foum Zguid, you pass through Iriqui National Park, a huge area of salt flats that was once a lake bed. Given the right amount of rain, parts of it can still become temporarily marshy—just not any parts that we saw. 

The Paris-Dakar Rally used to pass through the area before terrorism concerns in neighboring Mauritania forced the race to relocate to South America. 

Roads are entirely notional in this part of the desert, but still, there are established routes. These (very!) young siblings had set up a stand along the side of the popular track and were selling handicrafts—little sculptures of camels and scorpions that the girl had fashioned out of wire and then wrapped in colorful yarn. Truly a one-of-a-kind find in the country, and it was impossible to resist buying a few, given the charm of the objects themselves and the setting in which we found them. 

"Where do they live?" we asked Ahmed, looking back at the tiny blip of their shelter in the enormous hamada scenery as we drove away. 

"Oh, back behind that mountain," he replied, motioning toward a plateau that seemed miles away.

Back into reg landscape, Ahmed pulled over and urged us to get out of the car and look around. He'd clearly taken mental note of my predisposition to collecting rocks, and delivered us into a field of fossil-laden stones that stretched as far as the eye could see. Every rock was embedded with the graphic forms creatures from a virtually unimaginable epoch, when this place was lush and watery. Everything in the desert, I was reminded, is more than you expect. Everything here is worth a closer look. 

Gina Czupka