A review, a story and a wonderful photo journal - this is our time at Ali and Sara's Desert Camp
Our road trip from Marrakech had seen us chasing sunset at Ait Ben Haddou, taking roads less travelled to sip bitter coffee in an oasis and navigating a bewildering number of hairpin bends on mountain edges during the day and, foolishly, under cover of darkness.
However, on the fourth day of the adventure, we were eating up the Moroccan miles with a purpose in mind - the desert sands and a camel called Alpha Blondie were awaiting us.
Spending a night in the Sahara desert is something every traveller dreams about, and we were on our way to make that dream a reality.
Chasing the Sunset
Merzouga lies at the end of a long, arrow-straight road. You can tell you're almost there when the road signs start to have a camel on them instead of a speed limit.
It is remote, unremarkable and far from the major cities on the Moroccan tourist trail. However, this sunstruck sandbowl acts as a gateway to one of North Africa's treasures. For this reason, most of the vehicles you encounter on the way here are Europeans in camper vans and motor homes, tourist group buses or couples like us in their rentals.
However, there are exceptions.
Ali, our softly-spoken host for the evening, greeted us in town. Over refreshing sweet mint tea, we discussed the desert heat, routes and roads, and the Moroccan way of life.
After being joined by a Dutch family, backpacks and suitcases were loaded into the back of a 4x4. With the windows down, one of Ali's brother's behind the wheel and the perfect Sahara soundtrack (the fantastic Tinariwen if you ask), the jeep headed off the asphalt and navigated the bumpy trails of the Erg Chebbi sand dunes.
The destination wasn't on Google Maps and, if we were trying to find it on our own, it would have eluded us for days.
Our home for the evening - Ali & Sara's Desert Palace - was set in perfect, secretive isolation. A collection of red and black tents bordered by sand dunes, it surpassed our expectations.
There are luxury camps out here which charge a lot for the privilege, but this place's affordability made us assume that it would be basic in certain areas.
Instead, what we found was an individual bathroom which was much nicer (and bigger) than ours back in London, beautifully decorated social tents and outdoors areas infused with colourful Moroccan design, and our own private desert tent with mountains of pillows, reams of carpet on the walls and floor, and quite possibly the world's largest bed.
As the dipping sun stole the last of the desert heat, and we polished off yet another pot of highly-poured mint tea, we were introduced to the two gorgeously stubborn camels who would bring us out to witness something magical - our very own sunset.
A sumptuous traditional meal in a tent full of carpets, soft lighting and desert trinkets, was welcome after a long day of driving. It also happened to include the best veggie tagine we had in the country (and we had lots of those) and Andrew discovering the wonders of date syrup.
However, the night was only just beginning.
Under a blanket of stars, we spent the evening with red wine, a glowing palm-leaf fuelled bonfire, new friends and the sound of drums and music. Each evening, this is what desert explorers can expect at the camp when the team, who are so hospitable and helpful during the daylight hours, transform into a Berber band.
Often, this sort of 'show for the tourists' can feel enforced, inauthentic and makes us feel more than a little uncomfortable but, in this setting and with these men, it felt natural and spontaneous. It helps that these guys are damn good musicians too.
Whether it was the effects of the first decent red in a couple of weeks or the hypnotic Berber beats, we both felt ridiculously, absurdly, happy.
We danced, we drank, we tried to join in on the drums, we smiled.
This was truly one of those 'moments' which we all travel for, where time moves slowly and you feel transported to some special storybook fantasy which should only be the preserve of fictional explorers.
After the last of the embers had died down and everyone else had departed to bed, we sat on the dunes, our bare toes buried in the cool sand, looking up at the sea of bright stars punctuating the black night sky. Amidst the silence of the desert, the only sound, carried by the a gentle wind, was the distant echo of another Berber playing his drums somewhere out there in the desert.
The night was filled with magic.
Neither of us are morning people.
However, as we grow older, both of us are beginning to understand that some things really are worth waking up early for; that sometimes the perfect photo or experience when the sun is casting a golden hue across the land can only be found in the wee morning hours, whilst the rest of the world is still deep in slumber.
So, despite it being a struggle to leave our bed with its thousand blankets, we knew that witnessing sunrise in the desert was something we could not sacrifice for the sake of a couple of extra hours shut-eye. After all, how many more times would we have this opportunity in our lives?
Again greeted by one of the camp's ever smiling, ever-at-your-service team, we joined the hard-working but well looked-after camels.
The perfect folds and curves of the dunes lay ahead, virginal and empty.
One of our group tried to assist our guide in making a fire on top of the highest dune; at that time of morning it's surprisingly cold here and any heat is welcome. Crouching close to the flickering flames, he politely advised her in one of the many priceless lines he produced that morning:
"Your hands are for computers in offices. My hands are for camels and fires"
Although hilarious, that line did actually strike a note of truth. We were the guests here, very welcome and looked-after, but fundamentally, we were here for a desert experience - a chance to pretend that we were the nomads.
It is these guys however who truly know the desert and understand it.
Being a nomad is, after all, in their Berber blood.
ONE NIGHT ONLY
When travelling, those moments or experiences that you're most looking forward to can, unfortunately, sometimes be an anti-climactic. As pretty seasoned adventurers, we've come to learn this and control our expectations accordingly.
A night in the Moroccan Sahara however, did not let us down.
We may have left with sand in our shoes, slightly burnt faces and smelled of camel for the next day, but the memories we made in the desert kept us smiling all the way on that long drive back to Marrakech, and will be sure to last a lifetime.
Our only regret? That it was just one night.
We spent a long time trying to find the right desert camp in the Moroccan Sahara, and we're so happy that we picked Ali & Sara's Desert Palace.
Not only is it in a beautiful, private setting in the middle of the dunes, but there are so many elements where they've gone the extra mile on quality and attention to detail to create a fantastic experience for each guest. The facilities are excellent, the dinner and breakfast are freshly prepared and delicious, and there is enough space for guests to sit in splendid isolation or to make new friends.
The young team of staff here are all so exceptionally helpful, attentive and patient - always there with a smile and a 'you're welcome', they truly went above and beyond to make our stay as comfortable and stress-free as possible. Prior to our arrival, Sara was also exceptionally helpful at giving us tips on how to reach the camp and advice for our stay at the camp as well as in Morocco more generally.
One night at Ali & Sara's Desert Palace, which includes transport to the camp from Merzouga , guides, dinner and breakfast, bottled water, private tent accommodation, and sunset/sunrise camel treks, is £77 GBP / $99 USD/ 90 EUR per person. Longer stays are possible and, if you have time, two days here would be a great idea.
If you prefer booking places the old fashioned way, you'll be pleased to know that you can also make a reservation via booking.com, just follow this link.
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We were guests of Ali & Sara's Desert Palace - as ever, all views, photography and spelling mistakes are our own.