Desert of dreams: how and where to experience the Sahara

A fount of solitude and the desert of childhood imaginings, the Sahara Desert is like nowhere else on earth. It is the world’s largest desert, at once continental in its scale and exquisite in its detail, from a sand sea the size of a small European country to an orange sand dune sculpted to perfection by the wind. Covering a territory roughly equivalent to the United States, the Sahara crosses around 20 lines of longitude and encompasses at least 10 countries.

Parts of the Sahara are currently off-limits to travellers, but such is its scale that significant areas can still be visited, most notably in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. In these places, experiencing the Sahara is all about remote campfires, slow camel journeys and more wide-ranging 4WD expeditions.

A caravan walking through the golden sand dunes of Erg Chebbi near Merzouga in Morocco, Sahara, Africa © evenfh / Shutterstock
Find your own pace on a journey into the Sahara © evenfh / Shutterstock

Saharan travel

A journey into the Sahara can be as varied as the desert itself, but there are some quintessential experiences. Most begin in the gateway towns where expeditions out into the desert are organised. Often oases, these towns are centres of Saharan culture, places where the architecture emerges naturally from the earth and the slow pace of life has changed little in centuries.

For exploring beyond town or village limits, there are two major means of getting around. A slow march across the sands astride a camel re-enacts the great camel caravans of Saharan lore – on a camel safari, travellers slow down to a pace well suited to the Sahara’s unforgiving climate, allowing you to appreciate details and pass through this spectacular terrain at one with your surroundings. In a 4WD expedition, travellers can range further, stirring up the sand as you tick off a list of iconic Saharan landscapes.

Nights in the Sahara are clear and starry © Jianwei Zhu / Shutterstock
Nights in the Sahara are usually clear and starry © Jianwei Zhu / Shutterstock

Sleeping between four walls is an experience that ends in the towns. Out amid the sands or remote Saharan mountains, evenings are spent around a campfire, and a soft bed of sand is the night-time mattress of choice. Most Saharan excursions carry tents, but many travellers prefer to sleep outdoors beneath the clearest show of stars on earth.

When to go

Travel in the Sahara is best between October and April or early May when daytime temperatures are generally bearable. In the depths of the Saharan winter (especially December and January), nighttime temperatures can fall below freezing. Sand storms are possible from January through May, while no sensible person ventures into the fierce firestorm of heat that blankets the Sahara from June to early September. Rain is rarely a problem.

Sand dunes in Erg Chigaga with blue sky, Morocco © Zdenar_Adamsen / Shutterstock
Start your adventure into the dunes at Erg Chigaga, Morocco © Zdenar_Adamsen / Shutterstock

Morocco

Southeastern Morocco, in the lee of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains, is the most accessible slice of the Sahara. It was in the Draa Valley – a picturesque world of expansive palm groves, earth-red kasbahs and Berber hamlets – that trans-Saharan camel caravans began and ended their 52-day journey across the Sahara to Timbuktu. These days, shorter camel excursions head out from M’Hamid into the Erg Chigaga, a stunning 40km-long ribbon of extraordinary sand dunes. Further east, from the tiny village of Merzouga, camel forays and 4WD trips lead out into Erg Chebbi, a glorious collection of seemingly eternal dunes. Both Merzouga and M’Hamid are a one-day bus journey from Marrakesh.

Tunisian granary. Ruins of an old building, Ksar Ouled Debbab, Tataouine, Tunisia. Star Wars film shooting location © Aleksandra H. Kossowska / Shutterstock
The desert and towns of southern Tunisia featured in four of the Star Wars films © Aleksandra H. Kossowska / Shutterstock

Tunisia

Tunisia’s south cuts a deep wedge into the northern Sahara, carving out what could just be the Sahara’s most celebrated corner. It was here that film directors found sufficient cinematic beauty to provide a backdrop for the Star Wars series and the English Patient. The two main gateway towns are Tozeur, a seven-hour bus ride or one-hour flight from Tunis, and Douz, a nine-hour bus ride from Tunisia’s capital. The former sits close to the immense salt lake of Chott El Jerid and some of the most evocative sites of Star Wars filming; the latter is the last stop before the soul-stirring sand summits of the Grand Erg Oriental, one of the world’s largest seas of sand that spills over into Algeria. For true Saharan immersion, the remote outpost of Ksar Ghilane, 147km south of Douz, has an abandoned fortress and the Tunisian Sahara’s most splendid scenery.

4WD travelling through the Black Desert in Egypt © Martin Vrlik / Shutterstock
4WDs are more commonly used for transport in Egypt's western desert © Martin Vrlik / Shutterstock

Egypt

The west of Egypt is a vast yet beguiling corner of the Sahara. A string of oases, connected by barely discernible tracks across the sand, begins in the north at Siwa, home to a crumbling medieval mud fortress and a temple that date back to the time of Alexander the Great. Away to the south, the oases of Al Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra and Bahariya provide focal points for expeditions into the void, while beyond the last outpost of human habitation lie places of Saharan longing, including the White Desert and Black Desert. All of the oases have direct bus services to and from Cairo that will take at least a day to complete. Once in the oases, 4WD are much more common than camel excursions. Some governments advise travelling to the western deserts of Egypt only if it's essential.

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