This October I had a chance to return to one of my favorite photographic destinations in the world—Morocco. I visited as an AFAR Ambassador, as part of a partnership with the United States Tour Operators Association and luxury tour operators Alexander+Roberts. And right from the start, I was excited to get back to Morocco for one big reason: Another chance to spend some time in the Sahara (I’d previously visited as part of a full year of travels with my wife in 2014). Spending a night under the stars amid the endless sand dunes ranks up there as one of my all-time favorite travel experiences, along with trekking to Everest Base Camp and tracking lemurs in western Madagascar. On Alexander+Roberts 13-day Morocco... From Sea to Sahara itinerary, I would have a chance to go back and repeat one of my favorite adventures.
It’s a long, two-day journey from Marrakech to the edge of the Sahara, with an overnight stop in Ouarzazate, a city called the “doorway to the desert.” Our small group of 15 traveled in a 48-seater luxury coach, which made the journey incredibly comfortable. We arrived in the town of Merzouga just before sunset, dropped our luggage off at the excellent Erg Chebbi Luxury Desert Camp, and then immediately mounted our waiting camels. We rode classic caravan-style across the sands to a spot with a 360-degree view of the sunset, the waves of dunes, and the surrounding mountains. It was absolutely breathtaking.
When the sun dipped below the dunes, I decided to skip out on the camel ride back and walk back, in order to spend more time in the sand. Even though we didn’t travel far on camel, the desert seems limitless—I definitely got the sense that my mind could play tricks on me, and felt I could all-too-easily lose my way. Everywhere you look there are countless dunes that all look similar. On the other side of any given dune could be the camp... or the country of Algeria (which is only a few miles away). The moon was nearly full, so there was plenty of light available for me to take photos. I kept an eye on the footsteps of the caravan as a marker in case I did get lost. What was truly remarkable was that I didn’t see or hear a single sound the entire way back. It made me think I could’ve been walking here 1,000 years ago, having the exact same experience.
The night I spent in the desert I was completely oblivious to the outside world. It didn’t even occur to me that it was Halloween, nor that there was a World Series game happening involving my favorite team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The next day when I had cell reception again, I learned about a terrorist attack in Manhattan, indictments in the White House, and that the Dodgers had won Game 6. At the time, I was peacefully, blissfully off the grid. I didn’t know or care about any of those things.
Instead, I thought about the novels of Paul Bowles, the famous expat American author. I became fascinated with Morocco after reading his novels includiong The Sheltering Sky. Bowles grew up in New York City but spent most of his life in Morocco until his death in 1999. I find that kind of deep dedication to exploring the world fascinating as a traveler. He had a way of describing the vastness of the desert and the complete silence better than anyone—and his words echoed through my mind:
Immediately when you arrive in the Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute silence prevails.... Then there is the sky, compared to which all other skies seem fainthearted efforts. Solid and luminous, it is always the focal point of the landscape. At sunset, the precise, curved shadow of the earth rises into it swiftly from the horizon, cutting into light section and dark section. When all daylight is gone, and the space is thick with stars, it is still of an intense and burning blue, darkest directly overhead and paling toward the earth, so that the night never really goes dark.