Lake Yasmina at sunrise on the edge of the Sahara Desert, Merzouga.
A tourist taking the quick route down from a big dune in Merzouga with Lake Yasmina in the background.
Sahara desert is the size of the USA, stretching across North Africa from Morocco through Algeria to Tunisia.
It's actually only about 25% sand. The rest is composed of volcanic hills, rock and gravel plains and some vegetation which is home to around 300 species of bird and animals such as mongooses, snakes, jackals, hares, deer, foxes and even baboons. Desert experiences are not to be missed, though preferably on camel back and for a couple of days, including sleeping under the stars.
Hard desert meets soft desert.
The Sahara is another of those magical words (like Marrakesh!) that triggers a desire to be there in all its sandy majesty, alone in the great nowhere, living the dream, perhaps on a camel or perhaps on wheels.
But for normal mortals the camel experience will mean traveling with either a guide or a tour group, and may not last very long. Driving a hire car on the other hand is the accepted way to see the desert under your own steam.
The first is doing it in your own regular car, or a hired, regular non-4WD vehicle. This will limit you to driving along the edge of the Sahara (as seen in the photo above) and requires a little care, mostly to avoid chipping the paintwork with flying gravel. A car with a bit of ground clearance is useful, but again, not essential.
However, driving into the serious sand is a different matter altogether and will require not only a desert-prepared 4WD vehicle but some experience in sand driving too, so it's not to be taken lightly. Equipment preparation is vital, with large quantities of water being the number one essential, closely followed by sand ladders/mats to help you out of sand drifts and perhaps a satellite phone to summon assistance. Needless to say this is also costly and time-consuming so most amateurs either stick to driving along the desert boundary or hire a professional driver with desert-prepared jeep.
These mud lumps are ventilation holes for an irrigation tunnel about 2 or 3 metres down.
A section of the Sahara in Morocco favoured for tourist camel rides.
Sahara walks, without the benefit of grumpy camels or grasping camel drivers.
However, if you dump your compact rental Renault on the gravel near some dunes, grab a couple of litres of water and a picnic lunch, walk/stagger for half an hour and you'll find a magical, solitary spot on a dune overlooking a silent Sahara panorama - without the hassles of camels, or drivers. Just don't go too far, walking in soft sand is very hard, thirsty work, but it is also romance par excellence!
Artists and photographers love the variety of shapes made by the play of light on wind-sculpted dunes early or late in the day. But don't leave it too late to find your wheels, there's not a lot of light around here, moon apart!