Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Three Kings: Desert Camps Fit for Royalty

It’s been about an hour since your land rover turned off the road, about two since you saw any other cars, and about eight since you left Marrakech, yet the driver informs you there is still another hour to go.

Despite the roaring cell reception you’ve had for the rest of your trip through Southern Morocco, the bars on your last link to civilization have nearly disappeared. But then the gravel gives way to sand, you’re surrounded by the dunes of Erg Chigaga, and peeking out from behind them you see white tents.

You’ve finally arrived at Camp de Dunes, one of three nomadic camps created by the travel specialists at Voyageurs de Monde (VDM). Like Kasbahs fit for kings, each camp is a chic oasis, providing adventurous spirits with a travel experience that is part luxury and part desert life. In addition to their southernmost outpost past M’Hamid, VDM operates Camp de L’Oasis between Skoura and Ouarzazate, and the Camp de Sultan outside of Tazzarine. Each camp provides a different desert experience, and while they can be visited separately, an itinerary encompassing all three provides a complete look at the unexpected diversity of Saharan life.

Only a four and a half hour trip from Marrakech, is the Camp de L’Oasis, a collection of fifteen tent like structures sitting in the middle of a palm grove. The lushness of the palms is offset by the views of the snow capped Atlas Mountains that you crossed in order to get there. During the day, explore the nearby village by foot; take a trip to Ait Benhaddou, one of the most well preserved Kasbahs in the country, thanks to its starring role in such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator; or relax in camp with board games from the salon or afternoon tea in one of the many sitting areas.

With the busy town of Ourzazate just 30 minutes away, L’Oasis seems practically metropolitan compared to Camp de Sultan. Resting at the bottom of a valley, surrounded by dunes, you’ll think the driver has made a mistake when he eases to a stop. Hidden completely from sight, Sultan is comprised of ten cotton Caidal tents, white structures originally used by Berber people, an ethnic group of North Africa known for their nomadic lifestyle. Bright greens and reds illuminate the tent interiors, but by nightfall candles and lanterns are a necessity – contrary to Oasis, Sultan and Dunes do not have any electricity. The biggest activity at Sultan is watching the sun spread into the valley in the morning, and watching it set behind you while taking your early evening tea before sitting down to enjoy a Berber Feast of tajine and Moroccan salads.

Those who venture even further into the Sahara are rewarded with the most isolated, but also the most luxe of the camps – Nomades. Set between giant sand dunes, and over 2 hours away from the nearest town, the camp represents a total immersion in desert life. Camp guides will lead you on a walk in the dunes, either on foot or by camel, or arrange for a visit to a nearby oasis, where locals will likely invite you to tea. At night retire to your spacious tent, decorated in muted tones, and peer out into the desert night before falling asleep in complete silence.

Far from the swarms of tourists, the camps balance comfort (space heaters, food on call) with traditional desert life (bathrooms and showers are still outside of the tents). But when you glance up at night and see a shooting star move slowly across the sky before disappearing into the dunes, you’ll be grateful for the isolation because that is a true luxury.

— Meredith Fisher

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