I was getting restless. The sun beamed in through the windows of the van and the narrow, serpentine roads — harrowing, at times — showed no end in sight. It was hour seven of my eight-hour journey from Fez to Erfoud, a small oasis town in East Morocco, the gateway to the vast Sahara. From there, I would leave the van for a Jeep 4x4 and travel another hour to Merzouga, a desert town not far from the Algerian border. Since morning I had been driving, witnessing a lush, emerald landscape of valleys dotted with palm and date trees transform into a barren one — a red clay horizon that expanded for miles, save for the seldom cactus, lone acacia tree or herd of goats wandering along the side of the road.
At about 3.5 million square miles (or roughly the size of the continental U.S.), the Sahara spans 11 countries and covers almost the entirety of northern Africa.
The Sahara desert — the largest nonpolar desert on the planet — always had a place on my bucket list, penciled into my travel journal alongside other allegedly life-changing adventures like hiking through Bhutan and road-tripping around Iceland’s Ring Road. At about 3.5 million square miles (or roughly the size of the continental U.S.), the Sahara spans 11 countries and covers almost the entirety of northern Africa. The thought of walking on its rolling sand dunes and sleeping beneath its limitless sky of stars both thrilled and overwhelmed me at the same time. I had never been anywhere like this before.
I was racing against time, on a mission to catch the sun set into an endless vista of sandy mountains. At last I reached Erfoud, where I climbed into a 4x4 driven by a young Tuareg man wearing a light blue kaftan with ornate gold stitching and a blue scarf covering his hair. With the windows rolled down and rhythmic Arabic music blasting through the speakers, we sped toward Merzouga as the town of Erfoud faded into a backdrop of sand in the rearview mirror and in the distance, the faint outline of golden dunes.
Finally, I arrived at Erg Chebbi Luxury Desert Camp, where a dozen white canvas tents stood surrounded by arid dunes. An hour before, the sand was a soft orange, the color of ripe apricots, but now with the sun gently fading into the horizon, it glistened like a gold coin. Just behind the tents, camels lay in the sand, waiting to transport guests to the highest peak of the dunes for the sunset. As the sky turned purple, the sand transformed again, this time into a dusty red like the surface of Mars. In fact, if I had been told me I was on another planet, I would have believed it.
When the sky went dark, the 30-some-odd guests were summoned to the main tent — the dining room — where hammered copper lanterns hung from the ceilings and tables were set with white tablecloths and candles. We were not roughing it, to be certain. For dinner, we drank spicy Moroccan wines and feasted on juicy fried eggplant, grilled zucchini with fluffy ricotta cheese, and slow-cooked beef tagine simmered with sweet prunes. After dessert, we listened to the beating drums and rythmic sounds of Berber music, then we sat on pillows around an open fire and watched the smoke trickle into the sky. I had always imagined the desert beneath a ceiling of stars, so close you could extend a finger and trace the lines of the Milky Way, but truthfully, that night I could see almost none. The sky was hazy beneath a layer of clouds, but the moon was enormous, and I felt closer to it than ever before.
While scalding hot during the daytime, the temperature in the desert can quickly dip 40 degrees after sundown. But each luxury tent offered heat, running water, electricity and even Wi-Fi, which I refrained from using. Inside, plush beds were covered with silky sheets and handwoven Berber linens. I stayed up listening to the music of the desert, first the songs of crickets chirping and then nothingness, a deep, infinite silence. Rather than eerie, the quiet was peaceful. Falling asleep in my New York City apartment, I often hear a door slam from below, a car horn or the occasional siren from an ambulance racing in the night. But here, I was worlds away, and it was the sound of my own breathing that lulled me to sleep.
The next morning, I set my alarm for 6 a.m. and I climbed the dunes in search of the highest vantage point to watch the sun rise. I have seen some spectacular sunrises before: From the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, the sun appears gently, painting the sky in watercolor streaks. From the top of Masada in Israel, it coats the horizon in hues of purple ombré. But the sunrise in the Sahara is not gentle. It’s swift and gives no warning. Turn away for a moment and you might miss what looks like a ball of fire catapult into the sky, rising quickly and turning the landscape into a field of amber.
For breakfast, we drank Moroccan mint tea, fresh-squeezed orange juice, pan-fried crêpes with butter and jam, and a tagine of eggs baked in spicy tomato sauce. Eventually, it would take about 10 hours to drive to Marrakech, past the shady Tafilalet Oasis, the windy Ziz River Valley and through the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. I collected a bit of sand in a bottle to put on display on a bookshelf back home. It would be the only thing I’d take with me from the Sahara when I finally loaded my things into the 4x4 and bounced choppily back to civilization with the sun-drenched desert folding into the dunes behind me.