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Sahara Desert Sunrise







Breathtaking colors during sunrise over the Sahara Desert from above our desert camp, nestled into the sand dunes.

Intro: One of the most iconic Saharan Desert experiences is waking up to an incredible sunrise over the never-ending sand dunes, and our morning at the desert camp near Merzouga certainly didn’t disappoint.

“You will see the most amazing sunrise ever!” That’s what our Morocco Expert Tours guide and dear friend Youssef told us when we asked him about our upcoming experience spending the night in a desert camp. Charlene and I were in the middle of our near two-week trip exploring Morocco and couldn’t have been happier with everything we’d experienced so far. Looking back, it seems like taking a breather from the hustle and bustle of the busy medinas to spend some quiet time in the Sahara Desert was the perfect halfway point in our itinerary.

Looking back towards our desert camp following sunrise from atop one of the surrounding sand dunes.

In preparation for the morning sunrise, we made sure to set the alarm on our iPhones at 5AM before going to bed. Having met our wonderful camel trekking/desert camp guide Ahmed as well as some new traveler friends, and riding our way into the desert from Riad Nezha in Merzouga, we enjoyed a delicious dinner together. Afterwards, Charlene and I took an evening stroll along the piles of sand dunes and even read our 8-month anniversary vows. I felt like anything else was just icing on the cake.

Even if the sunrise the following morning was just like any other I’d seen, or (worst case scenario) the sky was filled with heavy clouds and we didn’t even get to see a sunrise, I wouldn’t be disappointed (okay maybe just a tad bit). After all, we were visiting Morocco at the end of November, and just avoiding the rain would be an accomplishment in itself. Right before going to bed, I took a quick peek outside our tent and noticed that several small groups of clouds were starting to form. I definitely didn’t have high hopes at that point.

I can’t recall if I woke up the following morning to the alarm or I was just too eager to see what it looked like outside, but upon sticking my head outside the tent right around 5AM, I noticed light was already upon us, but the sky was pretty cloudy. Sunrise was going to be right around 6AM, so we had about an hour to get ready, make our way up to one of the nearby sand dunes, and hope for some miracle with the sun. I know I said I didn’t care too much, but it hit me when I got up that this might be the only morning I ever woke up in the Sahara Desert, and I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get to see the sunrise.

Along with the other folks in our desert camp, Charlene and I walked over to a nearby sand dune with our jackets and camera/video gear. It was tall enough for us to get a great view of our surroundings, but still gradual enough of a climb that we were able to get to the top in just a few minutes. Plus, with the sand being so soft and no hard landings anywhere in sight, a slip and fall wouldn’t have been the end of the world.

I set up my Gitzo tripod with the usual suspect camera and lens combination (5DM3 + 24-70mm) on top of it, got the settings ready for both long exposure and HDR images, plugged the intervalometer into the body to do some hands-free shooting, and just waited for the sun to come up. Everyone was pretty excited and nervous, keeping their voices low so that each of us could enjoy that moment in our own special way.

Incredible colors in the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert as the sun slowly peeked over the horizon.

Slowly but surely, at 6AM in the far distance facing east, a gorgeous glow of yellow, red and even purple gradually crept up from the horizon. What was a gloomy, dark, grey sky not too long ago was now a sea of dazzling colors. It seemed like every inch of sand was now on fire, and we were standing right in the middle of it all. I was so enamored with the sunrise that I almost forgot to take photos, and the few times I did, was too busy fidgeting around with the settings and keeping the tripod still.

Our camel trekking guide Ahmed with his two trusty camels, ready to head back to Merzouga.

Although the entire sunrise experience didn’t last too long (roughly 15-20 minutes), I have to say it was certainly one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen. What made it extra special was not having too many people around (it felt like our small group of 8-10 people had the entire Sahara Desert to ourselves). Plus, with the clouds from the previous evening breaking through when the sun came up, it actually made the sky that much more interesting with its various colors and helped in diffusing some of the harsh lighting later on in the morning.

Charlene with the lovely camel that trekked her in and out of our desert camp in the Sahara Desert.

Upon arriving back at our desert camp, Ahmed had prepared some mint tea for us. It was the perfect drink for us to celebrate a gorgeous morning and give us that extra boost of energy before heading back to Merzouga. We then packed our belongings (didn’t have much besides our backpacks) and met up with Ahmed and our camels. Sadly, it was time to say “Goodbye” to our camp. Looking back, I wouldn’t have minded staying an extra day, especially since I wanted to get more landscape photos.

The soft early morning light over the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert was perfect for photography.

Almost as breathtaking as the morning sunrise was the camel ride back to Merzouga. I don’t know what it was, but the light falling on the sand dunes was unbelievable. It helped that there were streaks of clouds to soften the light and the sun was still relatively low on the horizon (it was only around 8AM). But there just seemed to be an extra glow all around us. The shadows in the sand dunes where the sun didn’t quite hit created such great depth, and not only was I able to see (or rather not see) the vastness of the desert, but I felt like the few half-decent photos I captured actually depicted that feeling as well.

Riding past another desert camp as we headed back towards Merzouga following an unforgettable Saharan Desert sunrise.

On the way back from our desert camp, we passed by a few other ones, including village-like tents that were much closer to Merzouga. So close that there appeared to be “sand roads” where vehicles could transport travelers from the city straight to their camp. We even passed by a large tank of water that was connected to restroom stalls. I bet there’s not an ounce of water anywhere nearby, and all of it had to be carried from elsewhere and poured into the reservoir (or from the rain).

Our camel convoy of new traveler friends, heading back towards Merzouga following our night in the Sahara Desert.

Unfortunately we had to say our farewells to the other travelers we had met while at the camp as our paths separated as we approached Merzouga. It was wonderful not only getting to meet them, but also enjoying dinner and the morning sunrise with them!

A desert camp situated so close to Merzouga that cars can transport guests there and back.

Not too long after, Charlene and I got back to Riad Nezha, and more sad news…we had to say “Goodbye” to Ahmed and the camels. We couldn’t have been more happy with the hospitality of Ahmed (and the camels too :P). He made sure we were always taken care of and went the “extra kilometer” to give us a real, genuine desert camp experience. Now it was time to meet up with Youssef and Mohammed again, and continue the second half of our Morocco trip!

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