An endless expanse of sand stretches to the horizon. Burnt orange curving and twisting dunes tower 10, 15, 20 storeys tall. Soft pink and blue hues fill the sky as the sun rises. Known as the “great sand sea”, the Sahara extends into the southeast of Morocco, on the border with Algeria and Mauritania. Here you’ll find the classic desert image: colossal golden dunes rolling, dipping, and curving as far as the eye can see. It is a harsh yet beautiful place of sand, sun, heat, and starry nights. I visited the Erg Chebbi dunes of Morocco’s Sahara in March 2015 to photograph the desert during a total solar eclipse.
The great sand sea
The world’s largest (hot) desert at 9.4 million km sq (3.6 million sq mi, roughly the size of the United States or China), with sand dunes reaching over 180m (590 ft) tall. Camels, termed “the ships of the desert,” are the primary mode of transportation (and the most ecologically friendly way to get around).
A solar eclipse and a desert
For most of the day, the Sahara is a bright place. Close to the equator where I was, the sun is powerful and quickly becomes harsh just after sunrise. The shadows are deep and the colours washed out as the sun scorches the landscape. I chose to visit the Erg Chebbi dunes at the time of the March 2015 total solar eclipse, one of the few times the eclipse can be witnessed here. A total solar eclipse takes place when the moon passes between Earth and the sun. This exact alignment blocks the sun, except for the ring of light around the outline of the moon.
On the morning of the solar eclipse, I hiked to the top of one of the larger dunes and set up my camera to capture this rare moment. As the sun broke over the horizon and moved up in the sky, I watched as the moon slowly began to cover it. The normally harsh and pronounced shadows in the desert slipped away. As the sunlight dissipated, so did the heat. The light was similar to “white light” (a term used to describe the softness of light during a sandstorm). It turned from the usually red sand to a sea of pale yellow to almost white colour with a metallic sheen. To use a photography term, it felt like being inside a giant “softbox” (a photographic lighting device that creates even and soft light).
Part way through photographing during the solar eclipse, I realized I was holding my breath. I looked around and noticed that rest of the desert was, too. There was complete stillness; not a noise or even the smallest breeze. Life held its breath in unison. As the eclipse began to separate, the heat, harsh light, and deep shadows slowly returned. The desert was once again a hot and windy place. As I packed up my camera gear, a camel train led by a local Berber guide came plodding out of the desert. The braying call of camels mixed with the barking of dogs and the soft hum of a car in the distance.
For a brief hour-long window it seemed as though existence on Earth stood still to observe this phenomenon before the moment slipped passed and life in the desert continued.
Visiting Erg Chebbi:
In Morocco’s Sahara, there are two main sections of dunes – Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga. Erg Chebbi is easier to reach, has larger dunes, and the sand is drier with a wonderful burnt-red colour. Located almost 400km (249 mi) from Marrakech, the easiest way to reach Erg Chebbi is either by long-distance bus or private car. You can stay in Merzouga on the edge of the dunes or arrange to take a camel trek to one of the camps deep in the desert; a highlight of any trip to Morocco.
An alternative set of dunes
Spectacular for its remote location, Erg Chigaga is situated in the southwest corner of Morocco, 50km (31 mi) west of the rural village of M’Hamid. Because of the more difficult access, it takes longer to travel there, but this also means fewer tourists. You can take a bus from Marrakech to M’Hamid, from there a camel trek or a 4x4 vehicle is required to reach Erg Chigaga.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Morocco encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.