Leading tours for 10 years

There are few companies who claim to make a Sahara Photography tour their speciality and only one where the tour leader is a leading practitioner. As a workshop leader, I have led many groups into the desert region where the focus is on the guest to get the images they aspire to, not the ones I hope to get.

There is an exotic element in selling Morocco, with it’s sense of mystery. As an insider I prefer to offer an experience which blends a realistic cultural perspective, one which attempts to side step some of the more obvious locations for photos, with the traditional appeal of Morocco of a photogenic touristic location.

Sahara as a location in Morocco’s south east has all the virtues of the famous desert but plenty question if it’s actually part of the Sahara desert at all. You can read more about whether it is or not scrolling down.

Whilst the Sahara photography tours are comfortable they are photography focused with access to local people so you can spend more time perfecting compositions rather than negotiating for permission. You’ll also see a lot of the landscapes south and east of Marrakesh. Each day is nicely paced and night stopovers are spread between one and two nights so you won’t feel you’re completely living out of a  suitcase.

Riad-nezha-hotel-merzouga

What you will photograph includes; 

Ancient mud brick fortifications, weavers in their home, nomads, large and small markets for local shoppers, families at home, gorges, an oasis and canyons, dunes and camels. 

The tour excludes Marrakesh where street photography is very difficult for any photographer. We prefer to get out into the mountains, Berber villages and desert locations.  Your arrival the day before the tour start will give you the opportunity to explore Marrakesh’s main square at night and after the tour we can arrange a guided tour of the medina’s key sites for you, such as Majorelle Garden and Bahia Palace.

Photographic tour planning

Once on the road, you’ll spend the first few days in the High Atlas mountains in villages photographing local people, friends of mine. By the end of day 3, you’ll already have a collection of portraits, which you’ve had time to craft as well as fabulous crumbling mud Kasbahs or Ksars perched on precipices. You’ll also share tea and couscous with some of them.

For days 4-6 we move onto the first views of the desert, not the dunes, but an oasis village which again provides landscape scenes and opportunities into photographing local people both in their homes and on market day in the surrounding streets.

Days 7-10 is about photographing the dunes. Dunes photography has become somewhat of a challenge in recent years as tourist vehicles traverse the landscape in all directions. We prefer to concentrate less on the epic scale and more on developing a tighter compositional approach, one that is more abstract, interesting and indeed personal. The epic, wide views from atop are lovely but they are ubiquitous across social media. You’ll have the option of a camel ride into the dunes and accommodation in a desert camp so night star gazing and astro photography are on the itinerary.

Accommodation is varied on our Sahara photography tour, unique to each place and perfectly comfortable. It’s not luxury but the tour is about getting great photos and staying in the locations where there is access to these. Dining is also a treat and we have a couple of surprise packages for you. Alcohol is available and most of the night stops. You can find out more about the tour here and about what kinds of imagery is possible of the dunes.

Is travelling to the dunes near Merzouga the real Sahara desert and a Sahara photography Tour?

For some folk it doesn’t matter either way if the dunes there are the real thing. Online searches on where the far reaches of the Sahara reside are not conclusive. Travel websites also present conflicting information. So for the following I have received first hand feedback from experts in geography and also referred to better quality published research online. Wikipedia was useful for some referencing but it’s clear that it’s highly inconsistent when describing what the region is.

Both experts said the same; that boundaries are difficult to set due to a range of factors. It’s simply very hard to be sure but the following was a useful starting point;

‘The United States Geological Survey does not even maintain a database for boundaries or physical feature or regions even in the United States.

Regions are application-driven and highly susceptible to perception. Individuals might agree on the core of a region, but agreement deteriorates rapidly outward from that core. 

So many of the definitions of things like deserts can be influenced by what parameters you use and what values you use to define them. For example, how much rainfall over what period of time’.

From this I created three parameters; political, cultural and climatical which could help explain the boundaries of the Sahara desert.

Climatical

Frank White the botanist when describing the Sahara The  limits of  the  desert  are  somewhat  arbitrary,  but  the  ‘best  fit’  with  biological  reality  is  obtained  if  the  northern  limit  is drawn  to coincide  with  the   100  mm  isohyet’. 

This precipitation threshold dovetails with a recent study published in 2017 from the University of Maryland, which looks at the changing boundaries of the Sahara desert by compiling rainfall activity of 100 mm yr over a 100 year period.

The first link, 2nd map, clearly shows The Sahara overlapping into the South east corner of Morocco. The 2nd link shows the boundary in 1920 was higher including the north end and entire length of the 25km dunes, so there has been some contraction in this area.

https://e360.yale.edu/features/redrawing-the-map-how-the-worlds-climate-zones-are-shifting#
https://phys.org/news/2018-03-sahara-expandingworld-largest-grew-percent.html

The following research from 2001 uses a 50mm annual rainfall threshold which one would expect to place the Sahara’s northern boundary further south.

Figure 1a shows the area around Merzouga (Lat 31,Long – 4) just outside the Sahara desert, which is backed up out by figure 2. Figure 3, which looks at the overall trend using the most recent 20 year mean 50 mm annual rainfall places Merzouga inside the Sahara.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/251438973_Historical_and_future_trends_of_the_Sahara_Desert

Another website which drew my attention is below. On pages 8 and 9 we can view two maps covering rainfall and aridity.  The area around Merzouga clearly falls under the ‘hyper arid zone’. One indicator of desert status is the absence of grazing animals. There’s no grazing in the dunes at Merzouga.

http://www.oss-online.org/sites/default/files/OSS-MENA-DELP-Atlas_En.pdf

Flooding 

Flash flooding doesn’t inhibit desert status as we can see from this year from the Western Sahara where there was severe flooding. Annual rainfall over (30+) years is a more reliable indicator.

http://www.afrol.com/articles/11358

Erg Chichaga

The rainfall research showed this area is less likely to be part of the Sahara desert, even though it has a great feeling of wilderness.

Political

Here’s a Unesco report from a few years ago that looks at sustainable tourism development in the Sahara.

https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000119687

This is from page 21;

‘The route linking Dades and the Todra Gorge passes through the Atlas mountains…and on to the fringes of the Sahara as far as the Erg Chebbi dunes…Rissani, built in the 8th C. on the rubble of Sijilmassa and once one of the biggest caravan centres of the gold, salt and slave trade.’

A couple of points emerge. Firstly that Erg Chebbi dunes are described as ‘on the fringes of the Sahara’ and secondly that a historical perspective is an important factor. It appears Sijilmasa (now Rissini), known as the door to the desert, a little further north than Merzouga, was in historical terms, the desert edge, a settlement that would have facilitated grazing for food, not so far from arid land, the desert and expanse.

From Wikipedia;

‘Sijilmasa was a medieval Moroccan city and trade point at the northern edge of the Sahara in Morocco.’

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sijilmasa

Cultural

When I was younger I was fascinated about travel and adventure in the Sahara particularly those who crossed the empty quarter. That for me was the Sahara Desert, a wilderness area. The advance of civilisation in Merzouga, doesn’t fit with a romanticised vision of what the Sahara means should be. But we do have to imagine more than 50 years ago that there was nothing in this area, before the roads and hotels.

It also really matters how the local people self identify. The folk born in Merzouga who I’ve spoken to, identify as coming from the Sahara. The rainfall data and historical governance supports this. 

I also think the absence of a clear path south affects our perception of this area and its relationship to what it actually is. We cannot venture further so therefore by being on the edge we are not really in it. Edges, ‘fringes’ or in it. 

Conclusion

The 2017 study published in the Journal of Climate(2018), should update thinking about the extent of the Sahara. Perhaps future maps will be drawn according to this new research. Choose a Sahara Photography Tour with us to get the best photography opportunities and insights into Morocco.

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I'm a photographer running photography holidays and tours.

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