About seven hours from Marrakech, the paved road simply ends in the tiny hamlet of M’hamid. We forsake our rented Hyundai in favor of a 4 x 4, driven by an exotic looking chap wearing an indigo blue robe and matching turban. During the two-hour ride to our destination, Erg Chigaga, I try to summon a mental image of the Sahara Desert. All I have in my brain bank is a faded memory of some pictures in my high school geography textbook.
As we bump along a dusty track, the parched, crusty earth gives way to rolling banks of sand, and eventually, to towering dunes. Suddenly, an inviting cluster of tents materializes in the midst of the otherworldly terrain. Erg Chigaga looks surreal, a mirage in the otherwise barren landscape.
But Erg Chigaga is very real, the creation of two unlikely partners, Nick Garsten and Mohamad Boulfrifri. Garsten, a British native, polished his practice in management roles with the Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental hotel groups. He has deftly imbued Erg Chigaga with the accoutrements expected by discerning travelers. Boulfrifri, known as Bobo, is a lifelong resident of this inhospitable desert, yet has somehow perfected the role of the consummate host. Although unable to read, Bobo can amicably engage the guests of Erg Chigaga in any of the six languages he has mastered. His answer to all requests is, “Yes, anything is possible.”
We are welcomed with a cup of mint tea, and escorted to our quarters. Our tent is a lavish, expansive affair, with a private en-suite bathroom, opulent amenities, indulgent linens and cushy robes. The bed is unabashedly sensual, clad with a sequined-covered down comforter. The floor is carpeted with colorful handmade rugs which extend outward, linking with the other tents and the common areas. As the cosseted guests of Erg Chigaga, we can pad about the entire encampment like barefooted pashas, without so much as the nuisance of sand between our toes.
Throughout our stay, extravagant, multi-course meals appear as if by magic. A camel trek ends at an oasis, where a banquet materializes in the shade of a palm tree. The evening feast is a candlelit affair, served alfresco under a blanket of stars. We forgo private seating in favor of a communal table, where the easy camaraderie of kindred spirits ensues.
After dinner, Bobo and his turbaned team morph into musicians, casting ancient anthems into the glow of a bonfire. The repetitive, pounding rhythms ultimately inspire spontaneous primal dancing among all those in attendance. All I can say is that it made perfect sense at the time.
Days at Erg Chigaga are as active, or idle, as desired. For the frenetic, sand boarding and guided trekking, on foot or by camel, are arranged on call. For the languid, hammocks and cushioned lounging nooks beckon. Inevitably, any agenda at Erg Chigaga revolves around the sunset, when guests gravitate to the summit of a dune to toast the day’s end. An endless starlit sky provides a fitting encore.
On the eve of our departure from Erg Chigaga, I ask Bobo if we could be awakened pre-dawn, in order to watch the sunrise. His answer is the one I have come to expect, “Yes, anything is possible.” I drift off to sleep wondering how my request will be fulfilled. It is not as if he can ring us on the phone we don’t have in our tent. He cannot wake us with a knock on the door, because, well, our tent doesn’t really have a door.
In the morning, I find that even a wake-up call is a wondrous experience at Erg Chigaga. I am roused from my slumber by a gentle, but insistent, rhythmic sound. I rise from bed and peek out of the draped window. In the fading moonlight, I see a solitary silhouette in traditional Berber dress, seated on the peak of a nearby dune. He is solemnly announcing the approaching dawn with the beat of a goatskin drum.
The ethereal setting of Erg Chigaga leaves one with a sense of omnipotence; indeed, a feeling that, “anything is possible”. When you think about it, “anything is possible”, is not so much a statement of fact, as a state of mind; one that can lead you to unimaginable places, like Erg Chigaga.
ERG CHIGAGA, www.desertcampmorocco.com