Erg Chigaga (also called Chegaga)

This is an area of sand dunes located on the western border of the Souss-Massa-Draa area of Morocco between the towns of M’Hamid el Ghizlane and Foum Zguid, southwest of the larger town of Zagora. The size of the area is hard to guess if you are not land surveyor.

There are numerous desert camps located on the northeast edge of the dune area that offer overnight accommodations for tourists through tour companies located in the aforementioned towns. The dune area can only be accessed via 4X4 (or a long camel trek) since the closest paved roads end at M’Hamid in the east (a 2 hour drive) or Foum Zguid in the west (3 hours by vehicle).

You should be careful because lots of desert tours will promise you a nice camel trip from Zagora, but Erg Chigaga are a good 4-5 day away. If you're going for 1-2 nights from Zagora by camel, you will not see the sand dunes, just rocky desert, which is uncomfortable for a camel ride and not so pretty. The locals say the simplest and best for the camels is to start in M'Hamid.

The track from M’Hamid or from Foum Zguid traverses mixed desert terrain of sand, mud flats and stony desert (hamada) traveling between two distant mountain ranges to the north and south following the wide ancient path of the Draa River in its southern reaches. Beyond the southern mountain range lies the closed border of Algeria, approximately 25-30 km south of M’Hamid.

The dry bed of Lake Iriki lies west of Chigaga. It was once part of the route of the storied Paris-Dakar rally and it is easy to attain speeds of 80 km/hr on this flat cracked-mud surface. The landscape is a bit hilly with occasional oasis  and the stony hamada is particularly evident on the last arduous hour of the approach to Foum Zguid but for rock hounds there are parts that are very fossil-rich.

Other lesser dune areas visible on the trek to Chigaga from M’Hamid include Erg Mezouaria and Erg Ezzahar (or Zehhar) although it is hard for the casual tourist to distinguish one from another.

The actual greater Erg Chigaga dune area is about 30-40 km long and 10-15 km wide with low dunes interspersed with small flat pan areas. The tallest dune is called Lhabidia or La Grande Dune (29°50'31.78"N, 6°12'35.76"W) and it is approximately 120m high.

The desert camps are typically within sight of this dune. Camps offer accommodations in tents or semi-permanent mud-walled cabins. There is no electricity (except with noisy generators), and no cell phone service although one of the camp operators reputedly has a satellite phone for medical emergencies. A typical camp stay involves a late day arrival with dinner and entertainment supplied by the camp staff around a communal fire with an early morning departure after a modest breakfast. Some camps offer wine for purchase.

There are nowadays not so many Nomads, unfortunately, they might now prefer to stay a bit closer to civilization, so to speak. The only permanent modern structure is an unused school north of the dunes. Some Germans built there the school for nomad children, but it is empty because there are no children nowadays.

Chigaga is part of an arid area that is technically part of the North Saharan steppe and woodlands ecoregion. Certainly not barren, acacia trees and numerous flowers and desert plants (berberis in particular) are visible as well as nomad livestock – camels, sheep, goats, donkeys – which can often be seen grazing in the greener areas or clustered around remote waterholes depending upon the year’s rainfall and the time of year.

It is a fascinating area with a stunning arid landscape and well worth the effort to visit.

Somewhere near Zagora, there are old paintings in the rocky mountains.

 

(Khamlia/imcarthur)