Tales of the Sahara - Desert Cavalcade
A thunderous start, jumping palm trees and kicking it up in the Sahara.
Riding in the Sahara desert
"This drought has been going on for four years now. We really need the rain". As lightning strikes only a few hundred meters from us, I can't help but think of those words, spoken to me by a taxi driver in Marrakech just a few days prior. Well, today, the rain is torrential. We only just got in the saddle - we're on the first day of a week-long ride across the Moroccan Sahara - and already our riding skills and composure are being put to the test. While I understand the significance of this rain for someone, somewhere, I can't help but wish the drought had lasted for just a few more days as we struggle to regain control of our horses.
Our itinerary had promised excitement, spirited horses, and a sense of adventure. I expected all that, but it seems we got a bit more than we bargained for… I glance around at my fellow riders, a group of 7 riders from all over Europe. I know they're all competent riders, but I'm still relieved to see that they've managed to stay on despite the understandable nervousness of our Barb-Arab stallions. As the rain gradually eases, we venture into the palmeraie. I'm among the fortunate few who packed a rain jacket, but some guests are soaked to the bone. Abdel, our lead guide, manages to crack a joke, even though he's drenched too… and probably quietly pondering a career change.
My very first trail ride with Equus in 2017 was also with Abdel. We rode towards the great sand dunes of Merzouga, staying in charming guest houses along the way. I fell in love with my horse, Tissir, and lost my heart to the vastness of the desert. So when the opportunity arose to join the Desert Cavalcade, a 180-kilometer journey along the Draa Valley and deep into the Sahara, I jumped at it with both booted feet.
This time, my assigned horse is a dark bay stallion called Moonlight. I know that he is a guest favourite and a very experienced trail horse. As I get to know him, I discover he's indeed a very solid match. I had requested an independent and relaxed horse, allowing me to focus on capturing photos and videos along the way. As the days pass, it becomes clear that everyone is well-matched. Some riders sought a relaxed ride, while others wanted forward and spicy horses. We all found what we asked for and for some, it was even love at first sight!
Moonlight is very smooth to ride, with a comfortable easy canter and a nice trot. He's certainly easy to handle and I enjoy the views from the back of the pack. After a few hours in the saddle, we arrive at our first camp at the base of the Djebel Bani mountains. We quickly establish our routine for the next few days: tending to the horses, providing them with water and food before we can even think about changing into dry clothes. We assist with the tack as well before setting up our tents for the night. A brief bucket shower and hot water are always welcome after a long day on horseback, but not as much as the mint tea, biscuits, and little treats that await us after our camp chores. Our cook, Mohammed, consistently prepares delightful dinners, starting with the traditional chorba (soup), followed by a delicious main course of tajines, couscous, chicken, beef, or lamb with vegetables, and fresh fruit for dessert.
As the ride progresses, the horses really show us what they’re made of. On the second day, we ascend the Djebel Bani under glorious sunshine - nearly 1000 meters in elevation. The trail is typically narrow and winding, but is made even more challenging by the previous day's downpour, requiring Abdel to dismount and clear loose rocks. The horses are remarkable, climbing steadily without putting a foot wrong. They aren't even winded when we reach the summit, where we pause for a break and snap some photos. It turns out that Abdel is not just a skilled horseman but also a talented photographer!
The journey takes us through more open landscapes and vast plateaus where we experience true speed. Abdel explains his approach: we begin with a relaxed trot, two riders side by side. Once the horses feel settled, we transition into a steady canter. Abdel ensures everyone is in control before signaling us to align, side by side, with him at the center. It takes some effort as a few horses become a bit excited; Kenzo, a former racehorse, attempts to make a run for it before his rider reins him in. After a few minutes, we hear "Allez... Yallah yallah yallah!!" and then we're off, racing. The sensation of the horses lengthening their strides is exhilarating, and we reach incredible speeds as we give them their heads. Fabrice's sports watch confirms that the fastest riders reached speeds of nearly 60 kilometers per hour. We all feel giddy when Abdel signals us to slow down. We have sand in our teeth and a sparkle in our eyes. No doubt we'll sleep well tonight!
Each day of the week lives up to its promises, offering a variety of experiences. Some days we enjoy faster gallops, some days more relaxed canters. We cross sand dunes, vast ergs (rocky plateaus), canyons, villages... Did you think the Sahara was just a rocky expanse? Think again! Imme and I spot a fallen palm tree and joke about jumping it. The next day, Abdel finds us a lovely palm tree and we all have a go - and our small desert horses all jump beautifully.
Moonlight and I usually hang at the back with our back-up guide Ibrahim, who speaks little English but excellent French, so we converse easily throughout the week. Ibrahim has been with the company for over 20 years. He's got an easy, friendly demeanour and even offers to take my phone to video some of our canters and gallops. An absolute superstar!
The week flies by and before we know it, we arrive at our final stop by the Tinfou sand dunes. We let the horses go for a well-deserved roll, and share a couple of apples with them as a gesture of gratitude. Stopping at a cafe on our way to Ouarzazate, where we'll spend our last night, someone signals for the WiFi sign. Although I long to hear from my friends and family, I'm not quite ready to leave our desert bubble just yet. The real world can wait a little while longer.
Good to know
- Flying into Ouarzazate on this riding holiday can be difficult, but you can fly into Marrakech and take the shuttle (4hrs, supplementary charge payable locally)
- Most camping equipment is provided (tents, mattresses etc) but don't forget to bring your own sleeping bag and headtorch. The nights can be cold in the desert so pack accordingly!
- A buff and sunglasses is a must for those dusty canters! We also all wore gloves as a protection against the sun and to avoid unwanted blisters.
- Ascending the Djebel Bani is not for the faint of heart – a good head for heights is needed.
To find out more about this ride, please visit our website.
You can also contact us directly at email@example.com or give us a call on +44 (0)1905 388 977
You may also enjoy reading:
- Morocco: Horses, Dunes & Nomads