In reality, it’s not that hard. Chances are, one will find you. We found one as far from the desert as Essaouira when we were wandering through the souks. Moroccans are excellent salesmen and will chat you up and find out where you’ve been and where you’re going, and they all have a cousin who runs camel treks in the Sahara.
The number one rule for making purchases in Morocco is that there is no set price for anything except bus rides.
In the Erg Chebbi area near Merzuga, there is no real centralized town. South of Rissani the paved road ends and breaks up into countless roadlets that locals and tourguides use to get out to any number of distributed outposts called Kasbahs. Each Kasbah is different, some are big fancy castles, some are mud houses. The one we went to was a small house with a small guest house inside a courtyard enclosed in 1 acre adobe wall.
You can stay for any number of nights there at the Kasbah and explore the large seasonal lake, Dayet Srji, by foot. You can also rent a 4×4 and drive around wherever you want. When the camel treks leave, they go out into the dunes to a number of camps composed of several Berber tents with bedrolls on the sand. They are quite comfortable and really cool to hang out in.
When the locals want you to trust them they say, “Look in Lonely Planet. I am in there!” Then 15 minutes later when you tell them what Lonely Planet says is a reasonable price for a camel trek they’ll ask you what edition you have, and claim that their information is out of date. Regardless, the book is a distraction. The camel trek is worth what you are willing to pay and what they are willing to accept.
The tricky part is that there isn’t a souk for camel treks. You have to either go out there and talk to them or hook up with one on the way. If you go out there, the transport for you to shop around could cost hundreds of Dirhams and take hours. In the cities, you really don’t have an idea yet of where you’re going and what’s involved in getting there and they make it seem more involved than it really is.
The first price they quote will be from 40 to 60% higher than what they’re willing to accept. But realize what you are getting into. Here’s a breakdown of the things involved in a camel trek:
Lodging in Kasbah: These range from rundown shacks with tepid weak showers to full on luxury. That would cost 120 to 300 DH in a city, except that the tents in the desert have no water, and no maids.
Food: Tagine for dinner. Bread and jam for breakfast. Would cost you 120 and 50 DH, respectively, in a city.
Camel trek: Keep in mind that CAMELS DON’T DRINK FOR SEVERAL WEEKS AT A TIME. So when they tell you they have to buy camel feed (THEY EAT NATIVE GRASSES) laugh at them, cause they’re laughing at you.
Guides: We had a single guide for our 2 night trip with 4 guests. I would be SHOCKED if he made more than 50 DH per day. He was a local of the area who lived in the Kasbah, or with family in local non-permanent lodging. He said he had never been out of the country (though he spoke 5 languages) and only went as far as Fes once and never wanted to go again. He had heard of Jmaa el-Fna and wanted to hear our stories.
Transport: Probably the biggest cost for them. You can get there in a car, but the roads are rough and larger groups with baggage would make car passage tough in wet times.
Erg Chebi outfitters
We ended up going with Kasbah Bivouac Lahamada. Our guide was Hadesh, a local who was a really great guide. He was funny and nice and cool. They have a Kasbah with camping and a number of rooms. They said they had hot showers, but we didn’t find them. We did find a spigot with tepid rusty water. The food was decent and the price was reasonable. I won’t tell you what we paid. Aside from being a douchey thing to do, I wouldn’t want to spoil the negotiations for you…
After our trip we had a few hours to kill in Rissani before the bus left. We ate lunch at the Café Panorama and visited for a while with the sons of the owner. Hassan Hafidi works in the café and also runs transport for the treks. He is an honest, smart and nice kid, and I can definitely recommend him and his brothers. If you get as far as Rissani and still don’t have something set up, try the Panorama.