The Sahara is the world’s largest hot desert and one of the harshest environments on the planet. It is third largest desert overall after Antarctica and the Arctic, which are cold deserts.
At 3.6 million square miles (9.4 million square kilometers), the Sahara, which is Arabic for “The Great Desert,” engulfs most of North Africa. The desert covers large sections of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia.
The Sahara is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the western edge, the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Red Sea on the east, and the Sudan and the valley of the Niger River on the south. The Sahara is divided into western Sahara, the central Hoggar (Ahaggar) Mountains, the Tibesti Mountains, the Air Mountains, an area of desert mountains and high plateaus, Ténéré desert and the Libyan desert, which is the most arid region.
In the north, the Sahara reaches to the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt and portions of Libya. In Cyrenaica and the Maghreb, the Sahara experiences a more Mediterranean climate with a winter rainy season.
Major cities located in the Sahara include Cairo, Egypt; Tripoli, Libya; Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania; Tamanrasset, Ouargla, Bechar, Hassi Messaoud, Ghardaia, and El Oued in Algeria; Timbuktu in Mali; Agadez in Niger; and Faya-Largeau in Chad.
Climate and geography of the Sahara
The Sahara’s northeasterly winds can reach hurricane level and often give rise to sand storms and dust devils. Half of the Sahara receives less than an inch of rain per year, and the rest receives up to 4 inches (10 centimeters) per year. The infrequent rain is usually torrential.
The highest peak in the Sahara is the volcano Emi Koussi (11,204 feet or 3,415 meters) in the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad. The desert’s other mountains and mountain ranges include the Aïr Mountains, Hoggar (Ahaggar) Mountains, Saharan Atlas, Tibesti Mountains, Adrar des Iforas and the Red Sea hills.
Many people imagine the Sahara as dotted with sand dunes, and the desert does have its share of ergs, which are large areas of shifting sand dunes, with some of some of them reaching 590 feet (180 meters). However, most of the Sahara is characterized as rocky hamada, a type of desert landscape that has very little sand and is made up of primarily barren, hard, rocky plateaus.
With the exception of the Nile River, the Sahara’s rivers and streams are irregular or seasonal. The Nile crosses the desert from its origins in central Africa to empty into the Mediterranean.
The central part of the Sahara has extremely limited vegetation. The northern and southern reaches of the desert, along with the highlands, have areas of sparse grassland and desert shrub, with trees and taller shrubs.
— Kim Ann Zimmermann
Camel trekking in the Sahara
Red sand dunes in the Moroccan desert
While I wish you could still ride the old camel caravans from Morocco to Egypt, I settled for one night under the stars. Turns out riding a camel for an hour is pretty uncomfortable, but seeing the beautiful color of the desert up close and personal, camping with Bedouins, and gazing at a million stars with no light pollution made it all worthwhile. There’s an eerie silence in the desert when the wind dies down and you feel a great sense of peace, just sitting and being in nature.
Fun fact: It rained while I was in the desert. There was a crazy, crazy lightning storm — one of the most intense I have ever seen. The roar of the thunder sounded like a million bombs going off, and the lightning turned night into day. It hadn’t rained all year but that night the sky opened up for a brief moment to let out all her anger. Surreal.
Hiking the Atlas Mountains
Small houses dotting the side of a mountain in Morocco
The Atlas Mountains cover most of Morocco, and we spent a lot of time in the low, middle, and high parts of the range (it’s hard not to). My favorite part was when we traversed the High Atlas range, climbing for an hour to reach a small farmhouse, where we stayed the night with a local family (who cooked us the tastiest tagine dinner and Berber omelet of the trip).
Arriving early and leaving late the next day, we had plenty of time to hike and explore the surrounding area. I love a good hike, so I enjoyed the opportunity to really get out into nature, walk through riverbeds, and see Mt. Toubkal (North Africa’s highest peak) in the distance. Next to the camel trek, this was my favorite experience.