Sahara Dreaming - a private camel trek
Updated: May 7
" It'll be the highlight of the journey"… how many times have I heard that said about a night in the desert on a trip to Morocco?
For many travellers lucky enough to have found themselves standing on the windswept dunes of Merzouga, a long day's drive from either Fes or Marrakech, the fleeting glimpse of a setting sun casting an impossibly golden hue across the horizon can indeed make the entire trip worthwhile. So iconic is this quintessential desert experience, that airlines now deliver tourists to within a hour's drive of the dunes, testing the limits of imagination for a one-night package to try and create the magic that the very name Sahara conjures.
Luxury camps with sparkling glassware and delicious bathroom toiletries are definitely part of the dream package - and this traveller, at least, readily forgives the trickle of warm water which constitutes the 'private bathroom' of even the best of $500-a-night desert splurges … it's a desert!
above, and below: $500-a-night rustic luxe, Sahara style
Divine! exotic, playful and Instagram-worthy (with 1000s of Japanese and Korean day-trippers to prove it).
But despite the sparkling sequins, my yearning for a different experience of the desert set me on a course that's taken two years, the devil of an amount of planning and a surprising amount of dirham. It's an evolving project - I'm sure there's more to come - for this life seeps into one's psyche.
The Sahara has historically been entered from the area that Moroccans call 'Sudan' (it means 'black', and refers to anything south of Sahara), and the East, by three portes, to use the French term, or doorways - Tiznit near the Atlantic coast, Zagora, leading towards Marrakech, and Merzouga close to today's Algerian border. These places were strategically positioned such that caravans traversing the desert would find refuge, take rest and pay the taxes on the wares they were carrying at these entrepôt, generating the great wealth which helped facilitate powerful families into ruling dynasties - the current king, Mohammed VI, is indeed heir to the Alaouite dynasty who hail from this south eastern corner of Morocco, the modern town of Rissani.
My ambition was to make a journey from one of these frontier towns to another, by camel. I specifically didn't want to take a picturesque circuit, a 'highlight tour'. No matter what the terrain, I intended to make a journey that real travellers made for real reasons … nothing to do with pleasure, but very much reflective of their work and trade requirements.. and I already had the shoes from the Rissani markets (soled with car tyre rubber and thick enough to resist the thorniest of desert vegetation).
Tracing out 'Zagora to Merzouga' on a small map, it seemed that the 250 km or so would be interspersed with oases intersecting rivers, with drifts of dunes interspersed with the black stony desert that so much of Moroccan Sahara consists of. Camels can comfortably walk 25 km a day carrying up to 250 kg, so this fitted into my time and budget, and I'd established that camel riding for hours did not leave me in staggering discomfort...
That this 2018 journey was planned for last Spring (2017), says more about my lack of knowledge than absence of resolve!
Arriving in Merzouga last April after studying Darija (Moroccan Arabic), in Fes for the previous month, and announcing that I had three weeks to complete my intended journey drew avuncular hmmms from my Berber host, who pointed out that late April was already too late, that the not only would the camels be unable to walk for so long in the heat, but the lack of adequate shade would be dangerous for everyone.
Crestfallen. "All I want to do is walk in the dunes!"
"Well, there are no dunes there " said Moha.
Revelation number 1. no dunes ???
"This is all stony desert. If you want dunes, you can walk here ?", his finger meeting mine on the map.
And so it was that Hassan, Hamid and I set off with two heavily laden camels through the magnificent mega dune known as 'Erg Chebbi', between Erfoud and the Algerian border (often less than 3 km away). As a first encounter with the Sahara, this would have been a gentle introduction - easy campsites, lots of dunes - but late April is indeed already too hot for long journeys, and three hours riding in the morning, even beneath a parasol, is a long time.
Between 11am and 4 pm, the camels were unpacked, their heavy saddles removed and they were left free to wander, albeit hobbled, while we spent the hottest hours of the day in the shadow of a date palm or slim, thorny tree, escaping sun and sandy winds.
Languid hours spent snoozing beneath a tamerisk tree, however, cannot be undervalued. There is something surprisingly intoxicating about having slightly too much to eat (Hassan's culinary ingenuity was a daily surprise), reclining on a cotton-wadded mattress and curling up beneath a cover to keep the sun and the flies at bay.
Awaking after a couple of hours of deep rest to reload our camels and continuing on 'til late sunset and camp - perhaps 5 hours riding each day - quickly became a quotidian ritual I readily fell into. The journey was fascinating. There was no detail I didn't greedily devour - from the medicinal and magical properties of the scant plant life, the tracks of darting wildlife, to a juicy sandfish caught before slippery sands swallowed him into safety (no, Hassan didn't eat it !)
Until, quite suddenly, pitting, headlong winds brought our progress to a halt, and a long-abandoned village (short video below), provided welcome respite for 48 hours.
With our food stocks low, the desert adage of 'survival on milk and dates' was almost tested. Making do, tomatoes long past their prime were given a zesty touch with finely chopped wild ruccola I collected amongst the dunes (really!), to make a delicious pasta sauce, and we shared the remaining olives as if it were a last supper. Breakfast was a little grimmer.
In reality, we were not more than a day's walk from the comforts of the small frontier town of Merzouga, but the illusion of desolation, abandonment and danger were oddly alluring. On the horizon a nomad family's tent cut a sharp shadow against the dipping sun, and two little boys milled around the long, dark tent where their mothers squatted against upright looms to weave the intricate rugs we collect with such enthusiasm for polished floor boards far away.
I took a handful of lump sugar (always a welcome gift in a culture where tea is served as syrupy as possible), as a calling gift for the ladies, and went to visit - I'd heard that the father of this family had three wives and all co-habited in an amicable arrangement. We exchanged almost coquettish glances - they from behind dark veils wound over head, face and mouth - and we pointed at various things and repeated the odd words we knew of one anothers' langauges, giggling shyly and contenting ourselves that we knew what the other was saying.
As we sat together, they chattily weaving over mint tea and lots of noisy children, it seemed that being a solo wife here would be a lonely and utterly exhausting business indeed. Sharing a husband did not seem such a bad solution. Lonlier still, were the little boys, desperately wanting me to produce a ball. (note to self for next time.)
below: vertical looms for weaving symbol-laden Berber rugs & a skin water tank tripod
Back at the abandoned village before nightfall - and how quickly darkness falls here - already the last night was happening, and despite the sensation that these days had been endless, the end was all too soon. The 5-day 'trainee' trip to see if I loved it all as much as I'd anticipated had already extended due to 'weather'... and I wasn't ready to leave.
Treading our our way wordlessly back to Merzouga the following day, tears welled heavily behind my headscarf. A spell was breaking. A strangely enchanted time, a space I can recall in minute detail, rendered even more fantastical by the wildly windswept cemetery through which we passed as we neared the town's limits.
Little did I know that as this sandy idyll drew to a close, the sadness I felt at departing was to be quickly assuaged by another Saharan adventure just over the horizon … there was not long to wait...
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Cheerio for now,