A Very Private Camel Trek - Sahara Dreaming: Part 1 revised edition 2021
Updated: Mar 21
We're heading off to the Sahara on a private 5-day camel trek. Before we start, how about some soulful desert-inspired music to set the scene?
Just HIT the photo above for sounds from Tinariwen, a renowned group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali. The band was formed in 1979 in Tamanrasset, Algeria, but returned to Mali after a peace accord. Their sound defined this journey for me ...
" 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!
This what $500-a-night rustic luxe, Sahara style looks like
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, a journey reflective of their work and trade requirements.
Prepared? Well, I already had the shoes from the Rissani markets (soled with car tyre rubber and thick enough to resist the thorniest of desert vegetation) and was raring to go.
Rissani is a noisy, thronging market place three days a week, but on a quiet Saturday afternoon, the second day of the Moslem weekend, I was lucky to find a stall holder still open. Tent pegs, camel saddles and not much else were available to buy today.
And I had a plan: 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 years ago in India that camel riding for hours did not leave me in staggering discomfort (although the look of those unforgiving wooden saddles was concerning).
Arriving in Merzouga in 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.
"Sorry", he said, pointing out that late April was already too late, and that 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 2 days later 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 (sometimes during our journey less than 3 km away).
On Day 1, having been dropped out at the first campsite around mid afternoon everything bode well - despite the most inhospitable stony plain (was Moha trying to make his point ?). There was even a 3-course candlelit dinner with napkins, and the tiny stained glass lanterns I'd brought from Fes glowed in the desert's darkness.
Glimpsing the golden sunrise through my partly-opened tent door the next morning was a joy. The camels had arrived overnight - I could hear them, um, digesting, a little way off, so
breakfasting briefly on tea, olives and bread, we loaded up for a quick departure, looking forward to a full morning's riding before the heat stopped us in our tracks.
Have you ever imagined what a camel 'dummy-spit' looks like?
Huffing and whinnying in a show of triumphant hubris, both beasts threw off the luggage we'd so carefully packed, tossing it all into the hot wind, strewing it far and wide, and nonchalantly resumed munching their thorny acacia bush.
Revelation No. 2 - choose your camels carefully.
Still trying to coax them into obedience 2 hours later, an embarrassed Hamid sent a local shepherd off to negotiate for seemlier beasts, while we walked to his hut for cover from fierce sun. With traditional hospitality, the shepherds' lunch of Berber omelette and bread was stretched to include the guests, and we all squashed up amongst the piles of tufted rugs made by their women (who never appeared) to rest and wait for replacement camels.
Having lost most of the day, two suitably docile animals were eventually walked into camp and loaded up, and with the liquid sun already seeping into the horizon we set off for our next campsite, very late, but undeterred.
Each day we aimed to set off by 7 and rode for about 4 hours 'til lunch.
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 !).
The terrain shifted from pebbly sand - sedimentary river beds eroded - to, eventually, the ochre dunes that Saharan dreams are made of. Undeniably beautiful, they are however, not very comfortable to ride on. The camels must be guided carefully along the ridges (which is why a camel driver must always walk with his camels), going uphill is arduous for all, and going downhill a scarily vertiginous descent.
I guess you're wondering about bathing. Pass. The camels refreshed themselves at a well, but well-swathed we all remained in the incessant wind, until an afternoon at an oasis of cool shadows when a trickling tap felt like a cascade!
Each day was the same, but different from the previous in a myriad of minute ways. The rhythm intoxicating - a low bass beat behind the melody.
Until, quite suddenly, on the 4th day, pitting headwinds welled up. We pulled our turbans to completely cover our faces, but the camels refused to walk against the biting sand. We had to halt.
Ahead, like a mirage on the sand-blasted horizon, low buildings promised some kind of safety, and for the next 48 hours, a long-abandoned village inhabited by a lonely Berber who'd made a kind of 'Baghdad Cafe' from the ruins, was our Aladdin's cave.
With 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 pasta sauce, and we shared the remaining olives as if it were a last supper. Breakfasts were a little grimmer.
In reality, we were not more than a day's walk from the relative 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' languages, 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, undertaken to see if I loved it all as much as I'd anticipated, had already extended to a week due to 'weather'... and I wasn't ready to leave.
Wind-howled afternoons in a cool, dark room of earthen walls, a last lantern-lit evening, winds quelled by the setting sun. That night I slept on a divan from where the night sky was there in the twinkling of an open eye, and sunrise that final morning was preceded by a starshine, so hugely bright I thought it was a spaceship - that is not a metaphor. I seriously have never seen anything like it.
Even the camels were strangely subdued that night.
Treading our our way wordlessly back to Merzouga after two days here, 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 Berber 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 ...
PART 2 of Sahara Dreaming : YALA! That's 'Let's go' in Arabic
Thank you for reading. If you would like to receive my travel stories and postcards straight into your inbox, please consider subscribing to my occasional newsletters
If you're interested to know more about two new tours to Morocco in 2022
and You Must Remember This : Casablanca to Fes (Sea to Sahara, October 2019)