Before I left the hospital I made sure to ask my doctor one very important question: ‘will I be able to ride camels in the Sahara next weekend?’ He looked at me a bit funny and said “yes, just try not to get sick.”
A week later I was on a bus heading south. We drove through the green fields around Meknes, through the snow covered mountains between Ifrane and Azrou and then descended into the desert. We drove for almost 8 hours watching as the landscape decayed into dust.
I’m not unaccustomed to deserts. I’ve lived in Phoenix for the past three years but Merzouga was something entirely different. We pulled into the tiny town just as the sun was dipping below the horizon. In front of us were massive sand dunes, glowing orange in the dying light. It looked like the opening scene of Aladdin, both beautiful and totally unreal, like someone had just painted these orange masses on an otherwise flat landscape.
Sand dunes at sunset
We threw our bags on to a tractor, which we followed into the dunes to a circle of camel hair tents that we’d call home for the next two nights. Our bags were piled in the middle of the tents and I picked through the mess trying to locate my jacket, backpack and water bottles. I found the jacket and the backpack, unfortunately the water bottles where nowhere to be found, ideal for the desert. Thankfully my friends donated some of their water so I was able to survive the next two days.
Home sweet home
With our luggage all sorted and dinner nowhere in sight we proceeded up to the dunes to feel the sand between our toes and watch what appear to be a never-ending sunset.
A walk in the Sahara at sunset
Slowly people made their way back to the circle of tents where our hosts, three young Tuareg men clad in blue robes and giant turbans, had started a rousing drum performance which was slowly taken over but much less talented Americans. Before we could get too far dinner arrived.
As the night wore on people made their way out to the dunes, some toting tiny bottles of wine, others determined to cross the desert and climb the giant dune in the distance. I ended up in bed early, but woke up around 3 am when the wine-totting group returned to camp. Unable to slip easily back to sleep I went out and joined another group talking quietly up on the dunes under the most amazing sky of stars I’d ever seen. Roughly an hour later I found my way back to my tent and into my sand covered sheets.
I woke up to lights peaking through the holes in the roof of my tent. I poked my head out of my tent and realized the sun wasn’t even up yet. I grabbed my camera and set out across the dunes. I was followed by a Tuareg man who insisted he knew the best place to watch the sunrise and, impervious to my efforts, ended up just following me to the top of a dune maybe five minutes from camp.
Sunrise in the Sahara…better go get my sunscreen
Once I got the shot I took a moment to enjoy the fact that I was watching a sunrise in the Sahara Desert before heading back to camp. Once I got back the Tuareg man immediately unpacked his bag and began laying out little stone camels and jewelry. “A moment,” he said, “for Berber crafts.” This isn’t an uncommon thing in Morocco, but it was expected here in Merzouga where tourism was the driving force behind this tiny village in a sea of sand.
I walked back to camp, waving and calling “la shukran” (‘no thank you’ in Arabic) over my shoulder. This was unnecessary since the man spoke perfect English, but it’s a habit I’ve picked up in the past few months.
I crawled back into my sandy sheets and slept until breakfast. After a little bit of milwee and a reluctantly ingested hardboiled egg I emerged from the breakfast tent to a flurry of multicolored scarves. I joined my fellow Americans and began digging through the piles of cotton to find the perfect color for me. Instead I found the perfect color for my little sister and then finally found the dark blue I was searching for. I bought both, then stood awkwardly as one of the men wrapped the scarf around my head and pulled it over my face.
Dressed to impress
I coated the rest of my exposed skin in sunscreen, grabbed my camera and jumped into one of the 4X4s waiting to take us across the desert.
Speeding across the Sahara
We stopped within a few minutes at a small building where we were treated to a performance of Gnawa, traditional west-African music performed by an extremely talented group of men dressed all in white and possibly the cutest little boy known to man. We listened and we danced and had a grand time before we were loaded back into the 4X4s.
Singing and dancing in the desert
We speed across an alien landscape of bright orange sand and a few hours later I was in my bathing suit plunging into an ice-cold pool at a fancy hotel at the edge of the dunes. After a bit of a lounge in the sun and a little bit of lunch we changed and set off through rows of palm trees. Then we saw them…our camels.
They were smelly and they grunted a lot. I watched as one hopped awkwardly to its feet and the girl on its back yelled. I was suddenly very nervous. I am intimidated by horses and camels are taller and significantly more awkward looking. I was finally coaxed onto a camel by one of our guides and suddenly jolted into the air.
My knuckles turned white as I gripped the one handhold I had. Eventually I began to grow accustomed to the slightly awkward swaying of my camel and actually began to enjoy myself. About five minutes in I realized camels aren’t as comfortable as one would think. I tried to readjust myself in the saddle and was greeted by a grunt and my camel swung his head around to glare at me. I apologized and finally named my camel, Ornery.
We rode for about 40 minutes, my body trying, and failing, to match the awkward bobbing and jolting motion of my mighty desert steed. We finally stopped at the base of a giant orange dune. I then realized getting off a camel is much worse then getting on. Especially if your camel’s name is Ornery and refuses to put his hind legs down, leaving you hanging on for dear life, trying not to slide out of your saddle and on to your camels head.
After that scarring experience I was rewarded with a climb up a sand dune…where every step forward sent you sliding a few inches backwards. Once at the top I was allowed to simply sit and take in a Saharan sunset and a panoramic view of smooth orange sand as far as the eye could see. The scene was breathtaking even with the obnoxious guys on ATVs and 4X4s.
My last sunset in the Sahara
We sat there until the sun sank below the horizon then went barreling down the side of the sand dune toward our camels.
We crossed the desert as darkness set in and the stars began to unfold above us. We zigzagged through the twilight towards the flickering lights of our campsite. Flickering only because our generator was not that most reliable of machines. We said our goodbyes to our new smelly camel friends and hobbled back into camp.
Camel rides at sunset
After dinner and more drumming we pilled up the wood we’d collected on our journey through the mountains and built a fire. While I did wander into the desert a bit I ended my night around the dying embers of the fire under an unpolluted sky glittering with stars I forgot even existed, or maybe had never even seen. I walked back to my tent as the morning call to prayer rang across the dunes.