Camping in the Sahara with Nomads and Camels

The bulk of my friend’s and my Moroccan vacation was spent on a Sahara Desert excursion with a group of mostly European foreigners coming from countries such as Belgium, Italy, and Spain with a few members from Brazil and Korea. We were the only Americans. However, many of our group members spoke English and French and those that didn’t could translate through their friends or spouses.

I must note that paid-in-full excursions are not my usual fare, but my friend and I made a compromise. We would travel in a way that was comfortable for him this time, and later we would travel my way to the beach and Agadir. It turned out to be a good compromise because the excursion was fantastic! The group was small and around the same ages as us, mostly traveling in male/female pairs (husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, university friends) other than the Brazilian and Korean males who were alone, adventurous and fun. All but one are now our friends on Facebook.

We left Marrakech in our large tour van and proceeded hours south through the red red Atlas Mountains. These amazing mountains are one of the main reasons the Sahara Desert exists at all. They are so high that the moisture from the Mediterranean does not reach their southern borders and little rain falls there. These are also the very mountains that the colorful cobalt come from.

A few times we stopped over the mountain pass on our way. And a little farther down the road we stopped to wander through a hill-side village where a scene from the film Gladiator was filmed. There was also an area of jagged rocks formed by geological uplift farther up the road.. The whole region was a geological dream!

We spent that night in a long, narrow hotel nestled between two cliff faces. Eating and drinking as a group and forming the fleeting-yet-forever friendship of adventurers and travelers.

The next morning we drove south all day toward Erg Chicaga, stopping at another local hillside village. We were given a tour of the nearby farmland and taken through the winding streets to the top of the hill overlooking the town.

For tea we were invited into the home of two nomads, a husband and wife, who designed and wove fantastic Moroccan carpets. We were walked through the process and in the end, my friend chose this place to purchase his much desired rug.

We made a brief stop to secure scarves for the desert trip and learned to tie them in the Berber fashion.

After our farm and carpet foray, we stopped for lunch and it was not, as never before in Morocco, good. The whole group sat around a large table to break bread. My food was gross. I ordered wrong. Everybody else’s food looked and smelled delicious, but my choice had went astray. I, who am trained to swallow any strange thing in front of me, could not eat it. Instead I munched on crackers back in the van.

On the southern side of the Little Atlas Mountains we entered an area of cliffs where we got out and played in a small stream between towering cliff-faces. After, we entered a vast and flat land with features that looked like a thousand dug and abandoned wells, although we were never really sure.

We arrived at Erg Chicaga close to sunset and were immediately piled upon camels and set off into the 300-meter high stationary sand-dunes. My camel was the tallest of the camels and the first in it’s line. But my line of camels was the last of three. My friend’s camel, though much smaller than mine, led the entire group the the gathering dusk following three Berber nomads in blue attire.

The sun set as we set out into the desert and the following miles were traversed under the cover of darkness without headlamp or torch. On we went around the bending and falling dunes until the hard saddle felt painful where it pressed my bottom-side and the conversation I had been carrying on with my group’s nomadic leader-on-foot in French was waining.

(If you have never been on a camel, I recommend riding one through crazy-steep sand dunes for miles in the dark. You can’t see anything, but you get a great feel and trust for the movement of the camels.)

Then, at long last, we reached nomad’s tents where we joined another, similar-sized, group of tourists. We not-grudgingly exited the backs of our camels and went down to dinner. A nomadic kitten played under our feet trying to steal our food and our tea as we lounged around candles and on carpets in the sand. After dinner, there was drum and vocal music put on by our hosts and, despite the fantastic sounds, I drifted into a stupor.

I was woken from my relaxation by the distribution of tents. The two single male travelers of our group chose straw mats in two different tents leaving only one mat in each and my friend and I still without beds. Out of curtesy, our hosts arranged another tent which we shared alone.

When the bedding had been arranged, a trip to the top of the 300-meter high sand dune was arranged. The sand was very deep and it was very dark out. I am afraid that I didn’t make it to the first shelf, half way up to the top. I was exhausted before starting and my heart wasn’t in it. I was not alone, however. One of our Spanish colleagues gave up at the same time as me after one of our Berber hosts had comically tried to pull her up the dune. We sent my friend and her husband on without us and only asked that they leave the flashlight.

We sat there for a while in the cool sand letting our breaths return to us. We gesticulated at each other because she only spoke Spanish. There was a point where I had to pee before going back down the dune and she kept watch. The mime for bathroom is something I mastered in Africa so it is appropriate that I used it again on the continent that stole my heart so many years ago.

The two of us made our way back to the camp where we sat with two of our hosts, one of whom spoke a little Spanish and some French, the other spoke a little English. Between the four of us, we had a good half-hour long conversation before we relaxed back into silence while following the points of flash-lights climbing the mountain of sand above us.

In time we heard shouts and, looking up, saw a group of figures come hurling down the mountain by moonlight. Whooping and jumping and falling. All that time our men had spent climbing that dune only to reach the bottom in a matter of exhilarating minutes.

We got a few precious hours of sleep before my friend and I heard those around us stirring outside the tents. In order not to be late, we got up and dressed in our camel-sweat scented clothes and exited the tent only to find that everybody were already on their camels and preparing to leave!

Five in the morning with not even five hours of sleep and we woke by running up a small sand dune in front of our group of friends to our camels. Our hosts had forgotten us in our separate tent. Luckily there was no time to feel the shame of being late and we were not late enough to seem anything more than stragglers. Our friends had only been on their camels for a minute or two.

We ventured back into the unmarked dunes and within a half-hour saw the sun rise over the sand. Our sore back-sides were dulled by our weary, caffeine deprived bodies and the vistas around us. After some miles we left the dunes and sat down to a breakfast and a change of clothes, but not a shower so little good it did us.

Our van was a bittersweet ride. It was so much more comfortable than the camels, but so much less amazing. It did lend itself to sleep without missing too much of the countryside as it was the same road back that we had taken forth. We stopped for an early lunch at a small restaurant along the road and this time I was not disappointed by my meal.

We stopped mid-afternoon at a cinema museum where my friend and I took fun photos and wandered the sets of obscure B-films, many of which with religious plots. Morocco, apparently, is a great place to represent the middle-east in films. Towards the end of our limited time, I paid a street musician to play a song for me. Well worth the extra money I gave. I only wish I had it on film.

Back through the Atlas Mountains we travelled and arrived in Marrakech by nightfall, on the corner of the old-market and within sight of our chosen café. Our excursion was over. It was epic.

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