Will we ever get there? Do these guys know where they are going? Why did I ever think this would be ‘a walk in the park’? You really did overdo it this time. Did you ever stop to think maybe you were too old to take on such an adventure? Such thoughts were being triggered by my aching knees, a very sore posterior, stretched stomach muscles, and itchy eyes. I quickly realized that the only way for me to endure this pain was to keep my mind focussed on just why I was sitting on top of a camel on the edge of the Sahara Desert in the midst of a mini sandstorm. I had to think about what a great story this would be to tell my 6-year-old grandson.
Ever since my trip to the Negev desert in Israel over forty years ago, I have wanted to visit the desert again so the prospect of venturing out to the Sahara on a camel seemed like the ideal thing to do while in Morocco. When hubby and I arrived in Ouarzazate, we checked out the possibility of making my dream come true. We found out we could easily do a one night trek given the time we had and the state of our budget. As for accomplishing this with a camel, to our surprise we found this was impossible since Morocco doesn’t have camels. It only has dromedaries! What is the difference you might wonder? Well, camels have two humps whereas dromedaries have one, and Morocco only has those with one hump! I never knew!
Rather than opting for a complete package comprised of transport by mini-van or Grand taxi, with all the other trappings such as a guide, a camel, a traditional Moroccan dinner, a sleepover in a tent, and breakfast the next morning, we opted to rent a car and drive ourselves to the village of M’Hamid where we were to meet up with our guide. It was a less expensive option which gave us the freedom we cherish to travel and make stops along the way at our leisure. We couldn’t have done all of this on our own so instead of going to a tourist agency where information is not always reliable, we sought the help of Momo, our host at Maroc Galoxc where we were staying in Oaurzazate. We found him to be extremely reliable and knowledgeable. Our drive down was mostly easy with a good road and some terrific scenery which constantly changed from dry scrub with rocks and no trees, to suddenly beautiful green oases with huge date palms and orchards irrigated by the Draa River.
We had already decided that a one night trek would be the most we could handle. There are many other options available for longer treks to more beautiful dunes such as the famous Erg Chigaga or Erg Chebbi which are much larger but also will have more tourists. From M’Hamid, a little village about a five-hour drive south of Oaurzazate, we were escourted by two capable guides to see the Erg Lihoudi or ‘Dune of the Jews’. One other young couple from Germany accompanied us making a grand total of seven which included our two guides and the camel keeper.
Following introductions, our guide took us to a shop to buy turbans which hubby instantly decided he did not need. Here is a man who won’t even wear a hat so why should he buy a turban which he would never use again? Our guide was clearly distressed that neither of us bought one since I decided I could use a scarf I had recently bought at a medina. A piece of cloth almost the size of a narrow bedsheet would only stretch my already overloaded luggage to the limit. Needless to say, we should have bought our guide’s sale’s pitch as we later discovered when we found ourselves in the midst of the mini sandstorm.
Once the turban issue was settled, we were then taken on a tour of a nearby ksour which is a fortified village made of mud mixed with straw. It is similar to a kasbah which is often smaller as it is built to fortify a family home. The people who live here eek out a living from the arid land which is located in a palmerie, or what we know as an oasis, which is irrigated by an ancient water course coming from the Atlas mountains. For many years this part of the Draa Valley has suffered from drought causing many of the residents to move north. However, in the past few years and especially this year, the land has been blessed with much rain so the
palmerie was very green with numerous tall date palms, their major crop, and other crops such as, wheat, almonds, figs, apricots, and citrus fruit.
I think it was remarkable that the inhabitants allowed us the privilege to enter the ksour to see their simple style of life which really hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Except for a few TV sets, I didn’t see much evidence of the modern-day world. I asked about educational opportunities and found out that the present King has made education a top priority since he took over from his father. Apparently every village or town now has schools and children are encouraged to go but wasn’t able to find out if it was compulsory. This is a sorely needed change in a country which has a very high illiteracy rate.
I guess our guides knew we would not be having dinner any time soon so to fortify us for the upcoming ride out to the desert, we stopped for a short tea break at a local family home where we were served in true Moroccan style on colourful carpets spread out on the ground. The whole family from grandpa to the little toddler joined us for mint tea and salted peanuts.
At about six p.m. the four dromedaries (which I will call camels for simplicity’s sake) arrived with their keeper to whisk us away to the sand dunes. As we were walking towards them, I noticed some dark clouds forming in the west accompanied by a slightly stronger breeze. By the time we got to our camels, the sun was totally obscured by clouds of sand. The sand and wind were so bad that we had to take refuge in our cars while the three men struggled to get the animals loaded up with our provisions. As quickly as the wind came up, it as quickly subsided, so off we went.
I was quite smitten with the camels and made instant friends with the most handsome one: a curly-haired golden one. He had such a lovely smile and gentle eyes, and he gave me the thrill of my life when he so effortlessly hoisted me up into the air from his kneeling position on the ground. Unfortunately, we were not meant to be together for very long. After an hour or so, I had to hand him over to my hubby who was struggling to keep from sliding off his camel. Determining that I would be a better fit for his, the change was made for the rest of the trek.
The journey out into the desert where we were to camp for the night took us about two hours. After only an hour, I was ready to stretch my legs which were beginning to cramp up. There was no stopping as I didn’t want to be a complainer. Realizing that I just had to let go and trust my gentle camel, I discovered that letting my feet dangle was the solution for relieving some of my leg stress. When at last our guides decided on the best spot to camp for the night, I was more than happy to climb off my camel and feel the sand under my feet once more.
It was dark by this time and since it was overcast, we had no light from the stars and moon. It was just us and the desert and the tiny flashlight we had remembered to bring with us. The camels went off to munch whatever scrub or bush they could find, and we went off to explore as much as we could in the dark. We realized that the best help we could be would be to get out of our guides’ way as they pitched the tents and arranged their cooking facilities. Unfortunately, with the rush to get away and the chaos caused by the sudden sandstorm, the matches were either lost or forgotten so there was no way to light a fire. “No problem!” said our guides. ” One of us will hike over to a nearby Nomad village and get some.” In the meantime, we had more mint tea with bread, nuts, and dates and a golden opportunity to all get to know each other better.
Eventually, a delicious meal of lamb, vegetables, and couscous, accompanied with a traditional Berber soup, was assembled and served to us well after 10 o’clock. We were then serenaded with traditional Berber music sung and played on rustic instruments that one of our guides had brought with him. Well after midnight, the desert air, the long camel ride, and the huge dinner had taken its toll. Hubby was falling asleep, and I was beginning to cave so we had our guide make up our beds in our own little tent. By this time the sky had cleared just enough to let the stars peek through. We fell asleep the minute we put our heads down with hopes that we would see a morning sunrise.
The morning dawned far too quickly after one of the best sleeps we had had in a long time. For this we gave thanks to the complete dark and utter silence of the desert. Although there was no wind when we emerged from our tents in the morning, the sky was still overcast with no evidence of a rising sun. What rotten luck to have been cheated out of not only a desert sunset but also a sunrise! In fact, since clouds were ominously forming again, our guides set about preparing our breakfast right away, while we began to dismantle our tents. By 10 o’clock the wind was coming up again while we were hurriedly taking some last-minute pictures before heading out for the two-hour journey back. This turned out to be the most difficult part of all.
Not only did we have the wind and the sand to contend with, but also our stiff and very sore bodies from the day before. Thus, the return journey became the true test of our endurance.
To be more precise, I would have to say that the discomfort or pain level of the previous day was amped up at least three times. No matter where I put my feet or how I positioned my body, I could find no relief. Every motion of my camel called forth an ache from somewhere. My focus this time was on the long, hot shower I would take when I got back to Oaurzazate which would not be until early evening. I could get through this just for that reason alone. As for the sand which never ceased blowing completely, my sunglasses and scarf, which one of the guides had wrapped tightly around my head leaving just room for my eyes did the trick. Hubby had just his sunglasses for protection so I wasn’t surprised to see his white hair turned to the light brown hue of the sand. Not even his mustache escaped the change!
As I look back on our Saharan adventure, I realize that I would not hesitate for one moment to do it all over again. Hubby would not agree with me on this I know. Nevertheless, in spite of the pain and discomfort of riding a camel for the first time and the blowing sand, the benefits offered by such an experience in the desert far outweigh them. I shall not forget the complete silence and neverending expanse of the desert. Is it any wonder that I wasn’t surprised to learn from one of our guides that many tourists are now coming to the desert for longer periods just to meditate! I also have the greatest admiration for our guides* who managed so expertly the difficult task of taking us out there and for keeping up our spirits when they knew we were having our doubts. Finally, I am just so thankful that I did it and now have a story to tell my grandson when I get home.
* M’Hamid Tours was the company we used. They were very professional and their English speaking skills were good. Their website is http://www.mhamidtours.com.
I will be posting some pictures of our trek on facebook.com/people/Betty.Wright