Camping, Camel Riding and Cultural Tours in the Sahara Desert Kingdom of Merzouga
“Take only what you need and water! The rest leave here!” exclaimed our driver, Ahmad. He was a man that never smiled and always yelled out “Yallah!” let’s go in Arabic. I had arrived in Morocco two days prior, before tediously traversing South East of the Sahara Desert on a ten-hour drive with my friends. A few hours after arrival, my friends told me that they were going to visit the Sahara the next day. Naturally as a spontaneous adventurer, I was in. We quickly gathered a few belongings, left the rest at the back of our tour van and hurried towards the camels. The sun was a solid thirty-five degrees Celsius. My skin was getting brutally stabbed by daggers of unforgiving rays of sun. As tired as we were, we dragged our feet accompanied by squinted eyes covered by sun glasses and a constant thirst nearing borderline dehydration to the caravan of camels that awaited us.
The Sahara Desert has always sparked my curiosity. It’s the third largest dessert in the world and the largest in Africa. Sahara in Arabic means “greatest dessert” and has been the inspiration towards the culture and way of life for all living things in this part of the world. The sand dunes are vast and can reach to over five hundred and ninety feet. I set out to explore and get a true feeling of what the Sahara was like. Every bone in my body wanted to have a real desert experience in a night underneath the stars in the Sahara.
Saharan camels are normally arranged in lines with rope to connect one camel to the next. These camels were old and were constantly spitting and excreting. Their fur was dirty and branded. I highly doubted if they could carry me safely to our camp. One after the other we were instructed to line up and get on the camel. I watched my frightened friends climb the camels and then it was finally my turn. I’ve never enjoyed camel riding. I find the ascending uncomfortable and maintaining the balance on the camel is tricky. As all of our camels were up, we began our hour and a half long journey to our camp.
As the camel moved each step, my body and feet were swinging along to its movement. Pankaj was leading our caravan heralding us into oblivion with “California” by the Eagles blasting loudly in the desert wild. I loved the Eagles! I asked Pankaj which other rock bands he listened to. He seemed as if he would fall off the camel with his long legs dropping below. He spoke of his love for the classics like Queen, AC/DC and Guns and Roses. When all hope seems lost and have a meaningful conversation in the middle of nowhere it lifts the spirt a little. The camels walked like a seesaw and we were the children riding them.
My camel kept sliding from side to side from the slippery dessert sand which made me nervous, I thought I was going to fall. The hump on the camel’s back makes it easy to put a saddle on top but hard for the saddles to remain in the middle thus makes you move left to right constantly like jello whilst trying to hold onto the handle. Sue was leaning leftwards, slipping and sliding with her saddle but somehow she managed to maintain balance. It was evident that the camels felt uncomfortable following each other. They kept missing a step along the hot dessert sand and it was inhumane to be riding poor animals for leisure. The guides forcefully pulled at the rope which was next to the camel’s mouth. The camels pulled back rebelliously and refused, crying out in annoyance They were lashed by the strong whip the guide held ordering it to ‘behave. This back and forth increased the camel’s agitation but sadly they could not escape.
We were surrounded by pyramids of sand stretching far beyond what the eye can see. The sand was so fine and crisp in its honey golden colour. It was gleaming and glowing. The dunes varied in size, some ranging from three hundred feet to others at fifty feet. The sand seemed so lifeless and barren like no poor creature had a chance of survival in this natural sandbox. I’d never seen so much beauty in prism shaped dessert dunes. There were magnanimous mountains of yellow twilight accompanied by smaller sinking seas of sand. Pankaj told me of his home in India and how the heat in the dessert was incomparable to India. I couldn’t fathom at the moment a place hotter than the Sahara. But he reassured me that India is a beautiful country and I must make the effort of visiting it someday. The slopes were steep and there were some pits of sand that edged below the surface; no permanent structures in this Arabian heaven. Even the camel’s footprints got blown away by the wind. It was treacherous but so stunning. One of earth’s natural wonders. The Sizzling Sahara that dazzled past the horizon.
The sun’s rays were scorching and omnipresent along with the swarm of flies that accompanied us. Angela was adamantly brushing them off with her purple scarf, frantically swinging her arms in the air. The sun was merciless and the wind brutally humid. My head scarf kept being blown off my head and my legs, hands and back couldn’t escape the wrath of the sun. Slowly, I could see tents in the horizon and I knew this agony would be over soon. Pankaj shouted “CAMP’S HERE!” to reassure the others. There was a sea of camel faeces that awaited our burnt feet as we descended from the camel’s. I hated the descent because of the sudden movement that the camel makes while putting its fore legs down which is sometimes violent and sudden. The faeces felt like prickling stones against my soft sandals. At least the camels could finally rest.
The sun was descending and the atmosphere was cool. Our tented camp was literally an oasis in the Sahara. Life seemed to calm down and the elements were at our disposal. We left our shoes and luggage in the room and ran into the dessert wild! The sand was so soft and warm it felt like each grain was kissing my feet as we moved along. It wasn’t like walking in the sand but more of a refined gliding movement because each step created new footprint. I ran; dune after dune. Enjoying the very reason that brought me here. The peace and tranquillity I felt in this moment was so soothing; like a desert girl and I had always belonged here. Carlo and I managed to strike a pose with the beautiful background. We embarked on a journey to climb the surrounding dunes, Angela and I raced endlessly across the dunes, up and down, rolling through the sand with our feet almost flying past the ground. In this moment we were free. I closed my eyes to take in the moment that I’d never forget.
As sunset began approaching, we began to climb the largest dune around, close to three hundred feet off the ground to get the best view. It was tumultuous and difficult. I realized how unfit I was when I was heaving out of breath. Regardless heaving on, slowly but surely to the top. The view was absolutely insane. You could see the shapes of all the dunes from high above and anybody that was far away looked like an ant. We sat down and watched the sun set. The rays changed from bright yellow to a calm hue of orange. The sky was clear and there was pin drop silence as we were all in awe at one of nature’s spectacles unveiling before our eyes. The sun’s rays sprinkled over the valley of the desert giving the dunes one last call to life before the night-time. They shimmered in colours of red, orange and bright yellow, bidding the earth goodnight. In a slow motion movement, the sun descended before our eyes leaving a splash of orange in the sky. The sun looked so isolated from all other forms of human existence. It’s like she was performing in a show and we had front row seats witnessing this delight.
After sunset, the darkness began to appear across the sky faster than a swarm of locusts. We walked back to the campsite and lay down in the sand looking up at the ever growing stars. It was one of the most aesthetic sights I’ve ever seen. All the stars were so clear in the night sky. They twinkled, dazzled and shone brighter than I’d ever seen. You could see the shape of each star blazing beautifully in space. My hand reached out, as if I could grab them. I belonged to nature and to stars but especially the moon. It was a full moon that was reflecting rays of perfection; the centre piece to nature’s mosaic collection. Truly a work of art. I could lie down on the desert sand forever.
At this point we were lying down on the sand, heads facing the serene sky, humbly watching. We were all hypnotized by the stars. There was a shooting star that I didn’t see. Sue saw it instantly made a wish so by the time I asked “When?” the Star had disappeared. There was a debate because of a bright light moving slowly in the sky. Carlo said it was a satellite and Angela said it was a plane. This stole the silence away and led into deep conversations about the nature of the world, politics and why things are the way they are. I’ve always loved such deep conversations with a group of good people. You feel obliged to make promises and plan for the future. It’s like people’s superficial façade fades away and they can be their real selves, mystified by the Saharan stars. Fiza made me promise to come and visit her in India. She was the sweetest of us all, so caring. I told her of my plans to travel the world. There are a few people you meet in life that you feel comfortable sharing your dreams with and she is one of them.
Beating drums and a bright fire suddenly burst our bubble. Derboukas (Arabic drums) were playing in the distance. Berber men began to dance and sing. Their dancing got everybody on their feet and in a few minutes we were all wiggling and gyrating to the beat of the drums. Bodies were moving effortlessly to the sound of music. Flowing in a state of freedom. We all sat down in a circle, I sat next to Angela and Sue, the two Chinese girls. Angela lay her head on my shoulder, all of us swaying to the soothing sound. Drums and symbols were passed around the circle. It was our task to make beats that resonated with the main beating drum. Carlo was first, his beat was off tune. Fiza, Pankaj and Angela refused to participate. When the drums were passed to me, I was in perfectly synchronized. The drummers shouted “Mama Africa!” Music had always flowed so easily in me and in my culture. It was time to get on our feet and dance. The rhythm was swift. I swayed my hips to the harmony of the instruments. The Chinese girls were shy. I instructed them up and taught them a few steps. Everybody was laughing and singing in Berber, music brought us together. It was either the desert or the drums that united us but we were getting along and we were all happy. My night in the Sahara was simply spectacular.
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