I’m at the edge of the mighty Sahara Desert in southeast Morocco , only fifty kilometers from the Algerian border. As the freshly paved asphalt road turns into sand my tour bus grinds to a halt. It looks like I’m at the end of the road, but this journey has just begun. Before you can say pass the couscous my travel mates and I are booted off our air-conditioned coach and shunted into 4WD trucks. As we rocket across the world’s largest desert at breakneck speed, my biggest misconception about the Sahara is instantly shattered: it ain’t just sand! The terrain around us actually looks more like an enormous grey sandy plateau. Gaunt shrubs dot the landscape. I even spot the odd scrawny tree.
Tire tracks zigzag in every direction, yet our jovial Berber driver seems to know exactly which route to follow. As we race the three vehicles that carry the rest of my group, his gap-toothed grin turns into maniacal laughter. My guess is that he’s made this trip once or twice before.
One white-knuckle hour later we thankfully take a break for a pre-arranged visit to a traditional Berber tent home. Designed to keep out scorching midday heat and to retain warmth during frigid nights, the capacious structure is made from cloth and reinforced with sturdy wood beams that can stand up to the harshest wind storms. A leathery old woman inside bids us to sit on cushions scattered across a floor covered with those famous multi-colored Berber rugs. She then kneels and pours each of us a robust cup of sweet mint tea. Other than a miniature wood stove and a couple of tiny tables there’s little furniture.
Back outside I inspect an adjacent flimsy-looking wooden shack that houses an ancient clay oven. This rudimentary kitchen is the only other building. When I ask our driver where the bathroom is located, he jerks his thumb towards a lifeless bush in the distance. “See that tree?”
After we thank our hostess, we climb back into our trucks and resume the Moroccan Grand Prix. In summer the heat can be lethal in mid-afternoon but I’m here in October so the temperature is a balmy twenty five Celsius. The warm desert wind wafting through our vehicle is exhilarating. Gradually our surroundings transform from a dreary grey turf into a sprawling vista of golden desert sand. Plant life all but vanishes. When we catch sight of the first of many camel caravans we howl in ecstasy and frantically pull cameras from our backpacks.
Two hours after we first set out we come to the village of Merzouga, where we will spend the night. Merzouga is little more than a collection of undistinguished buildings, but its setting is incomparable. The town sits on the edge of Erg Chebbi, an array of sand dunes five kilometers wide and fifty kilometers long that tower up to 350 meters over the surrounding recumbent terrain.
Most of the settlement’s buildings are hotels built to accommodate the throngs of tourists who come to ride camels into the dunes and experience traditional, albeit tourist-influenced, Berber culture. Our hotel is the Auberge Sahara Garden, whose simple rooms are adequate though a bit sandy, thanks to wind storms that spread the unrelenting particles everywhere. An assembly of sulking camels sits outside high terracotta walls that encircle the hotel.
Our hotel may be run of the mill, but the view from its terrace is nothing short of ethereal. Caravans of camels meander in the distance, silhouetted against four-storey dunes that alter in hue from pink to caramel to rust in the changing afternoon sun. The giant ridges beckon to me, as they have to countless desert travelers over the ages. It’s time to get up close and personal.
Riding Camels in the Sahara
After we check in, we’re met outside by a half dozen teenage Berber boys. They’re clad in blue robes called djellabas and matching chechs, head scarves designed for protection against sand storms and the harsh sun. They take us outside the hotel grounds where those camels no longer appear quite so uninterested. The lolling animals rumble to life as the laughing adolescents toss saddles over their humps and yelp at them in Berber.
“We are your guides into Sahara dunes,” the tallest of the olive-skinned lads announces. “Remember, a camel will stand first on its back legs, so you must lean back when they stand up or you can fall off and get to know the Sahara Desert very well.”
Before I attempt to mount, I watch a couple of my cohorts ascend their animals. After a rider is seated I notice that a camel doesn’t stand until one of our guides gives it a smack on the rump. How hard can this be? I think. I stride up to my steed and confidently swing my leg over its single hump. But this dromedary has a mind of its own. Instead of waiting for a whack on the rear it decides to stand before I’m barely seated. Luckily, I remember to tilt backwards just in time to avoid a face full of sand.
Finally, after everyone is set, our teenage conductors lead our camel train toward the dunes. I feel like I’m in a rowboat riding up and down the sand swells and swaying to the rhythm of the plodding camel beneath me. Endless ripples of sand undulate into the horizon. There is little conversation. I feel spellbound, almost giddy. I wonder if my twelve comrades are feeling the same way, and if they’re thinking what I’m thinking: I’m riding a camel in the Sahara Desert!
Thirty mesmerizing minutes later we reach the edge of Erg Chebbi. We start to climb the majestic dunes, gradually at first but soon our ascent becomes more abrupt. We come to the base of the largest escarpment of all, a red monster so steep that our camels can only make it part way. We’re forced to dismount, doff our footwear and stagger up the warm grains barefoot. Ten agonizing minutes later, we collapse at the summit.
I think of The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles’ classic postwar novel set against the isolating backdrop of the African Sahara. In it Bowles writes that the desert landscape is best viewed in the half-light of dawn or dusk. His words reverberate as I take in the panorama before me. I can barely discern the outline of a camel caravan plodding across the saffron-coloured desert floor. The flagging sun hanging above the horizon spawns an infinite palette of colours. The scene is so vast that it’s impossible to judge distance. I spot the far-off Atlas Mountains, or is it a nearby ridge? Or is it nothing at all?
As the light recedes, a few serrated stars are all that differentiate land and sky. The Sheltering Sky. Bowles’ words echo: How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast, dark universe, and we’re just so small. I’ve always admired the power of that narrative, but now I really get it.
Written by and photos by guest contributor, Rick Neal.
Rick’s travel career began as a college student when he impulsively signed up for an international student exchange program and spent the summer working in Turkey. Since then, his wanderlust has taken him to Central and South America, Vietnam, England, Morocco, and China, where he spent an unforgettable year teaching English. Rick makes his home in Vancouver, Canada, where he writes for various travel publications.