Riding a camel out into the hot, dusty Moroccan desert to spend a night in the Sahara Desert was an experience I will never forget. It was a demonstration of how travel can both challenge and reward you, and that some trips can perhaps provide better memories than they do experiences. There were several times during this trip that I just wanted it to be over, but when I look back it was one of the best things I did during an extended period of travel.
What I remember most about this trip was the unrelenting heat and how exhausting it was. It had been a long day after leaving Marrakesh in the early morning, most of it spent crossing mountain ridges and traversing a seemingly endless desert landscape, broken only occasionally by small villages and what the Berber man at the wheel of the car described an oasis. The driver was fairly disorganised and the car was a bit of a wreck. While frustrating at the time, it was actually quite funny the number of stops we made along the way for the driver to pour bottles of water into the car which continued to overheat.
After spending the day crossing the Atlas Mountains we were dropped at Erg Chebbi on the edge of the Moroccan Sahara and there we joined four others who would be taking the journey with us out among the dunes. Despite the discomfort of the camel, it was a relief to be out of the car and making tracks into the vastness ahead on what seemed like a more reliable mode of transport. The camels seemed so bored – no doubt having walking this route so many times. The small, flat-roofed houses we passed on the edge of the desert blended with the deep red earth. Simple structures seemingly devoid of any comforts, these homes sat alongside pens containing goats, cows and other animals used for food and trade by their owners. Such a different way to live.
There was a disconcerting lack of people in the area, with only a handful of children to be seen. They’d run up alongside the camels as they had done countless times before and would countless times again wanting to ‘practise English.’ It seems the children were the only inhabitants of this harsh landscape still curious about the tourists who paraded past on this ancient route at regular intervals.
Nomadic Berber cameleers have travelled this route for centuries. More recently, travelling by camel into the Sahara for a night at a tented Berber camp has become a popular tourist experience and is high on the list of must-do activities for most travellers visiting one of the countries the Sahara encompasses.
And so, here we were. As the camels continued plodding slowly along, the houses became fewer until there were none at all and nothing but the openness of this iconic desert lay ahead. I am always amazed at just how quickly some things can lose their novelty and before long the dunes began to blend into each other.
We continued on for a few hours until seemingly out of nowhere the roof of a tent poked up above the horizon. Another couple quickly appeared and the end of this rocky journey was in sight. Holding on tight as the camel let itself down heavily to the sand, it was a relief to have both feet back on the ground.
The camp itself consisted of some large but basic tents surrounding a central fireplace which had been dug into the sand. There was a large dining tent and away behind that was a small tent with some very basic bathroom facilities. When it came time to eat we moved into the dining tent and sat on oversized cushions around a small table. Being low on water, I was keen for more at dinner only to be told there was no water for guests at the camp and we’d have to make do with what we had. It seems so silly now – that I wouldn’t ask at the outset if there’d be any extra water at camp or if I needed to bring it all in myself, but at the time it just seemed ridiculous. Who doesn’t provide water at camp for tourists in the Sahara? Anyway, after a few moments of panic an Englishwoman kindly shared some of the extra water she’d brought in and it was quite a relief. After dinner there wasn’t much to do other than sit around outside the tents or go to bed.
During the evening, the sound of an approaching car became louder and louder until it was clear it was definitely a car and not our imaginations. It had come to pick up some of the local men from the camp. We may have just travelled part of a centuries-old route by camel but there was no escaping the modern day conveniences, as much as we might have liked to think we could (and the lack of water seemed no longer so desperate).
The real reward came the following morning after a restless night in the tent. It’s amazing how the hot desert cools overnight and sitting on the soft sand that morning watching the sun rise among such stillness was one of the most amazing travel experiences. It took about 20 minutes or so for the sun to fully rise and those minutes made the whole trip worth it. Getting back on the camels later that day felt like a horrible punishment but it was all worth it.
I certainly didn’t appreciate just what an amazing experience this was until after we returned. I let the driver and his unreliable car stress me out a bit and the heat and discomfort had gotten to me. It felt poorly organised and that bothered me, particularly when we got to camp and learnt there wasn’t even basic supplies like water. But when I look back, this at times challenging experience was incredible and is one of my most memorable travel experiences – probably because of some of the discomfort. I’d certainly recommend a similar trip to visitors within reach of the Sahara, however perhaps a more organised trip. I’d definitely ask to see the car before agreeing to anything next time.