One of the things I wanted to do when I found out I was going to Morocco was ride camels. Three weeks into my Morocco experience my friend Hajar went with me on a three day adventure to the Sahara.
What followed was an amazing adventure
- Episode Thirty-Four
- Episode Thirty-Five
- Episode Thirty-Six
- Episode Thirty-Seven
- Episode Thirty-Eight.
Tour Guide Brahim
Our trip was led by local Brahim. He made the trip truly special. There were about ten of us, and his excitement and humor always kept us in good spirits. His knowledge of the area, and connections with other locals gave our experience a stress-free and authentic feel, and our tip would not have been nearly as special without him. You can find him here.
Late Night Bus Ride
We got on a bus at 11pm and began the long ride to the Sahara Desert. The excitement associated with a new adventure burns brighter from the window of a bus rumbling silently through the night. City streets give way to long stretches of rural highways. The glow of passing street lights give way to the subtle luminescence of the moon and stars, which illuminate fields and mountain ranges in the distance. While the rest of the world sleeps, our journey is just beginning. The feeling is electrifying.
I didn't read the itinerary, so the trip is a mystery to me. Where will we go? What will we do? The unknown is exciting, and I experience an internal struggle as a result. As I bounce anxiously in my seat, I try to resist the temptation to pester others with details of our next destination, preferring instead to maintain the tantalizing mystery.
Our first stop after picking up a few more passengers along the way was a grill outside Meknes at 2am. I ordered cutlets, and a man approached one of the large animals hanging from the roof and used a machete to cut away my eventual late-night snack.
At 5am we stopped at a gas station that doubled as a mosque in the small town of Midelt. To stretch our legs, Hajar and I did sprints down the road.
One of the pit stops along the way. While the bus refueled we took a minute to appreciate the view. Somewhere in the area there used to be a secret underground prison.
After driving continuously for nearly eight hours we stopped for breakfast. Everything was arranged for us beforehand. This is also where we introduced ourselves to the group. Unfortunately for me, everyone else in the group speaks French or Arabic. Only a couple people speak limited English.
After breakfast we rode a bit further until we came to Errachidia. Along the way Brahim, our tour guide and friend, pointed out interesting sights and historical facts. I think. He spoke in French so I don't know what he said. Hajar translated a bit for me but mostly I just stared out the windows and pestered people.
Once in Errachidia we entered Ziz Valley, an extremely fertile oasis supported by the Ziz River where locals live off the land and cultivate farms. Children followed us and would make animals out of dried leaves for us while Brahim explained some things.
We piled back into the bus after a couple hours in the Valley and kept driving south. We stopped at this natural spring (Ain el ati) and it was here that I bought the scarf on my head. This is the traditional color and material that is used in the desert to help ward off the sun and sand.
We also took a detour at one point to have lunch. On the menu was a traditional dish unique to the area. The name translates to "buried." A large round of bread is stuffed with meat and spices and then cooked in an underground (buried) oven.
Camel Riding; Dune Climbing
Despite our long trip all night, this first day kept going and going. After Ziz Valley and lunch, we took a short break and continued the journey to the Sahara.
Mounting a camel is a unique experience. Unlike mounting a horse, you get on the camel while it's laying down. You have nothing holding you in place except the thick blanket underneath you and the small metal bar that you grab onto with both hands.
The way a camel stands up is quite unexpected. It first straightens its back legs, so that you feel as though you are going to be thrown head-first "over the handlebars." Then it arches its spine, and straightens its front legs one at a time, so that you are swayed violently from one side to the other. For the first few minutes after this I felt pretty nervous, like I was going to fall off at any moment.
The camels took us to the highest dune in the area. We dismounted, and then began the long climb. Walking up a giant sand dune was so much more difficult than I expected. Never mind the heat; sand makes a poor foundation for climbing. Although the surface felt firm at first, as soon as you placed your body weight on one side your foot would sink. The combined effort of pushing off the sand and then pulling your leg back up to take another step quickly fatigues your legs, especially when barefoot. But we made it eventually.
And it was worth it too. Brahim brought a board for us to slide down one of the smaller hills at the top of the dune.
Of course, what goes down must come back up. I only did it once for this reason.
The view was incredible.
For the two nights we were in the Sahara we stayed in an amazing camp outside Merzouga run by local Berbers. They greeted our arrival with music and song, tea, and dates.
The first night, I slept outside under the stars. It was warm enough (I had stolen one of Hajar's blankets), and I woke to the sound of birdsong.
Trying out one of the Berber's handmade guitar with Amine.
The Berber music is very rhythmic, featuring a lot of drums, Krakebs, dancing, and singing. One evening we had a drum circle going. Mohssin was giving me a lesson in rhythm, but I don't think I improved very much.
On another evening, while the locals were performing for us around a campfire, I joined the krakeb section. I performed about how you would expect.
The last evening there happened to be an influx of visitors to the camp, and a performance was put on by a group of Arab musicians in tandem with the Berbers. Apparently there are some cultural tensions between Arabs and Berbers, and the two groups kept interrupting each other.
One in our group had their birthday this evening, and while the Arab group was performing some slow and melodic piece, a line of Berbers came marching from behind the building carrying a birthday cake, all the while chanting and pounding on drums. They surrounded our group and we all jumped up and sang happy birthday.
Needless to say I found it all highly entertaining.
One afternoon we took a tour of the area on bicycles. Hajar was falling behind the entire group. She seemed to be really struggling but she never complained. In her head she assumed she must be terrible at bike riding considering every one else was having a good time with it. Finally, just when she was ready to give up, someone pointed out to her that she could change gears. Once she shifted out of literally the toughest gear possible she revealed herself to be quite a strong cyclist.
This sexy beast had no brakes, and every time I hit a bump in the road (all the time) the kickstand would fall down and start dragging the ground. Despite these flaws she was a loyal and dependable steed.
Don't try to ride a bike down a sand hill. It's not possible.
We had to take this photo quickly because some pickup truck was barreling down the road towards us.
5am Wake Up Call
On the last day of our trip, after a late evening of music and dancing, we woke up at 5am (after a 1h 45min "nap") and piled into "cat-cats." Our SUV caravan raced through the blackness and into the desert where we eventually saw the sun rise in spectacular fashion.
In the slipstream.
One of the stops along our cat-cat tour included a ghost town inhabited by a sole individual. Known as a nomad, I learned that he had been living in the desert since the 1960's. He made us tea.
I've never seen the sun like this before. It was a perfect ball in the sky, and so distinct was its circumference that you could easily see it rise.
Also along our route was an old mining site. My interest in caves was piqued but unfortunately it didn't go very far.
After the SUV tour we got our things, loaded back into the bus, and began the long journey back home. We made a few stops along the way including a dinosaur museum, a camel zoo (where we saw the process of milking a camel), and a sanctuary for monkeys (but no one was home).
Also, we stopped at a café. The meat we had gave me food poisoning, and I spent the entire next day vomiting everything I ate over the weekend.
But that’s life.
Goodbye Sahara, will miss you.