A day in the desert
Orange and gold sand dunes towering above us and stretching out as far as the eye can see. A caravan of camels, plodding along methodically through the shifting sands of the Sahara, being led by a tall, proud man swathed in blue robes. An endless sky of blue that turns to inky black as the sun dips below the horizon; a night sky so crystal clear that it seemed we could see every star in the heavens. That‘s how we will forever remember our day in the Moroccon desert.
One of the things we were most excited about seeing and experiencing whilst here in Morocco was the desert. We’d seen so many pictures of nomadic Berber tribesmen of Morocco, framed against a backdrop of sand dunes and desert skies, that we just had to see it for ourselves. Modernity has, of course, reached even this far flung corner of Morocco though. Many of the Berbers now live in villages, with running water, electricity and internet access close at hand. Some of them still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving their goats and sheep into the Atlas Mountains during the hottest summer months. For many, however, tourism has become their major source of income. Every year thousands of people, just like us, flock to this South-Eastern corner of Morocco to marvel at the desert that the Berbers have called home for thousands of years.
To cater to the growing tourist market, small villages have popped up along the edge of the desert; Merzouga, where we’re staying tonight, is one such small village. This tiny, dusty outpost is just 45km from the Morocco/Algeria border and is a gateway to the Sahara. From our accommodation here we can actually see the desert – we can watch as the wind sweeps the sand dunes into new formations and the sun changes the colour of the sand, turning it from orange to gold to red.
We arrived in Merzouga after a short drive this morning and spent the early part of of our afternoon visiting a nearby Berber village and date palmery. The ksar (translation = fortified village) we visited was built some 700 years ago and is home to 60 Berber families. We were shown around the village by the gate-keeper*, an elderly gentleman who was born there and inherited the prized position of gate-kepper from his father. We were shown around the ksar, through its adjacent date plantation and into a few of the villagers’ homes.
*That is, the man who literally holds the keys to town and opens the main gate every morning and locks it every night.
It was amazing seeing how simply the people of the village lived, in flat-roofed, adobe (i.e. mud and hay) homes without sewerage or running water (they collect their effluent for use as fertiliser and the women go to collect water from a nearby spring every day). Their homes included a section for stabling their animals as well, and a roof-top area where they dry their crop of dates every year. The entire village was surrounded by a 10m-high adobe wall, designed centuries ago to protect the inhabitants and keep its people safe against wild animals and marauders. Their primary source of income is their vast date palmery, where the 300 year old palms provide an annual yield of 100-150kg of dates per tree! We were told that every family in the village has 10-20 palms that they tend to and harvest every year – do the maths: that’s a lot of dates!
It was touching seeing how closely knit the village community was, and how curious the children of the village were to see who we were. The generosity of the villagers, in opening their homes to us, was extraordinary. Obviously they received payment for allowing us to visit their village, but there was nothing “transactional” about the visit – their hospitality seemed genuine and their friendliness unrehearsed. We both left the ksar feeling somewhat humbled by the experience: to see people living with so little, and yet so happy, certainly puts things in our own lives into perspective.
After our visit through the Berber village we headed out for our camel trek into the desert. The Sahara Desert is a vast ocean of sand – it stretches across North Africa, from Egypt and the Red Sea, to Morocco and the Atlantic. Bar the occasional oasis, the desert is made up of dry rocky plateaus and vast ergs*. Morocco’s Erg Chebbi is one of the Sahara’s most accessible expanses of sand dunes, which is why we’re here!
*We learnt today that an erg is a flat area of desert covered by sand dunes deposited there by winds. These dunes can be hundreds of metres high and have little or no vegetative cover. It takes at least 1,000,000 years of winds and shifting sands to build ergs like those we saw today in Morocco.
We spent about 2 hours riding out into the desert and back in again. They were by far 2 of the most amazing and memorable hours of our lives. The scenery was stunning and watching the desert change colour as the sun set was amazing. Sunset out amongst the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi will definitely go down as a “Trip Highlight” – with its 350m high orange-coloured dunes, this is one stunning ocean of sand! Here are just a few of our favourite photos from this evening’s Saharan sunset…
*A note about camel riding
For anyone out there who might have romantic notions about the joys of riding a camel, let’s be clear: there is nothing romantic about riding a camel. Camels are stinky, furry, spitty, snotty, belchy, cantankerous beasts at the best of times. At worst, they’re also bitey, farty, poopy and prone to kicking (each other mainly, but humans too if they’re stupid enough to get in too close). If you’ve not had the pleasure of being astride one of these “ships of the desert”, our experience may give you an idea of what to expect:
1. The Approach. We were advised to approach our camels from the side, because, as it turns out camels like to sneeze and spit on people – occasionally they bite too. Like all animals, they sense fear as well, so the approach had to seem relaxed and casual. Best not to alarm the camel either, so no loud noises please, we were told. No problem – we just sidled up to our camels as nonchalantly and unobtrusively as possible.
2. Getting on Board. The actual mounting process was pretty straight-forward: having approached our camels without spooking them or getting bit/spat at/snotted on, we were told to just grab the handle at the front of the saddle and swing a leg over. Easy! At this stage we were both getting a bit cocky, thinking this camel riding business was a breeze!
3. The Ascent. Camels are VERY TALL. When they stand up, the ground disappears a long way away. Also, when they stand up, they get up from their back legs first, tipping you forward rather suddenly. This is where our bravado came untsuck. Shane managed to brace himself and stay atop his camel fairly decisively as it lurched up on its back legs, then front legs. I, however, just about went face first over the camel’s head when it lurched up onto its back legs. It took a whole lot of thigh clenching and arm bracing to ensure I did not eat Sahara sand pie.
4. The Ride. As our camels lurched and swaggered their way through the sand we gradually got used to the swaying motion. Our saddles had no stirrups however, and we had no reins. So all the we had to hang on to was the handle at the front of the saddle; and hang on for dear life we did! The most challenging part was hanging on when the camels went down the side of a particuarly steep sand dune – the key, we deduced, was leaning back far enough in the saddle to avoid pitching over the camel’s head into sand. Most challenging, however, was dealing with the camels’ flatulence…. Stiiiiiinky!
5. The Dismount. Like the ascent in reverse: that is, the camel lowered its front legs first, once again threatening to pitch me headlong into the sand, then its back legs. It’s a LONG way down, but man did it feel good to be back down near the Earth again! A quick leg over the side and we were off – making sure to step off to the SIDE of the beast and avoid any spit/snot/saliva.
Actually, it wasn’t too bad. The swaying motion once we were up on the camels’ backs was pretty relaxing and there was enough of a breeze to carry the worst of the flatus away. And the view from there on the camels was, of course, amazing. What better way is there to experience the Sahara Desert?!