The Sahara Desert

It was a grueling, 2-day journey to the Sahara Desert; cramped up in the back seat of a 15 passenger van, crunched over the wheel-well, I never thought I’d feel my legs ever again. Our tourist stops involved all 15 of us being dragged out of the car, usually in the freezing cold and wind to take photos of whatever was in front of us. Our driver spoke no English, but smiled and pointed and kept repeating “Photo! Photo!” It could have been the most famous sight in Morocco, or it could have been a donkey stall: none of us had a clue. We started each morning at least an hour after schedule. The first day we drove around Marrakech for over two hours picking people up, switching cars, realizing we were with the wrong driver, and switching again. The second day we waited 45 minutes for two Moroccan girls from Rabat to put on lipstick and fake eyelashes: only the finest for the desert! Then we piled in the van and hit the road. After our lunch stop, it was a race against the sun to make it to the desert for our sunset camel ride. Every stop seemed to take longer than expected. The 4 minute allotted time at the scarf shop, and 20 minutes at the Berber carpet factory turned into 15 minutes and 45 respectively. I felt like we were sheep being herded around, not knowing quite where to look and what to do. But at least I was a happy sheep.
It took all our skills to keep our driver awake for the final leg of the trip. He kept nodding off as we sped through the Atlas Mountains. We clapped and played music and kept talking to him, even though he didn’t understand us. We were determined to make it there: alive! When we did arrive, there were no camels. The other tour group had made it mere seconds before us, and even though we checked in and were ready before them, they took the camels and left us behind.
“Where are our camels?” We asked various people that looked like they were in charge.
“Yes. It’s no problem! No problem!” They smiled at us. But it was a problem. We were sitting at the edge of the desert with no camels, and the sun was going to set in a half hour.
It turns out, the company had overbooked. They sent us out on the tour, knowing there were limited camels, but figure it could be first come first serve.
“We thought there were 12 of you, not 15” one man said “so three more camels are coming, Inshallah”
Inshallah means “god willing” in Arabic. It is such a common phrase here in Morocco, and one I’ve even picked up saying over the past ten days. “I will come back to Morocco, Inshallah” or “the sun will be out tomorrow, Inshallah” but not “the camels are coming, Inshallah” this left me to believe that maybe the camels weren’t actually coming…
As the rest of the group got upset I stood up and walked over to the man who told us the camels were coming.
“Bonjour Monsieur. Can you please tell me when the last three camels are coming?”
“5 minutes”
“Okay, then shall we get the other twelve people on the camels while we’re waiting. Then we won’t miss the sunset?” After seeing how long it took us to do everything, this seemed like the most logical plan of action.
“It’s no problem, Fatima. The camels will come. You can sit down”
“I’d rather go see the camels thanks. Can we go see the camels?”
“Sure. No problem. That way.” He pointed towards a doorway leading out of the courtyard.
I walked outside with three of the girls I’d become close with during the two day drive. As we walked out, we found that there were not 12 camels, but only 5.
“Come come!” One man urged us over to him. “Get on, we must go” he pulled one of the girls over and dragged her on to the camel.
“But I’m not with this group” she said. The camels were in a line of 8. The first three already had people from the first group on them, the last five were empty.
“It’s ok. Everyone together. Get on” confused, she got on. Then the three of us, and finally one more girl that came along with the rest of our group got on the remaining four.
“Ok. We go now” and our camels stood up (with squeals from the girls as we nearly tumbled off) and started forward.
“But the rest of us…” We stammered.
“It’s okay. They are coming. We are all coming”
So that was that. We started off on the camels and into the desert. It wasn’t minutes later that all was forgotten. The car ride, the waiting, the sore bums, the forgotten group members: we were in the Sahara Desert!
It was truly magical riding on camelback through the desert as the sun set behind us. I’ve always wanted to visit the Sahara. I remember watching a movie as a child called “A Far Off Place” about two kids that were forced to brave crossing the Sahara by foot (upon fact checking, it was actually the Kalahari desert, but I’ve always thought it was the Sahara, and you get the point). Even though I haven’t seen the film in close to 2 decades, it still sticks in my mind as being otherworldly, a place of danger and excitement.
We rode bumpily over the dunes, taking photos and laughing about how uncomfortable downhill camel riding is. About an hour in our bums were as sore as they were in the car, and we remembered our forgotten group members back at Merzouga.
“Do you think they made it on the camels?” We wondered.
Just then, from away in the distance we saw black shapes moving towards us.
“That must be the other camels!” We were delighted that they’d made it, since we felt a little guilty being the ones that made it on. But the black shape moved much faster than any camels we’d seen. Soon we realized that it was a 4×4 driving towards us. We heard screams and yelling as it drove closer.
When it came around a closer dune we saw that it was all our group members, half on top of the 4×4, holding on to the roof rack, plummeting up and down sand dunes towards us. With each dip, they screamed in whoops of half fear and half excitement.
Turns out the camels never arrived. But the alternative was to get a wild ride through the desert to camp. Tomorrow the camels would come, Inshallah.
We arrived at camp, after dark, two hours after we left. The air was still surprisingly warm, and we were beginning to get skeptical about everyone telling us how cold the desert was at night. We were shown to our tent, which was a wooden frame, covered in Berber blankets, with four thin mattresses on the ground. It was sweltering hot inside, so we dropped our things and went for dinner.
The dinner tent was huge. It felt like a wedding or circus tent, with one giant curtain, as the ceiling and walls. It was simply set up with some folding chairs and tables for food. The food they served was some of the best I’d had in Morocco, and by far the best we’d had on our trip. Fresh bread, rice, and a huge Tagine with vegetables and chicken. One massive platter of each was placed in the middle of each table, and it was a free for all, no plates kind of a meal. The food was perfectly seasoned and cooked, I was so impressed that this all came from the desert!
When we’d sufficiently stuffed ourselves, we decided to hike the big sand dune next to camp to watch the stars. This was a bigger task than anticipated, as we climbed one step up and slid two steps back through the sand. It was dark, and windy, and our calves were burning just a quarter of the way up. At three quarters of the way up, it was getting so windy we figured we were better off lower down. So we sat at the midway mark, looking down at the ant-like lights buzzing around below us in the camp. We chatted and watched for shooting stars as we tried to pick out the constellations that we knew. It’s much more difficult to see the patterns when there are a billion stars in the sky! Then out if nowhere a young man came strolling down out of the darkness from the top of the hill to sit with us. He was from Costa Rica, and just happened to study Astrology in school. He showed us all the constellations, and how to properly see stars…
“Don’t look AT the star,” he explained “if you look next to it you will see it. It is our peripheral vision that detects light”
When we’d seen enough shooting stars, and the temperature began to drop, we left the random Costa Rican man and headed for the fire below. We realized afterwards, that in the darkness we had never even seen the guy’s face, and we’d never gotten his name. We didn’t see him again, so we referred to him as our “star angel” who may or may not have been a mirage in the desert.
Downhill was much easier, as we cruised down the sand dune to the campfire that had been lit below. The local guides were playing the drums and singing, so we all got up to dance around the fire. After a little while, however, the guides were right and it did get cold. With a six am start time, we figured it was bed time. So we curled up in our probably bed bug infested mattresses and went to sleep.
At 6am we were woken up and herded towards to camels again. Our guide had said all the camels arrived in the night, so everyone could take a camel back. So we hopped on and started our two-hour journey back to Mergouza. The way back was even more painful. We hadn’t quite recovered from yesterday’s ride, and on top of that our calves were still sore from our dune hike. But the sunrise was worth it! The light coming over the dunes and spreading over the sea of sand that lay in front of us was worth every moment of pain on the journey. But two more hours on the camels was enough time, and our stomachs were growling as we reached camp for breakfast.
When we arrived however, we learned that the camels had not shown up at the camp. Two of the people who had been left behind before were left behind again. They had to take the jeep back to Merzouga and they were not impressed. Nor would I be.
Luckily, they were sent sand boarding while we trekked back, and when our camels arrived, they set out for an hour trek on their own.
The Sahara Desert trek, although sometimes disorganized, was worth every penny. At only $100 for the three days, it was a steal in terms of price. This was definitely a bucket list item crossed off.
To finish our three day journey we spent another 12 hours driving back to Marrakech. It was painful from the get-go. But we made it back in one piece, and I’d do it all over again on a heartbeat!