We returned yesterday evening (to a wind and rain storm) from a marvellous adventure in the Moroccan Sahara.
The bus trip south, over the mountains and down to the desert took 11 gruelling hours. It began pouring rain as we left the city and roadsides were flooded with running water. Most of the way up into the mountains was through rain and low cloud so we didn’t see too much of the passing countryside. The road was mostly very twisty and sometimes really narrow besides. The clouds were lifting and rainbows appearing as we drove out of the storm and down the south side of the range. The bus stoped several times and disgorged passengers until there were just five of us left. Night fell and we drove on under a now star studded sky. Eventually the main road ended, the bus stopped and we got off. We were met by a scruffy threesome and bundled into a small dilapidated vehicle and driven to a bivouac of adobe huts. Our beds – three dusty mattresses on a packed mud floor. Toilet a few huts away. Everything sandy and gritty. We fell asleep after a cup of luke warm tea served by one of the unwashed young men.
The morning revealed the place to be in even worse shape than we’d imagined. Breakfast was fine though and soon we were being met by a turbaned fellow in a flowing robe and driving a nice jeep. We loaded up and went into the village of M’Hamid. It really is an end of the road frontier place. The Algerian/Moroccan border is only a few kms away. The Moroccan’s have a military base here and the only other game in town is – why we are here – camel and or 4×4 trips into the desert.
A few admin details were taken care of, we each picked up four metre lengths of light crinkly cotton and were shown how to make turbans. It’s time….
The wind is blowing, the sky has a distinct brown twilight tinge, the sun glowing dimly above. Palm trees are tossing and rustling their fronds and sand is blowing sideways into our faces. We tuck the ends of our turbans over mouths and noses leaving just our eyes exposed to the elements. We meet our guide – Ishmael. A charming young man with black turban and bright blue robe. Also our camel man – the delightful comedian, Mohammad – similarlyattired. Our three camels are still being loaded up with mounds of tentage, food and water so we don’t properly meet them yet.
We set off into the desert, two nomads, three women, three camels in a wind storm. The stuff of legends! It was awesome. Exillerating! After about two and a half hours of fast walking we stopped for lunch in the shelter of a tamarisk shrub. The camels, unloaded and hobbled, set off to nibble bits of sparse vegetation. Ishmael and Mohammad cooked us a delicious meal while we three reclined on mats out of the wind in the sun. Eat your hearts out Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark! After lunch the camels were retrieved and everything was loaded up again and off we set once more for another couple of hours of walking. The landscape was constantly changing from loose and stony, to hard pan, to packed sand, to softer sand. Some was quite flat, but in other areas we snaked around steepsided small dunes. The vast open space was sprinkled with small shrubs and the slightly larger stunted twisted tamarisk trees. All the while the wind blew sand into everything!
We stopped for the night in the shelter of a large dune, near a tree “island.” In short order a large tent was erected, our reclining mats set out, blankets produced….. dinner underway. Our job was to wander around collecting fire wood. An arduous task in this land of little and small woody vegetation but we did collect a decent sized pile. Tea and a tureen dinner were produced on the fire our wood fuelled. We ate under stars so bright and clear that the Milky Way was easily visible as a broad white lace ribbon above! It was also very chilly so we sat under blankets which had recently served to protect the camels’ humps from their substantial loads. The camels meanwhile were roaming about nibbling and munching on whatever they scavenged from the desert. They also received our left over salad and vegetable trimmings. One of the camels helped himself to a large bag of dates – which he stole from inside the tent! This turned out to be the mischievous camel and he was always up to something! Anyone who has watched a dog mooch can perhaps imagine the hilarious antics of a large mooching camel!
Our tent turned out to be a nightmare to set up. It took all five of us to erect it and several of the camel’s lead ropes to secure it, but once up it was a good sized sturdy refuge, secure from the wind and small scuttling creatures of the night. We slept well and cozy under heavy sand ridden camel blankets. By this time we were so sandy anyway having a few more pounds of the stuff shifting into our sleeping bags, hair and clothes while we slept made no difference.
The second morning was clear and really chilly until the sun came up. Things warmed up pretty quickly and we ate breakfast in the sun, no wind plaguing us. Just the bluest of sky bowled over the browns of an undulating landscape. Glorious. Once again the catching and loading of the camels commenced. Soon we set off into an area of increasing dunes. We began to see ever larger mountainous dunes on the horizon which ever so slowly grow closer and closer. At one point we saw a fabulous blue lake mirage. It was incredibly realistic. Of course despite walking towards this beautiful sight for some time it never materialized! It just faded away, a figment of the desert imagination.
I decided to try my hand at leading the string of camels. At first they seemed a bit puzzled by this change of command but being friendly good natured beasts they soon willing followed along without any fuss. Tired camels require some encouragement to continue walking at a reasonable pace and these three were becoming increasingly tired so a bit of gentle then more firm tugging ensued. Getting them to kneel upon arrival at our lunch stop was not as easy as it looked when Mohammad gave the order, but with considerable help from Mohammad I eventually managed to get one of the camels to comply!
We’d covered something in excess of 25 kms by the time we stopped in this lovely spot tucked down between the dunes. The place was so idyllic we decided to camp here for the night as well. So what to do on a lovely afternoon in the desert? Go for a camel ride of course! The camels were rounded up. It’s amazing how far they can scamper despite their hobbles. Jan was not into riding so she brought up a distant rear as we set off towards the largest dune.
It was surreal. Magic. Ishmael stayed at camp to set things up for the night while Mohammad led us between and over the dunes, the camels slowly clambering up and swiftly sliding down through the soft wind rippled sand. Riding a camel is a swaying lurching business and requires some concentration! It had been over 40 years since my last camel ride. This was better than my memory of the others. The desert here is grander and more isolated than my previous experiences around Cairo and Ismailia. These camels were much more pleasant creatures than any camels I encountered while in Egypt as well. Pat also agreed that our present camels were much more agreeable to be around than those she rode in Nigeria. The ride created one of those “this is perfectly amazing” moments that I hope I’ll remember forever.
Eventually we came to the foot of the biggest dune which towered 300 metres above us. We dismounted and removed boots and socks. Our camels remained hunkered down, guardians of the boots, (hopefully not eating the socks) while we all climbed, barefoot, up the steep narrow ridges of the dune. The view expanded. We could see the black spec of the now erect big tent at our distant camp and across a choppy sea of dunes to the mountains marking the border with Algeria. The desert stretched out at our feet with sparse vegetation interrupting the various brown and gray shades of drifting sand. Finally at the top we sat for a while, catching our breath and watching the sun sink towards the western horizon. Clouds had formed and it became quite cool so we descended in a rapid series of jumps and slides. Jan on her butt, Pat and I run “skiing,” Mohammad leaping and rolling like a happy crazed child!
We all rode back to camp (even Jan) as the sunset turned the world into tones of orange between deepening lengthening shadows. Once again our task was to collect fire wood and this proved to be quite a challenge as there was very little woody vegetation from which to harvest dead bits. It was fully dark by the time our task was complete. A fire was lit and while Ishmael cooked dinner, Mohammad made bread – from scratch – and baked it in the sand and hot ash of the fire. It was delicious! He then used an empty water jug as a drum and began singing Bedouin ballads, and reciting traditional nomadic poems. While cooking our dinner Ishmael told riddles and jokes and a couple of folk tales. We sat, once again under our heavy camel blankets, and soaked it all in. As Pat said – “How incredibly privileged we are to be able to experience this.” Here we were sitting in a wild camp, in the desert, about 50kms from the nearest habitatation, with two nomads and three camels. Pinch me! Is this a dream!
The mischievous camel had been wandering around but when our dinner was set out on the blanket between our mats he started sneaking closer. First he went behind the bush at our back and slowly he crept around it. Then he sidled out from behind, peering down, his nostrils twitching. A sideways shuffle, “They won’t notice me.” Shuffle. Head lower – “Oh yummy!” We called out to Mohammad just in time and he came rushing over to encourage Mr Moocher to go a bit further afield. That camel was a few seconds away from eating our entire serving plate of spaghetti!
Our sleeping tent went up with similar effort but more quickly than the previous night and pretty soon we’d added our mats and blankets and ourselves to it’s dusty interior. Once again we enjoyed deep sleeps, lulled to that state by the sound of desert wind moving millions of grains of sand and threading between the branches of the hardy tamarisk trees. And of course the occasional grunt and rustle from the camels who continued to forage then sleep around the tents.
Our third and final day dawned bright and sunny with no wind so it soon became quite warm. After breakfast the usual pack up took place with a now familiar rythem and soon we were headed back towards M’Hamid. We didn’t follow the same route so continued to experience a range of changing scenery. We walked along an ancient river bed that’s not seen water for years. We climbed a shale hill that had been completely scoured of sand. The big dunes shrank into the distance behind us. After a few hours we came to a very pretty lunch spot and once again the camels were unloaded, hobbled and we reclined and snoozed on our blankets and mats while a meal was prepared and cooked.
This, it transpired, was where our trip was supposed to end. We were to be transported back to town by jeep. No way! We were so not ready to end this adventure, so the jeep was sent packing, to return and pick us up from wherever we would get to by shortly after 4pm. We would continue to walk until then. After a while I tried my hand again at leading the camels. They were more familiar with us by now so there was no hesitation. The lead beast followed placidly, looking down his long snout at me from heavily lashed eyes as if to say – “you’re a poor example of my nomad but I suppose you’ll do in a pinch.”
We walked through the late afternoon, each of us contemplating on our experiences of the past three days. Pat and I both felt we could continue this way for much longer. There’s something about walking that we both really love. This particular walk through the desert, where we weren’t confined to one specific narrow path, or destination, where the horizon curved, stretching and beckoning in the distance, seemed to epitomize the somewhat nomadic existence we’ve courted for the past three months. Mohammad actually called us nomads. At heart, perhaps we are.
As the jeep came into sight Pat, Jan and I each took a camel and asked him to kneel down. Amazingly they did. I think they rather liked us as we had often given them treats. Camels eat pretty much everything. They love oranges – skins and all. Dates are supreme. Spaghetti is also enjoyed as is bread….. these particular camels had excellent manners and always took the treats very gently, using their big upper lip to softly nudge morsels out of our hands. Good thing too. We had ample opportunities to see inside their enormous mouths and they have scary teeth. Two massive curved canines in their upper jaw that a lion or tiger would be proud to have! Legend has it that if someone harms a camel, it will seek the opportunity for revenge and that a camel can easily kill a human. Sure glad these three were friendly!
We said good bye to Mohammad and “the boys” as we’d nic named the camels. They would continue for about three more hours on foot. The jeep ride back to town was a necessity, it was too far for to walk before dark. As it was we had coved about 75 kms over the past three days. (Bringing the total distance Pat and I have walked to about 1000 kms.) We stayed that night in a nice little Riad. Our much anticipated hot shower did not materialize but no matter, there was a trickle of cool water with which to sort of wash our filthy selves before we climbed weary and contented into bed.
The next day (yesterday) we had an early breakfast and we’re on the bus back to Marrakesh by 6am. We drove past quite a bit of snow in the higher elevations and arrived in Marrakesh after ten arduous hours of sitting. As we walked to our fancy Riad (with lots of hot water) the rain began in earnest. We got soaked. It’s been raining off and on since, so today we are just relaxing – reading and blogging…..
I’ll send pictures of our camel adventure in a separate blog….. shortly.