Ourzazate and Erg Chebbi, Morocco
A few days after arriving in Marrakesh, on a lark I joined a handful of fellow travelers staying with me at the Hotel Afriquia —including a young female yoga instructor and her manager/boyfriend; a pleasant Irishman named Conor who spoke impenetrable brogue; and four Aussie girls on a three-day tour of the Central Atlas Valley, east of the city. We’d be seeing gorgeous gorges and classic casbahs as we wound through the mountains toward the Sahara, finally ending up among the most picturesque parts of the desert, the famed Erg Chebbi dunes. It’s been the backdrop to many films, perhaps most memorably The Mummy, which starred Brendan Fraser and had come out several years earlier, in 1999. It’s the beautiful, if stereotypical, image that most people have of the Sahara.
We headed out in a van, which was decent but with a total of 18 of us, a bit tight. Marrakesh has its exotic charm, but we were all eager to get out of the city and see the countryside. That enthusiasm was soon sapped by heat and tedium; for about half the trip we were all pretty tired. The van’s air conditioning did its best given the head count and the fact that we were headed toward one of the world’s greatest deserts, but between that and the engine droning all of us were asleep at some time or another —including, I suspect, the driver. We weren’t bored, but there were long stretches between points of interest, and usually a helpful neighbor would nudge me when something interesting approached, for a photograph if not a nodding, bleary acknowledgement.
It cooled a bit as we headed into the High Atlas’s sheer rocky cliffs. Further along the land flattened out into desert, and strongly resembled New Mexico in many ways. The lack of water thwarted any farming, and the strong winds would likely blow any seedlings away. The main industry was tending sheep, and we saw at least a dozen shepherds tending flocks of a few dozen sheep listlessly scrounging scarce scrub. The occasional buildings were usually in earthtones, and were in fact earth —not cement and certainly not wood. Along the road huge cactus plants grew in long rows, marking off property boundaries, as did piles of rocks which reminded me of the stone figure inukshuks I’d seen on the Canadian tundra along Hudson Bay.
Unfinished construction was common; about one out of every five buildings I saw lacked some important structural feature —usually a roof, or one of the walls. At times a would-be property was introduced with a large metal or wooden painted sign optimistically advertising (and often depicting) a lush hotel or resort which didn’t seem to have gotten much past pouring a foundation or planting a few (long since dead) trees. It was a sad and poignant scene that might have inspired Shelley’s lines about Ozymandias, king of kings. Despite the heat everyone got excited as the giant sloped dunes of Erg Chebbi came into focus through the wavering desert haze and heat, like a giant light pink slug on the horizon, lying in wait as we approached. About 40 minutes later we arrived at a small parking area that seemed to be surrounded by nothing but high sand dunes. We disembarked —reminded to bring our all-important 10-dirham quarts of bottled water— and were led around an otherwise invisible space between dunes where we found a waiting camel train.
We were each handed a wool blanket saddle and told to stand near the camels. All this was handled by a pair of Berbers, who were dressed in brilliant, deep blue cloth and, improbably, barefoot. I first noticed it when Conor, who was nearby, shouted some Irish gibberish to me. I smiled and pretended I understood him, but I think he was onto me and pointed at his, and then their, shoes (or lack thereof). The Berbers, both likely in their thirties, were deeply tanned, with pitch black hair and fierce mustaches that stood in contrast to their friendly grins and rudimentary English. One by one each tourist was placed on a correspondingly-sized camel. There were two camel trains, each characteristically surly (yet grudgingly dependable) animal tied with rope around their mouths, stomachs, and tails.
Off we went, leaving any torpor to the wind and sand. We were on a Grand Adventure, and each lurching plod of my camel shook off lingering drowsiness as we headed into the desert. Since I was a young boy I’d always fantasized about crossing the Sahara. We weren’t technically crossing it, of course… we were, at best, getting a tiny, touristy take on it. But it was still as close as I’d get, and I savored every second of it. I tried to get some photos of the desert and camel train behind me, but the disruptive dromedary made it impossible to steady the camera. The dunes were a delightful creamy pinkish tan, dotted only with the occasional small shrub and walnut-sized lumps of camel shit.
After about an hour covering perhaps two miles we came upon a Berber camp consisting of three low tents (the edges were about three feet off the ground and only accessible by crawling) surrounded by a large carpeted area. Our bags were stowed under the tents, and we were told we’d sleep outside on the carpet, unless a sandstorm came up, in which case we’d head to the tents.
Our camp was surrounded by dunes and at the base of the largest, probably 50 feet high. I was eager to explore the area in the waning hours of the day. I was told that was fine, but not to wander too far from camp. So —minding a compass and heading toward the setting sun for orientation— I immediately tried to test both my endurance and our guides’ patience. Unlike the Berbers I was wearing hiking boots, which protected my feet but whose weight made walking more arduous. Nevertheless I climbed about two or three big dunes before deciding I should turn 180 degrees and head back, following my tracks (as the only sign of where I’d come, there being nothing but blue skies and identical dunes all around me). A sudden sandstorm could be dangerous, if for no other reason than by erasing all traces of my return path, hence the compass.
As I walked back I noticed another camp, one I hadn’t seen when hiking the other direction, partially hidden by dunes. At first I thought it was another tourist camp, since many different tours often take customers to more or less the same places. But as I drew closer I realized it was a real Berber camp, and there was indeed a real Berber family living in it, with a small herd of goats nearby. This pleased me immensely, as it closely resembled our own camp. Tourists, of course, would never truly experience a desert nomad’s life after a single night on the edge of the Sahara, but it seemed reasonably authentic.
Upon returning I wandered a bit more, though staying within sight of the camp. I soon heard a bell ring and joined everyone for a dinner of bread with a bowl of peas, potatoes and goat meat. After desert dessert consisting of an orange, people broke into groups. Some swapped travel stories, and pretended they knew what the hell Conor was saying. Others discussed politics, while still others shared lame jokes. All was fine until a guitar somehow materialized and some idiot decided that everyone should sing songs. That was my cue to call it a night. I didn’t mind the butchered “Yellow Submarine,” but I didn’t come all the way to the Moroccan Sahara to hear “American Pie” sung by people who stumbled through everything but the chorus.
I took a sleeping pill and tried to fall asleep, picking a place on the edge of the carpet just outside the campfire light, but the goings-on were too distracting. I decided to sleep on top of the big dune, by myself, under the star-sprinkled night sky. I slowly edged out of sight, hoping the Berber twins didn’t take a head count. I brought only a bottle of water and my glasses, and made my way up the sliding sand to the crest of the dune. I settled in and had a front-row seat to the heavens. I could see for miles, nothing but dunes, stars, and the occasional faint glow of what might be other camps in the far distance —maybe a few hundred meters away, maybe many miles. No cities, no light pollution, no nothing. I soon stripped down to my underwear, carving out a small sand hollow for my shoulders and hips. A welcoming Saharan breeze cooled me off, sometimes sprinkling sand into my eyes, nose and ears. I didn’t care; I savored that as well. I made a pillow of my rolled-up pants and shirt and drifted to sleep with a smile, another childhood dream realized.