My own personal camel seems aloof, yet tolerant of one more awkward tourist struggling to climb aboard. I name her Fluffy, for the fur on her neck.
The white-turbaned Berber guide helps me–upsy-daisy, forward and back, rocking-horse style, as Fluffy rises from her knees and I cling to the t-bar on the saddle. When everyone in our little group is lined up, our guide leads us into the Sahara.
Wow, here we are in the desert, just like the caravans of old, crossing the shifting sands of eastern Morocco. Well, not exactly. Those bands of Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa, traveled for weeks to trade on the far side of the immense Sahara. It was their life, and this is only a tourist experience. Still, we’re following their trail, rich ground for the imagination.
The Sahara’s miles of sand rise in wind-carved ridges and drop to ravines. There are a few sparse shrubs and beetle tracks. The snakes, lizards, and desert foxes are probably asleep in shady spots as we plod through their territory. With the changing afternoon light, the stark landscape shifts from pale brown to gold to pink, an austere beauty that tells me I am indeed far from my green, watery home. This place is so hot and arid I can almost watch my skin shrivel.
The saddle is actually a big padded cushion, easy on the sit-bones. But camels are high and really wide, and we aren’t used to doing the splits any time, let alone for 2 solid hours. We’re mighty glad to reach camp at the foot of a ridge, ease down from the nonchalant camels, and wobble away. We eat dinner sitting cross-legged at a low table on the sand. It’s delicious. Fresh tomatoes, corn, onions, and a stew of peas and beef, cooked by the savvy Moroccan guides in a little tent kitchen.
A full moon rises, huge and glowing orange. We drag pads and blankets to a flat spot and lie back to wait for the dazzling stars. Alas, not tonight. Clouds gather, the wind picks up, rain drips. Rain, in the Sahara. If travel teaches you anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Sand blows into our ears and we scuttle into a tent for a more-or-less comfortable sleep. I’m wakened at 5 by a snuffling, snorting sound. No, it’s not my husband, those are camels, ready for the morning ride. We stumble from the tent, our gear stuffed into bags, and I again rock up onto Fluffy’s back. We’re buddies by now, and she’s headed home.
Two hours later we’re back in Merzouga, a village of scattered clay homes, inns and shops. Our lodging at the edge of the Erg Chebbi dunes is Auberge Sahara, a clay-and-straw inn with simple, comfortable rooms and, happily, a swimming pool. We eat breakfast, revel in hot showers, and say goodbye to our guides and camels. Thanks, Fluffy, and so long, I’m on the road again, headed for Tenerhir and the Todra Gorge.
(In Merzouga, one shop not to be missed is Depot Nomade, a great place to buy gorgeous carpets and learn how they’re made. The Berber women create beautiful designs, taken from tradition, legend, and added personal touches. Depot Nomade sells handicrafts, too, and pretty scarves at bargain prices.)