One of the things we most looked forward to about our time in Morocco was visiting the Sahara desert. We have been to deserts in the United States and marveled at the vast, dry, rocky landscape and the unique plants that grow there. But we had seen photos of the famed Sahara desert and were eager to experience it for ourselves; to feel the sand as soft as beaches and the dunes as tall as mountains. And we wanted more than to simply drive through and see it from a distance. So naturally, there was only one way to do this: we would ride camels to the middle of the dunes of Erg Chebbi and sleep under the stars.
We boarded the camels just before sunset, when the hazy lighting of dusk filled the sky and the sweltering heat had subsided a bit. In a row of six, we headed off into the rusty dunes, Jeff and I the last two in tow and a German family just ahead of us. A Berber man walked with the lead camel, guiding it up and down the hills, and our guide Lahcen walked alongside.
What a peaceful scene. Silent, save for the soft sound of the camels stepping slowly into the sand, as we moved further into the oblivion of the desert. Up and down, over small hills and into short valleys, surrounded by nothing but the organic walls of the red dunes. Blue skies above, scattered with light clouds. Small sprouts of faded grass popping out of the sand every few yards. The smell of dust formed a layer over our skin and the taste of salt onto our lips from a journey filled with heat and perspiration, but we didn’t mind. Our heads were spinning, we kept looking around and at each other with that “pinch me” look we get only once in awhile.
We arrived at our campsite just before dark. After getting off our camels we saw a small compound of tents in the distance and walked toward it to enter our home for the night. Colorful Moroccan rugs lined the desert floor inside the rectangle of tents and patterned carpets even hung from each tent serving as doors.
There were six young Berber men hosting us for the night, and they warmly welcomed us with smiles and mint tea. Our group was fourteen total – a young couple from China and Taiwan, a pair of French friends, a Dutch mother-daughter duo, a German family, and us.
We ate a delicious dinner of Moroccan salad, Berber omelette with kefta meatballs, vegetables, and watermelon for dessert. During dinner, Lahcen told us stories of growing up in his village and how he came to live in Marrakech. He shared about convincing his family to free him from the arranged marriage that was prescribed for him and marrying an Arab woman from the city instead. Though he dislikes city life, he explained his decision to stay there so his three young children have access to the best educational opportunities in the country. He spoke about his Muslim faith, and his views on religious wars in nations nearby.
After dinner we listened to the Berber men play drums, which was very impressive. They wanted to get the rest of the group involved and one of the guys gave Jeff a quick drum lesson. Later we swapped travel stories with the other guests and watched our new Parisian friend perform card tricks for the group.
We decided to head to sleep around midnight, knowing that we’d have an early wakeup call the next morning. It was incredibly hot – still around 90 degrees (and even hotter in our tents) – so we slept outside under the night sky. Unfortunately the sky was cloudy so we didn’t see the stars as clearly we could have, but the moon was bright and full.
The next morning we woke at six to watch the sunrise. We climbed to the top of the nearby dune, which was quite a hike and had an equally significant view, before hopping back on the camels to head out. What an experience!