The edge of the desert, Morocco

Riding a camel into the desert feels like by far the most touristy thing I’ve done this entire four month trip. Still, it was an experience I wouldn’t trade in. It was hard to keep track of exactly where we were as we raced along in our van (Hassan, our driver, was not great at giving out itinerary information) but judging by the roads signs we approaching the open area bordering on Algeria when we pulled into a last rest stop where I finally caved and bought a 1.5 litre bottle of water to fortify myself for the desert trek. I’d been watching the scenery pretty closely but I didn’t notice the dunes until we got out at that last stop. Suddenly the broken black rock over reddish dirt landscape transitioned into rising red sand dunes just a little away from the road. It looked like the kind of transition one would imagine based on middle school geography: here’s the forest, here’s the prairie, here’s the desert.

We pulled up to the trekking hotel and did a quick baggage rejiggering as we took what we’d need for the night out and left the bulk of our luggage with the van. I was irrepressibly reminded of Spaceballs as I sorted through my gear pulling out warm leggings and socks to sleep in and digging for my headlamp. “I said ‘Take only what you need to survive.’” “Its my industrial strength hair dryer and I CAN’T live without it.” That accomplished we headed for the camels, which were settled a little beyond the carpark, waiting placidly. When down, the camel’s back is pretty low even with their makeshift saddles so it was relatively easy to climb on, settle my bag behind me and hang on to the steel pipe “handle bar” which proved VERY NECESSARY a few moments later when I pitched forward and then back like riding a seesaw as the camel got to its feet. The gait of a camel is far from smooth and since they don’t come with stirrups (or anything to push back against) the seat rapidly becomes somewhat uncomfortable but the view more than makes up for any deficiency in ride. As a mode of travel its more picturesque than convenient but … it does seem the most appropriate way to go into the desert. Our guides didn’t bother with rides but walked ahead of the short strings of camels leading them along a track that would probably be well worn if you could wear a track in blowing desert sand to the little camp about an hour out. I twisted every which way taking pictures of the dunes, the sunset, the other riders, and my shadow and the trip went very quickly.

Once there, we left our steeds bedded down (they settled and didn’t move again until morning) and kicked off our shoes to hike up the top of the highest near by dune and watch the sun go down. The climb was steep but it felt good to work leg muscles forward and back rather than out and we made it to the top in time for a really glorious sunset view. When we came back down in the near dark, our guides had prepared a simple dinner (shared plates of chicken and vegetables with flat bread to help eat it) and set it out on low tables in one of the blanket-tents. We sat on our heels and dug in. There was even a vegetarian plate, sure sign of regular tourist traffic. After dinner there was a bonfire and some singing by them (really good) and then by us (a pretty sad show of disharmony). I lay back and looked at the stars, which were so bright that I could see the big dipper with my glasses off. It was hard to identify constellations, actually. There were just so many stars in the sky.

After a nights rest on rather musty mats in the tents it was pretty easy to rise early. I woke up before the camp and walked out to sit on a dune and watch the camels fade out of darkness as moonlight turned into pre-dawn. We climbed a lower dune to watch the official sunrise as one guide went around to all the camels, getting them up and then settling them back down again (stretching) before we mounted up and headed back. The return trip was much in the manner of getting back on your bike the second time you ride it in the spring ( a bit painful ) but, again, the view was an excellent distraction. We had a simple breakfast at the desert hotel and all brushed our teeth before piling back into the van for the return trip which had far fewer breaks in it and so proved much more wearing. 12 hours in a van seat on winding roads can be a challenge. I tried taking pictures out the window with some success. It seems the best way to capture the native garb as veiled and headscarf wearing local women don’t appreciate having their photos taken. We finally arrived back in Marrakesh at the Djemma el Fna just at sunset and I’ve included a few more snaps of the square getting up to speed for the evening at the end here.

I’m turning north again now, so that will be my only taste of desert for this trip.  My appetite as been whetted however (oh, bad metaphor) and I think this won’t be my last visit to Africa. Tonight am in Rabat and I’ll have more to say about that soon. Stay tuned.

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