I stare up into the early morning sky, which is glittered with stars. My eyelids become heavier with every blink as I try to resist succumbing to sleep because I don’t want this moment to end. I look around and see the silhouette of the tents that our group is supposed to sleep in, but instead, we all brought our mattresses outside to sleep under the stars. As I lie here awake, I notice the heavy silence of the desert … well, except for the steady snoring of a lone Berber who is sleeping on the outskirts of our campsite. Perhaps he was exiled due to his overpowering snores.
The tip of my nose tingles as the cool air begins to creep in. I pull my heavy wool blanket higher and tuck it snuggly against my sides. In an effort to combat sleep, I reflect upon this day, which has led me to the best slumber party ever!
* * *
It was like Christmas morning for me! I woke up early, excited that this day is finally here. Today, we will ride off into the sunset on a camel and spend the night camping in the Sahara desert. It gives me butterflies just thinking about it! Although it will take most of the day to get to Merzouga (Mer-zoo-guh), a small town on the edge of the Sahara, it’s nothing compared to the years that many of us have waited for this exhilarating experience.
Our group of fourteen eagerly piles into the van, to claim our unassigned-assigned seats. My husband, Sieu, and I squeeze through to the back. We are sitting in front of the backbench, which is occupied by three young and energetic women from Poland. To our right, in the row of single seats, is a quiet and reserved man from Boston. In front of us is our cluster of five friends who we had planned this trip with. Lastly, seated at the front of the van, is a fun couple from Ontario, and to the right of them is an adventurous solo traveler from Japan who can only speak broken English. “Hallo, it’s me, Youssef!” our guide announces into his microphone. He says this every morning and it always cracks us up. It has become the catchphrase of our trip.
Thanks to our dynamic group, our seven-hour drive flies by quickly! It’s broken up by bathroom breaks, a road-side picnic, and some pretty intense lip-syncing karaoke with Youssef’s microphone. Our van buzzes with giddy excitement with every passing hour. Thinking that we must be getting close, I draw back the curtain and glance out the window. The scenery is flat and desolate – similar to what I imagine Arizona being like. The dry, rocky landscape is peppered with clusters of dead yellow grass. There are sparse areas of green from the grass still struggling to survive in this barren environment. Just then, someone shouts out, “Look!! Desert!!! Straight ahead!!” We all lean in quickly to look out the front window. The winding, paved road, which we have been following for hours, finally has an end. On the horizon, off into the distance, there are large mountains of sand … the Sahara desert!
Our van pulls off of the paved road and onto a battered, worn dirt road. As we drive towards a miniature castle on the edge of the desert, I stare out the window in disbelief. Surveying the land, it’s impressive how the sand spews out of the desert onto the dry, cracked earth beside it; almost like a sandbox missing its boards. It’s exactly how I imagined it … mounds and mounds of soft, fine sand as far and as wide as the eye can see! It reminds me of the red sands on the dunes that I used to play on as a child when visiting Prince Edward Island.
We step out of the van and make our way to the hotel’s terrace. Once there, Youssef begins helping us wrap our scarves around our heads, similar to the nomads, in preparation for our journey into the desert. Although the nomads (people without a fixed habitation) would wear these shemaghs for protection against the harsh desert conditions, we are sporting them more for the cool photo opportunities! While I am waiting for my turn, I am mesmerized by the two rows of dromedary camels waiting for us on the desert landing. Laying parallel to each other, one row has seven and the other has eight. They are each equipped with a saddle, which has a colorful wool blanket draped over it. On the front of the saddle is a metallic, T-bar handle. The lackluster herd rests there quietly chewing their cud.
When it’s my turn, Youssef takes my long, tattered royal blue scarf, which I recently purchased for 100 dirhams, and begins wrapping it tightly around my head. Around and around and around. Once he nears the end, he rolls the final piece, runs it along my forehead, and tucks it in the back. He then pulls the other end down to provide protection for my face and neck.
Once we are all ready, Youssef leads us down the stairs to begin boarding. Alas, our chariots await! I anxiously rush down the large concrete stairs. Before taking my first official step on the Sahara desert, I pause for a second to relish this moment. As I transfer my weight onto the cashmere sand, I can feel it slide and displace under my foot.
After my first foot hits the ground, my other one shoots out rapidly behind it. My focus quickly changes to the dromedaries. I can’t wait to touch them!! I approach the nearest one while the remainder of the group listens to Youssef giving a briefing about our evening. I extend my hand but quickly pull it back in hesitation. Do camels bite? Are they aggressive creatures? I don’t think I have ever been this close to one before… I decide to ask a nearby Berber, who is busy preparing for our outing. “Is it okay to touch them?”, I ask. “Yes. Very safe”, he half-heartedly replies with his heavily accented English. I reach out and touch the back of its neck; I can feel the dirt baked onto his thick, coarse hair. I lean forward to examine his facial features. His long eyelashes mask his dark eyes. His right nostril is pierced with a ring. Attached to it, is a carabiner with a thin rope. His lips are droopy and lined with coarse white whiskers, like an elderly person without their dentures. His head is large and his neck is muscular. His round, bloated body, covers most of his long, slender legs. I scratch hard behind his ears, creating a cloud of dust, which he seems to enjoy as he leans into it.
There are two Berber guides, who begin helping our group mount the dromedaries. One by one, we board these massive creatures. A man dressed in a silky blue robe, with a light-blue headwrap signals me to the lead dromedary. So routine, this man barely makes eye contact as he takes my bag and hangs it off the saddle. He then instructs me to climb on, hold the handle tightly, and most importantly, lock my elbows. I do as he says. When he gives the signal, my dromedary propels himself forward to gather enough momentum to lift up his hind legs. This sends me forward on a steep decline. Glad I locked my elbows or else I would be eating a pretty big sand-wich hehe. He then jerks back to pull himself up and onto his front legs. And just like that, within seconds, I am towering over the tall Berber who was helping me. He now stands with his head at the height of my knees.
As we begin our journey along the winding sand dunes, each dromedary is tied to the one in front of them with the rope that is attached to their nose piercing. The lead dromedary is being led by a man on foot. He is a Berber, meaning that he is indigenous to North Africa. He is probably in his late 20’s and walks with very little enthusiasm. His head is wrapped in a scarf, similar to mine, only it’s light-blue. His robe, which is really quite nice, is dark blue with very subtle moon and star patterns on it. Between his shoulder blades and on the cuffs of his sleeves are golden highlights. The pant legs of his jeans peak out and cover most of his worn, leather sandals.
Beyond him is a magnificent sky, with a couple of decorative clouds. The shade of blue in the sky contrasts with the color of the sand; complementary colors directly on opposite sides of the spectrum. Well done, mother nature! You truly are an artist. In the tranquility of the desert, the only noise that I hear is the rhythmic rubbing of my backpack on the saddle caused by the steady sway of my dromedary. It’s very hypnotic. I stare off into the distance. Nothing. Nothingness as far as the eye can see. It’s as calm and serene as my mind is at this very moment.
When we arrive at our campsite, our guides park our camel train in their usual parking spot. I suspect this by the numerous amounts of small, brown nuggets deposited into the sand. As soon as our feet hit the ground again, Youssef hurries us up to the top of the tallest sand dune to watch the sunset. All fourteen of us chase him along the steady incline of the crest on the dune. With every step I take, my feet sink and slide into the silky, fine sand. As Youssef scurries effortlessly to the top, I try to use his footprints to ease the burn in my quadriceps from the exertion.
Upon reaching the summit, I take a deep breath. The air is dry and unquenchable. I look back and see the remainder of our group still climbing along in a linear path, like ants marching up an anthill. They, too, must be using each other’s footsteps for better leverage. I turn my gaze to the horizon just in time to see the blazing sun sink into the rolling hills of sand. As I enjoy the final glow of twilight, I had no idea that is only a prelude of the shenanigans that await us.
To Be Continued In…
Nomad Mandy Wanders the Sahara Desert (part II)