Friday, March 20.
After a good night’s sleep, I wake up and have the privilege of TAKING A HOT SHOWER. (Call me spoiled if you want, but hot water is something I won’t do without, IF I don’t have to.)
There’s also enough left over for Nonnie, who had the misfortune of having an icy shower the evening before.
After breakfast, we set out for the leg of the trip we’ve been waiting for: a camel ride, followed by a night camped out under the stars, in the Sahara Desert.
People have been taking turns sitting in the front of the minibus; this morning, it’s my turn. I wedge myself and my backpack in between our driver Abdul and trip leader Will – who’s been feeling drained the past couple of days; he’d caught a cold from someone the week before.
Will and I chat for a bit, and I snap some pictures – or at least try – from the front seat. Following our first pit stop, Sally, one of the American tour-mates, comes up front and sits beside me.
We stop at the side of the road to take pictures of a huge rock formation. One of my tour-mates buys a little camel woven from palm leaves and hangs it on Abdul’s rearview mirror (see picture above).
During one of our scheduled stops, we have tea at this beautiful building with an equally beautiful roof terrace. Of course, it isn’t all peaceful.
Down below, in the field on the other side of the road, some sort of dispute between two men is unfolding. One of the men stomps off, only to return moments later brandishing a shovel. They head into a bunch of palm trees, and the disagreement continues – and it somehow also involves a woman and small child, who we can just make out between the trees.
Nothing seems to come of it, other than raised voices in Arabic. And I’m glad for that. But for the longest time, I’m CONVINCED that the one guy is going to beat the other guy with the shovel.
Back on the road, we pass through an army garrison town, El Rachidia (pictured at left).
You can tell this place probably sprung up within the last few years – a lot of the buildings look brand-new – and look it. And there are kids – people – on bicycles EVERYWHERE, probably more than I’ve seen in every place we’ve been in so far.
We finally reach Merzouga, and the auberge where our luggage will be stored for the night. We’re only required to take daypacks with the things we’ll need.
Some of us don our scarves. I get help from Aussie tour-mate Amelia, who expertly ties mine round my head, Berber style, leaving enough to wrap around my face in case of a sandstorm on the camel ride over.
We’re told to each choose a blanket from a nearby pile. We’ll use these when we sleep in our tents. They’ll also double as partial padding while on the camels.
Our caravan of dromedaries – all making various gurgling and snorting noises – are lined up and one by one, we mount them and head for the Erg Chebbi dunes (located just 20 km from the border with Algeria).
I believe the ride lasts about a half-hour to 45 minutes, but it feels much longer. And it’s really quiet, save for the talking amongst ourselves and the muffled clop-clopping of the camel’s hooves in the sand.
Occasionally we see a lone dune beetle skittering along, leaving its tiny tracks behind as it disappears down a shallow slope of sand.
It’s simply breaktaking. The dunes are so perfect, they don’t seem real. The sun is still blazing bright, but it’s not really hot. It’s something right out of Lawrence of Arabia.
Letting my mind get caught up in the Romanticism of riding a camel in the desert (but partly because of my bad back), I sit up a bit straighter. Letting my mind momentarly wander, I pretend I’m some sort of desert royalty. Or maybe a Victorian-era mademoiselle, being taken to my luxury tent in the sand.
The first half of the ride isn’t bad at all. But the latter half becomes downright uncomfortable. This is when I realize it’s probably because I’m riding a camel with one of the boniest humps known to camel-kind.
When we dismount at camp, my thighs are trembling. And I’m sore down there.
We figure out our tent assignments – there are four to choose from – and drop off our things.
Tour-mates Nikki and Amelia talk me into trying to run up this HUGE sand dune with them, located right behind our camp. Colin even joins in. I don’t make much of an effort and quit about half-way up, my out-of-shape lungs on fire. Nikki, Amelia and Colin all keep clawing their way to the top.
On my way down, Sally and Cathy decide THEY want in on the action, and they put me to shame – both of them persistently digging their way up the dune until they reach the top.
Back at the bottom, Alex – our resident artist – has been sketching most of the day. On the ride over, she created a watercolour sign with sand dunes and a little camel caravan that reads “Welcome to the Sahara”.
She’s now colouring in some of the other things she’s drawn, smudging the colours with water and bringing her sketches to life. She’s even quickly sketched our camp site, complete with a approximation of Will in his turban, sitting on one of the tables, slouching.
The sun fades. Sunset gives way to twilight. And one by one, the stars make their presences known. This is the part of the life experience that I’ve REALLY waited all week for:
Seeing the best light show in the universe, in the middle of the desert.
As we wait for our vegetarian tajine dinner to cook (and while Will goes looking for scorpions with his special flashlight – yep, I said scorpions), our Berber guide, Mubarak, hangs out with us for a bit. Sally and Cathy pepper him with questions about his life and family.
Soon, dinner is served. And it’s delicious. Dessert is freshly sliced orange, which is oh-so-juicy.
After dinner, we gather around the campfire just behind our tents and Mubarak plays his drums. He passes a second set around. There aren’t many takers, aside from Colin and myself. (Apparently I’m really good, despite one-handing it because I can’t follow Mubarak’s advanced desert rhythms).
We ask him to tell us stories about some of the travellers he’s encountered. A couple are funny; one’s a bit sad.
The air grows colder, and the evening draws to a quiet close. Inside the tent, I add layers and bundle up in the blankets I’ve been given.
I can hear the camels and other surrounding animals making noise in the distance as I try to fall asleep.