Friday, August 14, 2015

Merzouga, Morocco: Camping in the Sahara Desert - August 2015

From Marrakech it took two days driving through steep mountains, grassy hills and rocky desert plains to reach Merzouga. Fewer than thirty miles from the Algerian border, Merzouga was home to our camp post and the town most accessible to the Erg Chebbi sand dunes. Erg Chebbi is one of two patches of the Sahara Desert lying within the Moroccan borders and was our targeted destination for a wild night camping under the stars.

As we rolled up to the camp post, tired and sweating, my sister and I caught our first glimpse of the towering red sand dunes in the distance. We scrambled in the 116 degree Fahrenheit (47 Celsius) heat to grab the basic necessities for the night, and as much water as we could carry, and prepared for our two-hour trek to the campsite.

No one spoke English at the camp post. Anxiously anticipating our desert trek, we stretched out on thin cotton mats trying to keep cool inside the adobe hut. A long black-haired Moroccan woman grabbed our scarves and artfully wrapped them around our heads with a swath to protect our faces from the blowing sand.

It was time to go. Outside the camels were being lined up and saddles secured. We each mounted our one-hump ride while he was in a sitting position and then with a tap from the guide, the camel rocked and sprang upright, jolting us five feet in the air.

Our dozen-camel desert caravan rode for nearly two hours in the intense heat up, over and around magnificent sand dunes. Some towering as high as 500 feet, the dunes appeared to glow in the late afternoon sun. The vast seas of wind-blown sand stretched on for as far as the eye could see. There were patches of tall grass clutching to life in the sand and the occasional brave black bird skimmed the horizon.

The weary camels groaned and spat. We had to grip the saddle bar fiercely so not to tumble forward as we descended the steep dunes and the camels' hooves sunk in the deep sand.

Moments before sunset we reached our campsite. Dismounting the camel was an even more arduous task; we held on tightly as the animal bucked forward collapsing his front legs then fell backwards. Eager to feel the sand between our toes, we left the camels and raced up to the top of a dune to watch the sun go down and all of the colors around us began to shift. Tricked by the clever light, the vibrant red dunes slowly turned into a washed out gold and soon the sky was black and blanketed with stars.

Our campsite for the night was humble: wool blankets draped over sticks with rugs covering the sand. Illuminated by candlelight, our guides graciously prepared tajine and tea before uncovering their leather drums to share some Moroccan song. When the music stopped, the desert was quiet. Still. Vast. Intimidating.

But the silence vanished as the night drew on and the wind blew. There was even an extremely rare light rain over our campsite that evening. After spotting a handful of shooting stars and stealing a bit of sleep, we joined the camels for a sunrise trek back across the mountain dunes.

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