Merzouga Desert: Exploring Sahara On A Camel
January 1, 1970
by Alexander Stankov
Road to Merzouga
I am travelling through the majestic High Atlas Mountains in a very old minibus heading to the most expected part of my Moroccan adventure – Sahara Desert. A hundreds of sharp curves ahead us are making me sick but the thought that in a few hours I will cross the desert on the back of a camel is making me feel better.
By reducing the altitude the trip is becoming more pleasant and the signs near the road are telling us that the desert is getting really really closer. The mountains are crossed and now we are passing through little picturesque villages, frozen back in time.
Children are playing football a few meters from the road under the burning sun. Local women are bustling around the courtyards of their ancient homes. The donkeys are finishing the last blades of grass on the ground.
The temperature is rising with every next mile. Looks like we are almost there. After a short break and a cup of sweet mint tea near a nice pool we are setting off again. Half an hour later, the minibus is leaving the main highway and taking a crazy dirt road. We are travelling with not more than 5mi/h and still our heads are hitting the roof. After 15 minutes bouncing in the car the sandy hills of Sahara are appearing in front of us.
We are arriving in Merzouga, at a Berber camp where a Berber man is preparing our camels for the ride in the desert. Last minutes in the real world before going, literally, in the middle of nowhere.
The camels are sitting impatiently on the ground waiting to shelter on their backs the next annoying group of tourists. I am preparing a little backpack, because we are going to spend the night under the open sky of the desert. It’s time to “get on board”, in other words, to get on the camel’s back and make my first step into the wild and unknown Sahara.
Into the Desert
I will lie if I tell you that riding a camel is a great experience. It is not even a nice one. Actually, It’s a really bad, I dare to say, but it takes you to the one of the best possible experiences you can ever have. So, the camels are ready, one by one the people from the group are taking their places between the two humps of the camel and here we go. The camel-puller is grabbing the rope of the first camel and the camel train is starting to move slowly into the wild desert. We are going up and down over the sand dunes, trying to keep balance on the camel’s back. The sun is right above us and there is nowhere to hide.
After almost hour riding in the desert our trip is about to end, because we are reaching the camp where we’re going to spend the night. My camel rapidly is sitting down on its legs and I am nearly to fall on the ground, but there’s a happy end – I am getting off the camel absolutely unharmed. Well, almost absolutely! I really can’t feel my backside, but I am hoping it’s still there.
We are leaving the camels to take a break and going to our next adventure in the desert – the sandboarding. I’ve never tried any kind of boarding sports before, so I am not sure I will try it now, but my inner voice is shouting: “Come on, don’t be a coward”. So, I am stepping on the board and just doing it. Well, after few seconds I am rolling on the sand. So am I during the next few tries, but I don’t care. It’s funny enough to don’t care about all this sand everywhere inside my clothes.
When everybody is tired of sandboarding, we’re sitting on the top of the highest dune to wait for the sunset. A little boy is coming to us with a few handmade camel figures made by his mother. He is the only kid here. His family lives alone in the middle of nowhere. They have a camel, few hens and they sleep in a tents. I am feeling sad about this kid and I am asking our guide why do they live here, how can they be happy living alone. He is not able to answer my questions, but he’s telling me one word, that maybe can answer them.
Maktub! He is saying this word few times and then he’s writing it in the sand using his finger. Then he is telling me what does it mean. Literally, It means “written”, but as phrase, it means “it’s written”, “this is fate” or “this is the way it meant to be”. Mohamed – the guide, is explaining me that people in Morocco really believe that if something happens – good or bad, it happened for a reason and they have to accept it. And maybe that’s why they are happy people.
Sunset in Sahara
While we are talking, the sun is starting to go down. Believe me, the sunsets in the desert is something you must not miss. So, everybody is standing to see how the day is meeting the night. When the sun is almost hiding we are going down the dune right to our camp, where a group of Berber men are setting a fire. It’s time for some food and why not some Moroccan whiskey (a.k.a. Mint Tea). We’re sitting around a low round table on a little three-legged chairs and start eating the delicious Moroccan food. The evening is about to end when the Berber men in the camp are grabbing different music instruments, sitting around the fire and starting to play and sing their Berber songs. We are getting up from the table and joining “party” around the fire.
Meteor Shower in the Desert
There is no one else in miles. It’s only us, the fire, the Berber songs and the dark descended over the desert. And of course, the camels sleeping outside the camp. The night is amazing, but there is something even more amazing. There is millions of stars above us. I’ve never seen in my life such a spectacular view. Every minute falling star appears somewhere and your list of wishes is finished and you have to repeat the same wishes again and again. We are talking, dancing around the fire, smoking Shisha and staring at the stars, trying to guess the constellations.
The last wood is burning out and it’s time to go to bed. Well, not a bed exactly. It’s actually a pile of few mattresses on the floor of a big tent. I’m grabbing three of four blankets and lying down. I’ve never thought that I will be freezing on a place where few hours earlier I was melting under the hot sun. But, believe or not, during the nights the desert can be crazy cold. So cold that is hard to fall asleep. I am putting every clothes I have. Come to that, I am taking a pair of socks to use them as a gloves. Fighting with the cold outside the blankets I am trebling but soon I am starting to fall asleep.
Deafening sound of a bell is waking me up in the morning. I am jumping from the bed and going out of the tent. One of the Berber men is walking around and ringing the little bell in his hand. It’s almost dark outside but we have to go. While I am preparing my stuff the sun outside is starting to rise behind the dunes. If there is something more spectacular than sunset in the desert, this is the sunrise in the desert.