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Shadow Riders on Shadow Camels

I blame my husband. I figure it was his fault.

See, he wanted to go to the desert–and I’m not talking about sagebrush, cactus and tumbleweed desert. No: I’m talking sand dunes as far as the eye can see.

I’m talking the Sahara.

The only time we could manage it with our schedules was summer. Summer in the desert. I googled it and found a number of forbidding posts about the extraordinary heat and dryness. About how the flies settle on your eyes, lips, nostrils–any bit of moisture they can find. About how water heats to the temperature of warm tea in minutes…

But he really really wanted to go. So I said “fine”, even as I thought: what am I getting myself into?

Somewhere in southern Spain, I ate something that got my stomach annoyed. After that, any food intake, no matter how nominal, was immediately followed by stomach cramps and visits to the nearest washroom facilities.

I had heard dire warnings about the washrooms in the night train from Tangier to Marrakech, so I thought I’d best make use of it right after it left the station in the hopes of catching it at its best. Its best was still somewhere between Trainspotting and Candyman by way of spectres of horror masquerading as bathrooms. The rest of the ride became an exercise in self-restraint–in which, like the person who has been told not to think about elephants, I kept thinking about how much worse that washroom must have become since my early visit.

By the time we got to Merzouga, I was bracing myself. See, the short visit to the dunes had somehow transformed along the way into an hour and a half camel ride into the desert, followed by an overnight stay at a Berber tribal camp. As we walked out of the guest house, where we had locked our bags, and I saw the camels waiting, I took a deep breath (of hot, desert air), clenched my buttocks, and clambered on.

The camels (dromedaries, to be precise) were far sweeter and more endearing than I had been led to believe. None of that nonsense about being mean-tempered, and spitting. They were placid and trundled along at a manageable pace.

And meanwhile: there were the dunes, all around us.

As Merzouga disappeared behind us, we were surrounded by an extraordinary, breathtaking vista of deep, orange, undulating waves of sand. I couldn’t stop staring. I couldn’t get enough. Contrasted against the deep blue sky, it was like nothing I’d ever seen.

And around us was silence–the soft sounds of sand shifting under camel hoofs and the occasional sussuration of wind that had us lifting scarves to our faces to keep the sand out of our eyes, noses and mouths.

Life in the Desert: Sandfish
(as held by Saeed, our other guide)

At one point, our guide, Achmed, gave a shout and ran down to the base of a dune, reaching into the sand. He walked up the shifting sands with little apparent effort, and showed us what he held, gently grasped between his forefinger and thumb: a lizard, with a stippled orange back and a white underbelly, known as a sandfish. When he released it into the sand, we saw why, as it burrowed into the sands with the lithe ease of a fish in water.

By the time we arrived at the camp I was in some need of the facilities–which, it turns out, involved making a contribution to the natural landscape on the far side of a nearby dune (tip: if you’re a girl, face upwards).

Chatting with the only other traveller on our excursion (go figure: summer is the low season, on account of the heat), a woman from Belgium who had tacked holiday on the end of a work trip that involved supervising 20 teenagers, I was delighted to learn that she had brought Immodium and was willing to share. One dose, and I started to feel better, after days of discomfort.

As the sun set and the extraordinarily dark night set in, we settled in by candle light to a delicious feast of chicken and couscous tagine and fruit. Later, we sang songs and drummed in the flickering light, before climbing a dune to peer at the stars above: the band of the milky way, brilliant and close, and the familiar patterns of the jewelled constellations.

The night had cooled to the high twenties (celsius), and so it was comfortable, particularly with light breezes keeping the dry air moving. We slept outside, on mattresses on the sand, nestled amid the dunes–though part of me didn’t want to sleep at all, despite my tiredness. It was all so beautiful.

I compromised by dozing, then waking to stare up above at the stars, or at the outlines of the dunes around us, and to listen to the exquisite silences of the desert, occasionally punctuated by the tiny sound of a passing sand beetle, or the soothing shush of the nocturnal breeze.

I sat and watched the sky brighten and the dunes come into pale illumination, wishing I could hold onto the moment–each moment. Instead, I contented myself with trying to inhabit the present as fully and as consciously as I could.

We set out shortly after sunrise, and again the sand and the sky made an improbable, hauntingly beautiful contrast, as the dunes undulated into the distance. I snapped photos on camelback, as a wistful sadness rose in me at the thought of leaving this extraordinary place, with its profound, stark beauty.

We had breakfast at the guest house–eggs with cumin, pepper and salt–and this time, my stomach welcomed the sustenance. Then, after packing our things and loading up the car, I said my goodbyes to Erg Chebbi. My sadness was tempered by a fervent gratitude at the the privilege of having been able to visit this powerful place–and by the hope that perhaps, someday I would return.

And so, ultimately it is my husband’s fault. Without him, I would never have gone to Erg Chebbi–and I would never have have fallen in love with it.