HOW I SPENT A NIGHT IN THE SAHARA DESERT
“The drive will be around 2 hrs, maybe 2.5.” This is what I remember our tour leader telling us before we piled into the 4x4s. As I cling desperately to the handle bar, I’m now regretting the strawberry ice cream I wolfed down minutes earlier. It’s perhaps a bit too late to ask to travel by camel.
I can’t tell how many minutes of our 2, maybe 2.5 hour drive have passed yet. This section of the desert is rocky and seriously bumpy. Visibility is low. Apparently there’s a sandstorm sweeping in. We have no idea how our driver Mohammed knows where he is going. He’s the head of our convey, leading three other drivers with our fellow group members. “He’s been doing this job for 20 years!” shouts our tour leader. We’re told he makes this trip into the desert, three, sometimes four times a week.
“You okay back there?” my boyfriend enquires. I mumble out some sort of reply over the cacophony of the 4WD engine over the rocks and desperately try to seek out the horizon ahead of me. I’m now semi-wishing I hadn’t volunteered to sit in the back seat with all the bags. Several minutes later, we pull up behind another crew just on top of a dune. We see people hopping out of the cars and follow suite. We’ve lost a couple of the cars in the sandstorm. Mohammed’s radio crackles and his eyes focus on the space from which we’ve come, searching for his men in the haze. We attempt to take photos while the wind whips up sand into every crevice of our bodies. It feels like the desert is in defence mode.
The sand here is very firm. Pebbles and small stones litter the land. The landscape looks more like a dry waterbed or the surface of Mars. All you would need is the for the sand to turn red. The sun is lost behind the clouds for the time being. “We’re about halfway to the camp” our tour leader announces. My stomach does a mini somersault. Thankfully, I switch seats with one of the girls in our 4×4 and soon we’re off again.
Almost immediately, the rocks disappear and the land becomes smooth. We cruise along the flat sand and the space in front of us begins to clear. Suddenly, we see tent peaks on the horizon. They emerge slowly from the dust.
I practically burst out of our 4WD, relieved to have my two feet on the ground. The sky is now completely clear and the sun is out in full force. We open the flap of the communal tent, seeking respite from the sun’s rays. It’s stifling inside. A wisp of cool air brushes past teasingly. Traditional mint tea is served and we struggle to gulp it down in the heat.
We have a few hours to ourselves and so our group disperses. A handful of people make a beeline for the nearest dune, kicking off their shoes and scurrying up the sandy peak. I’m told later that a lucky few sighted a passing camel caravan. Some choose to siesta, taking advantage of one of the lounge chairs in the communal tent. Others grab their overnight bag and claim a tent for the night. It’s incredible how accommodating the Moroccans are to visitors like us. The makeshift tents are made from thick tarpaulin. The ground is covered with thick woven rugs and each tent contains neatly-made single or double beds. It’s by no means 5-star luxury glamping but little touches make us realise once more how reliant this country is on tourism.
At 6pm, our tour leader offers to guide us up to the highest peak closest to our camp. We follow enthusiastically, the heat of the sun slowly diminishing and allowing us to walk barefoot comfortably on the sand. Walking across the valley of a sand dune is much easier as the sand is firmer here, shielded from the desert winds. One soon learns to find this firm side at the peak of a dune to prevent your feet sinking ankle deep. If your foot does sink, the sand cascades down the slope as a waterfall would. It’s mesmerizing to watch as the smooth sand glides away creating a beautiful rippling effect.
We reach our destination peak, a bit puffed and with a warm burn in our calves. One by one, we sit along the ridge and and turn our faces towards the sun. The Sahara Desert is an ocean of sand, the light glistening on the peaks and throwing shadows into the troughs. The vast nothingness is spectacular to witness.
Our tour leaders turns to us and says, “Describe the Sahara Desert to me with one word.” Descriptions are thrown around including windy AF, captivating, immense and spiritual. We ask our tour leader his words and he simply says “peace”. For a moment, we’re all surprised. But in an instant, we see what he means and we nod approvingly. “Sit here with me now in silence for five minutes.” And so we do. The wind whistles around us and I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have this moment. I marvel at how little I feel in this landscape that seems boundless and far-reaching.
That night, we’re served traditional harira soup, vegetable and lamb tagine and fresh fruit platters. Soon after, we head outside to sit around the campfire. The moon is full and shines brilliantly, casting long shadows around the campsite. The night air is cool and windless.
A fire is lit and each person takes a turn to express a gratitude for the day. The campsite staff soon join us bringing traditional Morocco instruments. As the men beat the drums, we clap in and out of rhythm. Some cymbals are picked up and we hopelessly try to copy the cantering rhythm, collapsing in a fit of giggles at our own clumsiness. Without a guitar or ukulele, acapella karaoke kicks off as we search for songs that all the generations know and will sing along to.
All of a sudden, it’s time to turn in. At the suggestion from the camp staff to sleep under the stars, we eagerly pull out the mattresses and sheets from the tents and arrange them haphazardly around the fading campfire. It feels somewhat like a slumber party. Shouts of “Goodnight!” and “Sleep well!” ring out before silence falls. I look up to the cloudless sky, searching for the stars.
We’re woken early the next morning. It’s a 2 hour drive out of the desert and we need to get moving to start our journey towards the coast. As we walk towards breakfast, we see scarab beetle tracks in the sand. How wildlife manages to survive in such harsh environments never ceases to amaze me.
The sky is a brilliant blue and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I regret not waking earlier for sunrise over the dunes. We wave our thanks and goodbye to the camp staff and pile into the 4WDs. Soon, we come to a flat plain and the four 4x4s push down on the accelerator. We’re zooming across the flat, the drivers egging each other on to go faster and faster.
Rocks begin to appear and the journey gets a little bit bumpy. Along the way, we stop by a nomad camp. Our tour leader introduces himself and our group to the family who show us their portable, humble abode. There are goats, a couple of spindly chickens and apparently their camels are out roaming the plains. They’ll use binoculars later in the day to bring them back to camp. The children run up to us, happily posing for photos before insistent hands reach out asking to see the result. A sniff of a deadly combination of gasoline and strong chemicals is held under our noses. This concoction is poured around the camp at night, to keep snakes and spiders at bay. If we had known about the snakes and spiders, we may not have slept as well the night prior! When I ask our tour leader later about the night crawlies, he informs us that the camp staff were on night watch and monitoring the camp at all times while we slept. I needn’t have worried.
Before we know it, we’re back on a tar sealed road and my backside couldn’t be happier. We’re dropped off at a cafe meeting point and welcomed with fresh orange juice and nous nous. Hands are shaken and huge grins exchanged as we thank Mohammed and his men before waving goodbye. It’s been an unforgettable 24 hours, the thrill of this experience is still sinking in. This desert adventure will remain etched in my memory. I’m quite certain it wasn’t an oasis or a mirage and everything I saw was real and true. But for now, I’m happy to shake off the sand and can’t wait to hop into the shower.
Our night in the Sahara Desert was part of Intrepid Travel’s South Morocco Discovery Tour.