Erg Chebbi

Sahara Desert, Morocco
September 2014

As always happens whenever I ride an animal, I am the last one in the saddle, and my camel is the nervous one. To make matters worse, we’re bringing up the rear. My camel especially dislikes the downhills. He is unsteady and tentative, but because we’re tied to the camel in front of us, he has no choice but to follow. He’s also no fan of the all-terrain vehicles that buzz around the lower dunes near the edge of the desert. Occasionally he lets out a grunt. Whenever we’re stopped, the young German woman in front of us turns around and pats him on his gray head. I try to follow suit, patting the base of his long neck, but it doesn’t have the same effect.

If you have never ridden a camel, it is as odd as it appears. It is not like riding a horse. You mount it when it is lying on its stomach upon the ground, and then it lurches upward and backward until you are unsteadily upright. After a while, I get used to the awkward steps of my nervous friend, start letting one hand go from the grip so I can take a photo here and there. But it’s just when I’m growing confident that my camel jerks a little sideways, and I have to catch the grip with both hands.

Camel trainThe camel train ascends the first high dunes from Kasbah Mohayut in a long, 10-strong line in the late afternoon. At the summit the dunes become a golden Gaudiesque sculpture of rolling shapes and sweeping rings. Aside from the sound of hoof prints digging into the sand and the occasional camera shutter, it is a nearly silent caravan. We continue east, continue deeper and higher.

Erg Chebbi is on the edge of Morocco’s eastern frontier. Beyond its mountainous, undulating dunes is Algeria and the beginnings of the northern Sahara.

What can I say about the desert? It is beautiful, terrifyingly beautiful.

After about two hours of climbing and descending and climbing again, we reach a long swoosh of sand looking out in all directions on glorious sand mountains. We dismount and stake our places along the ridge, looking out to the west. The glowing sun slowly settles against the highest dune, lingers there for a little while, then gradually lowers its curtain as the sand transforms from gold to gray.

My camelWe reach the camp a few minutes later before it is completely dark. We dismount holding our middle thighs, walking a little bow-legged. “I will feel that in the morning,” one of the three German women says.

The camp is situated in a little depression, with a series of big tents, all outfitted with carpets and large mattresses covered in heavy, camel-hair blankets. As we gather outside around a low, metal table, reclining in lounge chairs, the men from the camp bring mint tea, which we drink ravenously. Above us, the stars sprawl out like the world’s greatest planetarium. They really are that vivid when you view them from the desert.

Dinner is served in a communal tent, dishes with rice, meat, and vegetables for starters, then an array of tajines with meat, potatoes, and cucumbers that are just the right kind of tender. Around the table, there are conversations going on in four languages among people from six nations: a middle-aged couple from Geneva, bookend young couples from Switzerland and the Northwest of England, a honeymooning Italian couple who have come over with their Berber guide from a neighboring camp, and a trio of women from Hamburg. There is the usual travel small talk about the oddities of Fes and Marrakech, and our even weirder experiences with transportation.

As the sun awakens in all its brightness, it restores the sand to its golden luster.Such communal gatherings are what’s best about these adventures. There’s a friendly fluidity to them. At the end of the meal, after the oranges and melon have cleansed our palettes, the German women have gotten their beers, and I’ve had one more beer than I should have, we all repair to our tents to rest.

Morning comes sooner than one prefers, but not as early or abruptly as the first call to prayer would be in the town. It already is mostly light, but the sun has not yet lifted above the dunes. When it does begin to rise, it emerges slowly, almost reluctantly, like a groggy person wanting five more minutes sleep. Yet as it awakens in all its brightness, it restores the sand to its golden luster.

SunsetFor the ride back, there is a reshuffling of camels. My new camel is at the front of a five-camel chain. He’s walking funny, with an exaggerated side-to-side lope, especially on the descents. His feet sink deep into the sand, as if he is going to fall forward. Perhaps it is because we are carrying the cooler in which we brought our provisions, perhaps it’s because he’s aggravated that I am sitting too far forward as a result, or perhaps it’s because the camel behind us keeps coming up too close. Whatever the annoyance, he presses on slowly to the west, every step leaving new tracks upon the sand.

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