Deserts are amazing places to be. The idea of being dropped into the emptiness of a sandy ocean is one of my favourite romantic ideals, and it has lead me across the world in the footsteps of T.E. Lawrence, in the shadow of a 1001 Arabian Nights, and even into the depths of time itself in the Australian Outback. So every time I find myself poised on the edge of the desert, you can bet that I’ll be on the next camel over those dunes.
Our recent trip through Morocco was always going to be one of our lifetime travel adventures because Linh and I had each been dreaming of touring the country for a plethora of reasons. For me, I was chasing the echo of writers like Paulo Coelho, and Tahir Shah through the tradition of oral storytelling throughout Berber history. It’s something that fascinates me and I have always wanted to haunt the alleys of Fes, or ride through the Sahara. I chased the experience in the sands of Jordan in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia, I climbed Mount Sinai where the story of Moses and his tablets originated, and I even found my way in the footsteps of Cleopatra and Alexander the Great to the Oasis at Siwa near the Libyan border. Now, I had the opportunity to head out into the desert for no reason other than to sit under the stars in a Berber tent.
We’d travelled south from Fes, a full day’s journey from the Medina to the village of Merzouga. We’d organized to take a camel trek into Erg Chebbi. An Erg is a large area of desert, usually sand with rolling dunes which contains little to no vegetation. Erg Chebbi is actually some distance north of the start of the Sahara Desert, however for the purposes of tourism and with a pinch of misinformation, or a dash of suspension of disbelief, it certainly fits the part.
We arrived at a town centre that could have been from a Western movie if it wasn’t for the four wheel drives parked here and there. We pulled up outside a convenience store to wait for our promised guide, who failed to appear for some time. After about thirty minutes we managed to find a young boy who assured us that he knew where we needed to go. As it turned out, he was absolutely right, and we rewarded him with his tip and a handful of chocolate we had received as a Christmas gift a few days earlier. We stored our hire car and left the bulk of our belongings in a hotel room in which we would never stay before a cup of tea and a short walk to the edge of town.
Here we mounted our camels and set off into the dunes. The trip into the dunes lasted for a couple of hours and during the trek we saw a number of other camel trains walking out to other desert camps dotted across the Erg. If you looked carefully, you could occasionally see them in the lee of a dune. I stopped looking carefully.
Not long before dusk we climbed over a rise and saw our destination, a collection of colourful tents sitting in a small valley between three dunes. We dismounted and heading in to the camp where we dropped our bags and were escorted to afternoon tea and sunset on the top of the dunes. As we waited for the sun to dip and the magic hour to arrive, I took the opportunity (as I always do when in the Sahara) for a spot of sand boarding. As sunset arrived, we returned to our tent for a brilliant Tajine dinner and some music around the campfire. Our host explained that had we arrived a week earlier, or a week later, we would have been joined by up to 20 more travellers as this was the short Christmas break in the middle of a peak season. As it was we were alone in the desert.
The next morning, we took breakfast after literally removing the ice from our stools, and returned to our riad where we were able to shower and relax before bidding the desert farewell and moving west towards Marrakesh.