Grumpy camels and shooting stars – our favourite adventure ever

Most instagrammable places in Morocco - the desert at Erg Chebbi
This post is part of the Yellow Zebra Safaris challenge to write about the best holiday we've ever been on. The competition prize is an incredible trip to explore the famed Northern Circuit of Tanzania, with Serengeti sundowners, world-class game drives, dreamy tented camps and even private plunge pools. Just how we like it, adventure by day, and luxury by night!

 

Once upon a time there lived a girl. Sporting pigtails and braces, she hated school and lived for the weekends when her mum would take her to the public library to choose a new book. Unlike other browsers she didn’t linger in the aisles, she knew exactly what she was after. Hal and Roger Hunt. Or more precisely, the next in the Willard Price Adventure Series, which featured a couple of teenagers assisting their naturalist father on various wildlife escapades around the world, many of them in Africa. She was hooked. And knew that when she grew up she was going to be either a wildlife researcher, or a writer. Considering in real life she’s terrified of dogs and runs a mile when threatened by so much as a money spider, the former didn’t seem likely. Which is why, as a blogger nearly thirty years later, she’s sitting here typing away, about to regale you with a tale of her own favourite adventure – camel trekking in the Moroccan Sahara.

It goes something like this…

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

The charming ‘Camel 2531’

Camel number 2531 stared unblinking, his bottom lip curling in disdain as I gracelessly manoeuvred myself on board, clutching the impossibly tiny handle and trying desperately to remember whether the standing up process involved the front or back end first. Fortunately the aptly named Kamal was on hand, face expressionless as he coaxed the unwilling 2531 to its feet, no doubt thankful that his latest customer hadn’t fallen at the first hurdle. I quietly congratulated myself on staying upright and took a moment to admire the view.

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

Setting off on an adventure

Hubbie and I were in the deep south of Morocco, about to embark on an evening camel trek from Merzouga to a desert camp at Erg Chebbi. The light was rapidly fading and the great orange fireball in the sky had bathed the dunes in gold as it inched towards the horizon. It was time to go.

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

Sunset at Erg Chebbi

I’d like to say that the only sound was the soft padding of camel footsteps along the shifting sands, with a gentle breeze blowing particles of the golden stuff around in miniature eddies. Alas this wasn’t the case…

“You like Led Zeppelin?”

Where the hell did that come from? Startled, I twisted round in the saddle to see if one of my companions had developed a Bedouin accent and a penchant for rock music. The lad came from nowhere, whirling to a stop beside camel 2531 with his vivid blue head scarf trailing behind. Despite his sprint to catch us up, he was only slightly out of breath and not even breaking into a sweat. Grinning cheekily he produced a bag from beneath his robes and casually tied it onto the animal in front. Dinner. The contents of the bag, not the camel.

“So you from London? You like Led Zeppelin?”

I sighed inwardly, anticipating yet another conversation about London, David Beckham and whether or not we knew John, also from London, who was here last week. Yet I smiled encouragingly. American rockers aren’t my forte but I know even less about football. Not that I’d ever heard of Led Zeppelin. Wasn’t that an airship?

“Erm, sure, we’re from London. I’m Heather, what’s your name?”

“Ali. So do you like Led….” 

“Ah, I’m afraid not…” 

Thankfully someone from behind chipped in with a few song titles to keep the conversation from stalling. Ali, however, just shrugged.

“Oh I don’t know any of their music, but I’ve heard they’re coooool.”

And with that, he scampered back into the dunes.

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

Camel train at Erg Chebbi

We continued plodding on our sandy stairway to heaven. Camel 2531 seemed altogether uninterested in the whole encounter, most likely agreeing that I’d have had more to offer about David Beckham after all.

He continued his chewing.

At some undefined point in proceedings the comfy saddle had become an itchy, chafing, stinking heap of blankets that were proving a pain in the arse with each agonisingly slow step. Two hours had already passed, the sun had sensibly gone to bed long ago, and we were still picking our way through the now pitch black dunes, being sporadically jolted awake by the sudden and rather disconcerting descents. It’s a wonder none of us ended up overboard, although judging from the muttered oaths coming from behind it was a close run thing. Just how far away was the camp?

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

Our colourful camp at Erg Chebbi – taken the next morning!

It was with some relief that I spied ahead the outline of Berber tents through the inky gloom. Camel 2531 knelt down thankfully, glad to be rid of his baggage if only for a few hours, and proceeded to show the extent of his contempt by emptying his bladder as I slid gratefully to the sand. We all strode John Wayne style towards camp, leaving Hubbie, who had somehow got himself tangled in a multitude of camera straps and camel blankets, struggling alone in the dark.

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

Dinner and a show

Some while later, after a surprisingly good chicken tagine, accompanied by some Bedouin drumming and chanting around the campfire, we wearily asked about the bathroom arrangements. Our hosts simply laughed.

“The desert is your toilet my friends!”

I briefly considered venturing out into the darkness by myself and enjoying a little privacy whilst going about my business, but in the end decided to cash in on my marriage vows and dragged Hubbie along for moral support. In case of wild beasts and navigational error. Having dug my hole, I squatted under the vast Saharan sky, looking up in awe at all the stars we’ve never seen before, when all of a sudden from out of the nearby blackness, came a loud

“Humph!”

I would’ve jumped out of my skin had my trousers not been around my ankles. Apparently I’d nearly used poor camel 2531 as a toilet. I prayed there wouldn’t be a reckoning in the morning.

Back in camp Hubbie and I lay out under the starry canopy long after everyone else had gone to bed. We were rewarded with a shower of shooting stars, which would have been rather romantic had Hubbie not suddenly leapt up as a bug landed on him. The tiny little cricket was indeed terrifying, but we settled down again to fall asleep by the glowing embers of the fire.

Our dawn obligation had us up just a few hours later. Apparently you can’t spend the night in the desert without rising at some god-forsaken hour to see the sunrise from the top of a dune. We began our climb at 4.45 am, expecting to be joined by other camp guests in a mass landslide as we all scrambled to the top of the colossal mound behind the tents.

Yet we were greeted with absolute silence. No-one else was up.

Chebbi or Chigaga, how to choose the best Erg in Morocco

Sunrise at Erg Chebbi

We wondered if we’d got our times wrong, and didn’t really know which way to go seeing as it had been dark when we arrived. It was still pitch black, and giggling hysterically we realised our only option was to straight line it.

Whose dumb idea was that?

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

Trying, unsuccessfully, to straight line it up the biggest dune

The dune was steep, and crawling wearily on hands and knees up the sheer wall of sand, for every inch gained, a metre was lost. It was impossible. As the sun poked it’s head up in the distance we gave up, and sat together trying not to laugh in despair as the much anticipated magical moment was punctuated with snatched conversations drifting up from camp, and guttural grunts from the camels, already protesting at the thought of the day ahead.

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

This is what 5am looks like half way up a dune in the Sahara!

Yet as the light burst upon the desert, carpeting the land with colour, we forgot all else and laid back to enjoy the show. We may have felt a little smug as the other campers began to emerge from their tents, an hour too late.

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

We nearly made it to the top for sunrise

After a breakfast of bread and jam we began the trek back through the dunes to Merzouga. It seemed twice as long as the journey in, and Hubbie was one step away from getting off and walking. Riding a camel is uncomfortable, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

Leaving camp behind

Camel 2531 proceeded to ignore me the entire way, a companionable nonchalance that suited us both. Finally making back to the auberge where we’d begun our quest just hours before, for most of us the adventure was over. However knowing how much Hubbie was enjoying the ride, his camel untied itself from the train and refused to budge those last few tantalising steps, earning the poor boy several bonus minutes aboard his ship of the desert.

This is where I insert a joke about animals not being the only ones who got the hump.

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

Hubbie loves riding camels!

As we drove off taking our last lingering look at the Sahara, the next group of tourists arrived and headed eagerly towards their camels. I smiled to myself, knowing just what they were letting themselves in for. Then a voice drifted across the sand, and so it began once again.

“You like Led Zeppelin?”

You might be wondering why I class this as my favourite holiday. It wasn’t the sort of luxurious adventure that we’re used to, with grumpy camels, hardly any sleep and having to pee out in the open. Yet it was this discomfort that made us appreciate the true majesty of the desert. The shooting stars cascading from the heavens casting their spell over the dark night. Falling asleep under the Saharan sky, wondering what excitements tomorrow would bring. Watching the birth of a new day across an endless sea of sand.

Sometimes it’s the negatives that bring the positives to life, and we truly believe the more effort you put into a trip, the richer the rewards. It also gave me a great story to tell my family, friends, and blog readers. If just one person decides to go on their own Moroccan camel adventure, whether it’s to ‘find’ themselves, or simply tart up their instagram feed, than I’m happy. The Sahara is a magical place, you just have to work out what that means to you.

Erg Chebbi desert camp camel trek, Merzouga, Morocco

The giant dunes of Erg Chebbi – Hubbie’s proudest photo, taken from the back of a moving camel

So back to the Yellow Zebra competition, and why I would like to go on safari in Tanzania. The travel writer in me today would say it’s because Tanzania is the perfect epitome of Africa, with its vast plains, jostling herds and of course Mount Kilimanjaro looming in the background. Plus it would make for some damn good blog photos. Yet the girl with the braces and pigtails would timidly whisper that it was those Willard Price stories of daring endeavours and the evocative descriptions of African landscapes that set her imagination on fire all those years ago. It’s time to see it for real, and enjoy some Hal- and Roger-worthy adventures all of my own, and maybe, just maybe, the stories I come home with might encourage other young children (with or without pigtails) to realise that imagination can in fact become reality.

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A camel trek to Erg Chebbi in Morocco - what it's really like

2 Comments

  • Frank says:

    I’ll be there in less than a month Heather!
    Nice story and the photos from the dunes are incredible. I’ll make sure to get up early.
    for you it was Willard Price, for me it was Wilbur Smith and I remember than wanderlust for Africa I would get reading him. His books, and Indiana Jones, shaped much of my childhood/teenage years.

    And I want to go to Tanzania as well! I lived in Zambia/Zimbabwe as a kid, we travelled 3 months in South Africa a few years back…I want to see more of Southern Africa. Where do I sign up 🙂

    • Heather Cole says:

      Bet you’re counting down the days now, looking forward to hearing what you get up to! Can imagine Wilbur Smith had the same effect as Willard Price, they don’t make ’em like that any more do they! Indiana Jones too, although that was more because he had a cool hat. I have acquired several such hats over the years, but alas I just can’t pull off the ‘cool’.

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