Chameau 2531 stared unblinking, his bottom lip curling in disdain as I gracelessly manoeuvred myself onto his back, clutching the inadequate handlebar 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 his feet, no doubt thankful that his latest customer hadn’t fallen at the first hurdle.
Pleased I hadn’t disgraced my nation just yet, I comfortably settled into what would be my perch for the next few hours and admired my surroundings.
Camel trekking in the Sahara
Hubbie and I had travelled with some friends to Merzouga in the deep south of Morocco to experience a little slice of the Sahara at the Erg Chebbi desert camp. After a long and dusty drive down from Fes, we were quickly bundled out of the car and onto camels for our trek into the endless sea of sand. 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.
I would 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 camel train companions had developed a Bedouin accent and a liking for old English rock music.
The lad came from nowhere, whirling to a stop beside chameau 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 a sweat. Grinning cheekily with a twinkle in his eye, he produced a carrier bag from beneath his robes and casually tied it onto the camel in front. Our dinner apparently.
“So are you from London? You know Led Zeppelin?”
I sighed inwardly at the thought of yet another conversation trying to explain no, we’re not from London, we don’t know David Beckham or indeed your mate John who was here last week. At least a conversation that didn’t involve football might hold more promise, even if I didn’t know anything about 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….” Persistent if nothing else.
“Ah, I’m afraid not…” somebody please help me out here.
Thankfully one of our friends 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, gone in the blink of an eye.
We continued plodding ever onwards on our sandy stairway to heaven. Chameau 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.
An undignified arrival at camp
At some undefined point in proceedings the comfy saddle had become an irritating, itchy, chafing, sliding, stinking heap of blankets that were proving a pain in the ass 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. Just how far away was the camp?
Hearing behind me several muttered oaths about intolerable pain and whose idea was this anyway (mine, of course), it was with some relief that I spied ahead the outline of Berber tents through the inky gloom. Chameau 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. I did the wifely thing and went to assist, and we finally staggered after the others, bumping into 2531′s brothers and each other in the dark.
Bedouin camp life
After a surprisingly good chicken tagine, accompanied by some Bedouin drumming and chanting around the campfire (and of course more mint tea), we wearily began to wonder what the bathroom arrangements were. Hubbie and I reminisced about the Erg Chigaga desert camp where we had stayed the previous year, over in the west of Morocco. There had been an actual hole-in-the-ground toilet shack in the middle of nowhere. It had been a pleasant surprise, for although we like to think we’re hardy explorers, it just takes one dodgy tagine to dampen such spirits and make us crave civilisation in at least some aspects of our travelling.
Alas, our hosts simply laughed.
“The desert is your toilet my friends. Enjoy!”
Hmmm, not the best when you’ve got a dicky travellers tummy, but it’s all part of the experience hey.
It took me a few moments to consider which was the lesser of two evils:
1) Venturing out into the unknown darkness by myself, but at least having some privacy whilst doing my business;
2) Cashing in on the marriage vows and dragging Hubbie along for moral support, in case of wild beasts and navigational error.
For better or for worse, I chose the latter and off we trooped, trying not to think about what we might be treading in. 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
I would’ve jumped out of my skin had my shorts not been around my ankles, and my heart slowly calmed as I realised I’d practically used poor chameau 2531 as my toilet. I prayed there wouldn’t be a reckoning in the morning.
Despite the dark, there really is no such thing as privacy, especially when other campers trying to find their own little patch manage to light up the entire scene with their head torches. Dinner and a show. Needless to say, we made it quick.
A night under the desert sky
Hubbie and I lay out under the starry canopy long after everyone else had gone to bed, and were rewarded with a shower of shooting stars. This would have been really romantic had Hubbie not suddenly leapt up when 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.
The next morning we finally got to see what the camp actually looked like. We’d crawled into our tent during the night (it does get rather chilly in the small hours), a large communal structure of rugs and blankets, separated into compartments by yet more rugs to give a little privacy. It was more comfortable than it looked, and after completing the essential bug check, we actually managed a couple of hours before the alarm sternly reminded us of our dawn obligation.
A Saharan sunrise
You can’t, of course, spend the night in the desert without rising at some ungodly hour to see the sunrise. As usual, this had seemed like a good idea beforehand. At 4.45 a.m. we’d expected to be joining other campers (there were only 4 other guests in camp) in a mass landslide as we all scrambled to the top of the colossal dune towering behind the tents.
Yet we were greeted with absolute silence. Not even a peep from the others.
Hubbie and I wondered if we’d got our times wrong. A distinct possibility considering the information had been gleaned by way of me translating from a Bedouin speaking in Spanish to a French couple. We waited a few minutes and decided to go for it, even though we had no idea how to approach the climb, having not seen it in daylight.
It was still pitch black, and giggling somewhat hysterically, we realised our only option was to straight line it.
Whose bloody idea was that?
Along with our 2 friends, Hubbie and I wearily crawled on hands and knees up the sheer wall of sand. For every inch gained, a metre was lost. It was impossible. We gave up about two thirds of the way, realising we should’ve left at 4 a.m. if we wanted to reach the top. It did however give us some satisfaction sitting way above the camp to greet the dawn, watching the other campers finally emerge from their dens far too late to gain much height before the sun made its appearance.
Hubbie and I sat together on our dune, trying not to laugh in despair as the much-anticipated profound silence was punctuated with snatched conversations drifting up from camp, and guttural grunts from the camels, already protesting at the thought of the day ahead. It may not have been quite the magical moment we’d expected, but as the light burst upon the desert, carpeting the land with colour, we forgot all else and sat back to enjoy the show.
After a breakfast of bread and jam the trek back through the dunes to Merzouga seemed at least twice as long as the journey in. I swear I saw a glint of amusement in the eyes of Chameau 2531 as I went to bid him a good morning. He was clearly in no doubt which of us would be having the more enjoyable walk. Once again I just clung on, safe in the knowledge that at least I was more comfortable than Hubbie, who was one step away from getting off and walking.
We finally made it back to the auberge where we’d begun our quest just hours ago, and for most of us, the adventure was over. But 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 him several bonus minutes aboard his ship of the desert.
Needless to say, the animals weren’t the only ones who got the hump!
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 smugly to myself, knowing just what they were letting themselves in for. A voice drifted across the sand, and so it began once again.
“You like Led Zeppelin?”
If you’re wondering how to decide between visiting Erg Chebbi desert camp or Erg Chigaga desert camp, I’ve written a comparison of the two experiences to help you choose:
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