Camel Trekking the Moroccan Erg
After a week in western Morocco we traveled south from Marrakesh across the Atlas mountains to northwestern edge of the mighty Sarah Desert.
The scenery enroute was nothing short of spectacular. The rocky outcrops were scraggy, raw and colourful. Between the spans of desert there were fertile valleys of olive and almond trees and cultivated fields.
The road was strung with ancient Berber settlements. They were earthen city fortresses. They had an architectural style we’d only ever seen in Morocco. They were beautifully intriguing. Having stopped at one town, we were welcomed a visit, for a small fee of course. The local people explained that the home’s multistory earthen walls were bound by straw and that the outer layer of dry mud covering them had to be constantly reapplied or the houses would quickly melt away with the rain, infrequent as it was.
We hired a private driver for this trip. His name was Abraham. He was a Muslim whose first language was Arabic with some rudimentary French. After a few hours he began to warm up to us and between our Lonely Planet Moroccan Arabic language book and high school French we were able to strike a remarkably fluent conversation. It was during this conversation that we learned the Arabic word "inshallah" which translates to “God willing” or “if Allah wills”. Abraham told us that we would make it across the mountains, into the desert and back without incident or vehicle breakdown inshallah. You cannot argue against that. It is a term that we have found ourselves using ever since as it is surprisingly applicable to many of life’s situations.
As we drew closer to the erg, we needed to cross a vast plain of sand and rocks baked black by the sun. There were no roads, but countless trails and paths where vehicles had disturbed the black outer side leaving a grey colour where the tires had been. The light brown coloured dunes on the horizon grew contrast and stature as we approached. Just shy of the dunes, we stopped at the camel stables.
The plan was to ride the camels 7 km to a Berber camp located within the dunes. The ride would commence just before sunset so that we could experience how the sand would turn colour from tan to pink, orange and even red.
Step one was to mount the camel. The handler would get the camel to bend its legs so that it was resting upright, belly on the ground. Once firmly seated in the wooden and leather framed saddle, the handler would give the command and suddenly you found yourself seated six feet off the ground with a unique bird’s eye view of your surroundings. As we left the barren blackened desert, we crossed a distinct line and we were suddenly traversing golden sand. Camel ass to camel head, trail ride style, we headed nine camels strong into the sand. It was fascinating to watch the feet of the camel in front of you. They were not at all hard as I had always imagined. Instead they were soft. Their two toes were webbed so that when they walked they sort of floated over the soft sand.
As the sun set, the desert colours came alive in sync with a drop in the temperature. It was easy to see how we were able to spot the dunes so far off in the distance as the taller dues easily exceeded 100 metres in height.
After a couple of hours, the thin wool blanket covering the wooden saddle could no longer shield my tail bone from grinding against the camel’s spine. I was thankful when we pulled up on the Berber camp just after dark.
After dismounting we climbed an estimated 75m high sand dune near the camp to take it all in. It was a lot of work as each step up yielded a slide one half step back but it was worth it. The moon was full that night and there wasn’t a single light to the horizon in any direction. There was nothing to obstruct the stars of the Milky Way or a sound save the wind in your ears. It was beautiful, tranquil and peaceful. Such a sense of isolation is rarely felt.
Upon descending the dune, we made our way to our Berber tent where a communal supper of chicken, vegetables and couscous was served without cutlery.
We slept beneath and between thick blankets under the tent. The wind blew hard and cold that night. The sleep was restless as sand would occasionally blow under the tent and into your face.
We were awoken before dawn so that we could witness the sun rise over the desert dunes and enjoy the colours in the sand as they changed from red to orange to pink and finally tan. The return trip was equally beautiful.
Tired and sore assed we made it back to the camel stables and were soon off again with Abraham towards Erfoud where we parted ways. He returned to Marrakesh while we caught a Grands Taxi (meaning 7 people, including the driver crammed into a normal 4-door sedan) to Errachidia.
All in all, an awesome experience.