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Chasing Ithaca

Of Dunes and Dromedaries

MOROCCO | Tuesday, 29 September 2009 | Views [721]

Her name is Mustafina. And what a lovely camel she is. As I sit on her hump, with only a crude saddle fashioned from an old carpet to separate us, I marvel at the affection I have come to feel for this creamy-coloured Moroccan dromedary.

As we trek rhythmically together through the dunes of the Sahara, showered by a hot, sandy wind and bathed in a soft pink light, I admire Mustafina greatly. She, like our guide Omar, is made for the desert, fashioned by nature to be a perfect vehicle for crossing the vast sand dunes which stand between us and the oasis in which we will spend the night.

A hot wind rages across the sand, sucking the moisture from our skin and creating a nagging, unquenchable thirst. I pull my turban across my face as I turn to see the sun dropping behind the tiny town of Merzouga, where we had joined Omar and the camels, and the last rays of golden light hit our backs as we abandon civilisation.

Unlike Mustafina, who is blessed with long and sinewy legs, Omar is not more than five feet tall. He wears a long blue robe and bright orange turban which is the traditional garb of his tribe: the Tuareg.

“We are a nomadic people,” says Omar. “We have always belonged to the Sahara. I have been exploring these sands since the day I could walk.”

Now it is his job to take travellers, like us, into his domain.

After an hour of blustery trekking, we are shrouded in complete darkness. The wind’s ferocity has diminished and the constant lurch of Mustafina’s long steps, paired with the residual heat of the Moroccan sun, provides a restless calm.

As we continue our slow march, the stars burning brightly above our turbaned heads, shadows begin to play tricks with our eyes. Several times I think I see wild camels or small tents in the distance, only to arrive and find an inanimate clutch of reeds or a lonely desert shrub.

For around three hours we plod our unmarked desert trail, with Omar expertly and instinctively leading the way. Speaking in gentle Arabic to his camels, Omar chides them when they want to spit, and encourages Mustafina to stand up again when she decides she needs a rest and abruptly sits down, front legs first, stunning me out of my rhythmic reverie and almost flinging me into the night.

At last we arrive at the oasis, weary from the strain of rarely used muscles, and wishing camels’ humps were just a little softer! In the darkness I can make out a line of twenty dromedaries resting on their long haunches, snuffling, snorting and farting merrily in the darkness. I can also make out a cluster of trees and a small gate with a rusty sign hanging overhead, welcoming us to “Bivouac Timbuktu.”

We gingerly dismount our noble steeds and hobble towards the camp, our legs stiff and sore from the idleness of camel riding. Muted laughter and the cheerful clinking of glasses greet us as we enter the camp, where weary travellers are sipping on tea and sharing their desert tales. Omar shows us to our tent - a thick Hessian structure with a flap door and two mattresses within. Outside the tent is a tattered carpet on which stands a small, rustic table topped by a faded red table cloth and candle lantern.

I can see more Tuareg scurrying around the camp in their long robes and turbans. Something smells delicious and the flicker of candles gives the camp a magical and incandescent quality. Soon enough our table is host to a delicious ensemble of salads and couscous. A mouth watering dish of lamb, almonds and prunes follows, slow roasted in a traditional Moroccan tajine until they are soft as butter. Thinking we could not eat another morsel, we change our minds when a platter of fresh figs and melon arrives, along with two pots of warm, sugary tea.

As the chatter and laughter dies down along with the candlelight, we drag the mattresses from our tent and lay them on the old carpet. It is simply too hot to sleep in the tent, and the stars are simply too magnificent to consider doing anything but sleep beneath them. The wind has died now, as it does when the heat diminishes.

“It is the intense heat which creates the desert wind, so without one there will not be the other,” explains Omar, as he bids us goodnight.

We fall into a restless sleep. I wake during the night to see that we are lying in front of a massive red dune, which my previously unadjusted eyes had not seen. The stars and moon bathe the camp in a stunning, luminescent glow. Whether it is the heat, the magnificence of where we lay, or the occasional scurrying insect crawling over my mattress, sleep does not come easily that night and I lay on my bed, wide-eyed and marvelling.

In the wee hours of the morning I wander out of the camp, the moon perfectly lighting my way. Silence reigns, and the sand is cool between my toes. I sit for a while in the nothingness that surrounds me, feeling incredibly privileged to be here in this strange and enchanted place, thinking about all the people who have passed here throughout the centuries, and thinking that when I get home, I might like to buy a camel!

The next morning we are plucked from our sleep by Omar.

“It is time to climb the big dune to see the sunrise!” he says, in a tone far too bright for the early hour.

We unfurl ourselves from our sheets and, exiting the camp, make our way up the dune where we find a place from which to view the beginning of a new day in the Sahara.

With gritty eyes we watch as the sun begins to make its entrance. At first it is a giant, pale disc breaking through a string of low lying clouds. Rapidly, it transforms into an intense, burnt-orange bulb which casts its brilliant hue over us and the endless sand. We do not speak, nor do the other visitors and desert men who bear witness to this daily, spectacular ritual. It is too beautiful to tarnish with words.

The sun risen, it does not take long for the heat to stamp its authority on our surrounds. It is time to go. Soon it will be too hot to go anywhere. As we leave the oasis we are doused in sunshine so golden that, before coming to the Sahara, I would not have thought it possible. With the sun on our backs and the gentle rising breeze on our faces, we soon relax into the gentle plod-plod of our camels and make our way back through the silent dunes.

Tags: camel trekking, morocco, oasis, sahara, sunrise

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