After enjoying a long day spent relaxing by the slightly indulgent pool at our Kasbah, Auberge De Sud, and exploring the small poor dust bowl that is the town of Merzouga we met our camels that were to carry us off into the sunset. These animals have a lot of bad press, a lot of it deservedly so. They are known for growling, spitting, biting and bucking and they are remarkably stubborn. You have to cling on for dear life as they launch themselves up into the air, and they are a lot taller than they look. I was the only one in the group to have ridden a camel before; a short ride across the Egyptian desert with my younger sister perched precariously in front, and so was quietly amused when we set off behind our Toureg caravan leader and Nick said “this is nowhere near as painful as you led me to believe”. Fifteen minutes later and after our first brief decent this observation had been corrected. By this point one of the camels, who had obviously having one of those days, had been swapped out for a different one by guides who obviously knew better than to try and make a camel do something it didn't want to do. After an hour of riding even the magic of a spectacular sunset over the Sahara could not detract the attention from pain in the more delicate parts of the anatomy. A camel has a curious gate and while the seat looks nice and padded with blankets, the blankets are curved around the single hump of the camel. This hump looks all furry and soft. It is in fact rock solid. It is this that you are jolted forward against every stride the camel takes. This becomes particularly violent when going downhill. All the while we riding my camel was making peculiar sounds and vibrated regularly. I’m not sure what it had been eating but it belched every few strides. It really bugged me as the sound was really distinct and reminded me of something. After about twenty minutes of pensiveness I realised it was an exact mimic of the sounds made by the Bog of Eternal Stench in David Bowie's 80's classic Labyrinth.
Our camel caravan was made up of two trains. The first was a group of French who did not stop talking the whole time. Believe it or not they were the quieter of the two groups of French we were to encounter over the following twenty-four hours. Our particular caravan was thankfully happy to sit back and relax and we did get to enjoy some of the surroundings in peace. We stopped and climbed a dune for the final part of the sunset. It was incredible and looks almost unreal in the photos. The sky was on fire with the streaks of clouds catching the best of the colour. While it was nice to stop and rest, getting back on the camel faced with a further hour’s ride was very painful. The pins and needles had only just stopped.
It was dark when we reached the tented camp at the base of a huge dune. It had begun to dawn on us over the previous twenty-four hours that we might not get the isolated desert camping experience we had hoped. It seemed there we a lot of Kasbahs with quad bikes and camel tracks heading in the same direction. When we rounded the last corner we were greeted with a lit village of camps, around fifteen to twenty in all. Our camp was the biggest and already had quite a few people there. Made up of an enclosed ring of black head high Berber tents with carpet strewn around a fire in the middle, the camp was warm and inviting. There was a toilet tent just a short distance away with two portable camping toilets, running water and a mirror. There were electric solar powered lamps outside and inside the tents and two dining room tents. This was definitely not camping as we know it. That night and the following day we were served an absolute banquet. We even got chicken and chips as a side dish. Following dinner the guides got together and played a traditional drum concert in front of the fire. Sadly the second and far noisier French family had arrived and took over the drums at around 11.00 when we were on our way to bed. Their whiskey fuelled drumming went on late into the night. This they accompanied by shouts and whistles over our tent into the dunes where there teenage sons were making a mess burning lots of things they shouldn’t be.
We had planned on staying in the desert for two nights. This is not the standard trip that the hotel offered, but we arranged it as we wanted to explore, feeling that the isolation and peace of the desert would be just what we needed after the madness of the last few months. What with the noisy French, the remarkably unforgiving sleeping surface of the sand and a few blankets, and the bitter bitter cold of the night meant that we all had plenty of time to think our decision through during the long night. We all arose the next morning keen to return to the relative luxury of the Kasbah. We all would have been willing to put up with the cold and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements if it hadn’t been for the ignorance of others determined to ruin the whole reason people go on a trip like that.
As it was our decision to return was the right one. We opted to stay out the day and ride back at sunset. This meant that we got to watch everyone else pack up and ride off while we hiked up the big dune in peace and quiet without anyone else around. I made it about two thirds of the way up along the steep ridge before I made the mistake of looking behind. At this point I got virtigo and had to sit down. Nick got summit fever and carried on while I stayed rooted in one place, one foot either side of the ridge, bottom firmly planted, scaring myself silly with thoughts of the walk back down. Going down is always harder than going up for me. Even though I only made it part way up the 150m (there is huge debate over the official height) dune I got to survey the Sahara stretching away in front of me with the camps and the occasional traditional nomadic ramshackle tent dwarfed by the dunes around them.
|Our camp, our tent was the bottom one.|
|The departing noise makers.|
Our peaceful day in the Sahara worked out well. We got to relax and read books, explore in peace, ate an absolute banquet for four and got to attempt sandboarding without anyone there to laugh at us. Unlike snowboarding sandboarding gives little reward. Not only do you have to climb up and down the dunes on your own staem, the sand creates so much friction that you don't really move and if you are lucky enough to get going your jerk and stick when you hit a solid spot. We also seemed to pick the most fly infested place in all of the dunes. Our enthusiasm for the sport didn't last long. We spent most of the afternoon chilling out before gingerly mounting our camels and returning to the Kasbah for a night of showers, bed and more amazing food.
|The photo of the trip, Sarah's first time on a board.|
|Nick's nifty fly screen.|
|The view from the breakfast table.|
The next day after another breakfast with a view, we set off on our drive home. While in the desert we had been able to see the snow on the mountains in the distance, another good example of the absolute extremes of this country. We were a bit concerned about the route back and how many obstacles we'd have to deal with. Luckily we had decided to break up our journey with a stop in the Ziz Valley. Nicolas, the father of one of my student's, had recommended a 200 year old Kasbah in an untouched mud village. This village is away from the normal tourist route and is set amongst an oasis of date palms that runs along either side of the River Ziz. This is an area where people live off the land and rarely venture out. We went out for a walk and quickly got lost amongst the plantations and trees. We seemed to have a bit of a Pied Piper affect on the local kids who followed us giggling at a distance before getting brave enough to walk between us. People were so friendly. What could have felt like a slightly threatening place had we been greeted with stares, felt welcoming as nearly every person we passed waved or said hello.
The kasbah itself wasn't quite what we had hoped. It was old and maintained in a wonderful way, and the rooms were cozy and decorated in rugs. The lounge was immense with the biggest selection of multicoloured rugs I’ve seen outside of a carpet shop. The hosts were informative and friendly and were keen to tell us about how Prince Charles had nearly visited in April. The kasbah are at the forefront of sustainable farming in the area. On the day of the talk all the security were in place a sand storm prevented his flight. Sadly, our experience was ruined by the much promoted 'family' feel of the place. They had many children who without so much as a hello tried to steal cookies from in front of us and decided that outside our room in an echoey corridor was just the right place to sit and shout for about two hours. Beautiful place, probably won't be back.
The rest of our journey back was reasonably stress free. We made it back in good enough time to go carpet shopping. I am developing a addiction to rival that of my drum habit in Thailand.... we now have six.