It has been a long day, yet one that has been extremely enjoyable. Two days in a car would not have been a preferred choice after my disastrous week of cycling in the Atlas Mountains but Mousa, my guide, has made the right calls with stops for both the sights on the way and for breaks, as well as sensing when to chat and when to leave me to doze. The further we drive – the further into the desert we go – the better the scenery. We are roughly three hundred kilometres south east of Marrakech and the terrain either side of the green oasis made by the rose trees is the orange and red of the stony desert.
We finally reach Rissani – the last town before the real desert. The entrance to the city has an ornate gateway, signifying the move into the Moroccan Sahara. Sahara is simply the Arabic word for desert. The landscape has now become flat, yellow sand and stone, and off in the distance are golden dunes. The village of Merzouga sits at the edge of the erg. It’s time for a break before I continue by camel to my desert camp.
Flies annoy me as I wait with mint tea for the other desert goers to congregate. There are no announcements or instructions. Just before six o’clock a few people wander towards the camels that have now appeared on the edge of the dunes. Mousa races to get me and fixes my “Arabian Nights” head scarf with aplomb.
There is a French family of five in front of me and they are guided awkwardly on to their camels one by one. Each of the two trains has six camels and so that leaves the front camel for me. Just as ungracefully I climb on board. The camel stands, back legs half up, then front fully legs up and back legs fully up, swinging me forwards and backwards but I manage to hold on – just. I notice the guide’s shoes wrapped round my camel’s neck. I say farewell to Mousa and we’re off.
Sadly, after fifteen minutes the novelty of a camel ride wears off, yet it transcends into a meditative journey. The camel walker in front ambles barefoot up and down the dunes, holding the rope to my camel loosely, smoking away. It’s hot and quiet. The French family speak quietly every now and again and I hear nothing from the train behind. I find myself drifting off. I’m jerked awake only when I am thrown forward for a downhill. Dune after dune, it’s just sand and sky. The peace is shattered momentarily by a 4×4 racing across the sand near us and then calmness returns.
Onwards and upwards the late afternoon sun throws shadows in the sand. Like in a fairground mirror, it gives the camels’ shadows disproportionately long legs.
My camel is well behaved, catching flies in its mouth and giving the occasional grunt. At one point, on a slight hill, it pushes the walker in the back as if to say hurry up. At a natural well the two walkers stop to drink from it. While my camel is left alone, it takes the opportunity to wipe its wet eye on my jeans. On again we follow the well-worn tracks in the sand. Like with fresh snow, the vast untouched dunes are so tempting to leave footmarks, to write “LFC” or to make angel wings.
At the top of a ridge a train has already stopped in front of us. Their riders, like their camels, now sit on the dunes waiting patiently for the sunset. We join the wait. Soon three more trains of twelve camels arrive. There is very little chatter. We just wait to witness nature take its course.
With no urgency at all, the sun goes down slowly, turning from bright orange to deep red and then to twilight blue, causing the dunes to transition from orange to grey. Once sunset photographs taken, “En y va,” is called and our camel train continues in the dusk down to the four camps.
It’s after eight o’clock when we are assigned to our small adjacent bivouac tents. Mine is at the end of the row, tiny and bare apart from a hard bed.
The ride is over. It was a good sunset, not a stunning one, but now the journey is done the only sensation that remains is the smell of camel shit.
I lie on my uncomfortable bed, meditate, read and wait. At half past nine I wonder out of my tent, totally bored. There is still no sign of dinner. Yet the stars are bright and many in the dark sky and this momentarily take my thoughts away from my hunger.
Finally seated for dinner, I am given a plate of cold stew and cold rice. I eat some. It’s not good. I have a table for one. I hate eating alone when others are together; it’s really the only things I do not like when travelling alone. I am just about to go back to my tent thinking dinner is done, when tagine is served. I am fed up with tagine! Don’t the Moroccans eat anything else? Then pieces of orange are served as my dessert in the desert.
Despite the poor food (so unusual for Morocco), it’s been a wonderful day. At eleven o’clock I wander out to see the stars one more time. The smokers are having their last puffs, wrapped up against the cold. The wind is up too, blowing sand into the camp. It’s time to sleep, yet as it did last night, just as I drift off to sleep, the music starts. There’s some bizarre singing and banging on the bongos, but none of yesterday’s melodies. I surrender to it and to the desert winds.