By Karlie Marrazzo
The route from M’Hamid to the dunes of Erg Chigaga is rocky, the vast landscape stretching endlessly beyond. The air was dry and already hot at 9 am. Dave and I silently bounced around in the back seat of the Land Cruiser, anticipation building. The view of the flat desert was unbroken aside from sporadic glimpses of nomads, slowly passing through with their donkeys and camels in tow. Their journeys seemed endless, out there in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t help but wonder where they were coming from and where they were going. They weren’t coming from anywhere and they weren’t traveling to any specific destination – their lives were about the journey.
Mohammed drove on over the hard-packed sand, the paved road a distant memory. Whisps of pure white clouds streaked through the bold blue sky, forming a perfect contrast to the burnt orange sand. An oasis appeared in front of us and we pulled over for a look and to stretch our legs. There was a cluster of palm trees around a miniscule stream. Mohammed crouched down to point out how the stream was full of frogs and asked us if we ate frogs back home in Canada – I couldn’t tell if he was serious or being cheeky. Huddled around one lone tree were a pile of sharp, jagged rocks covered in fresh blood, and nearby there was a dilapidated old Land Rover covered in graffiti.
The transition from flat ground to dunes was not a steady or gradual one. The sand turned from hard-packed to soft powder, and suddenly the 300ft dunes appeared, sharply rising out of the nothingness, a mere 25km from the Algerian border.
We pulled up to the camp at high noon, the African sun blazing. The camp was deserted and once again, the staff outnumbered us. A dozen tents were set up in a loose circle, along with a dining tent and a tea tent. Ours was well equipped with a queen sized bed and another smaller bed covered in thick blankets, a full length mirror, which struck me as a bit hilarious, and a little washroom add on, with a rudimentary toilet, shower and sink.
It was winter at home and the weather on most of our trip thus far had been cool, so it took some time to adjust to the 30C temperature. We walked around the camp and some of the smaller dunes in the immediate area, orienting ourselves and taking it all in, trying to wrap our heads around where we were.
Dave had asked if he could go sand boarding and was excited to try it out. Images of soaring down a majestic dune were quickly shattered when one of the guys rustled up a snowboard that looked like it was about 20 years old and completely wrecked on the bottom. Dave tossed it onto the top of a dune and stepped on. Nothing. It couldn’t even slide a couple of inches. It was worth a shot.
We settled into the low pillows of the tea tent to wait for lunch and to attempt to catch up on our writing. “I might be hallucinating, but is there an orange cat coming out of our tent?” Dave asked. I lifted my gaze and there was, in fact, a skinny orange tabby bounding straight towards us. One of my first pet cats was a big fat tabby named Clem, who I got when I was seven years old and who only lived to be nine. I currently have a slightly less fat orange tabby named Oliver who is 11 years old, so you might say I have a bit of an attachment to orange kitties. I usually feel like it’s a good omen when I spot them on my travels, and I certainly did not expect to see one in the literal middle of nowhere. This one was svelte and had an Egyptian nose, so I nicknamed him Cleo.
We were ravenous by the time lunch was served and were excited when we were presented with huge serving platters covered in food. Once we laid eyes on it, we looked at each other and just had to laugh. Served to us, in the middle of the desert, was a platter of fish surrounded by a colourful display of chopped vegetables. One of the main things travelers are told to be cautious about, or avoid altogether, is eating vegetables that have to be washed vs. peeled due to the different bacteria in the water that can affect their tummies. We had been doing just that for the whole trip and weren’t about to stop now. There was also chicken and Moroccan bread so we chowed down on that and ended up tossing most of the fish to Cleo.
As we were finishing up our lunch, another pair of travelers arrived at the camp. A young German couple that was our age, we saw them briefly at the Hotel Kasbah the previous night. They had taken the bus all the way from Marrakech to M’Hamid and only booked their desert excursion the night before. We chatted for a few minutes before heading out to the dunes separately.
I’ve been very fortunate in my life thus far to have traveled to as many amazing, beautiful and interesting places as I have, but I have truly never experienced such a huge “am I really here?” moment as I did in those Saharan dunes. Climbing up the dunes, the sand scorching my feet, looking out over vast nothingness, balancing on their perfect peaks. The sun burning our skin and the wind whipping the scarf around my ears. Laying down and feeling the warmth, and drawing sand angels with our bodies like the thousands of snow angels we made as kids, sand covering every inch us. We spent over an hour and a half up there in the dunes, feeling truly alone and connected to each other.
We reluctantly tore ourselves away from the dunes to take a shade break and snack on some tangerines before our camel ride. I was slightly nervous about it because, aside from being nervous in general, I was paranoid about falling off or a camel spitting in my face. Thankfully neither of these things happened. We met our guide, a small, cute Moroccan man (I’ll call him Youssef) wearing a bright red vest and plaid shirt who didn’t speak a word of English, who led us to the camels. There were six of them kneeling in the sand, but of course only four suited up and ready for passengers. I stepped back and observed them for a few minutes and ended up choosing Ziri, a white girl with alien blue eyes, and the only one who wasn’t making any noise. Since I was the only nervous one, I was obviously the one who got up on their camel first, without getting to observe the others first. Camels stand up in fit and starts, lifting their butts and back legs off of the ground first, so you’re completely tilted forwards momentarily, and then jerking up with their front legs.
Once we were all up, Youssef hooked the camels together with a rope so they could walk single file (most of the time). I felt like I was so high up – the camels were about six feet tall. The eight of us plodded along slowly, Youssef walking alongside us, stopping every once in a while to grab our cameras and take some awesome pics of the group. The German girl’s camel must have been hungry, because he stopped at every tuft and strand of grass for a snack. Dave’s camel must have been itchy, because he kept pulling up right beside mine and rubbing his head on Ziri’s butt or on the metal handle I was clinging to. The ride was relatively smooth aside from the times we had to go down slopes. I held on tight for those parts, partly laughing and partly scared that we would tip right over. It was amazing to sail through the dunes, sometimes in complete silence, with nobody else around. It’s incredible how they change colour with the light, dusty rose, gold, grey.
We pulled up to the foot of a large dune and dismounted. Youssef settled the camels at the base of the dune while the four of us climbed to the top to watch the sunset. It had been windy the whole time and I had loosely wrapped my scarf around my head, but it wasn’t helping much. Youssef joined us and smiling that big smile of his, helped me readjust my scarf after he saw me fiddling with it. He fixed it in the traditional Taureg style referred to as tagelmust or cheche, a sort of turban that covers the head and protects the mouth, nose and ears from wind and sand, and did the same for everyone else.
I put my camera down and watched, savouring the moment. The air became noticeably colder when the sun dipped behind the dune. There were a few moments when the sunrays were shining over and around the dunes, a few wispy clouds in the sky, and complete quiet. Everything looked like it was rushing towards me, and I felt a moment of clarity, peace and fear all at once. I lost my mom in 2007, and I truly felt her there, in the sky, all around me. I wasn’t just thinking about her as I usually do, we were there together.
Once we set off again it was only 15 minutes until we were back at the camp. We said goodbye to Youssef and went to our tents to change and try to wipe some of the sand off ourselves. We all sat down for tea in the low tent, along with another one of the guides, Hassan, and talked about traveling and the world, and the three different worlds we came from – Canada, Germany and Morocco. After a while dinner was served in the larger tent. We started off with a bland soup that tasted like pureed cauliflower. Then, of course, another tagine, which was pretty good, served alongside… Pasta! Spiral pasta, to be exact. What a rare treat. Cleo was relentless, trying to get a taste, but we managed to keep him at bay.
It was 8:30 pm by the time we finished eating. The local guys started a fire in the middle of the camp and started to drum and sing traditional Berber songs. I’m not sure where they came from, but four more guys ended up in the circle, singing, drumming and clapping along to the beautiful, haunting songs. Dave and I broke away around 9:30 pm because one of the things I was most looking forward to was stargazing in the desert. We climbed up the small dune behind our tent and laid down. I couldn’t believe how bright the moon was! It wasn’t quite full, but it was the brightest silvery white I’d ever seen. It was so bright that I didn’t see as many stars as I thought I would. I still saw tons of stars and a couple of planets, including Jupiter, and it was incredible. The only thing I didn’t see was a shooting star.
After a long and wonderful day that I never wanted to end, it was time to go to bed. Even though there were thick blankets on the bed, I slept fully clothed in long johns, pants, socks, a t-shirt and a hoodie with the hood up, and the tip of my nose was still cold. The wind howled all night and our tent was flapping loudly, so it’s no surprise that I didn’t get much sleep.
I stepped out of the tent at 6:30 am and had to rub my eyes as I emerged – everything looked black and white, muted. We slowly walked over the small dunes to the other side of the camp, relishing in the moment, feeling bittersweet that we would be leaving so soon. The sunrise was even more beautiful than the sunset. The pink was so golden and soft – it felt like we were suspended in time, no noise, no movement, the sun slowly rising up in the sky like a shimmering egg.