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Eric: Sahara desert trip

July 23, 2010

Waking up in the morning after the first night of our trip, I wasn’t quite ready to move on knowing that I probably wouldn’t enjoy the same level of comfort again for a while. Breakfast was buffet again, this time with multiple kinds of pastries, bread, and—wait for it—CEREALS! Okay, I wasn’t really that excited, since I didn’t eat that much cereal back in Minnesota, but it was nice to have something familiar. There was also a kind of pancake that was strikingly similar to the scallion pancake I used to eat back in Taiwan, except without the scallion.

Giving the pool a last look, we checked out and continued our journey to Merzouga, the city from which we would enter the desert. It was a fairly quick ride, and the more south we went, the more rough earth and dunes we saw. Even more in the middle of nowhere, the hotel stood alone off the road and before the dunes.

I guess the Sahara Desert is another one of those places that you hear about, read about, have a lot of stereotypes about, and never dream of seeing. Well, I have been having this surreal feeling ever since I first saw those huge mountains of sand. I just couldn’t believe I was about to enter the largest desert on Earth! I was a little surprised to see that there is actually a defined area that you call a desert. For some reason I always thought that it’s more like a gradual transition from non-desert to desert area.

We checked into the hotel, actually owned by the same group that owns the previous hotel we stayed at, and went to lunch. We prepared for our night spent in the desert. At 6 p.m., we gathered by the camels with multiple bottles of water and were ready to roll. Our Berber camel-leading guides first tied head-scarves onto each of us in the traditional Berber way, and then tied our water bottles and belongings onto the camels. Getting on the camel was quite an experience. Before actually seeing the camels, I always wondered where you sit on the camel. I mean, it seems quite painful and unsafe to sit on the humps. It turned out that each camel is equipped with a wooden box and a thick cushion on top.

I picked my camel, the first one in a group and its name meant “white” in Arabic. First lesson of camel-riding: hold on tight. You don’t realize how tall these camels are until they stand up. And the process of standing up involved first straightening the two rear legs, then the two front legs. Not holding on tight means that you will fall, from about 6 feet high or so.

Second lesson of camel-riding: be prepared. The first 5 minutes we set off for into the desert were really pleasant. The weather wasn’t too hot, we wobbled front and back on the camel, it was all good. Then the pain started to come in. Sitting on a camel is not the most comfortable mode of transportation. Your legs are spread open so wide to sit on the cushion, which wasn’t that comfortable after all, that the thigh area becomes very sore and literally a pain in the butt. Did I mention our trip to the camp site was 2 hours? When the camels were going uphill, it was a lot more comfortable than when they are going downhill.

The view of Sahara Desert was, as expected, very sandy. There were mounts and mounts of sand, sand blowing into my face, sand sliding this way and that way, and in general a lot of sand. So much sand led to a new question: how on earth does our Berber guide find the way? Obviously there are no signs pointing towards our camp site, and it’s not like they all carry GPS devices. The answer we got is that even though the wind continues to blow sand from here to there, the desert doesn’t really change that much. The hill that’s here today is still going to be at the same place tomorrow. Plus, they are all experienced guides who have been leading camels into the desert since they were around 6 to 10 years old. The chance of getting lost was slim.

After almost 2 hours of camel-riding, we took a break at the side of a hill. I got my first experience of sliding down a dune: it doesn’t work. What happened was that I sat on the sand, slid for a few inches, and just stopped in the sand. I did get a significant amount of sand in my pocket though, if that means anything.

At dusk, we arrived at our camp site, which consisted of a circle of Berber tents surrounding a central area with rugs on the sand. The night was spent laying on the rugs to look at the stars above, enjoying some Berber music and dance, and eating Moroccan dinner. I went to the bathroom (there actually was one, with a toilet) before hauling the mattress out of the tent to sleep under the stars, in the blowing wind, and on the warm sand.

Before going to bed, we were told that we had to wake up early to climb the huge dune next to our camp site to see the sunrise (I mean, it obviously makes sense to get up before the sun rises to see the sunrise), if we want to. So at around 4:30 a.m., I woke up and a group of us started climbing. You would think climbing a dune is as simple as climbing a regular mountain. I thought so too for the first 5 minutes. Now I have to say that climbing to the top of that hill was THE hardest thing I have done physically in my life. Sand, unlike regular earth, sinks when you walk on it. Each step I took didn’t really advance me that much. With the wind blowing from all directions, I was soon very very tired. At one point I had to rest for every 10 steps I took. Also, since the sun wasn’t up yet, we were practically climbing in total darkness. The flashlight on my cell phone became my best friend in the desert.

After almost half an hour of hardcore climbing, I finally reached the top of the hill. It would probably only take half the time if it’s a regular hill. We sat on top to see sand being blown from one hill to another, and into my camera. I climbed up a huge dune in the Sahara Desert, almost couldn’t breathe halfway, managed to make it to the top, and my camera doesn’t work. It wasn’t really broken or anything, but now it just can’t zoom in and out or focus. I did attempt to take a few pictures, which turned out really blurry. At least I can say my camera stops working because of the Sahara Desert, instead of some other less exciting reason.

We waited on top of the dune as the day started to get brighter and brighter, but we still couldn’t see the sun. Looking eastward, it was more sand, and apparently Algeria. Our guides jokingly suggested taking us to Algeria when we were on the camels. And it was probably doable, as we didn’t see any kind of fences, guards, checkpoints, or any other physical things that define Algeria. We waited, waited, and waited. More and more sand got into my pants, but the sun was still nowhere to be found. Eventually, the sun appeared from behind a cloud, already risen pretty far above the ground.

As we were scheduled to leave the camp by 7 a.m., so we headed back.  After we had a cup of mint tea and headed out. The sore butt only increased the second time, even though the same journey felt a lot shorter compared to the day before.

When we finally got back to the hotel, we had breakfast, showered, and were back on the bus back to Fez. I slept through most of the 8+ hour journey, as I probably only slept for 3 hours in the desert. We stopped in the town of Ifrane trying to see if we could see the monkeys the town is famous for. The moment we got out of the bus, it started pouring, and we were informed that the monkeys had gone home. Bummer.

After getting back home, I showered again, and while I was washing my hair, I just saw sand flowing out like stardusts. The Sahara Desert is really an unforgettable experience, in so many different ways…

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