Under Sahara stars: Camping with camels in Morocco

Riding camels in Morocco was a contrast of extremes: a metaphor for the desert itself. 🐪

4 mins
Written by:
Kerri Duncan

Camels have some of the longest eyelashes in the animal kingdom. They also appear to have smiles permanently stuck on their faces. And while this may be a textbook example of anthropomorphism, the smile that was stuck on my face as I rode a long-eyelashed camel into the Sahara was real – if not a little strained.  

From where my partner and I lounged at our Merzouga hotel, the Sahara didn’t seem too imposing. Through the decorative archway that framed the pool, the desert beyond simply looked like a few lumps and bumps of sand within easy reach of civilization. We certainly didn’t get the sense that it continued for over 3,000 miles from where we sat or covered an area of over 3.5 million square miles across the top of Africa.

The vastness of the desert began to sink in, however, as we clomped on camelback into the dunes of Erg Chebbi the next day. It didn’t take long for all hints of human settlement to be swallowed up by rolling seas of sand. Like waves in an ocean, the dunes hid and revealed the horizon as they pleased. All sense of direction was lost, as the path behind our single-file caravan was prone to shifting with the wind. 

I found myself prone to shifting, too, as the homemade saddle dug into my thighs. While attempting to ignore the pain and focus on the fascinating views around me, I couldn’t help but wonder what my camel, Celine, was thinking. The stoic girl just kept on smiling through her grunts and groans, so I followed suit. Our Berber guides had wrapped our heads and necks in loose cloth turbans to keep the sun and sand at bay, and I was grateful as I watched wind-swept grains settle among Celine’s luscious eyelashes. 

The sand’s colors deepened as the day progressed, turning from sun-bleached whites to rich, coppery reds with the angling of the sun. Our camp appeared out of nowhere – like a mirage – conveniently near the end of the day. We dismounted with just enough time to scramble up the tallest dune and catch the spectacular sunset.

And scramble I did. Both of my thighs were bleeding and bruised by this stage, but the descending sun, which looked larger than I’d ever seen it before, called to me to come and take dramatic photos with it. I was gasping for dry air and covered in a second layer of sweat by the time I’d lurched to the peak of the soft dune, but the once-in-a-lifetime view was worth the effort. 

Even from our lofty vantage point, it was sand as far as the eye could see. Well, almost. If I looked hard enough in the direction we’d come from, I could still see specks of buildings; giveaways that we weren’t actually lost in the middle of the desert. But in the other direction, it seemed like the sandy waves would go on forever.   

If it had taken this long to get not-very-far into the Sahara, and all it took to lose your way was one wrong turn around a shifting sand hill, I shudder to think how arduous it would be to find your way out of the centre. 

While we were busy marvelling at the sunset that stretched endlessly over rusty-hued dunes, our Berber guides had set up camp and begun cooking our evening tagine. Berbers are otherwise known as Amazigh or Imazighen, which roughly means “the free people”. Descendants of the original inhabitants of Morocco, they used to rule all of North Africa through various tribes, often crisscrossing the Sahara and the southern Mediterranean basin to trade. They still make up a large proportion of the Moroccan population today and maintain many old customs and language variations.

The stereotype of Berbers all being nomadic camel riders is thought to be inaccurate, though. While some tribes participated in trade routes between West and Sub-Saharan Africa, many were farmers, traders, and shopkeepers living in the mountains and valleys. A “traditional Berber experience” as presented to tourists varies widely and seems fairly open to guides’ interpretation. 

One thing that was consistent throughout our travels in Morocco was the serving of mint tea and tagine. Regardless of the searing outdoor temperatures, locals served us hot mint tea as a welcome drink, a farewell drink, a pass-the-time-while-waiting drink, or an anytime-in-between drink. It always seemed to be presented with care, usually on a matching silver platter set with decorative glasses. We enjoyed mint tea before, during, and after our expedition, and I have to say, I grew to appreciate its scorching comfort.  

Tagine, although usually cooked with a variation of the same ingredients, tasted different every time I ate it. And I ate it a lot. Perching on padded stools in a carpeted circle under Saharan stars made this particularly simple tagine of potatoes and chickpeas taste like one of the best. Our friendly guides beat a simple tune on taarija drums as we ate, then encouraged us to soak in the stars.  

Laying in the sand, which was still warm from a day of sunbathing, the air temperature dropped and our spirits flew. The skies above sparkled with a precious clarity so far from the intrusion of city lights. The cool air was surprisingly still, and the quietness soothing – interrupted only occasionally by the amusing snorts and groans of Celine and her fellow camels. 

When we’d absorbed our fill of starlight, shivering from chilled sweat, we retired to assigned tents. I’d expected actual tents, not solid canvas structures with beds and carpets, and certainly not private toilets. Our toilet smelled like one might expect a sun-drenched desert toilet to smell, perhaps with some camel dung in the mix, and it was so cosy we couldn’t close the door while using it. But I was still amazed there was a toilet at all.  

After a tranquil sleep, I awoke in pre-dawn darkness, full of enthusiasm to witness the desert sunrise. But when I stood up, it became apparent that my body wasn’t quite as ready to go as my mind. My bruises had blossomed, and I was sore in ways I can only assume might lessen with regular camel-riding practice.  

Yet again, the effort was worth it. Slipping and sliding with a bow-legged stride, I winced my way to the top of the east-facing dune and flopped in the soft, soothing glow of the sunrise. Sore but serene, it was a fitting metaphor for the desert itself: a contrast of extremes. Rough and beautiful, hot and cold, struggles and rewards.

Our camels clomped us safely back out of the Sahara, and our guides promptly prepared to do it all again. It was only then they discovered my saddle had been prepared incorrectly from the start, which explained my unusual bruising. But when I tended to my injuries for the next few days, I couldn’t help but continue to smile through the grunts and groans. 

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