Camping in the Sahara Desert
oIt was 7am in the Sahara Desert, the sun was about to rise and I was going to miss it because I could no longer feel my toes; I was convinced frostbite had set in. I hadn’t expected a trip to the desert would require thermals, but then again, I hadn’t expected to ride a camel deep into the middle of nowhere and spend a night under the stars with only a local guide, my boyfriend and two very nippy camels for company.
A few days earlier, we had arrived in Marrakesh with nothing booked except one night’s accommodation and a flight out of Fez the following week. We knew we wanted to spend a night in the middle of the desert, but had few ideas on how to make that happen. After a couple of lacklustre phone calls to local tour companies, the owner of the Riad we were staying in helped us secure a route and driver out to the Erg Chebbi dunes in the Sahara Desert. Located close to the village of Merzouga, these dunes border Algeria and held the promise of adventure, blissful silence and the ability to live out my Star Wars fantasies.
We rose early the next morning and left the comfort of our Riad, bellies full of mint tea and heads full of sandstorms. We met our driver Muhammed, who quickly cemented himself as one of my favourite people. He had an easy laugh, spoke multiple languages and had the two of us worked out by the first day. “Jack you need to always stop for the bathroom and Rowan you need to eat and sleep a lot”. Our first day on the road, we sped through the outskirts of cities, the houses and highways giving way to vast stretches of sand dotted with the occasional camel.
We were travelling during winter, which meant crisp mornings and jumpers, not an image traditionally associated with the sandy warmth of Morocco. It also meant fewer tourists, so when we finally arrived in Merzouga, we left our bags in an empty hotel and walked to the lip of the desert alone. Not a tour group or selfie stick in sight. We greeted our new four-legged transport with some nose scratches and set off across the horizon, trying to beat the slowly sinking sun to our camp.
After a snap-happy 10 minutes, we lapsed into silence save for the soft pad of camels, as our camp slowly came into view and the rolling dunes surrounded us on all sides. At the bottom of the dunes was a ring of canvas tents surrounding a communal carpeted space, the sand obscured by woven rugs and blankets. Designed to hold 100 guests but sheltering just the two of us, we grabbed the sandboards kept for the adrenalin junkies and chased the fading sunlight up the nearest dune.
The next 20 minutes were spent wheezing our way to the top and riding our way down, finally collapsing in a heap mid-way, limbs heavy with grit and sun. We watched the last of the light fade from the day in silence, the wind whipping the sand into patterns around the imprints of our feet.
Arriving back at camp, we wrapped up in layers and headed into the communal food tent: a cavernous space designed for chattering guests and the clink of tea glasses. That evening it stood silent, the only sound the boiling of water as our camel guide and cook, Ishram prepared mint tea and Tagine. We sat in silence, writing, reading and occasionally huddling up for warmth.
After eating to the point where I could have passed for six months pregnant, we headed back outside to find our tent. There are very few times in life when my breath has been completely taken away. Once was when I fell off the treadmill at the gym, and the second time was stepping out into the Sahara Desert and seeing the night sky.
It was matte black and covered in millions of twinkling explosions. I felt as if the weight of the universe was pressing down on my face. We grabbed blankets and pillows from our tent and made our way back outside to lie on the carpeted sand. Slipping in next to each other, we caught shooting stars in our eyes and guessed at constellations until the cooling sand sent us shivering to bed.
The next morning, we struggled awake before dawn and hurried to hike up the dunes before the sun snuck over the horizon. I thought it would be wise to wear thongs on this little expedition, and I couldn’t have been more wrong unless I decided to do the hike naked. I lost feeling in my toes after 60 seconds and spent the next 10 minutes swearing and crying before finally reaching the top of the not that steep dune. I rubbed my arms and waited patiently for the sun to push its way across the sky and warm me up along the way.
Finally, the glorious ball of warmth rose over the top of the dunes, rapidly spreading heat through the sand and my frozen appendages. We sat in silence again. I had expected isolation, but I hadn’t anticipated the unique style of quiet that the desert would bring. Once the sun had risen we slowly headed back to our tent and packed up, climbing onto our camels and looking back remorsefully as our desert adventure faded into the background and civilisation came into view.
Cover by Sergey Pesterev, inset by author