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To the End of the Erg

A Saharan Odyssey
By Jim Yost - July 9th, 2004

It was, in fact, a dark and stormy night. The wind was howling, and sheets of rain lashed against the mud walls of the Arab cafe. Our camel drivers had arrived just before the rains returned with a vengeance, and inside the cafe the sixteen members of Mountain Travel-Sobek's Marrakech Express camel trek were toasting their drivers' good fortune as well as their own.

Winston Churchill once said, "There is no more exhilarating feeling than to be shot at and missed."

The trekkers felt much the same way.

While bottles of wine were uncorked, Lahcen, our flamboyant Berber mountain guide, began to sing. The Arab camel drivers, dressed in bright blue caftans and black turbans, set the beat with pairs of metal cymbals while the trekkers joined in on hide-covered tambourines and drums.

Dust rose from the dirt floor of the cafe and produced eerie auras of light around the propane lanterns. As the tempo quickened our Land Rover drivers began to whirl about the room like the Sufi trance dancers we had seen in the port of Essaouira a few days before.

We awakened that morning to a cloudless, cobalt-blue sky at our campsite in the orange dunes near Remlia Well in southeastern Morocco. It was our second day on the ancient caravan route between Marrakech and Timbuktu, and we traded in our Land Rovers for the camels that would carry us across the soft sand of the ergs, or dunes, to the Tafilalt capital of Erfoud.

When I slid my leg across my camel's saddle, I was instructed by the handler to hold on to the "sissy" bar. When the camel rose on to his rear knees, I was pitched toward the sand. When he fully extended his front legs, I was pitched toward the sky. When he fully extended his back legs, I was level. All camels complain about having to get up or down, but once ours had done either, they seemed to have rather sweet dispositions.

We were to ride for six hours that day and cover eighteen miles. The early-morning light on the dunes was spectacular, and as I swiveled about in my saddle taking photos, Lahcen led our drivers in songs from his repertoire of Berber Golden Oldies.

A chech is a six-foot-long piece of gauzy, dyed fabric worn in the Sahara as a turban. Our guide Kristy Larson had bought each of us one in the medina (market) in Marrakech. That morning we all had them on.

As the day progressed, we watched our drivers watch a cloud of wind-driven sand closing in on us from behind, and by midday we were following the lead of our drivers and wrapping the long tail of our cheches across our noses and mouths to keep out the sand.


Our camel drivers didn't seem worried, but we failed to appreciate their Moslem fatalism. To them events were unfolding as they inevitably must, and in sha' allah, God willing, they wouldn't get much worse.

When Kristy spotted our tent up ahead through the swirling sand, she let out a traditional Arab ululation, not unlike the scene in Lawrence of Arabia when Lawrence led the charge on Aquba. We, like Lawrence's Bedouin, returned her cry, and our camels shifted their gait from a walk to a trot. With no stirrups, trotting on a camel can be painful. Luckily, the tent was not far off.

Outside our dining tent a cold driving rain blew in on the heels of the sandstorm. Rain in the Sahara? Yes, it happened every couple of years. Today was the day. While the trekkers sat down to a lunch of cooked vegetables, grilled brochettes of lamb, oranges, and tea, Kristy and her guide and drivers reviewed their options. Kristy, a non-Moslem, did not believe that events were unfolding as they inevitably must. She knew that if the rain continued, the dry river bed of the Oued Ziz might become hard to cross with either camels or Land Rovers, and camping could be uncomfortable. Brahim, one of the drivers, knew of a small cafe nearby where we might take shelter.

After lunch we said good-bye to our camel drivers and made for the cafe, slipping and sliding across the muddy untracked piste (route).

At the cafe a deal was struck with the owner so that we could spend the night in our sleeping bags on the long padded benches that lined his narrow cafe. Our guides took over the owner's kitchen and began to prepare a hearty soup and Cous Cous with Lamb and Vegetables.

The first toast of the evening went to our guide Kristy and to her guide and drivers. Mountain Travel-Sobek had promised us the experience of a lifetime, and they had delivered in spades, while keeping us safe and comfortable.

The sand storm that raged outside the Arab cafe blew itself out by the following day. Behind the cafe, deep shadows created by the early-morning light crept through the valleys of the dark-orange, butter-soft dunes.

It is so dry in the Sahara that the sky is usually clear blue, but because it had rained the day before, moisture was being sucked up out of the sand to form the most spectacular cloud formations.

We did half the day on camels and then jumped in the Land Rovers and drove to our campsite at the southern tip of Erg Chebbi, Morocco's highest and most impressive dunes.

We got in early, and while our drivers set up camp in a grove of tamarisk trees, we snoozed in the dunes and made "sand angels."

When the late-afternoon light started looking good, Kristy led us on a hike up the high dune behind our camp. It was easily a two-roll-of-film hike.

The following morning we led our camels up the east side of Erg Chebbi. Tourist hotels on the west side bus their guests out for a look at the dunes, but thanks to Mountain Travel-Sobek, the other people our group encountered were indigenous nomads rather than tourists.

We made camp that night at the base of one of Erg Chebbi's 800 foot dunes. Although it was a warm day, the wind began to blow at sunset, and the temperature began to plummet. While we sat huddled close to the propane lanterns in the dining tent that night, we took turns swapping our best stories with the rest of the group until the early hours.

Sunrise set the dunes on fire, and I understood why the hotels on the other side of the erg offered sunrise bus trips out to the dunes.

We began our day by dividing into "A" and "B" teams. "A" team would hike over the 800 foot dune, and "B" team would ride camels around the dune. We would meet at a small oasis on the far side.

I went with "A" team when they started up the dune. The rain had packed the dune and made the climbing a little easier, but it was still an ordeal. Because we slid back one foot for every three we climbed, it made the dune's height 1,200 feet.

The view looking back down over the vast sweep of the Sahara seemed to swallow up our rather insignificant camel caravan. The light on the dunes was flat except for those patches where specular sunlight poked through holes in the clouds and turned the dunes from soft to fiery orange. It was another two-roll hike.

Slowly, we worked our way up the windward side of the dune to its crest. Once over the other side, our view was of nothing but blue sky and orange dunes for 360o.

Glissading down the back side of the dune, I lost my footing and tumbled ass-over-tea kettle for fifty feet. I was glad my camera was safely sealed inside a Ziplock bag.

Once we joined the others at the oasis, we led our camels out of the dunes to our lunch stop. While we ate, the sky over Algeria, twenty kilometers to the east, grew as black as coal and rain could be seen falling in sheets. Between the us and the border, dust devils danced across the sand and made for great photos against the dark sky beyond.

Back on our camels, we made our way to the main north-south, east-west intersection for that part of the Sahara. Where vague tire tracks formed a "+" in the piste, one white stone among the million black ones proved an adequate street sign.

We signaled for a left turn and followed the tracks west to the French cafe, Auberge Yasmina. The back patio of the cafe overlooked a rent-a-camel lot for those few European tourists who came out by taxi from Erfoud. We sat in the sun, happy to be off our camels for a while, and enjoyed our first soda in days.

The last section of dune was the most spectacular, and we all felt disappointed when we reached the end of the erg and bid a teary farewell to our camels and their drivers.

Back in the vehicles, we flew over the piste to Erfoud following tire tracks when we could find them and making our own when we couldn't.

"Nothing comes out of the desert but oil, lies, and locust."

The sultan had left out a Mountain Travel-Sobek trek.

After squandering an unfair amount of hot water on our first real shower in days, we were drawn out on to the balcony of our room by the roar of car engines. Our hotel was hosting the final leg of Fiat's Rallye du Maroc, and as we cheered the finishers, Porsches, Jaguars, Aston-Martins, and Ferraris spun into the hotel courtyard. A stylish finish to the end of a remarkable journey.


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