Travel Feature

Garry Litke and his family head off on a weekend camping trip in the Sahara Desert.

Clutching frantically onto my saddle horn, I stare over the looming precipice of a mountainous sand dune. The slope drops sharply into shadow and a valley far below.

My camel balks, refusing to venture over the crest. Smart camel.

Jaouad, our Berber guide, runs over and peers down, judging the steep incline against the agility of our animals.

Nope. Not navigable.

He calls on two assistants, directing them to soften the knife edge by leaping down to create an avalanche, reducing the slope’s angle for a safer trail. They swoop laughingly into the abyss creating a cascade of unstable sand. We plunge after them. Yikes.

“Hang on!” he shouts. “Lean back.”

Our sure-footed desert schooners step awkwardly down the slope, each movement threatening to send me hurtling over the neck of my mount. Unlike the predictable gait of a horse, camels jerk, lunge and slide without warning in the loose footing.

“Yahoo!” grins my wife from the next camel. She’s a better rider.

We’ve travelled from the spectacular Atlantic Coast of Morocco across bread basket plains, crossing the Atlas Mountains on treacherous highways, down into verdant valleys of olive and date groves, finally arriving in Ouarzazate near the Sahara Desert.

Quarzazate is the “Ouallywood” of the Sahara, providing backdrop for numerous movies such as Gladiator, Jewel of the Nile, The Bible, Prince of Persia and Game of Thrones. We stay at Hotel Oscar, named for the award. It has its own “backlot” of movie mem rabilia.

From here, we’ve arranged for Ouarzazte Unlimited, a tour company, to take us to a casbah and camels at the edge of the desert a few kilometers away.

Now we’re trekking through the Erg Chebbi dunes toward an overnight stay in a Berber camp. (Berbers, or Imazighen — translated as “free people” — have been indigenous to the area for over five thousand years.)

Our presence has marred the landscape, but blowing sand will soon change it again, and our marks will disappear. I’m struck by the natural wonder of billions of sand particles swirling around within a distinct area to create a transitory flow of mountain-like ridges receding into the distance. It’s like no other place on earth.

A blast of Sahara wind whips up the sand, so I wrap my protective turban more tightly and drape a fold of fabric across my face to protect it from the stinging particles.

“Isn’t this great?” my wife shouts. “It’s like a Pilates workout!”

Indeed, I now realize, my abdominal muscles are sore, constantly clenched in order to maintain my position in the unforgiving saddle.

As the afternoon sun slides down the western sky, the Berber camp appears on the horizon, sheltered inside the cirque of a dune, square black tents framed among a grove of trees.

Our camels kneel to dislodge us as we chatter about climbing a nearby ridge to watch the sunset and then, possibly, sandsurfing down. Boarding equipment — complete with action graphics — rests against a tree, inviting our use. My boarding skill might be adequate, but it seems risky. We’re far from a hospital.

Jaouad leads us into the camp-fire circle sheltered from the blowing sand, following a trail of hand-woven carpets. He pours tea, infused with fresh mint, from a silver teapot into delicate glasses. We add sugar and sip contentedly, socializing with fellow adventurers while our tents are prepared.

Colourful blankets hang across the entry to our tent, a heavy one to shield against the elements and a lighter one for easy passage. Inside, several layers of carpet lie under two single cots, freshly made up and separated by a night table of cane construction. An LED light, solar powered, hangs from the ceiling. Luxury.

After adding a layer of clothing against the dropping afternoon temperature, we sprint for a nearby dune to watch the sunset. Before long, we’re panting as we trudge through ankle deep sand along the rising crest to the apex.

The sun disappears dramatically amidst a scattering of clouds, dimming the light over a surreal landscape. We turn back, looking down at our camp far below — a collection of tents with camels resting comfortably — already in the shadow of darkness. Then we thrill at the twilight descent, sliding down the slope, using the give of the sand for giant incredible strides, arms spread for balance, arriving too soon at the bottom.

Jaouad greets our exhilaration with an invitation to dinner, soon to be served in the communal tent. After a quick wash and a visit to the toilette, — RV style and a bucket of water — we enter the dining hall, a circus-like tent supported by a sturdy center-pole.

I’m surprised by the opulence of multi-coloured wall hangings, orange tablecloths and white slip-covered chairs. The tantalizing aroma of tagine, — spicy roast chicken laid over a bed of potatoes, carrots, onions and green beans — teases our voracious appetites. While we cavorted on the dunes, Jaouad and his crew prepared this meal. We’re grateful. The room falls silent as we dig in.

We retire to our tents, comfortably sated, believing the day has ended. But then the drummers arrive, trooping into our fire circle. Jaouad and his multi-talented crew provide an evening’s entertainment, teaching us traditional Moroccan dances while encouraging us to keep time on their hand-crafted drums.

At 5 a.m., a wake-up call invites us to watch the sun rise over the dunes; grey light creeping stealthily over a foreign moonscape until an orange brilliance finally reveals the majesty and constantly changing shadows of one of the most-dramatic places on earth.

A hearty breakfast with eggs, goat-cheese, olives, bread and coffee waits in the dining tent, again prepared by our hard-working guides who do it all.

Then, alas, it’s time to go. As we mount our camels for the arduous journey back to Casbah Erg Chebbi, where hot showers await, we glance wistfully over our shoulders, not ready for the fun to end.

Next time we’ll stay longer.

Garry Litke is a retired English teacher and former mayor of Penticton whose retirement hobbies include world travel.

TRAVEL HINTS

--The two day adventure including driver and desert guides costs approximately $200 (Cdn) per person. There is no public transportation, so a driver/guide to the casbah base camp is necessary. Check with info@ouarzazate-unlimited.com

--Be sure to purchase a long scarf to wrap around your head and across your face against the blowing sand. A local will be happy to teach you how to wear it.

--Take sunglasses, sun block, moisturizer, toilet paper and of course a camera.

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