Morocco 2017: Into the Red Dunes – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text and additional photos.  

My travels have taken me through Italy, Turkey and Spain. In 2017 I hit the top of my bucket list with a belated birthday gift to myself – a guided trip to Morocco. Today is one of the highlights of our trip – a trek by camel into the Western Sahara.

Merzouga’s most visible industry is their treks into the Erg Chebbe, the tallest sand dunes in Morocco’s corner of the Western Sahara. The only thing that pulled me out of Kasbah Moyahut was the invitation to ride into the desert on the back of a camel.

We are met at the front gate of the kasbah by a young man dressed in a white turban and blue caftan – Moha – who will be our camel guide and desert camp concierge for the next day and a half.

We drive a few short blocks through one- and two-story mud brick buildings, to the “Camel’s House” where Mohamed will rest up while we’re away. Brenda and I check out the shop next door, filled to the rafters with local handcrafts.  I find a small woven pouch to carry my camera in,  a simple ring that I think is fashioned from wood, and a turquoise cotton caftan with gold embroidery at the neckline.  I still lack the knack for bartering, but as an artist, I know the value of handmade, and consider my lack of bartering skills a benefit to both the artist and the local economy.

Our camels have arrived, so we grab our overnight satchels and mount up. There are no trappings on these camels, and the saddles are utilitarian, set on several blankets and with a steel crossbar as the pommel. Catherine and Mark have brought stirrups with them. I am given Orhan, the smallest and youngest, who is tethered to the end of the train. The last camel is the most inexperienced and is tied there to learn from the other camels. Camels are tied together and led by a camel man who walks by foot at the front.

The ride has significant sway, and my back complains until I sync my body with the motion of the camel, which makes the ride much more comfortable.  

And we’re off!

Not quite an hour later, our camp comes in to view – a cluster of dark oblong tents surrounded by a reed fence enclosure, nestled in a depression between some dunes. There are several camel tour companies here, some are attached to the hotels and kasbahs that edge the Sahara. Each has a semi-permanent ‘tent camp” like this where you can stay for 2-3 days to experience the desert.

We dismount and are shown to our rooms – individual tents surrounding the carpet-strewn courtyard.  My tent is lined in synthetic silk, with a tidy twin bed made up with sheets and blankets, and an ornamented mosquito net canopy draped over the end.  

We are shown to the ‘restaurant’  – a tall circular tent draped on the inside with several colors of ‘silk’, gathered at the top with the ends twisting around the center support pole.  We are seated on the low couches that line the walls, and enjoy a lunch of kefte and egg tagine, accompanied by a beautiful Moroccan salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and green pepper, garnished with orange slices and the green olives I have come to favor. We ask what type of meat is in the tagine, and get a description of how the meat is processed (chopped vs ground) but not what animal the meat is from.  We suspect that most of the kefte here is beef or lamb, or a combination. Dessert is presented as two platters of sliced oranges, one sprinkled with cinnamon and one without, accompanied by more tea.

I am told there is internet reception here, so after lunch I take my laptop to the top of a nearby dune to see if I can “Facebook from the desert.”  I don’t get a signal.  What I do get is a lot of sand in my laptop as the wind picks up.  I close it up and climb a taller dune for some photography, although Doug’s photo (lower right) turns out better than mine. The Erg Chebbi is beautiful almost beyond description, and my bare feet are rejoicing in hot sand that is the color and consistency of cinnamon.  

Traveler’s tips:

Prepare for high winds in the desert, especially towards sunset. I think we had close to 30 mph winds today.

The sand also gets very hot, and our guides were surprised to see me walking barefoot. They later told me that people pay money to come here to be buried in this piping hot sand as a treatment for rheumatism.

Keep your electronics in baggies. I was still trying to get sand out of my laptop and camera, two years later…

Back at the camp, I try to wipe sand that looks more like ground cinnamon, out my camera and keyboard, and hope that I haven’t damaged every electronic thing I own. I find a spot to repose in the ‘reception’ tent, and  watch a pair of finches as they build a nest a few feet away, and three dung beetles as they skitter across the sand. The rest of the camp is sound asleep…

Soon it’s time to wake up and saddle up for a sunset ride. It’s a really great ride, zigzagging along the edges of dunes, watching as Moha and Hassan pick out pathways that offer the least amount of vertical climbing.  It’s the same theory as mountain climbing – you don’t go straight up, you zig-zag, which takes longer but is safer and more energy efficient for the camels.

We reach our destination and park the camels at the base of the dune.

We climb up to our vantage point, and Doug sets up his camera and tripod for a live Facebook feed. It’s still warm but the wind is really kicking up, so I pull my scarf over all but my eyes, and watch the dunes start to change colors with the sun’s setting rays.  

Moha (in blue) and Hassan (in white) allow me to photograph them as they rest with our camels.

Hassan captures a photo of me gazing into the sunset that would become the talk of the town back in Seattle, and earn me the nickname of Muad’dib.

As the sun sets, the dunes continue to shift and shadow and the landscape becomes surreal, and I try to embed the red landscape into the deepest recesses of my brain. When I can no longer distinguish the sand from the sky, my attention is drawn upwards to a canopy of blazing stars…

Back at camp, it’s dinnertime, and we are joined in the restaurant by a Chinese tour group.  After tagines, tea and fruit, we are invited to a bonfire and drum circle.  Once the fire is raging, our Berber hosts launch into a Chinese song they have taught themselves.  The Chinese group sing next, a folk song which the Berbers pick up on quickly and soon join the chorus. Back and forth – the Chinese clapping and the Berbers answering with their drums, both singing the same song. It was pretty cool.

The Chinese are going out for a sunrise camel ride, so they turn in for the night. Doug and I remain and it is our turn to engage, so we are handed drums and accompany our hosts as they sing. Doug converses with one of our hosts in Egyptian Arabic, who translates into Moroccan Arabic for another camel man, who translates into Berber for the third camel guy. Doug takes out his phone, pulls up a video, and hands it around the circle.  The stars are bright and the fire backlights four men, in turbans and caftans, t-shirts and jeans, with no common language, as they share a video on a cell phone in a camel camp in the middle of the Western Sahara.

I think I’ve walked into a “I’d like to buy the World a Coke” commercial… a fitting end to an incredible day.

To book a tour with Moha, please visit Sahara Camel Trips. To book a tour with Doug Baum, please visit Texas Camel Corps.


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