through the Sahara, to a luxury encampment (not)
16.10.2014 - 16.10.2014 90 °F
Today started off with a cold shower. Our lovely riad had no hot water. So I got my hair wet and tried to clean up a bit but it was difficult because I had no washcloth. Some untrained maid in a prior hotel took it from the room when she gathered the rest of the towels. I'm not sure why she thought my bright poison green washcloth belonged with the hotel's white towels. . .but that's what happened. (In case you are wondering, washcloths are an American phenom and you don't always get them in other parts of the world. So I pack one.)
Another long travel day. It is 200 miles from Zagora to the "Luxury Tented Saharan Camp" described in the itinerary. Most of the miles were spent on the bus. We're in Berber territory now. From what I understand, "Berber" is like "Arab" in that it refers to a group of people who identify themselves as such. There is no one language, country, or religion that defines either. I don't really notice any difference in the people, but the villages we passed through are certainly more primitive. The villages spring up along the old caravan route that evolved into the highway that we are travelling. These villages are made up of clusters of small clay houses that probably have no running water or electricity. Narrow alleys run through the villages and are only wide enough for donkey carts. Interestingly, you can see that when their old homes have crumbled to uninhabitable, they simply build a new one alongside, or in a "newer section" and move, leaving the old one to eventually turn to dust. There's not a lot of farming out here - just enough to sustain a few families. However, small herds of goats can be seen out in the sand. Frankly, I am not sure how in the hell they survive, but they do, and they appear to be OK.
At 2:00 we arrived in Merzouga where we transferred to 4X4 vehicles in order to traverse the erg. "Erg"? I didn't know what it was either. An "erg" is defined as a desert area that contains more than 48 sq mi of wind-blown sand. Our destination is an encampment on the dunes of Erg Chebbi. I knew about this portion of the journey when I signed up but I envisioned open-air jeeps flying across the sand. Instead, we were cramped in late model SUVs - each containing four passengers and a driver. Most of the trip from Merzouga to the encampment was on a paved road but we did finally veer off onto the sand and that was a little more interesting. (very little - one of my fellow travelers is a banker so we spent much of the ride discussing how to finance a windmill farm - yep, we were that bored)
We arrived at what looked like a big hotel lobby and each of us were required to fill in a log that requested various pieces of info like country of citizenship and passport numbers. My passport was in my luggage, which was in the SUV. That's dumb - you should NEVER allow it to leave your person. I was eventually reunited with my luggage so there was no harm done, but in the meantime I had to make up a passport number. I expect a representative from the Moroccan Embassy to knock at my door any day now to verify my documents.
Afterward, we were ushered outside to board our next vehicle - a camel. Oh crap - I knew about this when I signed up but I very conveniently repressed that memory, only to have it forced on me now. I am afraid of heights and of horses. The thought of riding atop a tall animal almost made me swoon, and I tried to come up with a good excuse (other than fear) as to why I cannot participate in the short caravan up the dunes to witness the sun setting over the Sahara. My pride won the battle and I courageously mounted my assigned beast, which wasn't all that easy, they are tall even when they are lying down. It had a sort -of saddle that was mostly blankets, no stirrups, but a sort of handle-bar apparatus to hang on to. When the camel rises to a standing position, he gets up on his hind legs first which means you have to brace yourself so you are not thrown over his head. Then on the front legs, you are thrown back the other direction. That was actually the scariest part - don't get me wrong, my palms were so wet out of fear that I had trouble hanging on - but the worst part was over. YAY me! Now if anyone asks, I can say I've done that.
The sunset was a sunset and the dunes are a pretty peach color, but I'm not sure it was worth it. We got back on the camels and rode a short distance to our camp. It was pretty neat, but not at all luxurious. There were 10 huge tents nestled together in a space between sand dunes. Each tent was the size of a large bedroom and contained a sink, shower, toilet, and two hard, narrow twin beds (maybe 30 inches wide). There was also a giant tent with two large dining tables and a food service area. They trucked in a multi-course feast and served us there. After diner, some local music troupe came in and serenaded us with a couple of African songs. I loved that part. Next, a few of us trudged up the sand dune outside our camp to star-gaze. It was beautiful, of course. There are no city lights out there so all the stars were visible. But if you have ever camped "away from it all" you've seen this. I was amazed at the number of my fellow travelers who were oohing and ahhing over seeing the Milky Way for the first time. It's always been there, where have they been?
Although this day has been very interesting - full of "firsts" - I will not be sorry to leave for a real hotel tomorrow.