The Sahara: Twelve Hours in a Screen Saver

Trip Start Sep 19, 2010
Trip End Oct 26, 2010

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Under the stars

Flag of Morocco  ,
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"This must be the place where they empty all the old hourglasses."

- Turkey Jackson (Bob Hope), Road to Morocco

Legend has it that when a local wealthy family didn't offer hospitality to a woman and her son in need, God was offended.  Soon a sandstorm came and buried them and the town of Merzouga under mounds of sand. That sand is now Morocco's gateway to the Sahara, known as Erg Chebbi. These great dunes are 22 km (14 miles) long and 5 km (3 miles) wide and reach a height of 150 meters (492 ft), and if you follow it to the east, you'll hit Algeria.  

We had been on the road for about six hours when we started to see the sand gates; sturdy wooden fences meant to catch the Sahara sands brought in by the winds. Soon roadside signs boasted Merzouga's resorts, camel rides and piscines (pools). When you're just about to go stir crazy in a van with ten others, you see them in the distance - camel colored heaps set against dark brown ground.  Hamsa pointed and a buzz filled our group. 

After a long road, we finally took a left near a huge sign that said SAHARA - I mean, that was super cool.  We drove into the small town of Mergouza that is more or less a long line of beige hotels that meet the dunes. The hotels are more like way-stations for tourists heading into the sand. I am sure at high season it is bonkers, but we saw only one other group depart before us, and it was silent. 

We jumped out of the van ready to do this.  Before we could head out, we had to gear up - that meant donning a Saharan Turban.  We each got a colorful long scarf, I chose indigo blue, and were soon wrapped up. Tie a knot in one end, leaving about ten inches of material.  Fit the knot at the back of the base of your head with the long strip of material over the top, then gather the rest at your forehead. Then wrap the slack around your head and tuck the end in.  Finally, untie the knot, wrap under your chin, tuck in above the opposite ear to protect your face from blowing sand. Easy.

From there, properly attired, we set out for the camel corral. Nine camels sat in two groups of four and five and you basically ponied up to one of them. Now, I am not a fan of riding large, awkward animals.  I have been on an elephant a few times and frankly, it's dumb. But it's part of the experience. 

Becky behind me was the first on and up.  I knew this because of the hilarious yelp/laugh/shriek/"Holy Crap!" that roared out of her as the camel went back legs up first, which dips you face forward down, then up with gusto. It is hilarious. My turn came and it was like what a small kid must feel like on a mini-roller coaster. 

Finally, all aboard our animals, we set out for a 90 minute ride to camp around 4:30pm.  Two guides led the way into the great piles of sand. Camels are slow, and bumpy, and smelly, and breathing fly strips. So the first 15 minutes were spent getting comfortable and learning how to take a photo without falling off your ride. At one point I looked out and saw a dude on his bike. He would ride for a few feet, eat it in the sand, get up and try again. I had no idea where he was going - home, work, just for a ride? 

The group eventually became quiet as we entered the dunes and were soon enveloped in 360 degrees of rolling hills of sand. Sand that was turning colors as the sun went down - beige, brown, white, pink, orange and terra-cotta. Sand that was shaped by the wind, creating sharp spines in the hills. Sand that seemed to go on forever. It was like being in a 3-D screen saver. 

Soon we disembarked and were set free in the dunes.  We ran up a peak and about half way up, slowed it down.  It was a work-out. Once we reached the crest, you're surrounded by oceans of sand as far east as you can see.  Algeria is out there.  To make it even more ideal, the sun was setting, making for a perfect photo op.  We had the entire desert to ourselves. 

Back on the camels and 20 minutes later, we saw a cat who lead us into our tent city in the dark. Over a hill were clusters of brown structures, basically a square of tents with a large carpet in the middle. Each city can sleep about 35 in tents or countless outside. We settled in and hung out on our carpets as tagine dinners were being prepared. Directly behind us was one of the taller dunes towering over us. Hoards of cats joined us. They are there to ward off snakes and other desert creatures. Awesome. 

Dinner of lamb tagine was served followed by mellon slices. Then the Berber band showed up. Not only do I have an aversion to large awkward animals, I have a real paranoia of forced singing and dancing in public. So, although super cool, when the drum band started to play, I went into one of the tents with fellow volunteer Jean. I had been waiting for this moment all week. Jean is a 60-something year old woman from southern England who is a healer and a seer. She can see past lives and you can imagine the thrill that gave me. I have never had that done and have wanted to for years, ever since I read "Many Lives, Many Masters" by Dr. Brian Weiss. The outcome of that conversation is a completely different story. But, it was fabulous and also got me out of scary tribal dancing.

The night was winding down and the tables were removed, the mattresses and blankets were distributed, the lantern was blown out, and soon everyone was on their backs, staring up. It was unreal. The sky was black and soon stars popped up so fast you could not keep up.  The Milky Way was directly above, our North American constellations were not to be found, and if you looked closely enough you could see satellites zooming across. But the main attractions were the shooting stars. I saw three within minutes of each other. I simply could not close my eyes. I told myself as soon as I saw a fourth, I would try to sleep. That happened within four minutes and sleep came quickly. 

But, instead of being shaken awake by the call to prayer, three hours later I awoke when the crescent moon finally rose around 2am. I thought someone had turned the lantern back on and placed it next to my bed.  Nope, just the moon acting as flood light over the desert. Sleep was soon history thanks to that moon. That, and a rooster in the middle of nowhere confused by the light. No matter, a bad night's sleep in the Sahara Desert is a good night sleep anywhere.  

Our real wake-up call at 6am saw everyone rise and pack up in 15 minutes  We had to jump back on the camels and head out in order to catch the sunrise from the top of a nearby dune. We did indeed and it was as spectacular as you can imagine. After playing in the slopes of sand and taking countless photos, we headed back to civilization. An hour later we were back in the hotel zone with dreamy heads and huge eyes. 

Bagged another Bucket List Day and am still in awe of it. Nothing like a billion stars and grains of sand to remind you just how small you are in the big picture. Just like the colors of the dunes, it's all about perspective and time. 

WARNING: Multiple photos of sand and obligatory camel shadow shots may cause boredom.
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Auntie on

Wow, what an incredible entry! I cannot believe the colors, the images - it doesn't seem real. And sunrise, sunset in the've got to be kidding. Thanks for bringing this extraordinary experience come to life for me.

Kelly Ladyga on

All I can say is "Ohhhh, wow." That is something I would want to do. Takes you back to the beginning of time. So glad you did this so we can live vicariously!

Sasha on

Phenominal! Little behind as I am traveling... In Maine. Not quite the adventure and good work u r doin ;-) I am in total awe and once again devouring every post. With so many to catch up on it's really like reading a good book. Truly inspired and ready to plan the next great service journey with u. Argentina in January? Love and mis u and look forward to catching up when u return. U ermine my hero! Xoxo

melissa y on

kristin, what a joy reading about your travels and your fresh perspective! love these pictures, too. surreal! wishing you best times and love to you.

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