Beneath the absolute black of the Sahara Desert sky, with our campsite nestled in the middle of the Erg Chebbi sand dunes, sprinkle after sprinkle slowly found its way into our Berber-style tents; we were gradually getting soaked. Little did we know that this night had an even greater challenge awaiting us.
My husband, Terry, and I were in Morocco on a week-long exploration of the country with four friends alongside our Moroccan Berber guide. Amidst our stays at various guesthouses, our outfitter, Journey Beyond Travel, arranged for us to travel by camel into the Saharan sands for a dinner coupled with an overnight stay among the dunes.
The plan was to leave at sunset in order to witness the various hues of the golden, waning sun as it said its last goodbyes to the expansive dunes and then enjoy a Berber meal al fresco as a million stars began to reveal themselves. Dawn would bring an equally stunning scene as the sun crested over the rolling horizon. Our experience was to be anything but typical.
We started our expedition at Kasbah Tombouctou, a hotel mimicking a citadel on the edge of the dunes located just between Rissani and the famed desert town of Merzouga. Young guides helped us choose and eventually ascend onto the backs of our fellow dromedaries.
Ali, a local, young Berber man, guided our small caravan across the ridge tops of the windblown sand dunes; he led the way so the camels did not have to struggle up and down the steep faces of the dunes.
To our unaccustomed eyes, Ali seemed a magician. With no tracks, no landmarks, and amidst constantly shifting sand, he led us safely to our Berber encampment: several large tents about five feet tall, encircling a common area of carpets laid out for easy walking over the sand.
In camp, Ali and his fellow aide-de-camp, Muhammad, served us steaming, sweet Moroccan mint tea. We talked about the sun setting largely behind clouds, which would now block any chance to view the stars.
“Muhammad,” we asked, “should we be worried about rain?”
“No, my friend. If it rains, it will be in Algeria,” he reassured us.
And why worry about rain? We were in the desert for crying out loud.
And the guidebook had specifically said this part of the Sahara only gets four inches of rain a year.
After Muhammad and Ali served us a dinner of salad, bread, goat tagine, and fruit for dessert, we retired to the largest Berber tent where each couple had a bed in an area separated by blankets, and we immediately fell asleep.
In sleep’s bliss, I suddenly awoke to the sensation of someone (or something) flicking drops of water on my face. Hearing thunder in the distance, I was astonished that we were actually experiencing rain! I assumed it would be over in a few minutes because “it only rains four inches a year here.” When it didn’t stop, I just pulled the thick wool blankets over my face and waited for it to pass…and waited…and waited.
But it did not pass. The thunder kept getting louder and lasting longer, while the lightening illuminated the porous woven cloth that made up our roof. The rain kept coming, and we kept hunkering down, thinking it would stop any minute.
By now, Terry was soaked and shouting, “We have to get out of here!”
But, how? None of us had taken Sand Dune Negotiation 101. The thought of riding the camels back in the cold rainy darkness was not enticing. Before long, our mattresses were soaked, our blankets were soaked, and we found ourselves starting to shiver from the cold rain. I looked at my watch with the flashlight: midnight. How would we deal with the next six hours of darkness if we were cold and wet? Should we be worried about hypothermia setting in?
Suddenly, Muhammad, with his turban protecting his head and a big blanket wrapped around him, parted the “door” to our tent.
“Are you OK?” he called.
“No,” I calmly replied, although I wanted to scream: We’re soaked, our bedding is soaked, and our mattresses are soaked!
“Do you want to leave and go back to the hotel?”
“Yes. But, how?” I couldn’t imagine riding those camels slipping and sliding in the wet sand in the dark!
Holding up his lit cell phone, he said, “I call the boss. He come in truck.”
“Yes. Tell him to come. We need to leave!” I didn’t need to be a cold, wet hero for another six hours just to have some bragging rights once I got back to the U.S.
Help was on the way!
I called over to our friends, Mary Jean and Becky, and they quickly relayed the arrangement to their husbands, Rick and Charlie. We stayed under our blankets while we waited, but the cold rainwater continued to find us, no matter where we hid.
And, then, like the treasured sound of a loved one’s voice, I heard the distant hum of a motor in the distance.
“I HEAR THE TRUCK! IT’S COMING!!!” I yelled out with elation to the encampment. “Get ready!”
I poured the water out of my shoes, jammed my feet in, slipped my wet rain jacket on, grabbed my backpack and did not bother to change out of my sleeping clothes. I stumbled out as Muhammad greeted me with a huge blanket spread out over his head, telling me to come under it until the truck came.
From a cold, wet Sahara Desert night there suddenly appeared a Toyota Land Cruiser, headlights blazing forth – our light at the end of a soaking tunnel. The driver flung open the doors, the inside car lights lit up, and blasting, hypnotic Arabic pop music filled the night.
In a heartbeat, the scene went from fret to festivity. “Oh, my god! We’re at a party in the middle of the Sahara with fantastic music!”
I recognized the driver as Hamid, the hotel manager who had greeted us, the guy who had supervised the mounting of the camels, and I was immediately relieved. No teenage cowboy to tackle this mission. We had the boss!
Amidst the raindrops illuminated by headlights and the many flashlights, we all – guests, guides and driver – rushed to fling open the 4×4 doors and crammed in, not caring what limbs ended up where.
As steam from our breath quickly fogged the windows and the windshield wipers slapped away the rain, I surmised that a vehicle would not follow the narrow ridge tops of the dunes as the camels had.
Instead, our rig – easily competing with any clown car in its tangled mass of squished bodies – raced up a dune, crested at its ridge, and plummeted down into the caldera between each sandy drift.
To the throb of the Arabic pop music, Hamid applied his nerve, testosterone, and the diesel-powered engine to get nine adults atop dune after dune to make our escape. With the weight of our bodies, the wet sand, no road, and the accelerated momentum needed to propel us forward, I started to appreciate Hamid’s handling of this modern beast of the desert, the Land Cruiser.
At one instance, Hamid hit the peak of a dune and instead of the usual roller-coaster blast over the ridge, and a quick view of the night sky, we started to slip backwards. The uncertainty was unnerving; it lasted what felt like a lifetime. Hamid took a different angle across the dune, and we jumped to another ridge.
Soon the dunes gave way to flatter stretches of sand. Our beloved host and driver with Journey Beyond Travel, Naim, was waiting for us at the hotel. He had gotten up in the middle of the night to fetch our suitcases full of dry clothes, and ensured we were taken to warm rooms. Hot showers revived and calmed our soaked souls. Finally, it was safe to say: We had ridden camels into the desert. We had camped (for awhile) under the Sahara sky. We had had a taste of the desert and the lives led there.
Adventures (and more) in the Sahara Desert
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About the Author:
Teri Venker calls Wisconsin home when she is not finding all sorts of (mis)-adventures abroad. An experienced writer, Teri has a Master’s Degree in Journalism, is a former newspaper reporter, and is studying the art of creative nonfiction. You can find her on Facebook.