A Day In The Sahara

Thursday, Dec 24, 2015
It's Saturday and we are en route to Marrakesh. It's been two days since we've blogged, with a highlight of that time spent in the desert (really off the grid)) with spotty internet coverage afterwards. This blog will focus on our desert experience. The scenes and meals on the way to and from Ourzazate  (the Hollywood of Morocco), along with some context on Berber culture, will follow.

Harrowing. Exhilarating. Breath-taking. Awe-inspiring. Serene. Energizing.  Beautiful. Bumpy. Spiritual. Fun. Giggle-inducing. Coooold! Delicious. Musical. Inspirational.  Glorious. Magical. Spectacular. Memorable. Superlative. These adjectives begin to capture our time on the desert.  Hopefully, our narrative and photos will give the experience justice.

We were picked up by five 4-wheel drive vehicles from our hotel in Erfoud--site of a camel entering the lobby (and many excellent jokes on Facebook-- thank you, readers!) right after lunch on Thursday, Christmas Eve.  We proceeded to drive to the place where our camels were waiting (you actually ride them the last few miles into the camp) for about 45 minutes-- first on lovely paved roads, then on rocky trails, and finally through the sand. There were very few landmarks save for other tire tracks and a few cairns every so often, yet our drivers zigged and zagged and got us right to the appointed spot. How did they do that?  This was an adventure, to put it mildly, and at certain points across expanses of sand, the four cars would line up as if we were racing in a derby. It was straight out of Amazing Race!

After the bumpy, harrowing ride (and unsettled stomachs) we pulled up to a clearing where 20 camels and their drivers were "resting" in wait for us. We were greeted by the drivers who outfitted each of us with royal blue (the official Berber color) turbans-- providing an excellent opportunity for a photo op.

Then, one-by-one, we mounted our camels. These are really dromedaries, the one-hump kind, and are best physically suited for the rigors of desert life.  These camels are completely domesticated and very well behaved, save for a few wailing grunts along the way. Except for the grunts, these camels were not ornery at all. Given our extensive prior experience with camels (both of us in Udaipur, India--where we were ridden around the hotel parking lot [link to post] and Wendy solo for 5 minutes at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in the tourist vista area [link], mounting the camels was almost second nature. Not difficult. But that's where the similarities to prior camel-riding experiences came abruptly to an end. This was the real deal! Each camel was strung to another in a group of four, with a gentleman in front who walked each pack to our destination.  That journey was about 30 minutes; while there were a few bumps, and certainly many changes in elevation as our leader expertly navigated the sand dunes, the overriding (no pun intended) experience was fun-- even silly-- and a bit awe-inspiring as we gazed across the gloriously spectacular sand dunes. Many excellent photo ops presented themselves here and our logistics guide, Yunice, expertly balanced every guest's camera as he took whichever poses we requested. Wayne also managed to get some great shots, but I was hanging on for dear life so focused on that.

The conditions for camel riding were perfect. There was no wind and the sun was low in the sky-- not overbearing-- so the turbans were more a fashion accessory than a weather conditions necessity. We were still wearing our heavy jackets because we hadn't thought to remove them but, for
mid-afternoon riding, they were not necessary.

After our 30 minute ride, voila! Our campsite emerged. Readers of this blog know that Wendy, while a fan of the great outdoors and a serious exerciser, is not a camper. Suffice it to say, this was not an ordinary camp. Think "glamping" as in glamorous camping. Our tents were outfit with fancy linens,  comfy King-sized beds, running water, flushing (chemical) toilets, a shower, even some lights (run by a generator-- there was no electricity and we were off the grid).

  Us with Hicham

We were greeted with tea and cookies (never enough Moroccan cookies) and took a brief break before we were off on the camels again to catch the sunset. This was about a 20 minute (slightly bumpier) ride. The sun was going down rapidly, and we kept passing dune after dune, but we finally reached just the right one - Dune 436 - where alcoholic beverages, nuts, and olives awaited us. We watched, and snapped photos as the sun went down.
Directly opposite, a full moon was rising in the east! How fortuitous!! Wendy took this opportunity to take a brief hike with a new friend through the sand dunes-- sometimes completely disappearing from our sight. Walking in the sand dunes was really fun-- not easy-- but fun.  That's her in the distance in the next pic.

Note in regards to Wendy's addiction to exercise. Her Fitbit has been with her the whole trip but there hasn't been much opportunity for structured exercise-- most of the hotels do not have exercise facilities and aside from walking the markets, it's been tricky to secure 10,000 steps a day. (Shout out to Susie, Paula, and Bonnie, no WERQ class within countries!). Anyway, imagine her utmost delight when the Fitbit started vibrating-- she had secured her very elusive 10,000 steps! It was only afterwards that she realized that a very bumpy camel ride generates Fitbit- equivalent steps. Niiice and certainly helpful when it came time to eat again.

After the sunset, we rode back, freshened up, and bundled up as the temperature had begun to drop. Wayne added 2 additional layers (he was already sporting 5) and Wendy added a fleece vest and refashioned her turban into a neck scarf. We then met the rest of the group at a campfire where we enjoyed a Moroccan singing/ dancing group performing Gnawa African slavery music. It is a combination of sounds evoking the blues. There were two drummers and 5 others playing brass castanet-like instruments. The beat and singing reminded us somewhat of the Sufi - whirling dervishes - we had seen in Turkey. The songs were pretty repetitive, and we could not tell if there were actual lyrics or they were just singing some North African "doo wop" sounds. The full moon added to the magic and Hicham toasted us with Veuve Cliquot champagne to mark Christmas Eve, which this year also happens to be the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad's Birth.
The rhythms were captivating and within minutes most of us (including Wayne who is not generally the first one on the dance floor for catchy new-wave tunes) were up in a Conga line. The sky was very clear, so it was Dancing with the Stars!!

After a while, we adjourned inside the dining tent (!) for our special Christmas Eve dinner. Again, this was no ordinary campsite. The tables were set with starched white linen and beautiful white China and silver.

First course? Yummy vegetable soup (Harira) served from a pristine white tureen along with more Moroccan bread.

Next course was a tagine of beef with prunes and Marcona almonds -- very delicious.

Then, finally! The authentic couscous we had been clamoring for. Hicham shared with us that most families save couscous for Fridays (the holy day) as it takes a long time to prepare. (Near East packaged couscous this was not). The delicate semolina grains were adorned with cooked vegetables (zucchini and carrots) but, more deliciously, were garnished with perfectly cooked crispy chickpeas, golden raisins, and caramelized onions. Yum, yum, note to self-- re- create this at home! These two courses were capped off with fresh fruit. Several of us wanted more cookies but those were not to be found.

At the conclusion of dinner, Hicham and Yunice were handing out hot water bottles (one per tent); they assured us that they had placed heaters in each of the tents but that those heaters had been removed so we might want to consider using the hot water bottles. Not sure why we took a pass--needless to say, that was a BIG mistake. It would have been nice to stay outside around the fire for  a while, listen to more music, and gaze upon the stars. But, we were anxious to burrow under the covers. Wayne jumped in, heavy jacket (with ski cap and hood) and all, and didn't come up for air until the next morning. Wendy actually replaced some of hers with more sleep-appropriate layers  (definitely not with a "proper nightie" adorned by one of our-- to remain nameless-- new English born and bred friends), but sleep appropriate nonetheless, including but not limited to two pairs of socks and long underwear. The down comforter was lovely, the pillow was nice, the king-sized bed comfortable-- but there was no getting around it, the air was brisk. Forty degrees at the very highest.  We both got a good night's sleep-- punctuated by a few dog barks and Wendy waking up multiple times to make sure her nose or ears hadn't frozen off. Other than those barks, the stillness and quietude were incredible. You could actually hear the silence

Wake-up time was 6:45 for those who wanted to climb the dune behind the tents and see the sun rise. Wendy opted to go; Wayne chose 20 minutes more of warmth under the covers. But we were stirring before the guard came to our tent. So she was up in plenty of time to not only see the sun rise but to see the moon go down. The sunrise was beautiful and quite fitting for our new friends and fellow travelers on this Christmas morning. 
Breakfast was next-- back to the dining tent for made-to-order omelets (no kidding), Moroccan pancakes and wonderful bread with orange juice and coffee ( pics).

As we said, the tents had a hand-held shower. They were promoted as "showers with hot water", but apparently there was none. Horrors!!! Get Trip Advisor on the horn! We never even considered taking one, but two of our new friends tried them. One gave up when the temperature did not rise above "cold;" the other literally "took one for the team" and had a full-body brain freeze equivalent for the entire day. 

We finished breakfast, went back to our tents to freshen up, then headed back to the four-wheel drive vehicles which had miraculously re-appeared after breakfast The camels were in their barn resting up. Our hour long drive back to the paved road was not nearly as harrowing as our drive into camp.

And, so, we not only survived but reveled in our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day glamping experience. An absolute highlight of the trip and, yes, genuinely an experience of a lifetime (to add to many others-- but right up there)!

Onward to Ourzazate!


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