Living like a Desert Nomad
The journey began when we stepped from our elaborately decorated hotel, with its many mosaics and stunning foyer fountain into the scorching Moroccan sun, then into an air conditioned jeep where our Moroccan guide Youssef waited. Armed with our backpacks, cameras and an over abundance of water bottles we set out for the Sahara. Leaving our Marrakech hotel, which had been our home for 10 days, we felt the excitement of being on the road again take over, and watched the fascinating variety of methods of transport battling their way through the hectic road beside us. From donkey karts to mopeds, they wove in and out in intricate patterns in an attempt to take the lead in their imaginary race through the bustling streets. Soon, however, we had left the throng of the city, and were heading along peaceful country roads, with the Atlas mountains in the far distance, creeping closer with every mile.
In the two days travelling by jeep to reach the Sahara, we passed through the most harsh, desolate, but incredibly beautiful landscape we could imagine. Our guide drove the Tizi-n-Tichka pass through the Atlas mountains and stunning draa river valley where we passed through villages with waving children, excited to see someone pass by their remote dwellings. We received a small tour of one of these villages, Tamgroute, which was a humbling experience showing how little some of these villages have. A child made me a small misshapen camel from clay, and, although not up to the standard of the souvenirs we had bought, meant much more and it became my most treasured item from the trip.
Stopping in M’hamid we picked up our camel guide Mohammed. He invited us into his house, a mere clay and straw walled hut, with two rooms, one of which was minimally furnished with various brightly coloured and elaborately patterned rugs, one small round table and a small TV! The TV seemed strangely out of place in a house with no windows, and only a photograph of the king and an excerpt of the Quran on the wall. The other room was completely bare, but his wife and 4 children were happy to play, and occasionally peek curiously through at us, smiling and giggling, from the other room. We took off our shoes, sat on the rugs and were given mint tea and biscuits. My only regret at this time, was that I could not speak the language. His wife and children were incredibly welcoming and their smiles spoke plenty, but to be able to truly express our thanks for their hospitality would have pleased me greatly.
We watched from the jeep window as the landscape changed from mountainous, to rocky with occasional bushes, into more and more desolate landscape. We watched as the amount of living creatures dwindled, from donkeys and herds of goats, to only the occasional bird. We were caught by surprise however, whilst passing a small flock of birds, when Mohammed suddenly jumped out of the moving jeep and gave chase over the desert floor. It was such a comical sight, with his Jellaba (a traditional Moroccan robe, similar to a kaftan) and turban waving wildly in the wind as he ran, arms wide open like an excitable child after one of the birds. We watched, bewildered and amused by the bizarre sight, and were amazed when he caught one of these incredibly fast footed birds. We suddenly had a sobering thought however, that perhaps this frantic chase was to fetch tonight’s dinner and I began to dread what was going to happen to the poor bird, and also how I would react if this indeed was its fate. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when Mohammed proudly presented this bird to us just to show us, and gently released it again. He hopped back in the jeep as if the whole incident had never happened with a big smile spread across his face.
After a bumpy but exciting ride through the increasingly sandy and remote desert land we finally arrived exhausted, hot and hungry at the Erg Chigaga, dunes in the Sahara desert. The sight of the dunes melted all that fatigue away however, when we arrived at our desert camp. We stared in awe as the dunes loomed over us, golden, highlighted by the evening sun and as smooth as silk. <
We could have been the only people in the world that night as we climbed the dunes. Our energy was sapped from us as we battled against the wind and sand, stinging and whipping our faces, with sweat running off us. We covered our faces with scarves and carried on pushing ourselves to the top, with our feet sinking and sliding into the hot sand with every step. It all became worthwhile however, when we sat on the top of the largest dune. The dunes behind stretched to the horizon, like a crumpled golden silk blanket, accentuated by the African sun and it was hard to believe they came to any sort of conclusion as they appeared to flow, seemingly untouched, to the end of the earth. Like a sea of fine sand, the ripples and waves were unspoiled, except for the occasional track of a sandfish and the tell-tale hole where it had scurried down to escape the intense heat of the sun.
Watching the sun fall from the sky in a stunning, and surprisingly quick, sun set, we felt the temperature drop and the dunes turn dark. The silence and calm engulfed us as we soaked in the atmosphere of this incredible place. The beauty and immenseness of the dunes were permanently imprinted in my memory.
When we finally descended, taking the fun way down, leaping and bounding with much giggling, our Berber hosts had prepared our evening meal of vegetable soup, chicken tagine and melon. The intoxicating fumes of the herbs and spices which had been infused in the tagine wafted out one of the Berber tents. We ate by candle light, and let our senses take in the sights and smells of the night. We sat outside our tents afterwards on cushions with fellow travellers at the camp, looking up at the incredibly starry sky, which seemed to feature every constellation known to man, and listened as the Berbers played music in front of us with traditional instruments. Their hospitality warmed us as they sang song, after song, encouraging us to dance and immerse ourselves in their private festival. The Berbers amazed us, as they had so little but the joy in their faces showed how contented they were with what they had. We would regularly hear the Berbers sing as they lazed in the dunes or laughing as they swapped stories and jokes with each other.
We settled that night in our incredibly hot Berber tent, a small hut made with clay and straw walls, and camel hair roof. It was basic, to say the least, but there didn’t seem a need for anything else in that environment. We spent a very hot night in the tent, and felt sand sprinkling on our faces at every breeze coming through the roof, so we were glad to spend some time in a small shelter the next day and get some respite from the heat. Our guide, Youssef, spent much time in the elaborate pouring, and re-pouring of mint tea. It would seem the more times you can pour it, and the higher the height you pour it from, the better, even if it means losing half of it as it splashes over the table. I must mention at this point that mint tea is quite an acquired taste, and I did everything I could think of to politely avoid more than the one glass of it. The shelter was really quite delightful, with many rugs on the floor, a few tables, and some fabric and straw to shelter us from the worst of the sun. We spent most of our day there, and I found it hard to comprehend how the Berber people who live there must spend their days. Much time was spent in drinking tea and talking, but other than that, I couldn’t see how else time could be spent.
I watched as Mohammed, our camel guide, chatted with the other Berbers with a joyful look on his face. Although I couldn’t understand the language, his face was full of character, and almost told stories of its own, showing much animation and excitement as he captivated a group of Berbers with his tales. What these tales were of, I can only guess, but, just being in his presence was an experience in itself.
That evening we returned to our desert camp and spent the evening on a camel trek at sunset. Having spoken to some travellers at our camp the night before we were told stories of lost belongings and camels throwing them off and bolting with their bags. Overcoming our nervousness, and keeping our belongings safely in our pockets, we enjoyed a different experience with our camels, which were very laid back and friendly, and happily plodded through the dunes. I noticed the long eye lashes of my camel shielding its eyes from the sand blowing in the wind as I used my western method of sunglasses and scarf! The experience was wonderful and I can’t think of a better way to watch the sun come down in the desert than from the back of a camel, swaying methodically from side to side.
We felt a strange mixture of relief and sadness at leaving the dunes the next day after another very hot night in our tent. I had a new found respect for the Berbers for managing to cope so well with the harshness of their environment and the heat. Mohammed laughed at our extreme perspiration, whilst boasting of wearing three layers himself, and not an ounce of sweat!
Feeling the sweat, sand and dirtiness of myself, having stayed in the desert for two nights, I felt a change in myself. I realised how over indulgent and vain our lives back home are. I thought of all my belongings in my room at home, and how none of them are really necessary, just luxuries, and it is actually possible to live with virtually nothing but food, water and a rug for comfort. Although this is probably an extreme in minimalism, it was also a great eye opener to show that you can be extremely happy regardless of having no real possessions. I also realised how much I had relaxed my cleaning rituals, which seemed pointless and exuberant in this environment when here I was coated in sand and sweat, probably smelling a fair bit…….but perfectly content.