The camel eyed me intently, then released a loud snort that had me recoiling in fright.
“Don’t be scared of it.”
A young man clad in a hooded robe approached me and whispered what sounded like a harsh warning to the camel. Meanwhile, two other camels had their gaze fixed on me and my companions, sizing us up before taking us on board.
The dark-eyed youth introduced himself as Hassan, our guide and camel handler.
“And these are my camels; Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Omar Sharif.”
Despite having just intimidated me, I decided to give Bob Marley a second chance. On Hassan’s advice, I held tightly onto the handles on the saddle and stretched one leg across the camel’s hump.
The next thing I knew, there was a sudden upward movement and I found myself hanging upside down from the camel’s back with my right foot in the air. Bob peered down at me, his wide (and inverted) grin dominating my line of sight.
Hassan pushed me up onto the camel’s back until I was sitting completely upright. After recovering from a fleeting dizzy spell, I was finally able to absorb a better view of the sand dunes that lay ahead of us. We were at the gate of the Sahara, about to ride into rose-gold dunes under the setting sun.
A flare in the distance
We started our camel trek from Merzouga, a tiny village in southeastern Morocco close to the Algerian border. The majestic dunes of Erg Chebbi in Merzouga rise up to 150m, and they are among the most accessible Saharan dunes in Morocco.
Hassan led the caravan, trudging slowly through the sand with his head bowed low. Something told me that the appeal of sunset desert treks had long worn off for him. He couldn’t have been older than eighteen, and as any young man, he had dreams and aspirations of his own.
“I want to have my own camel trekking company one day, but one camel costs about 10,000 dirham.”
That’s roughly 1,000 Euros. Hassan quickly changed the subject by pointing at tiny paw prints in the sand.
“Wild Saharan cats,” he said, grinning, “They help our business in the desert by keeping the mice away from the tents.”
Golden specks lit up his big brown eyes. Looking to my right, I caught a final glimpse of the sun as it dipped behind the distant crests. The day had come to an end, but our adventure in the desert had only just started.
Fire and stars
We arrived at our tents just as the stars began to emerge in faint glints over the now greyish dunes. I prepared to disembark the camel, relieved that his swaying gait hadn’t triggered any motion sickness.
Jimi Hendrix, who had been docile throughout the journey, folded his front legs and knelt down at his master’s cue. Upon seeing that his friend had just been relieved of his rider, Bob lurched forward into a kneeling position without waiting for Hassan’s signal. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was still gripping onto the handles with all my might, I would have gone flying over the camel and landed somewhere in Algeria.
Our Bedouin hosts welcomed us inside their tents with a glass of mint tea. The temperature had dropped, but thick carpets and a log fire promised a warm night ahead. In the past, Bedouins were renowned throughout the Arab world for their bravery in battle and loyalty to members of their tribe. Nowadays, they are mostly known for their genuine hospitality, a highly valued trait in their code of honour.
One of the hosts walked to the middle of the rectangular tent where we had been having our dinner and addressed us with a warm, enthusiastic smile.
“Ladies and gentleman, when you finish your dessert, please join me and my friends by the fire. We would like to show you the camels dance.”
I suppressed a whimper. I was done with camel tricks for the day, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near Bob again. But tiredness can make the imagination run wild. When I stepped inside the circle around the fire, I learnt that our Bedouin host was actually talking about showing us how to do the camel’s dance.
Being a nomadic tribe, Bedouins have a rich collection of oral folktales and poetry, many of which are recited to the beat of drums. Hassan, still with his hood on, joined his friends on the bongo drums. They sang and drummed away under a sky brimming with stars.
Although the camel dance did not entail any strenuous effort, I was still rather exhausted by the end of it. After all that reeling and turning, I just wanted to collapse into bed.
The Bedouins carried on drumming well into the early hours of the morning. I lay trembling on a soft mattress, buried under five thick blankets, comforting myself with thoughts of my warm bed back home. Eventually, I fell asleep to the hypnotic beats of the drums.
I woke up in the middle of the night to a different kind of music. In my drowsy head I calculated twelve different sources, each with its own signature tune. It took me a while to attune to the unpleasant symphony of snoring, and when I finally did, I let it lull me to sleep.
A roaring noise startled me out of my sleep. My ears pricked up, my heart beating violently in my chest. Three possible dangers flashed in my semiconscious mind.
A thunderstorm, terrorists in jeeps, or Hassan’s full-size version of a wild Saharan cat.
Despite being in uncertain surroundings, my wary mind, which had already switched to survival mode, still found a logical explanation to latch on to. My boyfriend must have hit a high note. I was about to kick him out of his snoring marathon, when there was another strange noise right above my head. This time I realised that something other than a human was on the other side of our tent.
What came next was a long, loud bellow. I froze, too scared to turn my torch on. Then, whatever was standing next to our tent, started to chew heartily on something. It was only when I heard a familiar groan that my muscles finally relaxed.
One of the camels had decided to get comfy next to our tent. The incessant chewing and occasional burps kept me awake. I checked the time on my phone and almost wept in despair. It was only 2am.
Getting out of bed at 6.30am had never felt so good. The cold, sleepless night was finally over, and I couldn’t wait to bask in the first shaft of sunlight that I could find. The quickest way to beat the cold was to climb the large sand dune behind the tents. The ascent didn’t look challenging from the bottom; nothing ever does when you’ve been wide awake, frozen to the marrow, with nothing to do for a whole night.
Whatever made me believe that I could soar to the crest of the dune wrapped in several layers of tight thermal clothes remains a mystery to this day. As I clambered higher up the steep incline, my body became weighed down with the bulkiness of my thermals. The icy air stabbed into my lungs. I stopped halfway up the dune, gasping for breath, and waited for the sun to appear.
The orange streak along the desert’s horizon grew brighter. As the dark shadows on the dunes receded, we found ourselves standing amid a wide stretch of vivid amber mounds. After a thirty-minute wait, the sun rose above the ridge of dunes, spreading its brilliant rays across the desert. The frost on the sand sparkled like shattered crystal. When my body had finally warmed up, I planted my bum in the sand and slid down the dune.
The Bedouins had been waiting for us by the camels. Hassan was there again, and so were his three celebrity camels. I approached them with caution and tried to make amends with Bob by stroking his forehead. He scrutinised me with his big, beady eyes, giving me a long knowing stare that to me translated to “I know exactly what you were up to last night.”
The cranky beast seemed to enjoy the attention, but not for very long. He let out a grumpy groan and turned his head away from me. Hassan chuckled, gave Bob a pat on the back and looked at me with gleaming brown eyes.
“I think he remembers you.”
Have you ever ridden a camel?
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