In the last few years, I’ve discovered that the places dearest to my heart are the frontiers, the places that exist on the very edge of civilization, reminding you that man is just one of Mother Nature’s children (and by no means her favourite!). Antarctica and Churchill are examples of this, and now Merzouga can be added to the list. Although the snow is replaced by sand, and the penguins and polar bears exchanged for camels, there is still the exhilarating peace and quiet of an untouched landscape. And, looking at the map and seeing all the roads end like loose threads, one has to ask, “What’s past that?”
Answering this question, at least somewhat, was the main attraction of our trek into the heart of Morocco. The sun was already low in the sky when Sara and I started fumbling with our aforementioned headscarves. Reasonably proud of our turban skills, we walked out behind the riad where our local guides (with far more skillfully-wound turbans) were prepping in the stable. We had seen this stable the previous day – an open-air adobe enclosure where camels happily munched on heaps of hay – but we had kept a respectful distance. That was about to change.
Camels are fascinating creatures. Judging from their bizarrely long lips and spindly legs that seem to bend every direction except the one you’d expect, one would think they would be very awkward animals. Somehow, however, they manage to be incredibly graceful, hoisting their rider effortlessly into the air and trudging through seas of sand without sinking. We mounted our steeds and ambled single-file (you know, to hide our numbers) into the dunes of Erg Chebbi, beyond where any road could physically be built.
It only took a few minutes for the riad and the last of the vegetation to disappear completely. After another half-hour, we stopped to appreciate the sun as it set magnificently into the ‘sand sea,’ as it is known in Arabic.
We rode on as stars began appear in the dusky sky, mesmerized by this foreign planet we had stumbled upon. Reaching the top of a particularly high dune we were able to see, down in the ‘valley,’ two rows of tents reminiscent of the ones we had seen nomadic Berber families living in. These were our homes for the night.
It’s easy to understand why carpets are so emblematic of this part of the world: they are heavy enough to not blow away at night, they somehow scrape sand off your feet without then transferring it to the next person’s feet, and you can build HOUSES with them!
We enjoyed yet another delicious tagine, the listened to our guides jam with some traditional Berber instruments for a while. Somehow I ended up with the drums, which was fun, but fortunately their requests for me to sing were short-lived.
Once the jam session had petered out, Sara and I scaled the next dune for one of the most incredible shooting star shows of our lives. We’ve enjoyed many a clear night with beautiful stars, but we’re also used to incessantly shivering at the same time. Laying in the warm sand long enough to actually see certain stars set and new stars rise was truly unbelievable.
The next day started at 5:30 for a few reasons: One, contrary to popular belief, desert nights are actually blisteringly hot, and we were more than ready to abandon any thoughts of sleeping in our carpet-sauna. Two, because of said heat, it’s best to get an early start to the day before the sun gets too high. And three, and most importantly, it’s not everyday you get to see the sunrise over the Saharan dunes.
After being thoroughly awe-inspired (and only singing the Lion King song once), we re-mounted our camels and set off back to Merzouga, retying our turbans every few minutes as various orifices filled with sand (the wind had picked up significantly overnight). Truly the most incredible climax for an unforgettable trip.