The Camel Desert Trek – the most expected days of my stay in Morocco. The Sahara Desert was always a challenge for camel caravans loaded with merchandise. Many routes studded the North of Africa in order to connect the main trading centers. Among them, Zagora stood in the Southeastern part of Morocco, at the end of the Draa Valley – a valley interspersed with oases and ksars. On the outskirts of the town, some time ago a weather-beaten sign indicated there were only 52 days to reach Timbuktu by camels. One of the trans-Saharan routes passed by the small town of Zagora (an important outpost for the trading caravans before they started to cross the desert).
Ever since I remember I have been attracted by the desert life more than anything. I’ve read books, such as Wilfred Thesiger’s Arab Sands, and watched countless documentaries on National Geographic or BBC Travels. The desert has exerted an irresistible attraction on me, which I’ve always sought with anxiety, curiosity, and genuine interest. I feel authentic when I ride the hump of a camel through a dessert.
In Morocco, I chose a rather limited circuit (only four days and 60 kilometers in total) but still rather comprehensive. The route crossed the Southeastern mountains of Morocco (the Jbel Bani Mountains) and passed the highest and longest chain of sand dunes in the country (the Erg Chigaga Dunes, situated on the edge of the Sahara Desert).
The first day of the camel desert trek
Short Description. In a deserted region between Zagora and Foun Zguid, we loaded the camels with everything we needed, then set off to cross the Faija Plateau and the Jbel Bani Mountains. From the Oum Laachar Pass, we descended along the Oued Lemhasser Valley to a well, where we camped overnight.
I could hardly wait. The camel expedition in the desert kept bugging me. The whole morning, I lay on the Berber sofas in the modest restaurant of Camping Oasis Palmier in Amzerou (a suburb of the Zagora town). I pecked some bread with the customary Moroccan melted cheese and cleaned my still sensitive stomach with some mint tea.
My stomach hadn’t recovered yet after the food-poisoning with camel meat I had eaten in N’Kob two days before. I was somatizing within normal parameters although I had added the excitement of embarking on a camel trek through the desert to my previous food-poisoning. Still, I would have to pass through many unknowns. A Moroccan guide whom I had never met before, us in the wilderness of the desert. Excessive heat, maybe reaching 40 Celsius degrees during the day, in the middle of October. My not-so-good physical condition after eating mainly water and mint tea for two days. BUT, with a profound intention to fulfill my dream at all costs – traveling by camels in the Sahara Desert for several days. When you have a dream, it pulls you ahead, even if you’d crawl on all fours.
Mohamed called to tell me he was on his way to Zagora. He would pick me up from Amzerou around noon. I parked my car in the parking lot of the camping for several days. Then, I left together with Mohamed and an authentic Moroccan driver who was wearing a large blue turban wrapped on his head and a striped traditional djellaba. After a few hundred meters, we picked up Meryem – a Moroccan girl from Casablanca who had come to Zagora especially for this desert adventure. We went with a decrepit and dusty jeep on the road from Zagora to Foun Zguid, up to the starting point of our trail. Pressured by the heat and by my continuous fainting like state, I insisted to Mohamed to buying more bottled water for drink.
We turned left from the main asphalt road and drove a few hundred meters into an arid, deserted area of the National Park d’Iriqui. Two camels and their caregiver, Lahssen, were patiently waiting for us in the shade of a tree. It was part of the desert-life’s ritual to wait for hours under a lonely tree. Obviously, it was the only tree from that area. There was nothing else around us – just that tree and many rocks.
We downloaded all the luggage from the jeep and piled them up in the shade of the tree. We loaded the camels at maximum with food supplies for four days. Including tents, mats, gas tanks, portable stove, and plenty of bottled water. All this stuff magically fitted within four big twig baskets, arranged on both sides of the camel’s humps. A large casserole with eggs was strategically tied up just on top of everything. Eventually, we had a late lunch on a mat under the acacia tree (roast chicken, fried potatoes, and coca-cola), then we set off for our journey. We had to cross the vast Faija Plateau and climb up in the Jbel Bani Mountains.
The Faija Plateau lay at the foot of the Jbel Bani Mountains – small mountains with a rocky terrain and an arid scenery. We reached the foot of the mountain after half an hour of walk and then started to hike up. The footpath snaked from a contour line to another one, between large, black boulders, hard to overcome. We hiked up for approximately one hour until we reached the Oum Laachar Pass. The heat was overwhelming. At 40 Celsius degrees, warm water didn’t quench my thirst at all. Lahssen and the camels followed us, but eventually, they overtook us. On long distances, camels walk faster than a human being, even if they are super-laden, they don’t need a break. The sun stood just above our heads. I was sweating as if I were under a shower. And I still felt something like a big lump in my stomach.
From the Oum Laachar Pass, we easily descended on the other side of the Jbel Bani Mountains, then rode the camels along the Oued Lemhasser Valley. The concentration required to ride on top of a camel reconnected me to another world. All of a sudden, my stomach problems disappeared right away. From the saddle of the camel, I saw the desert spanning in front of me, while we were immersing into its dimensionless immensity. We descended for half an hour down to a well where we set up our camp at dusk.
Lahssen and Mohamed gave water to the camels. Then they tied their feet and let them free to graze dried plants. After that, they pitched a large kitchen tent with Berber decorations and started to cook on a gas stove. I pitched my little tent nearby, without anchoring it. With Meryem’s help, I took out water from the nearby well with a pulley and a leather bag. In the evening, we all gathered and drank the customary mint tea, and then we had the traditional tajine (with lamb meat preserved in brine). During the night, a strong wind blew with power and I had to wake up and anchor my tent. That moment I heard Mohamed who whispered his evening prayers while facing the direction of Mecca.
The second day of the camel desert trek
Short Description. We walked the long Ouad Mhasser Valley up to a nomads’ camp at Afrokh, located at the valley’s entrance toward the sand dunes. Next, we crossed an infinite plateau and walked to the famous dunes of Erg Chigaga, where we camped between dunes.
We started to walk toward the Ouad Mhasser Valley, a long and sinuous valley which would approach us to the border with Algeria. An arid landscape, with reddish earth and isolated dry bushes, surrounded us. One could barely see an acacia tree which loftily marked the horizon, as a sign of survival. Lahssen and the camels left the camp later and they caught up with us. I took this opportunity to walk less and see more so I climbed up on top of a camel.
A road with jeep-tire tracks was winding through the gentle ridges of the mountains and headed toward the starting point of the Ouad Mhasser Valley. I noticed everything from the improvised saddle of the camel. The camel’s large hooves left regular footprints and gently sank into the fine sand. The rhythmic swing of the camel revealed to me a rhythm of life as slow as required by the local climate. Everything was in a balance in the desert, from the nomads’ permutations to the camels’ resistance.
We left the jeep-tracked road and followed to the left the Ouad Mhasser Valley, which became deeper and deeper. We reached the Tighrghrin Oasis, where we would have camped the previous evening if I had moved faster. The oasis looked exactly like in the fairy-tales with khalifs and Scheherazade – with palm trees which outlined their crowns like green explosions on a pure-blue sky, a well (the only water source in the area), and then just desert, nothing, immensity. In such a scenery, I better understood the essence and joy of finding an oasis. The oasis is like a hope you have always dreamed off, a direction, a reason to continue, an outstretched hand which helps you to move forward.
We passed the Tighrghrin Oasis and descended toward the riverbed of the Ouad Mhasser Valley. After a long hot summer, the river was almost dried, but the camels found a few ponds with water to drink. A mixed terrain dominated the scenery with stones and rocky boulders. The gentle ridges of some small mountains flanked the valley. Lonely palm trees and bushes appeared here and there in the valley’s riverbed. A phosphorescent orange point painted on rocks could be seen from place to place. It was the sign for the Marathon des Sables route which took place in that area, said Mohamed.
The Ouad Mhasser was a wide valley, with a rough, rocky riverbed. The footpath followed the edge of the valley and continued parallel to the riverbed we saw only a few meters down. In the narrower places, where camels passed with difficulty, I had to descend, let the camels pass those sections, and then I climbed again in the camel’s saddle. The saddle was hard and rather inconvenient to ride for longer periods of time, but as my dream would last for only four days, I stuck to it.
For a few hours, we walked almost continuously along the meandering Ouad Mhasser Valley. If I had given up riding the camel, I would have remained behind taking photos or for a rest. Therefore, even though the riding wasn’t comfortable, it was a sacred thing for me. Around noon, we reached the camp of a nomad family, placed near an oasis called Afrokh. The nomads’ goats grazed around the camp and climbed all the surrounding rocks. In the camp, a woman with many children around her (including one held on her back) warmly greeted us. We took a long break and served Moroccan tea made on ember, shriveled figs from the nearby oasis, fresh goat milk and butter, and warm bread just baked in the nearby earth oven.
Nomads lived in the high mountains during torrid summer and descended to the desert areas only from fall to spring. They chose a place for their camp near an oasis with a permanent source of water. Everything around the camp was green and therefore their goats and camels had where to find something to eat. They bought their basic food from the nearest settlement, where they went by camels or donkeys.
The camp of the nomad family had only a few huts made of a boulder masonry and covered with dry acacia branches. They also had a large Berber tent filled up with everything. The huts were actually placed under a tree that ensured a welcome extra shade. One of the huts was the so-called kitchen. It differed from the rest of the other huts by having an earth oven built directly on the ground.
The nomads’ lifestyle had a distinctive uniqueness. Due to its hardness, it couldn’t exist out of the balance between the acceptance of the local conditions and the perseverance of their temporary residents. It was a lifestyle adapted to the place and well outlined by the presence of some constants that gave it a unique identity: toughness, perseverance, and acceptance.
I entered the so-called kitchen to see how the bread was baked. A little girl sat squatted and intensely stared at the embers inside an earth oven. The loaves were actually some round pieces of dough already prepared, covered with a cloth. The girl extracted them from the cloth with two sticks and rapidly placed them in the oven on a metal counter-top. She handled them with a remarkable speed. Then she turned each loaf on both sides, then quickly slammed it into another cloth. Eventually, the steaming bread was ready to be served. With such an awesome treatment, it was hard to leave the nomad camp, but we still had a long way to go to reach the golden sand dunes by dusk.
As we sat down for a break and chatted in the nomads’ camp, Lahssen and the camels who had remained behind us had just passed by. We followed the same direction as they did and walked on a route that was winding through an infinite, flat immensity, full of large reddish boulders. After the Ouad Mhasser Valley left behind the mountains’ strait, we marched a few kilometers just to find Lahssen who was cooking for us under a tree. We sat down to eat, then continued our way toward the famous Erg Chigaga Dunes and left behind the Jbel Bani Mountains.
The rocky terrain imperceptibly got sandy. The camels sunk into the sand and therefore we had to guide them to walk in between the dunes to diminish their efforts. Green bushes and shrubs disclosed the presence of a water source. We arrived at a concrete well where we refilled the canisters with supplies for cooking water, then we set up our camp somewhere in a little depression between the sand dunes of the Erg Chigaga chain. For dinner, we served a very-spicy Berber omelet and the traditional Moroccan vegetable soup, harira.
The third day of the camel desert trek
Short Description. We hiked on top of the highest dune in Morocco, Erg Chigaga (300-400 m). During the day, we rode the camels and followed a route parallel to the chain of sand dunes. In the evening, we stopped near another group of dunes, Bogarne, where we camped for our last evening in the desert.
At dawn, I found myself on top of the highest dune in Morocco, the famous Erg Chigaga. It had a golden color, with a velvet appearance, full of countless ripples. My dream of walking on sand dunes came true. With perseverance, availability to adapt to the local conditions, and acceptance of everything that was offered to me – just like the nomads.
From the 300-meter height of the Erg Chigaga, one could see the whole chain of dunes spanning over 40 kilometers. Early in the morning, the sand ridges were untouched and only the wind left gentle traces on the sand surface. One could see or hear the small semi-permanent camps in the area, hidden among the dunes. There was even a small hospital in the neighborhood. An American opened it in a precariously built enclosure to help tourists just in case of need.
When we got back to the camp, our camels were ready to go. We went parallel to the chain of sand dunes and headed toward another chain of dunes, called Bogarne. The terrain was the same infinite flat field, stretching between mountains and dunes. Hiking the sand dunes would have been difficult both for us and for the camels. Therefore, we preferred the hard and rocky terrain, more easy to cross, but terribly monotonous and tiresome.
We rode the camels until noon when we stopped for lunch in the shade of a tree in Oued Laatche. It was really hot. As soon as we stopped, all the flies started to buzz us. Other small caravans stopped for lunch under other trees in the area. We had rice with lentils and pomegranate, then waited for the heat wave to pass. Some wild donkeys roared around and happily enjoyed our food leftovers as well.
In the afternoon, we reached the group of dunes in Bogarne. We set up our camp at the foot of the dunes just before dusk. I hiked alone to the top of the sands. From the frail ridge of the dunes, the time passage seemed endless. The sunset brought a fog that settled quietly, like a velvet, over the graceful dunes. A surreal peace and an unwavering silence reigned over everything, impossible to describe.
Shrouded by the dunes, our small camp became alive and we again had harira soup and lamb tajine for dinner. There also was the surprise of the evening: the bread baked by Lahssen directly into the hot sand, a custom practiced in the area when they didn’t have an oven. The flat dough was covered with hot sand and ember from the extinguished fire, and thus the high temperatures baked the dough in a few minutes.
The fourth day of the camel desert trek
Short Description. We left the Bogarne Dunes and set off on a flat, endless route. After lunch, a Berber wearing a long turban rescued us with a jeep from Ouad Naeme. He gave us a ride to M’Hamid border town, where we stayed overnight in a camping with earth huts.
It was the last day in the desert. I somehow regretted I had to leave the desert and the life from there. In the same time, I was glad I would finally have a shower. From the Bogarne Dunes, we went South, while the temperatures got higher and higher. We refilled our canisters with fresh water at the only well we passed by in four hours. Each camel got two additional canisters full with water to carry. We gradually left behind the sand dunes, and the land became flat, rocky, just a straight line at the horizon.
The camels walked sluggishly but had a constant rhythm. The sun shone right above our heads. The heat was unbearable and nothing was good enough: the effort to walk was too big, while if I had ridden a camel, the sun would have burned me too much. Eventually, we reached Ouad Naeme, a flat area with rocks, small dunes, and a few trees. Nothing else. A herd of hundreds of wild camels crossed at the horizon, while a sandstorm was about to start out of the blue. We quickly ate a vegetable salad, adorned nevertheless with oranges, and sheltered ourselves from the sandstorm while we were waiting for the jeep from M’Hamid.
We waited for the jeep for quite a while. We were located on one of the numberless roads which intersected each other in the desert, without real landmarks – just in the shade of an acacia tree, like many others at the horizon. The technical gadgets were not very precise in the desert. Nevertheless, at any given moment, a young man wearing a long turban wrapped around his head appeared from a cloud of sand and greeted us as he got off a dilapidated jeep.
We quickly loaded our luggage in the jeep and released the camels from the heavy burden. Lahssen would walk with the camels for another 10 kilometers, while we would go by jeep to the border town of M’Hamid Lghzlan. We spent the night in a camping ground, which had a restaurant set up in a Berber tent and earth huts scattered among high palm trees. The showers were the blessing of the evening, although the water was cold. Equally, the last tajine with many vegetables and chicken was a blessing too after such a long walking day.
A part of the intensity of the desert experience disappeared when I re-entered back the civilization. But the profoundness of the feelings and the strong imprint left by the memories of the places remained. Although it was a tough experience, such an adventure was full of meanings and lessons, which I accepted as such and integrated into my life. I reconnected with my Self and lived what this adventure brought me – a tough experience from which, however, I re-became myself.
The Camel Desert Trek – Zagora to M’Hammid is my travel journal about the camel trek through a small part of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Many thanks to the Tizi Trekking for the invitation to this press trip through a part of the amazing desert of Sahara. And here are all my Travel Diaries from Morocco (x…..).
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