An authentic Camel Desert Trekking. The Sahara Desert has been always a challenge for the camel caravans loaded with merchandise. Many routes studded the North of Africa and connected the main trading centers. Among them, Zagora is located in the Southeastern part of Morocco, in the Draa Valley, full of oases and ksour along the river. At one edge of the town, an old sign says that there are only fifty-two days to go to Timbuktu. One of the trans-Saharan roads passed by this small town, which was a frequent outpost in the way of the desert caravans.
Ever since I can remember, the desert life attracted me more than anything. I read books, such as Wilfred Thesiger’s Arab Sands. I watched countless documentaries on National Geographic or BBC Travel. The desert is an irresistible attraction that I always sought. I feel authentic when I ride a camel into the desert. In Morocco, I chose to go through a rather narrow circuit – only four days and about 60 kilometers -, but rather comprehensive. The route was in the area of the Southeastern mountains – called Jbel Bani -, and was passing by the highest dune in the country – called Erg Chigaga.
It is the first day of trekking. I can hardly wait, but I am also afraid that I can no longer cope with the temperatures in the area, still high in October. I meet my guide, Mohamed, and another girl, Meryem, in the Amzerou Camping, where I slept overnight surrounded by palm trees. We go with a decrepit and dusty jeep up to the starting point of the route, on the road that connects Zagora to Foun Zguid. We stop somewhere near the road, in an empty area of the d’Iriqui National Park. Two camels and their caregiver, Lahssen, are patiently waiting for us. Otherwise, there is nothing else around us – only a lonely tree and many rocks.
We pile up the luggage under the tree. We burden the camels with supplies for four days including tents, mattresses, bottles, portable stove, and plenty of bottled water. We load the camels with all this stuff in large twigs baskets, even with an egg casserole strategically tied to the top. We set down for a late lunch on a mat, then hit the road and cross the vast plateau towards the mountains.
Faija Plateau stretches at the foothills of the tiny rocky Jbel Bani Mountains. We walk up to the Oum Laachar saddle on an overwhelming heat. At 40 degrees Celsius, the warm water doesn’t take thirst. From this saddle, we descend easily and ride the camels along the valley of Oued Lemhasser to the Tighrghrin Oasis, where is a well next to which we camp. We give water to the camels, Lahssen ties their feet and lets them free to graze dry plants around. We gather in the kitchen tent in the evening. We serve the traditional mint tea and a Moroccan dish called tajine – cooked with lamb meat and vegetables.
The second trekking day, the route follows the Ouad Mhasser Valley, a long and sinuous valley that brings us close to the Algerian border. I watch the road from my improvised camel saddle. The camel’s large hooves streak regular prints and sink slightly into the fine sand while the rhythmic swing reveals me a rhythm of life as slow as required by the local climate. Everything is in a balance in the desert, from the nomads permutations to the camels’ resistance.
We ride all morning and reach the camp of a nomad family, which is located near an oasis, called Afrokh. A woman greets us warmly. She has many children, including one that she holds on her back. Here we take a longer break and serve a Moroccan tea made on ember, shriveled figs from the nearby oasis, fresh goat milk and butter, and hot fresh bread, just baked in the nearby hut.
The nomads live in the high mountains during the torrid summer and come in the desert areas only from autumn to spring. They chose the camping area near an oasis where is a permanent water source and everything is green so that their goats have food. They take the basic foods from the nearest town, where they go with their camels or donkeys. Their camp has a few boulder shacks and a large Berber tent full with everything. One of the huts is actually the kitchen, different from the others ones because it has an earthen furnace which is built directly on the ground.
I believe that their lifestyle has a unique specificity. Due to its hardness, it cannot exist out of the balance between the acceptance of the local conditions and the perseverance of its temporary residents. It is a lifestyle adapted to the local conditions and it is in accordance with the presence of some constants over time that gives it a unique identity: toughness, perseverance, and acceptance.
I enter the so-called ‘kitchen’ and see how they make the bread. A little girl seats squatted and stares intensely at the furnace embers. The loaves are actually some large round pieces of dough prepared in advance and covered with a cloth, from where they are extracted with two sticks and then rapidly placed in the oven on a metal countertop. The child handles the loaf with a remarkable speed. She turns it on both sides, and then quickly slams it into another cloth. The steaming bread is ready to serve. With such a tremendous treatment, it is hard to leave the nomad camp, but we still have a long way to the sand dunes.
We sit down to lunch after the Mhasser Oued Valley comes out of the mountains. After that, we leave behind the Jbel Bani Mountains and continue our way to the famous Erg Chigaga dunes. The rocky terrain imperceptibly gets sandy. Camels start to sink into the sand. We guide them in between the little dunes to diminish their effort. We arrive at a concrete well where the camelman and the guide restore the water supplies for cooking, and then we establish our camp in a small depression between the sand dunes. We serve a specific Berber omelet for dinner, very spicy indeed, and a traditional Moroccan vegetable soup – called harira.
At the dawn of the third trekking day, I am on the top of the highest dune in Morocco. From the height of 300 meters, one can see the whole chain of dunes stretching along 40 kilometers. At the early morning hours, the sand ridges are untouched and only the wind streaks trace on the sand surface. We see or we hear some small semi-permanent camps in the area, hidden among the dunes. There is even a small hospital for tourists in the neighborhood. An American opened it in a precariously built enclosure.
When we get back to the camp, our camels are almost ready to go. We go parallel to the chain of sand dunes, heading for another area of dunes, called Bogarne. We ride the camels until noon when we stop for lunch under a tree in Ouad Laatche. It is very hot and as we stop, all the flies disturb us. Other small caravans stopped for lunch in the shade of other trees. We eat rice with lentils and pomegranate and wait for the heat wave to pass while wild mules roar around and enjoy the food residues.
In the afternoon, we have very little to go up to the group of Bogarne dunes. We lay the camp just before sunset at the base of the dunes. At sunset, I climb alone on the top of the sands. The time passage seems endless from the frail crest of the dunes. The sunset brings a fog that sets quietly like velvet over the graceful dunes. The sands protect our small camp, which becomes alive in the evening. We serve again harira soup and lamb tajine for dinner. The surprise of the evening is the fresh bread, which Lahssen bakes directly into the sand – a local custom very useful in the absence of an oven.
On the last day of the trekking, I regret that we leave the desert, but I am also glad to have finally a shower. The temperature rises more and more as we go south. We go with the sluggish pace of the camels. It is an unbearable heat. We reach Ouad Naeme – an area only with stones, small dunes, and a few trees. Nothing more. A herd of hundreds of nomad camels is crossing the horizon while a sandstorm starts. We eat quickly a raw vegetable salad, adorned nevertheless with oranges, shelter ourselves, and wait for the jeep to come for us from M’Hamid.
We wait for the jeep rather long. We are on one of the many roads extending into the desert, without detailed reference points. The technical equipment is not very accurate, yet we finally see a young man with a long turban that descends from a jeep and greets us. We quickly load the luggage and release the camels from the heavy burden. Lahssen will walk with the camels while we will go with the jeep to the border town, called M’Hamid Lghzlan. During the night, we sleep in a camping with earthen huts and a Berber restaurant tent. The showers are the blessing of the evening, although with cold water, then the last chicken tajine.
Some of the intensity of this experience disappears while we re-enter the civilization, but remain the depth of the feelings and the memories of the places with a strong imprint. Although a tough test, such a trip is full of meanings and lessons, which I interpret and incorporate into my life. I wonder how is going to be my next experience into the desert and what else will teach me.
Many thanks to the Atlas Mountain Guide for the invitation in this press trip through a part of the amazing desert of Sahara. Some more photos from this camel trekking: