For some reason, the act of riding animals and I don’t get along. They always end with a painful disagreement in my body, and obvious emotional distress in the animal. After riding a horse, I generally can’t walk; elephants have hit me with their trunk then angrily showered me with water; and in this instance, I was bitten by the camel I was riding while taking this photo. Maybe I need to stop choosing the ‘feisty’ ones and let them choose me instead.
The former was the case when Kirsten and I were organizing our camel trip into the Sahara. After a spirited drive through the western reaches of the worlds largest desert, where massive sand dunes had blown over the rapidly degrading and narrowing highway. Our tiny hatchback rental car made it over these formidable obstacles with surprisingly relative ease. With this new found sense of confidence, I tried my luck over a large dune and got us hopelessly stuck, but luckily near a small village.
Two points of advice for a trip like this are: do not travel to one of the hottest places on earth in the middle of summer. Secondly, carry the latest road map which shows the new paved highway which goes directly to your destination instead of following a sketchy line of hash marks through a vast expanse of yellow. The villagers hadn’t seen tourists on this road for over a year, but were happy to help us get our car out of the sand in the heat of the day which was north of 50 degrees celsius in the blazing sun!
This is when we met Hassan, a local who said he could help us navigate the vague maze of desert tracks to his cousin Ahmed’s house in Merzouga, but neglected to mention we could take the shiny new road if we merely back tracked 80 odd kilometers to the last town. In our naivety, we felt blessed to have met Ahmed seemingly by divine intervention, thus avoiding certain death among the blowing sand of the Sahara. We were on our way once again with our new guide Hassan riding shotgun.
The 20 kilometers to Merzouga took 3 hours as we wove the most indirect path as possible through the dunes and dry riverbeds getting stuck 3 more times and ripping the front bumper off the hatchback. Utterly frazzled from the stress, exertion, and heat, Hassan led us through the open foyer of his cousins house and into a dark cool room with large red pillows lining the perimeter. Over a glass of cold mint tea, we discussed the arrangements of heading into the desert, with Ahmed, for a few nights at a traditional Berber camp near the Algerian border - which had been our original intention for coming to this remote desert outpost in the first place.
An hour later, feeling mildly better after some water and a short rest, Ahmed brought us to a pen with a dozen large camels and we were asked to choose which one we would like to ride. For some reason, I decided to go for the one making the most noise as he seemed the most alert and ready to move. He looked sturdy enough, but as the beast tried to stand - prodded disagreeably off the sand by the stable master, it toppled over a few feet off the ground and I barely got my leg out from under it in time as he landed on the ground with a dull thud. A little fearful now I hopped back on with the second attempt going much better than the first. The camel rose onto wobbly legs heavily listing from side to side as we set off with our backs to the setting sun.
The dunes were otherworldly, like distant mirages rising to heights of 150 metres, sweeping gracefully smooth lines from their summits in a sublime dance to the horizon. In the diffused light, the sand turned from a palate of bright orange and yellow to soft pastel shades of pink and purple. I was thrust back into reality as my camel let out a loud belch like growl and throwing its head almost 180 degrees around, gruffly bit my leg with its gigantic putrid mouth. Shocked, I pulled my leg away as fast as I could, almost falling off the other side, throwing my animal wildly off balance as the top heavy creature struggled to stay upright atop the soft, uneven sand.
As twilight descended on the vast expanse of sand, we crested the final rise and descended to our camp. The small oasis, hemmed in by imposing dunes was little more than a few African oil palms and some low shrubs surrounding three large canvas tents with no visibly apparent water to sustain the greenery. There was also a makeshift manger made from scrap wood which was set away from the tents where the camels groaned noisily. Sitting on pillows on a large red rug, darkness fell and surrounded by small lanterns we enjoyed chicken tajine and mint tea. Feral cats roamed our perimeter looking for scraps.
The atmosphere inside the tent was stiflingly hot with no air circulating, so I opted to sleep outside with the cats, gazing at shooting stars in the flawless desert sky. Soon enough, I was hit by the first maelstrom of many miniature tornados which would batter us throughout the night. Tiny sand particles flew haphazardly in every direction, stinging any exposed skin as the wind tore at my blankets. After a few fearsome seconds, it passed by and I returned to the sweat lodge of a tent which was constantly battered by these short and sudden outbursts of wind.
In the predawn light, I could feel sand in every crevice of my existence, and I could not wait to get moving. We watched a magical sunrise and boarded the dromedaries. The clean morning light was surreal - casting sharply defined shadows from the ever shifting dunes, but I had to force my weary hands into my pack to pull my camera out. Disagreeably, from atop my wobbly, smelly, 800kg tripod, I managed to snap a few frames.