Camping - Sahara Desert
by Kristine Bonner
The Sahara is a huge expanse, almost a continent’s worth of desert. It is over 3,500,000 square miles, and has existed, it is estimated, for about 3 million years. Though its most famous features are the ergs, or sand dune seas, most of it is really hamada, or rocky plateau. In May of 2009, I visited the Sahara, spending a couple of nights in a tented camp near Daya el Maider.
Off-roading at about 60 miles per hour across the rocky desert, our soundtrack the music from our driver’s favorite Moroccan cassette tape, we were astonished to see rain clouds. It was quite beautiful – we watched the storm as we drove in our Toyota 4x4s, rain clouds dark blue against the sky, reaching fingers to the ground, lightning flashing, thunder following.
Our vehicles surged over a rise of sand, and our camp, home for the next two days, came into view. Serenely isolated, the desert camp contained ten green sleeping tents, several shower tents, outhouse facilities, and a dining tent. We paused in the dining tent to wait for the rain to finish before we settled into our assigned quarters. The camp was blissfully cool. A walk up the nearest sand dune revealed a forest of glistening rocks, sparkling like gems set into a sandy showcase. The silence was profound. It was as if my ears could finally relax, the air like a quiet pillow all around, providing a delightful aural vacation. That night, the stars were brilliant in the sky, and all the constellations looked foreign. Though my eyes kept trying to see familiar patterns, none were distinguishable. We settled into our cots, comfortably falling asleep, after ascertaining the best route to the facilities in case we should awake in the night.
The next day we off-roaded to Lamharech, a site located within 5-6 miles of the Algerian border. Our guide told us this incredible rift was where the French rode into Morocco in the 19th century, in pursuit of the Algerian hero Abdel Kader. Needing provisions for their army, they slaughtered the goats of the Ait Atta, the indigenous nomads of the region, thus beginning a long and tortuous conflict. The Atta hid in the dunes with reeds to breathe, and ambushed the French as they passed. The Atta fought at night when it was cool, further confounding the invaders. The French finally resorted to poisoning their wells. A nearby ruin was all that remained of the jail the French once built for the Ait Atta.
After seeing Lamharech, we drove to a mountain famous for its abundance of fossils, where collecting is allowed. This entire area had once been undersea, many millions of years ago. Scrabbling around on the rocky hillside, I was fortunate to find a piece of trilobyte, lying loosely in the rock. We were encouraged not to break up large pieces, but to look for what might have been overlooked by the last people who had come this way. Later on our trip, we visited a shop specializing in fossils, making fantastic tables, plates, and art out of the mysterious remains of the ancient sea creatures.
The next day the desert was hot and we were plagued by flies. Adapting the local custom of scarves seemed eminently reasonable as it kept the flies away from the ears at least. Sitting still only attracted more flies, so we walked about an hour to an encampment of present day Ait Atta, with the instructions, “see the ‘v’ in the mountains? Walk toward that until you see the tents.” We wondered how our drivers found their way around, thinking they must be part nomad themselves. The seeming desolation actually contained a lot of life. We passed a herd of goats, independently grazing their way across the plain. Now and then we’d discover strange caterpillars in the sand. Odd little plants flowered in the sandy expanse.
The tent we visited was long and low, artfully shaped to capture the slightest breeze and to create the most shade. We sat inside on folded blankets as the nomads served us mint tea. The tent belonged to a widow, whose son spoke to us through our guide’s interpretation. After our welcome refreshment, they laid out some small items for our purchase. I bought a blue man doll for just a few durhams, wishing to thank them for their hospitality. Hopping back into the Toyotas, which had met us at the nomad encampment, we drove to a communal well, where a woman veiled in black was pulling up water. A short distance away another woman was doing her laundry in what appeared to be the tops of oil cans. Much more sensible to take the laundry to the water, than carry the water home it seemed.
That night, we had surprise guests joining us for dinner. The widow and her mother, and two of the children came and shared our meal. After dinner, the camp crew built a fire. The men danced and drummed while the women ululated. We danced too – there in the middle of the Sahara, feeling some part of ourselves thousands of years old re-emergent in the firelight.
The next day we would head out of the desert camp for our next stop, Tineghir, where we would experience firsthand a hammam, a traditional Morrocan sweat bath, to clean up after our desert camping. But... that is another story!
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