“Can you hear the silence?” one of Kongo’s group asked as we gathered before dawn to mount camels and ride to a vantage point to see the sun rise. You CAN hear the silence in the Sahara. It’s deafening. And the stars are like being at sea far from land. Billions and billions of stars that seem close enough to touch. It was one of those moments you will remember forever.
The day before we raced the sun and the sun won. Life happens like that sometimes. We were attempting to make it to our desert encampment in the Sahara Desert somewhere east of Merzouga to see the sun set. But after a long drive from Fez with a lot of photo opportunities and a picnic below the High Atlas mountains, we just couldn’t quite make it. We did get some sunset pictures though as were raced across the wasteland in our 4x4s and that was nice. The dramatic shots would have to wait till morning.
We met our 4x4s about an hour from the camp, piled our bags in, and took off in four vehicles like it was some kind of car commercial for off-roading. Speeding east from the Berber village of Erfoud, the cars suddenly turned off a paved road and headed straight across a large flat waste area our driver Nordeen called a “shutcut.” Okay!
From the angle of the sun Kongo knew that we weren’t going to make it to camp before sunset. It wasn’t even going to be close. And then Nordeen pointed out some movement in front of us and suddenly stopped. The rest of the cars sped on. Mrs. Kongo is like, “oh, oh, oh … what’s happening?”
“Birds,” Kongo said happily. “He’s found us birds.” Long time Kongo junkies will recall that the monkey really loves birds. These were pretty unique.
Nordeen leaps out of the car and goes running across the desert. In a moment he is back with these two baby Sahara Spotted Sandgrouse chicks. Wow.
Soon the chicks are released to rejoin mama Sandgrouse and we race off in the gathering darkness to catch up with the others. At sunset we pulled over to get a view of the setting sun through a persistent cloud layer that had followed us down from the mountains into the desert plain.
From here we drove another thirty minutes on to the camp. When the sun goes down in the desert it gets dark. Really dark. There was just a bit of lingering twilight when we spotted the tents and welcoming party.
These desert encampments are not quite like anything you’ve stayed at before. Nestled in the vast dunes of the Western Sahara are a small collection of tents. A welcoming fire is blazing. Candle lit lanterns mark pathways around the camp so you can find your tent. After you get settled, you join your fellow travelers around the fire for some cocktails (yes, you can get a drink in the desert!) and to swap stories.
The tents have a big, comfortable king-sized bed, wooden flooring with magic carpets spread about (well, maybe not magic…we didn’t fly off on them), a toilet, sink, and shower. A curtain provides privacy between the bath and the sleeping area of the tent. Zip up windows have flaps on them so you can adjust the air flow. These might get a little old for a long stay but these were perfect for an overnight desert excursion.
After a Moroccan dinner with some live Berber entertainment it was off to bed because we were scheduled to get up at 4 in the morning to ride camels to see the sunrise.
At night the only thing you can hear is the tent gently flapping in the wind. It is very, very quiet.
Our camel masters were waiting for us early the next morning. Now getting on and off a camel is no easy trick. First they get them to lay down for you and then you have to lift your leg up over the big hump and settle in to a rough saddle. The camel’s back is pretty hard. Like this better not take too long hard or I won’t be able to walk again hard.
When the camel gets up it’s time to HANG ON because the beast rises in this swaying back and forth motion that seems to want to tip you off forward over the camel’s head and then it pulls you back where you think you might be sliding down the camel’s tail. In any event, we all made it up but I’ve got to tell you, taking a picture from the back of a moving camel in low light is a challenge. And from the top of a standing camel it is a long way to the ground.
Twenty minutes after leaving camp we dismounted and climbed a big dune. Walking in the sand is a bit tricky. If you follow in the footsteps of those before you, you will sink into the sand and work pretty hard. The trick is to walk on the smooth sand without footprints where a thin crust lets you make your way without too much trouble. In any event, you’re going to get sand in your shoes!
As the sun sneaks over the Eastern horizon the view and the light is pretty amazing. Definitely worth the ride.
In fifteen minutes it’s all over and you mount your camel and head back to camp for breakfast.
We’re off for more adventures after breakfast and load up our 4x4s and head west to rejoin our van and head across southern Morocco toward Marrakech which is two days away. The staff bids us farewell as we leave.
If you go to Morocco you really need to include one of the desert camp outs to your itinerary. The moment is really something you’ll remember. Pack lightly. Mrs. Kongo did not use her four bags of cosmetic material packed into Kongo’s roll aboard. Take a sweater because it can be cool in the desert at night. Layer your clothes because it gets hot really quick. And it is really hot. It’s the Sahara after all.
Travel safe. Have fun!