Overnight Camel Expedition in the Sahara Desert
Updated: Dec 31, 2018
3 days, 2 Americans, 2 camels, 1 nomad, endless sand.
Mustafa is 25 and has been a nomad for most of his life. He recently settled down in #Tagounite, a small town on the edge of the Moroccan Sahara bordering Algeria, to live with his parents and younger siblings. He has shoulder-length dreadlocks, and usually wears them wrapped up in an orange head-covering which masks most of his face, making him look especially imposing. His teeth remind you of a lion when he smiles, which he doesn’t do for just anybody.
You realize that you're infinitesimally small (´what am I doing out here?´), that there are distances all around you bigger than you can fathom with your imagination.
Mustafa met us on the edge of a small town, leading two camels he borrowed from a friend. We came with a couple boxes of food, bought for us by our Workaway host Ibrahim (you can read about that experience here). After some introductions, Ibrahim left us in the care of Mustafa for 3 sandy days in the Sahara.
Once the camels were loaded and we received the bare minimum of riding instructions from Mustafa (“hold on”) we headed eastward, with mountains on two sides and desert dropping off into the distance. Riding camels is fun for for about three minutes, and then quickly becomes a slight and nagging discomfort. You have to accustom your body to the rise and fall of the camel, and anticipate the dune climbs and descents, so its kind of like you’re on a miniature roller coaster, but without the adrenaline. ]
After riding for about an hour, we dismounted, and walked for the rest of our journey. Walking in the Sahara is a strange psychological exercise. If you only focus on the path directly in front of you, everything is fine and manageable. But once you raise your eyes to the endless nothingness all around, a potent mix of wonder and fear kicks in. You realize that you're infinitesimally small (´what am I doing out here?´), that there are distances all around you bigger than you can fathom with your imagination. That if you wandered off and got lost behind a sand dune in a wind storm, no one would ever find your body, that you’d quickly become devoured by the sands, that your bones would turn bleach white like all of the camel and sheep and goat bones you’ve seen scattered around on the desert floor. And that you´re placing your entire life in the hands of a 25 year-old Berber leading two camels, walking confidently into the abyss, and somehow navigating it all with his timeless and generations-old inner compass.
We stopped for lunch at a well-used way station. By then the winds had picked up and we wanted to be inside, sand getting into every place imaginable. The way-station is exactly what you’d imagine a Saharan refuge to be. Carpets layering the floor, colorful and tasseled pillows everywhere. Small tables for taking your tea and cushions low to the ground, made for serious lounging. Mustafa brought us the traditional Moroccan tea (green tea and mint served with heaps of sugar) which he somehow prepared in the windstorm. An hour later, after much relaxing and not doing anything in particular, we had lunch -- a Moroccan salad of chopped tomatoes, onions, and green peppers, with a side of flatbread. More lounging, and then suddenly time to leave, departing as abruptly as we arrived, following Mustafa into the distance.
We stopped to pick up our canvas tent from Mustafa´s friend Ali. Everyone is friends or cousins or brothers here -- it seems like you have to have a relationship of mutual dependence in order to survive. By this point we had walked through rock fields, groves of palm trees, and now were finally in desert proper. And we kept going in that direction, sun at our backs.
By the evening when we stopped, the winds had picked up to the category of 'annoying gust that really makes you want to stay in inside your tent'. After we set up our home for the night, Mustafa prepared more tea, and we sat in silence. The silence of the Sahara is really what you come here for. It has a way of settling the mind and washing away the small things of life, giving you a giant comforting desert hug. So we sat in the silence, and learned from Mustafa and the desert those things which cannot be spoken.
Then, as if responding to an unspoken signal, dinner time — tajin, the famous traditional Moroccan dish. Chopped onions, potatoes, carrots, green beans, salt, cumin, oil, and water are placed in the tajin, a kind of small oven with a conical top. Everything cooks on low heat for about an hour while we drink more tea and listen to the wind rustle and flap the canvas tent.
Dinner is suddenly ready, and we sit on the floor of the tent, barely containing our anticipation and hunger. Mustafa hands us two forks, prompting us to ask:
"Where’s your fork Mustafa?¨
He replies:"No fork for me. I use hands and bread."
The dinner is eaten with flatbread, and of course we spend the whole meal trying to use our hands, usually coming up short with only a green bean or small slice of carrot. After dinner, more sitting and washing dishes using only minimal water. We step out of the tent to find the wind has died down, and the moon illuminating the desert, which looks like a lunar landscape. Mustafa realizes the camels have wandered away, so he nonchalantly trudges off to find them, returning in 20 minutes with a smile and two camels in tow. Bedtime now, sleeping on blankets and thin foam mattresses, surrounded by sand.
The next day is more of the same. Slowly wake up, and climb a sand dune to find a wind-free and clear morning. Tea before breakfast, which was flatbread with jam and olive oil for dipping. Slowly packing up in silence, and strapping everything to the camels, expending the least amount of energy possible.
Camels can be wily creatures. Whenever making tea and resting, Mustafa lets them wander, but tying their front legs loosely together so they can´t go very far. Even then, if you don´t pay attention for 15 minutes, your camels vanish behind the endless sand dunes. But the good things is that tracks are easily found in sand, so complete escape for the camels is difficult.
After our caravan is prepared, we walk again in a seemingly random direction, but we also get the feeling that Mustafa knows exactly where he´s going, that he´s walked this path since childhood. We pass a tractor stuck in the sand carrying two large containers of water, and Mustafa doesn't give it a second glance. We stop for tea and lunch after crossing rock fields and some patches of trees. Lunch is rice, Moroccan salad, and bread. Mandarin oranges for dessert. I get the opportunity to share a gourd of yerba mate, thinking that this is one of the strangest places I´ve drank mate, in the Saharan desert with a nomad. He likes it and takes easily to the taste and communal aspect. We sit in more silence, then find the camels, load them up, and walk onwards.
I heard somewhere that the desert is growing every year, which sounds like a gradual Mad Max apocalyptic nightmare.
Ten kilometers later, in the valley of a nondescript dune, surrounded by hundreds of other dunes, we make camp for the second night. We gather wood for a fire (there are trees dotting the landscape) while Mustafa erects the tent and tends to the camels. Then more tea and waiting for the sunset, while we listen to Moroccan tunes from Mustafa's cellphone. We climb to the tallest dune around for the climax of the sunset, which was one of those sunsets that will go down in the history books, that you´ll tell your grandchildren about when you´re old. Donna thinks she saw every color of the rainbow there.
Dinner is tajin again, although cooked over some coals of the fire. We´re in for a treat tonight too, as we saw Mustafa preparing dough for bread to be cooked in the sand. The dough had sat for about an hour, and when it was ready, Mustafa moved the coals away to only have the hot sand exposed. He plopped the dough right down in the sand, then covered it with more hot sand and ashes and some coals. After about 5 minutes, air bubbles up from the bread to show you its finished. Mustafa uncovers the bread, flips it, and then covers again to cook for a couple more minutes. Once the outside is crusty and hard, he knocks the sand away and brushes the bread with a cloth. And then, voila!, dinner is served.
We eat next to the fire, by this time slightly proficient in eating with our hands. The bread is warm and thick and doughy, perfect for sopping up all the juicy flavors of the tajin. We watch the fire die, and Mustafa goes to bed without saying a word. Then it is just us looking at the Saharan sky, the occasional cry of the fénix (small Moroccan fox) in the distance, us twinkling at the stars and the stars twinkling right back at us.
The next morning is, once again, the same routine. I can´t help thinking that nomads must have a lot of deja vu experiences, but then again, this is a kind of Saharan morning commute, something you get used to and can do with half your brain turned off. Stop for tea and lunch — Moroccan salad, rice, bread, and a small omelette. More walking through dunes and rock fields, and then we cross paths with a big caravan, maybe 30 camels, carrying noisy bright white tourists. Again, paid no mind at all by Mustafa.
And before we know it, we´re back where we started. Mustafa finds us a taxi back to our Workaway, and we say our goodbyes to the camels and our nomad friend. The trip went by in a flash, but it also feels like we touched something deep out there. I heard somewhere that the desert is growing every year, which sounds like a gradual Mad Max apocalyptic nightmare. But after our time with Mustafa, I wonder — would that much desert really be all that bad?